Thursday, July 14, 2011

The 1901 Thomas E. Stillman House -- 9 East 78th Street

photo by Chauncey Primm
By the end of the 19th Century, attorney Thomas E. Stillman had enjoyed good fortune -- good enough to purchase the plot at 9 East 78th Street in Manhattan from Stanley Mortimer in January 1899. Stillman was the head of the law firm Stillman & Hubbard with offices at 40 Wall Street, however the prosperous attorney had lived in Brooklyn until now.

Stillman intended to build a fashionable residence just steps from Fifth Avenue and Central Park in a very proper neighborhood. It was to be the beginning of even happier times in which to enjoy his recent retirement.

Unfortunately, it was just the opposite.

The dignified Indiana limestone mansion rose four floors over an American basement. The entrance portico, supported by paired stone Ionic columns formed a balcony at the second floor. Competing with the portico for prominence was a two-story three-sided bay capped with another carved balcony at the fourth floor.

The interiors reflected the Stillmans’ intentions to fit in with their wealthy neighbors. The Italian Renaissance reception hall was paneled in elaborately carved Santo Domingo mahogany. Fluted columns with bronzed capitals graced the entrance of the main hall, which was covered in red velvet to set off Mrs. Stillman’s collection of paintings.

A mahogany staircase with a solid bronze balustrade wound up the four floors. Red velvet covered the walls of the library, as well, with antique metal borders. Here imported Circassian walnut was used.

Fronting 78th Street was the French salon, decorated in the Louis XVI style. The walls were covered with a greenish-blue damask woven in Italy for the room. Pavanozza marble rested on satinwood woodwork.

Connected to the salon was the music room in the newly-popular Colonial Revival style.

Here rosewood pillars inlaid with brass led back to the main hall. Mullioned windows looked out to the inner court and a wide passageway led to the dining room – also Colonial Revival with antique quarters oak and a beamed ceiling.

After only a year in the house, Elizabeth Greenman Stillman died in her bedroom of pneumonia on February 20, 1901.  She was 57 years old. Thomas Stillman was deeply affected by his wife’s death and soon spent much of his time in Europe, away from the house that was intended to bring the couple so much happiness.

Stillman’s two unmarried daughters, Charlotte and Mary, took over the running of the mansion.

The attorney was back in New York on November 15, 1904 when the house was the scene of the wedding of Mary to Edward S. Harkness, son of Standard Oil magnate Stephen V. Harkness. An awning was erected from the entrance to the curb under which a soft carpet was laid for the arriving guests. Policemen and detectives were posted to prevent “curious loiterers” and other detectives were inside to watch over the wedding presents of gold, silver and jewelry that were displayed on six large tables.

As Mary was in her bedroom dressing, a horse-drawn cart driven by an elderly black woman with a small boy alongside pulled up at the awning. Police rushed in to move the woman along.

Ignoring them, the old woman handed the reins to the little boy and bade him to move the cart down the block. The woman marched up to the front door where a liveried servant tried to stop her, with no more success than the police had had.

Thomas Stillman came to see what the commotion was, only to recognize the former servant, “Aunt Celia,” who had helped rear the children. When she became elderly, Stillman had bought her a farm in New Jersey and built her a comfortable house. Aunt Celia had no intentions of missing the wedding and had brought along two presents: a home-grown pumpkin, which Aunt Celia claimed was the largest in New Jersey, and a barrel of red apples.

The old woman was ushered, like a long-lost member of the family, upstairs to Mary’s room where she watched the young woman dress in her white chiffon gown. She then followed closely along as the wealthy socialites filed into the drawing room for the ceremony, where she wept “after the fashion of old people on joyous marriage occasions,” according to The Times.

After the wedding, the aged black woman noticed that a place of honor had been made on one of the gift tables for her offerings. Silver and gold items had been moved aside for the great orange pumpkin and the red apples. The New York Times reported that “not a guest passed out of the house without taking a last look into this most picturesque array of wedding gifts that ever decorated a fashionable New Yorker’s home.”

Tragedy came again for the family when two years later, on July 18, Stillman’s Italian chauffeur, Carsughie, was driving at a high speed near Lisieux, France and smashed into a heavy miller’s wagon. In the car was Charlotte; the attorney’s granddaughter, Elizabeth; Andrew Carnegie’s niece; and other friends.

The car, which flipped over, was demolished and Stillman was thrown into the road. He never recovered from his injuries, dying in French hospital two months later. A little over two weeks afterward, the funeral was held in drawing room of No. 9 East 78th Street.

The house that was to be the dream home of Thomas and Elizabeth Stillman was the scene of both their funerals within only six years of building it.

In December 1910 Stephen C. Clark leased the house “for a term of years” and in 1914 it was altered.

By 1946 there were apartments on all floors and an unsympathetic addition had been plopped on the roof, creating a fifth floor.

Outside, the original four floors of the Stillman House are remarkably unchanged. The elegant, tall wrought iron fencing is still in place and despite its renovation as an apartment house, the residence with an unhappy history retains its architectural dignity.

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