Friday, May 20, 2011

No. 16 East 69th Street

photo by Alex Citrin, The New York Observer
In the 1880s, as Central Park was drawing more and more New Yorkers north, the blocks leading off 5th Avenue were being developed with elegant residences. Such a home was constructed around 1881 at 16 East 69th Street, steps from the park and about 10 blocks north of the massive mansion of Cornelius Vanderbilt and his wife Alice.

The 33-foot wide structure was home to C. Adolph Low, the cousin of Columbia University President Seth Low and it was here in August of 1897 that the glittering wedding reception of his daughter, Edith Westervelt Low was held.

Low sold the house a week before Christmas in 1899 to William E. Shepard, who had married the sister of Alice Gwynn Vanderbilt, Cettie Gwynn, in 1888. While the Shepards rubbed shoulders with New York’s most socially elite, their acceptance into the most exclusive circles was due more to who Mrs. Shepard’s sister was than who her husband was.

Nonetheless, No. 16 East 69th Street was the scene of lavish dinners and receptions for years. Yet, after the death of William Edgar Shepard, Cettie’s circumstances became difficult. Alice Vanderbilt quietly stepped in, purchasing the house and in December 1914 transferring the title to what The New York Times referred to as “the costly residence” to her sister.

Cettie lived on at No. 16 until April 30, 1928 when she sold it to an insurance executive for $250,000. Plans to update the aging house were almost immediate. In 1929 plans for alterations were filed with the Department of Buildings and architect A. Wallace McCrea was commissioned to give the house a facelift.

McCrea produced a neo-Georgian fa├žade of red brick with limestone trim. A fifth story disguised by a brick-and-stone balustrade was added to accomodate servants’ rooms. The stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to street level.

Wealthy real estate mogul and builder Walter J. Salmon and his family lived here for nearly three decades. In 1940 the socially prominent Salmons were publically embarrassed when their son, Burton, a student at Yale, was jailed after a fatal auto accident on 5th Avenue.

Salmon raised race horses and on December 12, 1948 Mrs. Salmon hosted a committee meeting at No. 16 to discuss plans for a Mid-Winter Ball in the Plaza Hotel which would include a horse auction to benefit the Ellin Prince Speyer Hospital for Animals.

Walter J. Salmon died in the house in 1953 and three years later Mrs. Salmon sold the home to the English Speaking Union, which initiated a two-year renovation into a “club” which opened in January 1958.
The English Speaking Society shortly after renovating No. 16 -- photo NYPL Collection
The organization holds classes in English as a second language and pairs native English speakers with persons newly arrived in New York. After four decades in the building, the Union decided to sell and in the spring of 1999 put the house on the market. Explaining the decision, Executive Director of the Union, Alice Boyne, said at the time, “it’s the largest asset that we hold.” The Union felt the funds could be better used in funding scholarships and language programs. “We’re not about mortar and brick,” Boyne said.

In 2000 the Wall Street Journal reported that  investment banker Roger Barnett sold his web-based company,, to for $42 million.  That same year he and his author-heiress wife, Sloan Lindemann Barnett, purchased No. 16 East 69th Street for approximately $11 million.

The Barnetts hired Fred L. Sommer & Associates to reconvert the building to a single-family home, after which interior designer Peter Marino (who has designed for names like Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani) decorated the interiors. According to real estate brokers, the renovations cost the Barnetts approximately the same amount they paid for the building.

Inside the entrance door, guests found themselves in a marble foyer. There were separate passenger and staff elevators. The second floor featured a living room, capable of entertaining 100 guests, that spanned the width of the house, and a dining room with 14-foot ceilings.

photo by Curbed New York

Seven years later the Barnetts were ready to move on. They quietly put the house on the market for $62 million. Although there were no bites at that price, the house sold in 2010 for $48 million to their friend, Johnson & Johnson heiress Libet Johnson.

Like so many other grand mansions near the park which have recently been reconverted to private homes, No. 16 East 69th Street is a remarkable property with a stunning price tag.

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