Friday, June 14, 2019

The Benjamin Knower House - 4 East 77th Street

Not only were Richard W. Buckley and Robert McCafferty developers, operating as McCafferty & Buckley; Buckley acted as the firm’s architect—a significant cost savings.  In 1895 the partners started construction of three high-end homes at Nos. 4 through 16 East 77th Street.  Unlike the nearly identical high-stoop brownstones erected a generation earlier; McCafferty & Buckley’s handsome residences, completed in 1897, were limestone-faced, neo-Renaissance mansions; each with its own personality.

Like its neighbors, No. 4 rose five floors and was an ample 25-feet wide.  Buckley's design was noticeably restrained.  The columned portico above the short stoop was nearly unadorned.  The few carvings appear at the second floor over the windows, in the scrolled supports of the balcony directly above,  and in the frieze (where the architect sneaked in fruity Beaux Arts garlands).  Quoins framed the second and third floors, leading to a stone cornice so prominent as to make the fifth floor appear as an afterthought.

On April 17, 1897 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that McCafferty & Buckley had sold "No. 4 East 77th street, one of an assorted row of handsome houses recently completed."  The New-York Tribune added "The house is as nearly fireproof as a dwelling can be made, having steel beams, brick arches and iron lath throughout."

The fact that the balcony, while handsome, does not sit directly upon the supports and its brackets rather clumsily interfere with the carved frieze suggest that it is a 20th century replacement of a stone version.

The buyers were Benjamin J. Knower and his wife, the former Mary Constance Allen, who had been living in at No. 48 West 40th Street.  As was common, the title was put in Mary's name.  Knower was descended from an old New York family and was a member in the wholesale dry goods firm of Knower & Turnbull.  He was a member of the Century and Manhattan Clubs as well as of the Society of the Mayflower and of the Sons of the American Revolution.

Mary was Knower's second wife; his first, Mary Ludlow Gray, having died in 1879.  The couple had two daughters, 13-year-old Mary Constance (known by her middle name), and 9-year-old Margaret Campbell.  Their country residence, Sherbourne, was in Scarborough-on-the-Hudson, near Briarcliff Manor.

The Knowers had noble connections--if at arm's length.  Benjamin's first-cousin, Virginia French, had married Count Louis de Suzannet of Paris in 1880.  The Count and Countess's two sons were approximately the same age as the Knower girls.  The families saw one another occasionally when the Countess brought her sons to her Newport estate now and again.

As with other active socialites, Mary involved herself in pet charities, opening the house for benefit teas, for instance.  And she rubbed shoulders with the elevated echelons of feminine society.  When she hosted a meeting of the Fortnightly Euchre Club in January 1902, for instance, the New-York Tribune listed among those present "Mrs. R. Delafield, Mrs. Philip Rhinelander, Mrs. J. Blake White, Mrs. Neeser, Mrs. R. Crosby, Miss Katherine Norwood, Miss M. Remsen and Miss Morgan."

On September 25 that year The Evening Telegram, in its columns "Reflections of a Society Mirror," reported "Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Knower, who are still at their country place, Sherbourne...will return to their city home, No. 4 East Seventy-seventh street, in about six weeks."   It would be Benjamin's last summer at the estate.

Six weeks later, on November 6, the New-York Tribune reported that he "died yesterday, after a short illness from inflammation of the brain, at his home, No. 4 East Seventy-seventh-st."  His funeral was held in the house the following day.  (Both of his daughters received an income of $20,000, more than $600,000 a year today.)

Following her period of mourning Mary turned her attention to her growing daughters.  Society mothers wanted nothing more than a propitious match for their daughters.  Constance had been sent to Europe for schooling in 1903, but she was brought abruptly back to New York in the fall of 1904.

On November 11 The World reported that her engagement to Henry Coleman Drayton "will be announced to-morrow."  It was a social coup for Mary.  Drayton, as the newspaper needlessly reminded readers was "the grandson of Mrs. Astor."  Caroline Schermerhorn Astor was the long-reigning queen of Manhattan society.

The World described Constance as "remarkable beautiful and is accomplished in music and the languages."  The young bride-to-be was supposed to have been introduced to society that year.  "Instead of being a debutante she will be a bride."

Caroline Astor took care of that problem.  On January 9, 1905 she threw a "notably large and brilliant ball," as described by The Sun, in 842 Fifth Avenue, her half of the massive double palace she shared with her son, John Jacob Astor.  The connecting ballrooms were thrown open to accommodate Mrs. Astor's 600 guests that night.  

Next to the Mrs. Astor in the receiving line was Constance Knower.  The ball and the distinction of receiving was, said The Sun, her "social debut."  There was no need for anything further.  And everyone was there that night, the Vanderbilts, the Burdens, the Roosevelts and the Sloanes.  Among the guests were two princes, one lord, several marquises, dukes and duchesses, and counts and countesses.

The wedding, which took place on January 21, prompted The New York Press to run a headline reading "Drayton-Knower Bridal Brings Out A Throng."  The newspaper said that St. Thomas's Church was filled "with a throng of fashionable folk."  Margaret was her sister's maid of honor and she and the eight other attendants carried ermine muffs, a reflection of the winter wedding.  (The Sun later reported that Constance gave the muffs as presents to her bridesmaids.)

Following the ceremony Mary hosted the reception in the 77th Street house.  The New York Press said "The wedding brought out almost everybody of social prominence.  The Astors were out in full force, as were the Vanderbilts, Goelets, Pinchots, Enos, Wilsons and Iselins."  The newlyweds left for a "brief honeymoon in the country," after which they sailed for an extended tour of Europe.

No. 4 East 77th Street received a rare social honor when Mrs. Astor came for lunch a month later.   On February 23 The New York Herald called Mary's gathering "a small party, the guests being seated at an oval table, which was ornamented with clusters of American Beauty roses, Mrs. Astor's favorite flower, and bright colored spring flowers--hyacinths, carnations, mignonette and panitia--placed in silver and crystal vases."

Caroline Astor was off to Europe soon afterward, and Mary and Margaret planned to be close behind.  But on May 26, the night before the ship was to depart, Margaret was stricken with appendicitis.  Ten days later she was still in the private hospital of Dr. William T. Bull following her operation.  The New-York Tribune remarked on June 6, "Her trip to Europe has been abandoned."

Margaret made her debut that winter.  And she and her mother were on a steamship on March 24, making the trip they had been forced to miss the year before.  The Sun noted that they "will join the Draytons in Paris."

The trip would be far more momentous than a mere visit with Constance and her husband.  Mary seems to have been arranging a romance for some time.  On September 16, 1906 the New-York Tribune reported on the wedding "of Miss Margaret Knower to the Vicomte Alain de Suzannet the day after to-morrow at Paris, in the Church of St. Pierre de Chaillot."  Standing with the distant cousins at the ceremony were Constance and her husband, and New York millionaire Amos F. Eno.  The article noted "After the ceremony, Mrs. Benjamin Knower...will give a wedding breakfast, for which about one hundred invitations have been issued, at the apartment which she has rented for the season in Paris."

The French magazine Femina published this photo of Margaret following the wedding (copyright expired)
Mary Knower would not be alone in the 77th Street house for especially long.   A few months later, in the spring of 1907, the Draytons were in New York, at the Hotel Renaissance.   Social eyebrows were raised up and down Fifth Avenue when Constance left the hotel in April and went to her mother's house.  Mary had recently purchased a new country home in Saybrook, Connecticut, and Constance soon went there to avoid prying eyes.

On June 26 The New York Times said "Mr. Drayton did not visit his wife, either at her mother's town house or in the country.  He was little in the city and seemed to avoid any place where he was likely to run across his wife."

Constance no doubt shocked everyone when she filed for divorce.  The hearing was held on June 25 and the divorce granted.  But gossip papers (and gossiping socialites) would be frustrated when no details were released.  The papers were sealed and the judge and attorneys involved simply said "the persons concerned desired absolute secrecy."

Constance moved permanently to Paris, where her mother annually visited.  In the meantime Mary haunted fashionable resorts like Bar Harbor.  All the while secret plans were being carried out overseas which would result in Manhattan society being, once again, surprised by one of the Knower women.

On December 29, 1911 stunning news arrived from abroad.  The Evening World reported "Despatches from Paris to-day announced the marriage there of Mrs. Constance Knower Drayton, the beautiful young woman who obtained a divorce from Henry Coleman Drayton, a grandson of Mrs. William Astor, in 1907, to Count Jean Louis Suzannet, her [second] cousin and brother-in-law."

The newspaper noted that although the new countess had been married to Drayton seven years ago, "she is still in her early twenties" and added "Henry Coleman Drayton was not of voting age when he married Mary Constance Knower."

The wedding could not take place until a seemingly insurmountable hurdle had been overcome.  The counts were Roman Catholics.  Margaret had converted to that faith before her wedding.  But Constance was a divorcee, so even her conversion to Catholicism could not erase the fact, which made the marriage within the Catholic Church impossible.  The New-York Tribune explained on December 30, 1911 "She was married under her maiden name, as after becoming a convert to the Roman Catholic Church, more than a year ago, she succeeded quite recently, after repeated visits to Rome, in obtaining the annulment of her union with Henry Coleman Drayton.  The Pope not only gave his consent to the marriage of Thursday, but also sent his blessing to the young couple."

Mary Knower was in a most enviable social position: both of her daughters had titles.

Mary spent less and less time in the 77th Street house.  She leased it year after year to wealthy families like John E. Alexandre, Charles E. F. McCann (The Sun reported on November 30, 1913 "Mrs. E. F. McCann will give two small dances at her home, 4 East Seventy-seventh street, in December.") and close friend George V. Coe.

Tragically, stricken with meningitis, Constance died on May 4, 1920 at just 35-years old.  She left a baby just 18-months old.

After owning No. 4 East 77th Street for a quarter of a century, in May 1922, at the age of 69, Mary Knower sold it to Spotswood Dandridge Bowers and his wife, the former Marjorie Sampson Smith.  Bowers paid her $155,000 for the house, just over $2.3 million today.

Marjorie was Spotswood's second wife.  He had married Christina McLennan in 1916, but she died within the year.  He married Marjorie in 1918.  A year after moving into the 77th Street house they a son, Sampson Pendleton and in 1925 another, Nathaniel Pendleton Bowers.   His birth brought the population of the house up to eight, the other four sons being John M., Roy Campbell,, Alexander Stewart, and Spotswood Dandridge, Jr.

Bowers was an attorney, partner in the law firm of Laughlin, Gerard, Bowers and Halpin.  He was born in 1876 and attended the exclusive Berkeley School in New York, Yale College, and received his law degree from New York Law School in 1902.  Specializing in corporation law, he was the attorney for the Corn Exchange Bank Trust company, and a director in at least three corporations.

Bowers could trace his family in Massachusetts to the 18th century and since 1791 held property in the Cooperstown, New York area.   Spotswood and Marjorie still maintained the summer residence there.

The Bowers continued the tradition of upscale entertaining in the 77th Street house.  On April 10, 1924 the New York Evening Post mentioned "Mr. and Mrs. Spotswood Dandridge Bowers are giving a dance tonight at their home, 4 East Seventy-seventh street, in honor of their niece, Miss Helen Coppell."  And on February 17, 1927 The New York Sun reported "Mr. and Mrs. Spotswood D. Bowers gave a dinner last night at their home...for Sir Richard and Lady Muriel Paget."  Among the guests were recognizable social names like Pell, Rhinelander, Stewart, and Burden.

Spotswood became ill in 1939 and was unable to recover.  He died in the house on December 22 that year at the age of 63.  His body was taken to Cooperstown for the funeral and burial.

Within two years a conversion was initiated.  Completed in 1942 it resulted in one apartment and a doctor's office on the first floor, two apartments on the second, and one each on the floors above.

In 1959 Leo Castelli opened his art gallery on the second floor.  It remained here until 1971 and was essentially the place to see contemporary art.  Art critic Peter Schjeldahl, writing in The New Yorker on June 7, 2010 said Castelli "had a near-monopoly on the top artists."  Among the artists represented in the gallery were Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhold, Lichtenstein, Twombly, Judd, Rosenquist, Oldenburg, Morris and Flavin.

The Michael Werner Gallery operates from the address today.  There is little hint from outside that the house--its limestone facade sadly painted--is not still a private residence.  

photographs by the author

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