|photo by Alice Lum
In the decade following the Civil War architect and builder John McCool threw himself headlong into the rapid development of the Upper East Side near the newly completed Central Park. The developer purchased long rows of building plots in the 60s and 70s and erected brownstone rowhouses intended for the financially-comfortable merchant class.
Among his speculative developments was a row of 10 townhouses stretching from No. 115 to 133 East 64th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues. Construction began in 1876 and was completed a year later, resulting in handsome (if not exceptional) brownstone-clad neo-Grec homes. Unfortunately for McCool, his overly-ambitious projects collided with the long-lasting Financial Panic of 1873. By the time the East 64th Street row was completed, he was in dire financial trouble.
On April 4, 1878 the New-York Tribune noted that twelve of John McCool’s creditors were seeking to “throw him into bankruptcy.” By summer it was all over for the real estate developer. His total liabilities totaled a staggering $2,757,391—more than $56 million today. On June 22, 1878 the Tribune reported on his bankruptcy.
Among the brownstone houses along the row was No. 121 East 64th Street, which became home to attorney Herman Joseph and his family around 1889. Joseph had taken a position with Samuel Hirsch, a well-known attorney at No. 315 Broadway where he received his hands-on legal training; finally graduating from New York University Law School in 1877.
By the time the turn of the century approached, he had established himself as a specialist in commercial law and an authority on bankruptcy. Politically-active, he was known as a “Tammany Hall Democrat” and was a member of the Progress Club, the Bnai Brith Club, and Algonquin Club. His charitable nature resulted in his sitting on the boards of the Mount Sinai Hospital, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, Montefiore Home for Incurables, the Home for the Aged and Infirm and the Passover Relief Association.
In 1898, at the age of 42, Herman Joseph was appointed by the new mayor, Robert Anderson Van Wyck, to the post of Justice of the Municipal Court. The Tammany Times said on July 17, “Among the new appointments of Mayor Van Wyck none is more popular than the well-known and deserving Democrat, Judge Herman Joseph.” Perhaps surprisingly, considering Joseph’s age, the political newspaper explained “It is said that the reason why Mr. Joseph gave up a lucrative practice for the position of Justice of the Municipal Court is that he is by reason of delicate health, unable to cope with the requirements physically of his profession.”
|Judge Herman Joseph -- The Tammany Times, July 17, 1898 (copyright expired)
As it turned out, Judge Joseph’s “delicate health” did not deter him from hearing and ruling impartially and, at times, rigorously. If physical requirements prevented him from continuing his legal practice, they did not prevent him from carrying out investigative jurisprudence.
In May 1904 the judge was presented with the case of damages to a White Clover Dairy Company truck. George A. Young had driven his milk wagon along 124th Street on October 19, 1903 when a low-hanging branch ripped the canvas top off the truck. The dairy sued the city for the $155.80 cost to repair the wagon.
Counsel for the city argued that the branch did not hang low enough to damage a vehicle. So Judge Joseph packed up his entire courtroom staff including the stenographer, affidavit clerk, chief clerk and court officer and declared that court would be held on May 14 on the brownstone steps of the house at No. 308 East 124th Street.
Because the court case was being held in the open air, the judge permitted reporters to wear their hats. George Young appeared with the repaired truck, and a make-shift courtroom was established on the stoop. Just as the case was about to commence, Judge Joseph was infuriated by the arrival of a street sweeper.
“Taking his place on the second step of the brown stairs, Justice Joseph declared court open. A street sweeper in duck uniform came down the street making a furious dust with his broom,” reported The Evening World later that day.
“’Evict that man from the court,’ demanded the Justice of Court Officer Moran. The white-wing was summarily chased a half block.”
After the rival attorneys presented their cases, Joseph ordered the driver to recreate the incident. “The limb struck the top and was carrying it away when Moran and a dozen other coppers grabbed the horse and threw it back on its haunches,” said The Evening World. “’Do you think the city wants to pay for another top?’ demanded Moran.”
The city’s lawyer brushed off the demonstration, saying that the repaired wagon was taller than it was before the accident. With judicial wisdom the judge ordered “Get a tape measure and we will find out.”
Since no one had a tape measure, a policeman was sent to a store. “Court took a recess in the interim and everyone smoked. Every window up and down the street was filled with heads watching the unusual court proceedings,” said the newspaper.
No doubt to the city attorney’s dismay, the wagon measured 7 feet, 9 inches high; while the damaged wagon was 8 feet, 4 inches. “The city has lost its case,” declared Herman Joseph.
The house on East 64th Street was the scene of joyful entertainment on April 11, 1909 when the Judge and his wife gave a reception to announce the engagement of their daughter, Rose, to Richard Bauer. Perhaps it was Rose’s leaving the house the prompted the couple to sell No. 121 two months later.
Dr. Paul W. Kimball purchased the old brownstone, putting the deed in his wife’s name. By now wealthy homeowners were either razing the outdated rowhouses or radically renovating them into modern residences. Immediately upon purchasing No. 121 Dr. Kimball and his wife planned their own renovations.
On June 15, 1909 The Sun reported “Plans have been filed for enlarging the three story and basement residence at No. 121 East Sixty-fourth street and making it over into an American basement dwelling.” The newspaper noted that the chosen architect for the project was Donn Barber.
Barber’s alterations resulted in the stoop being removed and the entrance lowered to street level. The original doorway on the parlor floor was remodeled as a window. While the renovations did not totally mask the Victorian brownstone, they provided the Kimballs with a more modern American basement design.
Dr. and Mrs. Kimball would stay in the house for nine years. In the meantime, on October 25, 1917, a socially-significant wedding took place in St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue—that of J. Theus Munds and Elsie Welsh Saltus. The ongoing war in Europe was reflected in the wedding party. The New York Times reported that “One of the ushers in the army khaki and another in the blue uniform of the navy broke the usual monotony of the ushers’ dress.”
The Sun advised readers that “Mr. Munds is a son of the late Mr. and Mrs. James Dickson Munds of Wilmington, N.C., and a grandson of Mrs. Louis Nicholas de l’Aigle of the Georgia family of that name.” The bride, it reported, “was one of the debutantes of last winter…She is fond of outdoor life and is prominent in the younger contingent in the Cedarhurst colony, where she is a member of the junior polo team.”
The newlyweds moved in to No. 470 Park Avenue where their frequent entertainments were noticed by society page columnists. But within a year they would be in the market for a permanent home.
In September 1918 Dr. Kimball sold No. 121 East 64th Street to Frederick J. Sterner. The architect had already made a reputation of purchasing old Victorian brownstones and transforming them into Mediterranean, neo-Gothic and Tudor fantasies. If he anticipated a similar project for the Kimball residence, he soon changed his mind.
One month later, on October 24, he resold the houses to the Munds. The deal prompted The Sun to say he “made a handsome profit on the transaction.” Indeed, he had done well. In the four weeks he owned the house he made $8,000 on the sale—a tidy $85,000 or so in today’s dollars.
|Two entrances provided separate access to servants (left) and family and guests--photo by Alice Lum
Like the Kimballs, the Munds had renovations in mind—but theirs would be far more sweeping. The couple commissioned James E. Casale to completely revamp the old home. The architect transformed the neo-Grec façade to a neo-Tudor fantasy. A full story under a pointed gable was added and the building slathered in rough stucco. A romantic two-story oriel at the second and third floors was roofed in slate shingles, and six tall, arched windows clustered together behind a stone balustrade at the second floor. The outmoded Victorian now emerged as an up-to-date Edwardian residence—inside and out-- fit for the socially-active couple.
|Elsie Saltus Munds is dressed for the Patriot's Ball the year the couple moved into their new home -- photograph Arts & Decoration, March 1920 (copyright expired)
The renovations were complete early in 1920 and by April it was ready to receive guests. On April 5 The Sun noted that “Mr. and Mrs. J. Theus Munds will give a reception in their new home, 121 East Sixty-fourth street, on next Saturday afternoon.”
|The Munds dining room opened onto a glass-covered courtyard -- photo Architectural Forum, September 1921 (copyright expired)
The Saturday afternoon reception would be just the first of many entertainments in the renovated house. The same year that the couple moved into the house they celebrated the birth of their son, James Theus Jr.
|photo by Alice Lum
One of Elsie Saltus Munds’ most prominent social roles came in 1922 when she was named chairman of the Victory Ball. The socially-important event was organized to raise funds for “those who are still suffering from the effects of the war and for whom no armistice has been signed,” as explained in the New-York Tribune.
Only a few years after their extensive renovation of No. 121 the Munds moved to No. 15 East 61st Street. The house on East 61st Street would become home to Walter Naumburg and his wife Elsie. The Naumburg name was well-known in New York for the family’s appreciation and support of music. In 1905 Naumburg’s father, banker Elkan Naumburg, funded free concerts in the Central Park’s cast iron pagoda-style bandstand.
By 1912 the old bandstand had become inadequate and Elkan Naumburg donated a new structure. After his death, sons Walter and George took up the cause and continued the free concerts.
Like his father, Walter Naumburg was a banker. After his retirement in 1931, he devoted his life to music and philanthropy. The house on East 64st Street would regularly be the site of impromptu musicales as the Naumburgs’ guests brought their instruments with them.
“Friends, including some professionals, used to gather at my home on Wednesday nights and play the great quartets and quintets—the Beethoven Quartet 135 in C sharp, the late Brahms chamber pieces, things like that,” he later told a reporter.
As Elsie Naumburg grew ill in early 1953, Walter put down his cello, never to play again. The 73-year old Elsie Binger Naumburg died in New York Hospital in January 1954. The remarkable woman was a research fellow on the staff of the department of birds at the American Museum of Natural History. Although she was a well-known ornithologist, she shared Walter’s interest in music, holding the posts of secretary and treasurer of the Naumburg Musical Foundation and the chairman of the board of An Hour of Music, Inc.
Elsie Naumburg had written a report, “The Birds of Matto Gross, Brazil,” on the ornithological finds of Theodore Roosevelt’s Brazilian expedition.
Following Elsie’s death, Walter Naumburg wistfully remembered the musical evenings in the house and told a New York Times reporter, “I still have the cello my father gave me with I was 17. It had once belonged to the last King of Hanover.” He continued to live in the house at No. 121 East 64th Street until his death on October 17, 1959 at the age of 91.
|photo by Alice Lum
In 2013 the wonderful neo-Tudor home was listed for just under $13 million. In its listing the realtor suggested that “if it feels too collegiate-Gothic, just rip out the heavy wood paneling.”