Thursday, May 17, 2012

The 1914 Lewis Gouveneur Morris House -- No. 1015 Park Avenue

photo by Alice Lum
In 1908 two of New York’s most impressive pedigrees were joined in marriage.   Alletta Nathalie Lorillard Bailey was descended from prominent colonial leaders including Robert Livingston, the first proprietor of Livingston Manor; Judge Robert R. Livingston and Dominick Lynch.   She married her distant cousin, Lewis Gouveneur Morris, the son of Francis Morris, a U.S. Navy Commander; a great grandson of Jacob Lorillard, and a descendant of Lewis Morris who signed the Declaration of Independence.

At the time of the wedding Park Avenue was undergoing noticeable change.  After the train tracks down the center of Park Avenue were submerged and covered over, the formerly-middle class avenue began attracting the upper crust.  Amos Pinchot, a wealthy attorney, was one of the first to recognize the potential and built an impressive residence in 1905 on the site of two old row houses.   Then, to insure that his investment was secure, he bought up as much of the surrounding property as possible; selling it only to wealthy buyers with the stipulation that the plots be used for private house construction.

In 1912 Reginald DeKoven’s mansion in the style of an English country house was being completed at No. 1025 Park Avenue on land purchased from Amos Pinchot.   The following year Lewis Gouverneur Morris would buy Pinchot property for his own mansion at No. 1021.

The American Contractor reported on February 15, 1913 that plans had been filed by architect Ernest Flagg for a $50,000 residence on the site.  The plans called for a brick and stone structure with “hardwood finish, oak floors, marble, tiling, mantels, gas and electric fixtures.”

What the plans did not reveal was Flagg’s design.   The architect would embrace the revival of Georgian and Federal architectural styles that had recently become popular.  A stark contrast to the gooey French confections of a generation earlier, dignified red brick mansions had already been erected by millionaires like Andrew Carnegie and James Berwind.

photo by Alice Lum
Flagg had already designed at least one neo-Federal home—the sedate four-story Robert I. Jenks house at No. 54 East 64th Street.  But this house would be much, much more.

While it retained the impressive Park Avenue address of No. 1015, the entrance would be significantly down the block on East 85th Street.    The narrow 25-foot wide Park Avenue elevation was undeniably the side of the building, with quarter-round windows beneath the peaked roof and six-over-six paned windows on the three main floors.  From this viewpoint the house could have been plucked from Philadelphia’s Society Hill or Boston’s Beacon Hill.

photo by Alice Lum
 The mansion was entered through paneled double doors below a large leaded fanlight to the right side of an unusual recessed court.  A set of wide white marble stairs led up from 85th Street, making an abrupt turn below a delightful set of three rows of staircase windows that follow the interior stairs upward.

A lantern is upheld by graceful wrought iron arms above the marble stairs.  The the stair-stepped windows follow the interior staircase -- photo by Alice Lum
 On the western wing, above the automobile entrance, Flagg added a complex two-story oriel window.

photo by Alice Lum
While Morris spent time at his brokerage firm of Morris & Pope, Nathalie immersed herself in charity work and tennis.  In addition to the Women’s National Golf and Tennis Club, she was a member of the Badminton Club, and at various times had won the State doubles championships of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Florida.  In 1920 she won the national indoor championship.

An avid dog lover, she was vice president of the New York League for Animals and would urge that every fifth block of the park space within Park Avenue be dedicated for dog use.  London and Paris, she argued, had provisions for exercising dogs, but New York had none.

Flagg’s choice of architectural style may have been influenced by Mrs. Morris’s avid interest in Americana.  Her extensive collection of prints of old New York was well-known and in 1927 it would be exhibited in Gracie Mansion.

Flagg's attention to early American detail are evident in the brickword and the exquisite quarter-round spider web windows --photo by Alice Lum
The entertainments given by Nathalie Morris both in the Park Avenue house and their Newport estate, Malbone, were legendary.   But before the reception at No. 1015 in 1929 for the Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon – perhaps Nathalie’s most shining moment—there would be a more humiliating turn of events.

Lewis Morris’s brokerage firm failed in 1917.  A creditor, Charles Morgan, filed charges against the broker and under the Debtor Act he was arrested in White Plains, New York.  Although he paid $22,000 bail, he could not leave the “jail limits” – a radius of two miles of the White Plains jail.  Morris was confined in White Plains from June 18 to October 5, 1921.

When he appeared before Judge Frank L. Young on September 28, Morris pleaded that he had no assets.  “At the time of the failure of my firm,” he told the judge, “I stripped myself of everything, including all my personal effects, even down to my scarfpins.”    On the day of the firm’s collapse, he insisted, he had only $30 cash.

How he managed to live in a Park Avenue mansion, afford memberships to the most exclusive men’s clubs like the Tuxedo Club, the Metropolitan, the Union and Harvard Clubs and the Ardsley Country Club, as well as to maintain a magnificent Newport estate was easily explained.  His wife paid for them.

When Nathalie Morris testified that the deeds to the houses were in her name and that to her knowledge her husband was penniless, the 34-year old Morris was discharged as “an honest insolvent debtor.”

photo by Alice Lum
The news of an heroic rescue of six dogs that had fallen through the ice in Woodlands Lake, New York, caught the eye of Nathalie Morris in February 1925.  Mrs. James Donnet, who lived nearby in Irvington-on-Hudson came upon the struggling dogs and in attempting to save them, was nearly drowned herself.

Nathalie called a meeting of the New York Women’s League for Animals in her home and arranged that a medal for heroism be awarded to Mrs. Donnet.

Late in 1934 Nathalie Morris was confined to her bed at No. 1015 with an illness.   On January 13, 1935 the woman of varied interests and talents died in the house.

Lewis Gouverneur Morris left that mansion he had shared with his wife for two decades.  He leased it in November 1936 to Mrs. Charles R. Scott “for a long term.”  Then in 1941 Mr. and Mrs. Byrnes MacDonald, who had a summer estate in Brookville, Long Island, were leasing the house.  

MacDonald had been brought up to be a gentleman of leisure.  While attending Princeton where he played polo, he lived in a large private house with a manservant because his father felt dormitory life would be too harsh.   Byrnes lived on his father’s money and never held a job.  Instead he was a club man whose interests were in travel and society gaiety.

No. 1015 Park Avenue was the scene of lavish entertaining throughout the MacDonald residency.

In 1946 Lewis Morris married Princess de Braganca, formerly Anita Stewart.  Eventually the couple would move back to No. 1015 Park Avenue.  Here they would live until Morris died in the Newport mansion at the age of 85 on August 15, 1967.

A year later the New World Foundation purchased the 22-room house for $400,000.  Founded in 1954 with a $20 million bequest from Anita McCormick Blaine, the daughter of Cyrus McCormick who invented the reaping machine, the foundation provided grants for the advancement of health, education, welfare and research.

photo by Alice Lum
Today the remarkable house is owned by the Avi Chai Foundation.  The private foundation was endowed by investor Sanford Bernstein in 1984 in an effort to provide outreach for “alienated and assimilated Jews worldwide.”


  1. It was sold to the New World Foundation not the New York Foundation for $400,000 and per Wikipedia is also know as the "New World Foundation Building".

  2. A complicated family history here, lots of the same name.

    I believe this Lewis G Morris, referenced by this house, was known as Lewis G Morris Jr, the son of Francis Morris (not related to this one: just coicidence on service history and name) and Lewis G Morris Jr is the grandson of another Lewis G Morris, see here: Just trying to piece it together...

  3. This is a wonderful house..I have a book about New York City going back in the history
    of the city for about 300 years and I just love it.

  4. You should know, that Mrs. Byrnes MacDonald was Mr. Morris’ elder daughter