Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The 1894 Lincoln McCormack House - 311 West 74th Street

photograph via observer.com

The New York Orphan Asylum, erected in 1840, engulfed the entire block between 74th and 75th Streets from Riverside Drive to West End Avenue.  As rapid development engulfed the site, the Orphan Asylum Society offered the valuable property for sale in 1893.

Eight side-by-side plots were purchased by what the Real Estate Record & Builder's Guide deemed "a syndicate of eight gentlemen who will built homes for themselves."  To ensure architectural cohesion the property owners agreed to hire a single architect, C. P. H. Gilbert who was well-known for his mansion designs.  He was among the most prolific of the architects working in the Riverside Drive neighborhood.

No. 311 was erected by attorney Lincoln McCormack.  The four-story home was faced in yellow Roman brick and trimmed in limestone.  A one-story rounded bay rose from behind a faux balcony above the flat-faced parlor level.  It provided a balcony to the third floor.

McCormack and his wife, Victoria Alexander, had three children, Lincoln, Jr., Ethel and Madge.  Like other well-to-do families, they spent their summers away.  And like other businessmen, Lincoln spent the bulk of his week in the city, joining his family on weekends and for periodic longer stays.  On July 12, 1896 The New York Times remarked that among the "prominent arrivals" at Saranac Lake, New York the day before were Victoria and the children.

On March 1, 1898 McCormack sold No. 311 to paper manufacturer Augustus Gibbons Paine, Jr.  He was the president and a director in the Highland Paper Co., and a director in the International Pulp Co., the New York and Pennsylvania Co., the Staten Island Midland Ry. Co., and the Mercantile National Bank.  Paine and his wife, the former Maud Eustis Potts, maintained a country estate, Flat Rock Camp in Willsboro, New York.  The couple had five children--Augustus Gibson III, George, Alexander, Hugh and Peter.

C. P. H. Gilbert's row flows together as a near unit.

Paine was a co-conspirator with former Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed and Dr. Clarence C. Rice in a practical joke against author Samuel Clemens in July 1901.  The four men had been invited by Standard Oil magnate Henry H. Rogers on jaunt to Nova Scotia on his yacht, the Kanawa.  

The plot against Clemens was hatched while he suffered a bout of seasickness on July 21.  The ship's log noted that day, "All well on board, except the literary one and he's doing the best he can."  The other men had long been puzzled by the author's seemingly neurotic need to carry an umbrella with him wherever he went.  He used it as a carrying case, and on this trip it held "one individual toothbrush, cake of scented soap, one pair of button gaiters, one bottle of restorer, box of dominoes, schedule of legal cab hire rates, MSS., galluses and much miscellaneous loot," according to the log.

Clemens's well-heeled friends dropped his umbrella into the ocean.  The Minnesota newspaper The Saint Paul Globe reported on September 29, "Mr. Clemens didn't get away from the lee rail and the ground swell until long after his umbrella had gone overboard, and then nobody dared tell him what had happened.  But by and by he discovered that something had."

Rogers later told a reporter "It was a pitiful scene.  At first he thought he had simply mislaid it, and he searched the ship from stem to stern.  Dr. Rice and Speaker Reed had to use force to prevent him from going aloft to peek into the crow's nest."  Clemens bribed a crew member to look in the crow's next, then posted a reward offer in the forecastle.

The lost umbrella became the author's obsession and he spent the next few days and nights searching for it.  Rogers related "He lost all appetite.  Finally, on the advice of Dr. Rice, we decided to cut the cruise short, and we came back to New York at top speed."

When the yacht docked, Clemens was the first man ashore and he sped off to buy a replacement umbrella.  Henry Rogers said "we heard him telling a cabman to get to Sixth avenue before the store closed."

The cruise was by no means the first time Thomas Brackett Reed and Augustus G. Paine had met.  In fact, they were intimate, life-long friends.  When the former Speaker died in Washington DC on December 6 the following year, Paine was at his bedside.  And he was with Reed's family aboard the special train that transported the body to Portland, Maine for burial.

The Paines sold No. 311 to wealthy real estate operator Otis A. Mygatt and his wife, Sarah, in September 1904.  (Interestingly, when Paine later erected his home at No. 31 East 69th Street, he turned to C. P. H. Gilbert to design it, the first of several projects between the two.)

As the Mygatts prepared for an extended trip in July 1905, they placed an advertisement in the New-York Tribune in hopes of finding a position for their cook.  "Family, leaving for Europe, wish to recommend colored cook; first class in every way; $35 a month."  The salary would equal about $1,000 per month today.

Otis and Sarah Mygatt did not remain especially long at No. 311.  They sold it to Mortimer Merritt Singer and his wife, the former Marjorie Gwinn.  Singer was the grandson of Isaac Merritt Singer, the head of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

The family found their household increased by one in 1909.   Singer's sister, Josephine, was married to wealthy stockbroker Robert Chambers.  The couple had one son, Robert, Jr.  

Chambers died on February 7, 1909 and Josephine died nine months later.  Mortimer became guardian of the 14-year old boy, who inherited his father's substantial estate along with his mother's large Singer Sewing Machine holdings.  The estate totaled $23.5 million today.

In February 1910 Singer went to court for permission to spend $6,500 a year of the boy's inheritance.  His attorney explained "his nephew, who is attending Berkeley School. needed the money asked for to keep him in the manner to which he was accustomed."   Robert also wanted to purchased his mother's "miniature brougham and harness" for sentimental reasons.

The carriage became a point of contention.  The expense to maintain it, along with the salary of the "old coachman who has been in the family thirty-five years," according to court documents, would be $2,500 a year.   The court referee was concerned that owning the horses and carriage "will take out of his life all desire for the sports of boys, sports which develop the muscle, brain and mind of all boys, and make them at majority the equal mentality and physically of any boys in the world."

But a month of back-and-forth arguments softened his opinion.  On March 6 he told the judge, "Here is a little chap of 14, who loses his father in February and his mother in November.  He has to leave the house he was born in and to go live with his aunt.  The only things remaining with which to link his past with his present loneliness are these horses and carriage of his mother."  Robert was permitted to buy the carriage.

As Lincoln McCormack had done, Singer remained in New York while his family left for resorts.  On March 15, 1914 The Sun reported that Marjorie and daughters Elizabeth and Catherine had arrived at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, "for the baths" during Lent.

Marjorie was active in charitable works and was secretary of the American Female Guardian Society and Home for the Friendless.  Her daughters joined her in the organization as they came of age. 

The Singers did not own a country home, preferring to patronize the high-end resort hotels.  Society columns followed the family's movements.  The New York Herald, for instance, reported on August 5, 1921 that "Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer M. Singer and the Misses Singer of New York, who have been at Chatham Bars Inn for several weeks, arrived to-day to spend August at the Profile House," in Profile, New Hampshire.

1926 was a momentous year for the Singer household.  The engagement of Catharine to Randolph Holladay II was announced on August 27, three months before the wedding day of her sister, Elizabeth, to Herbert D. Lancaster.

Catharine was her sister's maid of honor on November 6, 1926.  The ceremony took place in the fashionable St. Thomas's Church on Fifth Avenue, the same church where the Mortimer and Marjorie had been married.

Catharine's wedding, however, did not come to pass.  Seven years later her parents announced her engagement to Charles Edward Eastman.  Her wedding took place in St. James's Church on Madison Avenue on June 26, 1933.

By now the Singers had purchased a home in Rye, New York.  They became visible members of Westchester society, entertaining at the Westchester Country Club and at home.  They, nevertheless, still enjoyed resort hotels and on August 27, 1936 The New York Times reported that they "entertained at a clambake today," in Poland Spring, Maine.

Despite their advancing ages, the couple seems to have led an active lifestyle.  Three months after the clambake they hosted five other couples at the Army-Notre Dame football game in Yankee Stadium, following by a tea dance in the Louise Sherry Room of Sherry's.

In April 1938 the Singers moved permanently to their Westchester home.  In reporting on the sale The New York Times mentioned "this was its first sale since 1909."  It became home to Mrs. Stella Williams.

In 1954 George Wein created the Newport Jazz Festival.  He founded Festival Productions in 1960 and in 1974 he purchased No. 311 for $100,000 as its offices.  While desks and telephones were moved in, the interior elements were preserved.  

Wein lived around the corner at No. 33 Riverside Drive.  He later admitted he also used the house for his wine storage space.  Wein told a reporter from the Observer in 2007 that "the building regularly saw visitors that included jazz icons like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis."

Wein sold the house in 2007 to Andrew and Alla Bares.   The couple never moved in (they had a home in Chelsea and another in upstate New York), but updated the interiors and put it back on the market for $9.98 million in May 2009.   It did not sell until May 2011 at a reduced price of $8.55 million.  The buyer, George Evans, was the English-born senior vice-president and director of equities at OppenheimerFunds.

In the meantime, it did had not sat totally unused.  It had been used for shooting "Law & Order," for photo shoots for Armani and Redbook, for scenes from the film The Necklace, and a cooking show "Fresh Food Fast."

The McCormack's cook would not recognize the kitchen.
photographs via Observer.com
The McCormack house has survived more than 120 years without being converted to apartments.  One wonders if the tradition has hopes of continuing.


  1. I believe the house in the photograph is 307 West 74th, not 311. I also believe that, in the orphanage photo, it is the last house you can see before the row of houses disappears behind the orphanage. 311 would be two houses to the left, next to the taller house.

    1. Whoa! Thanks for catching that inexcusable error. Correctd

  2. The mansion featured in this blog was built on the grounds of the Orphan Asylum.
    The mansions in the orphanage photo are similar in appearance but different buildings than the 311 row, which had not yet been erected.