Monday, June 20, 2011

The 1858 Patrick McCafferty House -- 152 East 38th Street

A high wall with arched openings hides the remarkable house -- photo

Perhaps it was because he sought privacy, or maybe he longed for the breathing space provided by lawns and gardens in less metropolitan settings; but when contractor Patrick McCafferty set out to build his home at No. 110 East 38th Street (renumbered 152 in 1867), he placed it far back from the street.

A contractor, McCafferty purchased the plot in 1855 along with the adjoining one that fronted the north side of 37th Street, giving him the full breadth of the block.  Although by then the Greek Revival style was the favorite for townhouses; the McCaffery house would be designed in the obsolete but elegant Federal style.

It was completed in 1858, 60 feet back from the sidewalk.  A well-designed doorway framed by slender pilasters featured sidelights and a stylish overlight.  Stone lintels and sills accented the red brick of an understated, charming home.

The projects for which McCafferty was hired were not always glamorous.  On March 30, 1866, for instance, the Evening Post reported that the city had awarded him the contract to build a sewer along West 51st Street, between Seventh and Ninth Avenues.  He was given 120 days to complete the project at a total.  His compensation was complicated:  "for sewer, $5.47 per lineal foot; for culverts, per foot, $3; for receiving beams, each $130; for foundation plank, $30."

Patrick McCafferty was listed at the address until about the end of the Civil War.  By 1868 it was home to Joseph Gillet, a tea merchant whose firm, Joseph Gillet & Co. was at No. 91 Front Street.  The Gillet family remained in the house until 1872 when Francis B. Ely and his wife Emily moved in.

Ely was a member of the Horace S. Ely real estate firm at No. 22 Pine Street.  The Elys took in a boarder in 1876.  Patrick J. Donovan was in the carpet business on Broadway.  Following Francis Ely's death, Emily sold No. 152 to James Murtaugh, a dumbwaiter manufacturer, in 1880.

The house was sold again, in 1888, to Mary Lyman Van Buren, widow of James Van Buren (a cousin of President Martin Van Buren) who had died in 1878.  Mary Van Buren hired architect J. D. Powell that October to alter the interior layout.  Mary does not appear to have ever lived in the house, but leased it until her death in June 1896.  It then became home to her granddaughter, Marion Sharpless Sturgis, and her family.

Marion was one of two daughters of Mary and James Van Buren.  Her husband was attorney Robert Sturgis, a member of the law firm Hawkins, Delafield & Sturgis.  He and Marion had been married in 1880 and the couple had had three daughters, Henriette Howard Boit, Mary Lyman and Rita.  The Sturgis summer home was in Chelton Hills, Pennsylvania.

On July 29, 1899 the Real Estate Record & Builders Guide reported that Robert Sturgis had hired architect T. M. Shaw to enlarge the second floor to the rear and create new doors.  The cost of the renovations were significant, equal to just under $320,000 in today's dollars.  

He would not enjoy his remodeled home for long.  On May 3, 1900 the New-York Tribune reported "Robert Sturgis, the well known lawyer, died yesterday afternoon at his home, No. 152 East Thirty-eighth st."

Mary Lyman Sturgis was married to Dr. Armitage Whitman on April 23, 1912 in the fashionable Brick Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue.  Following the ceremony Marion held a reception in the 38th Street house.  The newlyweds moved into a home on Lexington Avenue.  Eight years later, on February 9, 1920, Marion announced Rita's engagement to Nigel Cholmeley-Jones.  The New York Herald noted "Miss Sturgis was introduced to society several years ago and is a member of the Junior League.

Having inherited the property, in February 1921 Henriette C. Van Buren sold the house to Henrietta C. Jones.  She continued leasing it to the Sturgises.  Prior to Mary Sturgis Whitman's Reno divorce in 1933 she returned to the 38th Street house.

A year later Marion Sturgis sublet No. 152 to Russell Pettengill, who took a lease on the adjoining property at No. 150 as well.  An engineer and avid collector of antiques, Pettengill commissioned architect Robertson Ward to convert both buildings into his residence and office.  Ward divided the front garden with a red brick wall with arched entrance gates on either end.  This successfully segregated the house from the office and, sadly for passersby, greatly diminished the view of the house.   The brick of No. 152 was painted and a bronze canopy supported by iron trellises was added over the entrance way.

In front of the dividing garden wall, a covered walkway protected visitors to Mr. Pettengill’s office, supported by lovely slim, paired cast iron columns.  After all his trouble in remaking the properties, Pettengill left in 1935 after Harper & Row president, Cass Canfield purchased the property.   He remained in the house for more than three decades, selling it in May 1970 to investment banker R. H. Jenrette for $250,000--about $1.65 million in today's money.  The New York Times reported "Mr. Jenrette plans to occupy it after renovation."

It was around that time that an urban lore grew up around the venerable McCafferty residence.  In a New York Times article entitled "Murray Hill: The Old, the New, the Blue," Richard Peck wrote "The gate house at 152 East 38th, built in 1857, once served the estate of a relative of Martin Van Buren."  And an article in the same newspaper on June 20, 1982 described the property as "a brick Federal town house built by a second cousin of President Martin Van Buren in 1858."

The idea of a gatehouse being built in the Murray Hill neighborhood in 1858 is unsupportable.  The age of grand estates had ended several decades earlier and so there would be no reason for a gatehouse to exist.  And it was not until 1880 that the property passed into Van Buren hands.

In 2000 the owner of commercial printing firm Quad/Graphics, Harry V. Quadracci, purchased No. 152, which by now had been separated, again, from No. 150.  Working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (the house was landmarked in 1967), Quadracci removed the paint from the brick and undid some of Ward’s 1930s renovations – including replacing the entrance door and the neo-Regency fireplaces and other details.  Although Quadracci wanted to restore the home to its mid-19th century appearance, the Commission stood firm on preserving some of Ward’s work as an integral part of the building’s history.

Easy to miss, the remarkable house with the huge front yard sits tranquilly behind its protective wall.  It is, as the AIA Guide to New York City called it, “a happy urban design gift.”


  1. Thank you for posting this! Mary Lyman Sturgis was my great grandmother. I'm in NYC working this summer and will go take a look.

  2. One note: Mary Lyman Van Buren was the grandmother of Mary Lyman Sturgis (Whitman).

  3. The NYLPF plaque for 152 has a very different take on the building history:
    "This house, which dates back to the 1840’s, was typical of the modest semi-suburban houses that once dotted the streets of uptown Manhattan in the mid-19th century. It was originally a gatehouse for an estate belonging to a member of President Van Buren’s family. The house was sold to publisher Cass Canfield in 1929, who remodeled it in the Federal Revival style in 1934-35."

    1. Yes. The plaque tells a different story. The tale of it being a gatehouse and built for the Van Burens is widely repeated, but erroneous. I added new information to the article because of your comment to clarify the story a bit more. Thank you.