Saturday, April 19, 2014

The 1902 McKeever House -- No. 120 East 65th Street

photo by Alice Lum

In the first years after the Civil War the Upper East Side saw rapid development.  In 1874 architect F. S. Barus designed a string of six brownstone-fronted homes, Nos. 120 through 130 East 65th Street, for Robert and Margaret Morrison.  Barus had been busy for several years designing tenement buildings and what the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide termed “brown-stone second-class dwellings.”

Just a year earlier the 65th Street block on which the homes stood was considered by some to be on the “wrong” side of Fourth Avenue (later renamed Park Avenue).  The soot belching locomotives that ran down the center of the avenue made it less than desirable for respectable homes.  The thoroughfare was a delineation line, of sorts, between the fashionable blocks off Central Park and the more middle-class areas to the east.  But in 1875, the same year the houses were completed, Cornelius Vanderbilt and the City of New York buried the train tracks.

Real estate values on Park Avenue and the blocks to the east suddenly rose.  The Morrisons’ speculative homes were up-to-date and commodious.  At 20 feet wide and four stories tall above an English basement, they were intended for comfortable merchant class families.  No. 120 soon became home to D. L. Newborg, head of D. L. Newborg & Son, a men’s clothier.

The Newborg family moved out late in 1885.  The Real Estate Record & Guide noted on November 28 that year that Newborg “has sold the stone-front dwelling…on terms which have not transpired.”

It was most likely Harold Clay Werner who purchased the house from Newborg.  The educator had earned his PhD from Columbia College and went by the professional name H. C. Werner.  In 1870 he had married Susan Hallowell (and by 1900 had legally changed his name to Harold Hallowell Werner).  Werner sold the house on May 25, 1894 for $30,000—a tidy $785,000 in today’s dollars.

The proper Victorian rowhouse became the St. Joseph’s Home for Babies.  Operated by the Dominican Convent of Our Lady of the Rosary, the home was established on November 1, 1897.  Here the nuns fostered “children under 2 years of age who are orphans, half-orphans, or abandoned by their parents,” as described in the Annual Report of the State Board of Charities of the State of New York.

By now millionaires’ mansions were sprouting along Fifth Avenue opposite the Park and the fashionable tone of that neighborhood spilled as far east as the orphanage.  The Home would not be here long. 

In 1902 it was a private home again, owned by Isaac Chauncey McKeever and his wife Julia.  For blocks around, old brownstones were being razed and replaced by modern mansions; or remodeled as updated, stylish homes.  The McKeevers commissioned S. E. Gage to renovate No. 120.

An architect and engineer, Gage had already transformed several high-stooped houses to prim neo-Federal homes and he would do the same for the McKeevers.  Completed in 1902, Gage somewhat surprisingly kept the parlor above sidewalk level, retaining the English basement.   He turned the stoop to the side, giving it an interesting dogleg configuration and embellished it with especially handsome open newels and simple railings.
Somewhat surprisingly for the East Side, Gage used a dog-leg stoop.  The ironwork is especially handsome.  photo by Alice Lum

Burned headers in the Flemish bond brickwork created the suggestion of antiquity.  Splayed stone lintels at the third floor, multi-paned arched openings at the second with attractive fanlights, and an interesting parlor floor window with a Gibbs surround combined to form a formal Colonial look.

As it does today, the remodeled house snuggled up against Victorian brownstones in 1911 -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
The wealthy McKeevers and their three daughters rubbed shoulders with Manhattan’s socially elite.  During the summer season of 1917 Julia and daughters, Marianne and Frances, stayed at the exclusive Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.  Like most other monied husbands, Isaac stayed home, traveling to the resort on weekends or when time permitted.

The Sun noted that on September 29 that year, “Isaac Chauncey McKeever joined Mrs. McKeever and the Misses Marianne and Frances McKeever.”  Among others summering there who made the newspaper that day were Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mr and Mrs. Harry Sachs, and Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Bull.

The United States entered World War I that year; and the carefree circuit of social seasons, dinners and dances became a bit more somber.  And many social functions, like weddings--normally planned out for months and executed in elaborate ceremonies--were thrown into upheaval.

And so it was for the McKeever family.  On the afternoon of September 23, 1918 Edith McKeever married Ensign Boughten Cobb of the United States Navy in the chantry of St. Thomas’s Church on Fifth Avenue.  “The wedding was arranged hurriedly, as Ensign Cobb, who has been stationed for some months at a foreign port, obtained a two weeks’ leave here to wed,” reported the New-York Tribune the following day.

The McKeever family was followed briefly in the house by Edward Purcell Mellon and his wife, the former Ethel Churchill Humphrey.  The immensely wealthy Mellons summered in their country estate Villa Maria at Southampton, Long Island.  It was here in August 1919 that a burglar made off with $3,000 worth of Ethel’s diamonds and some cash (close to $40,000 in today's dollars).  In reporting the theft, The Sun noted that “Mrs. Mellon’s city residence is at 120 East Sixty-fifth street.”

It is possible that the Mellons merely leased the home that year; for on March 26, 1920 it was sold, along with No. 118 next door, to the Guaranty Trust Company.  The sale did not bode well for the survival of the two homes, since the institution purchased the adjoining lots to the rear at No. 121 and 123 East 66th Street.

The following day Charles H. Sabin, president of the Guarantee Trust Company, announced he would “give up his new home, which he bought shortly after its completion…at 12 East Sixty-second street, for a larger house which he will build at 118 and 120 East Sixty-fifth street, through to 121 and 123 East Sixty-sixth street.”

On January 20, 1920, two months prior to the announcement, George B. Hedges had married Marjorie Burnes.  Called by the English artist Philip Burne-Jones, “the most beautiful woman in America,” Marjorie was divorced from Sidney C. Love and had, since then, gone by her maiden name.  She entered the marriage with her own substantial fortune, including “much real estate in Chicago,” according to the Evening Public Ledger.

For some reason, Charles Sabin’s grand plans for a block-through mansion never materialized.  No. 120 became home to George and Marjorie; who also maintained their country estate in Westbury, Long Island, with the double-entendre name, “The Hedges.”
photo by Alice Lum

The Hedges were in the house at least through 1928; but by 1930 it was home to Andrew Shiland and his wife, the former Harriette Louise McAlpin.  That year, on September 4, a daughter was born to the couple at their summer home in East Hampton.  The Shilands were already parents of daughter Leonore, who would be educated at Miss Porter’s School at Farmington, Connecticut and later at the Chateau Brillantmont in Lausanne, Switzerland; and then in Paris.

Harriette involved herself in charities, which frequently involved entertainments in the house.  On January 5, 1935 she hosted a reception and tea for the benefit of the children’s surgical and orthopedic wards of the New York Post-Graduate Hospital.

As the summer season of 1938 came to a close, the Shiland household was a flurry of activity as Leonore’s debut neared.  The festivities began on December 5 at the Bachelors Cotillion in Baltimore; and ended on December 20 with a reception in the 65th Street house followed by a dinner at the Pierre.
photo by Alice Lum

After nearly two decades in the house, the Shilands moved on and in 1946 the house was converted to a two-family residence.  Today little has changed to the exterior since its radical make-over in 1902.  S. E. Gage’s somewhat liberal interpretation of its 18th century prototype blends nicely into the handsome blend of styles along the block.

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