Friday, August 1, 2014

The James Pinchot House -- No. 2 Gramercy Park

By 1849 Samuel B. Ruggles’ ambitious project of a high-toned neighborhood centered around his Gramercy Square was well underway.  Like Washington Square and St. John’s Park, fine mansions would soon encircle the landscaped park.  That year two matching mansions were erected at Nos. 1 and 2 Gramercy Square (later renamed Gramercy Park).  The Italianate residences rose four stories over brownstone English basements.  Elegant cast iron balconies enhanced the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows and the openings were framed in carved brownstone, which contrasted with the red brick facades.

The corner house at No. 1 would become home to the internationally renowned surgeon, Dr. Valentine Mott.  The family of Colonel Richard French would be living next door at No. 2 by 1860.  French was given command of the 12th Regiment of the New York State National Guard on August 10, 1855. 

Years later the report of the Annual Reunion and Dinner on Saturday, April 21, 1894 reminded officers that under French, “the well-known white coats, which had attracted so much attention, were laid aside, and the Regiment adopted a blue coat and light blue trowsers.”  French would not see much of his newly-uniformed troops.  He resigned toward the end of 1856.

The years 1860 and 1861 would be tragic ones in the French household.  On July 25, 1860 Adelaide, the infant daughter of Richard and Matilda, died at the age of 10 months and 4 days.  The doorway of No. 2 Gramercy Park would have been hung in black crepe on the afternoon of July 27 when the funeral took place in the parlor.

Just over two months later 4-year old Henrietta Louise French died on Saturday, September 29.  Once again the parlor was the scene of a child’s funeral; this one on Monday October 1 at 2:00 p.m.  But the seemingly-peculiar string of deaths within the French family was not over.  On Saturday morning, October 12, 1861 19-year old Emma became ill.  She was dead within three hours.  Friends and family gathered at No. 2 Gramercy Park the following Tuesday for the third funeral within a year.

It would be the last funeral in the house until 1872.  The 64-year old Colonel Richard French died suddenly on July 16 while out of town.  The funeral was held in the parlor the following Saturday morning at 10:00.

Although Matilda French would live until October 2, 1899, she sold No. 2 Gramercy Park in March 1884.  Samuel Glover purchased the house for $43,000—no doubt a satisfying amount for the aging widow.  The sale price would equate to about $986,000 today.

Until 1917 No. 2 was a twin to the Valentine Mott house next door.  In this photo modern buildings are rising around the venerable houses.  Interior shades and shutters along the row are closed to protect against the damaging sunlight.    photograph by George F. Arata, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Glover quickly resold the house to David Dudley Field, Jr., whose well known father lived across the park.  Cyrus W. Field, who was responsible for the laying of the Transatlantic Cable, lived next door to his brother.  Field would not hold onto the property for long, either.  On January 22, 1887 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted that “Mrs. David Dudley Field, Jr., has sold the dwelling No. 2 Gramercy Park to James W. Pinchot.”

Pinchot’s family had made a fortune in the wallpaper industry.  James had married Mary Eno, the daughter of Amos Eno, one of New York City’s foremost and wealthiest real estate developers.  The couple had three children:  Gifford, Antoinette and Amos Richards Eno Pinchot.

James Pinchot’s interests did not involve many of the expected pastimes of Manhattan’s gentlemen like yachting.  Instead he was a supporter of the nature conservation movement, which sought to preserve forests, plant and wildlife.  Historians believe he seriously regretted the destruction of the forestland that the family’s business had caused and set out to atone for it.  His club memberships reflected a serious, erudite bent.  Instead of joining the Metropolitan or Union Club, he preferred the more bookish Century Club and Grolier Club.

Mary Pinchot’s entertainments in the house would follow a similar pattern.  At 3:00 on Tuesday, March 29, 1898 she hosted a lecture by Ada Webster Ward on “Making of Modern History;” and on February 27, 1900 The New York Times noted that “The drawing room of Mrs. J. W. Pinchot’s residence, 2 Gramercy park, was filled last evening at a private lecture recital by Mr. W. J. Henderson on ‘The Development of Passion Music,’ which was illustrated by the quartet known as The Bach Singers of New York.”

None of this meant that Mary was immune to society fads, of course.  On October 20, 1895 the Los Angeles Herald reported on “The Latest Fad in Fans.”  It told its readers “The newest thing in fans is an echo of the Napoleonic era and of Louis XVI.”  The newspaper reported on the reproduction fans used by fashionable ladies nationwide to cool their overheated heads.  “The average cost of the new fans is in the neighborhood of $100.  Cheap ones can be had for as low as $10, while the better ones run up to $200…Those which have been decorated by artists of note bring very large sums running well into the thousands.”

The newspaper noted that Mary Pinchot’s collection of fans was unsurpassed even by Caroline Astor’s.  “Of the many New York women who have fine collections of fans that of Mrs. James W. Pinchot is probably the most complete.”  It added “One of the most prized in her collection is a fan which was once used by Marie Antoinette with a Vernis Martin finish.”

Six months after the Los Angeles Herald’s article on fans the nation's attention was riveted on the slightly scandalous marriage of former President Benjamin Harrison to the niece of his now-deceased wife.  Not only was the couple faintly related by marriage, Harrison was 62 years old; his bride-to-be, Mary Scott Lord Dimmock, was 37. 
Mary Scott Lord Dimmock on her wedding day in 1896 -- The Pullman Herald, April 11, 1896 (copyright expired)
Despite some wagging tongues, the wedding took place in St. Thomas’ Church at 5:45 on the afternoon of April 6, 1896.  As the bridal party emerged from the church, they entered “the carriages waiting at the entrance” and were “driven to the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Pinchot, No. 2 Gramercy Park, where light refreshments were served, and where the party donned traveling attire for the trip to Indianapolis,” according to the Pullman Herald of Pullman, Washington on April 11.

By now the Pinchot children were grown.  Antoinette had become Lady Alan Johnstone and lived in Copenhagen where her husband was First Secretary of the British Legation.  Gifford Pinchot was asked by President Grover Cleveland in 1896 to develop a plan for managing the nation’s expansive Western forest reserves.  Two years later he succeeded Bernhard Fernow as Chief of the Division of Forestry, later renamed the United States Forest Service.

That same year Amos left law school to fight in the Spanish-American War.  At war’s end, he enrolled in New York Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1900.  Later that year, on November 14, he married Gertrude Minturn, the daughter of fabulously wealthy Robert B. Minturn, in St. George’s Episcopal Church on Stuyvesant Square.  The New-York Tribune said the church was “crowded, many of the fashionable set having come to town to attend” the wedding.

Lady Alan Johnstone and her brother, Amos Pinchot -- photo Library of Congress
The Gramercy Square mansion enjoyed its own brief time in the limelight when Francis Hopkinson Smith published his novel Caleb West, Master Diver, in 1898.  It became the best selling book in the United States that year and was serialized in The Atlantic.  Smith used the house as the residence of his character Mrs. Leroy.  “It was there that Caleb’s wife found a refuge after her flight from her home near the Race Rock lighthouse in the Long Island Sound," said The Bookman later in 1916.

By 1903 the entire Pinchot family was spending more time in Washington DC and their Pike County, Pennsylvania estate, Grey Towers, and less time in New York.  Finally on October 11 that year The New York Times reported that John Griffin Carlisle and his wife, the former Mary Goodson, had leased the mansion at No. 2 Gramercy Park.
John Griffin Carlisle in his younger years -- photo Library of Congress
The aging couple had an illustrious past.  Carlisle had served as Speaker of the House from 1883 to 1889 and was Secretary of the Treasury under Grover Cleveland.  The Times would later remember that Mary Carlisle “took a leading part in the social life of the capital, and was very popular.”

She continued the practice, now, in New York.  On December 14 that year she gave a luncheon in the house for her two granddaughters, Jane and Laura Carlisle.  “Miss Jane Carlisle will make her debut next Winter,” noted The Times.  Their girls’ father, William K. Carlisle, had died in 1898.

In the meantime, the Pinchots took up where the Carlisles left off in Washington.  On January 15, 1904 the Pike County Press reported that “James W. Pinchot and wife and Amos R. Eno Pinchot and wife were guests recently at the White House at a musicale given by President Roosevelt.”

A gaslight was conveniently located outside the mansion's stoop -- The Bookman, February 1916 (copyright expired)

The Carlisles maintained a country estate, the Remsen Villa, in West Islip, Long Island.  It was there, in July 1905, that Mary became ill and died within three weeks.  Now William’s widow, along with Jane and Laura Carlisle, move into the Gramercy Park house with John. 

On May 5, 1907 The Times reported on Jane’s engagement to Frederick L. Allen, an attorney for the Mutual Life Insurance Company.  “Miss Carlisle, who has spent most of her time lately in Washington, where her grandfather has a house, is tall and handsome, with brown hair and large blue eyes.”  A month earlier the newspaper had felt the need to report that Allen “is considerably older than his financee.”

By now Amos Pinchot held the title to the Gramercy Park house.  His mother was living in Washington DC and his father seems to have been spending most of his time in the Pennsylvania estate.  The Carlisles left No. 2 Gramercy Park and by the first week of June, 1907 Amos had leased it to C. W. Sherwin and his wife.  What he may not have realized is that Mrs. Sherwin intended to operate her dressmaking business from he house.

On June 9, 1907 The New York Times reported “There is a dressmaker in one of the fine old houses in one of the most aristocratic quarters of the square, and Gramercy Park residents don’t quite know what to do about it.”

The newspaper said Amos Pinchot “doesn’t seem to know what to do about it, either, and he has gone to Europe.  The only person who is sure of anything is the invader herself, who says there is only one thing to do and that is to go on.”

Mrs. Sherwin admitted to the press that she knew there were “serious objections,” but “I have a lease for five years—and I don’t know what can be done.  It must be more disagreeable for Mr. Pinchot, whose friends live here, than for me.”

Indeed, the Sherwins stayed on—they not only lived here through their five-year lease; but for another five years.  If Gramercy Park residents had been upset over the incursion of a dressmaker, they were no doubt in a panic when they read the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide on February 17, 1907.  The newspaper reported that No. 2 had been sold by the Pinchot family and “It is reported that the new owner plans a high class apartment house improvement.”

The “new owner,” it turned out, was C. W. Sherwin.  The Record & Guide noted that the house had been on the market for $115,000—about $2 million today.  But instead of demolishing the old mansion, Sherwin quickly turned it over to Ronald C. Lee.  On April 7 Lee announced that architect Grosvenor Atterbury had been commissioned to alter the building “into studio apartments.”  The Record & Guide noted that the plans consisted “of altering the building from 4 to 5 stories.”

The completed renovation stopped short of a fifth floor, however.  Atterbury removed the stoop and moved the entrance to the former English basement.  The fourth floor was raised and large windows installed; perfect for working artists.  By early 1918 the renovated building was ready to receive tenants.  On March 26 The Sun reported that P. S. Hildreth and G. C. Tyler had rented apartments.  “This completes the renting of this building.”

Large studio windows flood the heightened fourth floor.
Despite the apartment buildings that replaced refined mansions and the division of homes into apartments; Gramercy Park retained its upscale tone.  Among the first of the respected tenants in No. 2 were the family of George E. H. Werhan; and newlyweds Richard C Noel and his wife, Marietta.

In July 1922 Ronald C. Lee finally got around to his anticipated additional floor to the house.  Architect Aymar Embury II files plans for a “new pent house” with an estimated cost of $5,000.   Lee would retain ownership of the house for decades and lovingly maintained it.  In May 1945 when the Gramercy Park Associate held its annual window box and garden competition, Lee was ready.  He won the first prize in the competition for “tidy front yards.”  The New York Times said “The house at 2 Gramercy Park, owned by Ronald C. Lee, in a setting of ivy and privet with bright window boxes along the balcony was judged the finest.”
It appears that Ronald C. Lee either painted or stuccoed the brick in the 1940s -- photograph by Beecher Ogden, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,
Today No. 2 Gramercy Park looks much as it did following Grosvenor Atterbury’s 1917 renovation.  And most likely few of its tenants know that a former U.S. President enjoyed “light refreshments” here following his wedding on an April afternoon in 1896.

The handsome 1849 iron fencing survives.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

1 comment:

  1. I've always loved this building, especially in the summer. Too bad Grosvenor Atterbury couldn't have done all the townhouse-to-apartment building conversions in the neighborhood.