Friday, March 15, 2013

The 1893 Alexander House - No. 4 E. 64th Street

photo by Alice Lum

Among the wealthy New Yorkers who settled on the east side of Central Park in the last decade of the 19th century was attorney and Vice-President of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, James Waddel Alexander.  The son of one of the country’s foremost preachers and religious writers, Alexander had been home-educated before going on to Princeton College—the third generation of the family to attend the school.

By now he was also a Director of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company; the Mercantile Trust Company; and the Western National Bank.  Highly successful and equally rich, he was a member of New York’s most prestigious clubs:  The Century, University, Metropolitan Athletic, Lawyers’ and Princeton Clubs.

In 1893 Alexander and his wife, the former Elizabeth Beasley, moved into their newly-completed mansion at No. 4 East 64th Street, just steps from Fifth Avenue and Central Park.  The millionaire had commissioned eminent architect R. H. Robertson to design the new home.   Although he was best known for his own take on the Romanesque Revival style, with chunky blocks of rough-cut stone and heavy arches, for the Alexander mansion he turned to neo-French Classic.

Unlike many of the high-end residences rising along the blocks off Fifth Avenue—Beaux Arts confections with bowed bays and mansard roofs—the Alexander house was nearly-severe with its angles and sharp corners.  Robertson softened the design with carved swags and foliate panels and placed an eye-pleasing loggia with engaged columns and arched windows at the fourth floor.  The fifth story was set back, nearly invisible from street level, to maintain the proportions of the building.
photo by Alice Lum
Of the three Alexander children only the youngest, Frederick Beasley Alexander was still at home.   By around 1898 he would carry on the family tradition by going off to Princeton.    

That same year James Alexander's son-in-law, the prominent artist John White Alexander, would arrive in New York on the steamship St. Louis from his home in France.   The artist was a guest in the house on East 64th Street during his stay of several months while he staged an exhibition of his work in Philadelphia, executed several oil portraits, and supervised the placing of his murals in the Congressional Library.

By the time John Alexander visited the house, the neighborhood was fully developed.  Next door, stretching to the corner of Fifth Avenue, was the massive Edward Berwind mansion, completed in 1896.  A service alley separated the two houses, providing unusual light and ventilation to both homes.
James Waddell Alexander in 1904 -- "Prominent and Progressive Americans" (copyright expired)

By the turn of the century the widowed James Alexander was President of Equitable Life, but his health was failing.    By 1905 he stepped down from his post at Equitable and that summer was admitted to a sanitarium in Deerfield, Massachusetts. 

In February 1906 he was returned to New York and a partial operation ensued.  On February 17 the Omaha Daily Bee noted that “Mr. Alexander has been suffering for some time with a chronic affection of the kidneys.  An operation had been necessary for a long time, but owing to Mr. Alexander’s physical condition, resulting from his long illness, it was postponed as long as possible.

“The doctors, however, did not think he was strong enough to stand the shock that a prolonged operation would imply, and it was thought better to divide the surgical work in half and put off its completion for several days.”

On February 22 the second half of the operation was completed and Alexander returned to East 64th Street to recover.   Son Henry told reporters “I am glad to say that the doctors say that my father’s condition is as satisfactory as it possibly can be, considering his weak state of health and the severe shock the operation has given his system.”

The recuperating Alexander soon left the house for Europe “to regain his health,” as reported in The New York Times.   The mansion sat empty for two and a half years while he traveled to Greece, Egypt, Indian, China and Japan, and a score of other places.  Upon his return he moved into the home of his son, Henry Martyn Alexander and put the 64th Street residence on the market.

On December 17, 1909 the New York Times reported that he “has sold his home at 4 East Sixty-fourth Street for a reported price of $400,000.”  The Sun, on the same day, gave a hint of the exclusive neighborhood.  “Diagonally opposite is the George Crocker mansion…Nearby on Fifth avenue are the homes of Frank J. Gould, George J. Gould and Clifford V. Brokaw.”

The buyer was 55-year old General Howard Carroll.  He had distinguished himself as Inspector-General of the New York State troops during the Spanish-American War and had been Washington correspondent and special writer for The New York Times.  He was a personal friend of President Chester A. Arthur and had gently refused appointment as the president's personal secretary and as American Minister to Belgium.

The multi-talented general was also an author, playwright and producer and his comedy “The American Countess” enjoyed a run of about 200 performances.  He also wrote “A Mississippi Incident,” and “Twelve Americans; Their Lives and Times.”  In addition, he was the principal owner of the Sicilian Asphalt Paving Company and President of the Boston Asphalt Company.

General Carroll and his wife, the former Caroline Starin, moved in with their daughter Caramai, and two sons, Arthur and Lauren.   When the family was not in the 64th Street house, they spent time at their summer estate “Carroll Cliff” in Tarrytown, New York.

Caroline Carroll entertained lavishly and just two years after moving in she would be busy hosting receptions in the house for the debut of her daughter.  But it was her dinner parties for which she was most noted.

On January 11, 1913 she gave a dinner for thirty and The New York Times noted that “The Symphony Orchestra played during the dinner, and after coffee was served a Hungarian orchestra played for dancing.”  The article added that “Mrs. Carroll will entertain on Tuesday evening with a dance for young people.”

That entertainment for “young people” included dinner for eighty followed by dancing in the ballroom.  The distinguished guest list that night included names like Gould, Phillips, Hamilton, Duke and Livingston.

Caroline was apparently fond of entertaining the younger crowd and did so often.  On February 25, 1914, The Sun reported that the General and his wife gave a dinner at their home for Caramai, “afterward taking their guests, all young people, to the Globe Theatre to see ‘The Queen of the Movies.’  While dinner was being served a band of Neapolitans played and sang.”

The following summer General Carroll splurged on an unusual purchase.  He spent $100,000--over $1 million today--on his own private island.   On June 18, 1915 The Times reported that he bought “Glen Island and its adjacent island with all of the buildings and real property on them at a foreclosure sale.”  The newspaper added “What disposition General Howard will make of the islands has not been made public.”

The fifth floor sits back, hiding behind the especially-handsome level below -- photo by Alice Lum

The Carroll’s son, Lauren, married in August 1916 and on December 7 the general and his wife gave a theater party, followed by supper and a dance at the house for the newlyweds.  It would be one of the last entertainments General Carroll would enjoy in his home.

On December 29 he went to bed, not feeling well.  The following morning around 8:00 he died of arteriosclerosis, surrounded by his family.  Caroline inherited the entire estate, which amounted to $346,268.  She would stay on in the house for a little over three more years.

In the summer of 1920 it became home to Edwin Drexel Godfrey and his wife, Fanny.  The couple was socially active and maintained a country home in Rumson, New Jersey as well as a “camp” in the Adirondacks.

By the 1930s, however, many of the large private homes of the Upper East Side were being converted to apartments.   The cost and bother of maintaining the mansions caused many to prefer the convenience of apartments.  In 1936 it appears that neighbor Edward Berwind joined No. 4 with No. 8 internally.

Margaret Merrill had a “town apartment” here in 1943.  The 35-year old came from a wealthy Greenwich, Connecticut family and still maintained her primary residence there.  She was working on a book that would be a symposium of the views of various Protestant clergymen on the ongoing war and believed it “would be a contribution to the war program,” according to her mother.

The author was being treated for a nervous ailment, but her depression became too much.  On February 3 that year she was found dead in the house, both wrists slashed by a large knife found near her body.

In the mid-1950s respected physician Dr. Manfred J. Sakel lived here.  He was best known as the originator of insulin shock therapy for schizophrenia.  Also in the building was Marianne Englander who apparently befriended the bachelor doctor.

On December 2, 1957 Sakel died of a heart attack in his apartment.  When the doctor’s will was read a few weeks later, Ms. Englander may have been a bit shocked to discover she was the recipient of the entire estate—over $2 million.
photo by Alice Lum
The Alexander house, outwardly, has changed little in its 120-year history.  It remains joined internally to its next door neighbor and an unfortunate entry door replaces the original.  But its unexpected architecture makes it a standout on a block of wonderful survivors of the Gilded Age.

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