Friday, April 5, 2013

The 1901 Elias Asiel Mansion -- No. 15 E. 63rd Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1906 wealthy financier Elias Asiel and his family left their New York mansion at No. 15 East 63rd Street and set sail for Europe.   Among the staff who traveled with them was butler Sidney H. Gooch.   Another butler, Frederick Rubie, was left behind in charge of the remaining staff and the house.

When the Asiels returned they discovered that their butler had cleaned them out.   According to The New York Times on August 2, 1906, “what he left worth taking he didn’t see or couldn’t get at.”   Rubie had walked away with $1,600 worth of jewelry and silverware—about $32,000 in goods today.

The 52-year old Asiel was irate and before long the thief was arrested in Montclair, New Jersey with the pawn tickets for goods in his belongings.   As it would turn out, Rubie’s subsequent conviction would set the stage for another, even more serious robbery.

Born in 1852, Elias Asiel had risen to prominence in New York’s social and financial worlds.  The head of the firm Asiel & Co., he was also a trustee of the Mount Sinai Hospital and patron of the arts.   He married the former Marie Moulin and in 1885 purchased the newly-built brownstone rowhouse at No. 15 East 63rd Street, just off Fifth Avenue and Central Park.   The couple would have one daughter, Irma, and a son, Nelson Irving.

As the 20th century approached, the old brownstones had fallen out of favor and millionaires along Fifth Avenue’s side streets set out to replace or remodel their homes.  In 1901 Asiel commissioned architect John H. Duncan to design a new mansion on the site of the existing rowhouse.   The completed Beaux Arts beauty had nothing in common with its late Victorian predecessor.

The five-story, limestone-clad mansion echoed the streets of Paris with arched French windows draped with delicate floral carving.  The copper-trimmed two-story mansard and fashionable American basement meant that the Asiel family was no longer behind the architectural times.
Carved shells and delicate floral garlands highlight the French windows -- photo by Alice Lum
Five years later, at the time that Asiel’s butler robbed him, the block was described by The Evening World as “in the heart of a section of the city occupied exclusively by millionaires…Some of his prominent neighbors are the Postleys, the Bloomingdales and the Brokaws.”  But mansions drew thieves and the same article noted “At No. 1 East Sixty-third street lives E. W. Woerz, the brewer, who, with his daughters and servants, was held up and robbed at the point of a pistol in his home by ‘Sand Rock’ Smith two years ago.”

Frederick Rubie was now incarcerated in Sing Sing prison.  He boasted of his crime and told other inmates that the Asiel mansion was an easy mark.   Among them was Charles S. Neilson who later admitted that “while confined in Sing Sing, he met a man who said he formerly worked for Asiel and was ‘doing time’ for stealing stuff from his employer’s home.”

He said “the man who represented himself as the former butler for Asiel told him how easy it would be for him to enter Mr. Asiel’s home and get away with many valuable things.”   The seed was planted for a violent robbery just months after the first theft.

The porch railings were executed in bronze, rather than the more expected stone or wrought iron -- photo by Alice Lum

Early Wednesday morning, December 5, 1906, Elias awoke to find two masked gunmen standing over his bed.  The Sun reported that “They told him that they knew he kept his silverware in a safe in the dining room and he had better get it for them.”    The Minneapolis Journal, the same day, vividly painted the crime.  “’We’ll shoot if you make a squeak,’ said a voice as the men behind the guns began to draw slowly away toward the door of the room.”

The feisty Elias Asiel would not be intimidated.  He raised himself up in the bed and hollered for help from his servants.  “In an instant the two men were upon him raining blows upon his head, and when a servant who had heard the cries rushed into the room the broker was lying helpless on the verge of insensibility, his pillow soaked with blood,” said The Minneapolis Journal.

The Evening World ran a headline “Elias Asiel Pounded Insensible with Brass Knuckles in Bedroom” and described the beating  and his being bound and gagged.  “The gag used was carried by one of the burglars.  It was made of surgeons’ gauze, packed into a ball and attached to two pieces of tape.  The other burglar carried the cord with which Mr. Asiel was bound, and the cord and the gag area are the only clues the daring thieves left behind them.”

Despite Asiel’s valiant struggle and his refusal to reveal the location of the safe, “When Mr. Asiel’s daughter reached her father’s room the men were gone, with his watch, chain, cuff links and half a dozen scarf pins, and also with a quantity of silverware from the dining room,” said The Sun.

The broker’s watch was valued at $250, the thieves found $90 in cash and according to The Sun the jewelry and silverware was valued at $3,000—a $65,000 haul today without even finding the good stuff.

The New-York Tribune noted that “Mr. Asiel was so badly beaten that it was some time before he could go to his office.”  The furious millionaire was intent on finding the criminals.

The Times reported four days later “Elias Asiel…is determined to leave no stone unturned in his efforts to discover and punish the two robbers who attacked him.

Mr. Asiel, with this object in view, has offered three rewards—one of $500 for information which will lead to the discovery of the stolen articles, consisting of silverware, a gold watch, and stickpins; a second of $1,000 for the arrest of the burglars, and a third reward of $2,000 for information which will lead to their arrest and conviction.”

Despite the hefty rewards, it would be nearly two years before detectives found their men.    They connected the former butler with prison mates.   The Sun reported on August 13, 1908 that Robie “had had for mates in the washroom Charles Neilson and another prisoner.  Robie had many talks with the two men and detectives came to the conclusion that Robie had told them of the layout of the Asiel home.  The two men were released two days before the robbery.”

Police arrested Charles Neilson at his job as a fireman at the Port Morris powerhouse of the New York Central Railroad.  He was held at $10,000 bail and, possibly worse, would have to face Elias Asiel in the courtroom.

On the same block lived the family of the late Lyman Bloomingdale who had died in 1903.  He and his brother, Joseph, had developed their father’s dry goods business into the hugely successful Bloomingdale’s Department Store.  Joseph and his family also lived nearby at No. 11 East 67th Street.   On January 5, 1909 the engagement of Irma Asiel to Joseph Bloomingdale’s son, Louis, was announced.   After their marriage the newlyweds would move into the Bloomingdale mansion at No. 21 East 63rd, conveniently down the street from the Asiels.

On February 1, 1919 Elias Asiel retired from business life.    Just a year later, on November 10, he died at the age of 68.   The newspapers were flooded with tributes to the generous and apparently caring millionaire.   The Board of Trustees of Mount Sinai Hospital wrote, in part, “One of his most marked characteristics was his deep sense of justice and his intense sympathy for the weak and friendless, who never had a more loyal supporter of their cause, and in whose behalf he battled as could only one with a deep human understanding and never-failing kindness of heart.”

Nelson Asiel and his wife lived on in the mansion for years, announcing the engagement of their daughter, Doris, to Bruce A. Gimbel in 1937.  Then, in 1952, Elias Asiel’s elegant Beaux Arts mansion was converted to a few commodious apartments.

Mr. and Mrs. William T. Brady moved into the three-story apartment.  Brady was vice president of the Corn Products Refining Company of No. 17 Battery Place.  The luxurious home would, once again, be the scene of a robbery.

On August 16, 1954 while Mrs. Brady was out shopping, her maid ordered groceries.  As the delivery boy approached the house around 2:45 p.m.  a well-dressed man asked him “That for the Bradys?”  When the boy answered, yes, the man tossed him a 50-cent piece and offered, “I’ll take it in.”

When the maid, Lucille Griffin, answered the door, she was confronted with a young man, about 30 years old in a gray suit and fedora, holding her groceries.  Unsuspecting, she let him in.

The Times reported that then, “Inside, the fake grocery boy dropped his pretense, declaring: ‘I’m not selling anything,’ and produced a gun.

“He forced Miss Griffin upstairs into a bedroom and bound her wrists and ankles with several silk scarfs.  Another scarf was used for a gag.  Uninjured, she removed her bonds minutes after his departure.”

But before that departure, the robber spent 25 minutes in the house, removing $38,250 in jewelry from an unlocked wall safe in a bedroom closet, and $3,700 in cash.  He also helped himself to two of Mrs. Brady’s fur stoles and a fur coat, valued at just under $5,000.

photo by Alice Lum
The Brady’s three-floor apartment was inhabited by interior designer Thomas Britt when Marianne Nestor, widow of fashion designer Oleg Cassini, and her sister, Peggy Nestor, bought the mansion in 1984.  Britt’s 3,000-foot apartment had been featured several times in Architectural Digest.  The new owners wanted him out.

Two decades of legal wrangling ensued and with each new court case Britt came out the winner.  The greatly-frustrated co-owners remained resolute and continued to attempt eviction.  In the meantime, they would be back in court regarding another issue.

Entertainer Neil Diamond lived on the top floor of No. 17 East 63rd Street in 2006 and had exclusive rights to the use of the rooftop.   He renovated the roof space “to create a serene environment” for himself, according to the Associated Press.   His serenity was interrupted by Cassini and Nestor when they began construction on a 13-foot high addition.

The singer-songwriter sued the women for violating zoning restrictions and for damages, claiming “the value of his apartment has been substantially diminished and the construction has irreparably damaged his enjoyment of his apartment and rooftop.”

The women’s problems increased the following year when Thomas Britt won a judgment for his legal fees going back 20 years—a hefty $93,249.88.

The decorative carving of the Asiel mansion has been called "exquisite." -- photo by Alice Lum
The handsome 1901 mansion remains home to the Oleg Cassini Design Studio and sits on a block where other Beaux Arts mansions share space with still-surviving 1880s brownstone rowhouses.


  1. Richly detailed, sophisticated, elegant and cute. Quite a lovely townhouse

  2. We loved it and were married in the "Garden Apt> 12/19/1971
    because our Professor and friend, Mike Jaworskyj, offered it to us for the occasion!
    It definitely was not a Robbery nor a "Hold-up" but it probably should be noted that the event, while not widely reported, was noteworthy!
    The Minister, Rev Glenesk was cutting edge and the Bride and Groom were leading edge!
    In fact\, these days would be considered "Hipsters"