Thursday, March 15, 2012

The 1902 Hamilton Fish House -- No. 55 East 77th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Remaining in the house he had shared with his wife, Emily Mann Fish was possibly too painful for Hamilton Fish after her death in 1899.   Shortly afterward the former New York State Assemblyman purchased the lot at No. 55 East 77th Street and commissioned Charles Brendon to design an exuberant townhouse. 

Brendon headed up the architectural firm of, Charles Brendon & Co. which is barely remembered today.  While designing the Fish house, he was working on the 11-story Hotel Brayton that would rise at Madison Avenue and 27th Street.  For Hamilton Fish, he pulled out all the stops.

Working in the then-popular Beaux Arts style, Brendon pushed the limits.  The brick-and-limestone house, completed in 1902, rose five stories over an American basement.  The rusticated first floor included an oval window with carved framing, a rectangular window, a recessed entrance behind iron gates and robust scrolled-and-wreathed stone brackets upholding a balcony.  A carved cartouche announced the address.
photo by Alice Lum
Undulating balconies with sinuous iron railings in the central bay dripped with carved ornamentation.  Above it all a robust dormer sat above the cornice.

The Fish family moved in.  Hamilton Fish, Jr. was 10 years old and would go on to make his own mark in American politics.  Eldest daughter Janet was, according to The New York Times, “one of the best liked girls in society…She is extremely tall and willowy, a pronounced brunette with much vivacity of expression.”   Julia Kean Fish (“who has spent considerable time abroad,” noted The Times), Emily Rosalind Fish and Helena L. Fish completed the family.

Society took note when, four years later, the wedding plans of Julia were announced.   The debutante married William Lawrence Breese, who lived both in London and New York, in a private ceremony in St. James Church conducted by Bishop Courteney.  Later a reception was held in the East 77th Street house.

The couple sailed off to England where the new Mrs. Breese was presented at Court by the Dowager Duchess of Roxburghe, the mother-in-law of William’s sister.

An ambitious dormer with scrolls, wreaths and a shell crowns the residence -- photo by Alice Lum
A year later Hamilton Fish was elected to the US House of Representatives and leased the house to the Plauchon family.  While living there, 15-year old John Plauchon underwent a tonsillectomy at 301 E. 85th Street.  When complications arose, he was moved to the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital where he died from “bleeding following an operation,” according to the Coroners’ Office.

John W. Ellsworth leased the house the following year.  In 1910 he and his wife, Magee, and their two children had five live-in servants.   Mrs. Ellsworth, not content with immersing herself in teas and dances, was a member of the Academy of Political Science in the City of New York.

The Ellsworths stayed on until 1914, the same year that John, now 42 years old, bought his shiny new Reo automobile.   In their place came the successful, 34-year old Thomas Crimmins.   The Harvard graduate entered the contracting business of his uncle in 1900 as a partner in Thomas E. and Thomas Crimmins.  By 1903 he had organized the general contracting firm of Thomas Crimmins Contracting Co.  

The apparently tireless Crimmins was president of the Harvard Engineering Society of New York and a member of eight clubs and the Chamber of Commerce.    Crimmins and his family of four would stay here until around 1922.

Then, that year, the metallurgist Brent Nevill Rickard and his wife, Elizabeth, three children and their Irish terrier, Mickytwo, were living here.   Rickard came from a family of mining engineers and metallurgists and was Assistant Superintendent of the American Smelting & Refining Co. in Murray, Utah; a position that kept him away from East 77th Street for periods.

The house that for three decades had garnered little attention was leased on January 22, 1932 by Dr. Otto C. Kiep, the German Consul .   With Adolf Hitler firmly in power in 1938 police guards were necessarily posted outside the house where, now, Consul General Johannes Borchers lived.  Threats to blow up the German Consulate General at 17 Battery Place were received by phone.

Protestors gathered outside the house on several occasions, including the Teachers Union on November 23.  Hamilton Fish, who still owned the house coincidentally, spoke out against the Reich; even while his Congressman son Hamilton Fish, Jr. was accused of supporting Hitler and his anti-Semitic policies.  Speaking of the German-American Bund, a propaganda tool, Fish told reporters “the Bund has no place in free America.”

After the United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941 the house on East 77th Street was empty again.

When Fish’s niece, Patricia Rosalind Cutler was married to Ensign Robert Ludlow Fowler 3rd, USNR in St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie the reception was held in the residence.  The couple’s pedigree was sterling.  Patricia was descended from Colonel Nicholas Fish, Peter Stuyvesant, Peter Kean and Hamilton Fish.  Her husband was a descendant of Robert Livingston, first Lord of Livingston Manor.

In 1948 the house was sold and converted to high-end apartments.  Here Lois Balken was living in 1951 when 67-year old burglar Wllliam Hahn made off with $10,000 in jewelry from her apartment.   Hahn, whom The New York Times described as “tall, slender, conservatively dressed” and “ bespectacled,” was called by one detective, “probably the best jewel robber in the country.”  He was said to have stolen $1 million in gems in 1934 alone.

Among Lois Balken’s neighbors at the time was the wealthy Mrs. Henry Gansevoort Sanford.

The house served as CIA Centre in the 1975 film “Three Days of the Condor.”

Robert Redford rushes up the steps of No. 55 E. 77th in "Three Days of the Condor" -- photo

No. 55 East 77th Street was gently used by its high-end tenants and after being sold in 1988 was reconverted to a single family residence.  A year-long renovation was initiated by Renotal Construction Corp. in 2002 to bring the plumbing, electricity and HVAC systems up to date, as well as to repair the façade.
photo by Alice Lum
The mansion is little changed since its completion in 1902.  Its remarkable history is matched only by its over-the-top Beaux Arts façade—what the AIA Guide to New York City called “vainglorious architecture of its time.”


  1. A gorgeously detailed exterior, wish you had interior photos to see what is hidden behind the facade.

  2. I'm watching Three Days right now. I surmised after seeing a fireplace in every room and an actual bathtub in the employee restroom that this was or had been a private residence, converted into apartments. So I started digging. Thanks for all the details, it's exactly what I was looking for. As the previous commenter said, I'd love to see the interior after renovation. Off to do more digging...

  3. Thank you. Nice to know others are as interested as I am

  4. exterior:

  5. The home is now owned by Gerald Ford, the home was renovated for Ford by Peter Pennoyer & Partners, and the interiors were completed by Ford’s wife, Kelli;

  6. Thinking the interiors of "Three Days..." were not actually shot in the building...albeit the staircase shown in the above resembles the one in the film. Perhaps they used just the first floor with the rest of the interiors being sets. Curious.