Thursday, November 6, 2014

The 1863 Chas. Harmer House -- No. 113 E. 37th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In the last years before the outbreak of the Civil War, some wealthy New Yorkers migrated north of the Bond Street and St. John’s Park neighborhoods to Murray Hill.  Here staggeringly wealthy families like the Phelps and Dodge had already built imposing mansions and developers like Hamilton & Ryer recognized the potential.

In 1860 they began construction of a row of brownstone-fronted homes from No. 105 through 115 East 37th Street.  Intended for well-to-do merchant class families, the Italianate homes sat above high English basements.  Four stories tall, they featured handsome arched entranceways.  It would be three years before the row was completed.

No. 113 was purchased by 46-year old hardware merchant Charles G. Harmer.  He was the senior member of Harmer, Hays & Co., and a Director of the Nassau Bank.  The New York Times would later remember that he was born “in the Seventh Ward, where the fashionable people of the city then resided, and he attended school in Wall Street.”

While a teen Harmer became a clerk in the store of Prosper M. Whetmore.  The aggressive young man set out on his own at the age of 20, starting his own importing business.  Before he was 21 years old, Harmer sent his first order for saddler hardware to Europe.  By the time he purchased the 37th Street house, Harmer, Hays & Co. was tremendously successful and Harmer had accumulated a significant fortune.

He and his wife, Margaret Hays Harmer, had three sons—Thomas, Charles, Jr., and John—and four daughters.  Two decades after moving in, in 1883, the family was still here.  Young Thomas Hays Harmer was now an engineer, having graduated from Columbia University and earning his advanced degrees from The School of Mines. 

On Wednesday, May 9, that year, Charles Edmund Harmer died.  The young man’s funeral was held in the family residence at 10:00 on Saturday morning the 12th.

In 1890, now widowed, Charles G. Harmer suffered an attack of influenza—termed “the grip” at the time.  The 73-year old, he never fully recovered.  The New York Times said “His nervous system was prostrated.”  A year later his condition worsened and after suffering for a few weeks, he died in the house early in the morning of August 10, 1891.  His obituary noted that “As a merchant and financier, Mr. Harmer held a high position.”

The family sold the house to George Burt Roys.  George’s wife, the former Sarah Church, had died on September 24, 1888 and around the time of Harmer’s death he arrived in New York from Sheffield, Massachusetts.  The middle-aged widower would not own the residence for many years.  He died on Saturday, February 23, 1895; his funeral, as was Harmer’s, being held in the house four days later.

No. 113 was purchased by stock broker James W. Henning, the sole member of J. W. Henning & Co.  In addition to his brokerage business, he had large real estate holdings.  He set about updating the old Victorian, spending $8,000 on “alterations” in September 1896.   It was most likely at this time that the exquisite iron fence and stoop railings were added.  The significant expense would amount to about a quarter of a million dollars today.

The elaborate fencing, newels and railings are unmatched in the neighborhood -- photo by Alice Lum
As the summer season approached the following year, Mrs. Henning sought employment for her maid, who was apparently not coming along to the country.  An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on June 21 read “Lady closing house desires position for her waitress; sober, honest and competent.”

Within a few years Henning focused much of his attention on real estate speculation, the New-York Tribune saying that around 1901 he became “among the large speculators in real estate in this borough.”  His real estate investments would become important in October 1906 when he lost heavily in the stock market.

On October 5 his suspension from the Stock Exchange was announced.  The New-York Tribune reported the following day “Last April, it is said, he suffered a loss of wellnigh $1,000,000.”  The newspaper mentioned his real estate holdings and said “it is thought by his friends that he may realize enough on these investments to put him on his feet again.”  Well-liked, the broker had the backing of other firms.  Nichol, Anable & Lindsay issued a statement:

A number of Mr. Henning’s Stock Exchange friends have offered to come to his assistance, and negotiations are pending which he (Mr. Henning) expects will enable him to resume business shortly.

Apparently one of the properties liquidated by Henning was the 37th Street house.  In 1909 it was home to Martin W. Littleton.  Littleton’s wife was active in the Suffragist Movement and on December 29 that year her “suffrage luncheon” was attended by the wife of Mayor-elect Gaynor, along with the wife of Member of Parliament, John Annan Bryce.

The Littletons did not remain here long.  Next to live here was Robert Mather, Chairman of the Board of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company.  In addition to his position with Westinghouse, he was, according to The New York Times, “Director of many banks and railroads, and for many years prominent as counsel for large corporations and an expert on railroad affairs.”

The “many banks and railroads” of which Mather was a Director numbered about 15.  He was a member of no fewer than seven exclusive clubs, including the Union League and the Metropolitan.

But Mather and his wife Alice Caroline, would not be in the house long either.  On October 24, 1911 the 52-year old Robert Mather died in the house of peritonitis.  Once again there was a funeral in the parlor.  On October 26 “many prominent financiers, railroad officials and citizens” filed into the house, as reported in The New York Times.

Alice Henning sold the house to Frederick K. Trowbridge in June the following year.  The real estate investor had no intention of living here.  He already owned eight homes in the immediate area, including the house next door.  The Times said he held title to “115 and 120 East Thirty-seventh Street, 112 to 120 East Thirty-eighth Street, and 123 East Thirty-ninth Street.”

Trowbridge leased the house to Beverly Robinson.  Robinson and his wife were highly visible in New York society and maintained a summer estate in East Williston, Long Island where the fox hunting crowd was centered.  They would lease the house for only one year; leaving shortly after the funeral for Harvey Baldwin—brother of Mrs. Robinson—was held here on June 21, 1913.

Next to lease the house was the socially-prominent Henry Bridgham Carhart family.  In December 1913 Mrs. Carhart hosted a dance for her debutante daughter, Edith, in the house.  The Carharts took a break in entertaining two months later by spending February and part of March in Palm Beach.

The Carharts returned to New York just in time to pack.  On April 11, 1914 The Sun reported that Frederick Trowbridge had sold the house to William N. Kremer who was currently living at No. 34 Park Avenue.

Living with William Nevin Kremer and his wife, Helen, in the house was Helen’s father the Rev. Alfred Langdon Elwyn.  The Episcopal minister was, in 1914, 83 years old and was an outspoken supporter of Indian Rights. 

After many years of short-term residents, the Kremers would stay on.  On February 12, 1920 William died and, as had been the case to many times, a funeral was held in the house on February 14.  Helen and her father remained, until in August 1924 the 91-year old minister died in the house.  He was at the time the oldest living graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (he had graduated in 1853).

The Murray Hill neighborhood was changing as mid-century approached.  In 1950 the house was converted to apartments, with “one professional apartment and office” on the parlor floor.  This office-and-apartment was taken by Hungarian-born American Modernist architect and designer Marcel Lajos Breuer.  While working here he designed some of his best known structures, including the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the De Bijenkorf Department Store in Rotterdam, the United States Embassy at the Hague and St. John’s Abbey Church in Minnesota.

While the 1863 carved details were removed, the lovely fanlight survived over the doorway. -- photo by Alice Lum

It was most likely while Breuer was in the house that the carved brownstone details of the entrance and lintels were shaved flat.  By 1958 the house had become the headquarters for the Institute of International Labor Research.  On July 1 that year The New York Times noted that “The institute, with offices at 113 East Thirty-seventh Street, is backed by labor leaders and groups and Socialist or Social Democratic parties of many nations.”  The institute would stay here into the 1960s.

The Harmer house continues to be house offices while retaining its residential appearance.  Fortunately when the Victorian detailing was removed in modernizing the face at mid-century, the exceptional ironwork was retained.

Passersby are captivated by the unexplained Della Robbia-style plaque that hangs like a pendant on the facade.  -- photo by Alice Lum

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