Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Lyman G. Bloomingdale House - 21 East 63rd Street

photo by Matthew X. Kiernan

Around 1884 the high-stoop brownstone house of Jacob Ferry at No. 21 East 63rd Street was completed.  Ferry could count among his near neighbors some of the wealthiest and influential names in New York, including Ogden Mills, James Sinclair, Richard M. Hoe, Jr., John Sloane, and George L. Ingraham.  

In 1864 when the Central Park Menagerie was begun its site was inoffensively north of polite residences.  But now its presence was an issue to the moneyed homeowners.  The year after he moved into his new house Ferry added his name to a long list of millionaires who sent a petition to the Board of Estimate protesting "the continuance" of the menagerie in the Park.  Their argument claimed in part that the zoo "tends to pollute the soil, thus rendering it offensive and unwholesome to the neighborhood," and "the noise and confusion...tends materially to disturb the peace and comfort of whose who reside in its immediate vicinity."

This time money and power did not prevail and the Central Park Menagerie remained.

In 1888 No. 21 East 63rd Street was purchased by Lyman Gustave Bloomingdale who, with his brother Joseph B., had expanded their hoop skirt shop in 1872 to a full women's apparel store, called the East Side Bazaar.  Then in 1886 they moved their operation to 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, far north of the ladies' shopping district.  It was a daring but successful move.  By the time Lyman purchased the former Ferry house both he and his brother had large personal fortunes.

Lyman and his wife, the former Hattie Cullenberger, had four children, Hiram, Samuel, Irving and Corinne.  As well as being a successful merchant, Bloomingdale dabbled in real estate, was a patron in perpetuity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Treasurer of the Temple Beth-El and several other institutions, and a Director of the Montefiore Home.  

In 1896 Joseph Bloomingdale retired, leaving Lyman as the sold proprietor of what was now known as Bloomingdale's Department Store.

By the turn of the century the brownstone residence was architecturally outdated.  In 1900 Bloomingdale hired the architectural firm of Buchman & Fox to completely transform it.  The facade and stoop were removed and the front pulled forward to the property line.  The limestone-faced Beaux Arts palace that emerged left no hint of the Jacob Ferry house.

photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

The architects offset the understated entrance with its metal hood above a short flight of steps.  Two-story midsection was introduced by a full-width pseudo-balcony with elaborately carved stone railings.  A balustrade at the fourth floor pretended to be a full-width balcony as well.  Rather than a cornice, the architects gave the mansion a handsome parapet.

Inside was a notable art collection.  The Evening World later say of Bloomingdale, "He has been a liberal patron of American art and owned one of the finest collections of the best examples of foremost American painters."

The Bloomingdale summer house, Newcomb Cottage, was in Elberon, New Jersey; a resort popular among wealthy Jewish New Yorkers.  The family owned a country residence, Wagner Cottage, in Delaware County, New York, as well.  Between 3:00 and 4:00 on the morning of July 28, 1903 the unoccupied Wagner Cottage was destroyed by fire.  The New York Times estimated its worth at about $10,000--more in the neighborhood of $300,000 today.  "The origin of the fire is unknown," said the article, "but it is supposed to have been caused by boys using the grounds as a rendezvous for skylarking."

from The University Jewish Encyclopedia, 1940.

Irving Bloomingdale was 24-years old in 1902.   At a time when horses were still the main mode of transportation, he owned a motorcar.  It got him in trouble on November 19 that year.  The New-York Tribune reported that he "was passing Seventy-first-st. and Central Park West last night in an automobile at a speed that caused Bicycle Policeman Kerrigan to start in pursuit."  The officer estimated Bloomingdale's speed "at a greater rate than fifteen miles an hour."  Before Irving could be confined to a cell his father arrived with bail.

In 1903 Corinne was married to Arthur G. Popper.  As a wedding present Lyman and Hattie purchased the house at No. 48 East 66th Street, conveniently nearby.  As he had done with his own house, Lyman commissioned architect George A. Schellinger to remodel the outdated residence.

Irving's brush with the law in 1902 seems not to have diminished his tendency to speed.  On April 21, 1905 the New York Herald reported that he had been arrested "after a lively chase at 101st street, in the East Drive, in Central Park."  Mounted Policeman Brennan charged him with "driving his machine twenty-five miles an hour."  Irving pleaded not-guilty this time.  He insisted "he was being guided as to his rate of progress by a podometer, which he had on the machine, and that he was sure he did not transgress the speed ordinance."

Weeks after most families had returned to their city homes, the Bloomingdale family was still at Elberon in October 1905.  That was possibly because of Lyman's health.  The New-York Tribune reported "Mr. Bloomingdale had been in poor health all summer.  He suffered from heart trouble."  On October 6 he experienced a heart attack and the following week later, on October 13, he died.

Word was sent immediately to Bloomingdale's Department Store.  The Evening World reported "Immediately upon the receipt of the news of the death the big Third avenue department store was closed and the thousands of employees were sent home for the day."

The Evening World, October 13, 1905 (copyright expired)
The newspapers assured that the three sons would carry on the business; however the will provided an odd twist.  It allowed his three sons and their mother to continue running Bloomingdale’s Department Store for “not more than five years.” The sons successfully petitioned “to acquire the business if possible.”

The will also made provisions for more than 200 employees of the department store "of ten years' standing."  Large amounts were left to charitable institutions as well, like the $25,000 provided to the Montefore Home Country Sanitarium for Consumptives--more than three-quarters of a million in today's money.

In 1911 Hattie sold the 63rd Street house to William Burhans Isham and his wife, the former Hannah Collins.  In reporting on the sale, the New York Herald noted "Mrs. Bloomingdale has resided in the house for the last twenty-four years."

William's first wife, Sarah, had died in 1908 and he had married Hannah just months before purchasing No. 21.  Isham was a wealthy leather merchant.  Hannah was descended from a prominent Quaker family.  Her ancestor, John Bowne, had built the historic Bowne House in Flushing in 1661.  The couple maintained a summer estate, The Elms, in Warrensburgh, New York.  It was built by William's grandfather, Benjamin P. Burhans.

The Ishams had no children, but the house was the scene of a society wedding reception on November 8, 1919 following the marriage of Helen Palmer to William Paull Jacob.

William Burhans Isham died in the 63rd Street house on April 1, 1929.  His $1 million estate (about 15 times that much today) was distributed mostly to educational and charitable institutions.  While Hannah was given "life use" of the two residences, upon her death the 63rd Street house would become property of Princeton University and The Elms would go to the Board of National Mission of the Presbyterian Church.

The 63rd Street house was the scene of a society wedding on January 21, 1943 when Hannah's brother, Minturn Post Collins married Edith Buckingham.  The announcement of the couple's engagement had raised social eyebrows--the groom was 72-years old and the bride 23.

For the summer season of 1948 Hannah Isham leased Vernon Hall, the Southampton estate of the Princess Irbain-Kahn Kaplanoff.  She died there on July 31.

The 63rd Street house now officially became property of Princeton University, which quickly sold it to Mary Stevens Baird.  The new owner converted the house to a store and offices.  The shop became home to the exclusive jewelry store Schlumberger.  The New York Times later deemed Jean Schlumberger "one of the leading jewelry designers of the 20th century."

The upper floor offices were home to Tex McCrary, television pioneer, journalist and public relations specialist.  McCrary later told a reporter "the office was designed like a television studio, so we could shoot TV clips there" and mentioned that the associates would "look out the window at the famous people" who came and went through Schumberger's door.

On February 16, 1951 the store was the target of a slick robber who called ahead for an appointment.  The dapper Mr. Griffin arrived around 4:00 and spent about 45 minutes leisurely shopping for an engagement ring.  Then as he asked Nicolas Bongard, a partner of Jean Schlumberger, to look at a stain on his gray homburg hat, he revealed a gun.  Having taken the time to select his loot, the robber made off with $40,000 worth of unmounted diamonds.

The audacity of his heist was repeated a month later, almost to the day, when he returned.  This time he was not so suave.  As he walked in the door he waved a black revolver.  He locked up the three of the four people in the store, including Jean Schlumberger, in a lavatory and forced a salesman to assist him in packing the loot.  This time he left with $160,000 worth of gems--a total heist in the two robberies of $1.97 million today.

But when Arthur Chesler, aka Mr. Griffin, pressed his luck by attempting a third robbery he failed.  Schumberger had hired a Pinkerton detective who refused admittance to anyone who could not provide proper identification.   Foiled, Chesler rushed away, dropping his hat.  The expensive headgear was traced to the manufacturer, who identified the retail store, which identified the buyer.  Chesler was arrested on June 26, 1951.

By 1956 the Chase Gallery was in the former jewelry store space.  Over the years the upstairs offices would see tenants like Diana Ross and Ronald O Perelman's MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, Inc.  In 1979 a renovation updated the offices and added a fifth floor which took the form of a mansard roof.  It, as well, replaced Buchman & Fox's ground floor with an aluminum and glass commercial facade that the AIA Guide to New York City called a "mutilation."

In 1994 the new owners the Mexican-based Nacional Financeria embarked on an exterior restoration by architects Guy Lindsay Kohn and G.J.C. Structures.  The remarkable architectural rebirth resulted in a centered doorway within a rusticated base of which the original architects would undoubtedly have approved.

photo via Sotheby's International Realty

In 2002 the Swiss-based jeweler Chopard purchased the property for $9.25 million and converted it to its headquarters.  It listed it in 2019 for $40 million as a 12-room, four bedroom property with "all new state-of-the-art" interiors.  In describing the house, the realtor beamed that it was "being gutted right now" so the buyer could finish the interiors as desired.


  1. Your post today on interior gutting of the Lyman G. Bloomingdale house reminds me of your posts on the Philip Rhinelander house and the Stuyvesant Fish house. Why have fine craftsmanship and old world elegance when you can convert that space to something that looks like the inside of a refrigerator?