On February 20, 1909 the New-York Tribune announced that plans had been filed "for a five story house, to be built at No. 8 East 79th street, for Heinrich Schniewind, jr., of Greenwich, Conn. It is to be of brick and granite of the Italian Renaissance type, with a facade finished with bays and balconies, set between two tall pilasters, with capitals of composite design." The article was exceptionally detailed, adding "It will have an American basement entrance, with a vestibule and stairhall. The second story will be fitted with a dining room, a drawing and music room and a sitting room. The building will have an elevator." The plans had been filed by architect Henry C. Pelton, who estimated the construction costs at $50,000--or about $1.42 million today.
Schniewind had founded the Susquehanna Silk Mills a year earlier. Born in Germany in 1869, he was married to the former Helen Greef. The couple had five children, twins Henry Jr. and Ethel, and daughters Helen, Margaret, and Emily.
The 32-room, 35-foot wide residence was completed in 1910. With other mansions in the neighborhood being clad in limestone or marble, the choice of granite for the facade was slightly surprising. Yet it did not detract from--in fact possibly enhanced--the monumental stateliness of the home.
The tripartite design began with a rusticated base where the recessed entrance was framed by paneled pilasters and a projecting cornice. The three-story mid-section was flanked by imposing fluted Composite pilasters. A projecting two-story bay provided a balcony at the fourth floor. Above the stone cornice (which perfectly lined up with the John S. Barnes mansion next door, built in 1901) the understated fifth floor was ornamented only with carved panels on either side of the bank of openings.
|Two views of the entrance and stairway hall. photos by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
|The entrance hall and staircase can be seen through the portieres of the reception room.|
|The "living room" ceiling and fireplace were Tudor in style On the wall to the left is Rembrandt's Portrait of a Man. photos by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Daughter Helen was the first to be introduced to society. The first of the entertainments was a dinner in the house on April 16, 1920. Although there were only 18 at the table, the dance that followed was much larger. The New-York Tribune reported "about one hundred and seventy additional guests came in for the dancing. They included a number of debutantes, and some young men came over for the affair from Harvard, Princeton and Yale."
|Helen Schniewind New-York Tribune, December 14, 1920 (copyright expired)|
The Schniewind summer estate, Wyndhem, was at Glen Cove on Long Island. It was there that Helen's parents announced her engagement to Warren B. Pond. The timing was significant, for her mother would have to juggle the arrangements of the fall wedding with Margaret's debut that winter season.
Two days before the wedding in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church Henry and Helen hosted a dinner for the couple. "The guests will include members of the bridal party and a few young friends of the bride," said The New York Herald.
The day after the wedding The New York Herald commented "Miss Margaret M. Schniewind, who is to be introduced to society this winter, was her sister's maid of honor." Among Helen's six bridesmaids was Alisa Mellon, daughter of Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury. After the ceremony a reception was held in the East 79th Street mansion.
|Helen and Warren Pond on their wedding day. The New York Herald October 7, 1921 (copyright expired)|
The New-York Tribune mentioned "Mr. and Mrs. Schniewind and Miss Margaret Schniewind will sail for Europe on Saturday for a short trip abroad. They will visit England, France and Holland." Emily and Ethel, it appears, stayed home.
The family returned just in time for the first of Margaret's debutante events. On December 30, 1921 The New York Herald announced that the Schniewinds "will give a dance to-night at 8 East Seventh-ninth street for their daughter, Miss Margaret Schniewind, who, with her mother, returned recently from Europe." The New-York Tribune was more detailed, saying that the evening began with a dinner for 20 guests and then, "After the dinner 250 additional guests came in for dancing, and a buffet supper was served at midnight." The young people had socially-recognized names like Brokaw, de Rham, and Warburg.
|Like all proper married couples, Henry and Helen slept separately.|
|The Solarium, at the rear of the house, was an Edwardian retreat. photos by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
The three Schniewind daughters still remaining in the house married in rapid succession. Emily married banker James J. Lee; Margaret was married to Julian Carr Stanley on March 11, 1929; and three month later Ethel's wedding to H. Edward Manville, Jr. took place.
|In 1910 the Schniewind bathroom was state of the art--with a commodious bathtub, two sinks and built-in shaving mirrors. photo by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
A year earlier Henry Schniewind had liquidated the Susquehanna Silk Mills and retired. By then the firm had plants in New Jersey, Ohio, Georgia and Pennsylvania. He and Helen spent much more time at Wyndhem and fashionable resorts. In the fall of 1935, for instance, they visited White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. On October 31 The New York Times mentioned that "Mr. and Mrs. Charles Englehard gave a luncheon at the Greenbrier Casino today in honor of Mrs. Henry Schniewind."
The following year Henry and Helen decided to move permanently to Wyndhem. On September 20, 1936 the Buffalo Courier-Express announced "One of the most interesting auction sales ever conducted in New York was ended yesterday. And the entire contents of the palatial mansion of the Henry Schniewind, Jrs. at 8 East 79th Street are ready to be carried off to their new owners."
The article said "The Schniewinds built the house and have lived in it for about 29 years. During that time they collected a veritable treasure in furniture, rugs, paintings and objects d'art." Saying that a "tour through the house was like a visit to a museum," the article listed among the painters represented "George Romney, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir Joshua Reynolds," along with many other famous artists. Also included in the sale was the Schniewinds' "collection of fourteenth and sixteenth century religious carvings."
|This portrait of sculptor Antonio Canova by Sir Thomas Lawrence sold for more than $37,000 in today's dollars at the sale.|
A month before the auction the mansion had been sold to the Washington Realty Syndicate for $300,000, just over $5.4 million today. Although mansions on the Upper East Side were being converted to apartments at the time, the new owners leased it as a single-family home. It was purchased by Madeline Prentice Gilbert in March 1944.
The Archdiocese of the Greek Orthodox Church had purchased the former John Sanford Barnes mansion next door at No. 10 two years earlier. In 1970 the church acquired No. 8. Although it did not join the structures internally, it made renovations to the Schniewind house. They resulted in offices on the first floor, a lecture room, offices and a conference room on the second, offices on both the third and fourth floors, a caretaker's apartment on the fifth and a residence for the archbishop in the new penthouse, invisible from street level.
Both mansions have been carefully preserved by the church and only a brass plaque hints that they are no longer private homes.
photographs by the author