Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Richard Stevens House -- No. 171 East 70th Street

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

In 1871 development on the Upper East Side was rampant.  The official completion of Central Park was just two years away (as was, on a less positive note, the great Financial Panic of 1873).  Investors and developers funneled their funds into the erection of speculative rows of brownstone homes aimed at the upper middle-class.  Among them was Thomas Smith who commissioned William O’Gorman to design six houses on East 70th Street, Nos. 165 through 171 that year.

Three stories high over an English basement, the Italianate houses would have been little different from scores of other such homes rising in the neighborhood.  The house at No. 171 became home to the Thomas Thorpe family by the last decade of the century.  Thorpe and his wife Mary took their several children each summer to Patchogue, Long Island.  They were an accident-prone brood.

In 1896 one of the boys was nearly drowned while swimming in the Patchogue Bay.  The following season his brother “while riding a bicycle, was run down by a stage and nearly killed,” as reported by The Sun.  And on July 4, 1898 8-year old Mary Thorpe was celebrating Independence Day with fireworks.  The Sun reported the following day “In lighting a pinwheel a flying spark ignited her dress.”  The newspaper said that she was severely burned; although Dr. T. S. Divors “does not think [the wounds] will result fatally.”

The Thorpes stayed on through the turn of the century, at one point purchasing No. 169 next door, presumably as rental income.  Both properties were in Mary’s name.  But then in 1906 the change that was sweeping over the Upper East Side in general was magnified on the East 70th Street

Joseph L. Buttenweiser had demolished Nos. 154 and 156 with the intention of building a sanitarium.  The iron framework had already been erected when the project came to a halt.  With Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens building in the area, property values here were more suited for upscale homes.  In February 1906 Harry H. Hollister and Henry D. Babcock purchased the property to “remodel the iron frame and improve the plot with private houses,” said The Sun on February 6.

The entire block was about to get a make-over.  Within the same week Babcock’s son purchased No. 158, Hollister’s son-in-law purchased No. 160, and Hollister purchased No. 162.  “These three dwellings will be modernized and occupied by the purchasers,” said The Sun.

“In view of the radical change taking place in the character of the block, Please & Elliman have formed a syndicate which has purchased the remaining parcels that were for sale in the block.”  The syndicate then sold off the houses for the owners.  Those sales included Nos. 176, 155, 157, 159, 173, 175, and the two houses owned by the Thorpes—Nos. 169 and 171.

Robert H. E. Elliott purchased both of the Thorpe homes, according to The Sun.  Elliott apparently had no intentions of moving in to No. 171, for within three days he resold it.  No. 179 down the block sold on the same day.

Richard T. Stevens and his wife Georgiana purchased No. 171.  The couple was rarely in town for the winter season and the house was repeatedly leased.  In 1909 Edward Powis Jones took the house.  He was a partner in the Sperry Gyroscope Company.  Jones would be one of the last renters in the old brownstone.  Within two years the Stevens commissioned George B. de Gersdroff to update their Victorian dwelling.

As was happening throughout the area, the architect removed the brownstone façade, moved the entrance to the sidewalk level, and created an updated Edwardian residence.  Following the lead of Augustus N. Allen who had remodeled the house next door at No. 169 in 1910; de Gersdroff turned to the neo-Federal style.

Completed in 1911, the Stevens house gave the first impression as having been built as a pair with its neighbor.  Both had rusticated brick bases, iron-railed balconies at the second floor, and centered three-part openings at the three upper stories.  The similarities continued with the large centered dormers above the cornices.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
The Stevens continued to lease the house and in 1913 it was taken by Robert L. Livingston.  A member of the influential and wealthy Livingstons “of Revolutionary stock,” as described by The Evening World, Robert had had his share of misfortune.  On December 21, 1902 he had married Helen L. Kountze, “much courted for her good looks and charming manner,” according to The Evening World.

The newlyweds received a “colonial villa” in Morristown, New Jersey as a wedding present from Robert Livingston, Sr.  A year later his lovely Helen Kountze suddenly died at the home of her parents.

Now joining him in the 70th Street house in 1913 was his relatively new bride.  Livingston had married Marie Sheedy in February 1911.  The Evening World called her the “richest girl in Denver.”

The Stevens continued to rent the house in the years to come.  In 1919 they signed a lease “for a matter of years” according to The Sun.  Their new tenants were Duncan D. Stuphen, his wife Jane, and her widowed mother Eleanor Kevan Fraser.

Sutphen was a member of the textile firm A. D. Juilliard & Co.  The year 1919 would be a highly traumatic and tragic one for the businessman.  Suddenly on Tuesday morning February 11 Eleanor Fraser died in the house.   Her funeral was held in the parlor three days later, on Valentine’s Day, at 10 a.m.

Duncan Sutphen would attend another funeral in April—that of his employer, millionaire Augustus D. Juilliard.  But even more tragically, the following month, on May 24, his wife, Jane, died in the 70th Street house.  In a morbid case of déjà vu, her funeral was held here on Tuesday morning, May 27 at 10:30.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
The Stevens continued to hold on to the property and it saw a succession of wealthy tenants.  On June 22, 1921 The New York Times reported that “Mr. and Mrs. Frederick L. Collins have taken Mrs. Richard T. Stevens’s house at 171 East Seventieth Street for their residence.”  Collins was the publisher and president of McClure’s magazine.

Following the Collins family, that of Dr. Hugh Auchincloss would be long-term residents.  The family summered in Kennebunkport and the East 70th Street home would be the scene of many social events throughout the years. 

On November 26, 1927 a dinner was given in honor of daughter Frances, followed by a debutante ball at the Colony Club.  The following year it was daughter Maria’s turn to be introduced to society.  Now the young women participated in hosting teas and receptions in the house for their favorite charities. 

Hugh and Katharine Auchincloss lived on at No. 171 as one-by-one their children were wed.  Frances married Thomas Watson Armitage in a fashionable St. Bartholomew’s ceremony on January 10, 1930; Maria was next, marrying Allen Look in Kennebunkport on July 2, 1934; and in 1942 the engagements of both Barbara and Hugh Jr. were announced.

In 1946, after four decades of ownership, Georgiana H. Stevens sold the house to Robert W. Straus, Jr.  A member of an old and prominent New York family, Straus was a publisher and President of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

By 1959 the Strauses had become unhappy with the Edwardian interiors.  They mentioned their issues to an artist friend, Francis Scott Bradford.  Among these, according to Rita Reif of The New York Times on April 9, 1960 were “leaded windows, which obscured the views of street and garden and rejected sunlight” and “foot-thick moldings, which cheated the rooms of height.”

Although Bradford was “a complete amateur in architecture, interior and furniture design,” according to Reif, he set about gutting and renovating the Straus interiors.  He designed the furnishings and produced a 1960s Modern environment appropriate for the Jetsons.  While the spaces were trendy and artistic, they were irrelevant to the building and were quickly dated.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

Before the house went on sale for $5.75 million in 2013, Bradford’s Mod renovations had been reversed.  Ceiling moldings were replaced, period mantels installed and parquet floors laid in an effort to recapture an historic feel.  In the meantime, little has changed to de Gersdroff’s 1911 façade.


  1. I am perpetually amused by people destroying classic interiors or exteriors to replace them with something up to the minute trendy. Within a few years, the hip and trendy is tacky and old while the classic that had been replaced would still be elegant

  2. Tom - While we're on the subject of Upper East Side mansions, I wanted to let you know that you can see the Upper East of the 20's and 30's come to life on the screen via You Tube. Much of the TV miniseries "Little Gloria, Happy at Last" was filmed here in the early 80's, replete with dozens of vintage cars and costumed actors. It has yet to be put on DVD but recently it was uploaded onto You Tube. One or two streets - probably in the East 70s - appear in sweeping period street scenes, with a magnificent bow front limestone townhouse (one that you have written about, perhaps?) appearing as the home of Reggie and Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. The James Duke mansion was used as the exterior (only) of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's now demolished palace. The library and music rom of the Flagler mansion in Palm Beach became the interior of the Whitney mansion. Another mansion interior, I'm not sure which, became the Whitney mansion's great hall and staircase. The Flagler mansion interiors also stood in for the interior of Alice Vanderbilt's chateau at 1 West 57th St (and possibly her later house that she purchased from the Goulds). The Flagler mansion's great hall became the great hall of "The Breakers" in Newport, while Frederick Vanderbilt's house in Hyde Park was used for "The Breakers" exterior. I'd check it out ASAP - whole movies don't stay long on You Tube. Seeing this incredible recreation of the Upper East side of the 20s and 30s will be a real treat.

    Titanic Bill

  3. Very pretty exterior. Love the brickwork.