Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Otto Dommerich Mansion -- No. 50 East 69th Street

photograph by the author
At the turn of the last century many of the Victorian brownstone homes built in the 1870s and 1880s on New York’s Upper East Side were already being demolished.  As Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens moved northward along Central Park to escape the annoyance of hotels and retail shops, they replaced the outmoded structures with lavish new residences.

John H. V. Arnold was living in one such older home—a four-story brownstone at No. 48 East 69th Street.  Next door was the Rev. A. E. Kittredge house at No. 50.  It was purchased in 1902 by Abraham Schwab.  The price he paid reflected his confidence in the property’s value.  The $56,000 sale price would translate to a considerable $1.5 million today.  He resold it three years later.

The old houses would survive 11 years more.  In February 1916 The Sun reported that Otto Louis Dommerich had purchased Nos. 50 and 52 East 69th Street from Arthur Curtiss James.  The newspaper said he “will erect a fine dwelling on the site.”

Somewhat surprisingly nothing had been done with the two old houses as summer drew to a close.  Then on August 15 The New York Times reported that No 48 East 69th Street had also been sold.  “The name of the buyer was not disclosed,” said the newspaper, but it noted “it adjoins the two parcels at 50 and 52 East Sixty-ninth Street bought some time ago by Mr. James and sold to O. L. Dommerich, who is preparing to erect a high-class residence.”

A week later it was announced that the buyer of No. 48 was Dommerich.  He now had three abutting properties and the potential to build a staggering mansion.  If Otto Dommerich, indeed, originally intended to construct such a massive home, he changed his mind.  He quickly resold No. 52 to Harvey Gibson, Vice-President of the Liberty National Bank.

On October 21, 1916 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that Henry C. Pelton was designing the Dommerich mansion.  The five-story “brick and stone” residence was expected to cost about $55,000.

Otto Louis Dommerich had been taken into partnership in his father’s cotton factoring business in 1904 at the age of 34.  Upon Louis F. Dommerich’s death, Otto assumed the principal role.  In 1912 he took his brothers, Alexander and Louis, into the firm as partners.  L. F. Dommerich & Co. was a leading factoring concern which garnered Otto a fortune.  In addition, he held directorships in no fewer than 12 insurance companies.

The Dommerich mansion was completed in 1917—a neo-French Classic beauty that could easily hold its own with the palaces of Fifth Avenue.  Restrained and elegant, its centered doorway sat above three shallow steps and was subtly draped with carved festoons.  The second floor stole the attention with three floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto stone balconettes. Their height was exaggerated by arches with delicate carving within the tympana.

Otto and his wife, the former Caroline C. Clausen, had three children, Julie, Carola Louise, and Louis.   The family summered at their country estate in Rumson, New Jersey.

Eight years after moving into the 69th Street mansion, Julie would be the first to leave.  She was married on Wednesday, November 11, 1925 in a fashionable St. Bartholomew’s Church ceremony to Reginald William Okie.  Upon their return from their honeymoon they lived nearby at No. 164 East 72nd Street.

Society women were a bit surprised, perhaps, when they picked up The New York Times on the morning of October 18 a year later.  In it Mr. and Mrs. John Brinton Whitehead revealed that their daughter, Margaret, had married Louis F. Dommerich nearly a week earlier, on Thursday October 13.

The newlyweds brought impeccable backgrounds to their marriage. Margaret had been schooled at Miss Chapin’s School and was a member of the Junior League.  The secrecy of the marriage and the fact that Louis was still studying at Harvard no doubt caused whispers in New York’s drawing rooms.  But, as The Times reported, “In a telephone conversation last night Mrs. Whitehead explained that her daughter preferred to have a quiet wedding.”

The wedding of Louis’s youngest sister, Carola Louise, four years later would be more conventional.  Her engagement to Henry Powers Elliott was announced on June 17, 1931.  The mature Elliott had graduated from Princeton in 1914 before entering Harvard Law School.  His secure financial and social footing was evidenced by his memberships in the Princeton and University Clubs.

Before long Otto Louis Dommerich was stricken with what newspapers deemed “a lingering illness.”  On March 8, 1938 he succumbed.  Caroline remained alone with her servants in the mansion, resuming her charitable activities following her mourning period.

On April 19, 1940 she hosted a rather unusual event in the house, the “Bring a Bundle Tea.”  Guests were expected to bring used articles that could be resold at the Save Store at No. 450 East 89th Street.  The shop was run by the Home Thrift Association Children’s Center and proceeds were used “in the maintenance of the recreational facilities offered by the parent organization.” 

As 1943 drew to close Caroline was taken to the New York Hospital where she died on December 30.  Within months Julie, Carola and Louis (who was now serving in the Navy) sold the family home to the Henry George School of Social Science.

The school would remain in the mansion for decades.  In January 1954 it elected a new and highly-visible trustee.  Agnes de Mille was a granddaughter of Henry George, the writer, economist and social thinker whose work inspired the founding of the school.

The Henry George School not only offered courses in areas such as political economy and economic science; it presented lectures and seminars here until 1979 when it moved on.  The mansion was sold to the Center for Specialty Care—a facility founded by Dr. James W. Smith.  A six-year renovation resulted in Caroline Dommerich’s house being converted to an outpatient facility for plastic and reconstructive surgery.


The house was sold in the fall of 2017 to Joshua Harris, co-founder of Apollo Global Management for $45 million; a "ridiculously low" figure according to one source.   Renovations by Selldorf Architects began in the spring of 2018.


  1. This mansion is understated perfection. I have not seem many mansions in New York who have this kind of quality except Delano and Aldrich's commissions. It reminds me for some reason of 820 Park Ave for Mrs. Milbank Anderson/ A.J. Kobler ( 1920-25.) It only stood for 5 years

    1. I worked inside this building for six years. It's even better from the inside!

  2. I appraised that building for Dr. Smith in the late 1980's, it remains the nicest townhome I have ever appraised in NYC. The renovation by Dr. Smith, which created a private medical facility, with operating and recovery rooms in the basement, was done by a famous NYC architect, Sultana (I think) took 6 years. The offices and exam rooms were constructed within the original rooms, without destroying any of the original beauty of the building. Dr. Smith's office on the top floor was magnificent, with parquet floors, walnut paneled walls, and a unique, sculptured plaster and gold leaf ceiling. Dr. Smith and family should be highly commended for preserving such a New York City Gem.

  3. I worked side by side with Jim Smith in the Operating Room for many years, and was with him as we built this facility. Not only was he a gifted surgeon, but he was a visionary. At a time (1970's and 1980's) when Plastic Surgery was being performed in unregulated office based operating suites, Jim Smith had a vision (way ahead of his contemporaries) that these cases should be performed in safer facilities. There were no specific building codes for Ambulatory Surgery Centers at the time. As a matter of fact, there were not even State or Federal regulations that governed ASC's. Jim did what was in the best interest of his patients and built the facility to the State Hospital building codes, while at the same time preserved the grandeur and history of this magnificent structure. I was there for the entire process and I am so very proud of my affiliation with not only James W. Smith, MD, but also The Center for Specialty Care! It was an amazing and rewarding journey. Bob Nelson

  4. I loved reading, in a comment above, of exam rooms being constructed inside the original rooms, so as not to destroy original details. I've often wondered why this hasn't been done more often in re-purposing these grand vintage structures. (It should be a law, IMHO!)

  5. Otto Dommerich is my great grandfather. How I would love to have been able to see this historic place. I hope the renovations respect its history. Thank you for sharing this article.

    1. I am one of the great granddaughters of Otto , granddaughter of his daughter Julie .I am very proud to read these comments.I wish I could have met my great grand father and great grandmother .my grandmother was a very special woman .