Monday, January 8, 2018

The Lost Seth M. Milliken Mansion - 951 Madison Avenue

The original appearance of the double-wide house matched the skinny houses to the right.  The arched window above the entrance disguises the fact that it was, originally, the parlor floor doorway.  photo by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the first years of the 20th century the Madison Avenue neighborhood around 75th Street had changed from one of middle-class to moneyed families.  Dry goods magnate Seth Mellen Milliken recognized the potential of the area and as early as 1896 began buying up properties. 

Milliken had two sons, Seth Minot and Gerrish H., and a daughter Margaret.  Seth had graduated from Yale University in 1898 and from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1902.  While he was on the staff of the French and Roosevelt Hospitals, he also enjoyed a private practice that included some of the wealthiest New York families.

By 1916 Seth Mellen Milliken was living on East 77th Street, just off Fifth Avenue, and Dr. Milliken and his wife, the former Alida King Lesse, were nearby on Madison Avenue between 74th and 75th Street.  Their double-wide house was the result of combining two 1870s brownstones, Nos. 951 and 953.  Now the socially-visible couple laid plans to update their home into a modern residence, and they turned to Alida's architect cousin, Harry Ellingwood Donnell, to redesign it.

In the spring of 1917 Donnell filed plans to remodel the houses.  On June 23 The American Contractor reported that the renovations would include a "new front," bathrooms, and remodeled interior layout and walls.  The cost was estimated at $12,000; just over a quarter of a million dollars today.

At the time a renewed interest in colonial architecture had swept America.  Donnell joined the trend by producing a five-story neo-Georgian mansion.  Faced in red brick and trimmed in white stone, it featured 18th century elements like splayed lintels at the second floor, blind arches, and a stately balustrade facing the dormered mansard.

Donnell removed the stoop, pretending to make this a modern, American basement dwelling with its entrance on the sidewalk.  In fact, the interior arrangement of the floors were as they were.  This meant that the English basement survived with its entrance below street level and its windows peeking above the sidewalk.  While the family and their guests no longer climbed stairs outside, they climb them just inside the doorway.  The result was that the sills of the arched openings of the first floor were perched almost level with the top of the entrance.

Seth and Alida had five children--Minot King, John Floyd, Seth Mellen, Alida Donnell and Martha Ellingsworth.  The family maintained a country estate, Ellingwood, in East Blue Hill, Maine.  The Millikens would be highly involved in a surprisingly eclectic range of causes--from political and social, to theatrical and to medical.

Seth Milliken had been stricken with poliomyelitis at the age of 9, which paralyzed his right leg.  He refused to let his handicap hold him back and later devoted much of his energy to helping the disabled.  At the end of World War I he headed the Reconstruction Hospital.  He acted as treasurer of the Academy of Medicine and the New York Medical Society for Widows and Orphans.

His disability did not deter him from athletic activities, either.  He was a member of the New York and Seawanhaka Yacht Clubs and a founder of the Maine Yacht Racing Association.

Among the doctor's high-end clients was Joel W. Thorne, described by The Sun as "a member of one of New York's oldest families."   Thorne's wife, Mary, was set to testify in their contentious divorce case in the spring of 1918, when she suddenly found herself in the psychopathic ward of Bellevue Hospital in a straitjacket.

Her attorney complained to reporters "This is a conspiracy to get her out of the way.  She is no more insane than you or I."  A journalist from The Sun called Milliken at the New Jersey residence.  The doctor defended Thorne, saying that he had no knowledge of his wife's hospitalization.   "It was not until I had taken her to Bellevue that any member of her husband's family communicated with me regarding her case," he said.

Milliken would soon change that story.  Judge Giegerich deemed her sane and said "I do not think this young woman should have been detained."   A furious Mary Thorne was released and bent on revenge.

She filed a $200,000 law suit against Milliken, saying he took her to Bellevue in his own automobile under the guise of her getting rest and "a tonic."  She testified "All my clothes were taken from me and a coarse muslin shirt or nightrobe was handed me.  I was put in a straitjacket."

The well-publicized jury trial began in April 1920 and went on for days.  Seth Milliken's account had changed in the two years since the incident.  The Evening World reported "Dr. Milliken asserted Mrs. Thorne went to Bellevue of her own free well and that he did not even accompany her there."   Then, on April 2, the newspaper ran the headline "Mrs. Thorne Loses Suit For $200,000 / Dr. Milliken Convinces Jury He Did Not Have Her Imprisoned in Bellevue."

In the meantime, Alida's entertainments in the Madison Avenue mansion mostly centered around her many causes.  She was a directress in the Maternity Centre Association, which trained mothers-to-be on pre- and post-natal care.   If a mother was too poor to pay for hospital care, the group paid for a physician and arranged for a housekeeper to help in the early days after birth.

She hosted bridge parties and receptions causes like for the Women's Auxiliary of the French Hospital, and the Lincoln Hospital, for instance.  And on May 9, 1926 The New York Times reported that the Millikens would open their home for "an exhibition and sale of small paintings by representative American help the Association for the Aid of Crippled Children and the Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association."  The article mentioned "The garden of the house will be converted into a tea garden, where articles made by patients of the Reconstruction Hospital will be on sale."

Alida was a graduate of Smith College and she founded the first Smith College Club in the nation.   She gave a bridge party on March 5, 1920 for 16 Smith alumnae, each of whom paid $2 to play.  They all had to agree to host an identical party--the theory being that it would result in an "endless chain bridge system."  The entrance fees went to the Smith endowment fund,

The Millikens' interest in the arts and philanthropic work came together in 1924 when they formed the Blue Hill Troupe, an amateur musical organization that gave charity benefits.  The group, for the most part, staged light productions like Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

In 1927 the Milliken children were nearing adulthood.  That year daughter Alida was feted for her debut into society.   But her strong-opinioned mother (Alida was a vocal member of the John Birch Society and a member of the executive committee of America First, for instance) seems not to have approved of how everything played out.

Two years later, as Martha's coming-out neared, Alida gathered the mothers of "sub-debs" in the Madison Avenue house to get some things straightened out.  She was chairperson of the newly-formed Parents' League and the meeting on April 18 would change the way debut receptions, dances and luncheons were handled.

When the socialites left that afternoon, The New York Times reported they had agreed "that luncheon and dinner hostesses shall seat their guests promptly" and that late-comers would be served with the meal already in progress.  Dances had to end between 2 and 3 a.m. and the closing noted on the invitations.  Alida and some other mothers had been peeved about "the general disregard by guests of the hour for which they are invited...resulting in inconveniences to hostesses and confusion to the guests."

One may assume that when the Millikens gave a dance for Martha seven months later the guests arrived on time.

Alida was the first to marry.  Her wedding to Frederic Edgar Camp in the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on October 30, 1931 was a socially-important affair (John D. Rockefeller III and Donald Agnew were among the ushers), followed by a reception in the Madison Avenue house.

Martha's marriage to Frederick Snow Nicholas two years later was held in East Blue Hill, with the reception in Ellingwood.

Seth and Alida continued to open their home for charitable causes, several times staging full Gilbert and Sullivan operettas by the Blue Hill Troupe through the 1930s.  Following the overthrow of Yugoslavia, Alida became involved in the women's division of the  American Committee for Yugoslav Relief.  She held a meeting in the house in February 1945 to plan a large dinner dance to raise relief funds.

Minot married Edith Clark, whose grandfather had founded the Clark Thread Company, in 1942.  The last of the Milliken children to marry was Seth.  A graduate of Yale and the Columbia Law School, he was working with the law firm of Davies, Hardy, Schenck & Sons when his engagement to Phyllis-Ann Hall was announced in October 1953.

On October 5, 1957 the Millikens celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.  It would be their last.   Three weeks later, on November 18 Seth died in the Madison Avenue mansion at the age of 82.

Alida remained on in the house and, somewhat surprisingly, just seven months after Milliken's death, it was the scene of another wedding reception.   Susan Milliken Camp was married on May 10, 1958 in the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church where her parents had been wed 27 years earlier.  Her reception would be one of the last entertainments in the Madison Avenue mansion.

In fact, the final event in the house was held during the week of November 14, 1961.  Alida had long been involved in raising funds for Cancer Care, Inc.  The benefit called "Les Boutiques de Noel" held in the house that week offered a wide variety of merchandise like handbags by Martin Van Schaak, jewels by Grant A. Peacock, and gourmet food and kitchen accessories from Au Bon Gout of Palm Beach, Florida.  In reporting on the benefit event, The New York Times mentioned "The house was stayed from demolition so that the sale could be held there."

Alida moved to an apartment at No. 313 East 69th Street where she died at the age of 95 on February 13, 1975.  In the meantime, on the site of the former Milliken house the Whitney Museum rose, completed in 1966 from designs by Marcel Breuer.  Met with mixed criticism at the time, the structure is now considered innovative and daring.

Remarkably, the 1870s brownstones on the southern half of the block survive.  photo by Edward Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

many thanks to reader Brad Emerson for suggesting this post


  1. Frederic Camp was the grandson of Bronx real estate tycoon Hugh Camp and his wife Elizabeth Dorothea McKesson the eldest daughter of John McKesson, one of the founders of the McKesson Corporation (then McKesson and Robbins Drug Company) and his wife Maria Lefferts.

    1. His great grandson, Donnell McKesson Camp, son of Frederick and Alida, was my first cousin and lifelong friend. He died seven years ago.

  2. Marvelous! One suspects the architect was a relative of Mrs. Milliken. Edith Clark Milliken's grandmother was Mrs. Shepard Fabbri

  3. Stephanie TegnazianOctober 11, 2019 at 3:47 AM

    I believe Mrs Fabri, was a Vanderbilt.
    If my memory serves me well, the town house she lived in is now the House of the Redeemer in Carnegie Hill neighbored, on East 95th Street between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue. One may visit, as it does open to the public, and actually rent the public reception rooms for weddings and other occasions.

    1. You are correct. Here is my post on the Fabbri house you mention: