Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Extreme Makeover of No. 6 East 69th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1880 East 69th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue was still mostly undeveloped.  The situation would not last long and the blocks below 69th Street were filling as homeowners, now recovering from the 1873 financial depression, ventured northward along Central Park.  

Little by little, starting with three speculative rowhouses at Nos. 16 through 20, residences sprouted up on 69th Street.  The first three houses, erected by architect and developer Charles Buek in 1880-81, would be joined in 1884 by the residence of silk merchant August Richard.  By 1887 the block caught the eye of George J. McGourkey.

Born in Albany, McGourkey had come to New York at the age of 18, entering a Wall Street brokerage office.   His fortune grew as he became both a banker, affiliated with the Metropolitan Bank, and an attorney, representing several railroads.    Now, aged 50, with the Metropolitan Bank having closed in 1884, he busied himself mostly with closing up its affairs.

McGourkey purchased the building lot at No. 6 East 69th Street and commissioned 32-year old John H. Duncan to design his new townhouse.   McGourkey’s choice was adventurous—the young architect who would later become well known for designing Grant’s Tomb and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza was still relatively unknown.

The four-story house, completed in 1888, was an understated expression of the McGourkey family’s social and financial status.  The limestone base and English basement was sparsely decorated with carved festoons over the entrance and parlor window.   A charming stone Juliette balcony at the second floor was accessed by a door from the stairway hall.  Duncan alternated bands of limestone with the reddish-brown brick at this level, subtly blending the white base into the brown upper stories.   The third floor windows were framed in delicate terra cotta; while the small arched windows and engaged columns of the fourth floor gave a nod to the popular Romanesque Revival style.

The first and second floors bowed gently outward.  In 1889 the lot next door was still undeveloped -- The American Architect and Building News August 24, 1889 (copyright expired)
McGourkey’s family included three children and his wife, the former Charlotte J. Down, daughter of Samuel Down who founded the American Motor Company.  As was often the case with upper class properties, the title to the house was listed in Charlotte’s name.

The year that the McGourkeys moved in, George was elected President of the American Meter Company.   The firm manufactured “all articles appertaining to the manufacture, testing and distribution of gas,” according to its advertisements.    These included wet gas meters, dry gas meters, meter provers and portable test meters.

Unfortunately, McGourkey would not enjoy his new position nor his new home for long.  In 1891 he retired due to failing health.  A year later, in December 1892 he died in the house on East 69th Street.

Charlotte McGourkey lived on in the house with her three children.  Young Samuel D. McGourkey went on to become a partner in Pritchard & McGourkey, grain merchants, with an office at 435 Produce Exchange.  Unmarried, he remained in the house with his mother as his career and fortune grew.  By 1911 he was a member of the esteemed St. Nicholas, New York Athletic, and Canoe Clubs.

After three decades in the house at No. 6 East 69th Street, Charlotte McGourkey died.   Samuel sold the house in February 1920 for $135,000—a little over $1 million today. 

The buyer was Thomas M. Peters, a bachelor who had graduated from Yale University in 1912 and served in Squadron A during the war.  The successful Peters was a member of the Yale, University, Downtown and City Clubs and owned a cattle ranch near Tucson, Arizona.

In June 1926 his engagement to Marion Hood Post was announced, deemed by The New York Times to be “of wide interest in society.”  Marion was the granddaughter of the late George B. Post, one of the preeminent architects of his day and of the late General John Bell Hood of the Confederate Army.  Her uncle was architect George B. Post, Jr.

Following their marriage on July 10 that year, the newlyweds returned to No. 6 East 69th Street, one of New York’s most enviable addresses.  The block which had been empty lots in 1880 was now shoulder-to-shoulder upscale homes of millionaires.  The problem was not the address—it was the house.

The eclectic architecture of 1888 was most definitely passé in the Jazz Age.  Along the block owners called in architects to renovate their Victorian homes into modern, fashionable dwellings.  In 1928 Edwin C. Jameson’s house, one of the original three on the block, was updated.  A year later No. 16, owned by Edwin Jameson, was given a Georgian façade by architect A. Wallace McCrea.

In 1936 Thomas Peters joined the trend.  He hired his wife’s uncle to remodel both the interior and exterior of the house.   Whether the resulting transformation was a good idea is arguable.

The now flat-faced building was remarkably unexceptional architecturally.  All traces of John Duncan’s design were obliterated as the entrance with a pseudo-Federal doorway was removed to the basement, a few steps below street level.   George Post clad the house in variegated Flemish-bond brick broken by two thin limestone bandcourses.  Among the interior upgrades was an elevator.

The main entrance makes an errant stab at appearing Colonial -- photo by Alice Lum
Immediately after the renovations were completed Peters put the house on the market.  The buyer bought into an exclusive block—next door lived Ogden Mills and other neighbors included Walter J. Salmon, Edwin J. Jameson, Frederick B. Adams and Edith van Gerbig.   On March 8, 1937 The New York Times announced the sale, for cash.

Little has changed to No. 6 East 69th Street since then.   A few of the surrounding mansions were razed to make way for modern apartment buildings; but the block looks much as it did just after Thomas Peters and some of his neighbors decided to update their Victorian residences.


  1. I am a LEGO enthusiast and your site is full of inspirational architecture! Thank you.

  2. Just curious -- why does the caption under the historical photo say 8 East 86th Street?

    1. Ok. Your eyes are WAY better than mine, because I even used a magnifying glass and it still looks like 6 East 86th Street to me. But, if indeed it says "8" that is simply a misprint.

    2. The photo you featured is available online through St. Croix Architecture, which sells architectural prints. They have a blown up version of the address on their website, and it's definitely an 8. But I guess what I was really getting at is that it says "86th Street." Isn't your post about a house on 69th Street?

    3. Oh, right. I see that now. Got me. The house, the date, the owner, and the architect are all correct. But the address is without a doubt wrong. Go figure. I have no explanation for that one.

    4. A late-19th century typesetter asleep at the switch, I suppose. Well, in any event, that was a great post, and I love that house (as it originally appeared, that is). It looks like the brick may have been Roman brick, which, especially when combined with limestone, gets me every time.