Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The 1927 Beekman Campanile - 450 East 52nd Street

Prior to 1920 the blocks east of First Avenue above 50th Street were home the Peter Doelger Brewery, decaying rowhouses and tenement buildings.  Fashionable society lived toward the center of Manhattan--around the Madison, Park and Fifth Avenue sections.  But that year wealthy literary agent Elisabeth Marbury commissioned architect Mott Schmidt to transform an old rowhouse at No. 13 Sutton Place into a neo-Georgian residence.   By the mid-1920's Sutton Place had become an exclusive enclave, home to residents like Anne Morgan and Anne Vanderbilt.

In 1926 real estate operator Joseph G. Thomas commissioned Van Wart & Wein to design an upscale apartment building at the end of East 52nd Street overlooking the East River, slightly to the south of Sutton Place.   The 14-floor building was completed the following year--a Jazz Age take on Venetian Gothic.

The two-story base of rough-faced stone reflected traditional elements of Gothic design.  The entrance was recessed within a pointed arched opening, and trefoils and tracery embellished the second floor.  The upper floors were faced in rough-faced brick which gave the impression of age.

There were just sixteen apartments within The Beekman Campanile.  The architects took advantage of the riverside location by including a yacht landing and private club, the Montauk Yacht Club.

The building quickly attracted upper class residents.  Among the first was Ralph Pulitzer, Jr., grandson of publisher Joseph Pulitzer.  His sprawling apartment had an additional occupant following his wedding to Bessie Catherine Aspinwall on June 27, 1929.

Living here at the same time was Leonard Outhwaite and his wife.  The couple maintained a 90-foot schooner, the Kinkajou.  On June 30, 1929, according to The New York Times, the "Outhwaite yacht set sail from the Montauk Yacht Club landing at Fifty-second Street and East River."  The cruise would entail 13,000 miles and last eight months.  It did not go entirely smoothly.  Outhwaite had to take over the handling of the vessel himself after Captain Olaf Berg was tragically drowned near England.

On November 27, 1931 the New York Evening Post reported quietly "Mrs. William K. Dick rented an apartment at 450 East Fifty-second Street."  She was Madeleine Talmadge Force Astor Dick, the widow of John Jacob Astor, who died in the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, and current wife of millionaire William Karl Dick.   It was no doubt the couple's domestic problems which prompted her taking an apartment alone.  Within two years Madeleine divorced William Dick and quickly married Enzo Fiermonte.

One colorful resident in particular, The New Yorker critic Alexandex Woollcott, may have changed the personality of The Beekman Campanile.  In his 1956 book More in Sorrow, Wolcott Gibbs wrote that after the break-up of the Algonquin Round Table its members visited Woollcott here.

While they no longer knew one another intimately, however, almost all of them kept in pretty close touch with Mr. Woollcott.  His apartment at 450 East Fifty-second Street, which Dorothy Parker in a spasm of rascality had named Wit's End, was a comfortable, untidy garret looking down on the East River, and long after the Round Table and the Thanatopsis Club were dead it was still a hangout for whatever members of the old mob happened to be in town.  Sunday breakfast there lasted practically all day, with Mr. Woollcott in rumpled pajamas and an ancient, rather horrible dressing gown, receiving his guests from a throne in one corner with an air that would have done credit to Queen Victoria.

In the meantime the Mayfair Yacht Club with its stunning river views was a favorite among society.  On October 14, 1932, for instance, The New York Sun reported that "Mrs. James H. Snowden gave a luncheon yesterday at the Mayfield Yacht Club, 450 East Fifty-second street."  Its Marine Room featured an orchestra and dancing.  And alcohol.

On February 1, 1933 The New York Sun reported that the "classy speakeasy" had been raided.  Prohibition agents had been tipped off two weeks earlier by a disgusted patron who objected to paying $1 for a bottle of beer in the tough Depression years.  The article said he felt it "was plain highway robbery and he thought something should be done about it."  Something, indeed, was done.  The manager, a beer delivery man, and fifteen waiters and bartenders were arrested.

The Great Depression had little effect on the residents like the Pulitzers, still here in the 1940's, and wealthy tenants like John Hertz and his family, the Thomas L. Chadbournes (whose chef had previously worked for King Edward VIII), the family of John Louis Zauggs, and Henry Wise Miller and his writer and activist wife, Alice Duer Miller.

Seen as it appeared in May 1930, the pine-paneled library of Henry and Alice Duer Miller was decorated with antique furnishings and paintings.  photo by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Alice Duer Miller's bedroom was more like a Parisian salon.  photo by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Perhaps the Beekman Campanile's first truly theatrical resident was Noël Coward, who took the former apartment of Alexander Woollcott.  In 1942 film executive Gustoaf Miesegaes, president of Transfilm, Inc., took a nine-room apartment; and in May 6 the following year actress Ethel Barrymore moved into the former duplex apartment of the recently deceased Alice Duer Miller.

Stage and screen star Ethel Barrymore was theatrical royalty.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

In 1953 film star Greta Garbo took a fifth floor apartment.  The now-retired actress decorated her home in her personal style, including having an antique Swedish skåp (a painted armoire) dismantled and installed as wall panels in a bedroom.  She personally designed several of the colorful rugs.
The pine paneling in this section of the Garbo apartment matched that of the Miller apartment's library.  photo via

Already living in the building were some of Garbo's friends, like George Schlee and his fashion designer wife Valentina, and Sir William Stephenson.  Other residents at the time included Clare Boothe and Henry Luce (founder of TIME magazine), H. J. Heinz and his wife (whose apartment had twenty-one rooms), Drue, Rex Harrison, publisher Walter Thayer, and actress Mary Martin.

Garbo installed panels from an antique Swedish armoire on the walls of a guest room.  photo via
Valentina Schlee designed Garbor's wardrobe and by the mid-1940's George Schlee was her financial adviser.  The trio would sometimes attend social events together; but little-by-little Greta's and George's relationship deepened.  According to Richard Alleman in his New York: The Movie Lover's Guide, Schlee was "her escort, her confidant, and often her traveling companion."  It came to a head when, while Garbo and Schlee had adjoining suites in the Crillon Hotel in Paris, Schlee suffered a fatal heart attack.

Alleman writes "When Garbo discovered that Schlee was dead, she reportedly ran from the hotel and left Valentina to deal with the messy details...Garbo's irresponsible behavior is said to have so angered Valentina that she made it clear that she didn't want the actress to attend her husband's funeral.  The two remained neighbors at 450 East 52nd Street for years thereafter but reportedly never again exchanged a word."

This unusual portrait of Garbo was taken in 1925 by German-American photographer Arnold Genthe from the collection of the Library of Congress

Garbo died on April 15, 1990 leaving an estate estimated at around $200 million.  Her sole heir was her niece, Gray Gustafson Reisfield.  She and her husband, Dr. Donald Reisfield, used the Beekman Campanile apartment as a pied-à-terre until moving in permanently in 2012.  Following Gray Reisfield's death in 2017 the three-bedroom apartment was put on the market for $5.95 million.  Multiple offers came in and it sold later that year for $8.5 million.

The Beekman Campanile--home over the decades to millionaires, celebrities and a speakeasy--has changed little since the glittering Gatsby Era along the East River when it was first opened.

non-credited photographs by the author
many thanks to film historian John Chalupa for suggesting this post