Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The William Orr Barclay House - 32 West 69th Street

In the first years of the 1890's Gilbert A. Schellenger nearly single-handedly designed the entire southern block of West 69th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  He would be responsible for 21 rowhouses and three flat buildings on the block.  Surprisingly, they were not the projects of a single developer, but three unrelated operators.

He designed a group of six homes in 1892 for developer George C. Edgar's Sons.  Completed the following year, the 21-foot wide residences were faced in brownstone and designed in the popular Renaissance Revival style.

Schellenger did not hold back with his lavish ornamentation.  The paneled pilasters that flanked the entrance upheld jutting foliate brackets below a Juliette balcony.  To its side an angled, then rounded bay rose two stories.  The fourth floor openings wore elaborate broken pediments, one of which engulfed paired windows.

A window sits today where the original entrance was located.
On November 30, 1893 The New York Herald reported that George C. Edgar's Sons had sold No. 32 for $80,000--around $2.3 million today.   The purchaser was Mrs. Sophia Kepner, widow of millionaire brewer Samuel K. Kepner.   Sharing the house with her would be her daughter, Clara and her husband William Orr Barclay, whom she married in November 1883; and their two daughters, Sylvia Hortense and Beatrice.  

William Barclay was a founder of Barclay & Co., manufacturers of drugs.  By now he was senior member of the firm.  

The Barclays moved among the top echelon of high society.  They had been invited, for instance, to a ball in the home of Mrs. A. Newbold Morris in December 1884.  Other guests included Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, her son John Jacob Astor, Jr., Gouverneur Morris and his wife, the Ogden Goelets and Ward McAllister and his wife.

The Barclays did not own a summer home, preferring to stay at fashionable resort hotels.  In the summer of 1895, for instance, they were at Churchill Hall in Stamford, New York in the Catskills.  The New-York Tribune noted that Clara had taken up bicycling there, saying it "has become a great fad with Stamford guests on these fine roads, especially with the ladies."

Following her mother's death Clara was named executrix of her estate.  She seems to have given herself a bargain price on the 69th Street house.  On June 5, 1897 the Record & Guide reported she had paid the estate $36,000 for the property, about half of what her mother had spent.

The Barclays spent the summer season of 1900 in Atlantic City.  Clara and William would have just one more summer together.  William died at the age of 45 in the 69th Street house on October 17, 1901.  His funeral was held in the drawing room three days later.

Early in 1903 Clara found herself without a butler.  On March 4 she hired Edgar Bell.  The 28-year-old had worked "at several fashionable resorts as a waiter," according to the New-York Tribune.   The Evening World added "Tall, handsome and possessed of a cockney accent as thick as a London fog, he was an ideal butler."

The other servants were impressed with his noble bearing.  "Before he was in the house six hours the other servants whispered that he was the discarded son of a baronet.  In twenty-four hours he was a duke," said The Evening World.

Almost immediately Bell initiated a romance with one of the maids.  The flirtation would be his undoing.  

Four days later the butler disappeared, along with "a diamond ring valued at $1,000, a gold watch studded with diamonds, and also several smaller diamond rings, pearls and precious stones."  The loot was worth nearly $75,000 in today's dollars.

Bell headed to Boston where he booked passage back to England.  But he could not get bring himself to leave his sweetheart behind and sent the maid a letter.  The Evening World said "The girl could have loved a butler, but she hated a thief."  She turned the letter over to Clara.

On March 19 the New-York Tribune reported that Bell had been arrested and "several thousand dollars' worth of precious stones" recovered.  The Evening World added "A willing witness against him at the trial will be the honest serving maid whose love turned to hate when she found that Bell was a thief."

Coaching parties were a favorite form of recreation among the upper crust.  By now new destinations for the parties were the society race tracks like Belmont Park and Morris Park.  On May 22, 1904 the New-York Tribune reported on four coaches that visited the parks the previous day.  "Mrs. William Orr Barclay took out a party to the races on the coach Good Times, while Alfred G. Vanderbilt drove the Pioneer, as usual, to Ardsley." 

The following year in December Clara sold No. 32 to Frederick W. Rothschild and his wife, Sara.  As was customary, the title was placed in Sara's name. 

Rothschild was a wealthy cotton merchant with offices at No. 15 Mercer Street.  The family summered in Long Branch, New Jersey.  Their upscale lifestyle was reflected in a dinner party there for 30 couples with a ride on his yacht in August 1908.  The New York Times reported "Mr. Rothschild's guests enjoyed a two-hours sail down the Shrewsbury before the feast."

Like Clara Barclay, Sara ran into a problem with a servant.  In January 1909 she hired 22-year old Charlotte White as a children's nurse.  Two months later Charlotte resigned and soon thereafter Sara realized her $300 fur coat was missing.  It, of course, did not take police long to track the culprit down.  The New York Herald, on March 15, reported on her arrest and said "The police expect to recover the coat on information furnished by Miss White."

The stoop still survived when this tax photo was taken.  But the boarded-up parlor floor windows and what appears to be construction tarps at the second floor suggest the renovation to apartments had begun.  via NYC Depart of Records & Information Services
The Rothschild family remained in the house at least into the 1920's.   Eleanor, still unmarried, was listed here in 1922.

In 1943 the house was converted to apartments and furnished rooms.  It was at this time that the stoop was chopped off and the entrance moved to the former basement level, a few steps below the sidewalk.

photographs by the author

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