Both architect John G. Prague and developer Anthony Mowbray would be known for their extensive residential projects in the 1880s and '90s. But in 1873 they worked together on a much smaller scale. Mowbray hired Prague to design three abutting rowhouses at Nos. 127 through 131 East 78th Street.
The neo-Grec style homes were completed by the fall of 1874. At just 17-feet and two-bays wide, the "high stoop" houses, as described by the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, were intended for upper middle class buyers. On November 15 Mowbray listed No. 127 in The New York Herald, advising "persons wanting a house will do well to call and examine; price $18,000." The sale price would translate to about $386,000 in 2016.
The house, three stories high over an English basement, became home to wine broker George F. Wellman and his wife, the former Caroline M. Prescott. Caroline died in the house on Monday morning, May 2, 1881. Her funeral was held there two days later at 4:00.
George sold the house to contractor John McLaughlin, an executive with George W. Powe & Co. The firm received a gratifying contract with the City on June 13, 1884 to "furnishing the Department of Public Works with 7,000 cubic yards of clean, sharp sand."
As with all financially-comfortable families, the McLaughlins maintained a small staff. On October 16, 1891 Mrs. McLaughlin advertised for "a respectable girl for general housework in a private family," and four months later for "a neat young girl for upstairs work in a small family."
In March 1891 John McLaughlin sold No. 127 to Bernhard Leibstadter and his wife Henrietta. The couple's son, who went professionally only by his first initial "A," embarked on a career as a druggist and enrolled in the New York College of Pharmacy. Upon his graduation in 1899 he returned home, but was apparently looking for his own space. The Druggists' Circular and Chemical Gazette noted in July that year that he "is now temporarily at 127 East Seventy-eighth street."
A. Leibstadter succeeded and in 1902 was able to purchase the Grand Opera House Pharmacy at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street.
Henrietta Leibstadter died in August 1902. Bernhardt sold the house five months later, in February. Coincidentally or not, A. Leibstadter sold his new pharmacy in April that year.
The new owner, Louis F. Georger, resold No. 127 in March 1905 to "an investor," Sophie Lawrence Duer. She leased the house, and in May 1907 hired architect S. Edson Gage to modernize the aging residence. Gage removed the outdated stoop, replaced the former entrance with a window and moved the doorway to the sidewalk level, opposite the existing service entrance. The interiors were updated to create a modern four-story "American basement" home. Sophie Duer's renovations cost her $4,500.
|Before its remodeling, No. 127 (right) had a high brownstone stoop like its next door neighbor at No. 125. photo from the collection of the New York Public Library.|
Sophie leased the house through 1921. On December 11 that year she placed an advertisement in the New-York Tribune, offering it for sale or lease. The ad described the house as a "small modern American basement" in "splendid condition." It boasted "modern plumbing, electric lights and hardwood floors." Sophie was asking a $50,000 purchase price or $4,500 a year to lease (equivalent to $5,000 per month rent in 2016).
Before the end of the year it was sold to George B. Phelps. The 67-year old retired physician was the son of the late Oliver S. Phelps, President of the First National Bank. His first wife had died suddenly in 1907 and he remarried the widowed Alice Ballard. Alice came to the marriage with a small fortune of her own. Her father, Oliver S. Carter, had left a $2.7 million estate upon his death in 1903.
With the couple in the house was Alice's unmarried daughter Frances Halsted Ballard. Frances was well-known among the "younger set" and her name regularly appeared in the society pages.
Only a year after moving in, Dr. George B. Phelps died in the 78th Street house on February 15, 1923. Alice stayed on and on April 7, 1925 announced the engagement of Frances to John H. Vincent, son of Dr. George E. Vincent, President of the Rockefeller Foundation. The social status of the couple was evidenced by the guest list at Mrs. Robert Livingston Clarkson's luncheon, where the announcement was made. Socially-important names like Warburton, Harriman, Remsen and Blake were present.
Following Alice's death Alexander Davidson, Jr. purchased No. 127 from the estate in 1948. He and his wife remained here until February 1961 when they sold it to the Continental Property Corp. who leased it to magazine and celebrity photographer Milton Greene and his wife, Amy, beauty editor of Glamour Magazine. A sporadic house guest would make the unremarkable townhouse memorable forever.
|The notoriously-stuffy neo-Grec style received light-hearted incised carvings and rosettes later--possibly during the 1907 renovations. Original interior shutters survive.|
Nearly a decade earlier Greene had become friends with Marilyn Monroe. The former Hollywood starlet had become what today would be termed a super-star. Her success was such that by January 11, 1955, when she reported to the Twentieth-Century-Fox studio accompanied by Milton Greene, she was telling reporters of her plans to open her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions.
The New York Times reported "The star has designated herself president of the company" and that Milton Greene would be vice president.
The close friendship between Greene and Monroe went beyond business. When she married Arthur Miller in the White Plains, New York, courthouse on June 29, 1956, Greene was there to take the photographs.
But storm clouds soon darkened the congenial partnership. In April 1957 she accused Greene of mismanagement and claimed he "had misinformed her of the contents of certain contracts and had entered secretly into others," according to The Times. Although Greene denied the charges, he acknowledged that "differences" had arisen between him and Monroe.
The feud was settled in February the following year when Marilyn Monroe bought out Greene's share of the company (she had owned 50.4 percent, and Greene had held 49.6).
With hatchets buried, Marilyn stayed with the Greenes when she was on the East Coast. Her visits however, would be short-lived. A year and a half after Milton and Amy Greene moved into the 78th Street house, Monroe died on August 5, 1962. However brief her connection with No. 127 was; the house is now mainly remembered as the place where the glamorous star occasionally slept.
More than a decade later Greene revived his association with the star when he resurrected a carbon copy of a manuscript she had given him years earlier. The Monroe "autobiography," later attributed as the work of author Ben Hecht, had been written in the mid 1950s. On June 26, 1974 The New York Times reported "When there was a revival of interest in the Monroe story last year, Mr. Greene brought his copy to [publishers] Stein and Day."
|Some rooms retain much of their original detailing. photo via Douglas Elliman Real Estate|
No. 127 East 78th Street remains a single-family home. While the interiors have been heavily modernized, the exterior survives much as it looked when Sophie Lawrence Duer remodeled it in 1907. And despite the star's brief brush with the residence, it is remembered by most as the Marilyn Monroe house.
photographs by the author
many thanks to motion picture pundit John Chalupa for suggesting this post