Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Gates W. McGarrah Mansion - 740 Madison Avenue

With its entrance originally facing 64th Street, the house originally looked much like its next door neighbor to the left.

In 1879 prolific architect John G. Prague designed a row of five neo-Grec style townhouses at Nos. 19 through 27 East 64th Street.  The corner house was the most desirable for its full-height angled bay to the front and its long wall of side windows facing Madison Avenue.  Four stories tall above an English basement, it and its brownstone-faced neighbors were typical high-end Victorian homes.

That would all change two decades later.  In 1901 the house was owned by Charles Jefferson Harrah and his wife, Georgina Balfour Harrah.  The title was in Georgina's name and the couple, who lived in Philadelphia, had purchased the property as an investment.  In June that year they hired Philadelphia architect Mantle Fielding to made extensive alterations.

The house was enlarged with a four-story, 28-foot wide extension on Madison Avenue; the entrance and stoop were moved from 64th Street to Madison Avenue (taking the new address of No. 740 Madison); and frothy neo-French Renaissance elements were splashed on the outdated facade.  The alterations cost Georgina Harrah $40,000--about $1.2 million today.

The remodeled mansion was leased to Gates White McGarrah.  The president of the Leather Manufacturers' National Bank, he and his wife, Elizabeth, had two daughters, Marion and Helen.

Now wealthy, McGarrah had humble beginnings.  The New-York Tribune called him a "self-made bank president" who "started at the bottom."  McGarrah had entered the banking business in 1883 as a check clerk in the New York Produce Exchange Bank.  He told that newspaper in 1908 "I never worried about long hours in my apprentice days.  We often left the bank at 10 or 11 o'clock at night, and there was no pay for overtime."

It may have been those early, long hours that prompted McGarrah's ahead-of-his-time work policies.  In 1908 he told a reporter "I believe in annual vacations, however, and think a man can do more work in ten or eleven months than in twelve."   He paid his apprentices from $400 to $1,000 a year--a handsome salary for low-level employees, and gave the clerks free lunch.

Gates White McGarrah - The Banking Law Journal, 1910 (copyright expired)
Three years after moving into the house, in 1904, the Leather Manufacturers' National Bank merged with The Mechanics' National Bank.  The combined banks took the latter's name and McGarrah continued on as its president.  Additionally he was a director in the Astor Trust Company, the Bankers Trust Company and the Mercantile Trust Company.

The Harrah family still owned the mansion in December 1919 when George E. Harrah commissioned architect Henry Glasser to convert it to shops and apartments.  The stoop was removed and the entrance altered to a show window, a three story addition extended to the 64th Street property line, and another one-story addition on Madison Avenue would house another shop.   The alterations cost the equivalent of $283,000 today.

Seen here in 1927, the 1919 extension on 64th Street made no attempt to meld into the architecture. photograph by George F. Arata from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York   
The shops were leased to a variety of tenants--Mrs E. . Hedlund's Employment Agency, Henry Renard's tailor shop, and Margquerite Jonap's gown and millinery shop, for instance.

Among the first residential tenants upstairs were advertising man John W. Murray and his wife, actress Anita Murray.  The newlyweds were married on Christmas Eve 1920, but the marriage quickly went downhill when John discovered his wife declined to sleep with him.

The problems had started on their wedding night.  According to The New York Herald, Murray said that the two quarreled on their honeymoon at Atlantic City "because he refused to have twin beds in their suite."  Within months he had moved out of their Madison Avenue apartment into the Chatham Hotel.  Anita filed for separation in April, complaining that her husband "only occasionally" returned home and did not furnish her sufficient funds.  She told the courts Murray made $15,000 a year--a considerable $205,000 per year today.

Murray was pointed in his rebuttal.  He explained, as reported by The New York Herald on April 28, 1921 that "he lives at the hotel so that he can sleep, as his wife used to compel him to sleep on a couch in the Madison avenue home."  He added that his wife's friends "seem to be extreme radicals" and that one of them asserted the Government should be overthrown by force and had strong views in favor of free love.  Anita was nonetheless granted $40 a week alimony.

The McGarrah family came an went through the entrance above a high stoop, where the center awning is today.
Other moneyed residents in No. 740 seem to have had more serene domestic relations.  Robert C. Rathbone and his wife were here in the early 1920's.  They maintained a summer home in Englewood, New Jersey and had three daughters, twins Elizabeth and Mary, and Juliet.  Elizabeth's marriage to Franklin Websgter Dorman in June 1926 was covered by society columns.  It took place in Englewood and the reception was held in the Rathbone's home there.

In the 1930's the shops saw new tenants, among them Frederick Keith Koones gallery of antique prints and designer Emil's gown shop.  Similar upscale stores would continue to occupy the spaces over the next decades.

In the 1940's Miss Lena, the millinery establishment run by Lena Markert was here, and in the 1950's Hillel Tennenbaum's pocketbook store opened.  Tennenbaum had learned to make handbags at the turn of the century in his father's shop in Warsaw, Poland.  He custom-made the bags to the whim of his customers.

On September 24, 1956 The New York Times explained "Today's woman crowds her bag with a larger compact, eye glasses, cigarettes, checkbook, driver's license, keys, identification, notebook, address book, lipstick, comb and, like as not, letter and business papers.

"If, in addition, she wants to carry a book or magazine in her purse, that's all right with Mr. Tennenbaum.  He'll make her a handbag large enough, allot space for the reading matter, and take pride in solving the problem."

Tennenbaum told the reporter of a particularly difficult order placed by a female police officer.  She wanted to carry her revolver in a bag that would not draw attention yet be designed so she could draw it as easily as from a holster.   Tennenbaum said "I also designed the flap so she could pin her badge to the under side and flip it in view as fast as she could turn back her lapel.  She was delighted."

At the same time Wakefield-Young Books had a shop here.  Not merely a bookstore, it also staged original art exhibitions.

Upscale hair salons appeared on the second floor by the end of the 1950's.  Carita Sisters of Paris opened in April 1959.  The Times reported "The star stylist is Mr. Thierry, who has just arrived from Paris."  A month later the newspaper added "In the palm-printed green and white salon on Madison Avenue, where a Parisian artist named Mr. Jacques holds forth, photographs on the wall show the latest, cost alluring Carita hair styles.  A woman has only to point a finger and pay $10 for the same effect."  The cost of the styling would be more in the neighborhood of $85 today.

Men were not ignored at No. 740.  In 1961 Joyce Markson operated what was said to be "the only European-style barber shop in the United States."  The New York Times, on December 13 that year, said "Men are treated to services that rival those in beauty salons: hair coloring, shampoo, cut and styling, facials, pedicures and manicures."  Expected today, the services were nearly unheard of in 1961. 

Markson's shop was decorated as a hunting lodge, with a beamed ceiling and a life-sized stuffed bear.  There was also a Dow Jones news ticker so the customers could keep up with any market developments.  "Mrs. Markson also has supplied the shop with an oxygen tank to cure hangovers," said The Times.

Other shops throughout 1960's and '70's included Charles C. Paterson's antiques shop, The Picture Decorator which sold vintage photographs of New York, and the Phone-tique Gallery, which offered designer telephone.    In April 1976 New York magazine called Phone-tique "posh" and noted it "has a number of 'exclusive' designs and oddities of the genre known as 'conversation pieces.'"

The 740 Madison Avenue Corporation owned the building in the 1980's when it initiated a restoration and renovation by Samuel J. De Santo & Associates.  The two-year project included removing paint, and replacing the stonework, balustrades and windows on the upper three floors.  At the time ground floor housed shops like Sermoneta and Bennetton.

The upper story windows retain their neo-Grec stone frames.
Today it is difficult for most passersby to recognize the sprawling structure as a former mansion.  Although the paint was removed from the masonry in 1982, today it is back.  The 1879 neo-Grec and the fussy 1901 neo-French Renaissance elements which survive remind us of a time when Madison Avenue and 64th Street was an enclave of high-end private homes.

photographs by the author

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