Saturday, August 1, 2020

The 1903 James F. D. Lanier House - 123 East 35th Street

photo by Beyond My Ken

James Franklin Doughty Lanier II grew up in a lavish brownstone mansion on East 37th Street, just steps from the J. P. Morgan residence.  His American pedigree was impressive--his earliest ancestor Thomas Lanier having arrived with his friend, John Washington, in Virginia in 1655.  Washington's great-grandson, George, would become America's first President.  James's grandfather had founded the banking firm Winslow, Lanier & Co., of which his father, Charles D. Lanier, was now the head.

Lanier graduated from Princeton University in 1880 and joined the family firm.  In 1885 he married Harriet Bishop and the couple remained in James's childhood home at No. 30 East 37th Street with his parents.  The newlyweds had a son, Charles Day Lanier the following year and another, Reginald Bishop Lanier, in 1888.

Harriet Bishop Lanier, photo by James L. Breese, from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
On April 10, 1901 Lanier purchased two 1854 brownstones two blocks from his parents' home for a total of $31,000--or about $962,000 today.  He hired the architectural firm of Hoppin & Koen to design a modern residence on the combined sites.  Both Francis Laurens Vinton Hoppin and Terence A. Koen had studied in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and had worked for McKim, Mead and White before embarking on their own. 

The 33-foot wide Beaux Arts mansion was completed in 1903.  A rusticated limestone base supported two stories of red brick, the bays of which were separated by double-height fluted Cornithian pilasters.  A full-width stone balcony with intricate iron railings fronted the fourth floor.  The architects capped the design with a copper mansard with three stylish dormers.

The American basement plan placed the entrance just a few steps above sidewalk level, fronted by a deep stone porch flanked by pierced limestone railings.  Four stone pedestals which doubled as newel and gate posts upheld classical urns.

American Architect & Architecture, 1904 (copyright expired)
The family's tremendous wealth was reflected, as well, in their country homes.  In 1891 the Laniers had erected a Georgian Revival mansion in Westbury, Long Island, designed by James Brown Lord.  In 1905 they commissioned Francis Hoppin to design their Newport estate, Gravel Court, in Newport.

A vintage postcard shows the Lanier Old Westbury estate after they had sold it to Charles Steele.
Both James and Harriet were active in society.  James was a founder of the Meadowbrook Hunt Club and an early "automobilist."  Harriet entertained frequently, giving a series of "French conferences" in the house in 1904, for instance.

Because the Laniers would be away from New York during the winter season of 1907, they leased their home.  On September 9 a dispatch to The New York Times from Washington D.C. said "Washington society lost not only a popular hostess but the prospect of a ducal wedding.  Both are transferred to New York where Theodore P. Shonts has leased the residence of James F. Lanier, at 123 East Thirty-fifth Street, for the coming winter."

Shonts was president of the Interborough-Metropolitan Company.  He and his wife, Milla, had two young daughters who had just been introduced to society the previous season.  The girls had been presented at Court in London that spring and they and their mother then spent the summer on the northern coast of France.  It was there that they became friendly with the Duchesse D'Uzes, sister of Duc de Chaulnes.

Now New York society hoped for a titled wedding in its midst.  The duke, rumor had it, had been unrelenting in his attentions to Theodora Shonts.  But there seemed to be some family tension regarding the match.  The New York Times commented on September 9, 1907 "The cause of the delayed announcement, it may be said now with authority, is Mr. Shonts, and his reason for opposing the match is that he wants his daughters to marry in their own country."

Nevertheless, the women in the family got their way and on November 21 The New York Herald broke the news that the duke and Theodora were to be married.  It was the sort of coup that society mothers like Milla Shonts dreamed of.  "The young Duke belongs to a family of ancient lineage and is the ninth in succession to bear the title," said The Times.

Somewhat surprisingly the ceremony took place within the 35th Street house.  On February 22, 1908 Town & Country reported:

Mr. and Mrs. Theodore P. Shonts have hearts almost too big for their house.  Consequently, there was a crush at the marriage of their daughter, Miss Theodora Shonts, to the Duc de Chaulnes at 123 East Thirty-Fifth Street, New York.  After the ceremony, guests entered the drawing room to present themselves to the bride and the receiving party. Waiters with trays holding glasses of the wit-inspiring beverage came out into the hallway in search of any timid guest.  In the breakfast room, the candle light shone through white shades on which the crest of the Duc de Chaulnes was worked out in blue, and even the bonbons had his crest.

It may have been that Theodore Shonts's opposition to the marriage went beyond geography, as publicly stated.  Despite his title, the duke had no real income and, worse, had a serious drug addiction.  An agreement was reach only after Shonts had spoken to close friends and arranged for the duke's employment as the general European representative of the Erie Railroad and the Wells-Fargo Express Company.

On April 25, 1908, just ten weeks after the couple sailed to Paris, The New York Times reported the shocking news that the Duc de Chaulnes was dead.  "Some of those who knew the Duke best say that the immediate cause of death was an overdose of morphine, to the use of which drug the Duke had been addicted."

The newspaper reported that "friends tell of times when he had remained under the influence of the narcotic for days at a time."  The duke had gone to bed early the previous night and when Theodora retired he was in a deep sleep.  But she woke around midnight "by a convulsive grip on her arm."  Her husband was unresponsive so she turned on the light and "found her husband in the last extremity."

Servants called a doctor, but the duke was dead before he arrived.  Efforts to cover up the potential scandal were immediate.  The doctor ruled the cause of death a heart attack.  The police ordered an autopsy, but, according to The Times, "this formality was later waived."

The Shonts family sailed immediately to Paris and, once there, Theodore reworked the entire story.  No longer was Theodora awakened by her husband's drug-induced death grip.  Instead, "The Duke and my daughter were kneeling at prayer in their bedroom about 9 o'clock, when he suddenly gave a groan and fell on the floor at my daughter's feet...There was never any question about drugs or anything else.  He died from heart disease."  

Seven months later the 19-year old widow's name was back in the newspapers.  On November 17, 1908 The New York Times reported, "The Duchess de Chaulnes, who formerly was Miss Theodora Shonts of New York, gave birth to a son at her home to-day."

The 35th Street house returned to normal with the Laniers' return the following winter season.  Both Charles Jr. and Reginald graduated from Harvard in 1910.  In 1913 Harriet founded the Society of the Friends of Music and would be its president for decades.

American Architect & Architecture, 1904 (copyright expired)
The Laniers traveled extensively.  On August 26, 1914, for instance, The New York Press reported Mr. and Mrs. James F. D. Lanier, who will arrive the latter part of this week from Europe, will go directly to Grand Court, their Newport villa, to remain until they open their town house, No. 123 East Thirty-fifth street, in October."

In 1918 an influenza pandemic swept the globe.  Estimates place the death toll at 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the United States.  On December 7 the New York Herald reported that Charles, Jr. had died three days earlier of influenza in Omaha, Nebraska, "where he had gone on business."  Charles was 32-years old.

Reginald seems to have been in no hurry to marry.  But on December 11, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported on his upcoming wedding to Helen Cameron in the Huntington Memorial Chapel of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  If Reginald's social lineage was impressive, his bride's was no less so.  The Sun noted she "is a granddaughter of the late Frederick W. Rhinelander.  She also is a niece of Mrs. Le Roy King of Newport."  The newlyweds moved into the 35th Street house.

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

James F. D. Lanier died on May 16, 1928 at the age of 69.  His will left the $10 million estate (nearly $150 million today) to Harriet with the stipulation that upon her death it would go to Reginald.

Harriet spent the summer season of 1931 in Europe.  Upon her return she took an apartment at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel while the 35th Street house was prepared for re-opening.  On October 27 she died suddenly in her suite there.  

Reginald and Helen had two children, Diana and James Franklin Doughty Lanier.  The family remained in the 35th Street house and maintained a country estate in Bernardsville, New Jersey.  Diana was married to W. Ogden Ross in the Church of the Incarnation in April 1947.

As her mother-in-law had done, Helen entertained often.  On April 24, 1950 she hosted a tea "to mark the opening of the twenty-ninth annual New York Book Week of the American Merchant Marine Library Association," according to The New York Times.  

In 1947 the Laniers had employed a servant, Vincent Kayes.  Things did not work out with the 27-year old and he moved on to become a bus driver.  No doubt by 1954 the family had completely forgotten about him.  But he had not forgotten them.

At 6:30 on the morning of May 25 a special delivery letter arrived at No. 123 East 35th Street which read in part:

We owe society a debt, may, but society is going to pay a little of our expense.  You were chosen from society's phone book to pay only $5,000 to us.  Remember you only get this one note.

The message threatened that if the police were notified there would be "three wooden overcoats in your house," referring to the coffins that would be necessary for Reginald, Helen and James.  Not intimidated, Reginald went to the police.  At the appointed hour he dropped a package of "money" into a specified trash receptacle.  Meanwhile the street was bustled with activity--a street sweeper, a truck driver, and several package delivery men.  The Democrat and Chronicle added "Still others were just loiterers.  All kept an eye on the wire basket."  They were all detectives.

Kayes was there, too.  He pretended to be making repairs under the hood of his automobile.  And he was cautious.  He waited a full 30 minutes before casually walking over to the waste basket and reaching inside for the package.  The detectives pounced.  Charged with extortion and blackmail, he explained that he owed $4,000 "to bookmakers and moneylenders."

photo via the collection of the Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York
The Laniers left the house not long afterward.  Their striking home, which remains a private residence, is one of the architectural treasures of Murray Hill.


  1. This mansion bears a passing resemblance to the lost Jacob H. Schiff mansion at 965 - 967 Fifth Ave, although the Schiff mansion was 20 feet wider.

  2. It is currently fir sale by Christie's Realty. Lots off amazing pictures of the interior of the house. Kuwait billionaire Bassam Alghanim is selling it.

  3. On 36th street, backing-up (or almost backing up) to this house, is another townhouse which seems to be of similar style or era--but a couple of steps-down in grandeur. And it has a small entryway. It looks like it's the service/bedroom wing or extension of the Lanier House--perhaps a later addition or acquisition? Does anybody know about this?
    Thank you.

    1. I can only guess you're referring to the Carow-Martin House at 114 East 36th Street.