Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The 1908 Warburg Mansion - No. 17 East 80th Street

photo by Alice Lum

At the turn of the last century, Supreme Court Justice James A. Blanchard lived at 17 East 80th Street with his wife, Sallie, and their son, Medbury, who was attending Yale University.  The prim brownstone house, architecturally out of fashion, was in stark contrast with the ebullient Beaux Arts mansion of Paul and Nina Warburg nearby at 3 East 82nd Street.

The extended Warburg family was well-known in New York banking circles and the neighborhood was dotted with handsome Warburg mansions.  Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1868, Paul Warburg had arrived in New York in 1893.  Two years later he married Nina, the daughter of one of the city’s foremost bankers, Solomon Loeb.  The Loeb-Warburg family ties were strong and not only Paul, but his brother Felix, became members of Kuhn, Loeb & Co.

It was Solomon Loeb who presented Paul and Nina with the house on East 82nd Street in 1901.  The couple would not stay long in their new home however.   Warburg purchased the two houses at Nos. 15 and 17 East 80th Street, including the Blanchard residence, and began planning a magnificent new home.

As the 1906 summer social season drew to a close, the Warburgs moved temporarily abroad while work commenced.    On September 7 The New York Times announced “Architect C. P. H. Gilbert has filed plans at the Building Department for a six-and-one-half story residence to be built at 15 and 17 East Eightieth Street for P. Warburg, who is now living in Hamburg, German.  The house will have a frontage of 45 feet, with a fa├žade of white stone.  The work of demolishing the dwellings now on the site is underway, and the erection of the structure will be begun immediately.”

Construction of the French Classic-style mansion took two years to complete.  But it was worth the wait.  The result was five stories of understated taste and refinement.

Kate Simon, in her Fifth Avenue, A Very Social History,” points out that among the very wealthy Jewish New Yorkers an unspoken rule was “live and comport yourself at the height of respectability so that ‘they’ might have no handle for criticism.”  For the same reason, Jacob Schiff, the father-in-law of Paul’s brother Felix, objected to the over-the-top French chateau Felix was building at the same time (and by the same architect).  It was ostentatious and drew attention.

No such criticism could be made regarding 17 East 80th Street.  Fluted Roman columns upheld the entrance portico, a few steps above sidewalk level.  There was no froth, no elaborate carvings—just elegant bracketed cornices over the second story openings, a Juliette balcony at the fourth floor, and handsome pedimented dormers at the fifth.  But if the self-assured design was not ostentatious, neither was it timid.
photo by Alice Lum

In the early years of the 20th century servants dealt with the cleaning of expensive wool and silk garments with a home version of dry cleaning.  Unfortunately, the cleaning agent of choice—gasoline—did not mix well with the common lighting method of the time, gas-fed flame.

On the evening of March 23, 1909, months after the Warburgs moved in, a servant set to work on cleaning a garment in the pantry.   The gasoline fumes reached the lighted gas jet and ignited.   Nina quickly called the fire department; but by the time they arrived, her dinnerware was in ruins.

“Blazing gasoline started a fire in the pantry, which broke all the glass and ruined many of the dishes,” reported The New York Times the following morning.  “The police estimated the damage at $500.” (That would amount to about $10,000 today.)

In July 1914 President Woodrow Wilson butted heads with the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency regarding the nomination of Paul Warburg to the Federal Reserve Board.   Reportedly, Warburg and Thomas D. Jones, another nominee, were negatively targeted by the Committee because of their involvement in what was considered “big business.”

When Warburg was summoned to appear before the Senate committee, he refused, saying that he and Jones had been singled at ‘to be heckled by the committee.”  A deadlock ensued that The Sun, on July 9, 1914, said threatened to become “historical.”

Wilson rebuked the committee and The Sun reported “The President issued a statement to-day indicating very clearly that he will insist on the confirmation of both Warburg and Jones.”  Calling Warburg a patriot, Wilson said “It would be particularly unfair to the Democratic party and to the Senate itself to regard it as the enemy of business, big or little.  I am sure that it does not regard a man as an object of suspicion merely because he has been connected with great business enterprises.”

In the end Warburg gained his seat on the Federal Reserve Board.  But the war with Germany would bring his position to an end.  As Warburg’s four-year term drew to a close, he wrote to President Wilson.  The letter assured Wilson of his devotion to his adopted country, but noted “Certain persons have started an agitation to the effect that a naturalized citizen of German birth, having near relatives prominent in German public life, should not be permitted to hold a position of great trust in the service of the United States.  (I have two brothers in Germany who are bankers.  They naturally now serve their country to the utmost of their ability, as I serve mine.)”

Warburg went on “Much to my regret, Mr. President, it has become increasingly evident that, should you choose to renominate me, this might precipitate a harmful fight, which in the interest of the country I wish to do anything in my power to avoid, and which, even though resulting in my confirmation, would be likely to leave an element of irritation in the minds of many whose anxieties and sufferings may justify their intense feelings.”

Paul Warburg left room in his resignation letter for Wilson to renominate him and made it clear that he would accept a new term gladly.   The return letter from the White House, however, did not take advantage of the opening.

In part it read “Your retirement from the board is a serious loss to the public service.  I consent to it only because I read between the lines of your generous letter that you will yourself feel more at ease if you are left free to serve in other ways.”

The Warburgs returned to East 80th Street with Paul, reportedly, changed.  In his book “The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family,” Ron Chernow notes “Like other incorruptible young idealists, he reacted to keep disappointment by becoming cynical and pessimistic.”

With the war’s end Warburg again involved himself in notable financial matters.  In 1920 he was the Chairman of the United States delegation to Chile for the Second Pan American Financial Conference.

The decade of the 1920s was comparatively relaxed in the 80th Street house.  The Warburgs entertained and daughter Betinna attended medical school.  In 1927, now holding the title “doctor,” she began her internship at the new Strong Memorial Hospital.

But the 1920s and peace for the family came to an end.   The Great Depression crippled the nation; but it was the least of the Warburg problems.

On New Year’s Eve 1931 The New York Times noted that Paul had been “confined to his home at 17 East Eightieth Street, for more than a week, but his secretary said yesterday his condition was not considered serious.”  The newspaper attributed his condition to eye strain and being “generally run down.”

Two weeks later the New York Evening Post reported on the 63-year old banker’s condition.  Still in bed he had developed pneumonia.  Warburg’s condition worsened.   He suffered what The New York Times called a “stroke of paralysis” and finally, at 10:00 in the morning of January 26, 1932, he died surrounded by his family.  The following morning the coffin, covered with lilies-of-the-valley and pansies, was removed from the mansion.  Warburg left an estate valued at at least $50 million.

In the meantime, events in Germany were terrifying.  In 1933 Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor and transformed the Weimar Republic into the Third Reich.  Jews, like the Warburgs, were on the dictator’s twisted agenda.

The eldest brother of Paul and Felix, Aby who remained in Hamburg, had been amassing an enormous library of books.  Somewhat eccentric, he had offered his brothers an arrangement—he would give up the family banking business and step down as first-born son if they would agree to finance his library.  Having accepted the offer, the four brothers were informed that Aby’s goal was 350,000 volumes.

The wide-flung collection included books on heraldry, philosophy, art history, etc.  The library, the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, grew by 1933 to a vast, priceless collection.  And on April 6 of that year Hitler began his book-burning  campaign.  On May 10 students burned some 25,000 volumes of “un-German” works.  The Warburg collection was in imminent danger.

The books were quietly packed up—531 boxes of them—by carefully selected anti-Nazi movers.  They were secreted onto two small ships, the Hermia and the Jessica, which slipped them across the North Sea to London.  The New York branch of the family toyed with converting the now-vacant house at 17 East 80th Street into the Warburg Library.  Felix Warburg offered $500,000 to create the library as a memorial to Paul and Aby.  The family was advised by State Department that moving the library to the Warburg mansion could create an anti-German reaction in New York.  The books remained, for a time, in London.

Nina Warburg had left the East 80th Street mansion shortly after Paul’s death.  In 1937 Arts Magazine reported that “New York University has purchased the five-story residence of the late Paul M. Warburg at 17 East Eightieth Street, New York, to house an institute of fine arts.”  The newly-founded Institute of Fine Arts was established to train researchers and scholars in the area of fine arts.

The university converted the elegant interiors to “reading and social rooms, conference rooms and offices, etc.” according to Department of Building documents.  It would use the house for two decades before selling to the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York in 1958.   The Archiocese announced that it “will open a center for mentally retarded children of pre-school age” in the house.

The admirable plan never took shape, however, and two years later, in November 1960, the building was sold for cash to the Iona Holding Corporation.
photo by Alice Lum

Paul and Nina Warburg’s magnificent white mansion was converted to apartments in 1973.  Despite replacement windows and somewhat commercial-looking entrance doors, the house is wonderfully preserved.

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