Monday, September 10, 2018

The Lost David L. Einstein House - 39 W 57th Street

from the collection of the New York Public Library

David L. Einstein was. born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 20, 1839 and came to New York City with his parents as a boy.  The eldest of 11 children, he entered his father's banking business after graduating from the College of the City of New York.  Before he was 21-years he was sent to London to manage the firm's foreign business.

After the Civil War Einstein's father made a striking career change.  He left banking to go into manufacturing,  He and formed formed the Raritan Woolen Mills in 1869 with David as its president, and the Somerset Manufacturing Company around 1880.  David was president of that firm as well.

Epstein and his wife, Caroline, had three children, Lewis, Florence and Amy.  By the time the Somerset Manufacturing Company was formed he had amassed a sizable personal fortune.  In 1880, as the tide of wealth moved further up Fifth Avenue, he began buying up numerous building lots on the block of West 57th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

Like others of his financial peers, he may have been been buying the lots not for development, but to protect his own property values.  By selecting his neighbors he could ensure the block filled with high caliber residences and equally acceptable families.

As he bought and sold parcels on the block, he set architects David and John Jardine to work designing his own home at No. 39 West 57th Street.  The brothers, partners in D. & J. Jardine, were prolific designers of domestic architecture.  Plans were filed on August 17, 1880 for a 33-foot wide brick faced residence, four stories tall.

The completed mansion was patently D. & J. Jardine.  While it had expected elements of an 1880 rowhouse--the high stoop and two-story angled bay, for instance--the architects put their stamp on the design with a temple-like portico (the double doors of which contained stained glass panels), innovative window surrounds at third floor that included marrying one pair of arched openings within a joint frame, and delicate treatment of the top floor windows with small columns upholding decorative arches.  An aggressive cornice projected over the whole. 

The interesting exterior of the Einstein house could not compete with the interiors.  Artistic Houses said that they had been made possible by "a lavish expenditure of money, under the direction of a cultivated taste."  A near obsession with historic periods and exotic lands in the 1880's resulted in every upscale American home having at least one themed room--a Japanese room or a Moorish smoking room, perhaps.  Others, like the Einstein mansion, contained a multitude of styles and periods.

The entrance hall was decorated in English Renaissance, the dining room in Henry IV, and the reception hall in Chinese.  Each jet of the dining room chandelier illuminated a brass filigree globe "studded with pieces of stained glass, that simulate jewels, and at night is of remarkable and diversified luminousness," said Artistic Homes.  The sitting room was styled as Japanese, and the library decorated in Louis XIII.   The brass chandelier in the library held 40 burners.

The Entrance Hall -- Artistic Homes 1883 (copyright expired)

The Main Hall. Variations of the brass filigree chandelier appeared throughout the house.  The coffered ceiling is studded with carved rosettes.  Artistic Homes 1883 (copyright expired)

Artistic Homes pointed out the "grotesque and skillfully-carved figure[s]" each holding a lantern atop the staircase newels and mentioned that the "rich carving" of the staircase continued through the third floor.  An elevator was located toward the back of the house, near the servants' stairs.

The staircase, with its "grotesque" lantern-holding carved beasts, was Addams Family ready.  Artistic Homes 1883 (copyright expired) 
Throughout the rooms was Einstein's vast collection of artworks.  Years later the Bulletin of the National Association of Wool Manufacturers said he "was passionately devoted to art and his collections of paintings, tapestries and old brocades and laces is said to be one of the most complete and admirable in the country.

The size of his collection was evidenced when the National Academy of Design staged an exhibition entitled "Portraits of Women" to benefit the St. John's Guide and the Orthopedic Hospital in 1894.  Einstein loaned more than 70 portraits and miniatures, including the likenesses of Empress Josephine, Lady Jane Grey, Mme. de Pompadour, and Marie Antoinette.

Lewis Einstein posed in the Japanese sitting room for this portrait by Edward Killingworth Johnson in 1882.  Metropolitan Museum of Art
Einstein was active in charitable and social causes.  He was a supporter of the Hebrew Technical Institute on Stuyvesant Street and the Montefiore Home for Chronic Invalids, for instance.  The National Association of Wool Manufacturers's Bulletin said that he was "a very liberal giver in the cause of charity and his name was on the list of patrons of almost every important charitable institution of New York.  In addition to these general benefactions he personally assisted a great many poor and unfortunate people who were known to be worth of such help."

The Tariff Review called the Einstein family "very prominent commercially, financially and politically,"  That the word "socially" was omitted was not accidental.  No matter how wealthy, Jewish families were not welcomed in mainstream society.  The doors of the city's exclusive men's social clubs were closed to Jews.  So when the Einsteins' names appeared in society columns, it almost always was in connection with a Jewish event, like a charity ball.

Caroline Einstein's boudoir held part of the Oriental porcelain collection.  Artistic Homes 1883 (copyright expired)
On the other hand, the homeless do not seem to have been religiously bigoted; at least not when it came to seeking hand-outs.  Two such men, Thomas Welsh and Thomas Daly, were deemed "persistent beggars" by The New York Times on November 27, 1893.  The newspaper said they "for several weeks have been annoying residents along Fifth Avenue and side streets."

The down-and-out fellows devised a scheme to obtain money; one that was not too-well planned out.  They wrote letters addressed to prominent men and signed "George Lewis."  The nearly identical letters stated that the bearer was out of work and needed assistance.  They were, however, poorly worded and contained numerous misspellings.

On the occasions when a servant allowed them into the entrance hall while she took the introduction letter to his mistress, items disappeared.  Police, armed with descriptions of the ragtag pair, finally spotted them on the stoop of the Einstein House on November 25 where they "presented a begging letter," as worded by The Times.  Despite the Einsteins' well-known generosity, they left the mansion's doorway not with a few coins, but with handcuffs.

David L. Einstein.  The Tariff Review, May 21, 1909 (copyright expired)
Nearly 30 years after moving into the mansion, David L. Einstein died in London on May 8, 1909, twelve days before his 70th birthday.  The Tariff Review commented "Mr. Einstein, never a man of robust physique, had been in rather poor health for several years, and for this reason had spent much of his time abroad with his wife."

Einstein's estate amounted to more than $11 million today.  It was divided among his family, with Caroline receiving "all his household effects, automobiles and carriages."  The New-York Tribune reported on May 19, 1909 "He left to her also $35,000 in cash, with permission to distribute it among charitable institutions if she cares to do so, and his house, at No. 39 West 57th Street, for life."

Caroline sold the house the following summer to attorney Bainbridge Colby.  In reporting on the sale on July 2, 1910, The Real Estate Record & Guide noted that the house was "especially built by Mr. Einstein for his own home, and contained a vast amount of valuable carving and ornamental decorations."

The dining room.  Artistic Homes 1883 (copyright expired)
Caroline's asking price of $300,000 would be about $8.3 million today.  Colby had purchased the house next door at No. 37 the previous month, suggesting that he intended to erect a modern commercial structure on the site.

But instead he leased No. 39 to broker George H. Robinson.  His financial and social standings were reflected in his club memberships; the exclusive Metropolitan and Union League Clubs, the New York Athletic Club, the City Club, the Barnard Club and the Sons of the Revolution.

Made in Paris for the Einstein mansion, the mantel clock was said to require three men to life it.  Note the Aesthetic Movement sunflower-themed brass fire screen.   Artistic Homes 1883 (copyright expired)
In November that same year Robinson and a group of Metropolitan Club members embarked on a three-day motorcar excursion through the scene hills of Pennsylvania and along the Hudson River in upstate New York.  Eight men and two chauffeurs left the clubhouse in two automobiles owned by Henry Saunderson and John Ellis Roosevelt.

Robinson was a passenger in Roosevelt's car on November 6 as they motored near Walden, New York.  Roosevelt, a fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, asked his chauffeur, Alexander Ehbel, to let him drive.  Ehbel moved to the front passenger seat and Roosevelt took the wheel.  It was a fatal move.

Within only a short time Roosevelt lost control and the touring car flipped over.  Ehbel was instantly killed.  The New York Times reported "His neck was broken and his skull crushed."  John Targee Sill, who was sitting behind Ehbel suffered two broken arms, the left one so badly injured that doctors initially thought it would have to be amputated.  "George H. Robinson, the second of Mr. Roosevelt's guests, escaped with a broken rib," said that article.  Roosevelt "escaped with what seemed to be no greater injuries than a slight concussion of the brain and shock."

Two years after the horrifying accident, in May 1912, Bainbridge leased both Nos. 37 and 39 to Lady Duff Gordon.  The British dressmaker had come to Manhattan from London expressly to sign the 21-year lease.  Unfortunately, she booked passage on the RMS Titanic.  She, nevertheless, survived and arrived in New York on the RMS Carpathia on April 18.

She signed the lease about three weeks later.  The New-York Tribune commented on May 8 that the combined dwellings covered a plot slightly more than 63-feet wide and 100-feet deep, "which will be altered to suit the requirements of the tenant."

Lady Gordon's dressmaking establishment went by the name Lucile, Ltd.  She catered to the carriage trade from the joined buildings for 8 of the 21 years on her lease.   Then, on May 26, 1920 she ran a clearance sale, with wraps discounted to $95 and up, gowns and tailleurs at $65 and up, and negligees now prices at $45 and higher.  The cost of the cheapest discounted gown in today's dollars would be just under $800 today.

Lucile, Ltd. was no doubt permitted--or even prompted--to break the lease to free Bainbridge Colby to demolish the vintage mansions.  On August 25, 1922 architects Severance & Van Alen filed plans for a 12-story store and office building for the site.  Completed in 1923, it survives.

photo via  


  1. What incredible woodwork throughout and I for one would gladly have that staircase with the carved beast newel posts in a heartbeat.

  2. It would probably not be outrageous to suggest there may have perhaps been a flask in Roosevelt's touring car that day?
    A drive through picturesque scenery by men of that status and era surely would have included some spirits.
    If alcohol was a factor in the accident, Roosevelt's social position would have also been a factor in the investigation as well.
    Poor chauffeur, the working stiff always seems to pay the penalty for privileged indulgence. I hope his family was looked after.