Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The 1868 Charles Francis House -- No. 33 W 47th St

Two brownstones still flank the house shortly after Burton Castles transformed it.  The residence at left is still unaltered, while the neighbor to the right has been renovated for commercial purposes. -- photo NYPL Collection
In the last quarter of the 19th century respectable brownstone houses lined the blocks of 47th Street just off 5th Avenue.    They reflected the reserved architectural character—later termed dreary—of their more sumptuous 5th Avenue neighbors.  New York’s wealthiest citizens settled in the area.  Industrial titan Jay Gould and his family would live at the corner of 5th Avenue and 47th Street, just one half block away from No. 33 West 47th.

The brownstone rowhouse at No. 33 was built in 1868 for dentist Charles E. Francis.  Restrictions on the block required that all buildings be set back nine feet from the property line; giving the neighborhood a spacious, non-claustrophobic feeling.  Although Francis and his family were obviously well-off enough to afford a fine home in the most exclusive neighborhood of Manhattan, he took in boarders.   William Carr listed his address here in 1875 and James B. Day was here in 1891.    Like Francis, they practiced dentistry and it is possible that the established doctor helped young dentists just starting out with a place to stay.

A few blocks to the south, at No. 17 East 38th Street lived Dr. William Benjamin Wood, his wife Frances, and their infant son, Eric Fisher Wood, born in 1889.  Both Dr. Wood and his wife were well regarded in the community.  He was a member of the University Club, the Lotus Club, the Williams Club of New York and the Society of Colonial Wars.  His well-educated wife, Frances Fisher Wood, had graduated from Vassar College, founded the Hathaway Brown School for Girls in Cleveland, and was a founder and one of the original trustees of Barnard College.

By the turn of the century the family moved into the former Francis house at No. 33 West 47th Street with a staff of four, including a Japanese butler, Hiroishi Sakamine.  It may be assumed that it was the butler who influenced Frances Wood’s interest in Japanese color prints; but within the next decade she would become a noted collector of the artwork.

As World War I raged in Europe, son Eric was in France.  Having been educated in private schools, then earning his PhD in civil engineering from Yale and doing post-graduate work in architecture at Columbia University, he was studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris when the war erupted.   Eric Wood volunteered as an attaché in the American Embassy; then joined the American Ambulance Corps.  In 1915 he published his journal in book form as “The Note-book of an Attache: Seven Months in the War Zone.”

Eric Wood would go on to an amazing and far-reaching career and life.   On April 20, 1918 he married the Baroness Vera du Ropp.  He would go on to write several books, retire with the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, earn the Legion of Honor from the French Government, co-design the President Warren Harding Tomb in Ohio, help found the American Legion in 1919 and conduct a highly successful career as a civil engineer.

A year before their son’s wedding, the Woods sold No. 33 West 47th Street for $60,000, a full $10,000 below the assessed value.  In 1917 private homes in the area were becoming less desirable as the wealthy residents moved northward away from the encroaching hotels and shops.  The Sun noted on October 16 of that year that the four-story brownstone house was purchased “for investment.”  The remark hinted that the new owners  intended to renovate the house as commercial space.

Two years later in March 1919 the house was resold to real estate operators Foot and Martin.  Simultaneously the old restriction to set buildings back nine feet from the property line was raised.  The New York Tribune mused on the sale.  "The purchase is the first that has been made since the restriction has been changed, and is believed to be a forerunner of much activity in this section, now that property in it can be more profitably used for trade.  It is believed that the site...will be improved in the near future."

The side was to be improved, but not for trade—at least not yet.  Not all the millionaires had left the 5th Avenue neighborhood and there were still those who lusted after the once-exclusive address.  Among these was the somewhat flamboyant Burton S. Castles who would make No. 33 West 47th Street his home.

Castles had made his fortune in a variety of ways—he was a real estate investor and Wall Street speculator.   Born in Texas, his flashy lifestyle and demeanor earned him the nickname “the Beau Brummel of Wall Street.” 

Middle-aged persons and buildings sometimes feel a professional make-over is necessary and such was the case with No. 33 West 47th Street.  The dour brownstone architecture of the post-Civil War era had long been out of style and along Riverside Drive and upper 5th Avenue more ebullient styles were appearing.  Among these was the French Renaissance architecture seen in the Riverside Drive mansions of Morris Schinasi and Charles M. Schwab. 

Burton Castles immediately commissioned architect Charles E. Birge to remodel the Wood House.  Birge transformed the dark façade into a gleaming limestone showplace.  The house was now accessed through the American basement, slightly below street level.  French doors decorated with a delicate Francis I surround opened onto a Juliette balcony with an ornate iron railing at the fourth floor.  Above it all a highly-carved leafy stone balustrade capped the structure.

photo by Alice Lum
The bachelor Castles moved in with his Pekingese, Sammie, his butler and two housekeepers.   He filled No. 33 with his extensive collection of masterworks, antique silver and furniture, and Asian art.    Upon his death in 1936 the Anderson Galleries held an important auction of his extensive collection, the catalogue of which filled 78 pages.

The old houses of West 47th Street fell one-by-one until in 1988 only No. 33 was left standing.  The first two floors had, by now, been obliterated; built out to the sidewalk with a garish commercial addition.  A store sat at street level, a restaurant took the second floor and a jewelry manufacturing firm was on the third.  The top floors sat vacant.

In 2012 scaffolding partially obscures the altered lower floors while the upper section, including the leaded casement doors, survives -- photo by Alice Lum
Two decades later not much has changed.  The handsome French Renaissance façade that Burton Castles applied to the old brownstone is untouched above the second floor.   Squeezed in between soaring commercial buildings, the old house survives as nearly the last remnant on the block of an elegant time when Japanese prints and Corot oil paintings graced the walls within.

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