Saturday, April 7, 2012

The 1922 Thomas W. Lamont House -- 107 East 70th Street

Looking as much like a school as a mansion, the Lamont House had the luxury of a walled garden with a cloister -- photo NYPL Collection
By 1920, Thomas William Lamont had not only amassed a personal fortune as a partner of J. P. Morgan & Co., he was a highly-visible diplomatic figure for the government.  The previous year he had represented the United States Department of the Treasury at the Paris negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles.  He was already a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and in 1920 visited Japan in an effort to protect American financial interests in Asia.

While all of this was happening in Lamont’s life changes had been taking place on the East 70th Street block between Park and Lexington Avenues.   With the soot-belching trains of Park Avenue sent underground around the turn of the century, the upper-middle class Victorian rowhouses of the block were being replaced by handsome mansions of the wealthy.

In 1929 Thomas William Lamont made the cover of Time (copyright expired)
In 1916 Lamont and his wife, the former Florence Haskell Corliss, were living with their children in the rented Franklin D. Roosevelt house on East 65th Street.  It was time for the multimillionaire to have a home of his own.  That year he purchased Nos. 105 and 107 East 70th Street from James A. Frame and in November added a third, adjoining, property, No. 109.  He now had a 63-foot wide site for a new house.

With the outbreak of war, plans were stalled.   In 1918 James Frame was still living in No. 105 and William Frame was in No. 107.  But on March 10, 1920 the plans were filed.  The no-nonsense description that listed that architects as Walker & Gillette noted the residence would be five-stories in height and would cost approximately $250,000.

It would be much more than that.

The house was completed two years later.  Variously described as neo-Tudor, Jacobean, and English Gothic, it was a careful study, if not a reproduction, of a 16th century country house.   Sitting back from the sidewalk (an 1859 regulation required all homes on the block to be set back 10 feet), its brick-and-stone dignity defied the ostentatious mansions of a generation earlier.  The exceptionally-wide plot allowed the architects to extend a wing along the back, into a walled garden with a medieval-type cloister.

The Architectural Record was awed, saying “The Lamont house holds, perhaps, a very special significance—a meaning which may become more fully understood a few years from now.  Turning points are very seldom recognized as such until some time after the turn has been made.  In 1940, perhaps, some critic may say ‘A new kind of sanity appeared in city house architecture about 1922.’”

The Record said “Besides being an unusually fine rendering of the style, it is an unusually fine expression of a dwelling.”   Along with the many-paned windows, the tall clustered chimneys and robustly-carved entrance; the architects lavished historic attention on the interiors.

Over the flagstone entrance hall was a beamed ceiling.  The carved wood of the staircase was crafted to appear hundreds of years old -- photo Architectural Record, 1922, (copyright expired)
Antique mantels and paneling were imported and accurate architectural details were fabricated.  When a wall of antique paneling was found in England that perfectly fit, new woodwork was carefully produced that blended with it.   Tool marks were left in the wood and stone to convey the charm and look of the five-hundred year old originals.

The carved stone mantel of the library was authentic; imported from England -- photo the Architectural Record, 1922 (copyright expired)
Only one room departed from the Jacobean period.  The dining room was done in the Queen Anne style, with a brass chandelier, authentic mantel and carved, paneled woodwork. 

Aside from the conservatory, only the dining room departed from the Jacobean period -- photo Architectural Record, 1922 (copyright expired)
Using the living room as an example, The Architectural Record compared the dignity of the space with the ostentatious pre-war mansions.  “In comparison with the ornate, over-decorated and over-furnished ‘drawing rooms’ of many earlier city houses,, this great quiet interior seems to suggest a distinctly new way of doing things in large houses.  The architects believe—very rightly—that fine furniture and tapestries look better against a simple architectural background.”

The interests of the Lamonts ranged from politics to the arts.  Rather than hosting obligatory teas, dances and dinner parties sodden with forgettable conversations, they filled the house with stimulating guests—among them H. G. Wells, elder British statesman Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, Robert Frost, Walter de la Mare, and poet John Masefeld. 

An English rose and Scottish thistle are carved into the exquisite entrance -- photo by Alice Lum
Reflecting his interest in literature and awareness, Lamont financed The Saturday Review for many years.  The Smith College-educated Florence was a member of the Association for Symbolic Logic, was an active supporter of the League of Nations and unionization of labor.  Because all of this took up much of her time, a staff of 15 took care of things in the 70th Street house.

Across the river on the palisades overlooking the great Hudson River the Lamonts had a “weekend” house named Torrey Cliff, with a staff of four.

The house was the scene of a dinner party for daughter Eleanor Allen Lamont’s coming out in 1928 and four years later saw her wedding reception.  Eleanor’s was a society match.  She married Charles Crehore Cunningham whom The New York Times noted “prepared at Milton Academy for Harvard, where he is a member of the junior class.”

photo by Alice Lum
In 1933 the Marquess of Lothian was a guest at the Lamont house while he visited New York; but on the whole it was the more political and artistic visitors who were most noted in the press.  Five years later The Times reported that Viscount Cecil…proponent of the League of Nations, sat before a wood fire in the library of Thomas W. Lamont’s home at 107 East Seventieth Street yesterday and gave warning that only the maintenance of world organization for peace stands between the nations and a repetition of the great war.”

Florence Lamont shared the Englishman’s fear.  In November of that same year she wrote to a friend in Britain, “I was so frightened by the crisis, I thought, ‘there is going to be war, and I shall never see my lovely English friends again.’”  She interspersed her letter with political observations—her opinions of Chamberlain’s performance, the New Deal (“three cheers for the death of the New Deal”), and Adolph Hitler.

“And now this last horror of the Jewish terrorism,” she wrote.  “It is unbelievable.  Would it have happened if England had been firmer?  I said to a young foreign correspondent, who had been in the Sudeten areas when the Germans came in, ‘But I can’t believe what you tell me you saw.  Human beings could not act like that!’ He said, ‘They are not human beings, they are rat.’ He meant the present ruling party.”

Florence Lamont’s fears of a second great war came true.  Following the war, in addition to his generous donations to Harvard University, Lamont made a sizeable contribution towards the restoration of the war-damaged Canterbury Cathedral.

In 1948, while in Boca Grande, Florida, Thomas Lamont died.   Shortly afterwards, Florence donated Torrey Cliff along with 150 acres of land to Columbia University to establish a center for geological study and research.

photo by Alice Lum
Early on the morning of December 29, 1952, Florence Lamont died in the house on East 70th Street.  The New York Times listed her amazing involvements.  “She was an active member of the board of the League of Nations Association, enthusiastically supporting the league during its existence.  Later she became a member of the executive committee of the American Association for the United Nations, continuing in that capacity until her death.  Mrs. Lamong also served on various committees of the Foreign Policy Association and was interested in the New York Women’s Trade Union League and the Journal of Philosophy."

Florence’s will left large amounts of money to women’s college:  Wellesley, Vassar, Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, and Smith.  As for the mansion on East 70th Street, she donated it to the Visiting Nurse Association, Inc.

The Association moved into the house in 1954, after doing some renovations that included replacing period chandeliers with “fluorescent lighting.”  Fifty-five years later the institution began a renovation of the interiors, executed by architects Beyer Blinder Belle; and a restoration of the fa├žade.

In 1922 the Architectural Record said “let us hope that it will not take us a generation to see the permanent and intrinsic worth of such an architectural expression as this fine, tall-gabled house in New York.”  

The Record got its wish.


  1. I love this blog. I learn something new every time you post.

    I noticed a redundancy in the schools the lady left money to after her death, you might want to check it out.

  2. Nancy Astor's maid wrote a book many years ago about her life in Lady Astor's employ. In one chapter, she recounts a visit she made with Lady Astor to the United States, where they were guests of the Lamont's at this house. The maid awoke her first morning there, covered in spots. Bedbugs were diagnosed as the cause, and an investigation quickly uncovered that her bed was overrun with them. The Lamont housekeeper was sacked and I gather that the problem was resolved. I've never been able to pass this lovely house though without recalling that story- and itching just a bit.

  3. I so enjoy your blog. It is so interesting and I look forward to reading the stories and history presented.
    I wish this was also in a book form as I would read and reread it as I hope to walk by some of these buildings and recall your educational informational.

  4. Thank you. Unfortunately, publishers do not seem interested in taking on a blog-based book. The feeling is no one would want to buy a book they can read for free.

  5. time is a famous magazine around the world and i like the design of these building