Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The 1882 William J. Morton Mansion - No. 36 West 56th Street

photo by Alice Lum
The romantic and sometimes whimsical Queen Anne style of architecture—with its gables and turrets, stained glass windows and eccentric mixture of materials and colors—made its debut in New York City with Sidney V. Stratton’s New York House and School of Industry in 1878. It would soon become a frenzied fad on the cutting-edge of architectural fashion.

Architect Bruce Price would be among the first New York architects to test the new style. In 1881, a year after he married Elizabeth Lee, Dr. William J. Morton commissioned Price to design a town house at 36 West 56th Street, just west of the most fashionable residential thoroughfare in New York: Fifth Avenue.

Morton was the son of another esteemed physician. A scandal over the elder Morton’s possibly questionable claim to have discovered surgical anesthesia resulted in his reputation being blighted. The editor of the Southern Medical Journal said that “an unprejudiced committee would find that Morton was an imposter and a mercenary promoter.”   William J. Morton would spend the rest of his life bitter and resentful over his father’s treatment by the medical community.

Morton’s home was finished in 1882; a five-story up-to-date structure with all the bells and whistles necessary for an urban Queen Anne building. The first floor, where Dr. Morton’s offices were housed, were clad in rough-cut stone, accessed by a shallow flight of steps from the sidewalk. The second and third floors featured an oriel window that formed a stone balcony with a quirky iron railing at the sun-washed fourth floor. Terra cotta tiles, brick, small paned windows, and stone melded to create an eye-catching and romantic house.

The American Architect and Building News got the address wrong, but provided a colorful sketch of the house in its December 17, 1887 issue.
Because the doctor’s offices were on the first floor, the kitchen was located on the top floor; a highly-unusual arrangement in residential layouts. A dumbwaiter carried the hot food to the dining room.

The busy Dr. Morton was the editor of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases and was on the forefront of 19th century medicine. He was highly involved in the experimental use of electrotherapy and x-rays. The 1896 book “The X-ray; or, Photography of the Invisible and its Value in Surgery” called William J. Morton “the best X Ray expert in the United States.”  Dr. Morton wrote the book so the acclaim could be a bit biased.

By the time that book was published, however, the Mortons had moved out. Civil War hero Major General Daniel Butterfield and his wife, the former Julia Lorillard, were living here in April 22, 1890 when the house caught fire. General Butterfield left his mark on the military not only by his outstanding service during the war, but by composing the bugler’s Taps. On that night, an overheated range caused a blaze that resulted in about $400 damage.

The Butterfields moved on to 616 5th Avenue by the turn of the century, selling No. 36 West 56th to Annie Barnes Kellogg, the wealthy widow of Ansel Nash Kellogg. Kellogg had founded the Kellogg Newspaper Company of Chicago and originated the “plate matter” for country newspapers. It was possibly Annie Kellogg who commissioned the sensitive renovation to the fifth floor—changing the double-window to a series of four side-by-side windows and reducing the triangular framing to a small pediment along the roof line.

It was possibly Annie Kellogg who altered the fifth floor, adding windows and removing the pseudo-gable, the scar of which can be still seen at the left -- photo by Alice Lum
Annie lived here alone with her servants until November 23, 1904. On that afternoon around six close friends gathered in the parlor to witness her marriage, performed by the Rev. Dr. Charles Hall Everest. The New York Times headline gasped, “Over Sixty Years Old, She Marries Man Much Younger.”

The “man much younger” was Alfred Grenwood Dale, the assistant manager of the Grand Central branch of the Corn Exchange Bank. “Mr. Dale is twenty-five years younger than his bride,” remarked The Times.

By 1912 little remained of Millionaires Row on Fifth Avenue in the 50s as wealthy New Yorkers built mansions farther up along the Park to escape encroaching commercial interests. It may be that Annie’s marriage to the young Alfred Dale did not last, because when she sold No. 36 that year she was using the name Kellogg. The house had been valued a year earlier at $93,000.

Bruce Price used a marvelous mixture of materials including stone, terra cotta and a delightfully fanciful iron balcony railing -- photo by Alice Lum
By the time of Prohibition, West 56th Street was no longer residential and had become a bit shoddy. In 1933 Dr. Morton’s once-elegant mansion was converted to a restaurant. Plans filed with the Department of Buildings describe the restaurant on the first two floors, “private dining room” on the third and offices and store rooms above. The restaurant, however, was in truth the Mona Lisa Club, a high-end speakeasy that, despite its elite patrons was not immune to occasional police raids.

The Mona Lisa Club went the way of Prohibition and in 1936 there was a store on the first floor and three apartments on each floor above. The Mi Chou Gallery, an Asian art gallery, was here from 1958 to 1960 and the building continued its mixed-use through the end of the century.

An inexcusable, artless addition destroyed the first floor in the late 20th century -- photo by Alice Lum
At some point a bizarre-looking street-level addition obliterated the first floor and eradicated the entrance stairs. But above the brutal addition, Bruce Price’s extraordinary Queen Anne design is remarkably intact.

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