Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Snowden and Elizabeth Fahnestock House - 14 East 76th Street

On June 1, 1910 Elizabeth Bertron was married to Snowden Andrews Fahnestock in her parent's home at No. 46 West 54th Street.  It was a particularly notable wedding and the long guest list included some of the most elevated names in Manhattan society--Roosevelt, Delano, Hewitt, Rives, Iselin, Minturn, Vanderbilt, and Whitney among them.  The New York Times remarked that the newlyweds left "on a short wedding trip and will eventually make their home in New York."

The "wedding trip" was necessarily short because in just two weeks Elizabeth was scheduled to be the maid-of-honor at the wedding of Eleanor Alexander and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.  But the couple would have a proper honeymoon afterward.

Elizabeth arrives at the Roosevelt wedding.  Mostly hidden behind her is, most likely, her recent husband.  from the collection of the Library of Congress 

On July 2, 1910 the New-York Tribune reported that Elizabeth's mother, Caroline Harding Bertron, had sailed for Europe.  Three weeks later on July 24, the newspaper announced that the newlyweds "sailed for Europe yesterday to spend the remainder of the summer abroad.  They will join Mrs. Fahnestock's mother, Mrs. Samuel Reading Paris."

Elizabeth, her parents' only child, was born in August 1889, a year after their marriage.  Her father was a vice-president in the Equitable Mortgage Company and a partner in the banking form of Bertron, Griscom & Jenks.  Snowden Fahnestock, who graduated from Harvard in 1908, not coincidentally, also worked at Bertron, Griscom & Jenks.

Two months before the her wedding Elizabeth's father, Samuel Reading Bertron, had commissioned the firm of Warren & Wetmore to design a six-story mansion at No. 935 Fifth Avenue, at the northeast corner of 75th Street.  It was possibly intended as his daughter's wedding present but, if so, the plans changed.

On March 25, 1911 the Real Estate Record & Guide ran an short article entitled "S. Reading Bertron to Build Again" and reported that he "has had plans prepared for a residence at 14 East 76th st, Manhattan."  Bertron had commissioned York & Sawyer to design the 30-foot wide home on the site of an old brownstone.  Their plans called for "exterior walls of limestone, marble and brick," the total cost of construction estimated at $100,000--about $2.6 million today.

As the house neared completion, the close ties of the Bertron, Roosevelt and Fahnestock families was again evidenced.   On February 18, 1912 the New-York Tribune reported "Theodore Roosevelt, jr., after spending nearly four years in the carpet business, is now planning to become a bond salesman for the New York Stock Exchange house of Bertron, Griscom & Jenks." 

The Fahnestocks moved into the completed house later that year.  York & Sawyer had designed an unconventional townhouse; a blend of Spanish and Italian Renaissance elements.  

The only decoration on the marble base was a carved wreath encircling bronze address numbers above the entrance and a Greek key course, broken by a marble faux balcony with an iron railing.  Three stories of brown-red "tapestry brick" were embellished with a carved Italian Renaissance panel between the second and third floor openings, and a full-width balcony at the fourth.  The attic floor took the form of a deeply-overhanging Mediterranean roof, sheathed in green clay tiles and punctured by two copper-clad dormers with picturesque casement windows.

In 1913 S. Reading Bertron transferred title to Elizabeth.  He and Caroline continued living in their West 54th Street house.

Elizabeth and Snowdon hob-nobbed with Manhattan's elite.  They were, for instance, members of the exclusive Friday Evening Club.  Elizabeth was among "the usual brilliant assembly" at the last of the group's supper dances on March 13, 1914.  Held in the Della Robbia room of the Vanderbilt Hotel, entertainment included music by the Russian Imperial Balalaika Orchestra, members of the Imperial Opera ballet troupe, and dancing to Conrad's and Fejer's orchestras.  With Elizabeth in the room that night were the Duke and Duchess de Richeliue, August Belmont Jr. and his wife, the Oliver Harrimans, the Jay Goulds and the Frederick T. Havemeyers.

The Fahnestock summer home, Old Brick Farm, was in Roslyn, New York.  But Elizabeth spent the summer of 1914 in Europe.  On May 31 The Sun reported her among the impressive passenger list of the France departing that day along with her mother.  She was about three months pregnant at the time and upon her return to New York a son, Reading Berntron Fahnestock, was born on November 10.

Snowden would sail to Europe within a few years, but for far more serious reasons.  In 1917 he was the secretary and treasurer of the United Equities Corporation, but that year he resigned to enter the Army after the United States was drawn into World War I.

Snowden was among the first training class at the Plattsburg Camp in 1917.  By the time he was deployed to Europe with the 77th Division he had achieved the rank of captain.  

In his absence Elizabeth did her own part in the war effort.  She became involved in the Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men and was instrumental in the formation of classes in April 1918 to teach women to "teach trades to crippled soldiers" and "awaken public interest in this branch of war services."

Later that year Elizabeth received terrifying news.  On November 1 her husband's name appeared on the list of soldiers reported wounded in action.   Despite his serious injuries, Snowden recovered and when he returned home following the war he held the rank of colonel and had been awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Government.

In 1920 the American Investigation Corporation was formed to investigate the potential of trans-Atlantic transportation by means of helium-filled dirigibles.  Snowden A. Fahnestock was appointed the association's president, Franklin D. Roosevelt its vice-president, and S. Reading Bertron was chairman of the board.   

On July 28 that year the New York Herald announced that "Congratulations are being extended to Mr. and Mrs. Snowden A. Fahnestock upon the birth yesterday of a daughter at Old Bright Farm, their country place."

But storm clouds would soon form in the Fahnestock home.  More and more Elizabeth traveled alone, spending much time in Paris, Newport and Washington DC.  Finally, on December 17, 1924 a cable arrived at The New York Times offices from Paris which said simply "Mrs. Snowden A. Fahnestock of New York made formal application for divorce to the Seine Tribunal today."

Interestingly, in reporting on the development, The Times merely mentioned that Elizabeth was the daughter of Samuel R. Bertron.  It went on for paragraphs, instead, about the accomplishments of her husband.

Fahnestock wasted no time in remarrying.  Six months after Elizabeth filed divorce papers he wed Helen Morgan Moran.  Theirs, too, would end in a well-publicized split and eventually in tragedy.

Accusing his wife of "being infatuated with another man," Fahnestock sued for divorce in 1934, and then for complete custody of their two children.  At one point Helen swore out a writ charging that Fahnestock had illegally removed Clara and Mary Lee from a train heading to New York from Aiken, South Carolina.  During the ugly court battle Fahnestock's mother was given temporary custody. 

On October 7, 1935 Fahnestock was awarded a divorce "on a charge of desertion."  It had all played havoc with Helen's nerves.  She was confined to a Connecticut sanitarium and then moved to a New York hospital "for treatment of a nervous disorder," according to one newspaper.  She was released on November 29 to spend Thanksgiving Day with her family.  Following Thanksgiving dinner at the home of her aunt and uncle she excused herself and went upstairs.  A few moments later she plunged from a third story window to her death.

In the meantime, the 76th Street house had became home to Herman Alfred Prosser and his wife, the former Winifred Sprague.  Born in 1876, Prosser was the vice president of the American Smelting and Refining Company.   Their children included a son, Robert Woodward, daughter Elizabeth, and Winifred, from her mother's former marriage to the late Albert E. Walker.  

The family's country home, Idlewild, was in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Living with them in their city home were two servants.

Like Elizabeth Fahnestock, Winifred had turned her attention to war efforts.  In 1917 she had been chairman of the Emergency Committee of the Women's Auxiliary of the American Institute of Mining Engineers.  Calling it a "fine patriotic society" in July that year, Mining and Metallurgy noted that she "is in close touch with Major Arthur S. Dwight, ready to act when necessity arises." 

The first of the children to leave the 76th Street house was Winifred.  Her engagement to Donald M. Lovejoy on May 4, 1930 was covered by newspapers as far away as Utah's The Ogden Standard-Examiner.  Robert was next, his engagement to Mary King Smith announced on October 12 1933.

Elizabeth was not so quick to marry.  It was not until twelve years later, on December 27, 1945, that the Bronxville Review-Press commented "One of the loveliest of the pre-Christmas brides was Miss Elizabeth Woodward Prosser, daughter of Mr and Mrs. Herman Alfred Prosser, of East Seventy-Sixth Street, New York City, who on Friday, became the  bride of Captain Francis Falconer Sanford, Army Air Forces."

Now empty-nesters, the Prossers soon left the 76th Street house, moving to No. 1001 Park Avenue.  The 76th Street house has remained a single-family home, its unusual Spanish-meets-Italian facade unchanged after more than a century.

photographs by the author

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