Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The James V. Forrestal House -- No. 17 Beekman Place

photo by Alice Lum
Like most of the wealthy 18th century New Yorker families, the Beekmans built a lavish country house north of the city where they could escape to the cooling river breezes and open countryside.  James Beekman erected Mount Pleasant in 1765 near the East River.

The next century would see the city gradually creep northwards, engulfing the sprawling estates as streets and avenues criss-crossed the land and homes and commercial buildings sprung up.  Mount Pleasant was demolished in 1874 to be replaced by brownstones and tenements populated for the most part by the impoverished immigrants working in the coal yards and shipyards that lined the riverbank.   New York’s millionaires clustered at the center of the island, around 5th Avenue, far from the soot and dust of Manhattan’s margins.

Then something happened.

Elisabeth Marbury hired society architect Mott Schmidt to remodel an old rowhouse on an extension of Avenue A into a high-end neo-Georgian residence.  She soon persuaded friends, including Anne Vanderbilt, recent widow of William K. Vanderbilt; and Anne Morgan, daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan, to do the same.  The avant-garde women thumbed their noses at social traditions and walked away from the accepted Fifth Avenue.   Before long an enclave of mansions, many of them in the Georgian style like Marbury's, had developed--now called Sutton Place.

The trend spilled over as millionaires began converting or razing tenements on the nearby two-block long street that would become known as Beekman Place.   The reputation of Beekman Place as the sanctuary for wealthy free-thinkers from Fifth Avenue’s restrictions later placed the character Auntie Mame at No. 23 Beekman Place.

In 1920 a temporary shelter for delinquent women stood at No. 17 Beekman Place.  Known simply as Number Seventeen Beeckman Place, Inc., it housed up to 25 women and 6 babies.  The purpose of the shelter was “to provide a temporary refuge and home for delinquent and friendless women and girls, and for unmarried and homeless mothers with their babies, where they  may be reclaimed and assisted in becoming self-supporting.”

In the meantime James Vincent Forrestal had been making a name for himself.  The son of an Irish immigrant  he worked as a reporter for the Matteawan Journal at the age of 16.  In 1912 he entered Princeton University, but left after three years to work for the New York World.  Four years later he changed careers to sell bonds.

When war broke out he moved to Canada to join the Royal Flying Corps, then returned to the city after the war to rejoin the banking firm of Dillon, Read & Company as a bond salesman.  He quickly rose within the firm to department manager, then partner in 1923, then vice-president in 1926.

Forrestal had done well for himself and it was time for a house that reflected it.  On May 12, 1928 Forrestal joined the “colony” of wealthy New Yorkers who thought outside of the Fifth Avenue box.   The New York Times announced that “Beekman Place Corporation disposed of the four-story house…at 17 Beekman Place to a banker.”     Forrestal commissioned architect Harold Sterner to design a distinguished Georgian-inspired brick-and-stone residence that stretched back 100 feet to the end of 50th Street where the land dropped off to the river.  

James V. Forrestal would eventually rise to the position of Secretary of Defense -- photo Library of Congress
Despite the ongoing Great Depression the five-story mansion was completed in 1932.  The white marble base, punctured by unadorned, rectangular openings, supported three stories of red brick and a copper-sheathed mansard.   The subdued entrance was flanked by two plain, Corinthian columns and surrounded by a simple stone frame.

photo by Alice Lum
Shallow brick pilasters, two stories tall at the second and third floor were capped by carved Ionic capitals.   The home was both restrained and imposing.  But the understated exterior disguised the sumptuous interiors.

The wealthy residents of quiet Beekman Place hired a private special patrolman, Joseph Roy, to ensure their safety.  The arrangement worked well until the pre-dawn hours of July 2, 1937.  Mrs. Josephine Ogden Forrestal was arriving home in the car of a friend, Richard Hall around 2:00 a.m.  Knowing Mrs. Forrestal was soon to arrive, Roy had just asked a parked sedan to move.  As Hall’s chauffeur pulled the car up to the Forrestal house, six men jumped from the sedan with pistols drawn and surrounded the limousine.    Moments later they sped away with $48,000 worth of Mrs. Forrestal’s jewels.

Fanciful, decorative portholes are interspersed between the ground floor openings -- photo by Alice Lum

Six years after moving in, at only 46 years old, Forrestal was named President of Dillon, Read & Company.    The banker caught the eye of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1940 the President appointed him as liaison officer between the Oval Office and the Treasury Department as well as other financial agencies of the government.  The Forrestals moved to Washington D.C. and within a few months he was appointed Undersecretary of the Navy, responsible for production and procurement.

That the Forrestals would not be returning to Manhattan became evident.

In January 1942 the house, complete with all the Forrestal furnishings, was leased to Daniel G. Arnstein, the head of the Terminal Taxicab Company.  Arnstein had just returned to New York from China where he “was engaged in organizing traffic on the Burma Road,” according to The Times.

While Arnstein was in the house, Forrestal rose to Secretary of the Navy in 1944 and was in Europe to personally see the D-Day landings in June.

Sterner added occasional carved ornaments, like the architectural equivalent of a printer's dingbats, to the staid cornice -- photo by Alice Lum
Finally, in June 1946, James Forrestal sold the house at No. 17 Beekman Place.   The buyer was song-writer Irving Berlin.

The arcane location was perfect for the celebrity composer who, like Forrestal, had raised himself from an impoverished childhood to enormous wealth.   By now had added motion picture musicals to his successes with hits like Top Hat, Follow the Fleet and Carefree.  The immortal song "Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat had earned Berlin an Academy Award.

From No. 17 Beekman Place the composer would pen masterpieces including Annie Get Your Gun in 1946, Call Me Madam in 1950, There’s No Business Like Show Business in 1954 and Sayonara in 1957. 

Irving Berlin and his wife, Ellen -- photo Library of Congress
The beloved composer would live on in the mansion until his death here on September 12, 1989 at the age of 101.
The plot of Call Me Madam, for which Irving Berlin wrote both the words and music, was based on Perle Mesta’s appointment as Ambassador to Luxembourg by President Harry S. Truman. In a coincidental twist of fate, two years after Berlin’s death the government of Luxembourg bought the building for $5.7 million.

photo by Alice Lum
Today the James Forrestal mansion, home to one of America’s most beloved composers for more than four decades, remains the Consulate of Luxembourg and its Mission to the United States.  The house is pristinely preserved on the hidden little enclave where millionaires sought refuge from stuffy social obligations.

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