Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The William Bliss House - 6 East 65th Street

Wealthy attorney William Henry Bliss married Anna Dorinda Barnes on April 14, 1894.  Both had been previously married.  William's wife, the former Anna Louise Woods, and Anna's first husband, Demas Barnes, had both died in 1888.

Anna brought to the marriage her daughter, Mildred, and step-daughter, Cora.  Cora (known as Fanny) was the daughter of Demas Barnes and his wife.  William's son, Robert Woods Bliss was 19 at the time of the wedding.

She entered her new marriage with a significant fortune of her own.  Demas Barnes had been described by The New York Times as "a wealthy wholesale drug manufacturer."  Along with her inheritance, she and Cora, who was 36 years old when her father died, increased their prosperity through real estate, co-owning and developing property in Manhattan.

In the summer of 1900 William commissioned the architectural firm of Hiss & Weekes to design two side-by-side mansions on the site of three old brownstones.  No. 8 would take up two-third of the property, with No. 6 retaining the 25-foot width of the original building.  When plans were revised on August 24 that year, the owner of record had changed to Anna B. Bliss.

Which mansion the Blisses originally intended to occupy is unclear; causing newspapers to speculate for years on why they took the smaller No. 6.

An architecturally harmonious but more restrained version of its wider sister, the limestone-faced mansion was completed in 1902.  Its Beaux Arts design featured heavy brackets clinging to the rusticated base that upheld a stone balcony at the piano nobile.  Another effusive iron railed balcony fronted the fifth floor, above which a massive frothy cartouche spilled down from the mansard.

Cora and Mildred Barnes (Mildred was now 23-years-old) moved into the new mansion with the Blisses.   Cora and Anna continued with their real estate dealings, and all three were active in society and philanthropy.  In preparation for a benefit performance by Madame Sembrich for the Music School Settlement the following month, for instance, the New-York Tribune noted on December 17, 1905 that tickets could be obtained from "Miss Mildred Barnes, No. 6 East 65th-st."

That event hinted at the cultured interests of Anna Bliss and her daughters.  On March 8, 1906 Anna hosted "a lecture in Italian on 'Il generale Buonaparte in Lobardia," by Professor Montecchi; and on March 19, 1910 she and William gave a "dinner with music."  The New York Times noted that "Francis Rogers sang and Bruno Huhn was the accompanist."

Familiarity, as the saying goes, often breeds contempt.  That was not the case with Robert Woods Bliss and his step-sister, Mildred Barnes.  On March 29, 1908 The New York Times reported on their engagement and attempted to untangle their parentage.  Mildred, it explained was "daughter of Mrs. William H. Bliss by a former marriage," and Robert was "son of William H. Bliss by a former marriage."  The announcement added "Miss Barnes has a fortune inherited from her father, who died a number of years ago.  She is a very popular young woman."

A sumptuous home and refined surroundings were not enough to prevent stress and anxiety for Cora.  Early in 1910 she suffered a nervous breakdown.  But under constant care and treatment she improved, and by the summer of 1911 had recovered enough to take an automobile tour of New England.   She took along her companion, Kate Erskine; her private secretary, G. H. Edwards; and three friends.  The trip went smoothly, so William and Anna had no qualms about sailing off to Berlin.

In their absence Cora planned her own 53rd birthday dinner party for September 29 for four old friends.  Afterwards, she would take the group to the theater.  There was an air show scheduled for that afternoon in Garden City, Long Island, which she planned to attend; but rainy weather upset those plans.

Therefore, she and Kate Erskine busied themselves in the mansion preparing for the evening's gathering.   Kate left the room to answer the telephone, and when she returned she found the window open.  Looking out she saw Cora's lifeless body draped over a stone wall 70-feet below.

Police initially reported her death as a suicide, but Kate and G. H. Edwards were quick to reject that theory.  Kate told the coroner it was an accident, and The Times reported "Miss Barne's secretary said he believed her death was purely accidental, that in attempting to open a French window for air she had fallen over the sill."

The bulk of Cora's substantiel estate went to Mildred.  In addition to $4.5 million, she received an emerald and diamond ring and an emerald and diamond collar valued at $8,400.  Her total inheritance would equal about $120 million today.  Cora collected artworks by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.  Her will gave William Bliss the artist's painting A Woman Carrying a Jug, and her step-brother Robert Woods Bliss, a group of Whistler etchings.

In 1919 William and Anna Bliss moved to No. 525 Park Avenue.  No. 6 East 65th Street was purchased in September that year by Edward Coleman Delafield, president of the Franklin Trust Company for around $300,000, or about $4.25 million today.  In reporting the sale The New York Times said "Mr. Delafield was induced to purchase the Bliss residence on account of his inability to lease satisfactory residential quarters elsewhere."

Delafield, according to The Times years later, "is a member of one of the oldest families in this State."  Immediately after graduating from Princeton in 1899 he entered the banking field.  He and his wife, the former Margaretta S. Beasley, had four children, Maturin Livingston (named after his maternal grandfather), Edward C., Margaretta, and Mary.  Their summer home was at Riverdale-on-Hudson.

Only a few months after moving in the Franklin Trust Company merged with the Bank of America, and Delafield was now named president of Bank of America.  In addition he was a director in ten corporations and held memberships in some of the most exclusive men's clubs in town, including the Union, University, Down Town, St. Andrew's Golf clubs and the St. Nicholas Society.

The Delafields spent two successive winters out of town, presumably at a warm weather resort.  In October 1921 they leased the house for the season to Olney B. Mairs "of Briarcliff Manor," as noted by newspapers.  Mairs and his wife, Eva, almost assuredly wanted a Manhattan base that season for the approaching debut of their only child, Marjorie.

Although it was not yet her debutante season, Marjorie had a trial run of sorts on January 2, 1922.  That evening her parents hosted a dinner at the Colony Club and a dance afterward at the 65th Street mansion.  The New York Times mentioned it "was for young girls and boys and was a small and informal affair."  The number of guests "home from school," according to The New York Herald, at the small, informal affair totaled 150.

As quickly as the winter season ended the Mairs signed a new lease for the next winter.   Months later, on October 1, 1922 The New York Herald reported "Mr. and Mrs. Olney B Mairs have closed their summer home at East Hampton, L. I., and are at Grelock, Briarcliff, N. Y., where they will remain until early in November, when they will go to 6 East Sixty-fifth street."

Maturin Livingston Delafield was known by his Princeton colleagues as "Liv" and by most others as Livingston. He graduated in 1923 and the following year in October he maried Mary Pierce Lyon in a fashionable St. Thomas's Church wedding.

It was around this time, with her own children growing up, that Margaretta became highly involved in the Girls' Branch of the Public Schools Athletic League.  She regularly held meetings in the mansion, such as the one on February 16, 1925 when the British lawyer Mrs. Helena Normanton addressed the group.  The Times reported that during her remarks "Mrs. Normanton pronounced the American girl beautiful, and praised her carriage, figure and teeth.  After centuries of shaping bodies into the lines of an hour-glass she said it amazed her that such figures survive."

The next of the Delafield children to marry was Margaretta.  The Times announced on June 20, 1926 that "Two distinguished old New York families were united yesterday when Miss Margaretta Stockton Delafield...was married to William Bergh Kip."  Margaretta's lace veil had been worn by five generations of Delafield brides.

Domestic bliss at No. 6 East 65th Street would not last much longer.  Clelia C. Benjamin, the daughter of publisher Walter Romeyn Benjami, was a college classmate of Margaretta.  It was presumably that link that led to her first meeting Margaretta's father.

Edward C. Delafield spent almost the entire summer following Margaretta's wedding in Reno, Nevada at the country home of former Brooklyn Gas Company executive Ralph Elsman.  While there he filed for divorce from his wife.  On February 4, 1928 he and Clelia were married in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Livingston stood in as his best man.

The 65th Street house was sold in May for about $350,000 (around $5 million today).   It was purchased by Sophia Sherman, who had lived in the brooding brownstone mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 65th Street since 1892.  Perhaps fearing the erection of apartment buildings around her old home, Sophia scrambled to buy up each of the nearby houses as they came on the market.

She briefly leased No. 6 to Clifford M. Leonard, president and treasurer of the Leonard Construction Co.   The wealthy bachelor's summer estate was at Locust Valley, Long Island where his 89-foot yacht, the Ripple, was moored.

About a year later the mansion became home to Lida Hudson, the widow of Lea Hudson, and her daughter Nina.  Nina had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1929.  As Anna Bliss had done, Lida often hosted teas and lectures in the house.  In March 1930, for instance, a talk on "Whos's Who in 1930" was held here.  And on January 27, 1933 The Sun announced that Lawrence Saint and Earl E. Sanborn would speak "at 'An Evening With Stained Glass'" in the house.  The two men were currently working on creation of the stained glass windows for the Washington Cathedral.

A year earlier The Pennsylvania Gazette, the weekly magazine of the University of Pennsylvania, had reported on Nina's engagement to George Alexander Gade, of Philadelphia.  The wedding was held in the 65th Street mansion on June 10, 1933.  Nina's brother, H. Lea Hudson, gave her away and The New York Evening Post reported that her gown "was made entirely of old family lace, in an ivory tone."

Hiss & Weekes designed the two mansions to appear nearly as a unit.
Lida Hudson left the house in 1936.  Shortly thereafter it was broken into apartments whose tenants were, nonetheless, well-to-do.  One of them, John Muhson, who found himself in trouble with the law in 1943.  He worked as the bookkeeper for the Cavendish Club at 14 East Sixty-second Street.   The New York Times deemed it "fashionable" and said it was "regarded as one of the best known bridge clubs in the country."  Among the members who gathered to play cards there were Harold S. Vanderbilt, playwright George S. Kaufman, magazine editor Frank Crowninshield, and Lt. Commander Oswald Jacoby.

But on January 28, 1943 Muhson was arrested after a patrolman, George Casey, visited the club.  He asked Muhson about the card games and "was informed that men playing cards paid a dollar each for the privilege."  The Times said the club had been targeted "in a police drive to clean up suspected gambling places in the midtown area."

Magistrate Raphael P. Koenig remarked in Yorkville court on February 11 that if the charge against Muhson was upheld, "then police would be in a position to lock up every social club and every home where friendly card games are played."  He predicted going further would be heading down a legal and social slippery slope.  Despite that, another judge ordered a complaint filed against him and that he be paroled for trial.

In April 1950 the estate of Sophia Augusta Sherman sold Nos. 2 through 6 East 65th Street to developer Fred H. Hill.  It looked as if Sophia's fears of an apartment house rising on the sites were about to come to pass.  But instead Hill resold them in July.  Nos. 4 and 6 were purchased by the newly-formed corporation headed by Vera Ingersoll.

Among the changes made was a gallery space in the ground floor apartment.  Rose Fried had taken over a gallery named The Pinacotheca on West 58th Street in the mid-1940's.  When she moved into No. 6 in 1950 she rechristened it the Rose Fried Gallery.

Rose Fried was in Europe during the summer of 1954.  Rose's sister, "Syd" Fried, loaned the use of the gallery-apartment to college student Helene Jacobs of Chicago.  The Jacobs family were long-time friends of Syd's.  Helene was 19-years-old and had just finished her junior year at Syracuse University.  She was taking summer courses in international law at Columbia University, having been accepted at Barnard College for her senior year.

Helene's best friend was Madeline Jean Sommer, also 19, who lived in Bergenfield, New Jersey.  She was slated to enter Yale in the fall.

The girls seemed happy and well-adjusted to all who knew them.  But something went dreadfully wrong.  On July 21 they attempted suicide in Madeline's family home by turning on the stove gas jets.  The undertaking was bungled and they succeeded only in setting the house on fire.

The following morning a refrigerator repairman did not get an answer at the Fried apartment, so he asked the superindentent to let him in.  They found the two girls on the kitchen floor, the room filled with gas from the stove.  An empty wine bottle sat on the kitchen table next to another, half-empty.

The girls had left notes on the table.  The one addressed to Helene's parents read:

Today I die.  Not as casually as I should, but then, I've always been spasmodically violent anyway...I haven't enough life within me to nourish myself through long, long years.  Be as kind to yourself as you have ever been and be as kind to yourselves as I have been cruel.

Helene, however, survived.  She was taken to Roosevelt Hospital.  Madeline was not so lucky.  Syd Fried was called to identify her body, but, according to The Times, she "said she had never seen the girl before, and collapsed."

On October 12, 1954. Helene was removed to the Bellevue Hospital psychiatric division.  Her near brush with death was evidenced in her condition nearly four months after the suicide attempt.  Newspapers reported she was still semi-comatose when taken from Roosevelt Hospital.

The ground floor space was home to the First Aid for Hungary, Inc. in 1956.   The organization had been formed to help Hungarian refugees.  On November 25, 1956 The Times reported "The sixth and seventh panes to bring Hungarian refugees from Soviet tyranny landed in the United States last night."

In 1968 the New York Federation of Reform Synagogues was established in the building.  It remained at least through 1971.

Quickly after after Robert K. Marceca's RKM Enterprises purchased Nos. 4 and 6 West 65th Street in October 1983 things went downhill for the tenants in the 21 total apartments.  The rent-controlled leases ranged from $200 to $800 per month.  A common method landlords used to force tenants out was to make conditions unlivable.  Three months after the RKM Enterprises took over the property, there was a rent strike.

Naomi Palmer had lived in the building for two decades.  She told reporters "Very shortly after the RKM people took over the buildings began to be quite filthy and the services began to disappear."  She said hot water was the first to go, followed by interruptions in heat, intercom systems, and elevator service.

Anna Bliss would recoil at the sight of her former palace.  photograph via
Conditions improved at No. 6 East 65th Street; and outwardly the striking residence appears much as it did with the Bliss family moved in 110 years ago.  The apartment conversion inside, however, leaves little to remind us of its once sumptuous appointments.

photographs by the author

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