Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Much Abused De Lancey Nicoll House -- No. 23 East 39th St.

photo by Alice Lum

As Manhattan’s population migrated ever northward, the Murray Hill neighborhood saw rapid development in the years just prior to the Civil War.   Developers erected rows of carbon-copy brownstone residences for well-to-do families.

Such was the case on East 39th Street between Park and Madison Avenues.  But the Samuel Frink house at No. 23 stepped cautiously out of the box.   The north side of the block was lined with three-bay, four story homes above deep English basements.  Frink’s house, completed in 1860 after a year of construction, was a near-match to its identical neighbors but stood alone in subtle details.  The floors were slightly less high, resulting in a small dip in the roofline of the block, and the detailing of the lintels and entrance were enough to suggest a different hand at the drawing board.

It is likely that Frink, who doubled as a real estate developer and merchant, was responsible for his own home.   The house changed hands a few times and in 1875 was updated and enlarged with a full-story mansard roof.

In the 1880's the family of F. D. Worchester lived here.  The Worchester men created a dynasty of sorts at Yale University.  Brothers Wilfred James Worchester, F. D. Worchester, Jr., F. E. Worchester and H. A. Worchester all had graduated from the school by 1888.  The family, including another brother, Edward W. Worchester, was still living in the house in 1893.

Almost a decade earlier in Pensacola, Florida, D. F. Sullivan had died.  The lumber dealer and mill owner was reputed to be the wealthiest man in the state.  On June 15, 1884 he was found dead in his bed, a victim, it was supposed, of apoplexy.

His wealthy widow, Emily S. Sullivan moved to New York City with her daughter, Kathleen Beatrice.  By 1895 the Sullivan women had moved into the house recently occupied by the Worchester family.  On April 24 of that year the residence was the scene of Kathleen’s marriage to Malcolm Cameron Anderson of Denver, Colorado.

With Kathleen married, Emily Sullivan was alone with her servants in the residence that previously had housed a family of around five.   While she apparently did not entertain lavishly, she did participate in the charity work expected of a woman of means.  In 1896, around Christmas time, she donated six pounds of candy to the Gerry Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Within months, however, Emily Sullivan traded the East Side for the West, moving further north to No. 34 West 75th Street in the newly-fashionable Upper West Side.  Emily’s new house was one of a string of quirky rowhouses that married the Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival styles.

No. 23 East 39th Street next became home to physician Charles Norris.  Like the Worchester men, he had been educated at Yale.   The wealthy doctor was an instructor in pathology of infectious diseases at Cornell University Medical College and was a member of the exclusive University Club.

In 1901 the house was purchased by real estate operator Charles S. Bryan who was busy buying and selling upscale homes in the neighborhood.  He quickly turned the property around, selling it on November 24, 1901 to De Lancey Nicoll.  As was often the case, the deed was put in the name of Nicoll’s wife, Maud.  The couple moved in with their two children, 7-year old De Lancey, Jr., and 8-year old Josephine Churchill.

Nicoll was a highly-respected attorney who had earned attention two decades earlier when he prosecuted Charles A. Buddensieck, a builder who constructed flimsy buildings.  Nicoll won a conviction of manslaughter in the death of several workmen killed in Buddensieck building collapses.

The lawyer won acclaim as a reformer and became New York City District Attorney in 1890.  He took charge of a campaign against corruption and, as chairman of the committee on judiciary of the City Bar Association opposed the Tammany administration several times.

In 1894 when he stepped down as District Attorney, he formally left political life and resumed his private practice; although he would remain active in politics.   Three years after moving into the 39th Street house, he was appointed Vice Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

The house was noticeably outdated by now and in 1902 architect James Brown Lord was hired to design an extension to the back of the house.  Most likely it was Brown who updated the interiors at the time.  The mid-19th century Victorian rooms of the parlor floor were brought up to date.  The vast parlor area received wooden paneling and a magnificent white marble mantel.  A heraldic crest among the mantel’s elaborate carving is similar, but oddly not identical, to the Nicoll crest.

When not at the 39th Street house the family spent time at their summer estate, Windymere, in Southampton, Long Island.   And as Josephine reached her teenage years entertainments in the Nicoll house quite often centered on her.  On April 3, 1909, for instance, Maud Nicoll gave a cotillion for Josephine in the house.   The ballroom was decorated with roses and lilies and 80 couples “who were all young people,” according to The New York Times the following day, danced to a Hungarian orchestra.

In 1910 De Lancey Nicoll was in the spotlight again when he successfully represented Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World in a libel case that ended up in the United States Supreme Court.

The year 1912, which should have been a joyful one because of Josephine’s debut, would be worrisome for the Nicoll household.   It started out gaily on Valentine’s Day when Maud gave a “theatre party” for her daughter.  Forty guests were invited to dinner with a Valentine theme, “the table being decorated with pink roses, violets, gardenias, and bisque cupids,” reported The Times.  “The favors were tiny silver heart-shaped patch boxes for the girls and glass and silver ash trays for the men.”

After dinner, Maud escorted the party to the Broadway theatre where 35 other guests joined the group.  Then it was back to the house for dancing and more favors.  “The house was decorated with St. Valentine emblems, on a background of wild ivy and sprays of pale pink blossoms,” said The Times.  “Favors were given, consisting of corsage bouquets and heart-shaped trinkets for the girls, and glass and silver match boxes and cigarettes for the men.”

It would be an all-night affair with supper being served at 1:00 a.m.  During the meal a uniformed mailman distributed individual valentines to the guests, causing “much merriment.”  A 30-pound cake was cut, baked inside of which were gold favors.  The newspaper noted that the recipe for the cake “has been in Mrs. Nicoll’s family for more than 200 years.”  Dancing resumed after supper, followed by an early breakfast.  Understandably, “None of the older people were present.”

Following the elaborate Valentine’s Day party, things took a serious turn.   Josephine attended a glittering Bal Masque at the St. James Hotel in Philadelphia a few days later.  In the February cold, the teen contracted pneumonia.   She suffered for eight days and it appeared the crisis had passed; however nine days after becoming ill she suffered a heart attack.  Doctors held little hope for her recovery.

Then, when it seemed things in the Nicoll house could get no worse, De Lancey Nicoll received a letter on March 21 demanding $10,000.  He and Maud were still at the St. James Hotel in Philadelphia where Josephine was convalescing.   It was a time when anarchist and other terrorist groups like the Black Hand intimidated well-known figures with threats and actions.   Just within the past week a bomb had killed Grace Walker in her apartment and another had exploded in the library of Judge Rosalsky.

The letter that De Lancey Nicoll opened promised that he would be killed by a bomb if he did not pay the extortion money.  The writer instructed the attorney to have the money ready for “a caller” who would visit the house before 5:00 on Saturday, March 23 “without any attempt to entrap the caller.”

Nicoll turned the letter over to Police Commissioner Dougherty who “threw about the Nicoll house in East Thirty-ninth street a guard of detectives strong enough to capture a whole brigade of bomb throwers,” reported The Sun on March 24.   The detectives were all in plain clothes.  “Some were dressed in rough clothes, others like clerks.  They hung about the house for twenty-four hours on the watch for the promised caller,” said the newspaper.

The would-be assassin never showed up and, eventually, Josephine became well enough to return home.  The following year another close call was narrowly averted.

In August 1913 while at Windymere, Josephine was driving her automobile, accompanied by her friend Eugenia Philbin.  The car was struck by a train and a local newspaper reported “only her skill and nerve saved them both from being killed.”

Josephine’s health never fully returned; however in 1914 Maud continued the tradition of a Valentine’s Day dance in the house for her daughter.   Among the 230 guests who filed into the house were society names like Mr. and Mrs. August Belmont, Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Van Rensselaer, and Count and Countess del Sera.

Maud outdid herself with the Valentine deliveries this year by constructing a Post Office in one corner of the dining room.  “there the guests went when the buffet supper was served at midnight, and receive from a ‘sure-enough’ looking postman a letter properly addressed to the recipient.  Each envelope contained a valentine, and much laughter was heard when the guests opened them,” reported The New York Times.

With World War I raging in Europe, Maud and Josephine attended Miss Henderson’s class for training war nurses in January 1915.  The hope was that, if Josephine’s health would continue to improve, she would travel abroad to aid in the care of wounded soldiers.

Instead, her health took a dramatic turn for the worse.  After developing meningitis, she was taken to the country home of her grandmother, Mrs. Josephine Y. Birney, at Ossining, New York.  Hopes were that the quiet of the Hudson River Valley and a good rest would be helpful.  But on Saturday, April 24 she contracted rheumatic fever.

De Lancey and Maud rushed to Ossining with three physicians—Doctors Lambert, Ely and Thompson.   The already weakened heart of the 21-year old girl could not endure this latest onslaught, however, and she died on the morning of April 26.

Three days later a memorial service was held at St. George’s Memorial Chapel on Stuyvesant Square.   Josephine’s 68-year old grandmother insisted on attending the service, against her doctor’s advice.  It was too much for her and following the service she was taken to Roosevelt Hospital.  She died there on the morning of May 6, just over a week after her granddaughter’s death in her home.  The funeral of Josephine Young Birney, the mother of Maud Nicoll, was held in the parlor of the 39th Street house.

Perhaps in honor of her daughter, Maud went to England to provide war relief.  While there, she was involved in an automobile accident that crushed her leg above the knee, resulting in her leg being “entirely useless,” as described by the New-York Tribune.

But on December 5, 1920, she received an “unusual surgical operation” performed by Dr. Fred H. Albee.  The Tribune explained that Albee implanted pieces of bone into the fractured area, “and it was correctly assumed that the inlaid pieces of bone would grow to normal proportions.”

In 1921 Maud was suffering in the house (far left) with a crushed leg.  The architectural differences between the house and its neighbors can be seen.  photo NYPL Collection
A year later Maud Nicoll was walking again.  On December 4, 1921 the house was brightly lit and guests once again were entertained here.  That evening Maud gave a dinner for her cousin, Peggy Leigh, who was visiting from London.

The days of elaborate dinners were coming to an end, however.   On February 18, 1924 the funeral of Maud Nicoll took place in the house.  She had died in her bed on February 15, having lived to see one last Valentine’s Day, her favorite holiday.

De Lancey Nicoll lived on in the house for another twelve years until his death on March 31, 1931.  His son was with him when with the 77-year old died.  Nicoll’s net estate amounted to approximately $1.5 million.  While most of the estate went to his son, he bequeathed $25,000 to St. Mary’s Free Hospital for Children in memory of Josephine and $1,000 each to three servants; among other bequests.

De Lancey Nicoll -- photo Library of Congress
On July 8, a little over three months after Nicoll’s death, the house was sold to the Sells Realty Corporation, run by Herman Cohen.  The magnificent home where Maud Nicoll had given dances and dinners for over 200 guests was converted to a restaurant and rooming house.

The English basement became a commercial kitchen, serving what Department of Buildings documents listed as a dining room on the first floor and “dining room and lounge” on the second.   On the upper floors were “bedrooms.”

In 1982 the former restaurant was converted to a menswear display showroom and offices on the first floor and a carpet showroom on the second.   The upper floors became apartments.  The once splendid interiors were gutted and all traces of the Nicoll family were obliterated—except on the parlor floor.  Here through some miracle the 1902 paneling, plasterwork and mantel survived.

The house was lost in foreclosure in 2010 in a highly-publicized case.  The property was advertised for $11.25 million and the listing said of the “office building,” “If demolished, perfect location for a boutique hotel.”

The highly-abused façade is slathered in a brick red stucco-like coating and skinny nailed-on shutters insult the windows.   The cornice, the columned entrance, and the pediments and lintels have been stripped away.   And yet, for now anyway, the De Lancey Nicoll house—the scene of so much tragedy and joy—survives.

The much-abused facade is lamentable -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. JB Lord was Nicoll's brother-in-law. He died in the spring of 1902, so this must have been his last work.

  2. I believe De Lancey Nicoll's wife's full name was Maud Churchill Nicoll, not Maud De Lancey Nicoll as published here. She was, among other things, known for writing a book on knitting and sewing articles for servicemen. It was published in 1918, during her convalescence after the car accident.

    1. Yes, this is correct. I am her great grand-daughter and have some of her silverware with the monogram MCN (Maud Churchill Nicoll).