Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The J. P. Warburg House -- Nos. 34-36 E. 70th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Mrs. Arthur A. MacGregor received a startling telephone call on September 15, 1912.   Her 18-year old daughter, Grace, had phoned to let her mother know she had married Robert B. Dula.  The pair had met at a dance in Garden City, New Jersey, where the girl and her mother were spending the summer.  Despite Dula’s social position (his father was the former Vice President of the American Tobacco Company), Mrs. MacGregor was against the romance “because of her youth,” reported The New York Times.

If Mrs. MacGregor had once had plans for a society wedding breakfast or reception in her East 70th Street home, they were dashed.

The MacGregor home at No. 34 East 70th Street had been built three decades earlier by speculative developers Charles Graham & Sons.   One of a row of nearly identical homes, its brownstone façade and high stoop were decidedly out of date.   In 1924 James P. Warburg would do something about that.

The German-born banker was a member of the powerful Warburg family and son of Paul Warburg, known as the Father of the Federal Reserve System.   He served in World War I in the Navy Flying Corps.  On June 1, 1918, while still serving as an ensign in the aviation section of the Naval Reserve, he married the popular musician and composer Katherine Swift, who went by the name Kay.  The wedding took place in her mother’s home.

By now he was Vice President of the International Acceptance Bank.

Like many of the 19th century residences in the area, the Warburgs had No. 34 updated—removing the stoop and stripping the Victorian trappings from the façade.  In the meantime, the high-end neighborhood continued to fill with wealthy residents.  Next door at No. 36 lived Dr. and Mrs. Henry James and their four small sons, Henry, Morgan, Beverly and Willis.

James Warburg’s far flung talents went far beyond banking and aviation.  In 1929 he wrote the lyrics to his wife’s hit song “Can’t We Be Friends?,” using the pseudonym Paul James.   It was sung in the “Little Show” by Libby Holman and was just one of the couple’s collaborations.   The following year they wrote the Broadway musical Fine and Dandy.  

In addition, Warburg wrote several books devoted to monetary matters.

The same year that Warburg and Kay wrote “Can’t We Be Friends?” he purchased the house next door at No. 36 from Francis R. Appleton.   Architect William Lawrence Bottomley redesigned the two houses as one.  In 1930 the Department of Buildings documented the completion of a “one-family house” with a two-car garage in the basement.

The Warburgs' houses once matched the last-surviving brownstone of the row, next door -- photo by Alice Lum
The reconfigured residence featured a rusticated limestone base and two balconies that stretched with width of the structure at the second and third floors.  Near-random limestone blocks punctuated the stuccoed facade, and a pleasing Florentine arcade distinguished the top story.

photo by Alice Lum
In 1931 there was a rash of burglary attempts in the neighborhood and at around 7:00 on the morning of June 18, 1931 a maid heard the sound of glass breaking on the second floor where Kay Warburg was asleep.  When she heard nothing further, she ignored it.   Later, when she was serving breakfast to Kay in her bedroom at around 8:45, she found broken glass on the floor by a balcony window.   The broken pane was nearest to the window latch.

Detectives were called and nothing was found missing.  The Times reported that “it was believed that the thieves had taken fright at something in the street and had fled.”  Kay immediately retained a special watchman.

The low stone base and stuccoed upper facade made the double-wide house unique among its neighbors -- photo by Alice Lum
Later that year, in August, the wedding of Lucy Faulkner, Kay’s cousin, took place in the house.  In 1933 anther small ceremony and a reception were held here when Ruth Dean Cowles and Franklin Field were married.  Field worked with James Warburg at the Bank of Manhattan Company as Assistant Secretary.

With the coming of the Great Depression, Warburg was appointed financial adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Under-Secretary of the Treasury.   In 1933 he attended the World Economic Conference in London as the monetary adviser to the American delegation.  He was now Vice Chairman of the Board at the Bank of the Manhattan Company.

photo by Alice Lum
The following year would be a dark one for James P. Warburg.  Opposing certain of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, he left his post in 1934.  In the meantime, things were not going so well at home, either.

Warburg’s long absences from New York no doubt helped fuel a long-existing involvement between Kay and George Gershwin.  On November 6, 1934 The New York Times reported that “Mrs. James Paul Warburg has arrived in Reno to establish residence and sue for divorce, it became known here yesterday.”

A month later, on December 20, the divorce was granted.  The Times noted “The charge was cruelty.” 

The following year Warburg married Phyllis Baldwin.  Although the Warburg and his three daughters  continued to live on at No. 34 with the new Mrs. Warburg, the two houses were separated in 1935.  The Department of Buildings noted that in 1941 there were now one apartments, one per floor in both addresses.

photo by Alice Lum
On April 24, 1942 the Warburg house was the scene of yet another small wedding; this time that of daughter Andrea Swift Warburg to Justin N. Feldman.  The New York Times mentioned that “The bride and bridegroom dispensed with attendants” and made a special note that Andrew wore “beige crepe.”

The year after Warburg announced the engagement of his daughter, Kay, in 1947, he remarried yet again; this time to Joan Melber.  

In 1953 the two houses were joined again in a renovation that resulted in two apartments per floor.  Today the remarkable building survives with its back-and-forth history as two, then one, then two, then one structure.  A Warburg still resides in the upper apartments.  The eccentric façade contributes to the grab-bag of architecture along the block.


  1. Oddly has the look of a pleasant tenement or small commercial structure rather than an upper East Side mansion.

  2. Interesting though filled with errors. The Warburg family still owns this building and never "left," though it ceased being a primary residence around 1950. If your photographer had looked at the doorbells, she would have noted that the top floor of the two buildings is one apartment still occupied by J. Warburg, the widow of James P. Warburg.

    1. Thanks for the clarification. I corrected that line. Are there more details that should be rectified (you said "filled with errors)? If so drop me an email and I'll get on that. Ms. Lum rarely examines doorbells. I'll pass on your suggestion, however.

  3. It is widely reported that J.Paul l Warburg said, on the Senate floor, "We shall have world government whether you like it or not". Was he a Senator at one time or just allowed to speak as a visitor?

    1. He said that testifying before a Senate Committee. He was not a senator.