Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Unusual 1918 Augustus G. Paine, Jr. House - No. 31 East 69th Street

Thomas W. Lamont had big plans for his new residence in September 1916.   By now the northward march of millionaires’ mansions along Fifth Avenue had reached East 70th Street and beyond.  The brownstone middle class homes of a generation earlier were being quickly replaced by upper class residences and Lamont had set his sights on particular lots.

The properties on the block of East 70th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues were quickly being snatched up for redevelopment.  Gerrish H. Milliken had purchased the corner property at Park Avenue and 70th Street and his designs for a stylish home were being completed.  Abutting the site was a string of houses owned by the Frame estate where Lamont envisioned a grand home to replace three of them.

Lamont purchased the first house at No. 109.  At the same time Augustus G. Paine, Jr., was shopping for a suitable location for his new mansion.   And unaware of Lamont’s plans, he found one.

Paine, who was President of the New York and Pennsylvania Corporation, a paper manufacturing concern, purchased No. 111 from the Frame Estate.  Suddenly Lamont’s grand plans were dashed.

When the problem was revealed, Paine graciously offered to give up the property if Lamont could find him a similar, suitable location in the area.   When Lamont found an unusual piece of real estate a block closer to Fifth Avenue, Paine agreed.  Paine purchased the property and the two men swapped deeds with a handshake.  Not a penny was exchanged in the gentlemen’s agreement.

The lot Paine received was unusual, indeed.  The Sun reported on November 26, 1916 that the millionaire “is to have built the most unusual dwelling which has been planned for this city.  It will be the only dwelling in the city which will be a block in length.”

The Augustus Paine house would stretch from East 69th Street through to East 70th Street.    The unusual building lot, 200 feet in length, provided a unique opportunity to architect C. P. H. Gilbert.

 “The site permits the building of a dwelling such as has never been tried,” said The Sun.  Gilbert designed the house nearly as two separate buildings.   The 69th Street side would be the home of the Paine family while the 70th Street side would be what the newspaper called “the service plant” of the house and the servants’ quarters.    The garage, laundry and other mundane operations were separated from the house proper.  Above service wing, a long rooftop terrace with pergola, accessed through a conservatory off  the dining room, provided a private outdoor escape.

The terrace stretched the length of the service area, above the garage -- photo The Architectural Review 1919 (copyright expired)
The Sun said that Gilbert “sees in this house a chance to treat in a new way the problems of a city dwelling.”

The Architectural Review in 1919 commented on the tasteful treatment of the service wing.  “The view of the house from the street at the rear is pleasing, for this portion of the house has been faced with the same kind of brick as the front, has the same kind of trimmings and has been as carefully designed as the front.  The garage topped by the pergola of the terrace above it and the house rising beyond form an effective as well as unusual arrangement.”

The terrace with its boxed trees and plants provided an elegant space for casual entertaining on warm nights. -- photo Architectural Review 1919 (copyright expired)
The house would be a departure for Gilbert in other ways, too.  The architect had earned a reputation for designing sumptuous mansions for New York’s wealthiest citizens including Harry Sinclair, F. W. Woolworth and Morton F. Plant.   In designing for clients who intended their homes to conspicuously reflect their enormous wealth, Gilbert had produced palaces and chateaus along Fifth Avenue that dripped ornamentation.

The Paine house would be an abrupt change.    Here Gilbert turned to the neo-Georgian style that had been popular since around the turn of the century.   There would be no gargoyles or turrets.  The Paine home would be a refined and dignified reminder of American and English 18th century nobility in architecture.

Construction began in 1917 and was completed a year later.  Gilbert used Flemish bond red brick trimmed in white limestone to recreate the historic look of the structure.  The stately double doored entrance featured an exquisite fanlight under a robust pediment, supported by Doric pilasters.  An unusual oblong tripartite window at the first floor looks rather out of place, disturbing the symmetrical flow of the elements above.

Gilbert visually reduced the height by setting back the fifth and sixth floors behind a stone balustrade.   Inside, massed windows in the dining room opened into the conservatory and terrace; admitting exception light and air.   The library, facing 69th Street on the second floor, was “given a richer and heavier style of treatment than the other rooms, in keeping with its use, but it is comfortable and homelike,” said the Architectural Review.

In 1919, shortly after the Paines and their five sons moved in, Mrs. Paine, the former Maud Eustis Potts, died.  Four years later Augustus married Francisca Warren.  The couple had a daughter, Francisca.

Paine was not merely the president of the paper company; he was Director of the Johnsonburg National Bank; senior member of A. G. Paine and Company;  director of the Columbia Trust Co. and the Castanea Paper Co.; vice president of the Mountain Lumber Co.; and president of the Essex County National Bank.  But he still found time to relax at his clubs, the Union League, the Riding Club and the Union Club.

Paine’s real hobby, however, was ornithology.  While only 19 or 20 years old, he composed a list of the birds of Central Park with Lewis B. Woodruff.  The list documented the names of over 100 species and he eventually collected over 1,200 specimens. 

Augustus Paine and his wife lived on in the house for decades.   His health began failing in the mid-1940s, until on October 23, 1947 he died here. 

The house sold to the Government Affairs Club; then in 1952 it became the Austrian Consulate General.   The offices of the Consul General and his staff are in the building.  Augustus Paine’s library is now the board room and Mrs. Paine’s drawing room hosts formal receptions.   

The handsome, groundbreaking home, which The Architectural Review in 1919 called “one of the most interesting of the solutions of the city house problem,” is kept lovingly intact by the Austrian Consulate.

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