Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Lillian S. Thomas Dodge House - 6 East 67th Street

In 1880 the prolific architect James E. Ware designed three matching rowhouses for real estate developer Ira E. Doying at what was then numbered 4 through 8 East 67th Street.  Completed the following year, the brick-faced homes rose four stories above high English basements.  Designed in the Queen Anne style, they featured a two-story angled bay and grouped openings at the fourth floor which morphed into a pointed gable.  At 27-feet wide, the homes were intended for well-to-do owners.  In September 1882 Doying sold No. 4 to Victory Henry Rothschild for $90,000--more than $2.3 million today.  

The Rothschild house can be glimpsed at the far right side of this photo.   Architectural Record 1904 (copyright expired)

Rothschild (who preferred to go by his first initial and second name) was born in 1835 in Germany, one of seven children.  He arrived in America in 1852 at the age of 17 and headed to Oakland, California.  The young man's business sense took him to the Midwest and the South until the Civil War prompted him to move to New York City.  His brother Marx came from Germany and the pair partnered in Rothschild Brothers, which manufactured "negligee shirts."  By now the firm was named V. Henry Rothschild & Co.

V. Henry and his wife, the former Josephine Wolf, had five children, Irene, Victor Sidney, Gertrude, Constance Lily and Clarence.  America's Successful Men of Affairs called the 67th Street house "handsomely appointed" and noted that Rothschild's "fine library, and collection of paintings bear witness to his artistic tastes."

V. Henry Rothschild, from America's Successful men of Affairs, 1896 (copyright expired)

It was not long after moving in that Rothschilds flexed those artistic tastes further by doing major redecorating.  On August 23, 1884 The Record & Guide reported "Mr. V. Henry Rothschild is about to have elaborate interior decorations made to the front parlor of his house, No. 4 East Sixty-seventh street, in the Louis XVI style, on which he will expend some $6,000."   The owners had hired well-known architect Alfred Zucker to make the renovations, which cost the equivalent of just over $160,000 today.

America's Successful Men of Affairs said "Mr. Rothschild is essentially a home man and has never been what is generally called a club man.  He has, however, long been a member of the Harmonie and Players' clubs and the Board of Trade & Transportation."  

The Harmonie Club was a social organization for wealthy Jewish men.  Because Jews were not accepted into the mainstream clubs, they formed their own.  Another such club was the Progress Club, of which Marx Rothschild was a member.

Marx was there on the evening of March 8, 1904 when he suffered a heart attack.  The New York Times reported "He lived with his daughter, Mrs. Mark J. Straus, at 77 East Eighty-ninth Street, but it was not deemed prudent to carry him so far after he was stricken."  He was brought, instead, to his brother's home.  He died there the following morning."

Jewish families--no matter how wealthy--were also not included among the "cottagers" of Newport and other fashionable summer resorts.  So, again, they established their own enclaves.  Among them was Long Branch, New Jersey where the Rothschilds were visible among summer society.  V. Henry, as well, erected what were called the "Rothschild Cottages" there.

On May 17, 1911 the Long Branch Daily Record reported that Rothschild had died in the 67th Street house.  It mentioned his treatment of his employees (of which there were now about 7,000) by erecting "communal settlements" for them near the two large factories in New Jersey and New York State.  The article added "In philanthropic work Mr. Rothschild took an active interest...He was one of the founders of the Mount Sinai Hospital and a director of the Montefiore Home."

Rothschild's estate was reported at nearly $3.25 million in today's money.  Josephine received about one-third of that amount, but was "requested to make gifts to Mount Sinai Hospital and the Montefiore Home in which her husband was interested," according to The Sun.

Josephine remained in the 67th Street house until her death on April 27, 1917.  The family retained possession for a few years.  Then a two-day public auction of the contents of the house was held on June 17 and 18, 1921.  The auction listing noted "Massive furnishings, cabinets, bronzes, complete massive cut-brass fenders and andirons, paintings by noted artists, draperies, rare works of art."

The house to the left retains its 1881 appearance.

The following year, on March 25, 1922, the Record & Guide reported that "Mrs. Lillian S. Thomas has purchased the house," noting that among her millionaire neighbors were Elbert H. Gary, chairman of the board of the United States Steel Corporation, and George J. Gould.

Born Lillian Sefton, Lillian had begun her career on the stage.  She married Vincent Thomas in 1905.  One of her friends, Margaret Ayer, was the daughter of Harriet Hubbard Ayer, the founder of a women's "toilet preparations" firm.  Harriet died in 1903 and Lillian now urged her new husband to purchase the rights to the the name.  The pair embarked on expanding the business and, following Thomas's death in 1918, Lillian managed to make it one of world's major cosmetic companies. 

Before moving into the 67th Street house she had the architectural firm of Clinton & Russell remodel it.  They removed the stoop, pulled the facade nearly to the property line, and produced a 1920's take on Beaux Arts--a style that had essentially fallen from favor a generation earlier.  But Clinton & Russell's treatment of the style was much more restrained than the fussy, garland-draped confections of the turn of the century.  

The ground floor was nearly unadorned.  Its centered entrance given a simple frame over which was a carved cartouche.  Pierced stonework below two of the second floor windows pretended to be balustrades.  Only at this level were there ornamental keystones.  The third and fourth floor openings wore iron railings and the fifth floor took the form of a copper mansard with three stone dormers.

By the time the renovations were completed in 1923 Lillian had remarried.  Her husband was Robert Leftwich Dodge, described by The New York Times as "a graduate of the Beaux Arts in Paris [who] spent most of his life abroad."  It added "His stained-glass paintings are to be found in the Library of Congress and many other public buildings, and at Vassar College."  Living with them was Lillian's daughter, Mary Sefton Thomas.

Lillian had expanded into a full line of women's cosmetics.  In 1922 she applied for the trademarks Odo-R-Off, a deodorant, and LaJoconde, the brand name of "toilet creams and toilet powders."

That same year she and Robert gave Clinton & Russell a second project--the design of their country home on a 86-acre estate to be called Sefton Manor on the North Shore of Long Island.

Sefton Manor (original source unknown)
In 1930 developer Michael E. Paterno demolished the Fifth Avenue mansions at the southeast corner of 67th Street and erected an apartment building.  He placed the entrance on the side street rather than the avenue.  After a lengthy court case, he won the right to the address No. 2 East 67th Street—which meant that the house at No. 2 became No. 4; and the change of addresses dominoed down the block.  The Dodges' stationery and cards now read No. 6 East 67th Street.

That same year Lillian found herself in hot water with U. S. Customs.  She and Robert had sailed to Europe that January, returning on the Ile de France in April with 12 trunks and two crates.   They declared $17,000 value on the contents.  But agents opened each of the trunks and crates and disagreed on the valuation.

On April 18, 1930 The Brooklyn Daily Times ran a front-page headline: "Mrs. R. L. Dodge Faces Huge Fine In Customs Case."  The article said "Officials engaged in examining the seized property say the estimate placing the value at $200,000 'is conservative.'"  Lillian had not been shopping only for gowns.  The article said that "jewelry filled two large suitcases."  It included "a waist length diamond necklace with diamond tassels, many diamond and emerald watches, bracelets, rings, pendants and brooches."

Having her new things held up in Customs was a potential problem for Lillian.  "Mrs. Dodge is quoted by Customs officials as saying she was willing to pay the fine provided she could have the goods in time to use at parties during the Easter season."  The staggering fine was reported at between $160,000 to $200,000--upwards to more than $3 million today.

The Dodges also maintained a home in Paris.  All three residences were routinely the scenes of lavish entertainments.  But the Long Island mansion would be the setting of an especially important event in 1932.  On May 7 the New York Evening Post reported "Mr. and Mrs. Robert Leftwich Dodge of 6 East Sixty-seventh Street, Sefton Manor, Mill Neck, Long Island, and Paris, announce the engagement of Miss Mary Sefton Thomas to Mr. Frans Blom."  It added "The wedding will take place at the Mill Neck country home of Mr. and Mrs. Dodge about the middle of June."

The Dodges were at Sefton Manor on July 16, 1940 when Robert died at the age of 68 "after a long illness," as reported by a newspaper.  The New York Times noted "Mr. Dodge painted murals in the Library of Congress in Washington and in the administration building of the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.  Examples of his work in stained glass are to be found in many churches and in the chapel of Vassar College."

Lillian sold No. 6 in 1945 and within four years it became the Czechoslovakian Mission to the United Nations.  In 1962 the house was shared as the Missions of Byelorussia and Ukraine, and two years later it was home to the Cuban Mission.

The strong resentment of Cuban ex-patriots and Communists resulted in sometimes violent protests outside the United Nations and in front of the Cuban Mission.  The arrival of  Major Ernesto Che Guevara at the U.N. on December 11, 1964 was met by an anti-Communist demonstration.  It was accompanied by a 3.5-inch bazooka shell from being fired at the United Nations Headquarters.

The New York Times reported "Later, eight demonstrators, who described themselves as Cuban exiles, showed up at the Cuba mission at 6 East Sixty-Seventh Street.  They carried signs protesting the appearance of Major Guevara at the United Nations."  Police barricaded both sides of 67th Street and part of Fifth Avenue.

The Dodge house today is home to the Permanent Representative of the Slovak Republic to the United Nations.  Other than replacement windows, it looks outwardly little different that it did immediately following its remarkable make-over in 1923.

photographs by the author
many thanks to Luci Murphy for suggesting this post

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