Saturday, September 7, 2013

The A. B. Emmons House -- No. 40 East 38th Street

photo by Alice Lum
On January 10, 1896 The Sun reported on the rumors that had circulated through Manhattan’s high-toned sitting rooms for weeks.  “Mrs. Mary Scott Dimmock of 40 East Thirty-eighth street would not admit or deny yesterday the correctness of the statement published in The Sun’s Indanapolis despatch yesterday that she is soon to marry ex-President Benjamin Harrison.  There is a well-defined belief prevalent in the neighborhood of Mrs. Dimmock’s place of residence, however, that the story is true.”

Mary Dimmock and her sister, Mrs. J. H. Parker, had closed their door to reporters and gossip-mongers—for now.  The well-to-do widows both had a connection to the former president.   Mary’s aunt, Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison, was his wife and First Lady.  In 1889 Mary had moved into the White House to serve as her aunt’s personal assistant.   Mary’s sister had been married to the now-deceased Lieutenant J. H. Parker, a distinguished military officer and Private Secretary to Harrison during his term in office.

Now the two ladies shared in a brownstone home in the fashionable Murray Hill neighborhood, drawing attention to themselves only because of Mary’s highly-noticeable gentleman caller.  Tidbits in the newspapers perked the attention of the matrons of society.  Three days after The Sun’s article, The New York Times mentioned “Gen. Harrison remained in the Fifth Avenue Hotel yesterday until after luncheon.  He went out at 3 o’clock to call on Mrs. Dimmock, at 40 East Thirty-eighth Street, returning to his hotel for dinner.”

The silence on the part of both parties was frustrating to reporters and the public alike.  On January 12 The Times grumbled “[Harrison] was willing to speak of the favorable state of his health, of the weather, and about his trip, but when reference was made to the reported marriage, his manner changed, and he very coldly said: ‘I cannot discuss the matter.’”

When the former President left through the Fifth Avenue Hotel’s private entrance after dinner and “strolled up Broadway,” The Times said “He told nobody where he was going, and seemed desirous of having his movements unknown.”

The newspaper added “Inquiry at the residence of Mrs. Dimmock, at 40 East Thirty-eighth Street, developed the fact that the ex-President had not been there, and that Mrs. Dimmock was also out for the evening.  Mrs. Dimmock had sent word earlier in the day, when asked for information, that she must be excused from saying anything.”

The rumored romance of the couple was fertile ground for wagging tongues.  Not only were they slightly related by marriage, Mary was 37 years old; Harrison was 62.  Finally, on January 17 the gossip was put to rest.  Harrison’s secretary, Colonel Tibbetts, had announced a press conference in the hotel lobby at 9:00 that night “for the communication of National importance.”

The New York Times said that the hotel’s corridors were “thronged” with politicians awaiting news.  At 9:00 Tibbetts appeared and distributed a printed announcement that read “Gen. Harrison authorized the announcement that he and Mrs. Dimmock are engaged to be married, and that the marriage will not take place until after lent.”

Mary Dimmock, the niece of his deceased wife Caroline, caught the eye of Benjamin Harrison --photograph Library of Congress
The couple was married in St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue on April 6, 1896.  With Mary married, her sister left the 38th Street house as well.   Two years later the owner Fannie J. Byrnes leased the house for five years to “a Mrs. St. John,” according to The Times on August 18, 1898.

The St. John family did not live out their lease and in 1901 Fannie Byrnes sold the brownstone rowhouse.  Newspapers hinted at the buyer.   And on May 24 The Times said “it is reported that A. B. Emmons has bought the four-story dwelling.”

The wealthy Emmons and his wife, the former Julia W. Parish, were more well known in Newport society than in Manhattan.  Their estate there, Hillside, was the site of their most important entertaining and it was there that Emmons had announced his engagement to Julia in 1891.

With their new purchase, the Emmons family had acquired a wide town home in Murray Hill—an exclusive neighborhood populated by millionaires and aloofly removed from the more public Fifth Avenue.  But the post-Civil War residence was decidedly out of style.

Change was coming to Murray Hill in terms of architectural renovation.  New owners were modernizing their old brownstones with new facades and interior make-overs by the city’s most esteemed architects.  Arthur Emmons joined the trend by hiring the firm of Parrish & Schroeder to transform the stern high-stooped Victorian house to an up-to-date Beaux Arts palace.

Construction began in 1901 and the Emmons family packed their bags for Newport.  While the bulk of society was returning to the city, they headed in the opposite direction to wait out construction on the house.  The Newport reporter for The New York Times mentioned on October 16, 1901 “Arthur B. Emmons and family…arrived from New York to-day.”

A year later they moved into the completed house.  No trace of the former building where Benjamin Harrison courted Mary Dimmock survived.  The old stoop was gone and the Emmons family had a limestone-faced, American basement house fit for upper Fifth Avenue.  A two-story bowed bay rose above the entrance and a full-story, steep mansard roof completed the French design. 

photo by Wurts Brothers, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Merely two years later, in April, Emmons sold the mansion.  It became home to the Rev. John B. Morgan and his wife Juliet.  Morgan had been for many years the pastor of the American Episcopal Church in Paris.  His wife was the sister of nearby neighbor J. P. Morgan, Jr..  Juliet Pierpont Morgan would stay on in the house following her husband’s death in 1912.

Like Emmons before her, Juliet filled the house with valuable art.   On the walls were hung paintings by 18th century English artists Joshua Reynolds, George Romney and John Hoppner.  On April 1, 1923 Juliet died at the age of 53.  The Times reported on her valuable jewelry and artworks; however seemed disappointed in her wardrobe.  “The report fixes the value of Mrs. Morgan’s wearing apparel at only $350,” it said.

The 38th Street house was purchased by Donald Winchester Brown.  Mrs. Brown immediately staged glittering entertainments.  The Browns’ daughter, Charlotte Babcock Brown, was the focus of a dizzying number of receptions, dinners and teas in 1926, the year of her debut.  On December 11 The New York Times reported that “Mrs. Donald W. Brown held a reception yesterday afternoon at her home, 40 East Thirty-eighth Street, to introduce her daughter…to some of her older friends.  Mrs. Brown and her daughter were assisted in receiving by Mrs. William Reynolds Brown, grandmother of the debutante, who gave a large dance for her last month.  Mrs. Rembrandt Peale, Jr., was at the tea table.  Mrs. Paul Gibert Thebaud will give a luncheon today at Pierre’s, followed by a theatre party, for Miss Brown.”

The street address was incorporated into the carved cartouche over the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum

Mrs. Brown accomplished an envy-inducing social coup in 1928 when a wireless report arrived at The New York Times office from London.   On June 12 the newspaper told readers that young Charlotte was “to be presented at Buckingham Palace at the season’s fourth court, it became known today.”  Charlotte had been chosen as one of six American girls “who will curtsey before their Majesties."
The Browns moved on from East 38th Street in 1930 when they sold the house to Grace Rainey Rogers.  Grace, too, was an art collector—surpassing perhaps all the former owners of the residence.  When she died in 1943 the nation’s top art museums stood in line for their bequests—The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art among them.
At the time of her death, Grace was living at No. 58 Park Avenue and her niece, Bertha Rainey Plum, was living in the 38th Street house.  Not long afterwards, it was divided into apartments.

Life as an apartment house would be short-lived for No. 40, however.  In 1950 the United States Golf Association purchased the mansion to house its museum and headquarters.  The USGA spent $100,000 for the property and for what Marty Parkes, in his “Classic Shots: The Greatest Images from the United States Golf Association” calls “suitable renovations.” 

The association was responsible for developing standards for the game, including golf balls and clubs.  In its museum here the public was invited to view the group’s extensive collection of golf memorabilia and photographs.  Upstairs were club rooms and, on the third and fourth floors, two apartments each.

The former mansion became known as “Golf House,” and would continue its quiet operations here for over two decades.  Then in 1972 it sold the house and moved its administrative offices to a 70-acre former New Jersey country estate in Far Hills.  In 1991 the house was acquired by the owners of the Kitano Hotel next door at No. 42 East 38th Street. 

The Kitano management gutted the Edwardian interiors of Parrish & Schroeder’s entrance level to install a sleek, double-height restaurant, The Garden CafĂ©.  The rooms where socialites entertained among masterpieces of art gave way to an open, soaring space where lunching Murray Hill businessmen talk trade.

The gracious Beaux Arts exterior, however, remains essentially unchanged.

photo by Alice Lum

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