Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Percival Kuhne House - 7 East 78th Street

In 1879 banker and railroad tycoon Henry H. Cook purchased the entire block between Fifth and Madison Avenues, from 78th to 79th Street for $500,000 (roughly $13 million in today's money).  The property was undeveloped and it would be nearly two decades before Manhattan's millionaires would make it that far up Fifth Avenue.   The far-sighted Cook knew they would come.  He erected his own gargantuan mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 78th Street.

Because Cook owned the entire block, he was able to choose his neighbors and ensure his property values were secure.  The New-York Tribune explained years later "He has divided the remaining land and sold it parcel by parcel to desirable purchasers who would erect uniformly handsome houses."  Those buyers had no choice in the matter.  Cook wrote restrictive covenants into the deeds which demanded that only private homes in a "splendid style" be erected.  

Among those buyers would be Percival and Lillian Kuhn.  On April 23, 1899 the New York Herald reported "Mr. Percival Kuhne has bought a beautiful dwelling further up town, just out of Fifth avenue, and bounding the Park, which he and Mrs. Kuhne will probably occupy before hot weather sets in."  The reporter got the facts slightly wrong.

The Kuhnes, who lived at No. 32 East 39th Street in a rapidly changing neighborhood, had indeed purchased the property at No. 7 East 78th Street on what had become known as the Cook Block.  But there was no "beautiful dwelling" on the plot; it was a vacant lot.   Three months later, on July 18, the New York Journal and Advertiser set the record straight.  "Percival Kuhn is to build a five-story brick dwelling...costing $25,000 at No. 7 East Seventy-eighth street."

The Kuhns had chosen the firm of Hoppin & Koen to design their 25-foot-wide mansion; quite possibly because Francis L. V. Hoppin was a personal friend of the couple.  The firm would produce for the Kuhnes a refined and stately Beaux Arts style residence.

Tall, exquisite fencing enclosed the areaway, anchored by imposing urn-topped stone posts.  A four-step porch rose to the the arched doorway within the limestone base.  A full-width balcony with elegant iron railings fronted the three sets of French windows at the piano nobile.  Their architrave stone frames were topped by carved pediments; the central example a broken arch that embraced a bulbous cartouche and scrollwork.

A single carved lily adorns each side of the gate posts.

A smaller balcony fronted the grouped center openings of the third floor, beneath a balustraded stone Juliette version at the fourth.  The mostly unadorned fifth floor sat above the projecting limestone bracketed cornice.

Percival Kuhne was born on April 6, 1861 to Frederick and Ellen Miller Kuhne.  His father had co-founded the banking house of Knauth, Nachod & Kuhne.  Percival attended the University of the City of New York, then continued his studies in Germany.  Upon his return in 1884 he entered his father's banking firm.
Percival Kuhne - The Redemption of New York, 1902 (copyright expired)
In 1893 Kuhne married Lillian Middleton Kerr, daughter of Hamilton Kerr, "a descendant of an old and aristocratic English family," as described by Milo T. Bogard in his 1902 The Redemption of New York.  The couple was highly visible in society both in America and Europe.  The Successful American noted "Mr. and Mrs. Kuhne were the only American guests present at the wedding of Princess Helen of Orleans to the Duke d'Aosta, in July, 1895...Besides the Orleans family, all the English royal family except the Queen were present."

The couple had a daughter, Gwendolyn, and the family summered at various fashionable resorts.  While away during the summer of 1900, construction on their mansion was completed.  On October 22 The Evening Telegram noted "Mr. and Mrs. Percival Kuhne, who are now at Lakewood, N.J., will take possession of their new residence at No. 7 East Seventy-eighth street, in about the second week in December."  The timing was perfect--the height of the winter social season.

Except that the house was not totally finished yet.  

So while the painters and decorators put the final details on the interiors, the Kuhnes took a suite at the Savoy hotel.  It turned out to be a costly few weeks stay.  On February 26, 1901 The Morning Telegraph ran a first-page headline "Banker Kuhne Robbed Of A Fortune in Gems."

The article explained "Percival Kuhne, the banker, was despoiled of diamonds worth $150,000, which he kept in his apartments at the Savoy Hotel, on the morning of Feb. 2."  While the Kuhnes were at the theater, burglars had entered their suite and made off with the loot, worth more than $4.5 million by today's calculations.  It was at the time the largest private robbery in police history.  The article noted that Kuhne "is very wealthy and is particularly fond of diamonds."

For two weeks police could find no clues nor suspects.  Photographs of the missing jewelry were distributed to pawn shops and finally a break came.  On the morning of February 25 "Judge" Lewis anxiously stood in line at a pawn shop. The Morning Telegraph described Lewis as "shabbily dressed and seemed very nervous."

When his turn came to approach the clerk, Lewis pulled a bulky package from his pocket.  "The negro opened it nervously and drew out a brooch set with an immense turquoise and covered with fourteen one-half karat diamonds."  Lewis asked $200 for Lillian's stolen pin, valued at $2,500.  The clerk quickly recognized it from the police photographs and stalled Lewis by pretending to negotiate a price.  Meantime, another clerk ran outside to find a policeman.  "McAleenan appeared to be busy examining the stones in the meantime, and Lewis was greatly surprised when a policeman entered the door and placed him under arrest."

It did not take long for investigators to determine that Lewis was an unwitting pawn (or in their words "only a tool").  The real thief appeared to be a bellboy at the Savoy, Morris Orman (whom The Sun felt obligated to say "is also a negro").  He had left his job at the Savoy Hotel shortly after the burglary.

Orman had offered Lewis money to pawn the items and, in fact, was waiting on the sidewalk outside the pawnshop when the police arrived.  He made his escape, leaving Lewis to his fate.  When police went to Orman's apartment, they found it empty and the former bellboy had disappeared.

Shockingly, a newspaper reported that Kuhne admitted "when he and his wife went to the theatre on the night of the robbery they did not lock their door.  All a thief had to do was to enter and help himself." 

Shortly after the Kuhnes moved into their new mansion Lillian's name appeared in unflattering print.  Socialites looking to raise money for charitable causes often threw afternoon bridge parties.  It was a time-tested and enjoyable fund-raising practice.  But in March 1901 the rector of Grace Church embarked on a mission to "put an end to society gambling, at least among men and women who call themselves Christians," as reported in The Chicago Tribune.  

The article noted that one socialite, who preferred to remain anonymous and who would welcome the end of the practice, listed the names of leading society women at a recent party.  Among those "good people" was Lillian Kuhne.

Keeping up with the Kuhnes' movements was nearly a full-time job for society columnists.  On August 24, 1902 the New-York Tribune reported that they had hosted a "gay party" at the Country Club in Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island; and on June 19, 1903 The Evening Telegram announced "Mr. and Mrs. Percival Kuhne, of No. 7 East Seventy-eighth street, will soon leave for Cedarhurst, L. I., where they have taken a cottage for the season."

In the winter season between those trips, entertainments were hosted at No. 7 East 78th Street.  Among them was a dinner party on January 27, 1902.  The guest list included socially recognized names like Livingston, Phipps, Kipp and Phelps, as well as the Kuhnes' friend and architect Francis L. V. Hoppin

On July 1, 1907 The Daily Standard Union, a Brooklyn newspaper, announced that Percival, Gwendolyn, and "Mrs. Kuhn and maid" had sailed for Europe for the summer.  Shortly after their return a disturbing rumor hit the newspapers.  On October 14, 1908 the New York Herald reported "Friends of Mrs. Percival Kuhne...learned yesterday that she had been placed for treatment in a sanitarium at Larchmont.  The Kuhnes' residence at No. 7 East Seventy-eighth street, has been closed and Mr. Kuhne has gone to a hotel to live."

The family issued a denial, saying "The fact is that Mrs. Kuhne and her daughter have been out of the State on a pleasure trip during the past week."  But, in fact, things were dire.   Percival kept the 78th Street house shuttered and brought his wife and daughter to the Plaza Hotel suite.  It was there, on September 30, 1909, that Lillian died.

Kuhne sold No. 7 to the 49-year-old publisher Ormond G. Smith and his wife, the former Grace H. Pellett.  Smith's father, Francis S. Smith, was a co-founder of Street & Smith.  Upon his father's retirement in 1887, Ormond had taken over running the firm, which published inexpensive novels and popular magazines.  Among the impressive list of authors published by Street & Smith were Horatio Alger, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Upton Sinclair and O. Henry.

Interestingly, they shared a mutual close friend with the Kuhnes--Francis L. V. Hoppin, whose firm had not only designed the 78th Street house, but Shoremond, the Smiths' country estate in Oyster Bay, Long Island.
The Smiths' Oyster Bay mansion was designed in 1912.  The Architectural Record, December 1916 (copyright expired
The Smiths welcomed a son, Gerald Hewitt Smith, on September 28, 1912.  Grace did not take long to bounce back and reenter the social swirl.  Like Lillian Kuhne, she entertained the top levels of society and the Hoppins were frequent guests.  On November 7, 1912, for instance, The Sun reported "Mrs. Ormand G. Smith gave a dinner last night at her home, 7 East Seventy-eighth street, afterward taking her guests to the Moulin Rouge.  Among them were Mr. and Mrs. Francis L. V. Hoppin, Miss Lola Robinson, Mr. and Mrs. James H. Kidder, E. De Peyster Livingston and Frederick Townsend Martin."

Although the Smiths' summer estate was truly grand, they changed scenery in January 1921 when Anne Vanderbilt, widow of William K. Vanderbilt, sold them Stepping Stones, her Jericho, Long Island estate.  The New York Times reported on January 19 that Smith "is reported to have paid about $500,000 for the property.  Mr. Smith recently sold his country place at Oyster Bay...for about $1,000,000."

The New-York Tribune printed this frustratingly grainy photo of Stepping Stones on January 23, 1921 (copyright expired)
The Times added "Located in the picturesque Wheatley Hills, Stepping Stones is one of the notable places of the section...The house, which occupies the crown of a hill that overlooks the estate, was built by privately prepared plans by John R. Hill, under the personal supervision of the late William K. Vanderbilt."

Grace would enjoy only two seasons at Stepping Stones.  She became ill in the fall of 1922, and died in the 78th Street house on January 13.  The Evening Telegram noted "Her death was unexpected, although she had been ill for some time."  Grace's entire estate, valued at about $1.53 million, was left to her husband.

By the time of Grace's death, Ormond was highly involved in the French Institute in the United States, an organization whose goal was "the diffusion of the knowledge of French culture."  Smith, who was the group's vice president, had been educated in France and held a life-long affection for the country and its way of life.  

When the Duc de Trevise visited New York in December 1925, Ormond hosted a dinner party in the 78th Street house.  Not surprisingly, among the high-ranking guests that evening was Francis L. V. Hoppin.

Ormond's work for the French Institute did not go unnoticed abroad.  In December 1927 he was made an Officer of the Legion of French by decree of the French President.  After rising to president of the institute, in November 1929 Ormond donated a new six-story building to the group at Nos. 22-24 East 60th Street.  

It was just one of many considerable philanthropic gifts.  He donated $40,000 to the construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and $25,000 to the French Hospital, for example.  He was also a vice-president of the New York Eye and Ear Hospital and the New York Free Dispensary.

On the night of April 17, 1933 Ormond Smith suffered a fatal stroke in the 78th Street house.  He was 72-years-old.  Gerald, who was away at Princeton University, received half a million dollars (more in the neighborhood of $9.7 million today), which was held in trust until his 21st birthday.

The young man retained ownership of No. 7 until the fall of 1940 when he sold it "for occupancy."  In reporting the sale The New York Times remarked that it "contains an electric elevator" and noted the upscale tenor of the street.  "It is in the same block as the residences of Mrs. James. B. Duke, John D. Ryan and Winthrop W. Aldrich.  At the corner of Madison Avenue is the home of the late Stuyvesant Fish."

Henry Cook would no doubt have been seriously displeased when the house was converted to apartments in 1946.  It now held two "doctors' apartments and offices" on the first floor, and two apartments per floor above.  The renovations included a horrific sixth floor addition that snubs Hoppin & Koen's regal design.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Phyllis Winchester for suggesting this post


  1. Thanks, Tom! A beautiful house with a great story. A society bridge club busted for gambling - hilarious!

  2. Percival Kühne's mother (not wife), Ellen Josephine Miller (known as Josephine), was the daughter of George Jacob Miller, son of a German immigrant from Hamburg (ca 1792), Lorenz Müller (Laurence Miller). GJM was the brother of my great great grandfather, Edmund Howd Miller.

    1. I believe that's how the genealogy is explained, in lesser detail, above. The article does not refer to Ellen as Percival's wife. Thank you for the additional family details. Very interesting.

  3. I have in my collection 13 photographs of the interior of this home taken by the firm of Hoppin and Koen. The photos date from the early 20th century.

    1. by any chance, would you have photos of the outside of 7 east 78th? I would love to see what the original steps were made of.

  4. Thank you for this article and the pictures. I am a great grandson of the Kuhnes, my mother was the daughter of Gwendolyn Kuhne Wade. I have a beautiful life-size portrait of Lillian Kuhne painted by Carle J Blenner. It was probably painted to hang in this house, but she died at 37 before it was finished, so it was never hung in this house. I also have a book of pictures of the George Miller's house, that was located at 214 E 14t St.
    I did find an error in this text - Lillian Kerr Kuhne was the daughter of Hamilton Kerr.

    1. thank you for catching that inexcusable error. It is corrected.