Saturday, August 13, 2011

The 1923 Julius Forstmann Mansion -- No. 22 East 71st Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1904 Julius Forstmann arrived in the United States from Germany with plans to set up a woolen mill. The 33-year old German established the Forstmann-Huffmann Woolen Mills of Passaic, New Jersey and before long was one of the leading figures in the industry.  And one of the wealthiest.

Problems came as war clouds formed over Europe. Forstmann supplied woolen goods to Germany, which ended up in the construction of German Army uniforms. With the U.S. entry into the war in 1917, Forstmann’s plant was seized by the Alien Property Custodian and he was subpoenaed to appear before Deputy Attorney General Alfred L. Becker on April 2, 1918.

In his strong German accent, Forstmann declared himself “a loyal citizen of the United States” and denied any “German taint.”

Julius Forstmann was cleared of any suspicion of anti-American conduct and eventually regained control of his mills.

With the end of the war, things settled back to normal for Forstmann, whose fortune was growing daily.  In 1922 he commissioned the famed mansion architect Charles P. H. Gilbert to design an imposing townhouse at 22 East 71st Street where millionaires like Robert Chesebrough (the inventor of Vaseline) had already settled.

Although other wealthy New Yorkers were trending towards neo-Georgian or Regency homes in the early 20’s, Forstmann nudged Gilbert back to the tried-and-true Italian Renaissance style that was all the rage at the turn of the century.

For the double-wide lot, Gilbert produced a distinctive 25-room, limestone-fronted mansion, completed in 1923. Five stories high over an American basement, it rose to a mansard roof pierced by arched dormers. The house that cost Forstmann $700,000 spoke silently of refinement and taste.

Guests entered through a dramatic arched entrance way, nearly a story-and-a-half tall into an spacious foyer and reception hall of polished stone floors under a coffered ceiling.  A sweeping staircase with an ornate bronze railing flowed along one wall.

It was a house that a century later the AIA Guide to New York City would call “contented, self-satisfied.”

Julius Forstmann's limosine waits outside No. 22 East 71st Street -- photo Museum of the City of New York collection
Although rarely remembered today, Julius Forstmann was at the time one of the wealthiest men in the country. In 1929 he contracted for the construction of the largest yacht in the world, the 333-foot diesel-powered Orion. The ship was built at the Krupp shipyards in Germany and required a crew of over fifty men.

To celebrate her launch, the Forstmanns took the Orion on at 30,000-mile cruise around the world in 1930. The Great Depression, it seems, had little effect on the Forstmann’s lifestyle.

Julius Forstmann’s health declined in the second half of the 1930’s and on October 27, 1939, he died at the age of 68 in his bedroom at No. 22 East 71st Street.  Forstmann left a fortune of $50 million.

The Forstmann reception hall was impressive, if not "warm" -- photo
Three years later the Forstmann heirs sold the house in a cash deal. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York hired architect Robert J. Reiley to convert the mansion into a convent and the Catholic Center for the Blind.

The modeling and booking agency, IMG, took over the space for a short time before it was purchased in 2004 real estate developer Aby Rosen for $15.65 million. Within only a few months, the high-end art dealers, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, signed a 10-year lease on the 22,000 square foot mansion for an unrealistic rent of $1.8 million a year. In lieu of a security deposit, Lawrence B. Salander handed over an Edouard Manet painting, “La Femme aux Chiens.”

photo by Alice Lum
By the Fall of 2007 it was obvious that the gallery could not make it and the firm filed for bankruptcy. A few months later the Forstmann house was on the market for $75 million.

The Manet, by the way, was returned to Salander so it could be sold to pay back the nearly $1 million in back rent.

Two years later Julius Forstmann’s elegant limestone home still sat unsold. Rosen reduced the price in 2010 to $59 million, and again in 2011 to $50 million.

The house served as the setting of Cromwell’s Auctioneers and Appraisers, where Hugh Grant’s character, Michael Felgate, worked in the 1999 film “Mickey Blue Eyes.” It sits regally and patiently waiting for a new owner, a grand slice of the privileged life during the 1920’s.

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