Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The 1900 William Jay Schieffelin House -- No. 5 East 66th Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1891 Maria Louise Vanderbilt Shepard was married to William Jay Schieffelin.  Maria’s mother, Margaret Vanderbilt Shepard, was the eldest daughter of William H. Vanderbilt; her father was Elliott Fitch Shepard.  Schieffelin came from one of the oldest and most respected patroon families and was the grandson of the first Chief Justice, John Jay.

It was one of the premier social events of the year.  Before the ceremony, 600 guests attended a wedding breakfast in the two picture galleries of William Henry Vanderbilt’s double mansion.  Among the astonishing array of wedding gifts were a silver dinner service for twenty-four, given by Mrs. William Vanderbilt; two silver dishes sent by President Benjamin Harrison and the First Lady; and “a completely-furnished house, the gift of the bride’s mother,” as reported in The New York Times.

The mansion was on West 57th Street, just off Fifth Avenue in the most exclusive residential neighborhood in the city.  The couple lived in the house for just a few years; but Fifth Avenue in the 50s was drastically changing and millionaires were fleeing further north to escape the hotels and businesses that were encroaching.  Mother stepped in again.

Around 1898 Margaret Shepard purchased the two residences at 5 and 7 East 66th Street, next door to the former home of Ulysses S. Grant.  She hired Richard Howland Hunt to design a grand residence in their place.  Hunt, the son of esteemed architect Richard Morris Hunt, did not disappoint.

photo by Alice Lum

Construction was completed two years later, in 1900.   For the wide, imposing mansion Hunt worked in the French Renaissance, or “cartouche-style.”  He produced a Parisian townhouse worthy of the pedigree of its owners.

Above the rusticated limestone base, a balcony with a wrought iron railing spanned the width of the structure.  Red brick and limestone rose two stories to a cornice that doubled as a second balcony.  Here, behind three robust hooded dormers, the tall mansard roof was punctuated by four copper-framed oculi, or round windows.

Hunt lavished the mansard level with exuberant ornamentation -- photo by Alice Lum

Inside, the library ran the length of the second floor and the ballroom, with dramatic arched windows. It was graced with an immense stone fireplace carved by sculptor Karl Bitter, who was simultaneously working on the façade sculptures of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As would be expected, the house was the scene of lavish entertainments for the cream of New York’s social circles.  When, for instance, on December 5, 1909 Mrs.Schieffelin gave a tea dance to introduce her daughter, Louise Vanderbilt Schieffelin to polite society, she was assisted by her sister, Mrs. Ernesto Fabbri, Mrs. James Henry Hammond and her daughter Emily Sloane Hammond, Cornelia Vanderbilt and Mrs. J. Cameron Clark.  These were names any social climber would had dreamed of having included on her guest list.  To have them assist in the entertainments was inconceivable to most.

Guests passed through gracefully carved oaken doors into a grand marble foyer -- photo by Alice Lum

But life at 5 East 66th Street was not just about glittering entertainments.  The Schieffelin’s were liberal-thinking philanthropists whose social concerns were ahead of their time.  Dr. Schieffelin, who was director of his family's wholesale drug firm, Schieffelin & Co., was also the president of the Armstrong Association, “which has for its object the stimulation of interest in schools for the industrial education of the negro in the South.”  

He was also a member of the National Society for Vocational Education and the National Tuberculosis Association at a time when the disease struck terror across the country.  Mrs. Schieffelin was a member of the Indian Rights Association and a director of the City Y.W.C.A.  On November 26. 1906 the Association met in the Schiffelin residence; its main speaker that night being Booker T. Washington.

By 1928, when this shot was taken, the Schieffelins had moved to Park Avenue -- Photo NYPL Collection

Around 1925 the Schieffelins joined other wealthy New Yorkers who gave up their grand private mansions and took large apartments.  The couple moved to 620 Park Avenue, leaving the house on East 66th Street to their daughter.

By the middle of the 1930s, Dr. Carl Eggers and his wife lived here.   The rooms blazed as dances and dinners here given here, much as they had while the Schieffelins owned the house.

photo by Alice Lum

Then, just after World War II came to an end, the house was sold to the Lotos Club.  The club was founded in 1870 as a literary club and its members selected the name—derived from Tennyson’s The Lotos Eaters—to suggest “rest and harmony.”  Among its earliest members was Samuel Clemens.

On June 13, 1947, with about 85 percent of the renovations completed, the club opened its doors to the members.  Here were a library, card room, ballrooms, meeting rooms and a domino room.  The New York Times mentioned that “according to a recently established custom, the first floor is given over to women.  A man may enter the lounge and dining room on this floor only when escorted by a woman.”

The 778 members would enjoy the latest in luxury in the grill room, located below street level.  A member had donated an air conditioning unit for the room; a rare innovation.  Two other members presented the bar.

photo by Alice Lum

Today the club still operates from William and Maria Schieffelin’s barely-altered, lavish home.  Paul Goldberger of The New York Times  said of the house, “The detailing is lavish, and comes tantalizingly close to excess.  The ability of Hunt…to push this design right to the edge and yet never lose control is impressive.”


  1. Hi - Late to this, but wanted to say I lived here for a few weeks several years back. It was remarkably intact on the interior with a spectacular staircase off a center hallway. First floor - cozy and elegant library in front of house, diningroom at back. Second floor - drawing room across front and gilded ballroom across the back.

    I got to live like a Vanderbilt, returning to my turn of the century mansion each night!

  2. Wow. What a great opportunity! Nice way to experience New York.

  3. I once lived at 11 East 66th, an undistinguished small townhouse cum apartment house.
    Enjoyed this Lotos Club article!

  4. Enjoyed the article. I lived at 3 East 66 for a year in 1983 in an apartment in the Ulysses Grant building. I was able to enjoy the Lotos Club through a reciprocal membership with the Kansas City Club. I was studying Art History at Columbia University- The Lotos club had the signature Vanderbilt fireplace which was lit most to the winter. It was warm and inviting. A small restaurant was at the back of the house with a piano and oyster bar in the basement. The staircase was circular and most elegant. Next door at this time lived Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.