Friday, October 31, 2014

The Henry A. Wise House -- No. 18 E 73rd Street

Scaffolding obscures the ground floor (and tarps cover the top floor) as interior renovations continue in 2014.

In 1855 the 44-year old Raymond W. Townsend formed, with two other attorneys, the firm of Townsend, Dyett & Raymond.  Townsend’s close association with Anthony Rainetaux Dyette would last for nearly half a century until Dyette’s death in 1898.  While the third name in the firm’s title would change twice, the partnership of Townsend and Dyette remained fast.  A decade after the firm was established, the partners had made substantial fortunes. 

With the surrender of General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, New York City workers who had been fighting for the Union began returning home.  Soon construction projects resumed and the streets branching off Central Park saw rampant development.  Manhattan’s millionaires were still firmly rooted on Fifth Avenue below the park; but the wealthy merchant class was lured to the Upper East Side’s tranquil streets.

Randolph Townsend and his wife, Jane, moved into a fine brownstone home at No. 18 East 73rd Street in 1866.  Four stories tall above an English basement, the comfortable house was quite like the others that lined the block.

With the couple was Mary, Jane’s daughter from her previous marriage to Cephas H. Norton who had died in 1860.  Two years later a son was born, Randolph W. Townsend, Jr.  There would be two more children in the family—Harmon and Emma.  Randolph continued to prosper and sat on the boards of several corporations, including The Importers and Traders’ National Bank of New-York.

The family was grief-stricken when, on Friday morning, March 26, 1886, 18-year old Randolph Junior died in the house.  His funeral was held in the parlor at 4:00 the following Sunday.

Eventually the girls married, leaving their aging parents alone in the house with the servants.  Just before the turn of the century, Randolph suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed.  Until then he had been carrying on his legal practice at No. 247 Broadway as he had for 45 years.  For three years he would suffer from serious illness.

For the summer season of 1902 Randolph and Jane leased the cottage of Chancellor MacCracken of New York University.  On June 15 the 91-year old attorney died there.  The New-York Tribune attributed his death to “general weakness.”  For only the second time since 1866 the doorway to No. 18 East 73rd Street was draped in crepe as guests filed into the house for Townsend’s funeral the following Wednesday, June 18 at 4:00.

In the summer of 1908 the Wilmerding family was leasing the Townsend house while Jane was traveling abroad.  On June 25 the residence was the scene of a society wedding as Caroline Murray Wilmerding was married to John B. Trevor.  The social importance of the match was reflected not only by the fact that Robert Walton Goelet the best man; but by the names on the guest list.  Among them were Mr. and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mr. and Mrs. Harrison McK. Twombly, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Frelinghuysen and Robert Bayard Cutting.

In the meantime, Jane A. Townsend was spending time at Holbrook Grange, near Rugby, England.  It was here, on August 20, 1908, that she suddenly died.  Since Randolph’s death she had generously donated to charitable causes, many of them educational.  The reading of her will a month later would reveal substantial bequests of a similar nature.

The $50,000 endowment she left to Yale University would amount to about $1.25 million today.  “The bequest is to endow a professorship of history in memory of Randolph W. Townsend, Jr.,” explained The Sun.  The newspaper added that Jane had also left $10,000 to the rector of the Episcopal Church of all Angels, $15,000 to the Presbyterian Hospital to endow three free beds in perpetuity.  The Presbyterian Home for Aged Women received $34,500; and $10,000 each went to the Presbyterian Church on University Place and the New York Exchange for Women’s Work.

Of Jane’s five children, only the widowed Mary Perkins was still alive.  Following the distribution of her mother’s generous philanthropic bequests, she received the bulk of the estate; including the 73rd Street house.

Mary kept the house, deciding to lease it to upscale tenants.  Although, by now, the block was undergoing tremendous transformation as the outdated brownstones were razed or remodeled, Mary kept the family home as-is.  It stood in stark contrast to the magnificent Joseph Pulitzer palace almost directly across the street and other lavish mansions on the block.
Passersby have to wonder what is going into the blue-tarped dumpster.

Following the Wilmerdings, the family of Edward R. Stettinius moved in.  Stettinius was known as a mover-and-shaker in corporate America, having already reorganized the Sterling Company and the Diamond Match Company.  In January 1916 he was admitted as a partner in J. P. Morgan & Co.; brought into the firm to organize its new purchasing department for the British Goernment.  Two months earlier, his wife had begun the string of entertainments in the house for their daughter Isabel’s debut.  When Isabel later married Major John B. Marsh on November 19, 1919 General John J. Pershing was in attendance.

The elderly Mary M. Perkins finally sold her family home in May of 1922.  Called by The New York Times a “four-story high-stoop dwelling,” it was an anachronism on East 73rd Street.  Nevertheless, the selling price of $90,000 would translate to about $1.2 million today.  The Times said that the owner had purchased the home “to occupy.”

The mystery purchaser was eventually identified as Henry A. Wise, former United States District Attorney for the Southern District of New York under Presidents Taft and Roosevelt.  The modern-thinking Wise and his wife would not move in before changes had been made.

They commissioned architect William Lawrence Bottomley to completed redesign the dated brownstone.  A month after the purchase, plans were filed for extensive alterations.  The Record & Guide estimated the costs to be about $15,000 (around $200,000 today).  In September 1922 the newspaper was more detailed in the changes to be made.  The renovations would entail removing the fa├žade and replacing it, removing interior walls, and installing new “laundry, partitions, stairs, dumbwaiter, fireplaces.”  By now the estimate of costs had risen to $22,000.

New-York Tribune, October 15, 1911 (copyright expired)

As construction on the house commenced, the outspoken Wise made his opinions known regarding politics.  When two politicians, Samuel S. Koenig and Charles F. Murphy, plotted to remove Surrogate John P. Colalan from the widows’ and orphans’ court, Wise was infuriated.  At a meeting on the night of October 27, 1922 he called the Murphy-Koenig deal “the rottenest piece of political scoundrelism” he had ever seen.  He added that it was “a couple of discredited, disreputable bunco steerers' attempt to put over, one to settle a grudge, the other to get his brother a job.”

Wise had an sufficiently-vast vocabulary with which to express his indignation.  “The question is whether we are to have decent, honorable men on the bench.  It is a question of decency against rotten skullduggery.”

The completed Wise house was unlike the limestone and marble-fronted confections around it.  These had been designed, for the most part, in the early years of the century when the Beaux Arts style was the rage in residential design.  Bottomley had produced a prim five-story neo-Georgian home of red brick with extremely restrained ornamentation.

The high stoop was gone and the entrance was lowered to sidewalk level.  Splayed lentils of matching brick were nearly invisible; the only decoration of the lower floors being handsome keystones at the second story carved with Georgian-style urns in bas relief.  A limestone cornice supported a stone balustrade, behind which a slate-tiled mansard provided for three straight-forward dormers.

The Wise children received a privileged upbringing.  The family summered in their estate in Kiptopeke, near Cape Charles, Virginia.  Daughter Eva attended the private Brearley School in New York, then traveled to Florence, Italy to Miss Nixon’s School.  Upon her return she studied at Bryn Mawr College.  Her brother John graduated from the Virginia Military Institute before becoming a lawyer like his father.

The year 1932 would be momentous for the family.  On May 28 that year Eva’s engagement to Alfred Slade Mills was announced, and just four months later John’s engagement to Elizabeth Ridgely Thompson was made public.

With the house now empty of children, the Wises soon moved on.  It was owned by Marie A. Spear until April 1945 when she sold it to Lt. Colonel James E. Fitz-Gibbon.  In reporting on the sale, The Times noted the home’s impressive neighbors.  “Other residences in the same street and neighborhood are the former Pulitzer mansion, and the homes of Mrs. Edward Van Ingen, H. Lester Cuddihy and George Doubleday.”  Fitz-Gibbon was less impressed.  The newspaper said he “intends to remodel the building into small apartments and occupy a suite there.”  Before the end of the year the mansion had been divided into two apartments per floor. 

As the 20th century drew to a close the former mansion was owned by George and Antonia Pavia.  The attorney was a partner in the Pavia & Harcourt law firm and it was he who hired Sonia Sotomayor when she left the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.  The couple would regret signing a lease with James Couri who later accused his landlords of neglecting problems and hiding the building’s rent stabilized status.

Couri’s more-than-odd behavior (in 2002 he wrote a letter to George Pavia which said in part “Your father was a fascist sympathizer and you were a member of the Mussolini-Fascist youth corps during pre-World War II) and litigious bent resulted in nearly 15 years of legal wrangling.

Eventually, even though Couri told The New York Times “Pavia has a much a chance of evicting me on a nuisance charge as I do of waking up in the morning as Prince Charles,” he was evicted and the Pavias put the house on the market.

In 2013 it was sold for $19.5 million.  Although much of Bottomley’s interior spaces had been preserved despite the apartment conversion, things did not look bright for their future.  While Antonia Pavia told the New York Observer “it has some beautiful mantels and paneling,” the broker added that the new owner was “going to gut renovate the entire house and he’s going to live there.”

When the house sold in 2013, much of Bottomley's Georgian-inspired interiors remained.

Because the house sits within the Upper East Side Historic District, no changes can be made to the exterior.  Hopefully the “gut renovation” of the interiors involves only the 1945 partitions; but that is most likely an optimistic hope.

non-credited photographs by the author


  1. Yet another buyer who sets their sights on a well preserved townhouse with the myopic intention to totally gut it? Why can't they ever select one of the many already abused and converted houses to play architect with? Very unfortunate.

  2. Why would anyone change that room?!!?!?

    1. Sickening, isn't it? I can't even begin to understand the inclination to change something like this. I'm going to look for my book about WIlliam Lawrence Bottomley and see if this place was discussed therein.

  3. Chances are the interiors will become yet another collection of white on white rooms "decorated" by some "well known" decorator nobody has ever heard of donchaknow.

  4. Well, years have gone by, the buyer - Italian fashion designer Luca Orlandi - has gutted and remodeled the house and put it back on the market for $40 million. The prediction here in comments by A Tennessee Fan came true: Photos show it's all white on white inside. This link will probably go dead once the property's sold, but for now, here's a photo tour and new floorplan: New features include a high-speed elevator, eat-in kitchen, and roof garden.