Monday, June 13, 2011

The Virginia Fair Vanderbilt House - No. 60 East 93rd Street

1930 in New York City was, for most, dark times.  The Great Depression had fully set in.  Bread lines snaked down sidewalks and ramshackle shanties had already begun appearing beneath the 59th Street Bridge on the East River. Once-successful businessmen sold pencils and apples on the street or simply begged for a handout.

Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt, however, was building a new house.  She had divorced William K. Vanderbilt three years earlier.  A devout Roman Catholic, she had resisted divorce although the couple had not lived together for ten years.  But by 1927 William K. had decided to remarry.
William K. and Birdie enjoy Florida during happier marital times in 1907 -- photo
In 1929 she had engaged the services of architect John Russell Pope who would design a 50-room mansion. Birdie, as she was popularly known, was not dependent upon the Vanderbilt money. Her father, James Graham Fair had made $200 million from the Nevada Comstock silver lode.

She purchased three houses on East 93rd Street in 1930–Nos. 60 to 64–as the site for her new home.
 She was no doubt encouraged in the choice of that block by the nearly simultaneous construction of mansions by her friends, William and Florence Loew, and George Baker, Jr. (Florence's brother).  Like the Loew house which was started the same year, Vanderbilt’s mansion would be both dignified and restrained.

Pope produced a Louis XV-style limestone palais entered through a lofty arched doorway, placed to the side above a small flight of steps.  A steep slate mansard roof was protected by a stone balustrade and high, narrow stone chimneys thrust upward on one side. There was a 20-foot by 57-foot private garden in which to escape on warm afternoons or evenings.

In order to keep Birdie and her guests separate from the staff, Pope designed the house as two separate sections: the main house rose three stories with 15-foot ceilings in some areas; while the ceilings in the servants’ areas were significantly lower, allowing for seven stories within the same height. Doors between the two sections were padded and there were separate elevators and staircases so servants and gentry had no reason to meet unnecessarily.

Four English and French 18th century paneled rooms were installed, antique parquet flooring was imported for the third floor, and the gilt hardware for the doors was hand-made by Bricard in Paris. The limestone for the façade was imported from France from the same quarry used for the Loew house next door.  The stones were shipped finished, to be assembled on site.
Having entered the street doors, guests were led through an impressive stone entrance foyer to the main doors above the stairs to the left -- photo by Elissa DeSani
Only the finest materials were used.  The painted paneling in the reception hall, for instance, was of mahogany to withstand the torture of the New York climate in the days before temperature and humidity control.

Beneath the paint, the paneled walls of the staircase hall are solid mahogany -- photo by Elissa Desani

When not in Paris or her country seat, Fairmont, in Manhasset, Long Island, Birdie Vanderbilt entertained from the East 93rd Street house; often combining her many philanthropies with her social obligations.  On Christmas night 1932, for instance, she hosted a “small dance” in the ballroom to benefit the Lisa Day Nursery.

The sole-existing original mantel is in the Marble Room which overlooks the 50' garden. -- photo by Elissa Desani

In 1933 while driving home from his father's Florida estate Birdie’s 26-year old son, William Kissam Vanderbilt III, was killed in an accident on a South Carolina highway.  The socialite was thrust into profound grief from which she never totally recovered.  Two years later she died in her home from pneumonia, leaving an estate of nearly $7 million.

Byron C. Foy and his wife, Thelma, purchased No. 60.  Like Birdie, Thelma was independently wealthy, the daughter of Walter Chrysler.  Byron became the Vice-President and, ultimately, a director of the Chrysler Corporation.

Thelma Foy was known for her elegant style -- photo
Thelma Foy was widely recognized as a discriminating collector and filled the mansion with French furniture, bronzes and artwork.  Her dining room table gleamed with an extensive set of antique Louis XV tableware.  Thelma entertained lavishly, hosting dinners and receptions as well as the debutante dances of daughters Joan and Cynthia.

An enclosed back staircase with bronze banister tightly winds down the span of the three stories -- photo Elissa Desani

Cynthia’s debut was two days before Christmas in 1949. Thelma had flowering quince and camellia trees brought in to decorate the ballroom and the “supper room” was adorned with greenery ropes and wreaths.  A tall Christmas tree in the entrance hall gave guests a “holiday note to the party,” according to The Times.

Despite her admiration for French antiques, it was apparently during Thelma's residency that the 18th Century paneling which Virginia Vanderbilt had installed in one particular room was removed, as well as all but one of the original fireplace mantels. 

Thelma Foy, whose obituary said was “noted for her elegance of wardrobe,” died in 1957 in her early 50s.

The mansion was purchased as the Romanian Mission to the United Nations.  Neighbors remember when Nikita Kruschev stayed over.  As the Soviet Premier's motorcade approached the house, a recording of the American national anthem was played from a nearby balcony as residents of the block lined the sidewalk.  Premier Kruschev paused on the steps of No. 60, turned to the crowd as if directing the music with his fingers, then turned again to enter.

After two decades in the house, the Mission sold it to the Lycee Francaise de New York in 1978 for $680,000, making it one of five grand homes in the school's possession.  By August 2000, when the school decided to move to a new facility on York Avenue it owned six such residences.

London-based antiques dealer Carlton Hobbs bought the Vanderbilt home for $10.6 million in 2002.  The prestigious dealer had founded his business in 1973, dealing in rare antique furniture and other objects, the buyers of which are either museums or extremely discerning and wealthy collectors.  Hobbs initiated a two-year restoration of the property which, upon completion, would become his firm’s headquarters.

According to Stefanie Rinza, managing director of the firm, the loving restoration was painstaking.  Each wall and window frame was scraped down to discern the original colors.  Approximately half of the Bricard door fixtures had to be replicated, and cracked limestone blocks in the facade were replicated with stone from the original French quarries.  Sixty workers toiled on the project.

"Nothing was lost," Rinza said, referring to suggestions that ceilings be dropped or walls altered to accommodate duct work.  "We found old flues ... there were nine chimneys ... and used those to run the ducts."

Unfortunately, years of use as a school had taken a serious toll.  The floors on the lower levels, having endured years of unsympathetic use, had to be replaced with parquet replicas, hand treated on site by the Hobbs staff in a labor- and time-intensive project.  Sadly, all of Virginia Fair's original lighting fixtures had been lost over the years

The thorough restoration was at times like an archaeological dig.  On the back of the carved paneling in the staircase hall were French inscriptions from the manufacturer.  Evidence of French doors that once looked out onto the side entrance hall were discovered, as was an unfinished door behind a wall in a French-paneled upstairs bath.

The exterior of the Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt house is remarkably unchanged since its completion in 1931.  And as the Carlton Hobbs headquarters, its interiors are lovingly preserved as the backdrop of museum-quality antiques.

Many thanks to Stefanie Rinza for taking the time to show me throughout the house and for sharing her extensive knowledge of it.

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