Friday, November 4, 2016

The John S. Rogers Mansion - 53 East 79th Street

photograph by the author

Architect and interior designer Ogden Codman, Jr. was well-established by 1901 when he moved into the narrow, 13-foot wide brownstone at 53 East 79th Street.  Four years earlier he and Edith Wharton had written The Decoration of Houses which became a must-have for American decorators.  Through Wharton he had received commissions to redecorate the Newport cottages of millionaires like Cornelius Vanderbilt II.

Codman’s homosexuality was never openly mentioned in society; however his engagement to Leila Griswold Webb on October 6, 1904 surely raised eyebrows.   The bride-to-be was the widow of railroad magnate H. Walter Webb who had died in 1900, leaving a fortune of about $3 million.  He was the brother of Dr. William Seward Webb, husband of Eliza Osgood Vanderbilt, daughter of William H. Vanderbilt.  Following the marriage Codman left East 79th Street, moving into the opulent home he had designed for Leila in 1903 at 15 East 51st Street.

On April 18, 1906 another socially-important wedding took place when attorney John Shillito Rogers married Catherine Cossitt Dodge.   Catherine was the granddaughter of millionaire William Earle Dodge, and John was the eldest son of Henry Pendleton Rogers.  A newspaper mentioned “Mr. Rogers’s family has been associated with New York City for many generations.”  Indeed, the Rogers family traced their American roots to James Rogers who arrived on the Increase in 1635.

More than 300 guests filed into the Brick Presbyterian Church that day, with socially-elite names like Sloane, Vanderbilt, Schieffelin, Beeckman, Pulitzer, De Peyster and Havemeyer.  Among the “handsome wedding presents” listed by The New York Times were a diamond tiara, a silver tea set and tray, a Louis XVI diamond collarette, and a chest of silver flatware.

Both the Dodge and Rogers families had summer homes in fashionable Tuxedo Park.  The newlyweds, too, established themselves there, purchasing “a villa on East Lake Road,” according to The New York Times.  Then in 1916, they turned their attention to their city residence.

The former Codman house and its equally-narrow neighbors at 55 and 57 were purchased and demolished.  In April John and Catherine hired the esteemed architectural firm of Trowbridge & Livingston to design what the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide described as a “modern five story dwelling.”  Three months later, when contractor Marc Eidlitz & Son were awarded the contract, plans had been filed and the cost set at $200,000 (nearly $4.5 million in 2016 dollars).

The Italian Renaissance palazzo was completed in 1917; its restrained and dignified design reflecting the social standing of its owners.  The offset entrance sat squarely at the sidewalk level.  Shallow Doric pilasters separated the first floor openings and the service entrance that led to the basement level was so underplayed as to be nearly unnoticeable.  Renaissance pediments and delicate balustrades distinguished the parlor floor windows.  Above the cornice, a handsome stone balustrade disguised the fifth floor.

The mansion replaced three houses identical to the two-bay wide dwelling see at far left.  photograph by Tebbs Architectural Photo Co., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The couple would have five children, John, Jr., Frederick Cossitt, B. Pendelton, May, and Catherine Dodge.   While John Rogers handled his legal practice, Catherine devoted much of her time to charitable endeavors of the Episcopalian church. 

Mostly notable was her involvement with the Maternity Centre Committee, established in 1918.  The first meeting was held in the Rogers house, beginning a tradition that would last for years.  The New-York Tribune reported on April 16, 1918 “A baby saving campaign for New York City was started yesterday at a meeting called by the Maternity Centre Committee at the home of Mrs. John S. Rogers…Saving the child by saving the mother is the plan of the committee, which intends to establish nine maternity centres in New York City.”  Hoping to reduce the fatality rate (15,000 women died in childbirth every year in 1918), the centers would focus on prenatal care and education.

The fully-paneled Library contained an eclectic mixture of styles. photograph from the collection of the New York Society Library

Catherine was also a member of the Diocesan Auxiliary to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, involved in the Seaman’s Church Institute, and a leading force in the Young Helpers’ League. 

The Young Helpers’ League was an altruistic effort to teach the children of wealthy families about charity.   On December 13, 1926 The New York Times reported on the “100 or more boys and girls of socially prominent families” who gathered at the Rogers mansion.  Each brought armloads of presents for children of the Lower East Side tenements.

“For a year these children had collected and saved their funds for this benefaction,” said the newspaper.  The young heirs and heiresses squirreled away some of their allowances for the Christmas donation.  “In addition to the heaps of gifts, including the latest mechanical toys of all kinds and dolls, each boy and girl submitted for inspection a ‘mite box,’ containing cash collected throughout the year with which to pay the annual salary of the woman welfare worker in the district.”  The article estimated the total children’s contribution that year would top $1,000.

Although the gathering at the Rogers mansion was termed a “Christmas party,” the children received no gifts.  They sang a few hymns and enjoyed Catherine Rogers’ refreshments.  And they listened to Mrs. Horace Bigelow who explained the spirit of charity.

“But the children of the downtown district are doing more for you than you are doing for them,” she said.  “They are teaching you the habit of giving, and thus aiding you to an understanding of the human and spiritual values of life, upon which your own happiness and success so largely depend.”

Not all the gatherings at 53 East 79th Street had to do with philanthropic causes, of course.  On February 7, 1929, for instance, John and Catherine Rogers hosted the elite Thursday Evening Club.  Artists from the Metropolitan Opera entertained the wealthy group. 

By now the Rogers children were growing up.  On February 1, 1930 the engagement of John S. Rogers, Jr. to Frances Randall Williams was announced.  The following year, on November 25, May was introduced to society in an opulent dinner dance in the main ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton.  The New York Times remarked “it was essentially a party for young people,” and listed among the several hundred guests Doris Duke, Eleanor Gould, Grace Roosevelt, and Sanford M. Agnew.

Frederick Cossitt Rogers married Camille Barlett on July 5, 1935.   Just three months later, on October 17, John Shillito Rogers died at the age of 59.  Manhattan society may have been somewhat shocked when on December 10, 1936, less than two months after the end of Catherine’s formal period of mourning, she married E. Victor Loew.

Both Caroline and her new husband owned cottages in Tuxedo Park, and Loew lived in a spacious apartment at 778 Park Avenue.  Catherine would not return to East 79th Street.

The Rogers mansion was purchased by the New York Society Library, then located at 109 University Place, which was in desperate need for a larger facility.  It was established in 1754 and by now included nearly 150,000 volumes in its immense collection of "books, broadsides, pamphlets, maps newspapers and autograph letters,” advised The New York Times on June 20, 1937.

After interior renovations the library was ready for opening on July 1, 1937.  The New York Times said “While the building in East Seventy-ninth Street has been remodeled along modern library lines, the atmosphere that has so long characterized the New York Society Library has been retained.  The exterior of the building gives an impression of great dignity.”

Much of the original architectural detailing has been sensitively preserved.  The Library's "Whitridge Room" is in the former bedroom of John and Catherine Rogers.  photo from the New York Society Library

The New York Society Library remains in the Rogers mansion.  While it is open to the public, only members may remove books from the building.  Among the former members who enjoyed that privilege are Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, and Washington Irving.  Their circulation records and those of other early members are accessible through the Library's digital resource has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. Fascinating and brilliantly researched, as always. Although they had a place in Tuxedo---which was more a weekend/fall/winter resort, the Rogers's also summered in Bar Harbor for most of their marriage. And after her marriage to Victor Loew, they purchased "Sea Urchins", which under it's first owner, the authoress Constance Cary Harrison, was one of the social epicenters of that resort. The Loews enlarged and renovated "Sea Urchins" and remained there until Mr. Loew's death.

  2. Dilettante:

    Is Sea Urchins still standing? I think it was still extant when I last visited Bar Harbor in 1983 but I so not know what has become of it since then.

    Titanic Bill

  3. Titanic Bill. Whether "Sea Urchins" is still standing is a matter of interpretation. It now belongs to the College of the Atlantic, whose favored architect at the time gave it a 'renovation' that was about as unneessarily thorough as can be imagined. Wings torn off, interiors completely replanned and gutted. Public opinion wanted it saved, tney wasnted something else, this was the result. Sad. Very sad.