Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Ralph Pulitzer House - 17 East 73rd Street

Someone thought it would be a good idea to paint the limestone at the entrance level gray.  It wasn't.
Although only steps from Fifth Avenue and Central Park, the ten brownstone residences erected by developer James E. Coburn on the north side of East 73rd Street in 1871 were not mansions.  For the time being Manhattan's wealthiest citizens were content to live below 57th Street.  But they hinted at things to come.

At least one of them, No. 17, replaced an earlier, simpler home.  On April 24, 1869 an advertisement in the New York Herald had offered "To Let--A three story high stoop house."  Now, on September 6, 1875, an ad in the same newspaper touted:

For Sale--That New and Well Built House, No. 17 East Seventy-third street; hard wood finish; 22x60; four stories and basement.

Designed by J. W. Marshall, it and the rest of the row were aimed at more affluent owners--such as Ernst August Roesler, who would live here.  Born in Germany in 1844, he and his wife, the former Clara Mueller, had a daughter Ottilie.

Following Clara's death in 1883 Roesler married Augusta Koehler.  The couple had another daughter, Therese Auguste Louise.  But her half-sister would not see her grow up in the house.  On the afternoon of April 17, 1888 the 18-year-old Ottilie was married in the parlor.  It was a wedding that was covered by all the newspapers.

The bridegroom was George A. Steinway, eldest son of piano maker William Steinway.  The Evening World reported "Many telegrams of congratulations have been received not only from all parts of this country, but from friends of both families in Hamburg, London, [St.] Petersburg, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, Paris and other cities of Europe."  The article concluded "The presents received by the bride were very beautiful and very numerous, coming from Germany and England as well as the United States."  Dinner and the reception were held at Delmonico's.

Roesler died on February 10, 1900.  By then merely well-to-do residents like the Roesler family were being nudged out by the fantastically wealthy.  The following year millionaire publisher Joseph Pulitzer demolished Nos. 7 through 15 Eat 73rd Street as the site of his magnificent mansion designed by Stanford White.

In June 1904, the year after the Pulitzer palazzo was completed, son Ralph bought the former Roesler house next door.  The timing of the purchase, a year before his marriage to one of society's most eligible debutantes, Frederica Vanderbilt Webb, was most likely not coincidental.

Frederica was the daughter of Dr. W. Seward Webb and Lila Osgood Vanderbilt.  Her grandfather was William H. Vanderbilt.   The wedding took place in Shelburne, Vermont, where her parents maintained their 3,000-acre country estate, Shelburne Farm.  Its Queen Anne-style mansion contained 60 rooms and Frederick Law Olmsted had designed the park-like grounds.

Webb, who had given up his medical practice to become involved with the railroads with his father-in-law, arranged a ten-car special train to transport guests from Manhattan.  On October 14, 1905, the day before the ceremony, The New York Times reported "At Shelburne House, the decorators were kept at work to-night.  They completed the decorations there yesterday, but the heat to-day withered them so it was necessary to do them all over again."  The newspaper later reported that the wedding "was attended by 600 guests."

A month later, on November 12, 1905 the New-York Tribune reported that the architectural firm of Foster, Gade & Graham had filed plans for remodeling No. 17 East 73rd Street.  "The facade is to be removed and a new front of decorated limestone erected.  New staircases are to be installed and the interior rearranged."  The firm estimated the cost at $20,000, or about $575,000 today.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on what might have been an embarrassing afterthought.  A separate set of plans were filed, this one specifically to "install toilets."

Foster, Gade & Graham worked around the old English basement plan by placing the new entrance a few steps below sidewalk level.  Clad in limestone, the neo-Renaissance residence was splashed with Beaux Arts embellishments.  The three story rounded bay was marked by three arched French windows, and a trio of rectangular openings separated by Corinthian pilasters, their sills dripping swags of carved roses.  Similar garlands draped over blank rosettes below the elaborately carved stone cornice which supported the mansard level.

The house was barely completed when Ralph and Frederica began construction of their summer home in July 1906.  The Colonial-style mansion would sit on their 200-acre estate near those of William K. Vanderbilt and Payne Whitney.

Back in Manhattan the newlyweds most likely never lived in the 73rd Street house.   Despite the efforts and cost his son had expended to renovate the house next door, Joseph Pulitzer's wedding present to Frederica was a house on Fifth Avenue.

In 1910 Ralph Pulitzer leased No. 17 to Josephine Livermore.   The widow of attorney John R. Livermore, who died on May 3, 1906, she was the former Josephine Whitney Brooks.  The couple had married in December 1898, The New York Times noting "The wedding was a social event.  H. O. Havemeyer was the bridegroom's best man."

Livermore's death was, somewhat bizarrely, brought on by the trauma of the destruction of their country home in Westchester County about a month earlier.  The target of arsonists, the magnificence of the mansion and its furnishings was reflected in the silver alone--valued at around $990,000 in today's money.  "The fire was a great shock to Mr. Livermore," said a newspaper following his death, "who has been ailing ever since"

As the Pulitzers continued to lease the house (to Sidney C. Berg in 1913 and Mrs. Gardiner Sherman in 1915, for instance) their names continued to appear in newspapers.   In 1913 Ralph surprised most of the city when he sued the powerful Tammany-backed Mayor William Jay Gaynor for defaming his father.  A few months later, in January 1914, the building in which Pulitzer's $40,000 yacht, the Bullet, was store in dry dock burned, destroying it.

In August 1916 architect Louise J. Farmer did significant upgrades to the 73rd Street house for Pulitzer.  His plans called for "new stairs, partitions, plumbing, brick walls."  The renovations cost the publisher the equivalent $105,000 today.

Ralph and Frederica had two children, Ralph, Jr. and Seward.  In the autumn of 1921 a tutor was hired for Seward.  Cyril Jones had served as secretary to Colonel Edward M. House during the Paris Peace Conference and was in charge of communications between him and President Woodrow Wilson.  Following his discharge from the Navy, he took the job of tutoring Seward.

Before long, unknown to Ralph Pulitzer, a romance was developing between his wife and the tutor.  In the spring of 1922 Jones resigned to join the faculty of the Milton School near Boston.  Frederica promptly sailed to Paris to begin divorce proceedings.   On February 15, 1924 The New York Times reported on the pending divorce, the grounds of which were "constructive desertion."  Four months later the newspaper reported that Frederica Pulitzer would marry Cyril Jones at Shelburne House in August or September.

Interestingly enough, Pulitzer retained possession of No. 17.  In 1927 he leased it William D. Flanders who married author Margaret Leech the following year.  Upon returning from their honeymoon in England and France, they took up residence at No. 450 East 52nd Street.  A daughter was born in there March 1929.

Finally, after decades of leasing the home, Ralph sold it to Benjamin Joseph Buttenweiser in 1934.  Five years earlier the banker and philanthropist had married Helen Lehman, daughter of Arthur Lehman, senior partner in Lehman Brothers.  Son Lawrence Benjamin was born on January 11, 1932.  His parents were a fascinating pair.

Buttenweiser, the son of wealthy real estate operator Joseph L. Buttenwieser, was admitted to Columbia College at the age of 15, focusing on 19th century English poetry.  He graduated two years later.  Because Columbia University refused to accept him for its doctorate program (he was too young) he entered the banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb.

And Helen was no insipid socialite.  A civic leader, she was one of the first women admitted to the City Bar Association.

Before moving in, the Buttenweisers got rid of the Edwardian interiors of Foster, Gade & Graham.  They hired the Modernist architect William Lescaze to completely redesign the interiors.  On December 12, 1936 The New Yorker wrote that Lescaze "in the last five or six years has taken the lead in Modernist architecture in this country" and said that the Benjamin Buttenwieser house was one of "the only three completely Modernist town houses in N.Y.C."

The result was a striking dichotomy of styles.  The inside was sleekly cutting edge, while the facade remained nearly unchanged.  Writing in Arts & Decoration in 1937, architecture critic Mary Fanton Roberts noted "The exterior Mr. Lescaze left pretty much as it used to be. He took a few ornaments off, substituted casement windows. All of which was probably a sound idea...although the result in no way reflects the Modern expected from Mr. Lescaze."

The Buttenwiesers would have two more sons.  Peter L. Buttenwieser was born in 1936 and Paul Arthur on April 15, 1938.  All three boys would go on to successful careers.  Lawrence established a thriving legal career; Peter would eventually become best known as a philanthropist (Mother Jones Magazine placed him at No. 2 on its 1998 list of Top Ten "power elite" with "bald ambition"); and Paul became a physician, child psychiatrist and author.

The family's country home was in Bedford Village, New York.  Benjamin and Helen were still living on 73rd Street when Lawrence married Ann Harriet Lubin on July 14, 1956 in Purchase, New York.  But within to years it was owned by the Republic of Guinea as its Permanent Mission to the United States.

The Mission remained in the house until 1969 when it was converted to a three-family residence with a doctor's office on the ground floor.  It was most likely at this time that the mansard was converted to a glass-walled penthouse.

From 1977 to the early 1980's the office was home to Maho Bay Camps, Inc., operators of the "camping resort" on St. John in the Virgin Islands.  The resort offered 70 three-room "canvas cottages" each 16 x 16 feet.  The rates in 1977 were $150 per week for couples and an additional $15 for each child.

The Pulitzer house has suffered some humiliation--the coat of graphite-colored paint over the limestone first floor, window air conditioners in the transoms of the fourth floor windows and, much worse, gouged into the fifth floor stonework.  (And, then, there's the matter of the mansard roof.)  But overall the elegance of the 1906 remodeling of the Victorian brownstone survives.

photographs by the author

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