|The first floor of the Edey's mansion is unrecognizable, but the floors above are relatively unchanged -- photo Beyond my Ken
This was the neighborhood in which the young couple Frederick C. Edey and his wife Sarah Birdsall Otis Edey sought to settle.
The Edeys had been married on September 14, 1893, in the bride’s parents' estate “Near-the-Bay” in Bellport, Long Island. The bride, whose father had been Senator James Otis, wore lace that was two centuries old and the drawing room was filled with over 4,000 roses. Frederick Edey, of whom The Times said “needs no introduction to society people,” was a member of the banking firm H. B. Hollins & Co., and already belonged to several prominent clubs.
After living a few years in the groom’s home at 46 West 46th Street, they purchased property at 10 West 56 Street, steps from 5th Avenue, in 1899. Two years later the architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore was commissioned to design a townhouse worthy of the neighborhood and the socially prominent couple.
Completed that same year at a cost of around $50,000, the limestone clad French Renaissance Revival home rose five stories. A stone-framed entrance with double-doors, accessed by three shallow risers, was flanked by two ornate oval windows.The second story was dominated by an enormous Palladian window with heavy stone columns supporting the sculptured arch.
The light colored stone and expansive windows created a brash departure from the stuffy traditional brownstone architecture of the Avenue.
|The Edey house was light and airy compared to the traditional neighbor to the left -- photo Avery Architectural Archives
Mrs. Edey, who by now had dropped “Sarah” from her name, preferring to be known as Birdsall, was a fixture on the society lawn tennis courts during this period and the press raptly reported on her games.
In 1912 while the Edey family was away at Bellport, the caretaker John Myer was checking the upper floors of the house. An armed burglar surprised him and thrust him into a closet, locking the door. While the housebreaker filled a tablecloth with over $3,000 of silverware Myer’s wife, who was downstairs, became nervous at her husband’s long absence. She rang a servant’s bell to get his attention – scaring the intruder away without the silver – and later heard her husband banging on the closet door.
Unfortunately for Myer, the only item the intended thief took away with him was the closet door key. Detectives had to remove the hinges of the sturdy door to free him.
That same year the Edey’s only child, Julia, came of age and the house was the site of repeated social entertainments during her debutante year. On November 12 Birdsall gave a tea with fourteen of the season’s debutantes assisting in receiving. “Some young men have been asked in for the evening,” reported The Times, "and about forty young people will dine informally, after which there will be dancing.”
A month later the large dining room was outfitted with five tables for holiday dinner guests amid holly and poinsettia decorations. Afterwards, more guests arrived for dancing upstairs and supper was served to all after midnight.
With the coming of the World War, Mrs. Edey’s interests turned to the serious efforts. While she retained her officer status in the Pekingese Club of America, she was an active member of the Committee for Men Blinded in Battle and an avid worker for the Suffragist movement.
In the meantime Frederick Edey was on the Board of Directors of the North Shore Traction Company, co-founded the brokerage firm Huhn, Edey & Co., held a seat on the Stock Exchange and maintained memberships in at least five prestigious men’s clubs.
In 1919, just before the couple put their home on the market, Birdsall became highly active in the Girl Scouts of America; eventually being the first editor of the Girl Scout Leader Magazine and National President of the Girl Scouts of America from 1930 to 1935.
By now the inevitable march of business up 5th Avenue was forcing the affluent mansion owners to abandon their elegant homes. In January 1920 the Edey’s sold No. 10 West 56th to Mme. Frances, a dressmaker for $200,000. Mme. Frances said her intentions were to use the entire building for her business “after extensive alterations.”
The changes were expected. The house across the street at No. 13 had been home to Boue Sourers, dealers in gowns and lingerie, since 1915 and one-by-one other grand homes were converted to businesses.
Boue Sourers moved into the Edey house in 1936 and then, in September 1945, it was purchased by world-renowned aviator Jacqueline Cochran who had turned to manufacturing cosmetics.
Ms. Cochran’s cosmetic endeavors were not as successful as her in-air racing and by 1949 Erik Braagaard, hat designer to the carriage trade, was ensconced in No. 10. That year he turned his collection “almost entirely to the youthful small hat tipped to lay against one cheek.”
While the upper floors of the Edey house remain essentially untouched, the street level has been devastated. In May of 2011 Carlos Slim purchased the building for $15.5 million. The first and second floors are currently home to the design showroom Felissimo.
Despite the unsympathetic treatment of the ground floor, Frederick and Birdsall Edey’s once-grand home still stands as a reminder of more elegant days just east of Fifth Avenue.