Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The 1902 neo-Georgian Donnell House -- No. 335 Riverside Drive

photo by Alice Lum

With the arrival of the 20th century Riverside Drive, with its meandering landscaped park and breathtaking views of the Hudson River, saw rapid, high-end development.  Millionaires sought out the best of New York architects to custom-design grand mansions, many of which were free standing.  And speculators got into the act, constructing expensive rowhouses for Manhattan’s upper class.

In 1901 P. M. Stewart and H. I. Smith began work on three side-by-side houses at Nos. 334 through 336 Riverside Drive.  They chose the architectural firm of Hoppin & Koen to design the mansions.  Unlike many of the speculative rows being constructed, each of the houses here would have its own distinct personality.

Completed in 1902, No. 335 cozied up between two regal limestone-clad palaces.  Unlike their European inspiration, it drew on the English Georgian period.  No less imperious than its neighbors, it contrasted white stone with lush red brick to produce a stately bearing.  A neo-Palladian window at the second story was capped by an eye-catching carved shell.  Here engaged columns and pilasters carried on the Ionic motif of the entrance portico that provided support for the its iron-railed balcony.

Elegant carved festooned panels, stone quoins, and a superb iron balcony railing add to the dignified presence of the mansion.

The house was sold in 1903 and purchased by Mary Donnell, the widow of Robert Washington Donnell, senior member of the law firm of Donnell, Lawson & Simpson.   The childless Mary moved in with her aged parents.  Her father, Colonel Leonidas M. Lawson had actively worked to keep Missouri from seceding from the Union.  He had moved to New York City years earlier; retiring in 1894 from the same law firm where Mary's husband had practiced. Mary and her parents shared the Riverside Drive home with a staff of servants.  Colonel Lawson installed in the house what the New-York Tribune called his “valuable library.”  

Mary had a severe scare on April 28, 1906.  Ill and aging herself, she was in her third floor bedroom when she noticed smoke wafting into the room.  In the laundry room a floor below, a fire had started.  The New York Times reported on the daring efforts of one of her staff to save her.  “Maggie, a sturdy servant girl, carried Mrs. Donnell in her arms down to the first floor.”  Before firemen extinguished the blaze, $600 damage had been done—amounting to about $11,000 today.

Mary died in the house later that year, on December 19.  Her funeral was held in the parlor two days later at 10:30 in the morning.   Mary’s will directed her brother-in-law and executor, William Thornton Lawson, to invest $50,000 until that amount was doubled.  At that point the $100,000 was to be given to the Trustees of the William Jewel College in Missouri.  The income from the fund was to be used to establish and maintain a historical library—known as the Robert and Mary Donnell Library. 

There was at least one surprising request in the will.  Mary directed that $10,000 should be spent on “two portraits, one of the testator and the other of her husband, and when completed to be presented to her sister, Theodosia T. Lawson.”  Assumedly the posthumous paintings would ensure that Mary and Robert Donnell would not be forgotten.

Theodosia inherited the mansion and she and William moved in with her parents.  An attorney, the sports-minded William had been captain of his college football and cricket teams and was a member of the Heiderberg Golf Club. 

The couple was quick to embrace the new motorcar over the carriage; but on October 11 1907 that progressive thinking nearly killed Theodosia.  The couple was motoring through Stamford, Connecticut when they “had a narrow escape from serious injury in an automobile smash here this afternoon,” according to the Vermont Middlebury Register.  A Boston couple, Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Rothwell were also in town driving that day.  “The cars came together in a narrow section of West Main street and were completely wrecked.  Mrs. Lawson was thrown out and bruised slightly.  The others suffered only from shock.”

The following year Colonel Lawson’s health began failing.  He and Mrs. Lawson returned home to St. Joseph, Missouri for a visit, but never returned.  He died there on March 28, 1909.  The Colonel’s wife returned to New York, but before long Theodosia and William Lawson rented space in the Riverside Drive house.

Their boarder was Dr. A. L. Soresi, a surgeon and former professor at Fordham Medical School.  The doctor’s unusual Frankenstein-like experiments at his laboratory and “private hospital” at No. 320 West 70th Street brought him negative attention.

According to the Journal of Zoophily, “Last June [1912] he surprised members of the Homeopathic Society of Kings county by saying that in the course of his experiments he had allowed a dog to bleed to death, and then had connected the arteries of the animal with those of another dog.  The blood was transfused, he said, until there was a return to life.

“He added that he had made a similar experiment with a pneumonia patient.”

In 1913 the New York American reported that Soresi had been arrested and arraigned “for failing to abate a certain nuisance on the premises.”   In his lab the doctor had “conducted experiments upon dogs which, he has declared, enabled him to successfully graft the leg of a dead dog upon a live dog.  This let him to believe similar operations might be performed on human beings.”  But it was not these experiments specifically that got him into trouble with his high-toned neighbors; it was the side effects.

“It was because of vivisection work and incidental ether fumes and offensive odors and noises of dogs used for experiments that Mrs. Helen W. McKay, who resides at No. 318 West Seventieth Street, and other neighbors complained,” explained the New York American.

On January 25, 1914 the New York Herald reported that “Persons living in Seventieth street between West End avenue and the Hudson River are angry because Dr. A. I. Soresi, a surgeon, has rented No. 320 West Seventieth street as a laboratory for research work similar to that done by Dr. Alexis Carrel and scientists in the Rockefeller Institute.

“Several of the women said that they were so terrified at what they had seen and heard that if Dr. Soresi did not get out of the house they would have to abandon their homes.  It was asserted that the moans and whining of dogs have been heard coming from the upper part of the house and that the peace of the neighborhood has been disturbed by the operations.”
photo by Alice Lum

Around the same time it appears that the Lawsons moved out and the family of Lothar W. Faber moved in.  Until 1911 the President of the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company had lived in the massive corner mansion steps away at No. 337 Riverside Drive.  The wealthy family was now considerably, if temporarily, down-sizing.

The wedding of Margaret Louise Faber to Brock Putnam took place in the house at 5:00 on the afternoon of June 11, 1913.  The small affair included only the two families “and a few intimate friends,” according to The New York Times.

The Lawsons held on to the property; and before long the Fabers had the mansion to themselves.  Ebe Faber was in charge of the Dinner Committee of his Princeton Class Reunion in 1919 and he directed all reservations requests to be sent here.   After Lothar’s wife, Anna, died in the house on January 29, 1928, he lived on here for another 15 years.  Lothar Faber died in the mansion at the age of 81 on May 12, 1943.

Following the millionaire’s death, the Lawson estate sold the mansion in September 1944—the first sale of the property since Mary Donnell purchased it 41 years earlier.  The “out-of-town buyer” converted the house to commodious apartments, no more than two per floor.

A 1964 conversion updated the apartments, which now totaled only five.  With only minimal exterior alterations, the dignified neo-Georgian mansion looks much as it did when Mary Donnell’s maid carried her down three flights of stairs in 1906.

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