Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Jeremiah Milbanks Mansion -- Nos. 14-16 East 67th Street

Two houses were remodeled and melded as one -- photo by Alice Lum

In 1879 real estate speculator Anthony Mowbray commissioned architects Hugh Lamb and Lorenzo B. Wheeler to design six houses on East 67th Street, just steps from Central Park.  The Park had been officially opened just six years earlier and although this area was still sparsely developed it held tremendous potential as an upper class neighborhood.

Mowbray’s row of four-story brownstone houses stretched from No. 12 to 22, and for two decades they sat quietly in the comfortable setting.  By the turn of the century, however, Manhattan’s wealthy were moving steadily northward on Fifth Avenue along the Park, building on the undeveloped plots or razing existing structures for their marble and limestone palaces.

Justice H. W. Bookstaver was living in 14 East 67th Street until December of 1900 when he sold it to Edward C. Hoyt.  Within two years, William Post and his wife would take up residence in the house.

Next door to the Posts at 16 East 67th Street were Charles Henry Adams, his wife, and their three daughters.  Adams sold the property in 1905 to C. W. Luyster, Jr., a real estate developer who recognized the financial potential of old brownstone houses in a neighborhood filling with Astors, Havemeyers and Beekmans.

Luyster demolished the old residence and commissioned architect John H. Duncan to design a stately house on the site. The result was a five-story, stone-clad residence with an American basement--much more up-to-date than the out-of-fashion brownstone stoop.

The developer sold the newly completed house in 1906 to Benjamin F. Yoakum who moved in with his wife and daughter, Bessie.

The Director of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Jeremiah Milbank, purchased both houses in 1919.  He hired architects Dodge & Morrison to combine the two, melding them into a single grand mansion.  Milbank spent $38,000 on the renovations which resulted in a limestone clad, 48-foot-wide mansion that still looked suspiciously like two houses.

Despite valiant attempts by the architects, the newly-formed single residence still looked like two houses -- photo by Alice Lum

Dodge & Morrison designed the house in the au currant French 18th century style. The rusticated façade of  No. 14 rose four floors to a mansard roof over a deeply-overhanging cornice, while that of No. 16 was two stories shorter.  Despite the somewhat disparate renovation of the combined structures, the mansion would be a center of lavish entertainment.

Graceful limestone carvings swathe the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum

Milbank was as religious and conservative as he was wealthy.  In January 1925 he was approached by motion picture director Cecil B. DeMille.  DeMille was on the verge of leaving Famous Players-Lasky and striking out on his own.  But he needed money to do so.

Jeremiah Milbank had other things to do with his money than invest in moving pictures.  DeMille’s biographer Scott Eyman noted that “Milbank was evincing only polite interest in investing in a proposed company until DeMille mentioned that his great dream was to make a movie about the life of Christ.”

The director would later recall, “The only thing that moved Jeremiah Milbank to put his resources behind me was that first mention of The King of Kings.”  When DeMille walked away from the meeting an important chapter in motion picture history had begun.

The Milbank house glittered as New York’s socially elite passed through its doors.  In December 1932 the couple gave “an old-fashioned reception,” as The New York Times referred to it, to introduce their daughter Margaret to society.  When their niece Ella D. Milbank became engaged in January 1938, they hosted an elegant dinner followed by a theater party.  And three decades after moving in Mrs. Milbank was still giving teas and socials to benefit charities.

The 1919 renovation include delicate details like the lions' heads above the carved scrolled brackets -- photo by Alice Lum

No subsequent owner of the mansion could be as different from the politically conservative and deeply religious Jeremiah Milbank than Bob Guccione, the notorious publisher of Penthouse Magazine.  Using the fortune he made in the soft-porn industry, the publisher purchased the property around 1977.

While Guccione left the historic exterior intact, he personalized the living space in Penthouse style with, for instance, a Roman-inspired indoor pool with marble columns (with his face etched into them) and “classic” statuary. Although he managed to live relatively quietly here, one “Pet of the Year” sued him for keeping her as a sex slave in the house.

Guccione "updated" the interiors with a Mediterranean touch --  photo The New York Observer

It was the sort of thing that had never happened while the Milbanks lived here.

Penthouse Magazine and the rest of Guccione’s empire came crashing down as the internet took over the off-color industry.  In 2006 the Milbank mansion was put on the market for $59 million and purchased by investment banker J. Christopher Flowers.

A Mediterranean courtyard was created on the set-back -- photo Curbed New York

But Flowers would not be here long.  On February 14, 2008 The New York Post reported that hedge-fund manager Philip Falcone and his wife Lisa had bought the 27-room mansion. The couple, who paid $49 million for the house, set about undoing Guccione’s “Caligula” touches.

While Lisa Falcone insisted to BusinessWeek Magazine that they intended to “restore it to its pre-Guccione elegance,” the renovations included a movie theater, sauna, gym, plunge pool and walk-in closet with a bar.

In 2011 renovations continue, with fiberglass and cast-stone elements replacing lost stonework -- photo by Alice Lum

In 2011 the mansion, which The New York Observer once termed the “brashest mansion in Manhattan,” is still undergoing construction.  The dignified, if somewhat unusual, façade remains as Jeremiah Milbank’s 1919 renovations intended.  The happenings inside during the past 90 years, however, have given the Milbank mansion one of the most extraordinary histories in the city.


  1. These do look like two houses. I guess that will not matter because the owner has so much wealth.

  2. Good Lord, I passed by there 2 days ago (22mar16) and the place is still a big construction site.

  3. Turning the balconies into one long one that spans both buildings would help consolidate the structure...