Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Edward W. Sparrow House - 41 East 68th Street

By any estimation Edward Wheeler Sparrow had already led a remarkable life by the turn of the last century.  Born to well-to-do parents in Ireland, he came to America in 1858 at the age of 12.  Traveling West he landed several jobs, including being a page in the Michigan State Legislature and a clerk in a dry goods operation.  As he saved his money, he invested in real estate, eventually owning valuable Lansing, Michigan property, including 16 blocks in downtown Lansing.

In the 1870's the young man partnered with William Knoll, establishing saw mills and extensive lumber operations in the Northwest.  He lived, according to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, "the life of a frontiersman."  Before moving to New York City, in addition to his lumber and real estate interests he had helped organize the City National Bank in Lansing (which he headed for 20 years), developed iron resources in Brazil, and was president of the Lansing Wheelbarrow Co.

Sparrow married Helen Therese Grant in 1896, and the couple had a son, Edward Grant Sparrow.  Just three years after their marriage Theresa died.  On June 30, 1903 Edward married Margaret B. Beattie, daughter of cleryman Charles Beattie.  Margaret was well-educated, having attended Vassar College.  They would have one daughter, Margaret Alicia.

In 1910 Sparrow purchased the older house at No. 41 East 68th Street, formerly home to John Terry Gardiner and his wife.  On May 25 the New-York Tribune reported that the architectural firm of Parish & Schroeder had filed plans for a six-story mansion on the site.  "The facade will be of brick, with trimmings of limestone," said the article.  The plans placed the cost of construction at $60,000--about $1.65 million today.

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The architects created a neo-French Renaissance residence that left no doubt about the wealth of its owner.  Above the rusticated stone base a full-width balustrade gave the impression of a balcony.  The corniced windows of the restrained second and third floors made no attempt at ostentation--that was left to the top levels.  Intricately carved panels flanked the fourth floor openings.  An ample fascia decorated with carved shields ran below the stone cornice which doubled as a balcony to the steep two-story mansard.

Edward Sparrow would not enjoy his new mansion for long.  The 67-year-old fell ill in the winter of 1913, and died in the house on February 21.   A funeral was held in the mansion on February 24, and another in Lansing, Michigan, where he was buried, the following day.

Edward Wheeling Sparrow (original source unknown)
Sparrow had apparently anticipated his impending death and signed his will just five days before.  He managed to control his $3 million estate (more in the neighborhood of $78.5 million today) even after death, putting it in trust with specific directions as to how it was annually distributed to his heirs.  Margaret, for instance, was to receive "a sum not to exceed $50,000 a year" (about $1.3 million today), and Edward's allotments increased as he reached certain birthdays.  Sparrow guarded five-year old Margaret's coming inheritance from any fortune hunters.  Her money, said the will, was "separate and apart from the control or influence of any husband."  Should she die, the money was to go to her children.  If she were childless, it reverted to Margaret and Edward.

The will included life warnings for the children:

I charge upon my son, Edward Grant Sparrow, the practice of economy and that he refrain from ostentation or display, as such practices are not in keeping with the pursuit of learning and are always offensive to good manners and gentlemanly demeanor, and I wish here to impress upon both of my children and especially upon my son the desirability of acquiring a thorough knowledge of business as is practicable.

Unexpectedly, given that she was still in mourning, Margaret and the children arrived at the fashionable Hotel Wentworth in New Castle, New Hampshire six months later.  On August 23 The Sun noted that several members of society had arrived by automobile, including "Mrs. E. W. Sparrow, Edward Sparrow and party, in an Alco."

Margaret was a summer resident of Lenox, Massachusetts where she regularly leased Home Farm, the estate of the deceased William A. Slater of Washington.  And as the "camping" fervor swept society in the years just before the outbreak of world war, she once again hired hired Parish & Schroeder to design "a wooden camp" at Old Forge, New York in 1917.   (Other than pine trees, lakes and occasional passing ducks, the term "camp" for high society had little to do with the term as used today.)

As Margaret's camp was under construction, she and Margaret Alicia, who was now old enough to be listed in society columns, went to Lenox.  Edward joined the Marine Corps. in 1917 and fought overseas.  When he came home in August 1919, The Sun reported that he was "visiting his Home Farm."  Two months later on October 19 The Sun reported that Margaret had given a "farewell luncheon at the Lenox Club for twenty-six guests before closing Home Farm and returning to New York this week."

It was the last time Margaret would close Home Farm.  Two weeks earlier the New-York Tribune had reported that she "is likely to purchase Sunnycroft, the country place of the late Mrs. George Griswold Haven."

By the terms of her father's will, Margaret Alicia could not touch her fortune until her thirtieth birthday.  In the meantime her mother had to make do with the $2,000 per month the girl was allowed.  At the equivalent of $28,000 today, Margaret feared it was not a large enough amount with which to clothe and adorn a girl approaching her debutante years.  In January 1923 she went to court to plead for more money for the 15-year-old.  Given Margaret's own income, the judge was unmoved.  The New-York Tribune reported somewhat sarcastically, "Miss Margaret Alicia Sparrow must makeshift on $2,000 a month for the next 15 years."

Margaret Alicia's debut was unexpectedly understated.  She was introduced to society at a tea in the 68th Street house on December 21, 1926.

Margaret established another summer estate near Locust Valley, Long Island around this time.  She and Margaret Alicia traveled as a pair, appearing in society columns for years as they entertained and moved between their residences.

Like her mother, Margaret Alicia attended Vassar.  She became especially interested in supporting the Girls Scouts of America (a favorite cause of her mother), and was an avid sportswoman.  The New York Post described her as being "interested in riding and hunting and is a familiar figure at the smart sports events held during the year on Long Island."

On April 14, 1936 her mother announced Margaret Alicia's engagement to George Hale Pulsifer.  The wedding was held on the grounds of the Locust Valley mansion on June 12 that year.  The New York Post described "a natural setting of green, with trees and shrubs in the background, but with no special floral decorations and no altar."

In 1950 Margaret moved permanently to Locust Valley.  She died there on July 22, 1958 at the age of 88.

When she left the 68th Street mansion it was converted to apartments, two each on every floor but the top, which held one.  The service entrance was altered to a window and it may have been at this time that the handsome areaway fencing was removed.  The top floor apartment was divided into two in 1968.

photographs by the author


  1. Thank you for the detailed historical post on this mansion. There are less and less single family townhouses/ mansions in New York City and some of the most beautiful are the French Neoclassical homes on the Upper East Side. One of the elements clients often struggle with is what original details to keep versus what to remove or paint over. It's not an easy decision because many inverstors want the historical integrity maintained yet often there is too much woodwork or not quite the style they want to actually live with.

  2. In Lansing, his name is still prominent. Sparrow Hospital is the largest in town.