|photo by Alice Lum
In 1920 the two-block, disengaged section of Avenue A that ran from 57th to 59th Streets was not the sort of neighborhood where one would find wealthy socialites. In 1883 the little stretch of roadway had been renamed Sutton Place, a nod to Effingham B. Sutton who had constructed a row of brownstone residences here in 1875.
Overlooking the East River, the area was home to the Peter Doelger Brewery, decaying rowhouses and tenement buildings. The society women of Fifth Avenue had, most likely, never heard of Sutton Place and certainly had no interest in seeing it. But that was all about to change.
That year Elisabeth Marbury, the wealthy literary agent and producer who had been born into an aristocratic family, commissioned society architect Mott Schmidt to transform a Victorian rowhouse at 13 Sutton Place into a Georgian residence. She moved in with her long-time companion, decorator Elsie de Wolfe, and began a campaign of convincing her other female friends to follow suit.
One of those friends was Anne Vanderbilt whose husband, William K. Vanderbilt died on July 22, 1920, making Anne a widow for the third time. New York society was shocked when, on January 9, 1921, a New York Times headline reported that “Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt to Live In Avenue A.” She had sold here sumptuous Fifth Avenue mansion for $3 million to move to what the newspaper called “a little-known two-block thoroughfare.” She used $50,000 of the $3 million to purchase 1 Sutton Place and, like Marbury, hired Mott B. Schmidt to renovate it into a 13-room Georgian mansion.
A society columnist upbraided Vanderbilt for abandoning Fifth Avenue and moving to “the heart of the slums” and The New York Times worried that “Mrs. K. Vanderbilt plans to lead an exodus of society from Fifth Avenue and elsewhere to Avenue A.” And, in a way, she did.
Anne Vanderbilt’s close friend, 38-year old Anne Tracy Morgan, daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan, announced her plans to have Mott Schmidt create a house abutting the Vanderbilt mansion. “Miss Morgan’s new home is being altered, to conform somewhat to the Colonial style of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s house, after which type most of the houses in the exclusive-little nook have been patterned,” said The New York Times. “Many of the rooms will contain rare old paneling and furniture. Some of these furnishings will be brought from abroad, but much of it will be Colonial. It is expected that the cost of the site and the remodeling will be about $125,000.”
By now the neighborhood was filling with very wealthy owners who were keeping Mott and Elsie de Wolfe busy changing 19th century middle-class homes into fashionable neo-Georgian residences. Anne Vanderbilt’s sister, Mrs. Stephen Olin, was already here as were Mrs. Lorillard Cammann and Francis B. Griswold.
Two months later Mott Schmidt filed revised plans for Anne Morgan’s house. She had purchased both 3 and 5 Sutton Place and Schmidt converted them to one large residence. “The new plans call for the rebuilding of the two structures into a four-story dwelling in American Colonial style with a roof garden,” reported The New York Times.
To create the illusion of a vintage home, Mott reused the bricks from the old buildings on the site. And motif of both the mansion--both inside and out--would be 18th century, Anne Morgan would not have to endure the hardships of colonial life. An elevator, in-house incinerator, gas furnace and refrigerators brought the home squarely into the modern age.
Mott based the design on two Philadelphia houses: the 1765 Samuel Powel House and its neighbor, the Benjamin Wister Morris House. He treated the Morgan house and the Vanderbilt house as two independent but critically-related designs. A critic assessed them saying “No more valuable or successful examples of the consistent and intelligent use of English architectural precedent in the designing of American houses are to be found than these two houses on Sutton Place.”
The house was completed in 1922. House & Garden praised Morgan for her choice of 18th century interiors. “There are hundreds of beautiful drawing rooms in New York, but I know of no one but Miss Morgan who has determined to make the largest and most important room in her house an early American one. She is using an old pine paneled room, such as were often seen in old Southern houses. The New England pine rooms were usually much smaller and the paneling was generally more severe.”
|The Drawing Room featured antique paneling and hand-painted French wallpaper -- photo Library of Congress
The establishment of Sutton Place as a suddenly-fashionable neighborhood caught on and in November 1921 Joseph E. Willard, former Ambassador to Spain, purchased the house next to Morgan’s and began remodeling. But mainstream society was not quite sure how to react to this sudden explosion of female independence and rejection of tradition. Rumors, started probably by threatened upper-class males, told of lesbian orgies in the Morgan House and secret underground tunnels connecting the women’s homes so they could pass back and forth unseen.
|Whimsical, fearsome creatures flank the gates to the rear lawn that gently rolled to the river -- photo Library of Congress
While Sutton Place had transformed within two or three years into an exclusive enclave of millionaires, its recent roots were still showing. An empty coal wagon lot where 57th Street dead-ended at the river had been used for years for a traveling carnival to set up. And in July 1923 it was back, creating a stark contrast that prompted a New York Times headline to gibe “When Coney Island Came to Sutton Place.”
“On the corner of the lot, venturing out daringly on the closest point toward the most distinguished and formal of the elegantly precise Sutton Place residences—Miss Anne Morgan’s perhaps—the Ferris wheel, like a giant squirrel cage, reared its height above the housetops.” The article teased that riders “dared to peek into the upper windows of a residential magnificence founded on preferred ratings in both the Social Register and Bradstreet’s.”
|Photographer Berenice Abbott, a friend of Morgan's, captured the street on April 2, 1936. The Vanderbilt mansion is at the near corner with Anne Morgan's house directly behind. -- photo Library of Congress
But it was Anne herself who would sometimes be responsible for the upending of Sutton Place propriety. Among her many causes and interests were the servicemen. She had spent years in Europe during World War I working with the military and World War II would arouse her spirit again. Morgan staged a block party for hundreds of service men on quiet Sutton Place just four months before the attack on Pearl Harbor would drag the United States into the conflict.
“The party got off to a good start at 8 o’clock,” reported The Times, “when the soldiers and sailors entered the front yard of Miss Anne Morgan’s home, which was decorated with red, white and blue electric light bulbs.” The end of 57th Street was roped off to create an area for dancing and the newspaper mentioned that “Soon many soldiers and sailors were showing the spectators lined on Sutton Place that the latest ‘jitterburg steps’ were not unknown to the men in uniform.”
The patriotic Morgan was a bit of a detective, as well. The following year, in May, with gas rationing in force, Anne Morgan smelled the vapors of gasoline emanating from the basement of the house next door. She notified the Bureau of Combustibles of the Fire Department who found 65-1/2 gallons of fuel stored in the cellar. The neighbor, Mrs. Clarinne Reavis, explained that she was fearful that the rationing card she received would not provide enough gasoline for her duties as a member of the Mayor’s city patrol, a volunteer defense auxiliary.
Morgan, perhaps, saved her own house from destruction, considering that Mrs. Reavis’s fume-leaking reserves of gasoline were stored about 50 feet from the open pilot light to her hot water heater.
Anne Morgan traveled to France when the Nazis invaded and formed the American Ambulance Corps. The organization aided many Americans who had become trapped by the invasion. She returned throughout the war and had just come home in September 1947 after checking on social services she had founded in France. While at her Mount Kisco, New York, estate she suffered a severe stroke and was brought to the house on Sutton Place.
The amazing Anne Morgan would live on until January 29, 1952. Her relief efforts during the two world wars had earned her a medal from the National Institute of Social Science in 1915 and she was the first American woman appointed a commander of the French Legion of Honor. She had taken up residence near the French front from 1917 to 1921, forming The American Friends of France mostly with her own money. It provided furniture to bombed-out families, created a health service, a mobile library among other efforts.
After her death, Leigh Mitchell Hodges wrote to The New York Times saying in part, “Only those who saw her in action [in France] could appreciate her courage, rare leadership and utter selflessness. These qualities of greatness begat for her high and deserved awards, but of far more moment than medals and ribbons was the grateful love of a whole people.”
The house on Sutton Place was purchased that year by Arthur Amory Houghton, Jr., the great-grandson of the founder of Corning Glass. Exactly twenty years later, Houghton donated the house to the United Nations Association of the United States. The association leased it to the United Nations for a year as the home of the Secretary General, then sold it to the organization in 1973.
Today the stately home of Anne Morgan remains the home of the U.N.’s Secretary General. Its colonial façade, along with those of its neighbors built by independent-thinking women who broke free of tradition, looks as though it has stood there for centuries.