Thursday, October 24, 2019

The John Junius Morgan House - 64 East 77th Street

Around 1877 a row of skinny houses was erected on the southern side of East 77th Street, for (it seems) developer James. V. S. Woolley.  They were located just east of the soot-belching trains of Fourth Avenue (later Park Avenue) which would not be lowered below ground for years.  The residences, which were a mere 12-feet, 6-inches wide, were literally considered to be on the wrong side of the tracks.  Yet at four stories tall they were intended for upper-middle class families.  Faced in brownstone they were most likely designed in the pervasive Italianate style.

No. 64 became home to the Robert J. Clyde family.  Clyde and his wife, Julia, had a daughter, also named Julia.  He was perhaps best known for his military involvements.  He was a lieutenant in "The First Brigade of the Boys in Blue" which was made up of the First, Second, and Third Regiments of the New York Reserves.  They were Black regiments but their officers, like Clyde, were all white.

The difficulties of living in a still-developing neighborhood taxed Clyde's patience in the spring of 1881.  He fired off an indignant letter to Alderman Perley on March 11 that read:

Won't you use your utmost endeavors to have a crosswalk laid at Seventy-seventh street and Fourth avenue, both, crossing Fourth avenue; the mud is at least eight to twelve inches deep.  You promised all last year to have this done, but did not do it; please hurry it through.
By 1888 Martin Logan lived in the house.  That year he obtained a patent for his improved "self-draining floor for stalls."  His design placed a recess in the center of the horse stalls fitted with wooden, detachable slats.  The waste flushed out in the cleaning of the stalls ran directly into a covered gutter that ran along the front.

Scientific American, Architects and Builders Edition, November 1888 (copyright expired)
No. 64 was sold in October of 1903 to Josephine Lazarus.  She contracted architect George A. Freeman to update the house.  The significant project, which included adding indoor plumbing, took more than a year to complete.

Josephine sold the updated residence in April 1908 to Mary Tooker Best, the widow of Army Colonel Clermont Livingston Best.  Mary's purchase of No. 64 was, perhaps, prompted by her daughter, Annie Livingston Best's upcoming marriage to Elizur Yale Smith.  

Nearly two decades earlier, when Mary and Clermont were married in Mary's Newport "cottage" on Bellevue Avenue on September 29, 1884, The New York Times raised an eyebrow at the lop-sided social match.  It entitled the announcement "Col. Best Secures A Bride Worth a Million," and ended the article saying "Col. Best is a native of New-York and a graduate of West Point.  The bride is about 33 years of age, and is worth $1,000,000 at least in her own right."  (The groom was, incidentally, 27 years older than his bride.)

Col. Best died on April 7, 1897 at the age of 73.  Annie was 10 years old at the time.  Mary sent her to France to be educated.  By the time of her debut into society in 1905 she was an accomplished pianist--so much so that Mrs. William Astor pointed her out for "special attention" at her mid-season ball.

Now the Bests moved into No. 64 East 77th Street and Annie's wedding took place seven months later, in November 1908.  But the mother and daughter would soon share the house again.  Annie left Elizur Yale Smith after a few months.

Following her divorce, Annie got permission to resume her maiden name, but the appellation "Mrs." remained.   Her engagement to Arthur Carroll was announced on June 10, 1910.

The wedding took place in the 77th Street house on September 10.  The following day The Sun explained "It was intended to have the wedding in Newport, where Mrs. Best has had a cottage during the past summer.  It was found impossible however, for Mrs. Best to find quarters for all the guests she expected to invite."  The article added "Mrs. Annie Best is a very fair blond with a delicate complexion."

The New York Herald noted "the house was simply decorated with palms, ferns and cut flowers...After the ceremony there was a small reception and a luncheon."  The article mentioned that after their "short wedding trip" the couple would "make their home in this city."  They moved in with Mary in No. 64.

Mary ceded the social spotlight to her daughter, who entertained often and lavishly.  An amusing diversion among society women in the early years of the 20th century was the recreation of famous paintings by dressing in costume and posing before appropriate backdrops within an enormous frame.   Annie held what the Amsterdam Evening Recorder called "a picturesque carnival of antics" at No. 64 on January 30, 1912.

"Famous women stepped from portraits by old masters and joined grand dames of the Colonial period in patches and powdered hair, Turkish noblemen and gypsies, German peasants, fanciful characters, French students and even the typical Parisian apache.  It was as colorful a company as has gathered in any house in New York this winter, although it numbered less than a hundred all told."  

Annie dressed as the Goddess of Night in black chiffon gown glittering with gold and silver stars.  Arthur wore the costume of a Turkish nobleman "which his grandfather had brought from the Orient complete in all its details."  Mr. and Mrs. Irving Brokaw arrived as "Spaniards of the sixteenth century."  Other guests included the Reginald C. Vanderbilts, the Dudley Olcotts, James Deering and his wife, and society architect Francis L. V. Hoppin and his wife.

Later that year, just days before leaving the Newport cottage, the family faced near tragedy.  Mary had already sent most of the servants back to New York, along with much of the silverware.  On the night of September 24 Annie smelled smoke and rushed through the hallways to awaken the others.   She went into hero mode as the blaze worsened.

The New York Times reported "She rushed to her mother's room and carried her to safety.  She then got an old colored cook out of the burning house."  Annie rushed back to her own room, threw cash and jewelry into a bag and tossed it out the window before escaping.  (The bag was never found.)  The mansion with its expensive furnishings, tapestries and artwork was completely destroyed.

Annie's entertainments always included the highest echelons of society, as well as visiting European titles.  She gave a reception in the 77th Street house on the afternoon of December 18, 1913 for Condessa del Sera, for instance, and a month later, on January 14, 1914, The New York Herald reported "bringing together more than a hundred of her friends, Mrs. Arthur Carroll gave a dinner and dance last night at her house, No. 64 East Seventy-seventh street, for Count and Condessa Emllio del Sera."

By 1916 Mary had transferred the title to No. 64 to Annie.  On December 3, 1917 The Evening Post reported that she had leased the house to Charles Astor Bristed and his wife, the former Grace Ashbury.  A nephew of John Jacob Astor and had inherited the millionaire's former country estate, Hell Gate, on the Upper East Side.  He demolished the Astor mansion just after the Civil War and was responsible for laying out 88th and 89th Streets on the former estate.

Because of the war in Europe Grace and her daughters M. Symphorosa and Grace Astor moved into the rented house without Charles.  On January 27, 1918 The Sun reported "Mrs. Charles Astor Bristen and the Misses Bristed have left Lenox and are at 64 East Seventy-seventh street.  Mr. Bristed is with the United States forces in France."

Grace was active in the war effort, most notably the Junior Book Committee which gathered new and used books to send to the front.  She pleaded in an article in April 1918 "There are hundreds of thousands of books lying idle here at home doing no one any good.  Let's give them to our men' it's a way of doing our bit."  The Sun advised "books old and new may be sent to the Junior Book Committee's president, Miss Grace Astor Bristed, at 64 East Seventy-seventh street."

On June 10, 1919 the New-York Tribune reported that Sherman Post Haight had purchased No. 64.  It came at the breaking point in Annie's marriage to Arthur Carroll.

They divorced and on January 21, 1920 Annie married William Sackett Duel.  Her new husband had two sons, 15-year old William, Jr. and 13-year old Robert Ensor.  The family, including Mary, moved to the Duell estate, Hillcroft, in Meadowbrook, Pennsylvania.

The family sold Hillcroft in 1923 and returned to New York--surprisingly back to East 77th Street.  On May 24, 1923 The New York Times reported "Mrs. Mary Tooker Best...died of heart disease yesterday at the home of her son-in-law, W. Sackett Duell, 64 East Seventy-seventh Street."

Annie's luck with marriage was not good.  She divorced Duell on February 15, 1925 and would go on to have two more husbands.  

That year William Card Moore, described by The New York Times as a "wealthy New York broker and Yale graduate," purchased No. 64.  He and his wife, Virginia, hired the architectural firm of Treanor & Fatio to give the vintage home a total makeover.  

The stoop was removed and the entrance moved slightly below street level.   The brownstone facade was stripped off to be replaced by two stories of red brick.  A steep, two-story mansard sat back, providing outdoor space.

It does not appear that the Moores ever lived in the house, but leased it to well-do-to tenants.  Immediately after the renovations were completed it was rented to William MacNeil Rodewald, and the following year was sold to Henry J. Simonson, president of the United States Bond & Mortgage Corporation, and his wife Helen.  They paid the Moores $68,000 for the house, approximately $965,000 today.

And then in May 1931 Simonson sold No. 64 to John Junius Morgan.  He was the only child of Juliet Pierpont Morgan and the Rev. John B. Morgan.  Juliet was the sister of financier J. Pierpont Morgan (her marriage to someone with the same surname eliminated the nuisance of changing her stationery and calling cards).  Upon his mother's death in 1923 Morgan had inherited her entire estate.

By the time John Junius Morgan moved in, the skinny house was hemmed in by soaring apartment buildings.  via NYC Department of Records & Information Services

Morgan shared the house by the mid-1940's with Gertrude Bigelow, the widow of wealthy real estate man Talmon Bigelow.  He had committed suicide in 1927 at the age of 29; officials attributing his action to "shell shock" from World War I--what today we would call post traumatic stress disorder.

It seems that Gertrude's adult son also lived in the house.  On January 16, 1945 The New York Sun's society page featured a photo of a handsome couple with the caption "Miss Dale the Wedgwood Room of the Waldorf-Astoria with Talmon Bigelow, son of Mrs. Talmon Bigelow of 64 East 77th Street."

The exact relationship between John and Gertrude is unclear.  Following his death at his country estate in West Chilington, Sussex, England on March 16, 1949, The New York Times reported "To Gertrude J. Bigelow of 64 East Seventy-seventh Street, he bequeathed the use of his house at that address for a period of five years, without rent or other charges."

Perhaps because of its narrow proportions, the house was never divided into apartments.  In 2008 plans were filed for "interior demolition" of the single-family house.  Today the Luxembourg & Dayan Gallery discreetly operates from the home.

photographs by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment