Friday, April 20, 2018

The Howard T. Kingsbury House - 116 East 70th Street

The house originally matched the brownstone partially seen at the right.

In 1869, the year that developer Christopher Keyes was completing five brownstone houses on East 70th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues, Congressman Hervey C. Calkin was embarking on his two-year term as a U.S. Representative to Congress.  Upon his return to New York in 1871, he would purchase one of them, No. 116.

Designed by the obscure architect James Santon, the houses at Nos. 108 through 116 were four stories tall above high English basements; designed in the quickly-waning Italianate style.  Classically-inspired triangular pediments capped the parlor floor openings.  The top floors took the form of stylish mansard roofs, covered with multi-colored slate shingles, above robust cast cornices.

Hervey Chittenden Calkin had married Violette Adeline Brant in 1852 and the couple had two children.  Although he did not run for reelection, he remained a visible figure in Tammany dealings.  But his interests went far beyond politics.

Born in Malden, New York on March 23, 1828, he received a public education and moved to New York City at the age of 19 to work in an iron works.  In 1852 he went into the plumbing and copper trades with his brother.  An athlete, he was active in the new American sport of baseball and appears to have been one of the organizers of the Brooklyn Eckfords in 1855.  By 1857 he was listed as a vice-president of the club.

Hervey Crittenden Calkin -- from the collection of the Library of Congress
During his term in Congress he was a vocal advocate for American shipbuilding, complaining in one speech in particular about the enormous expenditures for British-built vessels.  That interest seems to have followed him to East 70th Street and in 1871 he applied for a patent for a life raft.  His ingenious design incorporated two wood-plank decks between cylindrical metal floats--a predecessor of sorts of a modern pontoon raft.  It was designed so that it did not matter which side landed up when thrown into the water.

Calkin returned to his former business activities, to local politics, and to baseball (he was still pitching as late as 1893).  He and Violetta remained in the house until the spring of 1881 when they sold it to Philip Pfeiffer and his wife, Johanna, for about $530,000 in today's dollars.

Born in Bavaria, Pfeiffer had come to America around 1838 and rose to become what The New York Times would described as "one of the largest wholesale clothing merchants in the city."  Like Calkin's, his was an uphill struggle.  He started out as a peddler, later opening a general store in the South.   By the time he returned to New York he was successful enough to open his wholesale clothing store.

He and Johanna had eight children--four daughters and four sons.  Three years after moving into No. 116 he retired.  But his new-found quietude seemed threatened in 1887 when the New York and Long Island Bridge Company proposed an elevated railroad that would run up the enter of Park Avenue.  He joined a long list of other property owners who signed a petition on May 5 that declared the plan would cause "very great injury and enormous deprecation in value."

In the fall of 1898 Pfeiffer, now 85 years old, caught pneumonia.  He died in the house early on the morning of October 5, and his funeral was held in the parlor two days later.  Johanna almost immediately sold No. 116 to prominent builder Michael Reid.

Reid was born in Ireland in 1833 and arrived in New York on the S.S. Constitution on April 20, 1854.   Reid's father, also named Michael, and his mother followed the next year.  Michael Sr. was a mason and it was most likely he, rather than his 21-year old son, who founded the construction firm of M. Reid & Co. in 1857.

It was around this time that the younger Michael married Margaret Kelly.  Before her death in 1872 at the age of 30 they had had six children together. Michael soon married Mary Ann McCormick and the couple would increase the family with another five children.   Mary Ann died in 1892 at the age of 37, leaving Michael widowed for the second time and the single father of nearly a dozen children.

Before moving into No. 116 Reid made extensive alterations, designed by himself.  He removed the stoop and moved the entrance to just below the sidewalk level.  This enabled him to increase the square footage of the former parlor and second floors by installing a copper-faced bowed bay supported by dainty iron columns.  The Victorian window enframements were toned-down, the cornice streamlined, and while the polychrome shingles of the mansard were kept, the dormers were not.

Reid's concern for the upscale character of the block seems to be evidenced in a "building restriction agreement" he entered into in 1900, with the owners of Nos. 118 through 122, plus his own.  The vague wording in the Real Estate Record & Guide did not specify terms of the agreement "each with the other;" but most likely obstructed the use of the houses for commercial purposes.

The Reid family's large summer home was in Far Rockaway, when that area of Queens was still a village.  Here the builder, deemed by the Real Estate Record & Guide "a good judge of horseflesh," stabled his thoroughbreds.   Although some of his animals were well-known, like Willie E, Thurley, and Farmer, he never exhibited or raced them.  The Guide said "He always explained that he owned horses for the pleasure driving gave him--not for publicity."

Reid's significant wealth came from impressive contracts like the construction of the Morgan Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1906 and of eleven Carnegie Libraries.  When he incorporated his firm in 1906, Reid brought his son, John F. Reid, in as a junior member.  One by one all of Reid's sons would join the firm.

In reporting on the completion of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 1911, The New York Architect noted "Mr. John F. Reid, who had charge of the construction of the Ritz, has shown by the results obtained, his particular fitness for the branch of the business."  The article added "The work of M. Reid & Co. has always been recognized by architects as of the highest order."

Among the last of the children to wed was Anna, who married Arthur Kenedy in Far Rockaway on October 1, 1912.  A reception was held in the Reid house afterward. 

It appears the newlyweds moved in with her aging father, for less than six years later, on May 9, 1918, Anna died in the East 70th Street house.  It would not be the only death in the house that year.  On December 11 Michael Reid died at the age of 86 after a short illness.  In reporting his death the Record & Guide noted he had built "hundreds of private residences and scores of big office buildings."

John F. Reid sold No. 116 to Colonel Howard Thayer Kingsbury in 1920.   He was married to the former Alice Cary Bussing, and the two had already had a colorful life.  It all started just before their wedding in 1902.

Two days before the wedding, on Saturday night, April 19, Howard held his farewell bachelor dinner at the University Club.  All of the ushers, of course, were there, including Joseph Holden Sutton.   Following the dinner Sutton went to his room at the Hotel Manhattan where the wedding party was staying and wrote 21 letters.

Busboys delivered the letters to each of the recipients the following morning, including each of the ushers.  The contents were alarming.  They announced his suicide by saying "I have been going crazy for some time and I have felt ill.  Good-bye."  His timing might have been better thought-out, since the suicide put a decided pall over the wedding ceremonies.

Unknown to most in society, Alice was not the daughter of Emma F. Bussing.  When she was just a few days old Emma and her husband had taken her in and raised her.  There were no general adoption laws in New York at the time.  Mr. Bussing died in 1905 and his will described Alice as his daughter.

After New York enacted adoption laws, Emma sought to protect Alice by adopting her on February 9, 1916; even though she was about 45 years old and had been married for 14 years.   Emma died on June 30, 1918 leaving her entire estate to "my daughter," Alice Kingsbury.  But in 1920, the year the Kingsburys purchased No. 116, Emma's relatives went to court.  Shockingly today, they managed to overturn the will and Alice was left with nothing.
The New York Times, June 5, 1937
The Yale-educated Kingsbury was a well-established attorney, having been with the firm of Coudert Bros. since 1900.   He and Alice had two children, Howard Jr. (familiarly known as "Ox"), and Ruth.  They maintained a summer estate, "Rivombra," on Long Island.  And while Kingsbury was an authority on international and military law (he was Judge Advocate for the New York National Guard for 15 years), his interests extended to the arts as well.   In fact, it was Kingsbury who had translated Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac into English in 1898.

Kingsbury's legal interests transcended military and international law.  He recognized an injustice in American citizenship laws shortly after moving into the 70th Street house.  At that time, if an American women married an alien, she lost her citizenship.  Kinsbury, with members of the National Women's Party, addressed the House Immigration Committee on March 23, 1926 urging that the law be reformed and those women be re-naturalized. 

Howard Jr. had been an outstanding athlete at Yale University, where he was captain of the rowing team until his graduation in 1926.  So accomplished was he, in fact, that he took time off from school to participate as a member of the U.S. Rowing Team in the 1924 Olympics, bringing home a gold medal.   He then studied at Oxford University and rowed with the Oxford crew in a well-publicized race against Cambridge in 1927.

In the meantime, Ruth was educated in the Spence and Wheeler Schools, and made her debut into New York society at the Colony Club in December 1925.  The house was the scene of the wedding breakfast and reception following her marriage to Frank Ford Russell in St. James's Church on May 26, 1928.   And while the event garnered significant newspaper coverage, it was way the couple left for their honeymoon that caused headlines.

The groom was the son of  Frank H. Russell, a vice president and general manager of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company.   At a time when newlyweds boarded yachts, ocean liners or touring cars for their trips, Ruth and Frank boarded a private airplane.  The following day The New York Times reported that the newlyweds left "in an airplane furnished by the Curtiss flying service, for a destination which they would not revel even to the pilot before they entered the cabin."

Moored near Rivombra was the Kingsbury yacht, the Southwind.  The family's lavish lifestyle was reflected in an article in Motor Boating magazine in December 1930,  "Col. Kingsbury, after a very arduous week in court and being completely fagged out with an excessive period of heat in New York City, relaxed in a comfortable deck chair after changing from his business suit to yachting togs.  Mrs. Kingsbury reclined on the chaise longue, apparently absorbed in a French novel, but in fact very much alert to the movements of her pet Pekingese, Toki, who was playing on the spacious after deck with a rope-end."

In the pages-long article, the writer meticulously described the luxurious amenities of the Southwind, including the menu.  The Steward, it said, "had prepared a delightful lunch from his well stocked larder; bouillon cup, cold cuts of chicken and tongue, fresh string beans, mashed potatoes, egg and tomato salad, with a tempting tumbler of iced coffee topped off with bannana [sic] jello submerged in whipped cream."

Howard Jr. was married to Ellen Munroe Wales in October 1931; and Ruth died on November 31, 1933, just five years after her wedding.

Howard Thayer Kingsbury died in the 70th Street house on June 5, 1937 at the age of 67.  In reporting on his death The New York Times mentioned "He served as counsel to the Transit Commission in 1921, and 1922.  After the World War he represented British interests, including the government, as counsel in a number of cases in this country."

By the mid-1940s Howard Jr. was leasing the house to a close friend and business associate, Timothy J. Mulcare.  He and his wife, Lillian, had two daughters, Frances and Eileen, and a son, John.   Eileen was married on June 21, 1947 and her sister married James Alexander Phelan on October 31, 1953.

Oddly, following Timothy Mulcare's death in the house on March 7, 1957, his obituary did not mention any survivors.  Instead it simply described him as "for many years the faithful and trusted friend and employe[e] of Howard T. Kingsbury."

Howard retained ownership of the house until 1966.   Major interior renovations were done around 2005, when it was purchased by Susan Soros Weber, the former wife of billionaire George Soros,  She sold it in 2014 for a staggering $31 million.

The new buyer attempted to make a quick profit, putting the house back on the market the following year for $33 million.   There were no takers.  The price was reduced to $28 million, then $27, million, then in May 2016 to $22 million.   Despite its lavish interiors--real estate listings described five bedrooms, a 26-foot deep garden, a"glass-domed breakfast room," two terraces, and a celebrity next door neighbor (Woody Allen)--no one seemed interested.

Finally in November 2016 No. 116 sold for $19 million, a $12 million loss for the seller.

Despite all that, the Kingsbury house, with its distinctive copper bay, is a standout on the architecturally captivating block.

photographs by the author

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