Monday, April 28, 2014

The Lost Geo. B. Torrey House--No. 27 East 35th Street

In 1946 the house-studio sits between the Church of the Incarnation (left) and a surviving carriage house.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Encroaching commerce forced Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens to leave the exclusive Bond Street and St. James Park neighborhoods in the years before the Civil War.  The Murray Hill neighborhood saw the construction of commodious mansions in the 1850s, followed closely behind by the grand homes of Fifth Avenue.  By the last decades of the century the block of East 35th Street block between Park and Madison Avenues was lined with the private carriage houses of the nearby homeowners.

Snuggling up to the rear of the Church of the Incarnation at No. 27 East 35th Street was the two-story carriage house of Julia Elizabeth Brown.  The wealthy widow died on May 11, 1898 leaving an estate of $704,000—a jaw-dropping $19 million today.  On November 19 that year the private stable was sold to Prescott Hall Butler whose family had recently moved from No. 34 East 37th Street to No. 22 Park Avenue at the corner of 35th Street.

The esteemed lawyer was a partner with Joseph Coate in the “white shoe” law firm of Evarts, Choate & Beaman.  A graduate of Harvard College, he had married Cornelia Stewart Smith and the couple had two sons and a daughter.  The family summered in their country home in Bytharbour, St. James, Long Island.  A member of at least a dozen exclusive clubs, including three yacht clubs, Butler was a devoted patron of the American Museum of Natural History.

It was perhaps the theft of Mrs. Butler’s expensive jewelry a few years earlier that prompted Butler to have potential household staff apply to the stable building rather than the mansion itself.  On May 26, 1900 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Tribune for a butler “first-class; English; three years in last place.”  The following year Cornelia Butler was looking for a new maid.  “Lady’s Maid.  English; competent in all her duties; good hairdresser, dressmaker and packer, best city references.”  Both advertisements directed applicants to apply at the carriage house.

Six months after Cornelia’s ad for a maid was published Prescott Hall Butler died on December 16 in the Park Avenue house “from a complication of diseases.”  He was just 53 years old.

The carriage house was sold on May 31, 1902 to the City Real Property Investing Co.  Already horse-drawn vehicles were being nudged out by automobiles and the firm leased the building to the Murray Hill Auto Station.  A year later The Horseless Age reported that “The Victor Auto Storage Company has bought out the Murray Hill Auto Station…and will conduct it under the same name.”

An owner offered a substantial discount on his custom-made electric coach in 1904 -- The Sun, January 31, 1904 (copyright expired)
While the Victor Auto Storage Company was garaging automobiles in the former carriage house, portrait artist George Burroughs Torrey was in Greece where King George I of Greece sat for his portrait.  When Torrey returned to New York on October 9, 1903, he brought along sketches of the Queen for a portrait “which he will begin in his studio here and go abroad later to complete from personal sittings,” reported The Evening World.

Torrey, a cousin of William Howard Taft, soon turned his attention to finding a more suitable studio.  On March 20, 1904 The New York Times reported that the artist had purchased No. 27 East 35th Street, saying he “will convert the building into a studio.”

If merely converting the stable building into a studio was Torrey’s original intention, his plans soon expanded.  No. 27 was transformed into a four-story neo-Georgian red brick mansion of handsome proportions and dignified reserve.  Inside were the “Pompeian Hall,” a Louis XV room, a picture gallery, a commodious dining room for entertaining, and, of course, Torrey’s studio.

As the building was being renovated the artist and his wife, the former Almira Howes, went back to Greece.  On their return trip on the Kaiser Torrey told reporters that “American art is being appreciated abroad more and more.”  The King, who was obviously pleased with the paintings, decorated Torrey with the Order of the Savior.  Once home, Torrey traveled to Washington D.C. where President Theodore Roosevelt sat for five two-hour sittings in the Blue Room of the White House.  The completed portrait was exhibited at the Republican and Hardware clubs in 1905. 

While other New York City artists were busy painting socialites and millionaires; Torrey became famous for his portraits of heads of states and high-profile politicians.  Following his pictures of the King and Queen of Greece and President Roosevelt came the life-sized portrait of Secretary of the Navy Paul Morton, completed in 1906.  As he started his portrait of President-Elect William H. Taft in December 1908 The New York Times remarked “He has painted portraits of Sir Purdon Clarkes, Gen. Horace Porter, and many other prominent men.”

Taft’s first sitting in the 35th Street studio was on December 14, 1908 and the newspaper noted “”Mr. Torrey will require some more sittings, which will be given by Mr. Taft on subsequent visits to this city.”

Mrs. Taft deemed the portrait of her husband "excellent."  collection of the Library o Congress

A week later the house was the scene of a large dinner followed by “a vaudeville entertainment and supper.”  On December 20 80 guests, including opera stars Madame Farrar, Signor Scotti and Enrico Caruso, sat down to dinner in the picture gallery and adjoining dining room.  The Times noted that Mrs. Torrey received in the Louis XV room which “was brightened with palms and cut flowers.”  In the dining room, “Over each table, from tall antique vases, drooped clusters of American Beauty roses which covered the guests in the manner of an umbrella or parasol.”

A total of 200 guests were present for the vaudeville entertainment in Torrey’s studio.  A stage had been constructed for the 15 acts including minstrels, clog dancing, and recitations.  According to the newspaper the studio was decorated “with Christmas holly, poinsettia, azaleas, and green, and arranged after the order of a French café chantant.”

Afterward supper was served as The Hungarian Orchestra played from a balcony over the stage.  The Torreys’ diplomatic guest list included European titles (like Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke and Lady Clarke), Manhattan millionaires (such as Mr. and Mrs. Isaac D. Fletcher), a Supreme Court justice and his wife, at least one General, and actress Billie Burke.

On February 27, 1909 the portrait of President Taft was nearly completed.  It now needed only the approval of the President, Republican State Committee Chairman Woodruff (who had commissioned the painting), and most of all, Mrs. Taft.  The trio arrived at the 35th Street house that morning.  The New-York Tribune reported “Mr. Taft and Mr. Woodruff pronounced the painting satisfactory, and then awaited the judgment of Mrs. Taft.  She looked at it several minutes from various angles before making any remark.  Then she said she regarded it as excellent, and that she was much pleased with it.”

No doubt breathing a heavy sign of relief, Torrey told reporters that following the inauguration he would travel to Washington “to put on the finishing touches.”

On April 23, 1913 Almira was granted a divorce from George Burroughs Torrey.  In reporting it, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin said he “is one of the best known portrait painters in the United States.  Mrs. Torrey has resumed her maiden name and is receiving $5000 a year alimony.”  By now his portraits were hanging in Buckingham Palace and the South Kensington Museum in London.

The following year an “apartment” in the house was rented to William A. Gramer, a City Hall reporter for the New York World.  Following his death in 1920, the apartment became home to Mrs. Rose Moore Strong, also known as Baroness Posse.  She held a series of salons in the house in 1926 for the Society of American Arts and Letters.  The New York Times reported on March 20 “Although planned primarily as social functions the salons are intended also as national meeting places for American artists in all fields of endeavor.”  The society’s goal was to discover and develop unknown American artists “who would  otherwise find it difficult to obtain the aid and encouragement needed to achieve success.”  Rose Moore Strong was still active in 1930 when she hosted poetry readings in the apartment.

Later that year J. P. Morgan purchased the Torrey house.  He made a practice of actively buying up homes in his Murray Hill neighborhood in an effort to keep it residential.  Only months before he had purchased the Clarence L. Hay residence at No. 32 East 37th Street.  Interestingly, George Burroughs Torrey and his second wife, Hawaiian artist Lillie Hart Gay, stayed on in the house, apparently as renters.  On March 23, 1932 it was the scene of the wedding of his niece Kathryn Elston Moore to John Rathbone Ruggles.  The Times reported that “the ceremony will take place in the picture gallery of the residence and a small reception and buffet supper will follow in the studio.”

By 1938 the Torreys had moved on and J. P. Morgan’s firm rented the house to Mary Gibbons.  The handsome structure would survive another 17 years before being demolished with other buildings on the block east of the church.  In 1955 construction began on architect H. I. Feldman’s sprawling mid-century apartment building, completed a year later.

The Torrey house abutted the eastern edge of the church.  photo by the author

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