Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Eric P. Swenson House - 13 East 71st Street

Eric Pierson Swenson was born in Austin, Texas to Svante Magnus Swenson and the former Sue McReady and educated at the prestigious Trinity College.  Although he moved his family to New York City in 1875 he still owned a sprawling cattle ranch and was president of a pioneering Texas sulfur firm, the Freeport Texas Company (later renamed the Freeport Sulphur Compay).  In New York he continued to diversify, entering the banking business and investing heavily in railroads.

Swenson married Maud Tilgman around 1881.  She died in 1891, the year after the birth of their son, Svant Magnus.

On November 23 that same year Swenson purchased the four-story brick-faced house at No. 13 East 71st Street from Edward H. Van Ingen.  He paid $20,000 for the property, about $569,000 today, and immediately hired esteemed architect R. H. Robertson to design a stylish home to replace it.  

Completed in 1892, the 20-foot wide Queen Anne-style residence sat on a brownstone base.  In contrast to the high stoop of the former house, the entrance sat three steps above the sidewalk.  The upper floors were clad in light brown Roman brick, trimmed in brownstone.  Atypical of the style, the design was strictly symmetrical.  The faceted oriel of the second floor wore a copper roof and the openings of the third floor--arranged in a stylized palladian configuration--were fully framed in brownstone.  Brilliant stained glass transoms would have filled their transoms.  The slate-shingled mansard level featured a full-height brick dormer.

Swenson was seemingly indefatigable in his business pursuits.  By the time he and his baby son moved in he was a director of the San Antonio & Aransas Passenger Railway Company.  He would add directorships to the Southern Pacific Company, the Pacific Oil Company, Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the New York Shipbuilding Company to his resume.

In 1895 Swenson married Amelie B. Berthelot.  The following year, in December, a son was born, Swen Randolphe.

Swenson and seven other investors formed a new bank in March 1900 when they incorporated the Fidelity Bank.  Among Swenson's partners were Robert Olyphant, Jacob H. Schiff and Seth M. Milliken.

Entertainments in the 71st Street house were routinely intimate.  On March 11, 1900, for instance, The New York Times reported that Amelie "gave last evening at her residence, 13 East Seventy-first Street, a small dinner of twelve covers."  Almost assuredly two of the guests that night were Eric's sister, Eleanor, and her fiancĂ©, John Henry Towne.

The Swensons' father had died by now and Amelie was highly involved in her sister-in-law's pre-wedding entertainments.  A month later, on April 18, 1900 The New York Times reported "Mrs. Eric P. Swenson (Miss Amelie Berthelot) of 13 West Seventy-first Street gave a tea yesterday afternoon in honor of Miss Swenson and her bridal attendants."  Eric Swenson gave his sister away at her wedding in the fashionable St. Bartholomew's Church.  

"Camping"--a term vastly different in meaning than today--was becoming popular with millionaires at the time.  Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains caught the attention of wealthy New Yorkers for its pristine views and ample hunting and fishing.  The Swensons' "camp," was named Indian Carry Farm.

On June 10, 1906 the New-York Tribune would note "Upper Saranac is one of the most beautiful spots to be found in the mountains, and on its shores are some of the finest camps which the Adirondacks can boast."  The newspaper mentioned some of the millionaires who maintained "fine camps on this lake," including Levi P. Morton, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Percy Rivington Pyne, Isaac N. Seligman and the Swensons, among others.  

But well before that article Eric Swenson headed the charge of wealthy landowners against an unlikely foe--Cornell University.  As president of the Association of Residents on Upper Saranac Lake, he petitioned the State Attorney General to prevent the school from destroying 30,000 acres of virgin forest.  The school's College of Forestry had arranged for a Brooklyn barrel firm to harvest the trees, build a "stave and heading factory" on the lane, and construct a railroad to transport the logs and cord wood.  The university argued that with the land denuded of trees, it could institute a "scientific replanting and natural reproduction" reforestation.  Swenson's tireless battle saw him appear in Albany over a period of two years before Cornell was forced to cease "lumbering of the land for purely commercial purposes," as worded by the Attorney General.

The New York Times, August 15, 1945

Swenson was in court for another highly-visible case in 1902.  On September 23, 1900 millionaire William Marsh Rice was found dead in his bed by his valet, Charles F. Jones.  It was assumed that he had died in his sleep.   Rice had been a long-term friend of Swenson and a customer of his bank for 20 years.  He and other of Rice's close friends knew that he intended his fortune to be used to found Rice University in Houston, Texas.  But almost immediately Rice's attorney, Albert T. Patrick, announced that elderly man had changed his will just before his death, leaving the bulk of the estate to him.

Patrick arrived at the bank the day after Rice's death with a check for $25,000 (more than three-quarters of a million today) made out to him.  Swenson immediately recognized the signature as a forgery and refused to cash it.  He informed the lawyer that, as he should well know, Rice's assets were frozen upon his death.

Now certain there was foul play, Swenson went to the authorities and warned them not to cremate the body.  An investigation was launched and Swenson testified in court on January 24, 1902.  The New York Times said "His story of his meeting with Patrick and his conversation with him on the day following the murder, told in a simple, straightforward manner on the direct examination, was listened to with breathless interest in the crowded courtroom."  Patrick and the valet Jones were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and forgery of the will.

In August 1916 the Swensons hired architects Trowbridge & Livingston to update their home.  Plans filed in August 1916 called for "alterations and additions."  The renovations cost the equivalent of $118,000 today.

A reassignment of posts within of the National City Bank occurred in May 1921 following the resignation of its president, James A. Stillman.   At a board of directors' meeting on May 3, Eric Swenson was elected Chairman of the Board.

By now Swenson's cattle interests in Texas had greatly increased.  In June 1922 The New York Herald reported that he had "just completed a tour of his cattle interests" there.  The Swenson Land and Cattle Company owned "broad grazing lands and operates several ranches in Texas," explained The New York Times.  He also owned oil companies, one of which was the Swensondale Company of Texas.  In November 1927 he formed the Swenson Texas Company "to function as a holding concern for his stocks in various enterprises," reported The New York Times.

Amelie Swenson died in 1929.   Eric resigned his position as Chairman of National City Bank that year, although he remained on the board.  Called by The New York Times "one of the most influential men in the financial community," he continued to live at No. 13 East 71st Street until his death at the age of 90 at Indian Carry Farm on August 14, 1945.

In 1947 the Swenson house was converted to a multi-family dwelling.  There was now a doctor's office and apartment in the basement, a duplex on the second and third floors, and two apartments each on the upper floors.

The most colorful and celebrated tenant was Magda Gabor, the elder sister of Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor.   In 1950 she was introduced to Arthur Gallucci, known as Tony, at a Long Island cocktail party in 1950.  In his Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend, author Sam Staggs writes "Magda and Tony became inseparable and eventually lived together in Magda's town house at 13 East Seventy-first Street and in Tony's estate on Long Island."  It was a rocky relationship at best, troubles arising from Tony's womanizing and drinking.

In 1996 the house was reconverted to a single family residence.   Because the Swenson family remained in the home for half a century, its Victorian presence survived while throughout the early 20th century limestone and marble mansions rose around it.

photographs by the author

1 comment: