Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The 1930 Perera House -- No. 49 E. 80th Street

At first glance the house might seem rather ordinary.  A closer look reveals an Art Deco rarity -- photo by Alice Lum
The Great Depression did not totally put an end to the erection of private mansions in Manhattan; but it certainly slowed things down.   Another factor contributing to the decrease in large home construction was the increasing popularity of “swell” modern apartment houses—free of the bother and cost of maintaining private mansions.  In 1930 only four Manhattan townhouses were built; but one of them would be like no other.  

Born in Venice in 1873, Lionello Perera immigrated to New York at the age of 21.   Two years later, in 1896, the ambitious young man established the private banking firm of Lionello Perera & Co., by taking over the business of his uncle, Salvatore Cantoni.   Cantoni & Co. had been in business since 1862.

Perera became one of the leading Italian bankers in the city.  He married Carolyn Allen and during the first world war, the couple worked tirelessly.  They helped establish the Italian Division of the American Red Cross and Lionello served as chairman of the Italian section of the foreign division of the Liberty Loan drives.

By 1929 his bank had merged with the Bank of America  and earned a seat on the board.  Now nearing retirement, as other Manhattan millionaires were having second thoughts about building new homes, Perera instead made plans.   He demolished the house of the socially-prominent William Adams Brown family at No. 49 East 80th Street and commissioned Harry Allan Jacobs to design an up-to-the-minute townhouse.

Despite the Depression, New York was smack in the middle of the Jazz Age, echoed by the geometric lines of the Art Deco style.  The face of Manhattan was being transformed with the sleek buildings of Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, and swanky Park Avenue apartment buildings.  Jacobs turned to the cutting edge style for the Perera house.

Completed in 1930 and perhaps the only Art Deco private residence in Manhattan, Lionello and Carolyn Perera’s house was like no other.  The architect told a reporter for The New York Times that the house reflected “a modernistic spirit in decorations as well as in materials, as representative of this materialistic, artificial and practical age.”

A stylish carved frieze in a sort of sea wave pattern separated the ground and second floors and would be more expected on a Madison Avenue office building.   An Art Deco grill protected the entrance door.  Jacobs relieved the otherwise severe rough-brick façade with creative brickwork—a band of sawtooth bricks sandwiched between terra cotta, and a zig-zagged cornice created entirely of brick.

photo by Alice Lum
Jacobs designed the interior appointments as well.  Lighting sconces and chandeliers took the forms of shells, geometric shapes and scrolls.   Stark black and white marble floors were laid in a checkerboard pattern.

The Pereras had five children, but already they were preparing to move on.  A year after their moving in, son Dr. Charles Allen Perera married Ruth Hoopes Brinton; and in 1933 the entire city took notice when a double wedding took place in the house.

On October 14 Lionello Jr. married Dorothy Fern Bittel, and daughter Nina married Charles Wood Collier. The brides wore near-matching gowns in the widely-publicized ceremony.   The Pereras hosted a wedding breakfast in the house immediately afterward.

Lionello Perera had retired in 1932 and he and Carolyn threw themselves into their charity and social works.   Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed Lionello to the Child Welfare Board of New York, and he became vice president of the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce.   Carolyn founded the Italian Welfare League in New York, was the head of the Henry Street Settlement Music School and with her husband helped to found the East Harlem Health Center.  Her love of music led her to help found the Toscanini Memorial Archives; and she sat on the board of the Marlboro Music School.

The social entertainments held in the 80th Street house were most often connected with one of the charities.  Carolyn hosed a reception, for instance, on November 16, 1934 for the benefit of the Italian Welfare League; on April 1, 1940 she held a musicale in the house to provide scholarships for war refugees; and on March 14, 1942 she gave a tea for the Henry Street Settlement.

A month after that tea Lionello Perera was traveling on the Congressional Limited train to Pennsylvania Station when he suffered a heart attack.    The 69-year old millionaire was treated at the station when the train arrived at 8:10 p.m.; but he died thirty minutes later.

By January of the following year Carolyn Perera had returned to her routine of charity entertainments, hosting a meeting a tea for the benefit of the Grenfell Association of America.  Shortly thereafter, however, she moved to No. 51 East 91st Street, selling the house to Walter Edward Sachs.

Sachs was the grandson of Marcus Goldman who founded Goldman, Sachs & Company in 1869.   He was initially dissuaded from entering the family business because his two older brothers were already partners.  Walter’s parents set him on the career path of an attorney.  He attended Harvard Law School with what The New York Times called “disappointing results” and in 1905 he went to work at Goldman, Sachs.  Perhaps surprisingly to his family his financial skills, unlike his legal talents were exceptional.  He was credited with playing a leading role in bringing the firm through the stock market crash and making it one of the foremost investment banking houses in the world.  He would later be one of the first financiers to make an extended visit to the Soviet Union.

Walter and Mary Sachs’s second child, Philip Williamson Sachs, was born in 1949 and the couple's life seemed outwardly quite happy.  Like the Pereras, they were highly involved with social and charitable causes and Sachs was a participant in the development of the N.A.A.C.P.

What seemed a contented marriage ended in 1961 with Mary staying on in the 80th Street house for a time.

In the meantime, a young girl from Brooklyn was making a name for herself on Broadway.  Barbara John Streisand, who changed her name to Barbra, had appeared on stage and in television but it was not until 1962 that her fame began to skyrocket.  That year she first appeared on Broadway in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, she appeared on The Tonight Show and her first album, The Barbra Streisand Album, won two Grammy Awards in 1963.

By 1969 she was a major star.  But she could not rent an apartment in Manhattan.  She was not only an actress, she was Jewish.

“I have been looking for an apartment in New York City for some three years,” she told The New York Times in December 1969.  “Immediately agents eliminated specific buildings from my consideration, presumably because of my religious background or occupation.”  When she presented a letter on her behalf from Governor Rockefeller to the board of No. 1021 Park Avenue, she was still rejected.  The lease on the 20-room apartment was $240,000.  Mrs. Thomas A. Halleran, the wife of one of the building’s directors said that Streisand was turned down because she was “a flamboyant type.”

Finally the actress and singer gave up.  She purchased the house at No. 49 East 80th Street for $420,000.  “This house represents a compromise for me,” she told reporters, “I’ve never wanted to live in a house.  But I’m going ahead with it anyway.”

Streisand filled the house with her cranberry glass collection, decorated the room of her 3-year old son Jason, with a vintage ice cream parlor bar, gum machine and penny candy and spool cabinet.  She replaced the windows of his playroom with the leaded glass panels from a Victorian gazebo that she purchased from the set of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”

Architectural purists no doubt cringed when The New York Times reported that she intended to paint the walnut paneling in the library red.  “The wood is ugly.  It should be lacquered a rose color.  No, we don’t have to remove the paneling, just paint over it.”

Streisand considered using the entrance door grill as inspiration for the garage door -- photo by Alice Lum

Streisand brought in the aging artist Erte to consider designs for the dining room (he suggested a painted wall to fill a framed recess) and, possibly, the new “service entrance” she planned for the first floor.  Working with architect Ira Goldfarb on that renovation, she had not yet decided whether to repeat the Art Deco grill of the entrance, or have Erte design something.

In the end the garage door was just a garage door.

Barbra Streisand sold the house just a few months later, moving her eclectic collection of Art Nouveau furniture, German Expressionist art, and early 20th century glass to California.  The house remains a private home; one of the least noticed but most unique in the city.


  1. Was there an alteration of the top floor facade? It feels somehow incomplete.

  2. I think that appearance is simply the photo angle ... there is a set-back.

  3. There is a lovely, shallow porch atop that setback. It overlooks East 80th Street and is a great place to read the paper and enjoy morning tea.