Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The James J. Imbrie House - 9 East 74th Street

photograph by the author

In the first years following the end of the Civil War development resumed with a fury in New York City.  Clusters of brownstone-fronted rowhouses began sprouting up along the streets of the Upper East Side near Central Park.  Among the speculative developers taking part was Robert H. Coburn who erected a row of five Italianate style residences at Nos. 9 through 17 East 74th Street around 1869.  The 20-foot wide homes were intended for well-to-do families.

The mortgagor of No. 9 found himself in court in the spring of 1896 over a seemingly bizarre dispute with the owner to the rear.  Five years earlier the previous owner had "agreed in perpetuity with the owner of the adjoining premises on 75th Street not to build on certain portions of their lots in order to preserve the light and ventilation of the rear of their houses," as described in The Real Estate Record.  Such covenants were common among moneyed homeowners.

The problem came when No. 9 was lost in foreclosure.  When the mortgagor resold it, he made a profit of $4,019.69--more than $120,000 today.  Now the owner of the 75th Street property sued him for half that amount, claiming the joint easement was responsible for the handsome profit.  The courts did not agree.

By the turn of the century many of the architecturally outdated brownstones of the neighborhood by now were being razed or remodeled.  In two transactions Emily and Edgar Hesslein purchased No. 11 and No. 9 in 1917 .  The titles were put in Emily's name, as was common; and the New-York Tribune said the intention was "to build one large house for her own occupancy."

Edgar Joseph Hesslein was the president of the importing firm Neuss, Hesslein & Company.  The family lived at No. 21 East 46th Street in the neighborhood off Fifth Avenue which, a generation earlier, was among the most exclusive in Manhattan.  Now it was quickly being invaded by commerce.

But before the Hessleins went very far with their plans for the double-wide mansion on East 74th Street, they changed their minds.  Instead in 1919 they brought in the architectural firm of Blum & Blum to radically remodel the two houses.  It appears that George Blum, half of the team with his brother Edward, handled this project.

The massive alterations removed the stoops and brownstone facades to create limestone-faced Italian Renaissance townhouses.  They were harmonious, but decidedly individual in their designs.

The centered entrance to No. 9 sat within a rusticated base.  Directly above was a full-width stone balcony with lacy iron railings which fronted two sets of French doors within arched openings.  The most prominent and romantic feature was the deep fifth floor loggia and red tiled Mediterranean roof; a slice of a peristyle plucked from Rome or Pompeii.

The brownstone next door still survived when this photograph was taken.  Architectural Record, 1920 (copyright expired)
The house was completed in the summer of 1920 and Emily put it on the market around $235,000--about three and a quarter million dollars today.  On October 2, 1920 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Emily Hesslein had sold "the new 5-sty English basement dwelling," saying "the buyer, whose name was not disclosed, will occupy the house."

It was not uncommon for buyers to be secretive; but, of course, it would not be long before their names were discovered.  In a somewhat unusual arrangement James J. Imbrie and his wife, the former Marie McCrea Pritchett, shared equally in the ownership of the property.

(The following May Emily sold No. 11 to the John Wanamaker Jr. and his wife, of Philadelphia.)

Imbrie was the principal of the financial firm Imbrie & Co.  The couple had five children, James, Jr., Dorothy Jane, Janet Morris, Marie Dawn, and Robert McCrea.  Their upscale lifestyle was reflected in their summer estate in Englewood, New Jersey, inspired by Washington's Mount Vernon.

The Imbries' "suburban home."  American Home and Gardens, December 1905 (copyright expired)
As imposing as the Englewood home was, the family upgraded in April 1919 when they purchased John Hersen Rhoades's ten-acre "country place" in Rumson, New Jersey.  The New-York Tribune reported "There is a large modern residence on the premises containing six master bedrooms, six maids' bedrooms, five bathrooms, large reception hall, living room, den, dining room, butler's pantry, kitchen and laundry."  

The massive amounts the Imbries were spending on real estate would prove to be ill-timed.  On March 7, 1921 James transferred his half of the title to No. 9 to Marie.  What might have seemed at first glance to be a loving gesture was, most likely, a desperate attempt to save the property.  Just three days earlier The New York Herald reported that Imbrie & Co. had been placed in receivership and explained "Undigested securities and a shortage of cash and liquid assets formed the basis of the court action."  Despite the transfer, within the month a mechanics lien of $5,865.80 was placed on the house with both James and Marie listed as owners.

Marie managed to retain ownership, but the family soon moved out.  On September 10, 1922 The New York Herald reported "Mrs. James Imbrie [leased] her five story American basement, 9 East Seventy-fourth street, furnished, for the winter to Mrs. W. Murray Crane of Boston."  In reporting the move, the newspaper noted "This is in the so called Rockefeller block."

On July 16, 1924 the New York Evening Post reported that the William H. Vanderbilts were giving their first large dance of the season at Oakland Farm in Newport.  The article added "Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt, by the way, are planning to desert Boston, where they lived last winter, and will return to New York at the end of the Newport season.  They have taken a lease on the James Imbrie house; 9 East Seventy-fourth street."  The New York Telegram and Evening Mail added that their lease was for "a long term."

The Imbries, in the meantime, were by no means destitute and earlier that year things were looking up.  On April 8, 1924 The Sun reported that "Imbrie & Co., Ltd. opened their offices to-day at 115 Broadway, after three years' absence from the financial field.  James Imbrie will head the firm as before and will have as associates many financiers well known in banking circles."

The family was now living at No. 40 West 59th Street and had managed, as well, to hold on to their New Jersey summer home.  It was there that the entire family nearly lost their lives in 1927.  Despite being the middle of winter, the Imbries went down for the weekend on February 18.  Their house sat close to the ocean, an enviable spot in the summer months; but not this weekend.

A massive winter gale hit the following day and lasted through Sunday.  Newspapers deemed it the worst since the “Portland Gale” storm of 1898.   On Monday, February 21 The Daily Argus put the death toll so far at 21 and described the Imbries' ordeal.

"The family was trapped in their home.  The edifice was flooded and the water came up about four feet deep.  Imbrie phoned for help and friends responded in a rowboat."

On December 14, 1937 The New York Sun reported that No. 9 had been lost in foreclosure.  There was nearly $97,500 due on the mortgage; more than $1.6 million in today's money.  A renovation was completed in 1937 which resulted in one apartment on the ground floor, two each on the upper floors, and a new penthouse, unseen from the street, above.

Once home to Vanderbilts, when Sybul B. Brown purchased the property in July 1943, The New York Sun described it as a "six story apartment house."  The tenants, nevertheless, were still upscale and well-to-do.

One of them, Evangeline Clark, however, fell behind on a loan from the Household Finance Corporation in 1953.  She opened her door on November 13 to find what today might be called "goons" facing her.   Robert E. Taylor, 28-years-old, and William Murray, 21-years-old, entered the apartment asking for the balance.  When she did not comply, one of them asked "how she could afford an apartment like hers and still owe money to the company," according to the Yonkers newspaper The Herald Statesman.

When Evangeline Clark ordered the men out of her apartment things turned ugly.  She told police "that Murray slapped her face and Taylor grabbed her by the throat."  Clark had them arrested for assault.  Followers of the case may have been surprised when on March 2, 1954 both men were cleared of the charges and discharged.  There was no explanation in the newspapers of what swayed the judge.

Another renovation was completed in 1970 joining the first and second floors as a duplex apartment.  Despite its sometimes rocky history inside; its sedate exterior remains nearly unchanged (other than that unsightly air conditioner gouged into the stone facade).

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