Friday, January 11, 2019

A Skinny House With a Notable Past - 125 East 36th Street

As the Murray Hill neighborhood developed with fine brick and brownstone faced homes, speculators Kennedy & Haw erected five rowhouses on the north side of East 36th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues.  The Italianate-style residences exhibited the handsome architectural accouterments of upscale homes: pedimented doorways, molded lintels and bracketed sills, and stylish cornices.  Nevertheless Kennedy & Haw scrimped on the square footage.  At just 14 feet wide, the houses were significantly narrower that their more commodious neighbors.  The developers managed to create a fifth house on a property where other operators might have placed four.

Completed around 1856, the house numbered 125 was sold to Margaretta L. Brown.  It would not be until the 1870's that a resident of note, Dr. Austin Flint, Jr., arrived at the address.

Born in 1836, Flint had graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1857.  His father, Austin Flint, Sr. a physiologist and educator, had helped found Bellevue Medical College.  In 1862 he married the former Elizabeth B. McMaster.  The couple would have four children, one of which was also named Austin Flint and became the fifth in the direct line of Flint physicians.

Dr. Austin Flint, Jr.  original source unknown, photo via
By 1871 both father and son were attending physicians at Bellevue.  In 1874 the younger Flint was appointed Surgeon General of New York.  While he was an expert on diseases of the organs, writing, for instance, the six-volume Chemical Examinations of Urine in Diseases, and Experiments Regarding a New Function of the Liver, he increasingly focused on physical fitness as a component of good health.

In the summer of 1873 he helped found and became the first president of the National Amateur Gymnastic and Athletic Tournament Association.  Its published goals were the "fostering and developing a taste for all athletic exercises tending to a higher order of physical culture."

By May 1897, when the Flints leased their first cottage in Newport (The New York Times mentioned "though frequent visitors to Newport, [they] have never been cottagers, though they are well known in society.") they had left East 36th Street.   The house was owned for a time by Sarah W. Swords, who sold it for $30,000 to the recently-widowed Ruth D. Draper in April 1902.  The sale price would be equal to about $882,000 today.

Ruth was the daughter of Charles Anderson Dana, author, former Assistant Secretary of War during the Civil War, and editor and part-owner of The Sun.  Her husband, Dr. William H. Draper had died a year earlier, on April 26, 1901.  Her purchase of No. 125 knocked over the first domino in what would be an astounding string of occupants with close-knit relationships.

Ruth Draper had become close to the extended Roosevelt family through her husband's friendship with Theodore Roosevelt.  Four years earlier The Sun had reported on the annual dinner of the Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett Club.  The newspaper explained that the 75 members who attended were "fond of hunting big game."  "It was expected that Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, who is acknowledged by his fellow members to be the most daring hunter of the club would be present, but he wasn't able to leave Washington."  Among those who did attend were Dr. William K. Draper, and J. P. Morgan (who lived just down the block from Ruth's new home). 

Also at the dinner was Dr. Alexander Lambert.  It is notable that he was also among those who attended Draper's 1901 funeral.  He was by then was the personal physician of Roosevelt.

If Ruth Draper intended to move into the 36th Street house, she changed her mind.  Instead she leased it to Dr. Lambert and his wife.  Lambert was nationally-known at the time, partly because of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.'s brush with death a few months earlier.  On February 10, 1902 the doctor was summoned to Groton, Massachusetts where the young man's chances of recovering from double pneumonia were questionable, despite being attended to by two physicians.

The New-York Tribune reported "This sudden and unfavorable turn warned the President that the most skillful medical treatment was necessary, and so to-night he called to the aid of Dr. Shattuck and Warren his family physician, Dr. Alexander Lambert, of New-York, an eminent practitioner and a man well acquainted with the boy's physique."

Young Roosevelt did, of course, recover.  On February 12 the New-York Tribune reported on his improvement, saying "At an early hour this morning [the President] left the house to visit and patient and escort his wife to breakfast.  Dr. Alexander Lambert, of New-York, whom the President summoned yesterday to attend his son, was the first to greet him and tell him the favorable news."

Dr. Lambert in uniform during World War I when he served as Medical Advisor.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
The terrifying incident may have enhanced the already close relationship between Lambert and Roosevelt.  The Lamberts were regular guests at Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelt's country estate in Oyster Bay, Long Island.  And in September 1904, when Theodore, Jr. embarked on a moose hunting expedition to Canada before going back to college, he took along Lambert.  The Sun reported on September 15 "On the hunt he will be in the company of Dr. Alexander Lambert of New York, an expert shot and an experienced moose hunter.  Dr. Lambert was a house guest at Sagamore Hill a few days ago and while there he practised with Teddy at rifle shooting."

The Lamberts were guests of the Roosevelts not only at Sagamore Hill.  Earlier that year, on January 28, the New-York Tribune reported on a state dinner given by the First Family for the members of the Supreme Court.  Also attending were Dr. and Mrs. Lambert, whom the newspaper described as the Roosevelts' house guests.

Dr. Lambert's accompanying Teddy to Canada to hunt moose paled in comparison to the bear hunt with the President in the spring of 1905.  The month-long vacation through the West and Southwest began on April 3.  The New-York Tribune reported that along on the expedition was Dr. Alexander Lambert.  Newspapers nationwide followed the party's progress and photographs documented the hunt.
Dr. Lambert (foreground), the President and P. B. Stewart (right) in bear country. from the collection of the Library of Congress 
Like the President, Lambert was a true sportsman, well accustomed to the out-of-doors.  On May 6, the last day of the trip, he and Roosevelt, accompanied by the President's courier, P. B. Stewart, rode 30 miles on horseback.  The New-York Tribune reported the following day that the party had killed ten bears and four bobcats.  "Of the bears killed the President shot four and Dr. Lambert the others."

Although he was far away, drinking coffee brewed on an open fire from a tin cup and shooting game, Lambert had been negotiating a permanent home.  (Although in all reality it was most likely his wife who did all the footwork.)  On the very day that he rode the 30 miles on horseback, The Sun reported that he had purchased No 36 East 31st Street.

The Draper house, suddenly available, became the interest of another Roosevelt.  Franklin D. Roosevelt had grown up a block away, at No. 200 Madison Avenue at 35th Street.   A month before the Roosevelt-Lambert bear expedition he had married his fifth cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of the President.  Franklin's mother, Sarah, still lived at No. 200.  This branch of the family, too, were close friends of Ruth Draper.

In her 2007 FDR, Jean Edward Smith reveals that while on their honeymoon, the newlyweds lobbied Sarah to try to obtain No. 125 for them.  She quotes a portion of a letter from Franklin to his mother saying "It is just the right situation and size for us" and Eleanor added separately  "you are an angel to take so much trouble about the house, but I am glad you are going to see it and I do hope you will take it if it is possible."  Sarah did get the house, which she leased from Ruth Draper for the couple.

(Ruth, incidentally, was living with her her unmarried children at the time at No. 18 East 8th Street, near her childhood home on East 9th Street.  Their summer home was in Dutchess County.)

The Roosevelts' stay at No. 125 was always intended to be temporary.  At Christmas that year Sarah announced that she was building a townhouse for them, a "Christmas present from Mama."  (In the end it would be a double-mansion, half for herself--all the better to maintain control.)  Nevertheless the couple was here from 1905 through 1908--long enough for James and Anna to be born.  Reportedly Franklin called No. 125 his "fourteen foot mansion."

When the Roosevelts moved out, Ruth Draper's daughter Martha moved in  She was highly active in social issues, serving on the governing board of the Consumer's League of New York City, and sitting on the board of the Department Store Education Association.

photo by Wurts Bros., taken on December 14, 1949.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The latter organization was formed in 1914 by Anne Morgan.  The daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan, she had grown up at the corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue, a block north of Sarah Roosevelt's house.  The association had the goal "of developing salesmanship as a skilled occupation for women."

Attorney and politician William Traverse Jerome followed Martha Draper at No. 125 East 36th Street.  A partner in Jerome, Rand & Kresel, he was a cousin of Jennie Jerome, now Lady Churchill and the mother of Winston Churchill.  Jerome was married to the former Lavinia Taylor Howe.  They had one son, William Travers Jersome, Jr.  Their country home was in Yonkers.

Jerome had been New York County District Attorney from 1902 to 1909, had served on the State's Lexow Committee which ferreted out and prosecuted corruption in the police force, and was highly effective in fighting illegal gambling.  Jerome's passion to stamp out corruption and vice early in his career was highly influenced by the then Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt.

Mary Cummings, in her Saving Sin City, wrote "Jerome had watched from the sidelines as Theodore Roosevelt, Mayor Strong's choice to head the new city Police Board, set about enforcing every one of the city's blue laws, chasing down Sunday beer drinkers and casual card players and alienating ordinary New Yorkers who liked their beer, sex and cards."

Nevertheless, their identical goals clashed.  "Though he and Roosevelt had much in common--upper-class backgrounds, triumph over youthful frailty by sheer force of will, intelligence, audacity, inexhaustible energy and high political goals--a strong sense of rivalry was inevitable," according to Cummings.  Jerome came to dislike Roosevelt, considering him "laurel-grabbing."

Standing out among all his accomplishments in his long career was a single, famous court case.  It was Jerome who successfully prosecuted Harry K. Thaw, sending him to prison for the murder of Stanford White.

William Traverse Jerome - photograph by Pirie Macdonald from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In January 1934 both William and Lavinia caught colds while at the Yonkers residence.  While she remained, he returned to New York.  After suffering from pneumonia for two weeks, William Traverse Jerome died in the 36th Street house on February 13 at the age of 75.  His obituary in The New York Times engulfed half a page of print.  A private funeral was held in the house two days later.

No. 125 became home to socialite Mrs. Stewart Elliot, who sold it to Herbert J Smythe, senior partner in the law firm of Wellman & Smythe, in June of 1950.   Smythe maintained a summer home in Stony Brook, Long Island where he was a governor of the Long Island Senior Golf Association.

The widowed attorney may have surprised society when he married Barbara G. Dawson, widow of Federal Judge Archie O. Dawson, on December 17, 1965.  The wedding was performed in the 36th Street house.

Much of the interior detailing beautifully survives.  photos via
A much different resident came along in 1977 in the form of Fanny Farkas who opened her Murray Hill School of Cooking in her kitchen.  Born in Sweden, she accepted up to eight students per class, who paid $120 for six lessons.  The New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton noted on September 1, 1977 "This is not the most precise and exacting of courses.  The menus include dishes that are interesting to serve at parties.  There is some emphasis on Hungarian dishes here, along with the general European mix...This is a good course for beginners."

Despite the intimate conditions, or perhaps because of them, Farkas's cooking school thrived.  Three years later Sheraton reported on it again.  On September 10, 1980 she wrote "Courses are held in a fully equipped basement brownstone kitchen which has just undergone renovation.  It has a center counter and seating at a dining table.  Full participation is encouraged."

Three of the original row survive intact (No. 125 is at right).
New owners restored the house in the 1980's.  In 1994 it received the Murray Hill Architectural Award from the Murray Hill Landmarks Committee in recognition of the "outstanding renovation work."  The skinny house with its broad history continues as a single family residence.

photographs by the author

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