Saturday, February 1, 2014

The 1905 J. Wray Cleveland Mansion -- No. 131 E. 64th Street

photo by Alice Lum
On March 7, 1904, when Dr. Simon P. Goodhart sold his 1877 brownstone to wealthy banker J. Wray Cleveland and his wife, the neighborhood was in the midst of rapid change.  As moneyed New Yorkers moved northward, they demolished or remodeled the Victorian homes; replacing them with handsome up-to-date residences.  On reporting the sale of No. 131 East 64th Street, The New York Times noted that Cleveland “will replace the dwelling now on the lot with one of the American basement type.”

The American basement plan that was so popular now did away with the high stoops of a generation earlier and brought the entrance doors conveniently down to street level.  The Clevelands’ ideas for their new mansion would go far beyond that, however.

The couple hired the distinguished architect Augustus N. Allen to design the home.  Demolition and construction quickly ensued and the new house was ready for occupancy in 1905.  In place of the brooding brownstone Allen had produced a gleaming limestone home in the Beaux Arts style.  The imposing grandeur of the five-story mansion left no doubt as to the social and financial status of its owners.

photo by Alice Lum
Above the grand arched entrance in the heavily-rusticated base, an ornamented bay of cast metal nestled within a two-story arch.  Allen provided visual dimension by the addition of two limestone balconies with decorative wrought iron balconies and a bracketed cornice below the fifth floor.

In the days before electronic surveillance and alarm systems, the wealthy were easy prey for bold burglars.  Thieves often broke into houses while the family was dining—fully away that the household staff would be busy downstairs.  One pair of burglars, instead, chose the early hours of Sunday February 23, 1908 to prowl the Clevelands’ neighborhood while homeowners and servants were fast asleep.

The pair entered six houses, hauling away $10,000 worth of silverware and jewelry.  The Sun described the daring of the gutsy thieves during their burglary of the home of Albert Rathbone a block away at No. 130 East 65th Street.  “The intruders took their pick of the silver in the dining room, then went upstairs to the bedrooms, where the family was asleep and stripped these rooms of all jewels.  Their haul from his house is placed at about $5,000.”

The crooks chose one mansion after another finally cleaning out the house of stockbroker Anson B. Moran at No. 132 East 64th Street, directly across the street from the Cleveland residence.  “Here they made a clean sweep of all the silver in the dining room,” said The Sun, “much of which was heirlooms.”

The palatial-looking Cleveland residence looked promising to the thieves; but this time a wary servant would save the Cleveland valuables.  “Packing up $1,000 worth of look the men next tackled 131 East Sixty-fourth street, but just as they had got inside some wakeful person heard them and shouted ‘Burglars!’”

By now the area was swarming with police as the multiple reports continued to reach the station house.  “The policemen surrounded the block, carefully patrolling Sixty-third and Sixty-fourth streets, and Lexington and Park avenues.  It was then about 4 o’clock in the morning,” reported the newspaper.

Remarkably, the duo slipped through the clutches of police, entered the basement of Mrs. Philip Sanda’s house at No. 135 East 64th and snatched $1,000 worth of silver.  Having collected a satisfying $200,000 worth of loot in today’s money the thieves slipped away.

Edwardian socialites busied themselves with afternoon visitations during which tea and gossip were served in richly-decorated salons.  To publicize when one would be receiving and to conveniently arrange the roles of visitor and hostess, announcements were placed in the society pages.  Mrs. J. Wray Cleveland joined in the tradition during the winter seasons; announcing, for example, that she “will be at home on Wednesday, Jan. 19, from 4 to 7,” in 1910.

A year later the doors to the mansion were flung open as the aging couple celebrated their silver wedding anniversary with an evening reception.  

After 14 years in their home, the Clevelands sold it to James D. Hill.  Because real estate deeds were most often put in the name of the wife--for reasons of financial security in case of the husband’s death—newspapers noted the sale by Mrs. Edith R. Cleveland to Mrs. James N. Hill.

The Hills paid $100,000 for the home—about $1 million today.  Mrs. Hill had some updating to do and brought in Kenneth M. Murchison to do interior alterations.

Hill had inherited his millions from his father, railroad pioneer James J. Hill.  The family’s genteel lifestyle on East 64th Street would be tinged with tragedy on the afternoon of November 11, 1922.  A group of little boys was playing “soldiers” in front of No. 229 East 47th Street that day.  Their innocent war games would end disastrously.

James Hill was being driven by his chauffeur, Frank Truelove.  The limousine was traveling west on 47th Street when suddenly little 5-year old Edward Manning bolted into the street, directly into the path of Hill’s car.  The New York Times reported that “Truelove was unable to stop his machine in time.  The boy was taken to Bellevue Hospital where he was pronounced dead by Dr. Feinberg.”
Although Truelove was not arrested and the death was deemed accidental, The Times nevertheless ran a somewhat sensational headline “Little ‘Soldier’ Run Down.”
photo by Alice Lum
The limestone mansion on East 64th Street next became home to Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Neal.  The socially-prominent couple lived here for years.  Then in 1950 the house was converted to a two-family residence.  The pair of upscale commodious apartments would remain for over half a century until the house was reconverted to a private mansion in 2008.

Former team president of the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars, David Seldin, ordered what a realtor deemed a “superb renovation” of the mansion.  The period interiors of rich paneling, plastered ceilings and marble mantels were gutted for an ultra-modern make-over.  In addition to the eight bedrooms, eleven baths, staff room, “music hall,” and library; the renovation added a spa with massage room and what Mrs. J. Wray Cleveland would have termed a “swimming plunge.”

In 2013 Seldin sold the house for a satisfying $18.5 million.  

Augustus N. Allen's grand Edwardian interiors were gutted -- photo Corcoran realty


  1. Why one purchases a beautiful period house with intact architectural interior details and then rips everything out to create an environment that can be found in any upscale contemporary high-rise or condo is beyond reason almost criminal. Unfortunate and poor choices by the later owners

  2. I was most intrigued and impressed as I watched the work in progress for the spa several years ago: the sidewalk in front of the house was cordoned off and the ground excavated to what appeared to be an enormous depth. Rumor at the time was that it was all being done to install a swimming pool. I guess there was some truth to it.

  3. That is a boring stairhall if I ever saw one. The facade hints at granduer and you walk in and get a 1980's Hyatt Hotel lobby. bland bland bland.

  4. The interior is yet another example of contemporary bad taste. The poster who refered to this as a 1980's Hyatt Hotel lobby is spot on...a psuedo art deco design that comes across as looking very cheap.

    I will never understand why people buy historic and well preserved only to demolish all of the treasures.