Monday, January 30, 2017

The Lost Whiton-Stuart House - No. 8 East 54th St

By the time this photograph was taken a shop window had been installed in the former doctor's office, most likely for The House of Ships.  photograph by Arthur Vitols from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The brownstone-fronted house at No. 8 East 54th Street sat amidst Manhattan's most exclusive residential neighborhood in the 1880s and '90s.  One block to the west on the opposite side of Fifth Avenue was the mansion of John D. Rockefeller; and on the northeast corner of 54th Street and Fifth Avenue was the home of William Rockefeller.  The Avenue blocks to the south were deemed "Vanderbilt Row," because of the string of lavish Vanderbilt residences.

By 1891 the wealthy widow Mrs. H. C. Childs was living in No. 8 East 54th Street.  Active in charities, her name routinely appeared in the society columns.  When William Earle Dodge Stokes demolished the two brownstones next door, at Nos. 4 and 6, and erected his magnificent marble mansion, it must have seemed that the high-toned residential nature of the block was assured.

A sliver of No. 8 East 54th Street can be glimpsed to the left of the Stokes mansion.  photo via the Glessner House Museum

The dowager received a serious scare on January 13, 1906 as she rode in her brougham along East 73rd Street.  The automobiles which had recently begun appearing on the streets of New York often struck terror in horses; and such was that case that afternoon.  Spooked, the horse galloped southward on Madison Avenue, striking several other vehicles and terrifying Mrs. Childs.

Two pedestrians, Mrs. S. Steiner and her maid, Fannie Fisher, were knocked to the pavement, suffering contusions.  Mrs. Childs's coachman (ironically named Hansom) "did everything in his power to stop his horse," reported The New York Times.  Finally a policeman named Delaney was able to stop the frightened animal.  Although Mrs. Childs was not injured, her carriage was "badly wrecked."

At the time Fifth Avenue's millionaires were fighting the inevitable encroachment of businesses which were inching northward.   About ten months after the incident of the runaway horse The New York Times ran the somewhat accusatory headline "Business Invasion of 54th Street" and announced that real estate operator J. P. Whiton-Stuart had purchased the Childs house.  The following day, on November 9, the New York Tribune confirmed that he "intends to use part of the house for business."

Jesse P. Whiton-Stuart and his wife were well known in society, maintaining a summer estate called Goodhope in Greenwich, Connecticut, and rubbing theirs with some of the wealthiest shoulders in Manhattan.   Whiton-Stuart's plan to combine his residence with income-producing doctors' offices would be manifested with little architectural annoyance to his wealthy and powerful neighbors.

He commissioned architect Stockton B. Colt (formerly the partner of Goodhue Livingston) to transform the old high-stooped house into a modern Edwardian residence.  The brownstone front was stripped away and the front moved forward to the property line.  The renovations, which included "a new Colonial facade," as described by The Times, cost Whiton-Stuart $15,000, about $390,000 today.

The prim neo-Georgian design included multi-paned, shuttered windows on stone sills and tall dormers cleverly joined together to provide a nearly full-height fifth floor.  The Whiton-Stuarts moved into the upper floors where, among the expensive furnishings, was J. P. Whiton-Stuart's extensive collection of rare maps, paintings and engravings of old New York City.

Esteemed doctors established their offices at street level.  Among the first was Dr. Ralph Grace, well known for his forward thinking approach to medical treatments, especially in cardiology.   He traveled to London to attend the coronation of George V in 1911 where his progressive methods clashed with English decorum.

On July 13 the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal reported "According to a recent dispatch from London, the American method of restoring fainting women in crowded streets appears to have somewhat astonished our British cousins."  The article explained "On the day of the Coronation, Dr. Ralph Grace, a well-known New York physician, who is on the attending staff of the Lincoln Hospital, had a position near the temporary wooden bridge erected in the neighborhood of Buckingham Palace."

Just as the royal procession neared, someone in the crowd yelled out that the bridge was giving way.  Several women responded by fainting.  Dr. Grace went into action, instructing bystanders and police to position the women on the sloping bank with their heads downward, forcing blood to rush to their heads.  The proper British were shocked.

"This drastic treatment was new to the English crowd, and several trained nurses expostulated at the undignified spectacle presented."  Dr. Grace persevered however, and one by one the women revived.

When he returned to New York on the liner Amerika on June 8, reporters were waiting to hear the story.  The Sun further explained "The crowd had been in serious mood, but when it saw the women upside down on the embankment, coming to one by one and in a hurry, and grabbing at their skirts, which had fallen toward their heads, it laughed heartily...Some of the matrons did not like getting back to earth wrong side up and wondered why they had been inverted until they were told."

Dr. Grace added "They said they never would faint in public again."

Although Whiton-Stuart and his wife continued to live in the house, he was renting rooms or apartments in 1914.  In the meantime, Dr. Ward A. Holden had his office downstairs.  An ophthalmologist, he was a  member of the National Committee on the Prevention of Blindness.   Holden was nationally known--less for his treatment of sight problems than for his research into preventing them.

In 1908 he did an extensive study of typefaces to determine which caused less eyestrain.  He concluded that Cheltenham, designed by Bertram Goodhue, "is probably the most legible type ever designed."

In 1915 Holden  may have raised eyebrows when he suggested that the blind had a "sixth sense" of knowing where objects were without touching them.  He went further, telling a reporter from The Sun on May 1 that the "sense of the location or nearness of objects may be developed by those who have sight, if they try."

In the months preceding Prohibition bootleggers experimented with wood alcohol.  On December 27, 1919 a headline in The Sun reported "Fake Whiskey Kills 34; Blinds Scores."  Holden was chairman of a sub-committee of the New York County Medical Association organized to investigate the problem.  But, he forewarned, "it is now impossible to control the use of wood alcohol as beverage."

The office of Dr. John D. Richards was in the building by 1916.  Like his colleagues he was prominent and wealthy.  A surgeon at St. Mark's Hospital, he played polo and trained polo ponies.  He was the personal physician to wealthy families including Isidor and Ida Straus (whom he called "good friends") and the Rockefellers.

When the R.M.S. Carpathia steamed into New York harbor on April 18, 1912 with the survivors of the R.M.S. Titanic aboard, Dr. Richards was waiting to tend to them.  To his great sorrow, he soon discovered that his friends, the Strauses, were not among them.

Richards was a member of a polo team composed entirely of doctors in 1916.  The team was playing on December 10 when he "urged his pony to top speed to effect a midfield recovery of the ball," according to The New York Times the following day.  The horse stumbled and fell, landing on top of Richards and fracturing his leg.

Dr. McGovern of Fordham Hospital set the leg on site while surrounded, he said, by "the most critical crowd" he had ever encountered.  Richards was later removed to St. Vincent's Hospital to recover.

That same year, in September, J. P. Whiton-Stuart merged his business with the highly-regarded real estate firm Douglas L. Elliman & Company.

The end of medical offices in No. 8 East 54th Street came in March 1927.  In 1921 Rae Palmer, a graduate of the Department of Household Arts at Columbia University had opened a tea room on West 59th Street known as Aunt Polly's.  It was a remarkable success.  Two years later she expanded by opening the Monticello Restaurant in the Carlton House at No. 18 East 47th Street, taking as her partner Elizabeth McCoy, a graduate of Wellesley.

Now the two leased No. 8 as the new site for the Monticello Restaurant.  Their 21-year lease came at a total rent of $500,000.   The two bachelor women were not done yet.  The same month they signed a lease in the nearly completed Dover Hotel on Lexington Avenue and 57th Street for another restaurant.

Palmer and McCoy may have been a bit too overconfident.  In April 1928 the building was sold to "a New Jersey investor" and, despite the 21-year lease, the Monticello Restaurant was soon gone.  It was replaced by "The House of Ships."

The shop was not startling for its wares--mostly maritime antiques including historical paintings, old glass, tapestries, and ship models--but for its proprietor.   Marion Steedman Mason Wilson, wife of banker Richard T. Wilson, was "a prominent figure in the social life of this city, having been connected with the Vanderbilt and Goelet families through marriage," according to The Times.  She was a social leader in Newport and for years the president of the Saratoga Racing Association.

Marion's sister-in-law, Mary, had married Ogden Goelet; her brother-in-law, M. Orme Wilson, was married to Caroline Astor, daughter of William Backhouse Astor; another sister-in-law, Leila was married to Sir Michael Henry Herbert; and the last, Grace Wilson, was Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Women of Marion's social status were not shop keepers.  So her announcement to open The House of Ships "gave cause for lengthy newspaper interviews," said The Times.  She explained that "ships have always been vital, living things to me," and said that when she was a little girl she would sit on the beach at East Gloucester, Massachusetts and watch them enter and leave the harbor.

The building's new owners removed the dormers and added a sixth floor in 1929 for "residential quarters."  As the decades passed the ground floor retail space would see a variety of upscale shops.  By 1939 it was home to Pierre Beres, Parisian dealers in rare books.  In April 1941 a collection of "hand-made bindings, originally assembled for the New York World's Fair book-binding exhibition at the French Pavilion" was shown here.

In 1946 Henry a La Pensee, Inc. purchased the building, assessed at the time at $100,000.  The boutique would remain here for more than a decade.  On Christmas Eve, 1956 The Times recommended "delightful treasures" for the frantic late Christmas shopper in "hidden Boutique-like shops that are gold mines for unusual gifts."

The article included Henry a La Pensee, saying that it offered "unusually handsome compacts.  Unbreakable plastic tops protect delicate water color copies of Renoir, Degas, and Rembrandt paintings."  The $25 price tag would be equal to about $220 in 2017.

Home furnishings designer Marion Dorn had her studio in the building at the same time.  She had moved to London following her marriage to British artist Edward McKnight Kauffer; where she was responsible for designing the fabrics and carpeting for Claridge's Hotel and the decorations of the Coronation train for King George VI.

Marion Dorn sits among some of her bold floral patterned fabrics.  House and Garden, July 1947.

Now widowed, she had returned to America in 1940 and, according to a journalist, "within a year of her return she had started a craze for roses, big lush ones, in wallpaper design."  In February 1957 an envelope arrived at No. 8 East 54th Street, advising her that she had been made an honorary member of the British Society of Industrial Artists, the only American and only the second women so honored.

The Whiton-Stuart house survived, albeit altered, until 1981 when it was demolished to be replaced by a parking lot, which remains today.

No comments:

Post a Comment