Friday, March 8, 2019

The George Washington Roosevelt House - 108 E 35th Street

The surviving scalloped treatment of the fourth floor opening--all that is left of three tightly grouped arched windows--was most likely carried out through the lower floors.  The stone balconies of the second floor once held cast iron Italianate railings like the one seen at the far right. 

Attorney Henry H. Butterworth entered into a project with builder Washington A. Cronk in 1853.  Cronk erected a row of six brownstone-fronted residences at Nos. 102 through 112 East 35th Street on land owned by Butterworth.  Apparently part of the deal was that Cronk would purchase the completed houses, no doubt at a reduced price.  

A generation later, as Murray Hill became even more fashionable, there would probably have been only four homes on the 96-foot-long plot.  The squeezing in of two more resulted in 16-foot widths; significantly narrower than their later neighbors. 

The homes were, nonetheless, handsome.   Their Anglo-Italianate design featured low stoops leading to the arched entrances within rusticated bases.  French windows and doors at the second floor opened onto stone balconies with cast iron railings.  Especially elaborate wooden cornices crowned the row.

Cronk was the victim of unlucky timing.  The California Gold Rush had flooded the economy with new wealth, speculation in railroads going West was rampant and bankers generously loaned funds to optimistic endeavors.  It all resulted in an economic recession, known as the Panic of 1854.  Cronk found himself possessing six properties he could not move.

Cronk's creditors finally initiated legal action and one-by-one the houses eventually were sold, with the Butterworth family acquiring No. 108 in 1855.

George Washington Roosevelt and his wife, the former Mary Elizabeth Perry, purchased it in 1867.  Roosevelt was a fifth cousin of both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt.  

He had distinguished himself during the Civil War while still a teen.  George had enlisted in the Union Army four days after the first shot was fired in the war.  At the second battle of Bull Run, the 19-year-old recovered his regiment's flag after it was captured by the enemy.  In doing so he was so seriously wounded that The New York Times reported that he "was not expected to live."

Then at the Battle of Gettysburg, just after Roosevelt captured a Confederate flag, his leg was blown off.  He lamented later, "I was wounded before I could get away with it."  On July 2, 1863 he was brevetted a captain for "wounds received, and gallant and meritorious conduct at the battle of Gettysburg, July 2, 1863."   

A greater honor came on July 2 1887 when Roosevelt was awarded the Medal of Honor.  Both battles were included in the inscription on his medal that commemorated his "extraordinary heroism."

from The Story of American Heroism, 1897 (copyright expired)
After that ceremony George's and Mary's occupancy of the 35th Street house would be sporadic.  He was appointed Consular Agent to Sydney, Australia that year.  In 1878 he was appointed Consul at Auckland, New Zealand; and in  1879 he was transferred to St. Helena.  The New York Times later wrote "In 1880 he was sent to Matanzas, and a year later to Bordeaux, where he remained eight years."  In 1889 he was  appointed the United States Consul to Brussels.

Despite his high-level foreign positions, it appears the Roosevelts traveled back-and-forth to their Murray Hill home.  It was here, on February 16, 1884, that Mary died at the age of 66.  Her funeral was held in the house three days later.

Roosevelt left No. 108 in 1888.  As an interesting side note, in May 2003 his Medal of Honor appeared on eBay.  It did not go unnoticed by the FBI, which confiscated it.  The medal was donated to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in May the following year.

The new owners commissioned the architectural firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell to updated in the interiors.  The plans, filed on June 1, 1888, called for "interior alterations, walls altered."  The cost for the renovations would equal just over $105,000 today.

Like many moneyed families, the new owners traveled to Europe every summer.  Year after year in the 1890's they dismissed servants and rehired new ones in the fall.

In the spring of 1895, for instance, a maid was looking for a new position.  Her advertisement read "A young Swedish woman, lately arrived, as general houseworker in small refined family, or as kitchenmaid in larger household.  108 East 35th st."  Then a few months later another ad appeared in The New York Herald "Wanted--Protestant maid and seamstress, German preferred, for two little girls of 11 and 7; must be a good sewer and have excellent references."

In the first years of the 20th century No. 108 was home to Dr. G. Walkington Colby.  Born on March 8, 1875, he had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1896.   By 1908 while living here he had established an impressive career and was a member of four medical associations.

As commerce first threatened, then overtook other exclusive neighborhoods, Murray Hill residents fought vigorously to preserve the domestic personality of the area.  In 1910 the newly-formed East 35th St. Real Estate Co. purchased No. 108 as the first step towards erecting an office building.

Locals sprung into action.  On May 28 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported the developers had sold the house to James Forbes.  "The East 35th St. Real Estate Co. purchased this parcel intending to take title also to one or more adjoining parcels and erect a business building, but the opposition of neighboring owners to the erection of a business building led the company to abandon the plan."

Forbes was an interesting figure in the reform movement.  Edwardians generally viewed the homeless and impoverished as criminals and ne'er-do-wells.  Forbes, however, recognized the difference between professional panhandlers and crooks and societal victims.  He was secretary of the National Association for the Prevention of Mendicancy which estimated the number of "beggars and tramps" in America in 1911 as at least 250,000.  He loudly complained that little was being done to "correct the evil" of professional panhandlers.

On the other hand, he realized that some men begged out of desperation.  On April 26, 1911 he wrote to the editor of The New York Times regarding a reformed thief.  "The man is a capable salesman, intelligent, clean-cut, and he realizes at this late time that honesty is the best policy.  The applicant is married and has a crippled wife to support."  Forbes suggested that unless someone would give the man a job, he would be forced to return to begging.

In 1918 Forbes leased No. 108 to Augustus Bradhurst Field and his wife, the former Lillie Graham.   The Sun reported on October 13, "Mr. and Mrs. A. Bradhurst Field, who for years have lived in the Central Park section, will go to 108 East Thirty-fifth street when they leave Fieldstone Farm in Sterlington, N.Y."

The Fields had two sons, Augustus, Jr. and Malcolm G. and a daughter, Frances Pearsall.   A lawyer, Augustus came from a colonial New York City family.  He had graduated from Columbia University in 1885.

The family settled into the 35th Street house just in time to plan Frances's wedding.  She was married in a fashionable St. Bartholomew's Church ceremony to Everett Westcott Fabyan on May 3, 1919.

The following year James Forbes sold the house to George A. H. Churchill and his wife, the former Mary Franklin King.   Well-known in society, the couple maintained a summer house, Holmlea, in Rumson, New Jersey.

Churchill was the principal in the brokerage firm of H. B. Churchill & Co.  Churchill's affluence and love of sports was evidenced in his memberships to the Princeton Club, the Rumson Coutry Club, the Seabright Beach, the Seabright Tennis and International Sportsman's Clubs and the New York Yacht and New York Athletic Clubs.  The couple had two sons, Harold and George K.  

The Churchills remained at No. 108 until July 1929 when they moved to No. 580 Park Avenue.  George died two years later in Perugia, Italy.  Mary, described by The New York Times as "a prominent society woman," lived on there to the age of 104.  She died at the Rumson estate in 1972.

There was some confusion as to who purchased No. 108 from the Churchills.  Negotiations had been conducted entirely by cablegrams to Europe where the Churchills were summering.  The New York Times reported on July 15, 1928 that the house "has been purchased by Mrs. Ethel Snell Amy, niece of Thomas Snell, 94-year-old interior decorator and veteran of the Civil War."

Rumors, however, identified the actual buyer as Snell.  "Mr. Snell was reported to be the buyer of the house, but the veteran interior decorator said yesterday at his shop...that his niece had purchased the house and had asked him to 'take a look at it.'"

In fact neither moved in.  It was leased for some years, then sold to Katherine McGovern.  She was possibly responsible for modernizing the facade by shaving off the molded window surrounds.  McGovern sold it in May 1944 to Dr. Eugeneie N. Anderman.  It was assessed at the time at about $460,000 in today's money.

Dr. Anderman hired architect Irving Brooks to convert the house apartments and an office for his medical practice.   For several years beginning in the late 1970's it housed Elisa Celli's "Naturally Italian" gourmet cooking school.   But the narrow proportions laid out by Henry H. Butterworth and Washington A. Cronk in 1853 proved to be a challenge.

The New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton noted on December 6, 1978 "Although this instructor has a very professional delivery, her classes are given in a living room opening onto a tiny kitchenette and she works at a table almost totally obscured from view."  Sheraton was not impressed with the food.  "The class is seated far away from the work table, and the low-calorie, all-natural Italian dishes samples were all dreadful."

Sheraton revisited the school two years later.  This time she tried to be kind, writing on September 10, 1980, "Elisa Celli is a charming woman with a genuine love of food," but suggested "Miss Celli's classes would be good for inexperienced cooks and those interested in using short cuts."

Like the others in the row, No. 108 has suffered significant abuse.  Its brownstone facade is faced with a chocolate-colored cement stucco and the unsympathetic replacement windows offer no hint of the originals.  Nevertheless one can imagine the row as it was, when No. 108 was home to one of the Civil War's heroes.

photographs by the author

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