Friday, November 30, 2012

A Queen Anne Survivor at No. 23 East 69th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Architect Charles Duggin was actively developing the east side of Manhattan in the years following the Civil War with his partner James Crossman.   A young, promising architect, Charles Buek worked for the partners as they designed rowhouses for Manhattan’s moderate and upper classes.

When the firm dissolved, Buek established his own practice, as Charles Buek & Co., and took Charles Duggin with him as partner.   Not content to wait for individual commissions, Charles Buek acted as his own developer—aggressively purchasing tracts of land and designing speculative rows of homes.   As Central Park took shape, the Upper East Side became more attractive for potential homeowners.  It was here that Buek concentrated his efforts.

In 1885 the firm began work on a string of brick-and-brownstone rowhouses stretching from No. 21 to 29 East 69th Street.    Designed in the up-to-the-minute Queen Anne style, they were four-stories tall above deep English basements. 

The row was completed a year later.  Designed for families with more than average income they were exceptionally roomy.  No. 23 was 28 feet wide, nearly twice the width of a normal building lot.   The architectural style and its quirky dog-leg stoop with multiple turns would become more identified with the Upper West Side on the other side of Central Park than with the more restrained east side neighborhood.

Artistic brickwork and brownstone quoins added to the Queen Anne design -- photo by Alice Lum
The row filled with distinguished residents.  In 1896 No. 23 was owned by Mrs. A. S. Taylor.  In the 19th and early 20th century it was common for the well-to-do property owner to put the title of the family residence in the name of his wife, thereby helping to insure her financial stability in the case of his death.  Next door at No. 25 lived the esteemed lawyer Elihu Root who would soon become the Secretary of War under William McKinley.

In January 1896 Mrs. Taylor lease the house to John Claflin for three years at what the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported was “an aggregate rental of $16,500.”  In today’s dollars he was paying about $11,000 per month.  John Claflin could well afford the rent.

Claflin was President of the H. B. Claflin Company, a firm founded in 1834 as a middleman between manufacturers and retailers of dry goods.   By 1890 it had become the largest mercantile concern in the country.

He was also President of the Ninth National Bank and a director in the American Exchange National Bank, the Commercial Union Fire Insurance Co. and the Commonwealth Insurance Co.    But only a year after moving in John Chaflin learned that his wealth and position did not raise him above one civic responsibility:  jury duty.

Early in 1897 Claflin received a summons to appear as a juror, which he ignored.  Before long he received a second summons.  He ignored that one too.   Then on the morning of May 27 he read in the newspaper that Justice Smyth of the Supreme Court had ordered the Sheriff to “produce Mr. Claflin.”  According to The Sun Claflin “lost no time in producing himself.  The excuse he gave was that the notices must have been lost in his mail, as he did not get them.” 

John Claflin served on a criminal jury and, presumably, his mail service improved.

The street address was working into an elaborate wrought iron overlight.  The unfortunate choice of porch lamps came later. -- photo by Alice Lum
Claflin and his wife, the former Elizabeth Stewart, obviously approved of the house on 69th Street, because it appears they purchased the property.  In 1903 a summer estate was added to their holdings with the purchase of “the large stone mansion and 48 acres of land, known as ‘Westerly’ at Morristown, New Jersey, according to The New York Times.

Around this time a change was taking place in the mercantile industry.  Retailers more and more dealt directly with the manufacturers, making the middleman obsolete.    Many of the long-established wholesalers accepted the fact and closed their businesses.  “Other houses refused to recognize the trend of the times,” reported Moody’s Magazine.  “The largest of these houses was the H. B. Chaflin Company.”

John Chaflin attempted to adapt to the times by becoming both retailer and wholesaler.   Over a relatively short span of years he bought up 27 of the leading retail stores.   In 1901, with the financial aid of J. P. Mogran he organized the Associated Merchants’ Company, capitalized at $30 million.   The process of financing his organizations (what Moody’s called “pyramiding”) continued with the organization of the United Dry Goods Company, capitalized at $51 million.   Moody’s Magazine in 1914 reported that Claflin was “building up a paper structure which a storm must inevitably blow down.”

That year the company owed $30 million and when some of the creditors asked for cash rather than new promissory notes, a crisis hit H. B. Claflin Company.  The company failed.

John Claflin -- The New-York Tribune, June 26, 1914 (copyright expired)
John Claflin stepped down, retiring from business life.  Moody’s reported that “Mr. Claflin has announced that he will devote the great part of his personal fortune, estimated at $10,000,000, toward paying off the creditors of the H. B. Claflin Company dollar for dollar.”  The magazine had no sympathy for the man who had made his father’s company one of the largest in the world.  “If he had resisted the temptation of the stock market, the father of most of the ill-fated ‘trusts,’ he would probably be still in unquestioned possession of both his personal fortune and his former fame as a great merchant.”

The Claflins left No. 23 East 69th Street and John H. Prentice and his family moved in.

Prentice was a banker and stock broker, a member of Clark, Dodge & Co.   His family included his wife, the former Kate Harrison, a son, John, Jr., and daughters Caroline and Kate.   The socially-active couple hosted elegant entertainments in the house and John was a member of the exclusive Knickerbocker and Union Clubs, while Kate was a member of the Colony Club. 

But World War I would cast the shadow of despair on the house in 1918.  Five days before Christmas the New-York Tribune reported that Major John H. Prentice had been severely wounded.  The young soldier never recovered from his wounds.

Cheerfulness eventual returned to the house and in December 1921 young Kate was introduced to society.   Her parents hosted a dance at the Ritz-Carlton, preceded by a large dinner there.    Her sister, Caroline, was abroad that winter; and upon her return the entire family spent the summer at their Southampton estate.  That September her engagement to Frederick Cromwell, son of the President of the New York Stock Exchange was announced.

John Prentice died in 1925 and Kate Harrison Prentice lived on alone in the house.  As the 1920s progressed, tastes in architecture changed.   To update their outdated Queen Anne homes, several of the Prentice’s neighbors had the facades renovated.   No. 29, owned by Carl F. Boker, had already been remodeled in 1919 by architect S. Edson Gage in a neo-French Classic style.  Next door to the Prentice House, Edgar Bernard renovated No. 21 in the popular Georgian style.  No. 27 became Tudor in 1927 when Lucretia Strauss hired York & Sawyer to re-do it; and Mrs. Paul Pryibil followed suit in 1929 when she commissioned Noel & Miller to remake No. 25 in the Georgian mode.

Edgar Bernard renovated the once-similar No. 21 (left) to a restrained neo-Georgian home -- photo by Alice Lum
Kate Prentice left No. 23 just as it was originally designed; the only one of the row to wear its old clothes.  She continued to be noteworthy element in New York and Newport society.  The New York Times reported on the luncheon she gave at her Newport mansion on August 20, 1941, then four months later it printed her obituary.  On December 29, 1941, Kate Harrison Prentice died in the house at No. 23 East 69th Street at the age of 63.

Two years later a year-long renovation was begun to convert No. 23, like so many of the grand homes of the Upper East Side in the middle of the 20th Century, into apartments.    In the still-exclusive neighborhood the apartments were spacious—only one to a floor, and the exterior retained its single-family appearance.

Ooriginal details like the golden oak entrance doors (both inside and out) survive -- photo by Alice Lum
Today, along with the apartments, a fine arts gallery is housed here.  The original paneled oak entrance doors survive as does the quaint Queen Anne fa├žade—the sole remaining original of the five.


  1. You mentioned the house of Mrs. Paul Pryibil at 25 East 69th Street. I had assumed that Delano and Aldrich had handled the renovation. I guess I was wrong. Mrs. Pryibil, the former Helen Porter, was the daughter of William Porter, a JPMorgan partner. I believe that she shared #25 with her widowed mother. William Porter also had a large, shigle house in the Dutch Colonial style at Glen Cove, New York called Bogheid. In 1938, Helen Pryibil who had inherited Bogheid a year or so previously upon her mother's death,tore it down and hired Delano and Aldrich, to design what must be one of the last great houses constructed on Long Island's North Shore- a large, brick ,neo-federal style gem. With the Depression still in full force, taxes at confiscatory levels under FDR's "Soak the Rich" policies and the international situation deteriorating on a daily basis,I have often wondered about Helen Pryibil's almost singular faith in the future of great houses. If you're interested, has some great photos of Bogheid.

    1. I can always depend on your coming up with great side stories! thanks for this.