Friday, April 17, 2020

The Thomas J. Oakley House - 12 Gramercy Park

In 1847 Judge Thomas Jackson Oakley was appointed Chief Judge of the Superior Court of New York.  During his impressive career the 64-year-old had served in the New York State Assembly, was New York State Attorney General from 1818 to 1820, and had twice been elected to Congress.   At the time of his new appointment construction had begun on an elegant brick-faced home on the southern edge of Gramercy Park.  Completed the following year, No. 12 Gramercy Park would become home to the Oakley family.

Designed in the Greek Revival style, the 26-foot wide home rose three full floors above the English basement, with a shorter attic level above.

This detail from an etching shows the original appearance of No. 12, in the center just right of the taller home.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
A wide stone stoop led to the entrance where the pilaster capitals showed influence of the lesser seen Egyptian Revival style.  Classical pediments capped the parlor windows.

Oakley's first wife, Lydia Williams, had died.  He and current wife, the former Matilda Cruger, had five children, three daughters and two sons. 

Thomas Jackson Oakley - The Memorial History of the City of New York, 1893 (copyright expired)
Judge Oakley died in the Gramercy Park house on May 11, 1857 at the age of 74.  Newspapers published his praises from the highest levels of the political and legal professions.  The New York Times remarked "He was a man of high honor on the Bench, of distinguished social position, and as a zealous Churchman exercised commanding influence in Diocesan Conventions."  His well-attended funeral was held in No. 12 on May 14.

The Oakley family remained in the house for some time.  Two years into the Civil War the North was desperately in need of additional troops and on July 13, 1863 the draft lottery went into effect.  The names of eligible young men were pulled from a wooden cask-like tumbler.  The procedure was repeated several times and on August 26, 1863 Walter Oakley's name was pulled.

Interestingly, Oakley could have avoided the draft for two reasons.  Well-to-do families across the city were paying the $300 necessary to get their sons out of service (a little over $6,000 today).  In addition, Walter volunteered with the Hose No. 61 Fire Company.  A committee on behalf of the Fire Department met on September 9 and requested exemption for a list of the drafted firefighters.  Walter, however, remained on the active list; apparently refusing to shirk his military duty.

The following year, on September 3, 1864, the name of Walter's brother, H. Cruger Oakley, was pulled in the lottery and he, too, went off to war.

In 1870 the former Oakley residence was being operated as a boarding house.  An advertisement on June 3 that year offered "A desirable summer location; first class Board; three single Rooms and two large Rooms together or separate."

Mrs. S. A. Curtis took over the operation after she leased the house and redecorated it in 1875.  Her advertisement in the New-York Tribune on October 6 that year said she "is prepared to rent rooms on the first, second and third floors, with or without private table.  House newly furnished and renovated."

But by the turn of the century No. 12 was once again a private home, owned by William Beals Kendall, senior partner in the stock brokerage firm of Hatch & Kendall.  He and his wife, the former Kate Varnum Whitney, had four children, William Floyd, Katerine Varnum, Marjory Stevens, and Elinor Whitney Kendall.   

Both William and Kate had illustrious lineages.  Among William's best known ancestors was John Kendall, the Sheriff of Nottingham who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 fighting for Richard III.  His earliest American ancestor, Francis Kendall, arrive in Massachusetts in 1640.  Kate's earliest American ancestors arrived in 1635.

The Kendall name routinely appeared in newspapers for social reasons, like the announcement in the New York Herald on January 22, 1903 that said Kate "will give a reception on Saturday afternoon of this week."  But less wanted publicity would come before the year was out.

Kate's sister, Helen M. Whitney, was living with the family as she prepared for her December wedding to millionaire Frank Griswold Tefft, head of the dry goods firm of Tefft, Weller & Co.

For some time Tefft had been in the process of building what the New-York Tribune called "a fine home for the reception of his prospective bride" in Great Barrington, Vermont.  But earlier that year, in March, he had been stricken with Bright's Disease.  As his condition worsened his doctor suggested that he go to the unfinished summer house, Griswold Lodge.  When he was confined to his bed in September Helen rushed to Great Barrington and was present when he died on November 10.  The following day the New-York Tribune reported "She returned to this city at her home, at No. 12 Gramercy Park, last night and is said to be almost prostrated with grief."

Things soon became visibly strained between Tefft's relatives and Helen.  When the will was read his entire fortune went to her--all but $1,000 which was bequeathed to Tefft's son by a former marriage.   The New-York Daily Tribune noted "It has been intimated since the day following the funeral of Mr. Tefft that the relations between Miss Whitney and relatives of Mr. Tefft were not of the pleasantest character."

Immediately following the funeral Helen moved into Griswold Lodge.  William and Kate Kendall arrived the following week to visit.  It would be a short one.  All three left on the afternoon of November 18.  The Tribune remarked "Their departure was the outcome of a visit made by Deputy Sheriff Rowe."

The Tefft family had sued to have the will overturned, claiming "undue influence" on the part of Helen.  And although she inherited Griswold Lodge (called by the New-York Tribune "a fine place" having "twenty-two horses and a private trotting track"), the estate had not been settled, giving her no legal right to inhabit it.  Helen was taken in by the family of Charles Zimmer, the "boss farmer" of Tefft, while Kate and William returned to Gramercy Park.  

That night a reporter knocked on the door of No. 12.  A servant told him "Mr. Kendall could not be disturbed, and there was nothing to say about the affair."

With the awkward incident over, Kate turned her attention to preparing for the introductions to society of her two eldest daughters, Katherine and Marjorie.  On December 27, 1904 the New York Herald reported that she "will give a dance for the Misses Kendall on Saturday night."

Katherine's debut began with an afternoon reception in the Gramercy Park house on December 27, 1905.  The New-York Tribune reported that it "was followed by a theatre party at the Criterion and a supper at Sherry's."  Marjorie's reception was held in January 1907.

The Kendall's summer home was in York, Maine.  Nearby was the estate of the Harmar D. Denny family.  The New York Times mentioned "The Denny estate is one of the wealthiest in Pennsylvania, and the Dennys are connected with the Schenleys, the McKnights and Cassatts, and other prominent Pennsylvania families."  

The Dennys' son, Archibald was 18-years old and Katherine was 17.  They struck up a summer romance that turned serious.  And while neither family objected to the match, it was far too soon for a marriage.  Archibald had just entered Yale and was to go on to West Point following his graduation.  And that fall Katherine returned to the private school she attended upstate.

Kate and William left New York for Lenox during the last week of September 1907.  With them gone, the love birds sprung into action.  On October 1 The New York Times reported "young Denny ran off with his bride, dashing up to the school she attended in New York in an automobile, and then speeding with her to the house of a minister before there could be any pursuit."  The New-York Tribune added "Mr. and Mrs. Kendall had wished to delay the wedding until the spring, owing to the youth of the bride, but the latter was unwilling to wait so long."

With the deed accomplished, Katharine sent a telegram to Lenox "informing her parents that she had been married in the afternoon, receiving their forgiveness and blessing over the wire."  One cannot help but wonder what the conversation was between Kate and William before that forgiveness and blessing were sent back.  Similar disappointment must have played out in the Denny household.  The New York Times noted "the idea of a military career for him has been abandoned."

William Floyd's marriage to Marion Douglas the following year, almost to the day, was more conventional.  The ceremony took place in the Great Barrington, Vermont home of the bride's parents on September 26, 1908.  Interestingly, while Marjorie was among Marion's bridesmaids, Katherine's name did not appear in the reports, even as a guest.

Four days after the ceremony the Kendalls announced Marjorie's engagement to Maitland L. Bishop.  That wedding took place in the Gramercy Park house on November 3, 1909.  The next day The New York Herald explained "It had been intended to have the ceremony performed later in the season, but Mr. Bishop was called to Los Angles, California on business, and will start to-day with his bride."

Kate's aged parents, Rufus Hayden Whitney and the former Emily Burton Stevens Whitney, visited during the winter season of 1910-11.  Emily died in the Gramercy Park house on March 14, 1911 at the age of 83.  Kate's father died in Philadelphia eight months later.

On June 30, 1912 the New-York Tribune reported that the Kendalls had "closed their house in Gramercy Park and have gone to the Pacific Coast."  But the trip was cut short "on account of Mr. Kendall's illness," according to the same newspaper four weeks later.  On August 28 it reported that Kate and Elinor "are leaving the city within a few days for the mountains, with Mr. Kendell, who is much improved in health."

William's medical condition, however, may have prompted a postponement of Elinor's coming-out.  On October 13 the New York Herald reported that while she "has been spoken of as one of this winter's debutantes, [she] will not be introduced until the season of 1913-14."

By then the Kendalls had left No. 12 and it was converted to apartments.  The stone enframement of the entrance was carefully moved to the former basement level and large "studio" windows now flooded the interiors with sunlight.  
The original 1847 cornice was left intact.

The vintage entranceway was lowered to street level and a cast iron lamp bracket which once spanned two gateposts was recycled into the design, 

An advertisement described one apartment as containing "bedroom, bath, large studio, kitchenette, complete."  Among the early tenants was Gertrude Lyons Whitney, quite possibly a relative of Kate Kendall.    Society decorator H. Klingenfeld lived here in the first years following World War I, and in 1921 Theodore L. Van Norden and his wife had an apartment.  Mrs. Van Norden's name routinely appeared in society columns for her entertainments.  Also living here at the time were Edward Bryce and his wife.  

On October 24, 1921 a Post Office truck was held up and the crooks make off with $2.5 million in bonds and securities (equal to more than $35 million today).  On July 3, 1922 three men were arrested in connection with the case, including Edward Bryce.  Detectives went to the Bryce apartment at No. 12 Gramercy Park "where they said afterward they recovered $100,000 worth of the stolen bonds, found hidden in a trunk," according to The New York Herald.  Also discovered were "some fuses, a revolver, an automatic pistol and a gun silencer."

In the meantime, officials nearly lost Bryce.  At 6:00 that evening the prisoners were left alone in a room on the third floor of the main Post Office.  Then they returned an hour later, Bryce was missing.  He was later discovered on an outside ledge above the second floor.

Before long investigators discovered that Bryce was not his real name.  The New York Herald reported that the "luxuriously appointed apartment" was leased by "Gerald Chapman, alias Edward Bryce, said to be the leader of the gang."  And the building superintendent, William F. La Wall, "identified Chapman as having lived there under the name of 'Caldwell,'" as well, as reported in the Herald.  His life of crime was profitable.  Chapman not only drove a $7,500 Pierce-Arrow touring car, but had twenty suits of clothes in his closet.

Bringing more welcomed celebrity to the address was the shared studio of cartoonist Herbert Roth and illustrator Ray Rohn.  In his column "New York Day by Day" on January 26, 1933, O. L. Mcintyre reminisced about the artists' guests over the years.  "Berton Braley was there often, corrugating his brow over his earlier poems.  Carolyn Wells often dropped in for tea.  Also Irvin Cobb, Frank De Sales Casey, Will Iwrin, Kathleen and Charles G. Norris."

In 1970 the apartments were reconfigured, now accommodating a duplex in the first and second floors.  Another duplex on the top floor was the result of a new penthouse in 2003, unseen from the street.

photographs by the author

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