Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Charming 1863 No. 129 East 70th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Construction projects generally slowed or ground to a complete stop in New York during the Civil War with many of the young and fit men off fighting for the Union.  But  Edmund and Japhet Mason Thorp forged on.

The Connecticut-born brothers were already respected builders and their firm, J. M. and E. A. Thorp, would go on to erect structures like the Park Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, and the House of the Good Shepherd on 92nd Street.  A the top of Lenox Hill on East 70th Street, the Thorps constructed five especially attractive speculative houses, completed in 1863, for owner Sarah Mitchell.
Sitting high above English basements, the three-story homes were Victorian jewels.  High stoops led to the arched, Italianate entrances beside Victorian Gothic bays which produced a balustrade balcony at the second floor.  Paired windows lined up above the bay, connected to one another by stone Ruskinian Gothic arches. 

The Ruskinian-arched windows were unusual in domestic architecture even at the time of construction -- photo by Alice Lum
The five matching residences were offered “for sale or rent.”  James Geddes and his wife Helen purchased No. 129.  Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, the east side neighborhood quickly developed and as the 20th century approached, grand mansions were spilling onto the side streets from the avenues as the Upper East Side became the most fashionable place to live.
Attorney Charles H. Ludington, Jr. owned No. 129 as the century drew to a close.  Ludington had become a director of the Chicago Railway terminal Elevator Company in 1894 and was also the President and Director of the Continental Filter Co.  The highly-successful lawyer was a member of the University and Yale Clubs and the American Fine Arts Society.

Ludington and his family moved out in 1900 and No. 129 was briefly home to protestant Episcopal priest William H. Pott, Ph.D.   He had been vicar of St. Thomas’s Chapel, a branch of St. Thomas Church, since 1889.  But then a year after taking possession of the house he accepted the rectorship of Zion Church in Wappinger’s Falls, New York and left the city.
By 1911 grand mansions were replacing the string of Victorian homes.  No. 123 (right) still remained along with No. 129.  photo NYPL Collection
The family of William S. Edgar would call No. 129 home until 1910.  That year was especially busy in the house because daughter Mary Chapman Edgar was introduced to society.  The New York Times noted that the girl’s mother “has arranged to give teas for her daughter on November 25 and December 2 at her home.”  The teas were followed by “very small dinner dances, only 22 being invited to each.”
Graceful, slender foliate-carved colunettes support the Gothic arches of the bay window -- photo by Alice Lum
That year St. John Smith purchased the house; The Times noting that he would “alter the house for his own occupancy.”  If it were Smith’s intention to occupy the house, that would not be realized for several years.  Instead the house was leased to a succession of wealthy tenants.

Socialite Mrs. Clarence H. Mackay leased the house, furnished, for the season of 1913.  However, after spending November here, ill health forced her to sublease it to Robert C. Hill, President of the Madiera Hill Coal Company.  Hill was the grandson of Justice Daniel Goodenow of the Maine Supreme Court, a descendant of the Revolutionary War hero General Israel Putnam and of Eleazer Wheelock, founder of Dartmouth College.
The family of lawyer Henry Hurlbut Abbott rented the house for a few years during the First World War.  His son, Paul, went off to a Federal Military Training Camp in 1916.

By the 1920s the Smith family had moved in permanently.  St. John Smith was graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1901, but he never practiced law.  After working in a few financial firms and brokerage houses, he opened his own brokerage office in 1922.
The Smith family included Mrs. Florence Elizabeth Howland Smith and the children, Frances St. John, and her brother St. John, Jr.  Their comfortable and relatively quiet home life was unalterably shattered on January 13, 1928.

The previous fall, Frances had started school at Smith College.  On January 13 she was seen crossing the campus around noon and then disappeared.  The mystery would initiate a nationwide search that eventually expanded to Europe.  The Smiths offered a $10,000 reward for the return of their daughter alive and within days of the disappearance Captain John Ayres of the Bureau of Missing Persons had sent out over 1,000 fliers with Frances’s face and profile.
Frances’s great aunt, Anna W. Gramm, moved into the house on East 70th Street to offer support.  Within two weeks of the disappearance she received two demands for ransom.  One, written in pencil with numerous misspellings demanded $2,500 for the girl’s safe return.  The note said in part:

“I do not want $3,000 or $5,000 or your $10,000 reward. I just want what I ask for and that is only what I ask for and that is only $2,500 and my agents will put your daughter on the train for home. I will pay her fare to Northampton myself. Send the money in cash.”
Both notes threatened harm to the girl if the money was not forthcoming soon.

St. John and Florence Smith, described by The Times on January 31 as “on the verge of collapse,” held onto hope, even as authorities talked of draining Paradise Pond on the Smith campus.   The couple told reporters “We think that she may be suffering from amnesia.  We hope she will turn up somewhere.  The whole thing is a complete mystery to us.  We have wracked our brains trying to figure out what happened.”
In the meantime, alleged sightings came in from all parts of the country and even from Paris.  The nation was riveted on the story of the vanished wealthy college girl for over a year; but no clues emerged.

Then came what the Smiths feared most.  On March 29, 1929 a decomposed body was found in the Connecticut River.   Not until six months later, on October 3, would dental records prove it was the body of Frances St. John Smith.
Florence Smith died in the house in February, 1933.   Adding to St. John smith's emotional burden, his mother died within the week.

St. John Smith, Jr. joined the U. S. Army, attaining the rank of lieutenant.   Alone in the house, St. John’s health deteriorated and he eventually moved into the Harvard Club.  Mrs. Emily D. Floyd purchased the house, selling it in October 1940 to a buyer who said that “alterations will be made.”
For decades No. 129 had been the last surviving house of the original five built by the Thorp brothers.   Yet the block on East 70th Street remained a particularly lovely residential street, lined with turn of the century mansions that made the quaint Victorian stand out.

Among the alterations the new owners made in 1940 was the removal of the high stoop.  The door to the English basement became the entrance, and the original door was converted to a window.  Perhaps unexpectedly, the architect carefully replaced the bracketed hood with stonework to match the other windows.  A stone balustrade, matching that above the bay, was installed to tie the renovations to the original design.
In 1950 the house was owned by James A. Cola, whose wife ran the upstate Donwald Kennels advertised as “Home of Champions” and that year the ground floor was renovated to include a “puppy room.”

When Christian K. Keesee purchased the house, he commissioned architect Peter Brotherton to restore the façade to its 1863 appearance and to do “interior improvements.”  Brotherton worked with Charles Lockwood, townhouse historian and author of "Bricks and Brownstones," and delved into substantial architectural forensics.

The elegant doorway was reproduced -- photo by Alice Lum
 The original dimensions of the doorway were determined by discovering traces of the original opening.  The 1940 renovation had recycled the cast iron stoop railings as fencing, so the ironwork of the fence and stoop could be accurately recast.
The restoration began in 2008 and included re-pointing of the brickwork (using tinted mortar), cleaning of the façade and repairing and repainting of the woodwork in historic colors.  Two years later the remarkable house was reborn, looking perhaps exactly as it did when the Geddes moved in during the Civil War.

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