Friday, May 31, 2019

The Robert D. Sterling House - 19 East 77th Street

In 1878 Saulesbury L. Bradley erected a trio of 16-foot-side brownstone-fronted rowhouses at Nos. 15 through 19 East 77th Street.  They were designed by the prolific John G. Prague in the currently fashionable neo-Grec style.  Four stories high above an English basement, they featured three-sided oriels resting on heavy brackets at the second floor.  The upper story windows were encased in architrave frames and wore prominent cornices.

George P. Nelson and his wife, the former Mary E. Robinson, were the original owners of No. 19.  The Nelsons maintained a large summer estate in Westchester County.

An attorney, George had studied law in his father's office in Peekskill, New York and was admitted to practice in 1839.  He divided his focus between Manhattan and upstate.  He was a prominent member of the Westchester County bar and represented that district in Congress for several years.

Nelson's personal fortune was significantly increased following the death of his father, William.  On January 6, 1883 the New-York Tribune reported that the estate was "about $1,000,000."  That amount would be nearly 26 times as much today and was divided equally among George and his three brothers.

The family was at Jamesport, Long Island on September 20, 1899 when Mary inexplicably died.  Newspapers made no mention of the cause of death.  Her funeral was held in the 77th Street house two days later.

Still living with George were his two unmarried daughters, Cordelia and Georgina.  On September 18, 1902 he transferred title to the house to them, most likely to avoid any complications upon his eventual death.  And that came just three years later, on September 27, 1905.

In reporting his death The New York Times noted "He was 89 years old, and for more than thirty years had occupied the house in which he died."  The obituary made note of his civic interests and generosity.  "In the public schools he always took the liveliest interest.  He was also identified with numerous charitable and philanthropic enterprises."

Less than three months later Georgina and Cordelia sold the Westchester estate.  In town they took in a roomer, at least in 1907 and '08.  During both of those years Miss Everitt advertised in several newspapers:  "Teacher--Experienced; visiting tutor; thorough instruction from primary to college preparatory grades; classes as her residence."

On May 14, 1910 the Record & Guide reported that "the Misses Nelson" had sold the house to The Operating Realty Co., noting "this is the first sale of this property in over thirty years."  The new owners almost immediately resold it to broker Robert Dutcher Sterling.

While the brownstone house was out of fashion at the time, the block was decidedly not.  Sterling and his wife, the former Ruth Lancaster Hoe, commissioned architect George B. de Gersdorff to transform it into a modern residence.  His plans, filed on July 16, 1910, called for a "new entrance stoop, new chimney and new stairs."  They were deceptively understated.

The architect removed the stoop, pulled the facade forward to the property line, and created a stylish neo-Federal style residence in red brick and limestone.   

The remodeled home stood out among its Victorian neighbors.  It originally was a match to No. 17 at the left.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The stone-faced ground floor was understated at the very least.  Its modesty allowed the second floor to show off.   Here a stone balcony with iron railings fronted a set of French doors, flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows.  The arrangement, below an arched tympanum, created a Palladian effect.   The splayed limestone lintels of the third and fourth floor windows of carried on the 18th century motif.  The top floor took the form of a steep copper-clad mansard with two prominent dormers.

The Sterlings had two sons, Oliver J. and Edward C.  The family's summer home was in Dublin, New Hampshire.

The Sterlings took an extended trip, possibly to Europe, early in 1914 when they leased the furnished hose to Edward Coleman Delafield, president of the Franklin Trust Company.

The Sterling family was back home by 1920 and they scurried to restaff the house.  Robert was detailed in what he wanted in a chauffeur.  His advertisement sought a "useful man [for] private family; permanent position for unmarried man; wages $30 in city and $85 with board when in country."  The city wages would be equal to about $376 per week today.

The waitress (the top most in the echelon of maids) earned more than the chauffeur.  Her weekly wages were $50 that year and her "car fare" to and from the residence was paid as well.  On the other hand, the laundress, who was expected to do "some cleaning," was needed only two days at week, as reflected in her $3.50 pay.

Ruth's father, Robert Hoe III, was the head of the long-established firm R. Hoe & Co.  Upon his death she inherited $1.2 million in 1924.

Ruth was highly involved in the support of the Babies' Hospital throughout the decades.  She and Robert shared an interest in the American Museum of Natural History.  They both joined the Board of Trustees in April 1953.  They would go on to donate the Bald Eagle Group in the Hall of North American Birds at the museum in 1958 and 1963 presented it with dioramas of 16 of North America's small mammals.

Ruth Sterling died on June 11, 1966 at the age of 87.  Four years later, after a long illness, Robert died at Lenox Hill Hospital on September 5, 1970 at age 95.  The heirs sold No. 19 in 1972.  

The fact that the house had been home to only one family since its 1910 remake was responsible for its remarkable state of preservation.  It remains a single-family home today with few changes other than an elevator, installed in 2003, and replacement windows.

photograph by the author

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