Monday, April 16, 2018

The Lost Adolph Lewisohn Mansion - 9 West 57th Street

The original appearance of the 1870 house was similar to the houses on either side..  The Architectural Record, July 1900 (copyright expired)
On March 29, 1895 Ernest Rudolph Gunther hosted what The New York Times described as "a very pretty 'stage dinner.'"  The guest of honor was Russian Prince Lubecki.  The newspaper added, "Covers were laid for ten persons."

Gunther's four-story brownstone rowhouse at No. 9 West 57th Street was well-known for such entertainments.  The New York Tribune remarked that same year that Gunther was "a clever conversationalist and extremely popular among club men and the people who comprise what is known as the best society in New York.  An invitation to one of the frequent musicales, given at his residence, is prized very highly by members of the New York smart set."

The house was new when Gunther's father, German-born furrier William H. Gunther, purchased it for $100,000 in 1875.  The price--nearly $2 million today--and the 30-foot width reflected the exclusivity of the neighborhood, just steps from Fifth Avenue.  Following the senior Gunther's death, the family sold the house in March 1897 for $165,000.

Seven months later, on October 24, the New York Journal and Advertiser reported that Adolph Lewisohn had filed plans "for alterations costing $50,000" to the house.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide added more details, noting that the architects would be Brunner & Tryon and the work would include "extensive interior and exterior alterations, including new front."

The project was an early example of the sweeping remakes of outdated homes in fashionable neighborhoods.  The architects removed the stoop and facade, lowering the entrance to two steps above the sidewalk.   Drab brownstone was replaced by white limestone and the matronly 1870's personality gave way to modern French exuberance.

The columned entrance portico supported a one-story faceted bay which morphed into a blustraded balcony at the third floor, accessed by sets of French doors.  Another stone balcony graced the third floor.   A stone balustrade perched above the bracketed cornice.

The interiors of the Lewisohn home were decorated by well-known artists.  Edwin H. Blashfield painted the ceiling of the music room with a fresco entitled "Music," as well as other decorations; and he painted "Dance" in a hallway panel.  Joseph Lauber's "Psyche at the Spring" adorned a window panel.

Like William Gunther, Adolph Lewisohn was born in Germany.   Three years after his father's death in 1872 he came to New York City at the age of 16 to assist his brothers in their mercantile business, Adolph Lewisohn & Son.  He quickly became the moving force in the operation.

Not long after arriving in America he had met Thomas Edison.  The meeting led to Lewisohn's realization that the conductive properties of copper would make it vital in electrifying the country.  The Lewisohn brothers were among the first investors in western copper mines.

On June 26, 1878 Adolph married Emma Cahn.  The couple had four children, Clara, Adele, Sam and Julius.  By the time he purchased the former Gunther house Lewisohn had branched into banking as well, and had amassed a vast fortune which enabled him to indulge his love of the arts.  He filled the residence with a notable collection of paintings (his favorites being of the Barbizon School and later Impressionist works) and modern sculptures.  The Lewisohn were ardent patrons of the musical arts, as well, and were important supporters of facilities like the Metropolitan Opera.

The renovations to the 57th Street mansion were completed just in time for a major event.  On April 26, 1899 The New York Times reported "Alfred Rossin and Miss Clara Lewisohn were married yesterday afternoon at the newly completed residence of the bride's father, 9 West Fifty-seventh Street, one of the most beautiful of New York's newer houses."

The bride's parents spent lavishly on the floral decorations.  "The ceremony was performed in the drawing room, beneath a canopy formed of white roses.  Garlands of the same flowers, pink in color, festooned the windows, mantel, and doorways.  The music and dining rooms were gay with American Beauty roses.  Palms were plentifully used in the decorations."

The Lewisohns were well known for their generous philanthropies.  On October 16, 1904, for instance, the directors of the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Orphan Asylum announced that Adolph had contributed $25,000 to its building fund.  The New-York Tribune added, "The Lewisohn family has been liberal in contributions to the asylum, Adolph Lewisohn having given previously $15,000."

Three years later, on August 11, 1907, the newspaper noted "although  he has been exceedingly liberal in his donations to other charitable and education institutions, the Sheltering Guardian Society is said to be his pet.  He contributed $140,000 to the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, where children of poor people may learn useful trades and fit themselves to earn a living."

By the time of the article he had also given $50,000 to the Jewish Protectory, erected the chapel for the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives in Denver, and built a "large annex to the Jewish hospital at Hamburg, Germany, where Mr. Lewisohn was born." He he also had completed a complex of free housing in Hamburg for the needy, donated a chemical laboratory to Dartmouth College, the Pathological Building to Mount Sinai Hospital, and the School of Mines Building to Columbia.

The Lewisohns became unwitting participants in a scam in 1906.  The first indication of the scheme came early on the morning of February 9 when the butler answered the servants' bell.  He opened the door to what The New York Times described as "a shabbily dressed young woman."  She told him, "I've come to work.  Mr. Lewisohn has engaged me as cook."

The butler checked, then informed the woman she was mistaken.  Ten minutes later another woman appeared, then another.  Before noon at least 30 would-be cooks had rung the bell.  Lewisohn learned of the parade of women appearing at the servants' entrance and complained to the police.

An investigation quickly uncovered the swindle by a "Mrs. White."  The Times explained "Mrs. White's game is to call upon women advertisers for situations and tell them that they are to be employed by some well-to-do person.  Mrs. White then finds that she has lost her pocketbook and needs $10 temporarily, of course.  In many cases the money was paid."

In 1906 architects Coutler & Westhoff were commissioned to design Lewisohns' 20-bedroom summer home.  The following year, on October 6, 1907, the New-York Tribune reported "The new week-end home of Adolph Lewisohn on his 315-acre farm at Ardsley, N.Y., is rapidly nearing completion, and when all the plans have been carried out it will probably be one of the show places of that part of the country."

Landscape architect James L. Greenleaf designed the grounds, which included greenhouses, tennis courts, and a private golf course.  The Tribune wrote "Mr. Lewisohn's family will have an excellent attraction for week-end parties and an objective point for automobile trips."

Press coverage of the Lewisohn family was routinely positive, most often reporting on generous gifts.  An notable exception to that came about in the summer of 1908.  On August 11 the wife of mechanical engineer James W. Ellis was standing with her children on a street corner in Perth Amboy, New Jersey when Lewisohn's chauffeur, James Pettit, lost control of the limousine.

The "unmanageable" vehicle, as described by The Sun, ran into the family.  The newspaper reported that "Mr. Ellis's daughter had her leg broken and the other members of the family were bruised."   On December 1 a summons was served on Lewisohn in his Broadway office "to recover $107,000 damages."    Included in that amount was $10,000 "for the loss of his wife's services during the time she was recovering from the accident."

from the collection of the New York Public Library
In March 1913 The New York Times devoted nearly an entire page to the Lewisohn collections.  The article said in part "Among notable American collectors of literary and artistic treasures is Adolph Lewisohn, whose city mansion, 9 West Fifty-seventh Street, and country home at Ardsley contain many rare books, manuscripts, and pictures, the result of their owners' activities as a collector during the past twenty or more years.  On every floor of Mr. Lewisohn's urban residence the art lover will find objects that will surely hold his or her interest."

The article listed rare volumes, like the "beautifully illuminated Persian manuscript of seventy-three folio leaves entitles 'Marvels of the World'" with its more than 50 miniatures, and the 1466 volume of Cicero's Offices.  Other books pointed out included a first edition of Milton's Paradise Lost, a third folio Shakespeare, and the 17th century works of Ben Jonson.

While public attention tended to focus on Adolph, Emma was active in philanthropic work as well.  Among her favorite causes was the Penny Lunch program in public schools.  Underprivileged children were provided with wholesome, hot lunches for one cent; the actual cost of the meals coming from donations from people like Emma.

By now the once-exclusive neighborhood around No. 9 West 57th Street was becoming increasingly commercial.  As they had done nearly two decades earlier, in January 1915 the Lewisohns commissioned mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert to renovate a brownstone house at No. 881 Fifth Avenue into a modern mansion.  But before their new home was ready, Emma died at their Ardsley estate on July 28, 1916 at the age of 60.  She had been ill for several months.

In what may have been a gesture to his wife's concern for feeding the poor, Lewisohn provided the 57th Street mansion for a meeting of women on March 5, 1917.  According to The Times, "Sarah Goldstein and other Brownsville women and East Side women will tell what they suffer from the high cost of food."

It would be the last event in the mansion as a private home.  The following month Lewisohn leased it for 21 years to Tappe, Inc. milliners.  The Sun reported on May 1 "The building is to be completely changed.  A new facade will be built and the interior altered to suit the needs of the tenant."

In its June 1917 edition, Millinery Trade Review reported that "Tappe has outgrown its present quarters to such an extent that a removal to the former residence of Adolph Lewisohn has been necessitated, and will be accomplished in the near future...An entirely new entrance is to replace the present one, in the style of the Early Italian Directoire, and the interior arrangements will display the Early Victorian characteristics."
The dapper Herman Patrick Tappe was considered on par with Henri Bendel  Millinery Trade Review, June 1917 (copyright expired)
Before Herman Patrick Tappe set his contractors loose on remodeling the interiors, he gave his employees "a very noteworthy ball" in the mansion.   His female workers dressed in 1830's gowns and officers from a French warship anchored in the Hudson River were invited for "added zest to the affair."

Interestingly, while Adolph Lewisohn retained ownership of what was now called "the Tappe Building," he began buying up other properties on his former block as investment.   On January 11, 1919 the Record & Guide reported he had purchased the two houses at Nos. 27 and 29 West 59th Street, adding "he already owns 10 and 12 West 57th street, known as the 'Bendel Building," as well as No. 31 West 57th Street and, of course, his own former mansion.

Like his landlord, Herman Tappe was an avid art collector.  His second floor apartment at No. 555 Madison Avenue was described by The New York Times as being "furnished in Victorian style with hundreds of valuable objects of art" including "oil paintings of great value, tapestries and needle-point lace curtains."  When fire broke out on the first floor of that building on November 7, 1927, Tappe "had some anxious moments."  Among the belongings he personally carried out to the street was a Rembrandt valued at $150,000.

Tappe's upscale shop was still at No. 9 West 57th Street at the time, but he would soon be gone.  In 1930 it was home to the art gallery of Julius H. Weitzner.  He dealt in masterworks like the self portrait of Spanish artist Francisco Goya, purchased by the Smith College Museum of Art in December that year.

It may have been the Great Depression that resulted in Weitzner's stay in the building to be short-lived.  For whatever reason it closed in 1933.  On April 13 The New York Times reported "With the assistance of Ed Wynn, Harry Herschfield and other stars of the theatre, Thrift House, a new venture in raising funds for relief work and other philanthropic activities, will be opened today at 9 West Fifty-seventh Street."  The store sold contributed items, both old and new, ranging from"wearing apparel, pins and bird cages to kitchen equipment and furniture."  The proceeds went to the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies.

The Lewisohn family continued to buy properties along the 57th Street block.  Following its purchase of No. 42 in April 1946, The New York Times noted "The Lewisohns figured in many deals on Fifty-seventh Street which resulted in development of a shopping center there."  At the time of the article, No. 9 was being leased to the Pepsi-Cola Company.

The much altered mansion survived into the second half of the 20th century.  Finally billionaire Sheldon Solow commissioned architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design a skyscraper on a site engulfing the property.  Completed in 1974 the sloping, 50-story Solow Building is a landmark in its own right.

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