Monday, August 31, 2020

The Lost Robert F. Weir House - 11 East 54th Street

The Weir house replaced a brownstone identical to those at the far left and right.   photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the last quarter of the 19th century the family of George Rhett Cathcart lived in the 20-foot wide brownstone rowhouse at No. 11 East 54th Street, steps from fashionable Fifth Avenue.  Cathcart became seriously ill in the spring of 1892 and died at the family's Newport estate on June 27.  Seven years later, in May 1899, the 54th Street house was sold to Dr. Robert F. Weir.

Although the residence was only about 20 years old, it was architecturally outdated.  Weir wasted no time in changing that.  A month after he purchased No. 11 architects George A. Freeman and Charles Chary Thain filed plans for a five-story replacement dwelling.  Their American basement plan would do away with the high stoop that had been such a prominent feature of the Cathcart house.

The architects produced a restrained and dignified take on the popular Beaux Arts style.  A prominent columned portico fronted the rusticated stone base and provided a roomy iron-railed balcony at the second floor.  The second through fourth floors were clad in beige brick and trimmed in limestone.  A full-width balcony ran along the fourth floor and the fifth took the form of a mansard, pierced with a stone dormer flanked by French oculi.

Born in 1838, Weir had married Maria Washington McPherson in 1863.  The New York Surgical Society was founded in his home in 1879, and by now he was president of the New York Academy of Medicine.  The couple had a grown daughter, Alice Washington, born in 1850, who was married to Edward La Montague.

Dr. Robert Fulton Weir, from the archives of The Century Association

Weir was the personal physician of some of Manhattan's most socially-notable citizens, including the Rockefellers.  William Rockefeller was a close neighbor of Dr. Weir, living at the corner of 54th Street at No. 689 Fifth Avenue.  

In mid-May 1900 Rockefeller became ill and despite having been confined to his home for some time, he traveled to his 1,000-acre country estate, Rockwood Hall, on May 26.   Two days later Dr. Weir was called there.  He diagnosed appendicitis.  According to the patient's son, William G. Rockefeller, Weir cautioned "that the attack might recur at any time unless the operation was done and that it was best to operate while his general health was perfectly normal and there was a minimum of risk."  And so Weir, assisted by Dr. Henry Walker, performed a successful appendectomy on the multi-millionaire in his Tarrytown bedroom.

Dr. Weir performed surgery on William Rockefeller in this country estate, Rockwood Hall.
When Colonel Washington A. Roebling fell ill in the fall of 1902, it was Dr. Weir who attended to him.  Roebling, of course, is best known as the engineer who supervised the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, designed by his father, John A. Roebling.

At the time the wealthy property owners in the immediate neighborhood of Weir's residence were faced with a serious threat.  A year earlier John Jacob Astor, Jr. had demolished the mansions at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street and begun construction of the 19-story St. Regis Hotel.  Millionaires now joined forces to keep the incursion of commerce to a minimum.  Their tactics included buying up houses as they became available to prevent developers from obtaining a foothold.

Dr. Weir joined in the offensive.  On April 26, 1902 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that he had purchased the two abutting brownstones, Nos. 15 and 13 West 54th Street, for $175,000 "to protect No. 11, which he owns and occupies."  That price would equal about $5.36 million today.  He resold the residences a month later to John R. Drexel, who promised to "erect an American basement dwelling on the plot," according to the Record & Guide.

Seven months later, on December 12, the New-York Tribune reported that Weir had purchased No. 3, directly behind the William Rockefeller mansion.  The article said he bought the property "to preserve for a residential district the attractions of the neighborhood in which he lives."

On December 5, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported that Weir had leased No. 11 East 54th Street to Dr. Henry W. Weist "for a term of years."  The article added "Dr. Robert F. Weir is going abroad for about six months."  The physicians most likely knew one another well.  Weist was a member of the New York Academy of Medicine, of which Weir was president.

The Weirs never returned to the 54th Street house.  On September 3, 1910 The New York Press announced they had sold it to their next-door neighbors Alice T. and John R. Drexel.  The price was $140,000, or just under $3.9 million today.  Drexel followed in Weir's footsteps in buying property along the block simply to protect his own home.

The handsome residence to the left of the Weir house, at No. 9 East 54th Street, belonged to Charles Boyd Curtisphotograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York     
The following year, in September, he leased it to Mme. Luis Pastor y de Mora.  It was not long before the colorful socialite brought press attention to No. 11.

Born Constance Cazenove Lee in Baltimore, she was a grandniece of General Robert E. Lee and was married to the Spanish Minister to China.  The Evening World mentioned "Some of the servants told reporters that Mrs. de Mora's husband was in China most of the time and that they had never seen him."

A month after she moved into No. 11 West 54th Street she went on a shopping spree in a Fifth Avenue store, buying a "Cleopatra gown, $335; blue velvet suit, $134; gold lace French hat, $85; pink kimono, $65; motor coat, $57; [and a] shirtwaist, $35," according to The Evening World.  The total bill would equal nearly $20,000 today.  When Mrs. de Mora had not paid for the clothing by December, a collection agency sent a process server to the house.  And then another.  And another.

"Mrs. de Mora's residence, according to all accounts, has resembled a castle under siege for several days past," reported The Evening World.  "Three process servers have been camped outside part of the time."  One of them, Henry H. Kutner, rang the bell on December 21, 1911 and was told to return the following day when Mrs. de Mora would be in.  As he left, he heard a noise at an upper window "and saw there the lady herself in her pink kimono inviting him to leave before she called a policeman.  She was not a bit mad about it and smiled," said the article, "but she didn't come down and accept service."

Two days later, after having waited outside the door in the rain, Kutner considered making "an affidavit so strong they'll let him serve his papers by nailing them to her door."

A year after the disturbing incident, Drexel gave up the fight against commerce.  On December 3, 1912 the New-York Tribune reported that he had leased it "for a term of years to Carlhian & Co., a French decorating firm."  The article noted "Extensive alterations will be made to the house."

By 1921 the former mansion was home to the P. Jackson Higgs gallery.  In December that year he staged an exhibition of 38 paintings from the M. I. Montaignac collection of Paris, including Corot's Hamlet, Renoir's Baigneuse Assise, the Danseuses Vertes by Degas, and three works by Courbet, three Monets, a Pissaro and several Old Masters.

This Renoir was among the paintings on exhibition in 1921. from the collection of the Musee de l'Orangerie 
The gallery was the target of art thieves in 1926.  On August 3 The New York Sun reported "Thieves who entered an art gallery containing $1,000,000 worth of treasures spent several hours rummaging among its delectable works of art and were frightened off after selecting about $100,000 worth of pieces which they may never be able to dispose of."  The article deemed the neighborhood "one of the most heavily guarded districts of the city."

It was one of the largest art thefts in years.  The crooks made off with Gobelin and Outdenards tapestries, Syrian and Persian glass jars, a silver figure of Hercules described as "the finest example of Renaissance sculpture in America," and other irreplaceable treasures.  Higgs told police that the objects were "of such fame in the art world that efforts to dispose of them would arouse suspicion."

The thieves left masterpieces like a Van Dyck portrait of a nobleman and a Romney portrait valued at about $1.8 million and $650,000 respectively in today's money.

Detectives doggedly investigated the case and, just as Higgs had predicted, the pieces were easily identified when they hit the market.  The first arrest came in October 1927 after Chinese and Japanese antiques showed up in the store of Marie Simmons on West 49th Street.  She was cleared of any wrongdoing, but Henry Ghiggeri, from whom she purchased them, was arrested for dealing in stolen property and later found guilty.

The art gallery remained much of the Weir interiors, including the staircase and plasterwork. original source unknown  
In November 1936 P. Jackson Higgs announced it would be leaving its home of more than a decade.  The subsequent tenants would be much less impressive.  On October 14, 1938 Ann Grady signed a lease for the second floor for "for a beauty parlor," as reported by The New York Times.

There were show windows on the first and second floors by 1941.  photo via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
The upper floors continued to be leased as apartments.  One tenant brought scandal to the address in 1948.  Madeleine Blavier rented rooms here that year.  She allowed a friend, Nancy Choremi to use the apartment on occasion.  Neighbors were no doubt shocked when the State of New York took Nancy to court in 1949 for "acts of prostitution" which had taken place there.

The five former mansions at Nos. 3 through 11 West 54th Street survived until 1954.  On July 13 that year The New York Times reported that plans had been filed for a 19-story office building on the site, designed by Richard and Emery Roth.

photo via

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