Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The 1913 Dudley Olcott 2nd House -- No. 20 East 79th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Although banker Dudley Olcott was born and educated in New York City, he was living in a sprawling estate named Cherrycroft in the Normandie Park area of Morristown, New Jersey in the early years of the 20th century.  Here with his wife, the Philadelphia-born Sara Crozer Levick Olcott, and his daughters he enjoyed the luxuries of an Italian garden and large swimming pool unavailable to city residents.

But despite giving costume balls and summering in Bal Harbor, the lure of Manhattan finally trumped the suburbs.  In January 1913 Olcott purchased the massive limestone mansion newly constructed at No. 20 East 79th Street.  The Italian-style residence sat on a block already lined with magnificent mansions and it held its own with understated elegance.   Three stone steps led from the sidewalk to the entrance under a dignified Corinthian portico.   A simple wave-crest band separated the rusticated first base from the upper floors as the architect used ornamentation sparingly to create quiet dignity.

A delicate wavecrest band runs between the first and second floors -- photo by Alice Lum
The Manhattan address was, no doubt, more convenient for Olcott who was with the Central Trust Company, of which his father had been president.  An active clubman he held memberships in several exclusive clubs including the Metropolitan and New York Athletic Clubs.  The Olcotts’ two daughters, Gladys and Jeanette, were 8 and 6 years old at the time of their move.   The move was most likely a happy one for the socially-aware Sarah.

photo by Alice Lum
The house became the scene of brilliant social events but perhaps none was so important as the wedding of daughter Gladys to Jean de Pendrill Waddington on October 11, 1922.  The groom’s best man was the Count de Chambrun of the French legation in Washington.  Despite the admirable social pedigree of Gladys, the press all but overlooked the Olcotts; preferring instead to write about the Waddington family and its notable 200-year history of diplomatic service to the European courts.

Gladys and her new husband were off on the France within a few days “and will make their home at the Chateau Verten Drouais,” reported The New York Times.

photo by Alice Lum
In the meantime Chester Dale, a stock broker, was amassing a fortune by consolidating power companies and selling the stock to the public.   A man of wide interests, he devoted his leisure time to “golf, pigeon fancying, professional hockey and going to fires,” as Life Magazine would later write.  Dale’s fascination for the work of firefighters earned him an honorary membership in Battalion 8, Hook & Ladder Co. No. 2.

The broker had married Maud Murray, an artist and critic for art magazines, in 1900 and for two decades he gave passing notice to the art world.   Then in 1926 things changed.

While in Paris he was astounded at the outlandish prices a dealer was asking for some paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec, some of which Dale found “supremely ugly.”    As Life Magazine reported, He decided to find out what there was about those pictures that excited people.  Within 48 hours he had bought a Lautrec himself, returned to New York a few weeks later with 65 French moderns.”

The man who, a year earlier, had been interested mainly in pigeons, golf, hockey and fires was suddenly one of America’s top collectors.  Within the next few years, the burgeoning collection of modern paintings pushed Dale and his wife out of two apartments.  By the early 1930s Chester Dale needed substantially more space for his enormous art collection.

By now Dudley Olcott was a member of the banking and brokerage firm of Billings, Olcott & Co. at 52 Broadway and a trustee of the Central Hanover Bank and Trust Company.  But things were not going well at home.  On January 29, 1932 The New York Times reported that he had traveled to Reno with the intention of filing for divorce against Sarah.  “While no complaint has been prepared, it was indicated that desertion would be the basis of the suit,” said the article.

Before the end of the year the divorce was final, Sarah Crozer Levick Olcott was now remarried and on December 15 The Times reported that the Prince and Princess Narischkine were sailing for “the Channel ports.”  Sarah had a new husband and a title to go with it.

The turn of events was tragic for Dudley Olcott but fortunate for Chester Dale.  In April of the following year he purchased No. 20 East 79th Street from the princess.   The five-story, 42-foot wide mansion would become somewhat of a private museum.

By the late 1930s Dale had spent over $6 million on art.  The halls and rooms of the mansion were hung with paintings by Degas, Renoir, Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Corot and numerous 20th century masters.    On the fifth floor paintings were stacked against one another on shelves; there was no more wall space available on which to exhibit them.

A dapper Chester Dale ascends the staircase at No. 20.  Behind him is Picasso's The Family of Saltimbanques -- photo Life Magazine October 10, 1938 (copyright expired)
Dale and his wife took apartments in the Plaza Hotel because Maud found the museum-like atmosphere in the mansion unsettling. 

The collector toyed with the idea of opening a private museum; but instead when the National Gallery of Art opened in Washington D.C.  he loaned it 22 American paintings.   Before the end of the year he had supplied paintings for two rooms of French Impressionists.

The second-floor music room was lined with fabric, museum-style.  Over the piano hangs Renoir's nude bather and the artist's Odalisque is above the mantle (the Dales owned 11 paintings by Renoir) -- photo Life Magazine October 10, 1938 (copyright expired)
By the time Chester Dale died in his apartments in the Plaza Hotel in 1962, the National Gallery was exhibiting 152 paintings on loan from his collection.    His will bequeathed the Gallery 240 paintings, seven sculptures and more than 1500 books.  Six new galleries were established on the main floor simply to contain the new acquisitions.  In addition, Dale provided for three fellowships through a $500,000 endowment.

An architecturally-unfortunate cafe on Madison Avenue now abuts the refined mansion -- photo by Alice Lum
The magnificent mansion at No. 20 East 79th Street is now, appropriately, home to Skarstedt Gallery.   Founded by Swedish-born Per Skarstedt, the gallery exhibits contemporary American and European artists.  The distinguished residence that was home to only two families, remains pristinely intact.


  1. Great post - nice to see this building still surviving (despite the monstrosity to its side - ack!). I'd luv to get inside.

    What was it with some of these turn-of-the-century collectors? What mental issues did they have going on that they couldn't stop obtaining/collecting??? One of my favorites who I believe would make a great psyche study: William Randolph Hearst! What an incredible, inspiring person but at the same time, a nutbag!

  2. Personal business and social dealings aside, I wouldnt actually use the term "nutbag" in describing the incredible collection of art and antiquities and architectural pieces Hearst collected and incorporated into his home. Like James Deering in Florida at Viscaya, they both were able to create uniquely individual, palatial homes that are true works of art themselves. A devout collector, once biten by the collecting bug, leaves no stone unturned in the quest to acquire just one more fantastic piece. Like JP Morgan and Henry Clay Frick in NYC and JP Getty, the Rockefeller family, to name just a few, our lives are also richer for the fanatical single mindedness to acquire and possess and in many cases, leave provisions to share with the public their collections.

  3. Minor typo, I believe, Dale not Dudley was the collector.

  4. I am grateful to these wealthy collectors, many of whom bought for or loaned to public museums so that people who never would have seen this artwork in person were/are able to enjoy these masterpieces. My own family had one, Duncan Phillips, who turned his collection into a museum for the people of Philadelphia.