|photo by Alice Lum
By the 1880s the block of East 55th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues was lined with brownstone rowhouses. Built by developers, they were intended for financially-comfortable merchant-class families. Nevertheless, the neighborhood carried the stigma of being on the east—or wrong—side of Park Avenue.
That would all change by the turn of the century when the train tracks down Park Avenue to Grand Central Depot were lowered and covered over. With the trains that once clattered along the avenue belching smoke and soot now buried, the fashionable neighborhoods spread eastward.
William Havemeyer owned the three-story brownstone homes at Nos. 116 and 118 East 55th Street at the time. On March 30, 1906 he sold them both—No. 116 to Robert B. Roosevelt, Jr., the cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt; and No. 118 to Charles M. Brookes. The dwellings were slightly narrower than most, each 18.9 feet across.
The outdated houses would suffer some indignation in the ensuing years. By 1919 No. 116 was listed as “apartments;” although the residents were decidedly upper crust. Dr. and Mrs. Carleton Simon lived here with their daughter Rosa Bonheur Simon at the time.
But as wealthy New Yorkers took over the Victorian houses in the first two decades of the 20th century, many either razed them and rebuilt, or had them remodeled into stylish, up-to-date mansions. The trend had already transformed several of the old brownstones on the block by the first years of the 1920s.
The fate of Nos. 116 and 118 East 55th Street would soon be decided by William Ziegler, Jr. Born William Conrad Brandt in Iowa, he was later adopted by his uncle, a founder of the Royal Baking Powder Company, William Ziegler, and his wife the former Electa Matilda Curtis. Electra already had a son, Charles, from her first marriage to Edward R. Gamble. Young Charles had lost his sight in a boyhood accident.
When the elder Ziegler died in 1905 the 13-year old, now renamed William Ziegler, Jr., inherited between $16 and $20 million. His step-brother Charles died in 1917, prompting life-long philanthropies for the blind on the part of both Electra and William Jr.
William married had married Gladys Virginia Watson on December 11, 1912 and the couple had two children. The marriage ended on September 9, 1926 when Gladys obtained a divorce in Paris. By then William had already purchased the two old brownstones at Nos. 116 and 118 East 55th Street and commissioned William L. Bottomley to design a single 37-and-a-half-foot wide mansion on the site.
William acquired the houses in August 1926 and construction began in October. Less than three months later, on January 5, 1927, he married Helen Martin Murphy in a ceremony that The New York Times said “foils church crowd.” The wedding was announced to be held in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and the sanctuary was filled with floral decorations. The Times reported that when photographers and reporters arrived, “it was found that the marriage of the couple had quietly taken place in the apartment of the bride’s parents at the Plaza.”
The newlyweds steamed off to Europe on the Berengaria; but they planned “to return in the spring in time for the polo season at Aiken, S.C.,” said the newspaper. That was expected for, as The Times noted, “Mr. Ziegler is keenly interested in racing and polo. He owns one of the finest collections of hunting dogs in the country and is a well known exhibitor of show horses. He has a fine racing stable.”
While the couple was away, construction on their new mansion continued. Bottomley had already established a reputation for creating neo-Georgian style homes for the wealthy. Much of his inspiration, experts believe, was drawn from 18th century plantation homes in Virginia. The Ziegler mansion would exemplify his brilliant command and understanding of the period.
William and Helen Ziegler moved into the completed house in November 1927. Four stories high it was clad in Flemish bond red brick; the burned headers of which gave the impression of age. A dramatic bowed arch pediment over the entrance was framed by the piers of the grand brick and iron fence, topped with cast iron eagles. Splayed lintels and quoins were executed in brick, rather than the more expected limestone or marble; and a steep slate-tiled roof was punctured by dormers and half-circle windows.
|photo by Alice Lu
The historic motif was carried on throughout the house with painted paneling, carved overmantels and doorways, painted scenic wallpapers, and an elegantly curving staircase.
|Above, the Ziegler living room with its massive crystal chandeliers and carved ceiling. Below, the dining room. photographs by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWTE5IV0&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
Seven months later, in June 1928, the family was enlarged with the addition of William Ziegler, 3rd. Within a few years three daughters, Helen, Elizabeth and Barbara, would be born. The family summered in their estate at Great Island, in Norton, Connecticut.
|Above: The gracefully curved staircase featured beautifully turned balusters. Below: The second floor hall, with painted scenes within the paneling, opened onto the dining room. photographs by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWTE5IV0&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
Ziegler’s already-significant fortune increased with the death of Electa Matilda Ziegler on September 1, 1932. She was remembered not for her lavish entertaining, but for her indefatigable work for the blind—especially the Matilida Ziegler Magazine for the Blind, printed in braile which was sent free of charge to blind persons. At the time of her death it had a readership of 15,000 and Electa Ziegler had paid entirely for its publication of its 22 years existence.
William would continue his adopted mother’s work. He was president of the American Foundation for the Blind and of the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind. He was also president of the E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation for the Blind which had been established by Electa. He would sit on the boards of the National Industries for the Blind, the Society for the Prevention of Blindness and the Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration, Inc.
|Helen Ziegler opened the rear of her house for annual Garden Tours. photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWTE5IV0&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
Although the Ziegler mansion saw decades of refined entertainments, the supper dance for Helen’s debut in December 1949 was held in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton. Decorated white trees “transformed the ballroom into a holiday setting for the party,” noted The Times.
|Half a century ago the Ziegler mansion looked no different than it does today. photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWTE5IV0&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
William Ziegler’s health declined in the 1950s and, on March 3, 1958, he died in the house after a long illness. He was 66 years old. Five months later Helen Ziegler sold the house to Welton Becker & Associate, an architectural and engineering firm. On reporting the sale The New York Times said “It stands behind a high iron fence and brick pilasters on which rest two cast-iron eagles with outspread wings. Pink and tan marble is used on the four-story circular staircase and the entrance foyer.”
|The grand cast iron eagles survive outside the Ziegler mansion -- photo by Alice Lum
It was the end of the era of elegant dinners and refined entertainments in the gracious mansion and the beginning of a series of commercial uses. Four years later, in 1962, the Radio Advertising Bureau purchased the house for its offices. From 1969 to 1986 it was headquarters of the Allied Bank International; then Ancla Investments, a subsidiary of Banco Bilbao Vizcaya.
In March 2001 it was sold yet again—this time being purchased by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association. Finally, it became the SUNY Globe Center, part of the extensive State University of New York venues.
|At least some of the interiors, today, are decidedly less elegant than when the Zieglers moved out. http://levin.suny.edu/about/directions.cfm
Through all of its many uses since the Ziegler family moved out, the mansion has survived unaltered on the exterior. One of the last grand private homes to be build in Manhattan, it is a striking and rare relic of last glamorous years before the Great Depression.