|photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
In 1913 the architecturally sumptuous Grand Central Terminal replaced the old Grand Central Depot. Its construction was accompanied by the electrification of railroad tracks running down Park Avenue and their being covered over by a planted boulevard.
Suddenly Park Avenue—a rather marginal thoroughfare hitherto—had the potential of a high-class residential street like nearby Madison and Fifth Avenues. At the same time luxurious residential hotels and house-like apartments had become fashionable. It would all come together in a staggeringly ambitious project at 270 Park Avenue.
Real estate titan Dr. Charles V. Paterno (he earned his medical degree in 1899 at Columbia University, but did not practice) formed the Vanderbilt Av. Realty Corp. and commissioned the architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore to design design a massive U-shaped neo-Renaissance building stretching from Madison to Park Avenue, and from 47th to 48th Streets.
Paterno envisioned two distinct sections—the mansion-like apartments that took the address 270 Park Avenue, and the apartment hotel that used the name Hotel Marguery. The residents would share a 70 by 275 foot garden with a private drive. As the restrained brick and stone structure rose, Manhattan millionaires rushed to take apartments.
|The drive into the into the garden afforded privacy to residents entering or leaving their limousines -- photo by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
On December 23, 1916, for instance, the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that John T. Terry had signed a lease for a 15-room, 5 bathroom apartment in the “new building under construction.” The Guide pointed out the building was “now practically 50 percent rented, although it will not be ready for occupancy until next fall.”
The rush for apartments flew in the face of doom-predictors. The Sun later noted “Many experts were of the opinion that the builder had overestimated his market when he put up this house, but the agents lost no time filling it with tenants.”
Construction was completed, as predicted, in the fall of 1917, at a cost of around $8 million, exclusive of the land. Twelve stories tall, there were 20 acres of floor space divided into 108 apartments. Deemed the “largest apartment building in the world,” a December 1917 advertisement counted “1,536 living rooms; 1,476 closets; 100 kitchens; 100 sculleries.”
The ad noted “In point of magnitude and cost this great structure exceeds anything ever attempted of its kind, and it is likely to stand for many years as the maximum result of the apartment builder’s art. To achieve successful completion of such a stupendous operation is no small task under ordinary conditions, but to do so under the handicaps and obstacles of a country at war is to mar the builder and his associates as men of supreme ability in their craft.”
|At the time of this photo, the train yards were not fully covered. photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Potential residents could choose apartments of six to ten rooms with three or four baths, at an annual rent of $4,000 to $6,500. Larger apartments, from 12 to 19 rooms with four to six baths, would cost $7000 to $15000. The highest rent would be equivalent to about $23,000 per month in 2015. The moneyed residents could enjoy the convenience of the downstairs restaurant, run by the Ritz-Carlton restaurant.
|The floor plan of a typical 14-room, 4 bath apartment -- Columbia University NY Real Estate Brochure Collection|
The Sun noted “Housekeeping apartments do not as a rule have the conveniences of restaurants, but 270 Park avenue, as this great structure is known, is such a huge building, with so many tenants, that the extra accommodation seemed to the builder almost a necessity.” The newspaper said “The principal dining room, tastefully decorated and furnished, is large, light and airy, and the café gives the impression of an attractive living room.”
|Two views of the restaurant -- Architecture and Building, December 1918 (copyright expired|
In June 1919, delegates from the Philadelphia Convention of the National Association of Owners and Building Managers arrived in New York for a weekend. Among their activities was a visit to 270 Park Avenue to look over “several of the most expensive apartments in the world,” reported the Record and Guide on June 21, 1919.
|Apartments, like the one of Mrs. A. W. Popper above, were outfitted like mansions. photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
No. 270 Park Avenue was home to some of Manhattan’s most recognized names in society. Harry S. Harkness, son of one of the largest stockholders in Standard Oil Company, was among the earliest renters. Massively wealthy, he had donated his impressive yacht, the Wakiva II, to the U.S. Navy. The converted craft was credited with sinking three German submarines before being sunk in a collision with a navy cargo carrier in 1918.
The New York Times reported that Harkness had presented the apartment “fully furnished” to his wife as a Christmas present in December 1918. Only a month after moving in, he died in his apartment on the night of January 23, 1919 at the age of 38, a victim of the devastating influenza pandemic.
When Harold S. Vanderbilt was released from the U.S. Navy a month later, he quickly signed a lease “for a term of years” for a “large apartment” as reported by the Record and Guide.
Society columns filled with receptions, dinners and teas hosted in the exclusive address. Among these in 1919 were the debutante entertainments for Millicent Rogers, the daughter of millionaire Henry Huddleston Rogers, Jr. They climaxed on the night of November 24 with what The New York Times proclaimed would “probably be the largest ball of the season” at the Ritz-Carlton. Two thousand invitations were delivered for the event.
The extensive wealth of the building’s residents was exemplified by the theft of a single item of jewelry from Mrs. Clarence Millhiser. The widow’s 30-pearl necklace was valued at $275,000 in 1920; detectives saying that “each pearl is supposed to be valued at $2,500.”
Ethel Hanan lived in style and luxury at 270 Park Avenue with her wealthy shoe manufacturer husband, Alfred P. Hanan. When the couple moved in Hanan reportedly spent $25,000 to furnish the apartment, the rent of which was $10,000 per year. They were catered to by a staff of three servants. Ethel’s problems began when Albert died on November 26, 1919 and, apparently to the shock of Albert’s family, she almost immediately married a young soldier, recently discharged from the Army.
Albert’s nephew and executor, Herbert H. Hanan, withheld any inheritance from his aunt. She complained to a judge that to support her new husband and herself, she first was “forced to sell the furniture, furnishings and automobiles of the summer home left to her by her husband at Sea Gate, Coney Island.”
After 16 months with no income, she pleaded with the courts for relief. Now Mrs. Taylor, she said that she and her husband were living in Cannes, France. Of her young husband, she said “although he is not now in position to contribute toward her support, his financial prospects are excellent.” The judge recognized her “great necessity” and ordered Hanan to release $100,000 from the estate to Ethel.
With wealth comes celebrity, and celebrity often breeds scandal. In 1901 James Alexander Stillman had married Anne Urquhart Potter in a fashionable Grace Church ceremony. The Evening World called it “a social event” and reported “about 2,000 invitations had been issued, and a fashionable assemblage was present.”
But trouble came to the Stillman household in 1921. James was by now Chairman of the National City Bank and Anne, according to The Evening World on March 11 that year, “has always been popular in society…With auburn tinted hair, hazel eyes, regular features, rich color, and a statuesque figure, she drew comment wherever she went.” The newspaper noted “She plays golf, tennis and billiards well.”
So society was no doubt shocked that year when Stillman sued for divorce, suggesting that Anne’s youngest child was the daughter of “a half-blood Indian guide from Quebec.” Newspapers covered the lurid trial as Anne refuted the accusations, and charged James of fathering two illegitimate children with a chorus girl, Florence H. Leeds. Anne Stillman, the newspapers noted “has not been seen at the Park Avenue apartment for some time.”
The ugly court battle dragged on for five years until the judge refused Stillman’s request for divorce, saying he “had misbehaved.” Anne then sued for divorce; but changed her mind when James presented her with a half-million dollar necklace. In an unexpected twist, the couple sailed off to Europe to receive marriage counseling from Carl Jung. It all ended happily (despite the $1 million legal bills incurred by Stillman) as they mended their marriage and continued to live together.
The socially prominent (August Belmont took a “large apartment” here in August 1921) rubbed shoulders with entertainers. Operatic soprano Alma Clayburgh was here that same year; as was celebrated Irish tenor John McCormack.
|270 Park Avenue in 1922. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
In 1922 theater enthusiasts were given a scare when McCormack was reported “very near death from a throat affliction.” Three physicians and four nurses stayed in constant attendance in the apartment, treating his “septic sore throat.” The condition was such that his family was called to his bedside.
On April 16, The New York Times reported that after a third lancing of his throat, McCormack seemed to be doing better. He was able to take nourishment for the first time in days and the newspaper said the “swelling had almost caused death by choking.” Happily for fans and for the tenor, a week later it was reported he had taken an “auto tour of Central Park and through Riverside Drive.”
Also living at 270 Park Avenue at the time was James Byrne, President of the Bar Association of New York, and his wife Helen. When Helen boarded the Channel steamer between France and England that summer, she personally carried her leather jewel case, hidden by a heavy traveling coat. She was wise to guard her case, for inside was jewelry valued at around $75,000.
Only for a few minutes did she leave the case unguarded in her stateroom. After arriving at her London hotel, Helen unlocked the case. To her horror the jewels were gone. The Evening World reported on August 31, 1922 that “The theory is the crooks obtained the jewels while in the cabin of the boat and Mrs. Byrne carried ashore an empty jewel case.”
Florence Harkness was still living at 270 Park Avenue two years after the death of Harry S. Harkness. The apartment he had given her as her 1918 Christmas present was the scene of her wedding in May 1922 to Robert W. Schuette. Florence, who had inherited $8 million, and her new husband boarded the Majestic on May 20 “to spend the Summer abroad.” The New York Times reported “on their return [they] will occupy the bride’s apartment.”
Renowned scientist Nikola Tesla found himself in financial trouble in 1923. He lived in Room 1607 in the St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue where he amassed an unpaid balance of $3,000. The frustrated management finally sued, and he was forced to find new accommodations. He moved into the Hotel Marguery and would take midnight walks to Bryant Park “to feed the pigeons.”
Although he soon moved on to the Pennsylvania Hotel, he kept his room at the Marguery. Eyebrows were raised and rumors circulated about the inventor’s pigeon feeding expeditions. According to his biographer, Marc Seifer in his Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla, “Tesla was a homosexual, and it was supposedly there, in the Hotel Marguery, that he liked to meet ‘his special friends.’”
Harold Vanderbilt had started a sort of family tradition in at 270 Park Avenue. On March 7, 1923 newspapers reported on the marriage of Reginald Vanderbilt to Gloria Morgan in the apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Glenn Stewart “where Miss Morgan is staying.” Outside photographers and reporters waited for hours in the snow for the newlyweds to appear.
Dr. W. Seward Webb and his wife Eliza, the daughter of William H. Vanderbilt, were living here at the time. On August 12, 1924 their apartment was the scene of the wedding of their daughter, Frederica Vanderbilt Webb to publisher Cyril Hamlen Jones. Frederica had formerly been the wife of Ralph Pulitzer and Jones had been the Pulitzer boys’ tutor.
Two years later, on October 19, W. Seward Webb died at the age of 76. The Webbs were still living at 270 Park Avenue at the time.
Another resident, Rudolph Guglielmi, had a spacious apartment in the building in November 1925 when he applied for United States citizenship. Better known to American audiences by his screen name, Rudolph Valentino, the movie star had to dodge a battery of questions. His failure to do military service during the war was brought up—he explained it was due to “a slight defect in the vision of his left eye.”
The Italian Government had listed him “as a slacker.” The New York Times reported that “it was discovered to be an error which was later corrected.” Then there was the question about why Valentine’s wife, Winifred, was living on 96th Street and not in the Park Avenue apartment.
“Mrs. Valentino said that the only issue between her husband and herself was that he wished her to give up all business and settle down into home life, and this she would not do.”
The 1920's saw the comings and goings of other internationally-known names. In 1926 Queen Marie of Rumania stayed briefly in the apartment of Ira Norris; and a year later Charles Lindbergh’s family, including his mother, stayed at 270 Park Avenue following his triumphant June 1927 return from Europe. Acclaimed stage actress Gertrude Lawrence took an apartment in 1929.
Having avoided unwanted publicity throughout the years Florence Harkness Schuette hosted a party on the night of April 11, 1929. It ended with one guest dead and another in jail charged with murder.
Robert Schuette had been in Paris for five weeks. Florence planned to sail soon to meet him, and on that Thursday night she threw a small dinner party followed by bridge. The guests were Mr. and Mrs. Walter Beinecke (he was in the insurance business and a director of Sperry & Hutchinson Company); and three wealthy out-of-towners: Samuel E. Bell, “well-to-do oil producer;” Mrs. Robert L. Brown of Lexington Kentucky, who was staying at the Hotel Plaza; and Arthur Morgan Smith, described by The New York Times a “wealthy Clevelander” and secretary and treasurer of the Gas Machinery Company there.
Questioned later, the guests noted that Smith had “contented” himself with several drinks and conversing with Mrs. Brown, “to whom, they said, he was particularly attentive,” according to The New York Times on April 15, 1929.
Everyone left Florence’s apartment at 2:20 a.m. Once on the street, Beinecke offered to give Smith a ride home, “but he refused, saying it was just a short distance to his hotel and he would walk.” A taxi cab driver witnessed what happened next. An apparent disagreement over who would escort Mrs. Brown to the Plaza ended in Smith’s tugging “at Bell’s coat collar” then Bell shoving Smith to the pavement as he climbed in a taxi with Mrs. Brown.
Reuben Gilbert pulled his cab over and helped Smith get up. A few minutes later Smith was arrested by police as he stumbled along Park Avenue, apparently drunk. Later it became obvious that Smith was not drunk—in fact he had suffered a fractured skull. He died the following afternoon.
Although Florence Harkness Schuette had nothing to do with the messy affair, she was understandably devastated. She avoided the press by going into hiding. Her brother-in-law, William Schuette, Jr. told the reporters he did not know where she was. “This thing is on my nerves,” he said. “Mrs. Schuette had nothing to do with all this anyhow, and I don’t want to say anything about it.”
|Expensive limousines wait within the courtyard in 1934 - photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Equally lurid was the murder on June 4, 1945 of Albert E. Langford, “wealthy textile executive,” at 8:45 on the night of June 4, 1945. The Langfords lived in what The New York Times described as a “luxuriously furnished six-room suite.” Marion Mayer Langford had inherited a sizable fortune from her father. Reportedly, her wealth and social position outranked Albert’s. While she was dressing in the bedroom, her black Pekingese, Winnie, began acting strangely—sniffing and barking at the seldom-used service door.
When the 63 year old shirt manufacturer opened the door, he was confronted by two strangers. The men asked to speak with Marion; however when he told her that there were two men at the door whom he did not recognize, she asked him to send them away.
The New York Times reported “Mrs. Langford heard the men talk, but did not see them. Neither did she nor any other occupant of adjacent apartments hear a shot.” Nevertheless, a moment later she heard a thump, called out Albert’s name, then found him lying on the carpet with a bullet in his brain.
Suspicion turned to Marion Langford as the intended target of the assassination. Weeks earlier she had complained to police that “certain people” were trying to extort money from her. And soon stories began circulating that she haunted illegal gambling dens, frequented nightclubs and held parties for questionable characters. Some hinted that the 70-year-old gave gifts and money to much younger “protégés” in the theater.
Marion spent much time refuting these stories, saying she was a “cultured woman, a refined woman.” And when it was suggested that one of her closest friends was former showgirl and mistress of Stanford White, Evelyn Nesbit, she insisted she barely knew that “dreadful” woman.
In the end, the murder of Albert Langford was never solved.
The year after Langford’s shocking murder, the 2639 Corporation, a syndicate headed by William Zeckendorf, purchased 270 Park Avenue and attempts to ouster of the high-class residents began. On May 30, 1946, the Office of the Price Administration denied the petitions for Certificates of Eviction, blocking the demolition of the building to clear the site for the proposed Time and Life Office Building. The wealthy and powerful residents cited Government regulations limiting commercial construction.
But it was a delaying tactic at best. Zeckendorf submitted the necessary permits and on June 24, 1947 plans were filed by architects Harrison & Abramovitz for the more than $21 million Time Life Building. The Hotel Marguery, once the largest apartment building in the world, and its astonishingly colorful history, was soon bulldozed and is now largely forgotten.
|photo The Squarefoot, https://www.thesquarefoot.com/buildings/ny/new-york/10017/midtown/270-park-avenue|
Today the site is occupied by the JP Morgan Chase Tower, constructed in 1960 and designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.