Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The 1924 neo-Federal Nos. 121-123 E. 65th Street

photo by Alice Lum
As the turn of the last century came and went, the brownstones built just after the Civil War that lined the blocks off Central Park were demolished or remodeled as wealthy New Yorkers updated and upgraded the neighborhood.   Two such prim rowhouses, Nos. 121 and 123, had been erected in 1869 as part of a string of thirteen matching residences.

Although the homes were clearly out of date, the block retained its exclusive character.  In 1918 The Sun mentioned that “Mr. and Mrs. Arthur W. Rossiter, who have been passing the summer in Glen Cove, L.I., will be for the Winter at 121 East Sixty-fifth street.”   The Rossiters leased the home from attorney David Funk.

Two years later, in March 1920, Charles H. Sabin purchased the house at No. 121 from Funk’s estate, completing his quiet accumulation of connected properties.  Sabin was the president of the Guaranty Trust Company and lived with his wife nearby at No. 14 East 62nd Street.   His latest purchase now provided him with the two houses at Nos. 121 and 123 East 65th Street, and two directly behind them at Nos. 118 and 120 East 66th Street.   The New-York Tribune said Sabin “intends to erect a fine residence for himself;” plans that included a 40-foot wide residence on 65th Street and “access to the garage, to be on the Sixty-sixth Street end of the plot.”  The wealthy banker paid cash for the four properties.

A month later the houses were being emptied.  The Tribune reported that “paintings, furniture, art objects, and Persian and Chinese rugs” from the house at No. 121 were being sold at auction.

Months passed, however, and the four old back-to-back brownstones remained. 

For unexplained reasons, Sabin and his wife changed their minds about an opulent block-through residence and on October 20, 1921 the New-York Tribune announced that Colonel William Barclay Parsons had purchased the two 65th Street houses from the Sabins.  “The alterations Colonel Parsons plans practically mean the rebuilding of the houses,” said the newspaper.

The two 1869 brownstone residences as they looked when Parsons purchased them -- New-York Tribune, October 30, 1921 (copyright expired)
William Barclay Parsons had acquired his “Colonel” appellation during World War I when he commanded a regiment of engineers that saw action in France.  But his reputation came from his domestic engineering accomplishments.   A well-regarded railroad engineer, he was appointed by the New York City Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners in 1891 to help design an underground railway.  After several setbacks, he saw the completion of the first sections of the New York Subway system, before he retired from the post of Chief Engineer in 1904.   His accomplishment did not escape even himself.  He said years later “For a subway of this character and in the rock and fine sand, there were no precedents.”

He would also be responsible for the Hudson River tubes, the Cape Cod Canal and was a member of the engineering team in charge of building the Panama Canal.  The New York Times would call him a “militant genius of the city age.”

Unlike the Sabins, Parsons wasted no time in setting to work on his new home.  The Tribune’s assessment that the renovation would mean practically rebuilding the houses was an understatement.  The engineer called upon architect William Welles Bosworth to transform the two old homes.   The architect had recently completed a major commission—the designing of the new campus for MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Unlike his campus buildings--classical, columned buildings appropriate to an academic environment--Bosworth would turn to neo-Federal architecture for the Parsons house.   The clean, formal lines of the period had been popular with Manhattan’s millionaires for over a decade; replacing the gushing, overly-ornamented styles of the Gilded Age.

Assisted in the project by architect E. E. Piderson, Bosworth sat three floors of Flemish-bond brick on a stone base.  Burned header bricks gave the appearance of age.  The entrance, at the left end of the structure, was framed by two Ionic columns and was balanced by a service entrance at the opposite end. 

The entrance was clearly distinguished from the service entrance on the opposite end of the residence by a restrained portico -- photo by Alice Lum
Openings on the upper three floors grew successively shorter, maintaining the visual proportions of the exceptionally wide house.  Paneled lintels, a stone course below the top floor, and a handsome stone balustrade along the roof line added to the dignity of the design.  Inside, at least one period pine-paneled room taken from a colonial home in Massachusetts was installed, carrying on the early American motif.

Apparently the Parsons moved into the house as construction continued.  On February 10, 1921, The New York Times reported that Parsons, “of 121 East Sixty-fifth Street has gone to Yucatan.”  The house was officially completed on February 21, 1924.

photo by Alice Lum
Parsons and his wife, the former Anna Reed, spent their summers in their New Jersey estate, Crossways, or traveled abroad.  For years when they returned to the city they would live at the Savoy-Plaza while they waited for the 65th Street house to be reopened.

Parsons continued on with engineering projects.  He became one of the three advisers to the Royal Commission on London traffic, was appointed by President Roosevelt to the Isthmian Canal Commission and was chairman of the Chicago Transit Commission.  In the meantime, Anna Parsons worked for her favorite charities, serving as chairman of the Woman’s Auxiliary of the New York Lying-In Hospital, and establishing a visiting nurse service in the city.

William Barclay Parsons -- photo Library of Congress
Parsons died on May 9, 1932.  Among his many accomplishments, his obituary in The New York Times said “But he will be chiefly remembered as the valiant engineer—an underground builder of ‘towered cities,’ where civilization, as he once said, rests on engineering.”

Anna Reed Parsons retained possession of the house; but possibly she was emotionally unable to stay in the home she built with her husband.  In November she leased it to Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Auchincloss; The Times noting that “There is a garden in the rear of the house.”

An attorney, Auchincloss gained distinction through his marriage in 1912 to Janet House, the daughter of Colonel Edward Mandell House, a close friend and advisor of President Woodrow Wilson.   Through his father-in-law, House had been introduced to the President and other administration big-wigs.  House took him on as his secretary during the Armistice negotiations and the Paris Peace Conference.

Now back in New York, Auchincloss had resumed his law practice, but remained involved in Democratic Party politics.  The couple was highly visible in New York society.

Gordon Auchincloss died in 1943.  A year later Anna Parsons sold the 65th Street house; assessed at the time at $100,000—just around $1 million today.

Over half a century later, the wide Federal-style home of William Barclay Parsons remains a private residence.   Little has changed in the dignified fa├žade; a quiet reminder of the short, contented period between a World War and a Great Depression.

Thanks to reader zcapresso for requesting this post


  1. Kudos to the current owners who maintain the house to meticulous standards- down to the exterior shutters which do so much to add charm, scale and interest to the facade and which a different owner might have abandoned as costly and unnecessary.

  2. Additional information came from Zenith Capresso:

    After the Parsons sold it, Purl and Dr. Orrin Wightman moved in with their daughter Julia. Orrin Wightman was a prominent physician. Purl Wightman was an heiress to Liggett & Myers tobacco. After the Wightmans' deaths, Julia Wightman continued to own it until her death in 1994 in her 80s. She never married and collected rare miniature books and bindings.

    Philippe Dauman, the CEO of Viacom, has owned it since the mid 90s.