Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Wilmerding House - 18 East 77th Street

The regrettable alteration of the fifth floor resulted in a bunker-like appearance. Two stone urns do not help much.

Lucius Kellogg Wilmerding was born in Moscow, New York on March 19, 1848.  The New York Times would later mention that he was a "member of a family long prominent in the social life of New York."  He graduated from Columbia College in 1868.  On December 6, 1876 he married Caroline Maria Murray, daughter of Bronson and Ann Peyton Murray.  By now Lucius was a partner in Wilmerding & Bisset, wholesale dealers in linens.  Three children quickly arrived--Edith in 1879, Lucius Jr. in 1880 and Caroline Murray in 1882.  Tragically, little Edith die in 1881.

The Wilmerdings planned a new home in 1896 and purchased the plot at No. 18 East 77th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.  Title to domestic property at the time was most often placed in the name of the wife; so when architects Clinton & Russell filed plans on May 23, it was Caroline who was listed as owner.  The plans called for a five-story dwelling with a mansard slate roof.  The cost of the 25-foot wide house was estimated at just over $600,000 in today's dollars.

The limestone-faced house was completed in 1897.  Generally neo-Renaissance in design, it was liberally splashed with Beaux Arts elements, not the least of which was the dormered mansard roof hiding behind a stone balustrade.  The double-doored entrance within the rusticated base sat below an elaborate fanlight.  Festoons of full-blown roses draped over its ornate keystone.  A glass and iron marquee protected the visitors from the elements.

Architectural Record, July 1897 (copyright expired)

The decoration of the upper floors was reserved.  Blind stone balustrades sat below the second floor openings and branches of oak leaves spilled from behind the keystones at the third.  Between the fourth floor windows was a carved coat-of-arms.

The Wilmerdings were well-known in the upper levels of Manhattan society.  Their country home was at East Islip, Long Island.  Caroline's sister, Olivia, was married to millionaire William Bayard Cutting and the sisters often appeared at weddings and other social functions together.

Katherine Arthur Behenna painted this miniature of Caroline around 1890. from the collection of the New-York Historical Society. 
It was not surprising, therefore, that when daughter Caroline's introduction to society approached, her aunt threw her a lavish dance on December 21, 1900.  The New-York Tribune called it a "notable occurrence" and noted "The dance was preceded by four dinner parties given by Mrs. Wilmerding, Mrs. Robert Fulton Cutting, Mrs. William Douglas Sloane and Mrs. Hamilton McKay Twombly, who brought on their guests."

The Cuttings' and Wilmerdings' social importance was evidenced by the guest list.  Among social royalty attending that evening were John Jacob Astor and his wife, the Edmund Baylies, James J. Van Alen and his daughters, the Stuyvesant Fishes, and Mrs. Ogden Goelet and her daughter.

Caroline's parents hosted another debutante dance in the 77th Street house on January 19.  Three months later, on April 17, she and her parents would sail to London to attend the wedding of her cousin, William Bayard Cutting, Jr., to Lady Sybil Cuffe, daughter of Lord and Lady Desart.

Before long the Wilmerdings would spend much of their time in Europe--enough to prompt them to lease their furnished townhouse for extended periods.  As the family prepared to sail to Paris in November 1904 Lucius rented it to William G. Roelker.

While in France Caroline hired a maid, Marie Mioland.  The arrangement was so successful that Marie agreed to return to New York.  They arrived on the steamship Baltic on March 25, 1905 and the Wilmerding carriage was awaiting them.  The New-York Tribune reported "Not having room for the maid, they called a public cab for her.  With her were piled a lot of the family's personal effects."  The plan resulted in a terrific scare for the Wilmerdings.

As was customary, they did not go directly home--the house would have to be prepared for their arrival.  Instead they were taken to the Hotel Buckingham where they awaited Marie's arrival.  When an hour passed, Lucius began to worry.  Along with the missing maid were "a lot of his personal property, a dress suit case and a box of silverware valued at $2,000."

Two and a half more hours passed before the cab pulled up to the hotel.  The newspaper explained "The woman had been taken by mistake to the Manhattan Hotel, and it was some time before it could be learned where she belonged, as she could not speak English."

Lucius, Caroline and their daughter had arrived back in New York barely in time for Lucius Jr.'s wedding.  The extended Cutting-Wilmerding alliance was furthered by his marriage to Helen Cutting, daughter of Robert Fulton Cutting, in St. George's Church on March 27.   His sister was among the bridesmaids, as was Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Manhattan society was no doubt surprised when The Sun reported on June 14, 1908 that "The wedding of Miss Caroline Murray Wilmerding and John B. Trevor on June 25 will probably not be a large affair."  The article noted that the ceremony would take place in the 77th Street house and that Caroline "has decided to have no bridesmaids."

Of course, even a small affair at the Wilmerdings' social level included prominent guests.  Among those attending the ceremony were the recently married Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Now empty-nesters, Caroline and Lucius left New York for Europe again.  They headed to France that summer, taking with them their recently purchased touring car.  On August 4, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported "Mr. and Mrs. Lucius K. Wilmerding have arrived at Aix-le-Bains in their automobile."

In their absence the 77th Street house was leased, first to millionaire Edwin Gould, and then to Frances Roche.  

Known in society columns as Mrs. Burke Roche, she was born Frances Ellen Work in 1857.  On September 22, 1880 she had married James Boothby Burke Roche, later the 3rd Baron Fermoy.  Among their descendants was Diana, Princess of Wales, Frances's great-granddaughter.  

Frances Work Roche - from the collection of the Library of Congress

Four children notwithstanding, the couple's marriage had not not succeeded.  Frances divorced Roche for desertion in 1891.  By now she was a major figure in Manhattan society and No. 18 East 77th Street was the scene of frequent entertainments.

In addition to luncheons and teas, Frances often hosted talks.  On March 13 1914, for instance, Charles Gibson spoke to her guests about the Empress Dowager of China.

With Frances Burke Roche in their townhouse, the Wilmerdings resided with the Cuttings when they were in town.   During the summer of 1914 they were in the States and on August 11 the New-York Tribune reported that they "arrived in town yesterday from Newport, where they were the guests of Mrs. Vanderbilt.  After a short stay here they will go to Islip, Long Island."

Frances Burke Roche remained in the house at least through 1916; after which Lucius and Caroline returned.  On January 1, 1919 Lucius made a career move, becoming a partner in the Stock Exchange house of Gray & Wilmerding.

The Wilmerdings continued their lifestyle of travel and entertaining.  The winter seasons saw dinner parties on 77th Street; and summers were spent in Islip, Newport, Tuxedo Park or Paris.   On October 18, 1922, one month after the New-York Tribune reported that the couple had arrived at Tuxedo, the New York Herald announced that they "have opened their house at 18 East Seventy-seventh street."

Lucius Kellogg Wilmerding - from the collection of the International Center of Photography

Two months later Lucius was dead.  On December 5 he was sitting at his desk at Gray & Wilmerding when he suffered a heart attack.   He died at home three days later.

Following his funeral on December 11 The New York Herald reported that St. James's Church on Madison Avenue was filled with "men of prominence in New York and elsewhere."  A few of the millionaires and other notable figures there that afternoon were Edward J. Berwind, William Rhinelander Stewart, Ansel Phelps and his wife, Goodhue Livingston, Philip Rhinelander, Stuyvesant Fish, Edmund L. Baylies and Francis Burrall Hoffman.

Caroline remained at No. 18, opening it for the wedding of her niece Alma Virginia Murray to Hamilton Fish Potter on May 10, 1927.  It would be among the last of her notable entertainments in the house.  She died on September 24, 1931 at the age of 78.  

Lucius Jr. and Caroline Trevor retained ownership of their childhood home, leasing it to well-to-do families despite the difficulties of the ongoing Great Depression.  It was home to F. Cliffe Johnston by the mid-1930's.

The former broker was now manager, treasurer and secretary of the Palmer Waterfront Land and Improvement Company and a director of the J. G. White Engineering Company.  He and his wife, the former Grace M. Palmer, had five daughters.

On December 21, 1938 No. 18 was the scene of daughter Constance's debut.  The family's social prominence earned the event its own article in The New York Times, which reported that she "was presented to a reception given by her parents in their home." 

After Caroline and Lucius sold the house in 1947, it was converted to a doctor's office and apartments.  It may have been at this time that the mansard roof was disfigured.

In 1989 the doctor's office became home to Judy Goffman's fine art gallery.  In 2004 the Leo Castelli art gallery was here.  Then, in 2005, another renovation resulted in doctors' offices on the ground floor, one apartment on the second, two apartments each on the third and fourth, and a duplex in the former mansard and new penthouse.

An unsightly garage next door and the rueful treatment of the uppermost floor detract from the Wilmerding house; but thankfully the bulk of its architectural integrity--including the miraculously-surviving marquee--remains.

photographs by the author


  1. Very educational and apparently well-researched! Thank you!

  2. According to the NYT this was the site of the former Consulate of Imperial Iran before the revolution of 1979.