Around 1871 developer John C. Thompson erected a row of seven 25-food wide brownstone-fronted homes at Nos 37 through 49 East 68th Street. On December 25, 1880 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that eminent New York attorney Benjamin F. Dunning had transferred title to No. 39 to "Isabelle D., wife of Thomas P. Fowler. The transaction was listed as "gift."
|The Fowler house is at the right. from the collection of the New York Public Library
Born in Newburgh, New York in 1851, Fowler was the son of Isaac Sebring Fowler and the former Mary Ludlow Powell. A lawyer, a single case in 1880 may have been responsible for Fowler's career changing directions. He represented William H Vanderbilt in his battle for control of the Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati & Indianapolis Railroad. In 1881, just months after moving into their new home, Fowler was elected director of the Chenango and Allegheny Railroad. By 1884 he was a director of the West Pennsylvania and Chenengo Connecting Railroads and of the New York, Ontario and Western. In 1886 he was elected president of the latter railroad.
|Thomas Powell Fowler - The Black Diamond, January 3, 1903 (copyright expired)
Fowler, of course, did not abruptly abandon his legal career. Interestingly, he not only represented industrial moguls like Vanderbilt; but what today would be deemed a "celebrity" clientele. On November 22, 1882, for instance, The New York Times reported "Mr. Thomas Powell Fowler, the legal adviser of Mrs. [Lily] Langtry, gave that lady a lunch yesterday afternoon at his residence, No. 39 East Sixty-eighth-street." The world-famous actress was not the only well-known theatrical name on the guest list. Oscar Wilde was there as well. The Times noted "Covers were laid for 12, and the menu was prepared by Pinard. The parlors were elaborately decorated with flowers."
A luncheon on November 23, the following year had a broad mixture of guests. The guest of honor was London railroad magnate James McHenry and among the guests were Lord and Lady Bury, artist Albert Bierstadt, novelist Bram Stoker (best known for his Dracula, published in 1897), publisher Charles Scribner and several military generals. The Times noted "Behind the palms in the drawing-room were placed large Louis Quatorze candelabras, lighted with red wax candles, producing a charming effect...Stub's orchestra played a selection of operatic music during the lunch, being hidden behind a mass of ferns and flowers."
The Fowlers' names routinely appeared on the passenger lists of steamships headed to Paris or London. But while at home, Isabelle, like all wealthy wives, involved herself in worthy projects. She was corresponding secretary for the Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged, Indigent Females in the City of New York, for instance.
As the turn of the century neared, her attention turned to her growing daughters and their debuts. She was no doubt infuriated when the New-York Tribune inexcusably transposed her daughter's middle and last names on December 13, 1899. "Mrs. Thomas Powell Fowler of No. 39 East Sixty-eighth-st., will give a reception at her home on Saturday afternoon next, December 16, to introduce her daughter, Miss Isabel Fowler Wilson."
Isabelle was among the socialites involved in running the Cotillion of Eighty. Originally a dancing class for privileged young women, it grew to include country parties, dances at places like Delmonico's, and theater parties. Isabelle routinely acted as a chaperon for the events.
The first of the Fowler children to marry was Isabel. Her engagement to Francis F. Palmer was announced in September 1903. The newlyweds moved into a mansion at No. 74 Riverside Drive. She would assist her mother in receiving the guests at Katherine's debutante dance at Delmonico's two years later. The Sun remarked on December 17, 1905 "The big ballroom was adorned with palms and flowers."
As Katherine's sisters grew into young womanhood, they slipped into their own social positions On January 21, 1906 the New-York Tribune reported "Mrs. Thomas Powell Fowler and the Misses Fowler will hold receptions on Tuesdays, January 23 and 30, at their home, No. 39 East 68th-st."
Eleanor was the next to make her debut. Following a reception in the house in December 1908 was followed by a dinner and theater party, "to which about forty young people were invited," wrote the New-York Tribune.
Katherine's marriage to Dunlevy Milbank in 1910 was quickly followed by Eleanor's wedding the following year. Like her sisters, her marriage to Albert F. Maurice took place in St. James's Protestant Episcopal Church on Madison Avenue.
By now the old brownstone house, a blend of Italianate and neo-Grec styles, was noticeably out of architectural fashion. In 1913 the Fowlers commissioned Fred H. Dodge to give it a significant facelift. The result, a six-story limestone-faced American basement mansion left no hint of its former self. The focus of the two-story rusticated base was not the understated entrance, but the piano nobile, or second floor. Here three sets of French doors, set within arched openings, were faced by stone balustraded balconettes. The nearly unadorned third through fifth floors featured exaggerated keystones which required no other ornamentation. The sixth floor took the form of a copper-sheathed mansard behind a stone balcony which was upheld by a bracketed cornice. Inside were 28 rooms and nine baths.
On June 27, 1915 The Sun reported that Isabelle had arrived at Tuxedo Park. By the end of the summer season she had joined Thomas at Belair. It was there, on October 12, that he died at the age of 64.
Isabelle lived on in the 68th Street house with her unmarried children. She and Ruth moved among society as a pair. On June 9, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported "Mrs. Thomas Powell Fowler and Miss Ruth D. Fowler have closed their home at 37 [sic] East Sixty-eighth Street, and are at their country place at Warwick, N.Y." Later that season, in September, the newspaper noted they had arrived at Lenox.
F. Dunning had by now moved to San Francisco. His brothers, Ludlow and Thomas drew little attention to themselves. Immediately upon graduating from Princeton University in 1917 Ludlow had served in the U.S. Navy during the war. In 1921 he graduated from New York University's Law School. When his engagement to Elsie Larned Blatchford was announced on April 5, 1926, The New York Times mentioned that he was "the brother of Thomas Powell Fowler of that address." The newlyweds moved into No. 39 with the Fowler family.
Entertainments in the house focused most often on charitable works, such as the annual Lenten sewing classes of the Greer Club, an organization founded in 1920 "to maintain a residence for girl students and serve as a community centre for young people of the Episcopalian faith." It was possibly his consideration of the privacy of his family that prompted Thomas to hold his entertainments elsewhere. When he hosted a dinner on July 18, 1928, for instance,it was held at the Ritz-Carlton.
Ludlow was a respected attorney with Battle, Levy & Newman in 1939 when he became one of several victims of scam artist Paul Finkelstein. The 30-year old walked into the law office and claimed he could provide choice liquors at $15 a case below than the market price. Fowler was impressed and gave Finkelstein $100 (more in the neighborhood of $1,760 today). "He instructed the caller to deliver the goods at his up-State home," wrote The New York Times on November 4, 1939.
A few days later Finkelstein returned to the office, telling Fowler the truck had overturned, sending the prized booze onto the pavement. But he assured him that he would replace the order, and slickly managed to increase it by another $85. It was the last Fowler heard of Finkelstein until he was arrested on Fowler's complaint.
Perhaps not wanting his name linked to excessive drinking, Fowler gave his name as Ludlow S. Flolet, while correctly listing his 68th Street address. At the time of Finkelstein's arrest The Times noted "The police said they learned of other victims and that the man had a 'sucker list,' in his pocket."
At mid-century the third generation of Fowlers were coming of age at No. 39 East 68th Street. Katherine and Dunlevy Milbank sold their lavish mansion at No. 1026 Fifth Avenue and moved back into the Fowler house where they had started their married lives. And following Francis Palmer's death, Isabel and her son, George moved in.
On January 27 1951 Ludlow S. Fowler, Jr. was married to Elinor Alice Michaelsen. The ceremony took place in St. James's Church, where his aunts had been married and where his grandparents' funerals had taken place. George Palmer's engagement to Elizabeth Jackaman was announced on October 9, 1959.
One week later, on October 16, Dunlevy Milbank died at the age of 81. He left Katherine one-half of his estate, including their Charleston, South Carolina, home. The Presbyterian Hospital received $1 million and Yale University was left a $250,000 bequest.
The following year, on August 11, Ruth Dunning Fowler died in the house where she was born 83 years earlier. Ludlow died on April 12, 1961. Somewhat shockingly, Ludlow S. Fowler, Jr.'s wedding took place in the house the following month, on May 27. It was a striking breach of mourning protocol and The Times noted "Because of the recent death of the bridegroom's father, only the immediate families attended the ceremony."
Katherine was the last of the Fowlers to occupy No. 39. On April 13, 1967 The New York Times reported "Mrs. Katherine Fowler Milbank, a patron of music and a benefactor of young working women here, died of a heart attack yesterday morning in the East Side town house in which she was born 82 years ago, on March 4, 1885." The article added "The six-story, whitestone house at 39 East 68th Street, where Mrs. Milbank lived all her life, was a wedding present to her mother and father in 1876." Like almost all of the religious events in the family, her funeral was held in St. James's Episcopal Church. She and Dunlevy had donated its spire bells and carillon in memory of her parents; and the cross was a memorial to Ludlow.
In November 1967 the house was sold to attorney Roy Marcus Cohn for $325,000 cash--around $2.4 million today. Cohn lived in the upper floors and moved his law offices, Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, into the house. Cohn had made himself a household name as the chief counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, as a U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor in the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and as corporate lawyer for a budding Donald J. Trump.
It was not long before Cohn's name appeared in the press for unflattering reasons. On November 23, 1968 The Times reported "Roy M. Cohn was indicted yesterday on charges of wire and mail fraud, and of conspiring to pay a state court official $75,000 to obtain favorable results in suits...A 10-count indictment returned by a Federal grand jury here also charged Mr. Cohn, a lawyer-financier, with filing false reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
When Donald Trump was charged by the Justice Department of violating the Fair Housing Act in 1973 (it alleged he "made false 'no vacancy' statements to African Americans for apartments), Cohn represented the developer in a $100 million countersuit against the Government. It called the charges "irresponsible and baseless." He lost the countersuit and settled out of court. Another of Cohn's highly-visible clients was Rupert Murdock.
Federal investigators charged Cohn three times in the 1970's and '80's with misconduct, including witness tampering and perjury. But his real problems began in April 1986 when he was sued by the Federal Government for $7 million in income taxes, interest and penalties. The New York Times, on April 4, said it was the climax of an "unusually long tax dispute between the Internal Revenue Service and Mr. Cohn, who has represented many well-known clients, ranging from millionaire developers to reputed mobsters."
Cohn denied he owned either No. 39 East 68th Street or his Greenwich, Connecticut country home and called the charges "a pile of baloney." Nevertheless he was soon disbarred for unethical conduct. Before the case could be settled, Cohn died of AIDS on August 2, 1986 at the age of 59. Aware that his death was imminent, the embittered lawyer intended to get posthumous revenge over the Government. Roger Stone was quoted by The New Yorker journalist Jeffrey Toobin saying, "He told me his absolute goal was to die completely broke and owing millions to the I.R.S. He succeeded in that."
On October 15, 1987 No. 39 was sold for $3.7 million "with most of the money being held under court order pending the outcome of an income-tax case," as reported by The Times. It was the end of a colorful chapter in the house, which continues as a single-family residence today.
photographs by the author