Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Dore Lyon House - No 1217 Park Avenue

The spacious home is once again a private residence.

On June 29, 1889 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that architects Flemer & Koehler had filed plans for eight stone-fronted homes on Park Avenue, wrapping around the northeast corner of 94th Street.   The project for developer Edward T. Smith would cost $112,000; or just under $375,000 per house in today's terms.

Quickly J. A. Henry Flemer and his partner, V. Hugo Koehler, would be at work filling in the remainder of the block.  Completed in 1889, the northernmost house at the southeast corner of 95th Street, appeared little different from its neighbors when viewed from Park Avenue, other than the absence of a high stone stoop.

It was on 95th Street that the desirable differences were obvious.   By placing the entrance on the side street, the architects had given the house a frontage nearly double that of the Park Avenue houses.  Northern light spilled into the many openings--their various shapes and sizes trimmed in warm terra cotta and brownstone.  The Renaissance Revival design included tongue-in-cheek details like keystones in the form of grimacing bearded faces, while incorporating formal elements like terra cotta capitals and ornate inset panels.

At the time Anna E. Parker Lyon was making a name for herself among female society.  The wife of wealthy builder Dore Lyon, she not only styled herself as a pundit on etiquette; but involved herself in so many clubs, associations and committees that she was dubbed by the press "The Queen of Clubs."

The couple had one child, Grace, and in 1893 erected what one newspaper deemed "a magnificent mansion" as their summer estate in Saratoga, New York.   When Dore Lyon died in 1898, Anna inherited what The New York Times said was "a fortune of more than a million dollars."

She and Grace moved into No. 1217 Park Avenue--although Anna often used the address of 100 East 95th Street.  The house saw the comings and goings of wealthy women as Mrs. Dore Lyon, as she was known, hosted meetings of the numerous organizations.  Such was the case in December 1902 when a meeting of the Car Passengers' Rights Association was held here.

The group was intent on reforming the conditions of street cars; Mrs. William Tibbits Salter warning "A man may hesitate and quake, and fear conflicting results, but to us they will say, 'You cannot stop a woman.'"

The women were well fired-up; but it seems they had not quite decided what they were fired-up about.  One new member was slightly confused and asked what exactly the group hoped to accomplish.  "Do you seek to provide seating capacity for all, or seating capacity and standing room for a few--few enough to be in conformity with comfort and morality?"

She drew the annoyance of the association's president, Mrs. Richard Henry Savage, who fired back "We haven't quite reached that yet.  It is our purpose first to tell the companies that they are all wrong, and afterward tell them what improvements we want."

Mrs. Dore Lyon was not merely a member of a dozen or so clubs and organizations, she held many offices.  She was president, for instance, of the Eclectic Club, described by The Evening World on December 19, 1902 as being "composed of some of New York's most fashionable matrons."

In the club's private meetings, most often held at Delmonico's, the women sloughed off what The World called "the moral corsets" of feminine society.   They discussed current social issues normally deemed improper among respectable women.  Among such topics were "Is man less faithful than woman?" and "Can a woman love more than one man?"

The following year, in July, Mrs. Dore Lyon was appointed Assistant Secretary to the New York Commission of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, and the Lady Manager of the New York State Building at the St. Louis World's Fair.

In spite what must have been a dizzying schedule of meetings and entertainments, Anna had the time to write a novel, Prudence Pratt, published in 1903.  She invested heavily in publishing, and in the Westchester Sanitarium, a facility for the insane and addicted which opened in 1902.

The Evening World published a photograph of Mrs. Dore Lyon on December 19, 1902 (copyright expired)

On January 8, 1906 40 women were recognized at the Honor Day luncheon of the National Society of the United States Daughters of 1812, held at Delmonico's.  The New York Times said that of the 40, "only one of them did not say that she was surprised when called upon to make a speech.  The exception was Mrs. Dore Lyon."

When she was called to speak, she pulled out a lengthy poem she had written for the occasion.  The Times said "By hurrying the reading of her seven verses, the poetess succeeded in finishing them in the two minutes allotted for a speech."

Her poem was intended to describe the gathering that afternoon, albeit with "some poetical license," as described by the newspaper.  It started:

Sing a song of honor days,
A function full of girls,
Four and twenty Presidents
In Paris hats and curls.

The other 39 society presidents diplomatically termed the poem "perfectly cute."

While Mrs. Dore Lyon was composing literature, leading civic causes against annoyances like street noise, and serving tea to club women, another far different type of organization was taking form.  In November 1908 Miss Marie Lydia Winkler founded The German-American Friendship Club for Young Woman.  Taking two floors in a house at No. 387 Park Avenue, it provided a place for German immigrant girls to relax and feel safe.

The concept came to Winkler when she was hired by several German societies to "investigate the white slave traffic in this country as if affects German girls," according to her.  What she found was shocking. 
Unscrupulous men preyed on the lonely girls, most of whom did not speak English, eventually forcing them into prostitution.  "I have found that hundreds of decent girls are brought to disgrace and death through sheer ignorance or the almost equal peril of loneliness...There are plenty of bad men and women on the watch for the 'green ones,' as they are called, and prepared to force, or more often, delude the poor things into horrible situations."

Winkler's Friendship Club stationed agents in Germany to counsel girls headed to America; and lookouts were posted at the piers to watch for naive new-comers.  At the clubhouse, they were taught English, helped find jobs if necessary, given temporary lodging and, most importantly, provided a safe haven to relax on their off hours.

The unlikely paths of Mrs. Dore Lyon and Marie Lydia Winkler's club for German girls would cross beginning in January 1910.

That was when the doyen of women's clubs could no longer maintain her facade.  Mrs. Dore Lyon's novel was an unmitigated failure, and her unwise investments had left her literally penniless.   When she filed for bankruptcy on January 22 she listed her liabilities at $503,246 and her assets as "2,000 copies and the copyright of her unsuccessful novel, 'Prudence Pratt,'" according to The Times.

She had already mortgaged the Park Avenue house, then quietly sold it.  Her friends were even more shocked when her attorney disclosed "Mrs. Lyon is really in desperate circumstances," and admitted that she was not even able to pay the $30 bankruptcy fees.

On January 15, 1911 Marie Lydia Winkler formerly opened the doors to the new clubhouse for the German American Friendship Club for Girls in the former Lyon house.  She proudly showed reporter Marguerite Mooers Marshall around.  "In our new house we can accommodate twenty girls," explained Winkler.  But it was available to members whether they lived there or not, from 9:30 in the morning to 9:30 at night.

The parlor had a piano where the girls sang German songs.  There was a "big living room" on the first floor with an immense map of the United States, and a sort of gymnasium on the second floor.  When a new member arrived, Winkler first taught her basic English skills--words like "post office," "subway," and "bank."  When her English was fairly good, the girl would be taken onto the streets to learn how to navigate the subways and elevated trains.  Winkler said she would "make her try reading the words and phrases she has studied here.  If one trip is not sufficient, I take her until she knows."

In April the girls held a fair to raise funds.  On the last night Baroness Elsa Laura von Molzogen sang and a group from the play The Spring Maid entertained.  Similar fund raising events continued, such as the entertainment in Arion Hall, home of the German singing society, on April 11, 1912.  The New-York Tribune reported "It will consist of living pictures posed by club members and representing a young German woman's life beginning in her home in the Fatherland and ending in the Friendship Club."

On May 25, 1913 Kaiser Wilhelm's daughter, Princess Victoria Luise, was married.  To mark the happy occasion, an engagement ceremony was held, almost simultaneously, at the Friendship Club.  The Sun said "the home for lonely German girls" was "gayly decorated" for the event.  In the rear yard photographs of the princess were surrounded by young girls in white dresses who held a white veil with a crown and myrtle on a type of maypole.

Inside, after Miss Winkler gave a history of the princess's life; the "betrothed couple" was formally presented to the club.   Then came a supper, followed by a "torch dance."  The Sun reported "All lights were put out in the four story house except for candles in every window.  Then there were games played as is done in Germany during such ceremonies."

Happy events like this one would soon come to an end both on Park Avenue and in Germany.   When war broke out in Europe, some German-born New Yorkers left to fight for their homeland.  The German ocean liner the Vaterland was docked in New York harbor in August 1914, when a reception was held at No. 1217 Park Avenue for four of its officers and 23 German-Americans waiting to leave for the war.

"Germans from the East Side dropped into the rooms at intervals during the evening and sang national songs and talked over the war," reported The Sun on August 24.  "The girls were sent away from the home to make room for the men." 

The following month the German-American Friendship Club held a three-day "Fair for the Fatherland" to raise money for war relief.

Interestingly, the ever-resourceful Mrs. Dore Lyon had reappeared that year.  On April 2, 1914 The New York Times reported "Under the name of Mme. Dore, Mrs. Dore Lyon, a former wealthy woman who was one of the founders of the Federation of Women's Clubs, is appearing at the Palace Theatre this week at the head of a vaudeville company which is presenting 'Great Moments from Grand Operas.'"

While the United States remained neutral in the war, New York's sentiment toward its German population remained, for the most part, friendly.  On August 1, 1915 a benefit for the German-American Friendship Club was held at the Terrace Garden.  The steamship Vaterland was back in New York and its captain, Commodore Hans Ruser, was the principal speaker.  Somewhat surprisingly, he avoided the topic of war, speaking instead on "A Trip to the North Cape."

Sometime following America's involvement in World War I the German-American Friendship Club was no more.  In November 1920 Dr. Henry H. M. Lyle purchased the house.  A few months later he applied for a building permit to add a garage at the eastern end of the building, where the entrance to the rear garden was.

Lyle was surgeon at St. Luke's Hospital and surgical director of the Stuyvesant Square Hospital.  His wife was the former Jessie Abbott, one of what The New York Times called "the well known Abbott sisters."  Both Jessie and Bessie were operatic singers.  While Bessie (she dropped one "b" from the spelling of her last name when a Paris program misspelled it early in her career) had gone on to fame; Jessie gave up the stage when she married Henry Lyle.

The Lyle's summer estate was in Pointe-au-Pic, Quebec.  The couple's upscale lifestyle was supported by Dr. Lyle's prominence in the medical community, his extensive technical writings, and his client list that included millionaires like J. P. Morgan.  The Park Avenue house was filled with important artwork, ranging from the 15th century panel "Saint Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata" by Giovanni di Paolo, to Edward Hopper's "My Roof."

The Lyles remained in the house for over two decades, selling it in July 1946 to Dr. Charles Peck.  In reporting the sale The New York Times mentioned the house contained "fifteen rooms and three baths."  Peck converted the ground level to a doctor's office, while breaking the upper floors into two duplex residences.

The 54 year old Peck was perhaps more involved in real estate than medicine.  He had entered the realty business in 1923 and was president of the Elba Management Corporation.  He and his wife, Fannie, had two grown children, Benjamin and Eleanor.  The Pecks' summer home was in Peekskill, New York.

In the mid-1950s Peck's health began to fail and he died "after a long illness," according to The Times, on August 22, 1957.  Fannie lived on in the house for another decade.  She sold it to investor Gerald J. Katz in April 1967.

In 1989 the upper floors were reconfigured into a single home; and in 2008 the doctor's office was eliminated, creating one lavish private residence once again.  During that renovation an extensive facade restoration was undertaken, giving No. 1217 Park Avenue the chic character it displayed when the colorful Mrs. Dore Lyon held sway here.

photographs by the author

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