|photo by Alice Lum
In 1916 the lot at No. 17 East 90th Street was purchased by Surrogate Robert Fowler, Jr. and his wife Charlotte. As was customary, the deed was placed in Charlotte Winthrop Fowler’s name. A year later American Architect and Architecture reported that “At a cost of $60,000 a five-story dwelling will be erected at 17 East Ninetieth Street for Mrs. R. L. Fowler.” The architect, noted the publication, was F. Burrall Hoffman, Jr.
Even before the foundation was laid, trouble arose. Because the rear of the lot faced the Carnegie grounds the Department of Buildings deemed it a “corner lot.” Architect Hoffman appealed the designation, pointing out that the Fowler plot was over 100 feet from Fifth Avenue.
“The lot, on which it is proposed to erect the building backs up against a portion of the premises on which Andrew Carnegie’s residence stands,” explained The Sun on June 17, 1917. “The Carnegie plot, which contains two buildings but is mostly uncovered area, is at a corner and runs the full length of Fifth avenue from Ninetieth to Ninety-first street.”
The Department of Buildings reasoned that because most of the Carnegie land was garden, the Fowler plot could rationally be deemed a corner. Luckily for the Fowlers, the Board of Appeals agreed with them, saying “that a lot extending, as this one does, for so great a distance along the street cannot properly be deemed to be a corner lot.”
As the house was nearing completion early in 1919, millionaire banker George Crawford Clark and his wife traveled to Aiken, South Carolina for the winter. The Clarks lived at No. 1027 Fifth Avenue and were highly visible in Manhattan society. George Clark was a member of Clark, Dodge & Co. at No. 51 Wall Street and was a member of the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New England Society. Along with his partnership in the banking firm, he held directorships in a number of companies and was President of the American Society for the Control of Cancer.
Ten days after the Clarks arrived at Aiken, the wealthy banker died suddenly on February 25.
Harriet S. Clark returned to New York and before long sold the Fifth Avenue mansion to Herbert L. Pratt. Perhaps to everyone’s surprise, the Fowlers did not move into their completed mansion on 90th Street; but on August 7, 1919 sold it to Harriet Clark for $250,000 (about $3 million today).
The widowed socialite moved into a 29-foot wide, six story mansion of limestone and grey-tan brick. Taking a page from Carnegie’s book, F. Burrall Hoffman, Jr. treated the upper floors with prim neo-Georgian details—most notably the splayed stone lintels.
|photo by Alice Lum
Below the iron balcony railing that stretched the length of the second floor, the rusticated stone first floor turned to Europe for inspiration. Stone masks—one male and one female—decorated the voussoirs of the two arched openings of a deep entrance loggia. Handsome double entrance doors were nestled six feet back from the façade. Hoffman’s unexpected blending of two starkly dissimilar styles created an imposing and dignified design.
|photo by Alice Lum
Within the decade the mansion would be home to Ector Orr Munn and his wife, the former Fernanda Wanamaker. The granddaughter of John Wanamaker and the daughter of Rodman Wanamaker, Fernanda shared with her two siblings in the $32 million trust created by their father’s will.
|The double entrance doors were nestled deeply within the loggia -- photo by Alice Lum
Her marriage to Ector Munn was her second; having married Arthuro Heeren in 1909. The son of Count Heeren of Paris and Biarritz, Heeren was also a banker and a member of the Spanish diplomatic service. It was this latter position that got Fernanda Wanamaker Heeren Munn in hot water the summer of 1929.
Fernanda had divorced Heeren in 1923 and married the wealthy Ector Orr Munn the following year. Now, living at No. 17 East 90th Street, things were going well. But early in June 1929, as she arrived back in New York on the French liner Paris with her maid, trouble ensued. Having been married to a diplomat, she was accustomed to barging past Customs officials without the annoying delay of declarations.
In her six trunks was “a quantity of new silk wearing apparel,” as well as a strongbox containing $450,000 of jewelry. Fernanda Munn had not gotten very far before “there was some difficulty with Customs officials on the pier,” according to The New York Times a few days later.
Inspection of the trunks found newly-purchased apparel valued at $5,200 (a considerable $66,000 today) which the heiress had not bothered to declare. The nearly half a million dollars in jewelry was proven to be family heirlooms. Newspapers publicized the untidy affair, which ended in a hearing at the Custom House. Mrs. Munn sent off a check for the $10,400 in duty and her trunks and jewelry were sent to the 90th Street house.
The Munn mansion, scene of glittering receptions and dinners, turned to war relief efforts in the years prior to the United States entry into World War II. In October 1939 The Trianon Committee was formed to send thousands of parcels to French soldiers on the front. The packages included warm clothing and other items of comfort.
Fernanda Munn was in Paris as the Duchess of Windsor accepted the title of presidency of the committee. The New York Times reported on October 17 that “The Trianon Committee will be represented in New York by Mrs. Ector Munn of 17 East Ninetieth Street, who is to sail for the United States this weekend-end.”
Upon reaching home, Fernanda announced that her home “would be used as headquarters for the American project, and gatherings will be held there later, at which friends will be asked to knit sweaters, gloves, socks and passé-montaigne helmets.”
After nearly two decades together in the 90th Street mansion and their Palm Beach estate, Fernanda and Ector Munn divorced in 1948. Fernanda stayed on in the 90th Street house, spending considerable time as well in Paris. It was there, in the Continental Hotel, that she died at the age of 71 in September 1958.
The house was bequeathed to son Rodman de Heeren and his wife Aimee, whom he had married in 1941. The couple maintained residences in Palm Beach, Paris and Biarritz, France, as well. Deemed an “exotic beauty,” Aimee was from Brazil and quickly became “a fixture on the international social scene and a regular on the best-dressed lists,” according to The New York Times.
When she died in 2006 at the age of 103, Josh Barbanel of The New York Times said she “became one more lost link to an earlier age of social grace and high society.
“She was also the last link in a chain of ownership of a 29-foot-wide limestone and brick town house on East 90th Street that had been in the same high society family since the 1920s,” he said.
The mansion was put on the market at $33 million and was purchased by the exclusive Spence School in September 2008 for $27.5 million. The elite girls’ school already owned the five-story building directly behind at No. 22 East 91st Street. Its plan was to build a 20-foot wide, 30-foot tall glass atrium that would join the two structures—a proposal that ignited a Carnegie Hill feud.
Neighbors complained that the passage would “fundamentally change the character of the rear yard corridor,” and that “our privacy, our life is getting boxed in.”
|photo by Alice Lum
Although F. Burrall Hoffman’s glorious interiors were converted to classrooms; his exterior mix of Continental and American styles survives as an imposing and handsome presence on the block.