Thursday, July 25, 2019

The 1911 Charles Lane Poor Mansion - 35 East 69th Street

photograph by Gryffindor

Born in Hackensack, New Jersey in 1866, Charles Lane Poor formed a partnership with his brother, James Harper Poor in 1900 to form the J. Harper Poor & Co. dry goods commission firm.  It was an unlikely move for Charles, who had earned his Ph.D. in astronomy from Johns Hopkins University in 1892.  His appointment as a professor of astronomy at Columbia University in 1903, however, ended his involvement with the dry goods firm.

The split did not affect the close relationship between the brothers, however, and in 1910 they planned side-by-side mansions on East 69th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.   In January that year the Union Theological Seminary sold its property which engulfed the the block front of Park Avenue from 69th Street to 70th Street.  It did not take long for millionaires to snatch up the four parcels.

On January 12 The Sun reported that "The fifty foot plot on Sixty-ninth street was sold to Prof. Charles Lane Poor."  The brothers split the lot into 25-foot building plots for their homes.  Their close relationship did not extend so far as choosing the same architects.  James Harper Poor hired Howells & Stokes, while Charles commissioned Walker & Gillette.

Walker & Gillette designed the four-story No. 35 East 69th Street in the sedate neo-French Renaissance style.  Faced in limestone, its rusticated base held arched openings, which continued around the eastern elevation, made possible by a service alley.   The bowed Juliette balconies which fronted the full-length, second floor French windows were cast in bronze, rather than the more expected cast iron.  A prominent stone cornice (which lined up perfectly with that of the James Poor mansion) was upheld by substantial modillions.  The cost of construction was $50,000, or around $1.36 million today.

Charles Lane Poor had married Anna Louise Easton on April 19, 1892 and the couple had three children, 14-year old Charles, Jr.; Alfred Easton, who was 12; and 7-year old Edmund Ward.  By the time the family moved into the East 69th Street house Lane was internationally known in the scientific community.  He was an associate fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow in the New York Academy of Sciences, a member of the Astronomische Gesellschaft in Leipzig, and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in London.

His academic work did not interfere with his other passion--yachting.  The year his new home was completed he invested in another costly project.  The Sun reported on March 1, 1911 "Prof. Charles Lane Poor of Columbia, a prominent member of the New York and other yacht clubs, has ordered a 45 foot day cruiser to be built by the Holmes company from designs by William Gardner."

Charles Lane Poor (original source unknown)

The family's summer home, Eastward, was in Shelter Island on Long Island.  There Poor was highly involved in the yachting sport and was secretary of the Manhasset Country Club.  In the summer of 1912, for instance, ten yacht clubs, some as far away as Chicago and Maine, competed in what the New-York Tribune described as a "series of three races for the Manhasset Bay challenge cup."  A special committee was formed with a representative of each club and Charles Lane Poor was chosen from the American Yacht Club.

The Poors did not restrict themselves to Eastward.  On May 8, 1910 the New-York Tribune's Newport correspondent reported that "Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt is here inspecting The Breakers, and Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs arrived to-night to make an inspection of Rosecliff.  Both are at the Muenchinger King cottage.  Other guests at the same house are Mr. and Mrs. Charles Lane Poor."

When in town Anna was active in charitable causes.  She was a director of the St. Luke's Home for Aged Women and took an active role in fund-raising for New York School of Applied Art.  

The mansion was originally four stories tall, like the James Harper Poor home next door.  photograph via

World War I had its effects on the Poor household.  Charles was tasked with solving a problem of air navigation.  In July 1918 Aerial Age wrote "The most difficult problem that was considered as facing the pilot...was that of keeping posted on his latitude and longitude...The matter of keeping to a course has been almost entirely solved by the invention of a radio receiving instrument by which it is possible to tell the exact direction from which radio waves are given forth."  That invention was Poor's "position line indicator."

The conflict more directly affected Charles, Jr.  A student at Harvard, he left school in 1917 to join the Navy.  On April 28, 1918 The Sun announced his engagement to Janet Sheppard.  As well as saying that the bride-to-be had not yet been introduced to society, the article noted that Charles "is now an ensign in the United States Navy and is awaiting orders for foreign service."

Those orders came more quickly than thought.  Two weeks later, on May 12, the New-York Tribune reported that the couple had been married "last evening in the chantry of St. Thomas's Church...Only relatives and a few intimate friends were present."  The article explained that the wedding "was hurriedly arranged on account of the bridegroom's war plans."

The unusual social conditions caused by war prompted a few allowances to social norms.  One of the first rites of passage for newly introduced young women was acceptance into the Junior League.  On December 14, 1918 that exclusive group made an exception to tradition.  In reporting on the new members, The New-York Tribune reported "Two recent brides, Mrs. Elliott D. Phillips and Mrs. Charles Lane Poor, who were married before making their formal debuts, were also elected to membership."

Charles Lane Poor was a recognized authority on matters celestial; so when in 1919 when Amherst College Professor David Todd announced he would attempt to communicate with Martians by using a wireless apparatus attached to a hot-air balloon, a reporter called on Poor for his thoughts.  And Poor was not reluctant to respond.  "I am not interested in such foolishness.  Any man who is has more imagination than science."

Poor's outspoken opinions became more notable--bordering on notorious--when he vocally attacked Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity as well as the theories of other well-established experts.  On November 28, 1922, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "Charles Lane Poor, professor celestial mechanics at Columbia University, who has just completed a book in which he seeks to disprove the Einstein theory of relativity, interrupted his labors long enough yesterday to do the same thing with the conclusions of Professor Thomas Jefferson Jackson See, government astronomer at Mare Island, Calif., that he had discovered the secret of gravitation." 

Poor told the reporter "I know nothing whatever about the cause of gravitation nor, so far as I am aware, does anybody else."  He went on, "To prove his statement, Professor See would have to show either that all observations for the last thousand years are wrong, that the earth and moon are not what they seem, and have not been where they have always been seen, or else prove that the mathematics of...a whole line of eminent astronomers are faulty."

Alfred Easton Poor graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's architecture school in 1923.   He would go on to a celebrated career and in 1946 would establish a partnership with A. Stewart Walker, previously a partner in Walker & Gillette, which had designed the Poor mansion.  

Alfred was still living with his parents in 1927 when he receiving a traffic ticket in Lyndbrook, Long Island for "passing a red traffic signal."  He paid a $5 fine.

On October 20, 1927 Charles, Jr. died in Boston at the age of 30.  Two years later his widow, Janet, married her former brother-in-law, Alfred Poor, in the All Saints Church in Locust, New Jersey.

Charles and Anna continued on in the 69th Street house and at Shelter Island.   On April 19, 1942 they hosted a dinner party to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.  Included on the guest list, according to The New York Times, were "the original wedding party" from the 1892 ceremony.

Charles died in the residence on September 27, 1951 at the age of 85.  His obituary notice published by the Royal Astronomical Society did not overlook his passion for sailing.  Calling him "an ardent yachtsman," it noted "He wrote books on the measurement of yachts and several books on navigation."  

Anna died in No. 35 almost six years later, on May 8, 1957 at the age of 88.    The mansion shortly became home to the nonprofit Medical Passport Foundation, Inc.  Cruising World explained its services to travelers saying "For a small fee this organization will provide you with a passport-size packed for storing a succinct medical summery, including pertinent history, physical findings, and laboratory data."

The former Poor mansion was purchased by The Episcopal School in 1972.  After renovations it opened in September 1974.  Founded in 1961 by representatives of six Episcopal parishes, the goal was "to offer a developmentally appropriate early childhood program for children in the neighborhood," according to the school's website.

photo by Gryffindor
In 1986 the building was enlarged by adding two stories.  The period appropriate addition took the form of a fifth floor and mansard.  A stone balustrade was added to the cornice and the openings of the fifth floor were given arched pediments which tied them to the original architecture at the second floor.  The steep mansard, while admittedly a bit out of proportion, features French oeil-de-boeuf dormers.

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