Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Louis Blun House - 15 West 76th Street

In 1892 developer Cornelius W. Luyster commissioned architect John H. Duncan to design a row of five brownstone and brick faced homes on the north side of West 76th Street between Central Park West and Ninth Avenue (later Columbus Avenue).  The block would become one of the neighborhood's most impressive, lined with opulent homes like the recently completed mansion of William T. Evans at No. 5 West 76th Street.  Luyster and Duncan had an ongoing business relationship and the pair would create two more spectacular homes on the block seven years later, directly across the street from these.

At 25-feet wide homes and four stories tall above English basements, the homes were intended for well-to-do families.  Their Renaissance Revival designs bespoke respectability and reserve.  Based on the surviving three, it appears that Duncan designed them in an A-B-A-B-A configuration.  The middle house, No. 15, was accessed via a dog-legged stoop.  Delicate chain carvings framed the parlor windows and the doorway; and Renaissance-inspired designs were carved into the panels of the three-sided bay of the second floor.

The third and fourth floors were clad in beige brick.  Four arched windows on the fourth floor sat on a bracketed terra cotta cornice.  Between each a wide brick pilaster wore a Doric capital.  The deeply overhanging cornice was supported by elaborate foliate brackets.

Forty-one years before No. 15 was completed the steamship Seine left Le Havre and arrived in New York Harbor on August 15, 1851.  Among the passengers were several members of the Blun family, including eight-year old Louis.  

Louis and his brothers did well for themselves.  Two decades later on January 3, 1871 the already successful Louis, Nathan and Elias incorporated E. N. Blun & Company "for the manufacturing, selling and dealing in clothing for men and boys."  That same year their sister, Rosalie (who went by her middle name, Ida), married Isadore Straus, another successful German-Jewish businessman.

In 1875 Louis married Jenny Levy.  The couple would have three daughters, Madeleine, Olga, Elsa, and a son, Edwin.  

A surprising notice appeared in the October 1887 edition of The Clothier & Furnisher.  "Mr. Louis Blun, of Blun & Co., retires from that house on the first of the coming year.  Whether his associates will continue under a new name or arrangement is not stated, but it is certain that the good will of such a business is worth too much to be thrown away."

Blun was not retiring, but simply drastically changing professions.  He became a partner with Louis Marx in Marx & Blun Company, tobacco merchants.

The Bluns maintained a summer home in Elberon, New Jersey.  By the time they moved into their townhouse at No. 15 West 76th Street the children were nearing adulthood.  

The first to leave was Elsa, who married Louis Long at Delmonico's on June 7, 1899.  Madeline was her maid of honor, Olga was one of the bridesmaids and Edwin an usher.

In 1901 the former Ambassador to Turkey, Oscar S. Straus, and his wife, Sarah, moved into the former Evans mansion.  Because he was also the brother-in-law of Louis's sister, Ida, it is most likely that the two families were close neighbors.

Oscar and Sarah, for instance, were among the guests at Delmonico's on December 18, 1905 when Madeline was wed to Sigmund Klee.

Louis and Jenny were both highly involved in charitable causes.  Jenny was a member of The United Hebrew Charities and when the Jewish Hospital for Deformities and Joint Diseases was established in May 1906 Louis was appointed its first vice-president.

A reception was held in the 76th Street house on February 24, 1907.  About 100 guests were there that afternoon when Louis and Jenny announced Olga's engagement to Dr. Samuel Bookman.   As had been the case with her sisters, Olga's April 23 wedding was held in Delmonico's.

Later that year Louis Blun retired from business.  With the children gone, it was not long before the couple decided to give up the 76th Street house.  In March 1909 they sold it to E. C. Jameson, president of the National Fire & Marine Insurance Company and of the Globe and Rutgers Fire Insurance Company.

Louis and Jennie moved to the recently built El Dorado apartments at No. 302 Central Park West at the corner of 91st Street (replaced in 1931 by the current El Dorado).  They died six months apart, she on November 26, 1926 and Louis on June 15, 1927.  Louis's sister Ida and her husband were lost in the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912. 

In the meantime, Jameson apparently never moved into No. 15, but leased it.  His first tenant was Daniel O'Connell, a successful attorney with offices at No. 16 Wall Street.  The O'Connells had five grown children--John, Daniel, Elizabeth Irma, and Sheila.  

Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1855, O'Connell was educated at the De Salle Institute in Toronto before studying law in New York City.  He had had a stellar career by now.  President Grover Cleveland had appointed him Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1885; and in 1914 he became president of the McNab & Harlin Manufacturing Company in addition to his legal practice.

In October 1915 O'Connell stepped down from his post at McNab & Harlin because of failing health.  Five months later, on the afternoon of March 14, 1916, the 61-year-old was enjoying a show at the New York Theatre when he suddenly collapsed in his seat.  He was carried to a reception room, then transported to the Polyclinic Hospital, where he died.

The following year in May E. C. Jameson leased No. 15 to William A. Simonson.  (Coincidentally, Simonson had served on the 1915 committee to erect the memorial to Ida and Isidore Straus, "Memory," in Straus Park.)

Simonson and his wife, the former Elizabeth Ball, had a son, Douglass B. and a daughter, Elizabeth S. Simonson.  The family moved in as Elizabeth's debut into society was just two years away.  She was still attending the exclusive Miss Porter's School at the time.

The debutante entertainments began with a reception in the house on the afternoon of December 11, 1919.  The Sun added "A dance at the Club de Vignet will follow the reception.  Mrs. Simonson will give a dance at the Plaza for her daughter on December 23."

The dance at the Plaza was the culmination of the events.  The following day The Sun reported "The Rose room of the hotel was used for the dancing and a seated supper was served about midnight.  There were about 250 guests."

Two years later in February Elizabeth's engagement to Eliot H. Downes was announced.   Downes was "prominently connected with the export department of Converse & Company," according to America's Textile Reporter.

Somewhat surprisingly, despite the fact that the groom's father, Frederick R. Downes, died of a heart attack on August 14, 1921, the wedding went forward.   The New-York Tribune explained "Owing to the recent death of Mr. Downes's father the wedding will be small, with only relatives and a few intimate friends present at the ceremony."  The couple was married in the 76th Street house just two months later, on October 10, 1921.

In 1924 Jameson sold No. 15 to the Florab Realty Corporation, which resold it in October that same year.  Architect A. Satsano was called in to convert the house to a "club" on the first floor.  The Department of Buildings restricted "not more than 15 sleeping rooms in the building."  It was most likely at this time that the heavy stone stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to the basement level.

The stoop, as well as the two houses to the right, were gone when this tax photo was taken around 1940.  via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services

Throughout the next decade--although not officially converted to a multi-family structure--apartments were being leased and advertised in the building.  Then, in 1943, the New-York Historical Society purchased the property for $25,000--in the neighborhood of $363,000 today.

The Society already owned all the property from Central Park West to this point.  In 1937 it had demolished the former Evans-Straus mansion to expand its museum and at some point razed Nos. 11 and 13 West 76th Street for a service yard.

The woodwork and the striking leaded windows of the dining room survive.  via sothebyshomes.com
No. 15 escaped that fate and the Society initially leased it.  In 1969 the city's certificate of occupancy listed an art gallery on the first and second floor, and the upper floors being used for "storage of objects of art and various antiques in connection with the New-York Historical Society."

The Society sold the Blun house to Bear Stearns financier Michael Offen in 1997.  Two years later he sold it to David and Nancy Berkowitz for about $5.5 million.  The couple initiated a restoration to a single family home.  Among the significant work was the replication of the old stoop.

And then, somewhat unexpectedly, the New-York Historical Society repurchased the property, spending $16.5 million in July 2019.   The organization's CEO, Louis Mirrer, told The Real Deal that the house "will be renovated into classrooms for educational programming, though plans to outfit the building for the organization's needs are still underway."

photographs by the author

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