Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Thatcher M. Adams Mansion - No. 63 East 79th Street

photograph by the author
The son of a well-respected minister, Thatcher Magoun Adams grew up in comfortable surroundings.  By the time he attended New York University in the 1850s his family was living at No 46 West 22nd Street.  Adams would choose a house nearby, at No. 15 West 17th Street, following his marriage in the 1860s.

Thatcher and Frances Charlotte Adams had one son, Thatcher, Jr.; and they adopted two twin girls, Lillian Marie and Marion Marie, who were born on March 6, 1874.  (Marion would die at the age of 18 of appendicitis while traveling with her sister in Europe).   By now Thatcher M. Adams was a partner in the prominent legal firm Anderson, Adams & Young.  And his refined residential 17th Street block was gradually changing as Sixth Avenue, just steps away, became the city’s foremost shopping district—later known as the Ladies’ Mile.

In the meantime the Upper East Side was seeing rapid development.  On East 79th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, speculative brownstone-fronted rowhouses had appeared in the 1860s.  Intended for comfortable middle class families, the two homes at Nos. 63 and 65 East 79th Street were each a mere 13-feet wide.  Their owners were respectable, such as well-known Dr. Frank Van Fleet who lived in No. 63 at the turn of the century.

But, like Thatcher Adams’s neighborhood, the 79th Street area was changing by now.  Old brownstones along the blocks off Central Park were being remodeled or razed to be replaced with modern mansions as New York’s wealthy migrated uptown.  On January 25, 1902 The Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Adams had “bought two 4-sty dwellings, Nos. 63 and 65 East 79th st…which he will tear down and erect upon the site a new dwelling in their place.”

Adams commissioned the architectural firm of Adams & Warren to design the mansion.  Completed in 1903 at a cost of $35,000, its chaste brick and limestone façade echoed the English rowhouses of London’s Mayfair.  An Ionic portico sheltered the offset entrance and provided a balcony to the parlor floor.  A second balcony refused at this level flexed its individuality, bowing out from the French windows unlike its flat counterpart.  A stone course below the fourth floor, stone window framings of the central openings, and splayed lintels above the fourth floor windows provided reserved ornamentation.  Above a substantial stone balustrade two hooded dormers fronted the mansard roof.
The slim proportions of the original properties is evidenced by the narrow two-bay-wide houses on either side of the new mansion.  photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Like many wealthy Manhattanites, Adams filled his mansion with a fine art collection.  His was known for its 18th century British portraits and old masters.  On the walls of the 79th Street house were paintings that included, as later described in the New-York Tribune, “some excellent Venetian scenes by Canaletto, a superb ‘Portrait of a Cavalier,’ by Nicolas Maes, and a fascinating little Milanese fragment, an ‘Infant Christ and St. John,’ attributed to Marco d’Oggiono.”

The family summered in fashionable Lenox, Massachusetts where their Colonial Revival mansion, Sundrum House, was the scene of glittering entertainments.  While in Manhattan, Frances and Thatcher involved themselves in philanthropic endeavors. Thatcher served on the boards of medical institutions and became President of the New York Institute for the Instruction of the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, and a governor of the Woman’s Hospital.  His long list of exclusive club memberships included the Union Club, the Knickerbocker, the Metropolitan, the Lenox Club and the Downtown Association.

The family's summer home, Sundrum House, was designed by Roth & Tilden in 1888 for Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, Secretary of the Treasury under Chester A. Arthur.  photo via Lenox History
On Wednesday, October 13, 1909 Frances died in Sundrum House.  Wealthy in her own right, her will reflected her charitable interests.  She left $50,000 to the Society for the Relief of Half Orphans and Destitute Children, in memory of Marion; and $20,000 to the Children’s Aid Society.   Thatcher M. Adams received $200,000 of his wife’s estate--in the neighborhood of $5.4 million today.

The will exposed an earlier family rift, which Frances later forgave.  The New York Times reported “Mrs. Adams states in the will that she has omitted to provide for her nephew, Arden M. Robbins, on account of his conduct in connection with the sale of section 32 in Chicago.”  But only five months before her death, she amended the will.  In the codicil she said she had “determined to forget and forgive” and desired “to leave only pleasant memories.”

Thatcher Adams continued on in the 79th Street mansion and at Sundrum House.  Following his mourning period he resumed the entertainments for which the Lenox estate was so well known.   On July 24, 1913, for instance, The Sun noted that “Dr. and Mrs. W. Holland Wilmer of Washington have arrived [at Lenox] to visit Thatcher M. Adams” and that “Mr. Adams will entertain at dinner to-morrow for his guests.”

Adams died in the 79th Street house at the age of 81 on Saturday, May 10, 1919.  Within five months the mansion was sold by his estate to Henry W. de Forest for $175,000.  In reporting on the sale, The Sun noted “The residence is one of the best in the Park avenue section…On the east is the handsome residence of George L. Rives and to the west is the home of John H. Iselin.”  The article went on to say “Other residents of the neighborhood are Catherine C. D. Rogers, Emma L. Wooley and I. N. Phelps Stokes, the architect.”

An attorney, Henry Wheeler de Forest was highly involved with railroads and banking.  Like Adams, he engaged himself with hospital work, becoming a governor of the New York Hospital and a trustee of the Presbyterian Hospital.

Henry and his wife, the former Julia Gilman Hoyes, had two daughters, Julia Marie and Alice.  They maintained a summer estate in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, named Nethermuir.  The family would barely return to New York that season and move into their new 79th Street home in time for daughter Julia’s introduction to society.  The mansion was the scene of teas and receptions as 1919 drew to a close.

Five years later, on December 27, 1924, guests would gather here following Julia’s Grace Church wedding to Beverly Duer.   The New York Times mentioned that “Following their wedding trip Mr. and Mrs. Duer plan to make their home in the city, spending their Summers on Long Island.”

On October 29, 1928 The Times reported that “Mr. and Mrs. Henry W. de Forest and Miss Alice de Forest” would return to New York the following day on the Olympic.  “They passed the Summer in England,” said the article.  It would be the last summer season Alice would spend with her parents.

Four days later Alice’s engagement to Francis Minturn Sedgwick was announced.  The wedding took place on Wednesday, May 8, 1929 in Grace Church.  The Times reported the marriage “will link families that have long been prominent in the affairs of New York.”   The social importance of the event was evidenced by the family names that made up Alice’s wedding party.  “For bridesmaids she has chosen her cousin, Miss Carlotte Noyes and the Misses Marie Iselin, Priscilla Choate, Mary Trimble, Barbara Babcock, Eleanor Pratt, Marie Parish, Helen de L. Kountze and Winifrew Loew.”

Henry W. de Forest died in Nethermuir on May 29, 1938.  Julia would not stay on in the 79th Street house for long; selling it in an all-cash deal to Frederick V. Fields in May 1940.  The future of the mansion as a private home was about to end.

Fields quickly resold the 20-room residence two months later.  The New York Times, on July 8, reported “the new owners are planning to remodel the structure at once with ten apartments ranging from one-and-one-half to five-room suites.”

Instead, they, too, rapidly turned it over.  It was sold on September 11 that year, and again in May 1945.  This time No. 63 received its delayed renovation, resulting in two upscale apartments per story with a doctor’s office on the ground floor. 

Perhaps the most celebrated residents were the family of architect Lawrence Grant White, principal in McKim, Mead & White and son of Stanford White.   The Whites were living here in 1955 when they announced the engagement of daughter Ann Octavia White to Harold Edgar Buttrick.  Following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather, Ann was currently studying architecture at Harvard University, as was her finance.

“Larry” White was more than an architect.  He was the author of Sketches and Designs by Stanford White, published in 1920 and his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy into blank verse, published in 1948, had taken him 25 years to complete.  The Whites were still living in the 79th Street apartment when Lawrence died in their St. James, Long Island, country home at the age of 68 on September 8, 1956.

The floor-to-ceiling paneling of the former library survives.  photo Curbed New York

The Adams mansion still contains the two apartments per floor as it did in 1946.  Happily, much of the Adams & Warren interiors survive.  Outside, the house is virtually unchanged since the Adams family moved in in 1903.

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