|photo by Alice Lum
Eloise inherited her mother’s unconventional independence. In 1893 the New York Times noted that only two women “in this part of the country” were eligible as yacht owners. One of them was Mrs. William L. Breese “who owns the sloop Eloise.”
The Breese family lived in a wide, comfortable home at 35 East 22nd Street in the fashionable Madison Square neighborhood. Next door at No. 33 lived Mrs. Elizabeth B. Grannis, a self-appointed combatant against sin. Mrs. Grannis was president of the Woman’s Social Purity League as well as president of the National League for the Protection of Purity. In December 1894 her search for sin would place her squarely in the social territory of Eloise Breese.
The unmarried Eloise—she preferred that the press referred to her as Miss E. L. Breese—took her own box at the Metropolitan Opera house. Her Grand Tier box, number 43, was near those of Isaac Fletcher, Joseph Pulitzer and Charles Gould. Women’s evening fashions in the 1890s included elegant off-the-shoulder evening gowns with plunging necklines. Known as décolletage, the French fashion was shocking to some Victorian minds.
|Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau posed in decollatage for John Singer Sergeant's portrait titled "Madame X" --http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/20012492
The Evening World reported on December 1, 1894 that Mrs. Grannis lately “has been engaged in seeing for herself just how wicked New York really is.” Having visited (escorted by her brother, Dr. Bartlett) “nearly all the dance and concert halls, theatres, joints, missions and dives in this city,” she turned her focus to the Metropolitan Opera and its wealthy patrons.
Mrs. Grannis took an Evening World reporter in tow and explained the Purity League’s plans to abolish the décolleté dress. “What we want to do is to call public attention to the evil, and by this means to shame people into dressing differently.” She admitted,when the reporter said that judging from the Metropolitan audience “Mrs. Grannis’s idea cannot be said to have borne much fruit,” that it would take time. She blamed the absence of social purity on two forces. “One reason is the décolleté dress; the other and greater is the round dance.”
Mrs. Grannis approved of “a modest square dance like the lanciers or the minuet,” but waltzing “and every other form of round dance is, per se, sinful.”
The equally strong-minded Eloise Breese disagreed. And the two women would make their differences known repeatedly. While the social reformer railed against the high fashion of the young socialite and her wealthy friends, Eloise frequently complained to authorities about “smells” coming from the Grannis home.
Following her father's death and her mother's remarriage and move to England, the independent Eloise was a marked feature among New York society. In 1901 she commissioned Sidney V. Stratton to design a private carriage house at No. 150 East 22nd Street, a few blocks to the east of her home. Private stables were as much a reflection of one’s social status as his home and carriages, and Eloise’s would not disappoint. Stratton designed it in the Flemish Revival style that had been popular, especially on the Upper West Side for over a decade.
The style reflected New York’s Dutch beginnings and the Breese structure featured the expected stepped gable. Stratton placed the two-story structure on a limestone base and trimmed the warm Roman brick with limestone. A spreading peacock tail of oversized voussoirs highlighted the double carriage doors and the three upper openings visually became one by the introduction of an encompassing, limestone trimmed blind arch.
Like her mother, Eloise sailed her own yacht. The Elsa flew the burgee of the New York Yacht Club—a highly unusual accomplishment for a woman at the time. Although Eloise summered mostly in Tuxedo, where she maintained a sprawling mansion, the Elsa was often found moored below the cliffs of Newport. Captain C. M. Toren skippered the craft for years.
As Eloise’s carriage house was being completed, she sailed the Elsa to Newport to participate in the July 30, 1901 harbor fete in honor of the North Atlantic squadron. Admiral Higginson’s fleet was assembled in the harbor and a full day of activities—including a exhibition of the submarine torpedo boat Holland—was planned.
The New-York Tribune noted the following day that “the principal event was the illumination in the evening…The most picturesque sight was in the harbor, where the illuminations were on a most gorgeous scale.” The yachts were all lit “brilliantly” and the newspaper pointed out that the Elsa was one of “the most attractive ones.”
In 1902 Eloise L. Breese had had enough of her pious next-door neighbor and she purchased the Grannis house “with the understanding that it was to be pulled down,” said The Sun. But she had second thoughts and once the social reformer had moved out “the temple of social reform and universal peace has been turned into a boarding house,” reported the newspaper later.
The rooms where Mrs.Grannis had held meetings of other virtuous women and church leaders were now decorated by Eloise “in the highest form of boarding-house art with bows and arrows of primitive peoples and the heads of savages in war paint.”
But she wasn’t done yet.
In May 1903 Eloise sued Elizabeth Grannis for $249 saying that “when she moved out, [she] took with her a bathtub and the chandeliers.”
Mrs. Grannis appeared baffled and unruffled. “How silly,” she told reporters. “Think of going to court for just one little bathtub. It is my personal, individual tub. Of course I took it with me. I told them I was going to, but offered to sell it to them with the chandeliers.”
The reformer complained that the Breese family had always been a problem. “What a flibberty-gibberty commotion it is. I lived beside the Breeses eighteen years and never met them, but they were forever sending in to complain of smells they thought they smelled and to see if there wasn’t a fire or a leak or something in my house.”
The feud between the former neighbors would eventually die away. In November 1906 Eloise married Adam Norrie. Upon her death on January 28, 1921 she added significantly to the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art by bequeathing two important paintings, one by Rousseau and another by Corot (his “The Wheelwright’s Yard on the Bank of the Seine”). Even more importantly, she left the museum the incomparable 17th century Audenarde tapestries representing the history of the Sabines.
The Breese carriage house, no longer needed by Eloise after her marriage, was converted almost immediately into the headquarters of the New York Association for the Improvement of the Poor. It underwent another renovation in 1923 when it became a bakery.
A decade later, with horses having been replaced by motorcars, the building was once again converted. Still owned by the Breese Estate, it now had an apartment on the upper floor and “storage for four cars” at ground level. In February 1935 Raymond C. Phillips leased what The Times called “the modern two-story garage” from the estate.
In the mid-1940s retired police officer Thomas A. Smith lived upstairs. On July 24, 1948 the 63-year old was driving along West 25th Street when a 7-year old girl, Gloria Maracamo, darted into the path of his car. The driver was so upset that as he tried to tell police what had happened thirty minutes later, he collapsed with a fatal heart attack.
By the second half of the 20th century the carriage houses along the block had been demolished for apartment buildings—except for Eloise Breese’s. In 1965 the anachronistic little building was being used as an “architect’s fine arts studio and office” along with parking for two cars on the ground floor, and a one-family apartment above, according to Department of Buildings records.
|A single-family, glass-walled mansion incorporates Eloise Breese's carriage house remains into its facade. (The early 20th century apartment building next door mimics the old roofline.) -- photo by Alice Lum