Friday, August 10, 2012

The French Beauty at No. 19 Sutton Place

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In 1890 Clara Allason, a teacher in the primary department of Grammar School No. 75 listed her address as No. 19 Sutton Place.  It was an unassuming address, a brownstone home not much different from the others that lined the little extension of Avenue A above the East River.

Thirty years later Clara Allason’s neighborhood had experienced a decided slump.   The area was home to the Peter Doelger Brewery and the Victorian rowhouses were unmaintained.  But that was all about to change.

In 1920 the wealthy literary agent and producer Elisabeth Marbury, with her long-time partner Elsie de Wolfe, the well-known decorator, hired architect Mott Schmidt to transform No. 13 Sutton Place into a neo-Georgian townhouse.  Within the year widow Anne Vanderbilt followed suit.  And suddenly millionaires were abandoning Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue for grimy Sutton Place.

B. Stafford Mantz, the treasurer of the Corporation Trust Company was quick to jump on the Sutton Place bandwagon.    Mantz sold his house on East End Avenue to the Duc de Richelieu in June 1921 and bought the old brownstone once occupied by school teacher Clara Allason.  A headline in The New York Tribune on June 19 announced “Banker Joins Sutton Square Home Colony Along the East River.”

“This is the seventeenth house sold of the eighteen,” reported the Tribune, “overlooking the East River at the foot of Fifty-seventh Street.”  The article reminded readers that “Other houses in the group have been bought by Mrs.  W. K. Vanderbilt, Miss Elisabeth Marbury, Mrs. H. Lorillard Cammann and Francis B. Griswold.”

Suddenly little Sutton Place was among the most elegant addresses in Manhattan.

Unlike the Georgian replicas created for Vanderbilt and Anne Tracy Morgan, daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan, by Mott Schmidt; Mantz’s makeover would result in a provincial Louis XVI townhouse of grey and brown brick.  Five stories tall, including the high mansard roof, it was entered a few steps below sidewalk level.   The limestone-framed main entrance to the right with its carved Medusa-head keystone was balanced by a smaller service entrance.

The original paneled French provincial doors survive -- photo by Alice Lum
The flat surface of the fa├žade was softened with a delicate, partially-gilded iron grill at the second floor.  Rows of identical French windows rose to the slate-covered mansard above a stone cornice.   Mantz had created for himself a romantic French country townhouse hidden away from noise and traffic of Manhattan.

B. Stafford Mantz would go on to married Mary Tourkasteanoff, Princess of Russia in a civil ceremony in 1938; but that would be several years after he sold the house on Sutton Place to Jabian Holmes, Jr. and his wife Mary.    The Holmes leased the house in July 1932 to lawyer C. Frank Reavis and his wife for a period of several years.   The well-respected Reavis had served as attorney for the War Transactions Bureau of the Department of Justice during and following World War I.

The graceful ironwork sits above a somewhat frightening Medusa keystone -- photo by Alice Lum
No. 19 was the scene of a polite tea hosted by Mrs. Reavis in the summer of 1939 after the Outdoor Cleanliness Association toured the private garden of Sutton Place.  The following year the Holmes family was back in residence.  By now the couple had two little girls, Anne age 9 and Marie age 7.   Living with the family were two servants, Alice McDonald and Catherine W. Bankin.

But within two years the Holmes were gone again.   In August 1942 the Secretary to the Chairman of the Board of the United States Steel Corporation, J. Carlyle MacDonald, leased the house.  The New York Times noted that the house shared the common garden of its elite neighbors.  “All the houses on the garden are occupied by members of the Sutton Place Association,” it said, “including Anne Morgan, Miriam Hopkins, Marshall R. Kernochan and Laura F. Delano.”   The newspaper added that Mr. MacDonald would occupy the house “after alterations”

The alterations that MacDonald (who rose to the position of Public Relations Director for U.S. Steel within three years) made to No. 19 would be nothing in comparison to those done in 1970 by architect John D. Latimer.    Although some of the updated interiors retained much of the French detailing of 1921, he brought other areas unabashedly into the 1970s.

Nine years later the West German foreign exchange student Christian Gerhartsreiter arrived in the United States.   The manipulative and charming student soon had people believing he was a millionaire heir, giving his name variously as Chris C. Crowe, Chris Chichester, Charles Smith and Chip Smith.  But the name by which he would be most remembered was Clark Rockefeller.   Before the imposter’s downfall and arrest on a long list of charges, including murder, he would take believing friends past No. 19 Sutton Place, pointing it out as the home where he grew up.
The 1970s makeover is evident in certain parts of the home -- photo
By 2004 the house had long been the home of retired business executive Norman E.  Alexander.   The elderly millionaire had filled No. 19 with an important collection of 20th century art.  By now, however, despite the elevator, getting around the house was difficult for the bachelor who had recently suffered a stroke.    He put the house on the market for $11 million and began looking to sell off much of the priceless art.

Then, like Clark Rockefeller, along came Thomas Doyle.

Despite his last name, Doyle’s business card identified him as a relative of Lord Duveen of Millbank, the preeminent art dealer of the 1920s and ‘30s whose client list included Andrew Mellon, Henry Clay Frick and J. P. Morgan.  What the card did not reveal, however, was that Doyle had arrived in New York City three years earlier having jumped parole in Kansas for transporting stolen goods across state lines.  Nor did it mention that he had served two years in a Tennessee prison for bilking a woman out of $200,000 in jewelry.

Doyle walked away with a Degas bronze of a nude valued at $600,000.  In February 2005 he sent a down payment of $100,000 for the sculpture; but when Alexander’s lawyer pressed him for the balance, he stalled with one excuse after another—he broke his leg, his father died, etc.

In fact, the Degas had been sold to a New York City art gallery for a mere $225,000; finally ending up in Hong Kong collection.  Although Alexander sued the three Manhattan galleries who had handled the piece, the dealers insisted they purchased and sold it in good faith.

photo by Alice Lum
In 2012 the French townhouse that Norman Alexander listed for $11 million sold for around $7 million.  Although B. Stanford Mantz might not recognize some of the interiors, the exterior to No. 19 Sutton Place remains as it was designed:  both charming and aloof.

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