Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Cortlandt Field Bishop House - 15 East 67th Street

The limestone face of the ground floor has been inexplicably, and regrettably, painted.

The 30-foot wide brownstone-faced house at No. 15 East 67th Street, built in 1879, was home to prominent banker Robert W. Donnell, the senior partner in Donnell, Lawson & Simpson.  On the morning of January 4, 1894 he felt unwell and, according to The Press, rose early with "the intention of testing the benefits of an early morning dip."  His wife and the cook heard a loud thump.  Running to the bathroom they found Donnell on the floor in his bathrobe, gasping for breath.  "Mrs. Donnell fainted away at the sight."  He died soon afterward.

The following year the Lawson family moved into the house.   William T. Lawson was a member the E. S. Higgins Carpet Company.  The family summered in Essex County, New York where J. M. Lawson was the president of the Adirondack Preserve Association.

In the meantime, Cortlandt Field Bishop and his wife, the former Amy Bend, lived at No. 11 Madison Avenue.  November 5, 1905 was an election day and New Yorkers took their excitement over the election of William R. Hearst to Congress to the streets.  The following day The New York Times reported "The multitude, delirious with election-night excitement, was carrying on a riotous carnival of pleasure in Madison avenue."  But "a very disastrous premature explosion of fireworks took place" which resulted in 12 deaths and at least 100 injured.  The blast was significant enough to prompt the Bishops to move.

On March 25, 1903 the New-York Tribune reported "Cortlandt F. Bishop, whose house, No. 11 Madison-ave., was slightly damaged by the explosion of bombs on election night in Madison Square, has bought...No. 15 East Sixty-seventh-st., a four-story and basement brownstone front house."  Decidedly out of style by now, the article noted "The house will be torn down and a new one erected on the site."

The Bishops commissioned architect Ernest Flagg to design the mansion.  Completed four years later, Flagg had created a Parisian-inspired Beaux Arts townhouse that reflected the owners' wealth and social position.  The offset entrance sat above a short stoop.  Hefty brackets upheld the full-width balcony at the second floor fronting three sets of French doors.  The rusticated limestone of the second through fourth floors was decorated with panels of swags and intricate carved garlands drooped from below the fourth floor openings.  The fifth floor took the form of a full-height mansard protected by a tall iron railing.

The American Architect, June 2, 1906 (copyright expired)
Both Cortlandt and his wife had impressive social pedigrees.  He was the son of David Wolfe Bishop (who had inherited the bulk of the estate of the massively wealthy Catharine Lorillard Wolfe) and the former Florence Van Cordlandt Field.  His mother's parents were Benjamin Hazard Field and Catharine Van Cordtlandt de Peyster.

Amy Bend Bishop was the daughter of stock broker George H. Bend.  Before finally deciding on Cortlandt, she had reportedly been engaged 25 times.  The Bishops were married in 1899 and in 1902 their only child, Beatrice was born.

Amy and Beatrice Bishop.  from the collection of the Lenox Library Association
A month before purchasing the former Lawson house Bishop was embroiled in a heated battle over his father's estate.  On February 18, 1903 The Evening World reported "An order for the arrest of Cortlandt F. Bishop will be issued unless he consents to appear before Robert Mazet, the official appraiser, appointed to investigate the personal estate of his father, David Wolfe Bishop.  The elder Bishop died two years ago, leaving several millions of dollars, upon which the State Comptroller seeks to collect taxes."  But Bishop and his brother, David, insisted that their father was a legal resident of Lenox, Massachusetts, where the family's estate, Interlaken, was located.

Cortlandt's and Amy's summer estate, The Maples, was also in Lenox.  His mother's shockingly quick marriage to lawyer John Edward Parsons within a year of David Wolfe Bishop's death did not seem to affect their relationship and the families remained close. 

Cortlandt caused extreme upheaval within the cultured, tradition steeped community of Lenox.  He was fascinated with the recent advances in transportation--airplanes, balloons and automobiles--and was the first to obtain permission to operate a motor car within Central Park.   Years later The New York Times would remember "In 1897 he brought to Lenox a gasoline-propelled tricycle, which the natives quickly christened 'the holy terror.'  It was the first automobile to be seen in the Berkshires, and it aroused the local public to such an extent that the Town Council decreed that any vehicle 'drawn otherwise than by a horse, man, dog, ox or goat must be kept one wheel in the gutter,' and could not exceed six miles an hour.  The ordinance was aimed solely at Mr. Bishop."

In response Bishop tactfully set out to educate humans and horses.  In 1902 the Horseless Era reported that he had started a "school for horses," to accustom them to sharing the roadways with machines; and that same year he began giving driving lessons to Lenox cottagers.

The Bishops's frequent international travels were quite often connected with his automobile or aeronautical interests.  As the president of the Aero Club of America, he traveled to Europe in October 1907 for the international balloon race for the Gordon Bennett Cup, which started in St. Louis on October 23 and ended in Europe.  In reporting on his trip The New York Times mentioned "Mr. Bishop saw the Wright Brothers, but he had no information to impart as to their success in selling their aeroplane invention to any of the European Governments."

Cortland F. Bishop stands at the upper left, while the Wright Brothers are seated in this 1906 photo.  Orville is at the far left and Wilbur at the far right.  from Navigating the Air, 1907 (copyright expired)
Cortlandt's automobile-related troubles were not confined to Lenox.  On July 11, 1912 The New York Times reported that he had been arrested in the Balkans.  "Mr. Bishop was arrested on the complaint of the villagers of Pola, and taken before a Magistrate.  Villager after villager claimed damages for alleged injuries caused by Mr. Bishop's car."  In reality there was little evidence that Bishop was responsible for any damage to the roads and property in the little village; "but in order to dispose of the matter, Mr. Bishop paid $100 in settlement of all 'claims.'"  Nevertheless, the anti-Bishop sentiment was such that "Police provided him with an escort of gendarmes to see him safely out of the village."

With the outbreak of war in Europe, Amy joined the trend of wealthy socialites in providing support to victims.  On October 26, 1914, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "Mr. and Mrs. Cortlandt F. Bishop went by automobile to-day over the Green Mountain trail [outside of Lenox].  Mrs. Bishop has organized a sewing class for the Belgian sufferers, which will hold its first meeting this week at The Maples."

The social prominence of the Bishops was evidenced in the guest list of the dinner party in the 67th Street house on February 2, 1914.  The New-York Tribune reported that among the guests were Count and Countess Stanislas de Castellane, the Ernesto Fabbris, the Theodore Havemeyers, Mr. and Mrs. William Starr Miller, Mr. and Mrs. M. Orme Wilson, Moncure Robinson, and Baron Buissierre; in short members of the highest echelon of society.

13-year old Beatrice posed with her pet monkey, Prince Chin Chin, at Lenox in 1915.  The Sun, August 15, 1915 (copyright expired)
Following the declaration of peace the Bishops planned their first European trip in several years.  On November 16, 1919 The Sun reported "They will join Mrs. John E. Parsons in Paris...they will make a visit to the Belgian and French battle fronts and after some time in Paris will return to the Maples for Christmas."  By now Beatrice was a young woman.  "Their daughter, Miss Beatrice Bishop, who is at Vassar, will have a party of her college friends there and the Maples will be gay during the holiday week."

Keeping track of the movements of Cordlandt and Amy kept society journalists busy.  Following their six weeks in Europe they arrived at the Maples on Christmas Eve.  Three days later The Sun advised they would be there for two weeks and then, "They will be in New York for the opera for a month and then will go to Palm Beach, where they have taken an apartment at the Breakers for March."

The winter break became a routine and on February 28, 1920 The Sun reported they "will begin their annual winter tour of Florida by automobile."  Cordlandt's motoring passion was reflected in his yuletide gifts that season.  "Mr. Bishop gave as Christmas gifts to friends his new automobile map between Lenox and New York," said the article.

A man of broad interests, in 1923 Bishop purchased the American Art Association, perhaps the most esteemed auction house in America.  He hired Hiram Haney Parke and Otto Bernet as his vice-presidents.  

The following year Bishop dipped his toe into the field of journalism, purchasing The Paris Times, an afternoon English language newspaper.  Given the number of English and American businessmen and tourists in Paris, it was a potentially lucrative endeavor.  But two years later he confided to a friend, according to The New York Times, that "he was losing $50,000 a year on his journal, but optimistically expressed belief that it would at least break even in another year or two."  It did not.  On November 16, 1929 The New York Times reported that he had suspended publication.

In the meantime, Beatrice had received a remarkable education.  After graduating from the private Brearly School she received a degree from the Sorbonne in Paris, a bachelor's degree from Vassar College and a master's from Columbia University.  When her parents announced her engagement to Adolf A. Berle, Jr. on September 8, 1927 she was an editor of the Vassar Quarterly Review and was completing a course in social work.  The wedding took place in Grace Church on December 17 that year.

Cortlandt and Amy returned from Paris on November 6, 1934.  They went immediately to Lenox where, according to The New York Times, heart disease "kept him in the house."  The 64-year-old died there on March 30, 1935.  His estate was estimated at $20 million--more in the neighborhood of $366 million today.

The following year, on October 5, 1936, the New York Post wrote "Around this time every year comes the announcement of the formation of some organization sponsored by a group of fashionables...The newest of these organizations, to be known as the Regency Club, draws its membership from among bridge enthusiasts and amateur exponents of other popular games, and has chosen for its headquarters the mansion at 15 East Sixty-seventh Street, one time the town resident of the late Cordlandt Field Bishop."  The article noted that the club intended "to preserve as far as possible the atmosphere and feeling of the original interior, in keeping with the building's architectural style.  The beautiful marble staircase, which was always one of the principal features of the mansion, has been retained, as well as the paneling, lighting fixtures, etc."

The club hired architect Nathan Ginsburg to do the renovations.  They resulted in club rooms and a dining room on the first floor, club rooms on the upper floors and six servants' bedrooms on the top floor.

In 1964 the Regency Club merged with the Whist Club, becoming the Regency Whist Club which remains in the building.  Other than a misguided coat of paint over the limestone base, the Bishop mansion is nearly unchanged.

photograph by the author

1 comment:

  1. Amy Bishop could not have been engaged to J.J. Astor III. J.J III was the brother in law of "The" Mrs. Astor and was therefore from a previous generation. Indeed, J.J. III died in 1890. It is possible that she may have been engaged to his nephew, J.J. Astor IV. However, J.J. IV married Ava Willing in 1890, so if he and Amy were engaged it would have been a full decade before she married Courtland Biship.