Saturday, August 25, 2018

The J. Macy Willets House - 604 Park Avenue

There was little left of Park Avenue's 19th century appearance by the end of the first World War.  The train tracks that had run down its center had been lowered below ground and replaced by a planted boulevard.  Small stores and narrow houses had in many cases been replaced by upscale homes as the fashionable neighborhood of Fifth Avenue spread eastward.

On July 5, 1919 the Record & Guide reported that architect S. Edson Gage had been chosen by the newly-formed 604 Park Avenue Co. to "prepare plans for alterations" to the 27-foot wide building at that address.  The firm, composed of William A. White & Sons and W. Albert Pease, Jr., had grand visions for a proposed house, as evidenced in the $105,000 building loan it acquired the following month.  That figure would be nearly $1.5 million today.

The old structure was not altered, as suggested, but demolished.  Its replacement was completed the following spring--a handsome residence of stone and variegated brick.  Gage had turned to the currently-popular neo-Georgian style.   The structure was grounded, and its six-story height visually relieved, by a two-story limestone base.  The unpretentious, nearly unadorned ground floor drew attention to the second.   Here a balustraded stone balcony fronted a trio of arched windows.

The upper floors were clad in handmade clinkler bricks (so-called because of the sound they made when knocked together) laid in Flemish bond.   Their various colors, ranging from light red to black, were achieved through extreme temperatures in firing.  And their purposely rough faces and irregular shapes gave the appearance of age.  Contrasting with the rugged brick was the finely-dressed limestone trim.

The sixth floor sat back above the stone cornice, partially hidden behind a brick parapet with stone balustrades.  Servants who would occupy the uppermost rooms most likely much appreciated the commodious outdoor space during hot summer nights.

No. 604 Park Avenue was sold to Josiah Macy Willets in June 1920 for the equivalent of more than $3 million today.  In reporting on the sale, the Record & Guide made note of the elite location, saying "The property adjoins the home of Jonathan Bulkley at the northwest corner of 64th st and nearby are the residences of Thomas Howell and Gifford A. Cochran."

The Willets family had arrived on Long Island from England in 1638.  The location of their sprawling estate in when is now Queens retains the name Willets Point.   Josiah Macy Willets preferred to be known by his first initial and middle name.  In 1894, when he was five years old, his mother, the former Mary Kingsland Macy, died.   He was educated at the private Browning School in Manhattan before entering Yale.

His father, Howard, was the principal of the banking firm Willets & Co., founded by Howard's grandfather in 1813 and was a director of the Gotham National Bank.  In 1898 Howard purchased the 250-acre farm in White Plains, New York, which he named Gedney Farm in honor of the family who had owned it since 1740.  According to The New York Times the house had "100 rooms and a library alone worth $100,000" along with "antique furniture and costly fittings."

J. Macy Willets grew up there and in Manhattan.  His father maintained a famous herd of Jersey cattle and became more and more involved in thoroughbred horses and pedigree hunting dogs.  He became intimate friends with Hildreth Kennedy Bloodgood, whose family also dated to the 17th century in Queens, and who, too, was equally involved in dogs and horses.

The close relationship between Howard Willets and Hildreth Bloodgood, begun through their mutual interests in breeding animals, had an unexpected result.  In 1910 J. Macy married Bloodgood's daughter, Gladys Augusta Casey Bloodgood in the bride's Manhattan townhouse.

Howard Willets moved into the Park Avenue mansion with his son and daughter-in-law.  By now he had sold Gedney Farm and moved his prize cattle, horses and dogs to an estate in New Marlboro, Massachusetts, nearly abutting the 800-acre farm of the Bloodgood family.  (The Gedney Farm mansion had burned to the ground in 1909, the massive blaze consuming the irreplaceable furnishings, art and library.)   J. Macy and Gladys established their summer estate, Cassilis Farm, between the properties of their parents.

J. Macy Willetts around the time of his wedding. History of the Class of 1911, Yale College (copyright expired)
Howard's interests were, by now, principally focused on dogs, while J. Macy's were on horses.  Howard was the president of the American Kennel Club and the Master of the Foxhouds of the Westchester Hounds.  J. Macy and Gladys were highly visible in the horsey crowd, and the year they moved into No. 604 J. Macy was one of the founders of the exclusive National Saddle Horse Club.  The club announced as its purpose the "uniting and promoting saddle horse interest and all equestrian sports."   The couple's names routinely appeared in society column accounts of the fashionable American Horse Show.

But it was Howard's name in newspapers in 1923 that drew society's attention.   Five years earlier he had hired 24-year old Elise Dorothy Gunsel to work in the headquarters of the American Kennel Club.  A graduate of Columbia University, she was married to Frederick Gunsel.   The New York Times later remarked diplomatically that it was there "that she and Mr. Willets first became friends."

The 18th century English architecture carried on inside.  Delicate neoclassical details, reminiscent of Robert Adam, decorate the ceiling, the mantel and paneling.   Even the piano is stenciled with matching detailing.  At the north end of the room a massive painting of geese was incorporated into the room's architecture.  photographs by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In April 1922 Elise divorced her husband and took back her maiden name.  On May 25, 1923 The Times ran the headline "HOWARD WILLETS TAKES YOUNG BRIDE / Banker, 62, Married to Elise D. Young, 29."   The article said the ceremony took place in the chambers of Supreme Court Justic Michael L. Erlanger, and was witnessed by J. Macy.

A day earlier the newspaper had noted Willets' impressive club associations: the University, Grolier, Piping Rock, Metropolitan, South Side, Sportsman's and Racquet and Tennis Clubs, along with the St. Nicholas Society and the Society of Colonial Wars.  There was not a lot to say about Elise.

"Mr. Willets has of late made his the Park Avenue address," said the article.  "Mr. Willets and his bride will live in New York after spending several months traveling."

J. Macy and Gladys had three children, twin sisters Julia Kennedy and Mary Gladys, and Josiah Macy, Jr.   A debutante dinner for the girls, who were educated in the private Brearley School, was held in the Pierre in December 1930.

When J. Macy, Jr.'s engagement to Elizabeth C. Bullock was announced in September 1931, The Times noted that he, along with his parents and Mary, "are attending the horse show at Rochester this week."  It added that Julia "is at Casilis [sic] Farm."  Both girls attended the bride in the Rochester, New York wedding on December 21.

The following November the Willets announced Julia's engagement to Robert Rowland Comly.  The plans were unhurried and the couple was not married until February 11, 1933 in the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street.

Mary's turn at romance came in 1934.  Her parents announced her engagement to Williamson Pell, Jr. on February 10.  After detailing an impressive and exhaustive list of both their pedigrees, The New York Times announced "Mr. and Mrs. Willets will give a dinner tonight at the St. Regis for their daughter and Mr. Pell."

Chippendale and Sheraton antiques furnish the drawing room.  Through the painted double doors the gracefully-winding staircase can be glimpsed.   photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Twins to a near-fault, Mary's ceremony in the Church of the Heavenly Rest "was a duplicate of that of the bride's twin sister," said The Times.  Even the floral decorations were closely copied.  Both girls wore the wedding gown their mother had been married in.  The antique lace veil had been worn by Mary Kingsland Macy at her wedding, by their mother, and now by both of the Willets girls.  A reception in the Park Avenue mansion followed the ceremony on June 23, 1934.

Now empty-nesters, J. Macy and Gladys traveled back and forth between Park Avenue and Massachusetts.  On November 22, 1936, for instance, a society column article noted "Mr. and Mrs. J. Macy Willets, who have been in New York for several weeks, are back at Cassilis Farm, New Marlsboro, and will remain for Thanksgiving.  They are to be at their apartment [sic], 604 Park Avenue, after Dec. 1."

By now J. Macy was a director of the National Horse Show Association, president of the American Hackney Horse Society, the American Spaniel Club and the New Marlboro Game Association.  He was a member of the Westminster Kennel Club, the Racquet and Tennis Club, the Essex Fox Hounds and, like his father, the St. Nicholas Society and Society of Colonial Wars.

Julia's marriage to Robert Rowland Comly ended in divorce in October 1938.  She was quietly remarried in her parents' house on January 28, 1939.  Her only attendant was Mary.  The groom's father, Paul Campbell, Sr., was best man.  It was, perhaps, the last event in the house for the Willets family.

J. Macy leased the house furnished to William A. Read, vice president of the Central Hanover Bank and Trust Company later that year.  (The real estate notice mentioned that it "contains a private elevator).

In the fall of 1940 Gladys's uncle, Dr. Samuel W. Lambert, was among the house guests at Cassilis Farm.  J. Macy Jr.'s birthday was on October 7 and his father left the house that afternoon to attend the birthday dinner in Stamford, Connecticut.  Gladys stayed back with her guests.

At around 7:30 that evening Willets entered Cassilis Farm residence and, without saying a word, went upstairs.  A few moments later a maid rushed to Gladys, saying that Willets had been hurt.  She hurried upstairs with Dr. Lambert to find J. Macy with a gunshot to the head.

Willets was conscious, and explained that he had pulled his car over about eight miles away and shot himself.  When he died not die immediately, as he suspected, he drove home.  Lambert began first aid while a second doctor from Great Barrington was summoned.

While Lambert continued to work on him, Willets was removed to Fairview Hospital eight miles away.  At around 1:00 in the morning Manhattan brain specialist Bryon Stookey arrived.  But the wound was too severe.  Williets died around 6:00 on the morning of October 8.  He was 51.

On the front seat of his car a 22-caliber rifle was found with one spent shell.  Also in the automobile was his briefcase, which held his will executed in 1923.  He had cut off his signature, suggesting he intended to revoke it and draw a new will.  In reporting his death, The New York Times mentioned "Mr. Willets had a stable of sixty horses.  In his souvenir room were hundreds of trophies and ribbons won at dog and horse shows."

Willets' mangling of the will caused severe financial problems for Gladys.  The estate was tied up in court, effectively eliminating accessibility to funds.   A year, in October 1940, she petitioned the courts to make her temporary administrator, explaining that conditions had now reached emergency status.

Cassilis Farm, she said, engulfed "some thousand acres," and had more than 60 hackney show ponies, two large herds of cows, a kennel of cocker spaniels, and "numerous other livestock and animals."  Since her husband's death she had been unable to pay the farmhands and "many of them here are in need of money to pay their living expenses."  She was granted temporary letters of administration to maintain the Massachusetts and Park Avenue properties.  Gladys told the court "these assets would be liquidated as soon as possible."

Within three years the Park Avenue mansion was converted to apartments.  All its residents were wealthy and respected, like Edward Kellog Baird and his new bride, Helen Davidson Hughes, who moved in following their wedding in July 1944.  But one tenant that year was a bit more shady.

Isidore Fried was the general manager of the liquor manufacturing firm Hercules Liquor Products Company.  On November 9, 1944 a grand jury found him guilty of 31-charges of "ceiling-price violations."  Government officials called it "a major black market liquor case" and Assistant United States Attorney J. Wolfe Chassen said in court "this is one of the major cases that broke the liquor black market in the United States."  The 51-year old Fried was sentenced to one-and-a-half years in a Federal penitentiary and a $56,000 fine (more in the neighborhood of $760,000 today).

Life for the former Willets mansion as an apartment house would be short lived.  In 1946 it was purchased by the Kingdom of Sweden and converted to the Swedish Consulate to the United Nations.  When the Consulate moved to Second Avenue, the house was retained as home to Sweden's consuls general.

photographs by the author

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