Friday, December 21, 2018

The William M. Benjamin House - 127 East 69th Street

Among the most prolific of the developers who transformed the Upper East Side from open land to residential neighborhoods in the years following the Civil War was Christopher Keyes.  In 1872 he hired architect John Sexton to design a row of eleven 20-foot wide brownstone houses on the northern side of East 69th Street, stretching to the corner of Lexington Avenue.

Completed in 1873, No. 127 like its neighbors was four stories tall above a high English basement.  It became home to the family of Max Abenheim, principal of Max Abenheim & Co., "grain and provisions" firm at Nos. 2 and 4 Stone Street.

It appears that Abenheim had slightly altered his surname when he first arrived in New York.  In 1877 he took out a $20,000 mortgage on the house with Abenheimer Bros, of Baden, German.  The amount of the mortgage, equal to about $485,000 today, hints at the original purchase price. 

Among the Abenheim children was Sidney, whose teen-age hobby was coin collecting.  He placed an advertisement in Harper's Young People on November 2, 1880 that read "I would like to exchange rare stamps for foreign or United States coins with any readers of YOUNG PEOPLE."   He would not be the only occupant of No. 127 over the years to have a serious interest in coins.

Three years later Sidney enrolled in Columbia College and joined his father's business.  The ambitious young man would hold directorships in mining and railroad companies and even invented a shoe polishing machine in 1892.

By then Max Abenheim & Co. had branched out into tobacco exporting.  And following Abenheim's death Sidney and his brother, Max, Jr., who ran the firm as co-partners, focused only on tobacco.

In July 1894 Abenheim's heirs sold No. 127 to real estate operator Julia Friend, who leased it until 1903 when she sold the house to William Hartman Woodin, head of the American Car and Foundry Company.  A bizarre accident earlier in the year nearly prevented the transaction.

The Woodin country home was upstate.  On January 8, 1903 a local newspaper reported "William H. Woodin, a prominent resident of Oneonta, was struck by a train this noon on the Delaware and Hudson Railroad at Cooperstown Junction.  He is still alive and may recover."

Woodin, of course, did recover and moved his family into the 69th Street house.  He and his wife, the former Annie Jessup, had two daughters, Mary Louise and Anne Jessup.  Like Sidney Abenheim, Woodin was interested in rare coins--but his fortune took the hobby to a nearly unparalleled level.

In 1909 Woodin's purchase of two coins drew international attention.  On June 6 The Sun reported "Two unique United States gold coins of the denomination of $50, each of different design, which have long been regarded as the rarest coins in the world by American coin collectors, were purchased a few days ago by William H. Woodin of this city at a figure for each which by far exceeds all record high premiums paid for any coin ever sold."

Each of the coins was one-of-a-kind; the only examples struck.  The Sun explained "They never emerged from the experimental stage."  Minted in 1877, they were put away at the United States mint and had never been brought out since.  Although the exact price for each coin was not disclosed, it was announced that it exceeded the previous record of $6,200, making the lowest possible price for both in the neighborhood of $345,000 today.

Excitement was aroused within the numismatic community when Woodin decided to sell part of his collection in 1911 at an auction at the Collectors' Club.  On March 5 The New York Times remarked "The Woodin collection of three-dollar gold pieces is said to be the finest and the only complete one of this denomination ever offered at public sale."  The collection brought $16,862 (nearly $450,000 today).

Woodin's recognized expertise in coins and coin design came into play in 1914 when a movement to improve silver coinage took hold.  Proponents pointed out that the current designs were easily worn down with use.  When the Federal Government was urged to form a special committee to address the issue in December 1914, The New York Times reported "It is probable that William H. authority on United States pattern coins, will be the Chairman of this committee."

(Woodin, incidentally, would be appointed Secretary of the Treasury by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.)

William H. Woodin - from the collection of the Library of Congress
While her husband focused on building railroad cars and coin collecting, Annie Woodin had been busy grooming two future socialites.  In November 1911 she gave a tea to introduce Mary Louise to society.  The New York Times noted "The tea will be followed by a dinner and theatre party."

Anne's turn came in November 1914, the year that her sister graduated from Bryn Mawr College.  Anne's coming out began with an evening reception in the house on November 24, followed by "a dinner and informal dancing."

The Woodins began construction on a new summer home in Easthampton, Long Island in the spring of 1916.  The residence, designed by society architect Grosvenor Atterbury, cost the equivalent of $925,000 today.

The United States involvement in World War I and the prospect of deployment sparked a sense of urgency in many romances.  On April 14, 1918 The Sun reported that "News was received here last week of the marriage on April 6 of Miss Mary L. Woodin, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William H. Woodin of 127 East Sixty-ninth street, to Lieut. Charles Miner, 109th Field Artillery, U.S.A."  The couple had been married near Camp Hancock, Georgia where the groom was stationed.  "Miss Woodin's engagement was not announced until a short time before the wedding," said the article.

The following year, in December, Anne would be married to Colonel Olin F. Harvey.  Nine months earlier her parents had sold No. 127 and moved to No. 752 Park Avenue.

The transaction was both convoluted and a bit sneaky.  In March 1919 the house was sold to Foot & Martin, Inc., which almost immediately resold it to "a client of Ruland, Whiting & Benjamin," one of the leading real estate firms in the city.  That client was the Etagloe Holding Company, of which William Massena Benjamin, was president (he was, as well, president of Ruland, Whiting & Benjamin).

Benjamin, using the name of Etagloe Holding Company, hired architect S. Edson Gage to completely remodel the outdated Victorian into a modern residence.  Gage removed the stoop and moved the facade forward to the property line.

The remodeled house was highly unusual among Manhattan rowhouses.  Gage produced a 20th century take on 18th century Adam style architecture  The variegated Flemish bond brick was trimmed in stone.  The design was dominated by the over-sized arch that rose from the elegant entrance.  The slightly-recessed double-doored entrance was fronted by classical columns and pilasters that upheld an entablature decorated with Adamesque swags and garlands.

Delightful Juliette balconies clung to the third floor openings.  The paneled lintels of the fourth floor windows were carved with leaves and flowers.  Behind a stone balustrade the mansard level featured brick dormers with similar paneled lintels.

Benjamin and his wife, the former Charlotte Hoffman Prime, had six children: Sarah Morris, Charlotte Prime, Elizabeth Fish, Julia Kean, Samuel Nicoll, and William Hoffman Benjamin.  Two years after moving in another son, Hamilton Fish, would be born.

William Benjamin came from a distinguished New York family, and was related to the socially and politically eminent Fish family.  His grandfather was Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State in the Ulysses S. Grant administration.  The family's summer estate was at Garrison-on-Hudson. 

While he was a member of some of the most exclusive men's social clubs--among them the St. Nicholas Society, the Union Club, the Downtown, and the St. Anthony--he seems to have been more passionate about his membership in sporting clubs.  The New York Times later said he was "a keen sportsman, particularly fond of hunting and fishing"  He was president of the Triton Club of Canada and a member of the Boone and Crockett Club, founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887.

Perhaps to prevent any problems with the title of the house later in life, on May 1, 1922 the Etagloe Holding Company sold No. 127 to Charlotte.  It was a move that would prove wise before very long.

In the winter of 1928 William Benjamin became ill.  In hopes that a warmer climate would improve his health, he left New York for a cruise along with Charlotte and two of their daughters.   When his condition worsened, they disembarked in San Juan where Benjamin was hospitalized.  The 54-year-old died there on February 15.

Somewhat surprisingly, the engagement of Elizabeth to William Lawrence McLane was announced by her mother just two months later.   Nevertheless, no doubt because the family was in mourning, The New York Times noted that "No date has been set for the wedding."

Julia's engagement to Lieutenant Joseph Farrell Haskell of the U.S. Army was announced in December the following year; but it was soon broken "by mutual consent."  So when Charlotte announced the couple would be married in the 69th Street house in January 1932, The Times said "News of the approaching marriage will come as a surprise to members of society."

Charlotte's life was consumed with engagements and debutante entertainments as the years passed.  The year after Julia's home wedding, Emily was introduced to society with a dinner in the house on January 6, 1933.  Charlotte then hosted her guests at a performance of the play 20th Century at the Broadhurst Theatre.

Emily's engagement to Charles Arthur Richards, Jr. was announced in January 1934; but like Julia's first engagement, it did not last.  On October 4, 1935 Charlotte announced that it had been "terminated by mutual consent."  And, like her sister, the rift was repaired.  On April 11, 1936 the date for the couple's wedding, June 5, was announced.

Sarah was next to enter the spotlight.  Her debut came in the form of a dinner and dance in the Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel on December 10, 1937.  Her engagement to Alan Anderson was announced on February 2, 1939.  Following closely behind was Mary, whose engagement to Eric Sinclaire Purdon was announced by Charlotte in August 1940.

Charlotte's maternal responsibilities were not over.  The following year the engagement of Samuel, who was now a Lieutenant in the Air Corps, to Joan Oakey was announced.  His wedding took plate the following year in Montebello, California.  The Times noted "At the reception the bride cut the wedding cake with a saber awarded to the bridegroom at Gunter Field for outstanding military achievement."

Although Charlotte Benjamin lived on to the age of 88, dying in September 1969 at Garrison, she sold the 69th Street house to Dr. Emanuel Joseph in 1944.  The physician converted the house to ten apartments, one of which, on the first floor, he retained for his own home and office.  His unmarried nurse, Frances Ormsby, occupied the topmost floor.

On the afternoon of March 11, 1946 Frances rushed into the office saying that burglars were in her apartment.  The doctor picked up a heavy iron bar and headed upstairs.   Frances had been right.  Five teen-agers were in the act of looting her apartment.

As Joseph rushed up the stairs, he encountered the boys carrying the booty in a blanket.  The New York Times reported "He told police...that he knocked two of the youths unconscious and held a third at bay with the bar."  The other two escaped.  The oldest of the trio was 15 years old.  They were declared delinquents in Children's Court and remanded to the Youth House for sentencing.

Joseph was drawn into a case of intrigue and civic spying in 1949.  Two men appeared at the house and identified themselves as telephone workers who needed to check wiring.  They were, in fact, former Treasury Department agent Edward M. Jones and former detective Kenneth Ryan, who were now working for private investigator John G. Broady.  Broady was in turn hired by Clendenin J. Ryan, an opponent of Mayor William O'Dwyer.  They installed a wiretap intended to pick up the telephone conversations from the home of Manhattan Borough President and Tammany Hall leader Hugo Rogers.

Soon afterward Detective Joseph Popp discovered a wire tap device in the Rogers house.  That led to the uncovering "of the Sixty-ninth Street listening post."  Popp cautioned Dr. Joseph to be on the lookout for any fake telephone company employees.

Only a couple hours later Ryan and Jones returned for their routine "check-up."  Despite Popp's warnings, Joseph acted naively, telling them that he had been told to watch for bogus telephone men.  Joseph later testified "They went off in a great lather."  Despite a stake-out of No. 127, the police were unable to catch the suspects in the act due to Joseph's unthinking blabbering.

No. 127 was sold in July 1954.  The former doctor's office soon became home to the Burden Littell Bureau, an organization active in promoting benefits for organizations like the Turtle Bay Music School.  It would remain in the space at least through 1962.  In the 1970's it was home to the art gallery Carlton.

A subsequent renovation in 1988 resulted in medical offices in the basement and first floor, one apartment on the second, a duplex on the third and fourth, and one apartment in the mansard level.  The altered residence has since been home to recognized names like Leigh Keno, American antiques dealer whose face became familiar to viewers of Antiques Roadshow.

photographs by the author


  1. Allegedly Audrey Hepburn stayed here for a bit while filming "Breakfast at Tiffany," any evidence on record to confirm this? Whoever wrote this, I'd love to hear from you on this!

  2. "Whoever wrote this" is me (note the left column). I can find no documentation of Hepburn staying here; which is not to say that she definitely did or did not.