Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The H. Bramhall Gilbert Mansion - 17 East 63rd Street

The mansard, similar to those on either side, is hidden behind a recent installation.

Brothers William W. and Thomas M. Hall were well known among the real estate community by the end of the 19th century.  As the Upper East Side expanded, Hall & Hall erected lavish speculative mansions in the fashionable Fifth Avenue neighborhood near Central Park.  No. 17 East 63rd Street, begun in 1901, is a splendid example of their work.

Designed by the architectural firm of Welch, Smith & Provost, the five-story mansion replaced a high-stoop rowhouse erected in the 1880's.  Far different from that dour brownstone, the new residence gleamed in white limestone.  Its Beaux-Arts design exhibited all the French-inspired bells and whistles so popular with the upper crust at the time.

A cartouche-style keystone adorned the centered doorway, directly below a stone balcony fronting the second floor.  Here were three graceful sets of French windows,  Sumptuous garlands of carved fruits and flowers draped from the sill brackets of the third floor windows.  A substantial bracketed stone cornice introduced the mansard level.

Construction was nearly completed on October 4, 1902 when the Real Estate Record & Guide announced the construction cost of the nearly 30-foot wide dwelling at $100,000--just under $3 million today.  Hall & Hall's advertisement two months earlier called the mansion "Up-To-Date."  It contained 20 rooms and 7 bathrooms.

On January 24, 1903 the Record & Guide reported that "Expensive dwelling property has been in remarkable demand during the week."  In reporting on the pricey homes sold, the article noted "W. W. & T. M. Hall have disposed of No. 17 East 63d street."  The buyers were H. Bramhall Gilbert and his wife, the former Lila Brokaw.  She was the daughter of William V. Brokaw.  The extended Brokaw family was among the wealthiest in Manhattan.  The couple had four children, Harry, Florence Elizabeth and Lila.

As was common, title to the 63rd Street house was in Lila's name.  The same was true of the family's country estate at Great Neck, Long Island.  So when the Gilberts added ten acres to that property in December 1903 The Sun noted that "This gives Mrs. Gilbert about thirty acres."

Lila opened the mansion with a musicale on January 27, 1904.  The New York Times reported "It was her first large entertainment in her new home, 17 West East Sixty-third Street, and was in honor of Miss Gladys Robinson, the fiancee of her nephew, J. E. Martin, Jr., but served also as a housewarming."

The article said Lila received "in turquoise blue velvet and Venetian the French drawing room, done in blue brocade, on the second floor."  Orchids and other flowers decorated the rooms.

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Four days later The New York Times deemed the Gilbert mansion "among the most hospitable in appearance, as to its entrance hall, of any in town.  It takes in the entire front portion of the street floor to a depth of perhaps thirty feet, and runs from there back to a reception room at the rear."  At the end of the hall were the elevator, dressing rooms (where visiting ladies would repair their hair after removing hats and stow their cloaks and muffs), and the wide, winding staircase.

The white walls of the entrance hall were paneled in red fabric that matched the red carpeting of the floor.  "The walls are at present nearly concealed by rich tapestries purchased abroad by Mrs. Gilbert, which are eventually to find their way to her country seat on Long Island," said the article.  "The heavy chairs, settees, and couch in this main hall are all in old gilt, with red velvet centres, and were formerly used in foreign palaces," remarked The Times.  "Each of the high-seated chairs has a foot rest to match"  The carpeting contrasted with the green runner that ran up the staircase. 

The drawing room on the second floor overlooked 63rd Street.  The Times noted that it "is perhaps the only French drawing room in town done in blue."  The wall panels were upholstered in turquoise figured satin brocade.  Readers suddenly understood Lila's choice of a turquoise velvet gown for her musicale.

The Gilberts' Great Neck property was near "Nirvana," the estate of Lila's playboy brother.   (Many believe William Gould Brokaw was the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald's character Jay Gatsby.)  His property was large enough to host a thoroughbred horse race on November 7, 1905.  Not surprisingly, on the race committee with his brother-in-law was H. Bramhall Gilbert.  Other millionaire members were William K. Vanderbilt, Alfred G. Vanderbilt, W. R. Grace and Perry Belmont.

Many of those same men were in the newspapers the following week for far more serious reasons.  Louis Fitzgerald, Jr. was killed by an incoming Long Island Railroad train at the Great Neck station.  His was the third fatality in a short period of time and residents claimed, according to the New-York Tribune on November 13, that "all these accidents could have been avoided by a change in the method of running the trains."

The article recalled that there would have been a fourth death had it not been for the valiant actions of Gilbert.  "Early last spring Miss Lucille Alger had both of her legs cut off, and she would have died but for the heroic work of H Bramhall Gilbert, who happened to be at the station."

In April 1906, only two years after her housewarming musicale, the Gilberts sold the mansion to move into their new home at 40 West 57th Street (an unexpected southerly move given the northward migration of society).

The new owners were Trenor L. Park and his wife, the former Julia Hunt Catlin.  A senior partner in dry goods firm Catlin & Co. and vice president of the American Trading Company, Park was best known in yachting circles.  He was commodore of the American Yacht Club, and a member of the Metropolitan Yacht Club and the New York Yacht Club.  He was, according to Forest and Stream magazine, "an ardent devotee of the sport."

Within a month of his purchasing the mansion, Fore'n'Aft magazine reported on the Long Island Sound and Gravesend Bay Championships.  Of the six 33-foot sloops, the article said "Mimosa III, owned by Trevor [sic] L. Park had things her own way, as usual, in this class, and the others had little encouragement to race consistently, knowing they could only win by fluke or accident."

The Park sloop, The Mimosa III Fore'n'Aft magazine May 1907 (copyright expired)
Life on 63rd Street for the family would not be happy.  The first trouble came when they planned to leave the city just after Christmas 1906.  A truckman left at the house on December 27 and headed for Lackawanna Railroad Ferry with the family's trunks.  One of them, containing Julia's things, never made it.  Neither did the driver, Charles Steele.  Among the items in the trunk were pearl and diamond jewelry, two watches, a Rookwood jar with a silver stopper, two sets of furs, a silver box, gowns, opera bags and such.  The total value was estimated at $5,000--more than $140,000 today.  The items were never recovered.

The Parks' daughters, Frances Hall Park and Elliott, were 12 and 9 years old at the time.  A few days after the aborted trip, Elliott came down with a cold.  On January 6,1907 The New York Times reported that because of that, the little girl "could not take her customary walk in Central Park with her nurse and her elder sister."  Instead, the girls were taken to the roof, where a little fenced garden had been erected for them.

Assuming the girls were safe within the fenced area, the nurse paid little attention to them.  But Elliott climbed over the fence and mounted the glass skylight.  The Times said "with cries of laughter she began to dance.  For some time she danced while her sister looked on.  The nurse supposed the child was still in her little garden."

Suddenly the glass gave way and Elliott disappeared.  "There was nothing to save her and she plunged down six stories."  Only now, upon hearing the little girl's scream, did the nurse turn her attention to the girls.  She could only peer down through the broken glass to see servants picking up the girl and taking her to a nearby room.

Three doctors arrived soon after and worked for an hour and a half, but her injuries were too serious.  Park arrived home a few minutes before his daughter died.

Elliott's funeral would not be the last in the mansion that year.  Trenor developed what doctors called "a liver complaint" on Sepember 3.  He died on October 23, 1907 at the age of 47.

Other than bequests like $25,000 to Harvard University, Park's $3 million estate was divided between his wife and daughter.  The terms of the will would cause substantial friction between mother and daughter.  Frances was left $100,000 outright, and a trust fund of $400,000.  Tied up in that trust fund was the title to No. 17 East 63rd Street.

Quite possibly the deaths of two family members within a matter of months prompted Julia to want to leave the mansion--and, in fact, the country.  Within a month of Park's death she leased the house to F. Gray Griswold, and moved to Paris.  Two years later it was leased to Mrs. C. H. Mellon.

Julia would have liked to sell the mansion, but her strong-willed teen-aged daughter refused to relinquish her half.   By the fall of 1910 Julia reached the end of her patience.  The Sun reported on October 8 "Mrs. Julia Hunt Park, widow of Trenor L. Park, the yachtsman and merchant...has brought suit against her fifteen-year-old daughter, Frances Hall Park, for damages for withholding her dower interest...Mrs. Park asks that the property be either partitioned or that her share be determined and paid in a lump sum."

Julia's sudden eagerness to sell may have been prompted by her secret engagement to Chauncey Mitchell Depew, nephew of the senator of the same name.  Although her permanent address was now in Paris, the two were married quietly in London on February 15, 1911.  Frances' name did not appear in the reports of the ceremony.

It would not be until the spring of 1914 that the women finally agreed to sell.  The 63rd Street mansion was placed on the market for the equivalent of about $6.3 million today.  On April 18, 1915 The New York Times reported that it had been sold to Otto Huber, the wealthy Brooklyn brewer.  That, of course, was impossible since Huber had been dead for more than a decade.

It was his son, Joseph Huber, who bought the house.  The 48-year-old bachelor was the head of his father's brewery, with his brothers Charles and Fred as junior partners.  He was also president of the First National Bank of Brooklyn.  He had inherited a share of his father's $3 million estate.  Although his business interested were in Brooklyn, he had been living in Manhattan at No. 111 East 54th Street.

When Huber's mother, Emilie, died on August 28, 1914, she left the bulk of her $6 million estate to Joseph.  That staggering inheritance would top $152 million today.

Five months later on February 13, 1915, The New York Times reported that Huber's friends "learned with surprised yesterday that he was married on Wednesday in Philadelphia to Miss Lillian M. Righter of that city."  The article noted "Mr. Huber is identified with large business interests in Brooklyn and is considered one of the wealthiest men of that borough."

The middle-aged couple rarely appeared in society columns, living quietly in their French mansion surrounded by servants.  The Otto Huber Brewery was sold in 1926, affording Joseph more leisure time.

Lillian died on June 11, 1928.  Her funeral was held in the mansion the following evening.  Much of her substantial personal fortune went to extended relatives, like the $60,000 trust for the children of her half-sister and $30,000 to a cousin.  Other bequests hinted at the Hubers' lives within the 63rd Street house.  Lilian's personal maid, Josephine McDonough received $1,000; the chauffeur, William Kearn, was given the same amount; and two maids, Anna Ziegler and Katherine Spellman received $500 each.  They were generous gifts, the smallest equaling more than $7,000 today.

Joseph resigned from the First National Bank of Brooklyn soon after Lillian's death.  He lived on in the mansion throughout the Depression years, until his death at the age of 76 on January 22, 1945.  His obituary noted that he "had been ill for two months with pleurisy."

The days of grand mansions Fifth Avenue were essentially gone at the time of Huber's death. Three months later, on April 4, The New York Times reported that No. 17 had been sold "for remodeling into small suites of the maisonette type retaining the original elaborate decorations and large rooms."

If that is what the buyers intended to do, they changed their minds.  A conversion resulted in a single apartment on the top floor and offices within the other floors.

One of those offices was used by star Brooklyn Dodger's second-baseman Jackie Robinson on February 20, 1951 for a press conference.  He announced that he would construct a low-cost cooperative housing project in the Flatlands district of Brooklyn called the Jackie Robinson Garden Apartments.  He told reporters that "his interest in the development stemmed from his desire to help slum children live with their families in decent houses."

Another office was for years leased to the law firm of Amen, Weisman, Finley & Butler.  Among its principals was John Harlan Amen.  As an Army colonel after World War II he was an associate trial counsel in the war criminals' trial at Nuremberg, Germany.   Prior to that, according to The New York Times, he was "famous as a racket-buster in the city between 1928 and 1942."

Amen died on March 10, 1960 after suffering a bleeding ulcer not long after having left the office two days earlier.  The firm remained at No. 17 until January 1968.

1983 was a year of vicious vandalism throughout the country.  Five paintings by Mark Rothko valued at $2 million were defaced with Z-shaped scratches at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; two Fordham students damaged several pieces of sculpture at an outdoor show, and a garage was carved into the limestone facade of No. 17 East 63rd Street as part of a conversion to apartments.

A 1987 listing offered a two-bedroom, two-bath co-op with three fireplaces in "a prewar brownstone" for $1.38 million.  The third and fourth floors were converted to a duplex apartment in 1993.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. I don’t understand how the alteration for a garage was allowed. Landmarks does not even allow an air-conditioning grill in undecorated limestone, so how could they be given permission for a curb cut, etc.?