|photo by Alice Lum|
In 1876 architect and builder John McCool was frantically erecting rows of brownstone houses in Manhattan’s rapidly developing Upper East Side. That year he began construction on another project—ten matching homes stretching from No. 115 to 133 East 64th Street. The neo-Grec residences, completed a year later, would be among McCool’s last ambitious developments; a year later he was forced into bankruptcy with nearly $3 million in liabilities.
The house at No. 129 was home to retired merchant Michael Elias and his wife Johanna in the 1890s. The wealthy Elias came to the aid of Ronald T. McDonald, Director of the Madison Square Bank in 1893 when he, as well as all other officers of the bank, were arrested and “accused of being concerned in the wrecking of that institution,” according to The New York Times on October 25.
While Edward S. Stokes (who, incidentally, had been pardoned in 1884 for the murder of James Fisk) had furnished preliminary bail for McDonald; it was Michael Elias who stepped up with the $10,000 to guarantee his freedom. To do so, he gave the house at No. 129 East 64th Street as collateral. It was valued at $25,000 (about $625,000 today).
By the turn of the century Helena Rexer owned the house; and in the spring of 1900 she sold it to Winfield Scott and his wife. On May 13 The New York Times society page noted that “Mr. and Mrs. Winfield Scott have given up their town house on Lexington Avenue, where they have resided since their marriage.” A month later the title to No. 129 East 64th Street was transferred to Scott’s wife, Fannie R. Scott.
While highly visible in society, the Scotts were not part of the Newport or Bar Harbor sets, instead summering in their cottage at Far Rockaway.
Fannie would live for decades in the house, busying herself with charitable causes and social events. In 1920 she increased the square footage of the home by adding a two-story extension in the rear at a cost of $1,300.
In 1937 Arne Horlin Ekstrom and his wife, Parmenia, purchased the house. As was normally the case, the title was put in Parmenia’s name. By now many of the old brownstones in the original row had been made over and updated. Before moving in, the Ekstroms had major plans in mind.
The architectural firm of Coffin & Coffin was commissioned to transform the outmoded Victorian into a modern mansion. The stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to street level within a rusticated limestone base. The architects managed to successfully integrate the original neo-Grec details and brownstone façade of the third and fourth floors into the design. At the new fifth story was a Palladian-inspired window grouping and a romantic, projecting balcony.
|A less expressive servants' entrance opens to the left -- photo by Alice Lum|
The house would be the scene of receptions, teas and dinners. Parmenia Ekstrom was the President of the Ballet Guild and entertainments in her drawing room were often as much social and business. On March 23, 1940 The Times reported that the Ekstroms “gave a tea yesterday at their home, 129 East Sixty-fourth Street, for a group active in the plans for the second annual Ballet Ball.”
Later that same year Parmenia accepted the chairmanship of the midnight All Star Dance program scheduled for August 6 at the Winter Garden. The benefit event was sponsored by the British War Relief Society and was intended to aid children evacuated from the war zone.
The house managed to remain a single family home and in 1960 it was purchased by world renowned motion picture director Otto Preminger for $128,000 (just under $1 million today). Preminger and his wife, Hope, were the parents of two new twins; but before they would move in they made changes.
Preminger wanted a modern home and commissioned graphic designer Saul Bass to make over the interiors. The Academy Award-winning Bass was best known for his design of movie title sequences, corporate logos and film posters. But for Preminger he turned his talents to interior design.
The interiors of the house were gutted and the renovations took nearly a full year to complete. The family moved in on New Year’s Day 1961; although the work was not yet fully completed. Preminger told his wife the house was like a play out of town: “If you don’t bring it in, it will never open.”
In 1998 new owners once again set architects and designers to work renovating the mansion. Christopher Smallwood, architect to the British Royal Family, added a limestone veneer with shallow pilasters to the former parlor level; extending the base to two stories. Preminger’s modern interiors were made less so with antique 17th and 18th century architectural elements brought from Europe.
|Added stories provided more living space and questionable proportions -- photo by Alice Lum|
The renovations took four years to complete and John McCool’s 1877 house, hidden somewhere within it all, had now risen to seven stories and included 20 rooms and an elevator. In 2013 the mansion was sold for $11.6 million.
|A baronial fireplace, parquet floors and wood-paneled walls effectively eliminated Otto Preminger's stark 60s-modern interiors -- photo www.elliman.com|