Saturday, March 7, 2020

The Thomas L. Bennett House - 152 East 63rd Street

In 1906, the British-born architect Frederick Junius Stern arrived in New York from Colorado.  Sterner saw architecture and interior design differently from most and he purchased a Victorian brownstone on an East 19th Street block lined with similar homes.  Before long he had transformed it into a Mediterranean-style villa with a stuccoed façade and red tile roof.    By 1911 the block was filled with Sterner’s fantastic Tudor, Gothic and Mediterranean renovations; earning it the nickname “The Block Beautiful.”
Now he turned his attention to the Upper East Side.  An article in the April 1915 issue of Architecture noted “Mr. Frederick Junius Sterner, architect, has started an ideal development of a group of old houses facing on East 63rd Street, New York.  Mr. Sterner’s intention here is to change the exteriors of these houses in East 63rd Street on the same principle that he followed in his development of East 19th Street…Mr. Sterner believes that the interior of a living place should be primarily the thing to be considered, the exterior coming about because of the interior requirements.”
At the time of the article Sterner was well into the process of converting two brownstones into a single modern home for himself at Nos. 154-156 East 63rd.  He would soon do the same for the clothier Maurice Brill at Nos. 163 and 165, and for Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt at Nos. 153 and 155.  The single high-stoop brownstone at No. 152, next door to his own residence would get a makeover as well.
Built in the 1870's, it had originally been home to the Noah A. Child family.  By the mid-1890's cutlery manufacturer Simon Blumauer and his wife Adela owned the house.  Simon was among a long list of locals who signed a petition to the Board of Aldermen and the Commissioner of Public Works in 1895 requesting a "bicycle path between the upper and lower parts of the city."  Their suggested route was "via Eighth avenue, Hudson street and College Place [later West Broadway]."
Like all the moneyed residents of the block, the Blumauers left for their country home each summer.  Burglars were well aware of the practice and most homeowners left at least one servant in the city to keep watch.  In 1914 the Blumauers would regret not doing so.
On August 19 the New-York Tribune reported "For seven weeks thieves enjoyed the exclusive use of the spacious home of Herman Blumauer."  Blumauer's son had come home to retrieve some clothes and found the door locked from within.  He managed to force the door with a neighbor's help, and found that "the house had been ransacked."
The article said the thieves had "camped on the site, made the house a rendezvous, and then gathered up several thousand dollars' worth of loot, part of which had been removed."  The journalist seemed shocked as much by their untidiness as their audacity: "The table was littered with dishes that had not been washed."  Valuable items were packed up awaiting removal; but the discovery came to late to save furs, silverware and clothing that "had been removed in large quantities."
The following year, on July 17, 1916, the Record & Guide reported that the Blumauers had sold the 16-foot wide house to Philip Green Gossler.  The 46-year-old was an electrical engineer who had been associated with a variety of power companies, most recently holding the position of second vice-president with the J. G. White & Company, Inc.  But just prior to purchasing the Blumauer house he had surprisingly turned to banking, joining the firm of A. B. Leach & Company.
Philip G. Gossler The Canadian Electrical News, January 1904 (copyright expired)
Gossler hired his next-door neighbor to remodel the out-of-date brownstone.  Sterner removed the stoop and lowered the entrance to the basement level.  Fanciful charm was accomplished with a large window at the former parlor level.  Its clear leaded glass panels were unified by a square-headed Gothic drip molding.  The other than their charming small-paned windows, the stuccoed upper floors were impassively unadorned.  A blind Rapunzel-ready attic window sat below a crow-stepped gable.  Calling it a "garden theme residence," the New York Evening Press noted "One of its features is that the dining room opens into a walled garden in the rear."
The Gossler house as it originally appeared.  The wide residence next door is the Frederick Sterner home.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Gossler and his wife, the former Mary Claflin, had been married since 1895.  She was the granddaughter of Henry C. Claflin, head of H. B. Claflin & Co., once the largest wholesale dry goods firm in the world.  The couple had three children, Mary, who was 19-years old when the family moved in; 16-year old Katherine; and Philip, who was 15.
Although the remodeling of the house had cost Gossler the equivalent of a more than a quarter of a million in today's dollars, the family's stay would be relatively short.  Philips romantic eye wandered to Alice Muller Choate, the wife of Joseph K. Choate.   After she discovered the affair Mary packed up the children and moved to No. 891 Madison Avenue where she filed for divorce in 1918.
Alice Choate then obtained a Reno divorce in February 1919.  The New York Herald reported "'Cruelty' was said to have been the cause alleged in the divorce proceedings."  Three days later she and Gossler were married in California.
The newlyweds lived in the 63rd Street house while a new home was being built closer to Central Park, at No. 14 East 65th Street.  Upon its completion Gossler sold No. 152 to Dr. Thomas L. Bennett in May 1922 for $75,000--about $1.12 million today.
Bennett, who was described by the New-York Tribune as "a specialist in the giving of anaesthetics," was associated with the New York and the Roosevelt Hospitals.  Born in Massachusetts in 1869, he had arrived in New York City in 1897.  Some sources credit him with being the first professional anesthetist in America.
Bennett had married a nurse, Ethel Hope, in 1911, a year after the death of his first wife.  Bennett had two daughters from that marriage, and this one would produce two more.  The family's summer estate, Wildacre, was in Newport and their winter home was in newly-fashionable Palm Beach, Florida.
Art collections were expected in the homes of the well-to-do, but Bennett's was somewhat unusual.  He collected etchings of artists including Joseph Pennell, Levon West, Edmund Blampied and Arthur Briscoe.  There were more than 60 prints by Swedish artist Anders Zorn "including a number of the rare early subjects," according to The New York Times.
Daughter Belle showed talent as an artist and studied for two years under American sculptor Solon Borglum.  She was 22-years old when the family moved into No. 152 and was now attending the School of American Sculpture.  In 1923 she submitted a "pair of Sea-Horse Andirons" cast in bronze to the schools sculpture exhibition.
On March 11, 1924 the Bennetts announced her engagement to James Henry Schmelzel, Jr.  The society wedding took place in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on April 5.  Belle's sister, Hope was her maid of honor and sister Katherine was an attendant.
On December 21 that year the newlyweds welcomed a daughter.  But tragedy was in their near future.  The couple purchased a home in Scarsdale in April 1925.  On the evening of January 10, 1926 James pulled his automobile to the side of the road after a tire chain came loose.  Belle waited in the car while the he worked on tightening the chain.  Suddenly an approaching car struck Schmelzel.  Its driver took him to a nearby hospital, but he died the following day.
Belle and her daughter moved back into the 63rd Street house.  A year later, on June 24, 1927, the Bennetts announced her engagement to Webster E. Janssen.  The wedding took place in the drawing room of Wildacre on August 29 that year.  The New York Times noted it "was decorated with flowers from the garden of the estate."
By now Bennett had moved out out No. 152.  He had sold it in March.  The new owner, Harold K. Guinzburg, was a co-founder and president of the publishing firm the Viking Press, Inc.  The family remained until 1941 when the house was sold to John Gordon Winchester and his wife, Julia.
This photo was taken the year the Winchesters moved in.  via NYC Department of Records & Information Services
A graduate of Harvard, Winchester had been a broker with Gammack & Co., but had just changed jobs to become an investment manager with the Fiduciary Trust Company of New York.  The marriage in 1933 was the second for both John and Julia, both of their earlier marriages ending in divorce.  The bride now had the impressive if cumbersome name of Julia Mayo Fisk Bowles Winchester.
John had three sons from his first marriage, and Julia had two children, Barbara and Chester Bowles, Jr.  Barbara was among the debutantes of the 1946-1947 season.  The family remained here until 1951 when John's son Gordon was attending Harvard.
After the Winchesters left the house it ceased being a private resident.  The basement level was converted to an apartment and, in a move that would have horrified Frederick J. Sterner, a stoop was installed to provide access to the main house.  That required the partial removal of the Gothic-style leaded window.  

In 1984 the basement apartment was converted to a doctor's office.  The cutting of the doorway into the second floor was done with surprising respect for Sterner's design.  Why the molding along the edges of the stepped gable was removed is a puzzle.
photographs by the author

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