Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Charles Isham House -- No. 122 East 38th Street

The houses were purposeful near-matches.  No. 122 is to the right.  photo by Alice Lum

At the turn of the last century William R. H. Martin headed one of the most recognized men’s clothing shops in Manhattan:  Rogers, Peet  & Co.  With his substantial fortune he invested heavily in real estate.  In 1900 he opened a high-end residential hotel near Times Square, named it after himself, and moved in.

While the frothy French Renaissance Martinique Hotel, designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, was rising, a more subdued style was gaining popularity.   Neo-Federal and Georgian mansions along upper Fifth Avenue were being designed in red brick with limestone trim, a dignified nod to the country’s colonial roots.  Martin took notice.

In 1902 he purchased and demolished two Victorian brownstone houses at 122 and 124 East 38th Street in the fashionable Murray Hill section.  Martin hired architect Ralph S. Townsend to design a pair of harmonious residences.

The surviving rowhouses at Nos. 116 through 120 are similar to those Martin replaced -- photo by Alice Lum

Completed in 1904 the near-mirror image homes worked as a dignified unit.  Three stories tall above an English basement, they recalled Colonial designs with splayed lintels, intricate entrances with pediments, and paneled lintels at the third floor.

The entry hall of No. 124 next door displays the detailing that would have been similar in the Isham House -- photo courtesy Jeffery Povero, Povero & Company

On October 11, 1906 The New York Times casually mentioned that “W. R. H. Martin has sold 122 East Thirty-eighth Street.”  What the newspaper did not report was that the buyer was the wealthy attorney Charles Isham and his wife Mary Lincoln Isham.

Isham had studied at Andover, Harvard and the University of Berlin.  Upon graduating he took the position of secretary to Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln.  In the spring of 1889 Isham met daughter Mary while crossing the Atlantic on the City of Paris with the Lincoln family.  Robert Todd Lincoln was headed to London to take the position of Minister to the Court of St. James.  Although, at 36 years old, Isham was sixteen years older than the young woman everyone called Mamie, a romance ensued.

The couple was married on Wednesday, September 2, 1891 in London and, following their honeymoon, established their home in New York.  By the time they moved into No. 122 East 38th Street Isham had effectively retired.  He was an eminent historian and served as head librarian for the New York Historical Society, secretary of the Sons of the Revolution and president of the St. Nicholas Society.
A graceful staircase winds upward toward a leaded skylight in No. 124 -- photo courtesy Jeffery Povero, Povero & Company

Mary Isham kept herself busy as the editor of The Executive Daily, a Methodist periodical.  The Christian Advocate praised her work in 1912 saying “’The Executive Daily,’ edited by Mrs. Mary Isham with an efficient corps of assistants, came promptly to hand each morning, and for correct, sparkling, satisfactory reports of convention proceedings, merits warm thanks and praise.”

In 1913 Charles contracted architects Walker & Gillette to add a fourth story for servants’ rooms.  The resulting addition seamlessly carried on the Townsend design.

Walker & Gillette's fourth floor addition was seamless -- photo by Alice Lum

On February 11, 1917 The Sun commented on the ties of the Isham residence to Abraham Lincoln.  “Both Mr. and Mrs. Isham are deeply interested in the Lincoln traditions and have many interesting and valuable relics of the life of the Emancipator.  Robert T. Lincoln occasionally comes to this city to visit them, and in the summer they join him at their country home in Vermont.”

The 66 year old Charles Isham died in the house on Monday, June 9, 1919 after a short illness.  The funeral was held here two days later.   Mary lived on in the house, and throughout the years would sometimes represent the Lincoln family at historical or political events.

Such was the case in May 1923 when seven busts, including that of Abraham Lincoln, were unveiled at New York University’s new Hall of Fame.    The New York Times listed the descendants of Alexander Hamilton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ward Beecher, Ulysses S. Grant and others who would unveil each bust.   The sculpture of Lincoln, said The Times, “will be unveiled by the Emancipator’s granddaughter, Mrs. Mary Lincoln Isham.”

In 1935 Mary Isham left the house on 38th Street to move to Washington D. C. where her 89-year old mother lived.   The dignified residence became a boarding house run by Mrs. Howard Gerland.

Among Mrs. Gerland’s boarders in 1936 was violinist Arthur Fortwongler who lived on the second floor.  The classical musician practiced often and, apparently, loudly.   And when he did so at 10:30 on a Saturday night in August, neighbors took action.

As Forwongler played, an open bottle of milk of magnesia smashed against the rear wall of the house.  The creamy liquid splattered into the open apartment window, some of it making its way into the violin.  Mrs. Gerland immediately suspected 28 year old Bruce W. Campbell, Jr., a mortgage appraiser who rented a room in the adjacent house.

Mr. and Mrs. Gerland summoned a policeman and the trio marched off to question Campbell.  As it turned out, Campbell was entertaining two young women who lived above him and at the time of the medicinal bombardment had stepped out of the apartment.  But before that detail was uncovered, Campbell spent the night in jail.

The following morning he appeared before Magistrate Adolph Stern and “although confessing a distaste for the classics, at least as they emanated from his neighbor’s bow,” reported The New York Times, “pleaded not guilty.”

“’I left the apartment for a few minutes,’ he related, ‘and when I got back, there were Mrs. Gerland, her husband and the policeman.  When they told me about the bottle I concluded some one else in the house had thrown it.  I took the blame—to protect a lady, your honor.”

Campbell added that the violinist “practiced too long and too late.”

The magistrate was confounded and instructed all parties to reach a settlement within a few days and he would reserve his decision until then.
Despite their various uses since the Isham residency, both houses retain their original entrances and details -- photo by Alice Lum

For years the residence remained a boarding house and in the 1940's architect S. V. Becker had his office in the building.  By 1966, however, it was a single family home again, owned by Jim and Jean Spadea, syndicate publishers.  On January 14 of that year the pair hosted an informal fashion show during which Mrs. Spadea thrilled the guests with a misinformed history of the house.

Echoing this, The New York Times reported that “The house at 122 East 38th Street and its twin at 124 were built in 1905 by Robert Todd Lincoln for his two daughters.”  Although totally erroneous, it was a charming anecdote. 

Jean Spadea complained about the verticality of the house.  “I call this a ranch house on end.  We don’t live a comfortable life.”  She then added her critique on the design.  “The house is Adam revival, with everything way over scale.  It was built too near the Victorian era.”

Owners of vintage homes who get the history and architecture wrong and find their houses uncomfortable are apt to make modern improvements--including gutting original interiors and updating facades.  The Spadeas, however, did neither.  They did, however, give up the house within two years.

In 1968 it became the Celanese House—used by the synthetic fiber producer to showcase its fabrics and floor coverings.   The third floor was leased to Donald Cameron, a designer of Parzinger Originals.

Cameron’s decorative tastes were squarely in the 1960's with milk glass spheres as lights and bold geometric designs in primary colors.  The 1906 architectural elements did not fit into his design scheme.

“Mr. Cameron’s biggest problem,” wrote Rita Reif of The New York Times on March 10, 1970, “was the old-fashioned mantel.  Celanese would not let him remove it, so he did the next best thing.  He created a camouflage of boards of different heights in front of the fireplace, painted them white and installed lighting behind to suggest a huge piece of sculpture.”

Cameron’s avant garde ideas went further.  “His other art idea is to hang some paintings so low that visitors have to sit to examine them.  Once seated, he thinks, people will linger.”

In 1988 Celanese was gone and the house was converted to offices on the lower floors and residential duplexes above.   Since the 1990s the Earth Pledge Foundation has operated from the house.  The Foundation is a non-profit organization that encourages sustainable practices and economic growth.

The handsome house at No. 122 East 38th Street and its partner at No. 124 are amazingly intact after over a century of use. 

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting and charming story... :) Charlotte.