Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The 1899 Fabbri Mansion -- No. 11 East 62nd Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1898 Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt Shepard was busy building mansions to give away as gifts.   For her daughter, Maria Louise Vanderbilt Shepard Schieffelin, and her husband she had purchased two residences at Nos. 5 and 7 East 66th Street and set Richard H. Hunt to work designing a frothy brick and limestone house in their place.

Simultaneously, a block away on East 62nd Street a similar but even grander mansion was rising for daughter Edith S. Fabbri and her husband Ernesto.   Designed by Haydel & Shepard, it would be completed in 1899; a five-story confection of pale buff brick and limestone that brought France to 62nd Street.

The architects entered the above sketch into the exhibit of the Architectural League of New York -- Catalogue of the Year Book of the Architectural League of New York, Volume 14 February 1899 (copyright expired)

Margaret’s choice of architects was no doubt influenced by the fact that Augustus D. Shepard was her nephew (and, therefore, Edith’s cousin).    The opulent Beaux Arts mansion reflected the pedigree of its owners, their social status and their wealth.

Sitting back from the sidewalk and protected by a high, exquisite iron fence the mansion asserted its grandeur with double-height fluted Corinthian pilasters, three sets of French doors opening onto reserved stone balconies at the second floor, and exceptionally-high hooded dormers.

photo by Alice Lum
The great-granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, Edith Shepard Fabbri was expected to entertain lavishly.  The house was built to accommodate dinner parties and dances with a ballroom, and a 42-foot long dining room, 25-feet wide, paneled in mahogany.

While Edith was busy with her social routine, Ernesto worked in the financial firm of Drexel, Morgan and served as president of the Society of Italian Immigrants in New York.  Just seven years after moving into the new house, Fabbri was transferred to Europe by Drexel, Morgan.   The couple would live overseas for several years.

The Fabbris were still in the house in 1900 when this photograph was taken -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The house was leased to railroad mogul Edward Henry Harriman and his family for the winter season of 1906-07.   Grand entertainments continued and in January 1907 Mrs. Harriman hosted a dance for her daughters, Mary and Cornelia. 

The Harrimans leased the house with all the Fabbri furnishings and artwork -- photo NYPL Collection
The New York Times noted that “This house has a large and beautiful ballroom and a splendid suite of drawing rooms admirably adapted for entertaining.  The dance, however, will be a small affair and the invitations limited to the young friends of the Misses Harriman.”

On April 2, as the winter season was coming to a close, Harriman announced plans to build “a handsome residence at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street,” as reported by The New York Times.

The Harrimans extended their stay in the Fabbri mansion as their own house was being constructed.  The sidewalk along East 62nd Street would be crowded with newspapermen and gawkers as the scandalous affair of the “Harriman Papers” hit the news that summer.

There were in 1904 a series of letters between Harriman and President Theodore Roosevelt, a friend and confidante.  The letters, leaked to the press by a discharged secretary in 1907, intimated corruption regarding campaign funds and contributions.

The documents of the United States Congress subcommittee testimonies contained references to the press circus that surrounded Harriman and the Fabbri mansion.  “Mr. Harriman left his home, No. 11 East Sixty-second Street, yesterday morning in company with Jacob H. Schiff, who had been conferring with him…Mr. Harriman was surrounded by newspaper men when he reached his office in the Equitable Building an hour before noon.”

The exasperated tycoon finally lashed out at the reporters.  “You newspaper men ought to get together and purify things instead of always looking for the sensational.  It’s like taking an emetic to read from morning newspapers nowadays.  But don’t make me out an enemy of all newspapers.  This craze for sensationalism should not continue.  You will overdo your market like some of these people down in Wall Street do.”

The intricate French ironwork included the Fabbri monogram in the design -- photo by Alice Lum
Although they continued to live, mostly, abroad; the Fabbris held on to the 62nd Street property.  On November 1, 1908 The Times noted that “Mr. and Mrs. Ernesto G. Fabbri have closed their Bar Harbor cottage and are at 11 East Sixty-second Street.  Mrs. Fabbri, Mr. Fabbri’s mother, is with them.”

In September 1910 the house was leased to Alfred G. Vanderbilt at the annual rent of $20,000 (about $355,000 today).   Freddy’s brother, Reginald and his wife, were guests at the house two months later for Horse Show Week.  “Mr. Vanderbilt will be brought down next week on his brother’s private car from Newport,” announced The New York Times on November 4.

Society was most interested in Freddy Vanderbilt’s taking the grand mansion that had been explicitly designed with entertaining in mind.  A year earlier his wife, Elsie French Vanderbilt, had divorced him and he steadfastly insisted, according to The Times, “that he would not open another New York residence unless he should marry again.”

Magnificent iron fences protect the mansion -- photo by Alice Lum
Because Vanderbilt had been keeping company with the newly divorced Mrs. Margaret Emerson McKim, rumors flew.  She “was with Mr. Vanderbilt a great deal at the Belmont Park aviation meet two weeks ago,” reported the newspaper.  “the expectation was further strengthened by the fact that Mr. Vanderbilt had been registered at the Plaza, while Mrs. McKim was a guest there soon after her return from the divorce colony at Reno late this Summer, and had been his guest at a theatre box party as recent as a week ago.”

More grist for the rumor mill came in the form of whispers that Vanderbilt played a part in Margaret’s April 30 divorce from Dr. Smith Hollins Mckim; although her complaint was based on “cruelty and drunkenness.”

Nevertheless Mrs. McKim was notably absent when Vanderbilt “formerly threw open the doors of his new house” at a luncheon on November 9 for the directors and visiting exhibitors of the Horse Show.  Deemed by The Times as “quite an elaborate affair,” it was held in the dining room which was “tastefully decorated with chrysanthemums, evergreens, and palms, while arranged along the dining room table were numerous silver cups captured as prizes by the champions of Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s stable.  Huge bouquets of American Beauty roses protruded from the trophies, other roses in the centre carrying out the maroon and white effect of the Horse Color colors.”

The Reginald Vanderbilts stayed on as guests through the winter, along with their daughter Cathleen and Tony, her pet toy bulldog.  The pedigree pup was brought to New York from Newport in November to keep Cathleen company.  “His apartments were in the basement, where he could be looked after by the servants when his mistress was tired playing with him,” explained The Times.

Late in January the dog went missing.  “Tony was taken to his room one day for his lunch, and after being fed was left alone.  He was so gentle that any one could have taken him away with ease, and when Cathleen called for him that evening he had disappeared.”

After nearly a week the family had still not told Cathleen that Tony was missing.  An advertisement was put in the newspapers that read “LOST—Jan. 20, toy bulldog, white, with brindle and spotted back; whosoever can bring same to 11 East 62d St. will receive a handsome reward.”

The Times mused that while Cathleen “is still unaware that her pet toy bulldog, Tony, has been missing from her home…for nearly a week;” if she read the advertisement “her anxiety for her pet will be increased.”

The following month the McKim divorce was finalized and stories that Freddy Vanderbilt would marry Margaret McKim resurfaced.    Dr. McKim agreed to release Alfred Vanderbilt from “all pending or possible litigation” and, in return, the doctor received “a large sum of money, in semi-annual installments, as well as a lump sum, awarded chiefly for counsel fees,” reported The Times on February 22, 1911.

Less than two months later, on April 5, The Sun reported “It was rumored yesterday that Alfred O. Vanderbilt is among those interested in the gigantic apartment to be built at the corner of Fifth avenue and Seventy-second street and that he will take an apartment therein upon its completion.”

The suspicions of Newport and New York society were finally put to rest when Reginald Vanderbilt sent a formal notice to the newspapers regarding the marriage of his brother and Mrs. McKim, the daughter of the wealthy drug manufacturer Isaac E. Emerson .  In its full-page story covering the marriage The New York Times could not resist commenting that “Every member of the Emerson family, of which the new Mrs. Vanderbilt is a member, has figured in the divorce courts.”

Now married, Alfred  Vanderbilt left the 62nd Street house and the Fabbris leased it to C. Ledyard Blair for the 1911-1912 winter season.    The magnificent mansion was a perfect choice for the family, for 1911 was the year daughters Florence and Marjorie were introduced to society. 

The entertainments began on December 2 with a “large and information tea” in the house.  “There were many callers during the afternoon,” noted The Times, which deemed the reception “one of the most important.”  The following week, on December 15, the mansion dazzled for the debutante dance.

“The house with its unusually artistic interior, was beautifully decorated with Christmas colors,” reported The Times.  “the entrance hall was banked with evergreens and the foyer hall was hung with garlands of green and holly and masses of green and flaming poinsettias covered the railing of the winding marble stairs.  The high-ceilinged dining room with its high wainscoting and the gray stone walls rising above were hung with large plaque sprays of green with holly, and the small tables for the midnight supper were also decorated with holly.”

Two hundred and fifty guests filed into the mansion that night.  The newspapers wrote of the floral decorations of the music room ("done in antique oak and pale green, poinsettia, holly, mistletoe, and greens banked the mantels and garlands and huge clusters of the red and green were placed here and there"), the salons and drawing rooms.

Finally, as the Newport season of 1912 drew to a close, Edith Fabbri sold the 62nd Street house to J. P. Morgan & Co. partner Charles Steele and his wife Nannie.  Steele paid for the mansion, in part, with three houses on the north side of East 64th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues.  The Times noted that “He had previously purchased the Sixty-fourth Street plot with the intention of erecting a large residence there.”

The Steeles’ move was made easier in that along with the mansion they received “all the artistic and handsome furnishings therein contained.”

The couple’s eldest daughter was married in October 1910, becoming Countess Jean de la Greze.    Along with their other daughters, Kathryne and Nancy, the Steele family divided their time between the 62nd Street house and their estate at Westbury, Long Island.

On June 22, 1913 Charles and Nannie Steele announced the engagement of Nancy to Devereux Milburn, described by The Times as “a well-known polo player.” The newspaper’s readers learned that Nancy had “been an enthusiastic spectator at all of the outdoor events this season on Long Island at which Mr. Milburg took park, and attended both of the polo match games at Meadow Brook…with her parents and sister.”

The polo-playing millionaire was the son of John G. Milburn.  The entire family had moved from Buffalo to New York only eight years earlier.  It was in the Milburn house there that President William McKinley died.

Polo-players seem to have turned the heads of the Steele girls, for two years later Kathryn’s engagement to F. Skiddy von Stade, “a well-known polo player,” was announced.  Her fiancé’s other athletic interests were reflected in his exclusive club memberships.  He belonged to the Racquet and Tennis, Meadow Brook, Turf and Field, Riding Club, Knickerbocker, Piping Rock and Union Clubs.

As the decades passed, Charles and Nannie French Steele lived on in the grand French mansion.  Nannie developed heart problems as she aged and on the night of December 18, 1932 she died quietly in her sleep.

Carved limestone lions' heads flank the iron entrance gates -- photo by Alice Lum
Charles was bequeathed the family homes—62nd Street, Westbury and Southampton, Long Island (common practice was for real estate titles to be placed in the wife’s name to ensure her financial security).   The couple’s lifestyle was reflected in the list of other items Nannie willed to him: “all household furniture, pictures, paintings, engravings, tapestry, horses, carriages, automobiles and other personal property.”

Nannie put aside $340,000 to be distributed to charities—over $4.5 million in today’s dollars.

The Treasurer of the Protestant Episcopal Church of America, Charles was an ardent supporter of the St. Thomas’ Choir School.  Over the years he contributed $200,000 towards the establishment of a permanent choir school building.   Following his death on August 5, 1939 his funeral was held in St. Thomas Episcopal.  He left a gross estate of over $32 million; including the house on East 62nd Street which was valued at $105,000.

photo by Alice Lum
The mansion was purchased in foreclosure by the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation towards the end of 1940 for around $40,000.  A non-profit organization engaged in aptitude testing and research, it initiated a renovation that was completed in 1943.  The grand rooms that were once banked with evergreens and roses now became five floors of “offices and rooms used for scientific research in aptitude testing,” according to Department of Buildings documents.

Grandeur would return to No. 11 East 62nd Street when the Government of Japan purchased it in 1998 as the residence of its ambassador to the United Nations.  The $21.5 million price tag was at the time the highest price ever paid for a Manhattan townhouse.   The house, which The New York Observer deemed “a real fixer-upper” had been seriously considered by only one potential individual buyer—Michael Jackson.

A four-year renovation took place that focused on restoring the mansion’s glory.  “You really need to renovate it properly,” a spokesman for the Japanese government told the New York Observer in April 2003.  “We want to preserve the beauty of this Beaux-Arts building, and at the same time, it’s necessary to meet the requirements of current landmark building rules.”
photo by Alice Lum
The renovation, indeed, preserved the beauty of the Beaux Arts building.  It remains one of the Upper East Side showplaces--a reminder of a day when unlimited wealth resulted in monumental urban palaces.


  1. An exquisite house that reminds me of another lovely house you have posted about:


    Are there any others like these two?

    1. Oh there are many! Just do a search for "mansion" or a similar word where it says "search this blog" and you'll find lots to read about!

    2. Sorry I wasn't clear - I meant town houses with engaged multi-story columns/pilasters like the Fabbri house and the one i linked to.

      They are both exceptionally handsome imho, and I was hoping there were more of them.

    3. Oh! Well the first one that pops into my mind is the Bliss Mansion: http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-1907-bliss-mansion-no-9-east-68th.html
      Now THERE are some multi-story engaged columns!

    4. Thanks - the Bliss house is also charming, although not quite as wonderful as the other two.

      Perhaps someone building a new town house will be inspired by these 3.

  2. Tom: I have known this house for years but never knew that Alfred Vanderbilt lived there for a year or that Reggie resided there for an entire season. I know of no other surviving single family house in NYC that Alfred Vanderbilt lived in - it may be the only one. Nor do I know of any other single house that Reggie occupied (do you know of any surviving house that he and Gloria occupied during the 20s?). This adds extra historical significance to this superb mansion. By the way, both Alfred and Margaret - along with Uncle George and Aunt Edith of "Biltmore" - had reservations on the ill fated maiden voyage of the Titanic. Edith had misgivings because her late mother, Mrs. Dresser, had adamantly maintained that one should never travel on a ship that has "never been tried." Edith kept pressing George to cancel their reservation - he did so only 48 hours before sailing. George persuaded Alfred and Margaret to stay with them in London for a few extra days. Alfred then cancelled his and Margaret's reservation and the four Vanderbilts were spared - they boarded another ship a few days after the Titanic sailed. However, George did not cancel his valet's reservation. The valet took Edith's luggage on the Titanic - both the Valet and Mrs. V's luggage went down with the ship. Also, the New York Times erroneously listed Alfred and Margaret among the Titanic's passengers right after the liner left Southampton. Three years later, Alfred went down on the Lusitania. What irony! Mercifully, Margaret did not join him on that trip. George also survived only a short time after canceling on the Titanic, dying after routine surgery in 1914. Titanic Bill

    1. Great information. Thanks so much. To answer your question, I do not know another house where Reggie and Gloria Vanderbilt lived during the '20s. Good question and something to dig in to! Thanks again for all the great info! Keep it up.

    2. Surgery in 1914 was never "routine". Glad I didn't live then.

  3. What a particularly incredible townhouse!

    I've read your blog on and off for years and have been remiss in thanking you for all of your work. It is truly appreciated.

    1. Thank you so much! I'm really glad you're enjoying it. I certainly do.

  4. Splendidly written and well researched. Like other readers, I found the Vanderbilt connection particularly interesting.
    All my best, Tom

  5. I am trying to find data on the Blair stables which was in the 60's or 70's on the East Side. Any ideas?.

    1. do you mean the C. Ledyard Blair carriage house? Or the Blair Riding Stables?

  6. If Charles Steele's estate was valued at $32 million, why did his heirs allow the mansion to go into foreclosure?

  7. Does anyone know if original floor plans exist of the Fabbri mansion?