Monday, October 25, 2021

The Lost Robert S. Brewster Mansion - 100 East 70th Street

The New York Architect, June 1908 (copyright expired)

Robert G. Mott and his wife, Mary Agnes, lived at the southeast corner of Park Avenue and 70th Street at the turn of the last century.  Mott was described by the New-York Tribune as "one of the oldest members of the New York Stock Exchange."  He died in the house in 1904, and Mary Agnes died two years later on May 6, 1906.

Mary Agnes may have been reluctant to sell her home to millionaire Robert Stanton Brewster, who already owned the two abutting houses on East 70th Street.  Now he wasted no time in acquiring the Mott residence and within one month of Mary Agnes's death his architects, Delano & Aldrich, had  not only filed plans for a mansion on the site, but had awarded the construction contract.  (Brewster's choice of architectural firms was most likely influenced by his college friendship with William Adams Delano.)

The plans called for a five-story residence faced in Indiana limestone.  Thirty-five feet wide on the avenue, it would stretch 76-feet along East 70th Street.  The construction cost was projected at the equivalent of $4.45 million today.

The mansion was completed two years later.  Architect William Adams Delano wrote in The New York Architect, "As far as the exterior treatment was concerned, an attempt was made to build a house of no particular historic style or epoch, and inside to provide rooms of fairly large proportions, the design of which would follow no pronounced style, so that furniture of almost any kind would look well in them.  In short, the problem was to build a simple and dignified home where one could live comfortably."

The New York Architect, June 1908 (copyright expired)

In fact, however, the façade was undeniably inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture.  The understated base featured an arched entrance with a scrolled keystone below a simple stone cornice.  The second floor openings wore pronounced molded cornices, and a carved cartouche in deep relief clung to the façade directly above the entrance.   The windows of the third and fourth floors were essentially unadorned.  The hip roofed fifth floor was nearly undetectable above the heavy stone cornice, with only its round-headed dormers peaking out.

Robert S. Brewster came from an old American family.  He was descended from William Brewster, who arrived on the Mayflower.  Robert's father, Benjamin Brewster, had been a vice-president of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway Company.  Although he sat on the boards of many banks and corporations, Robert Brewster preferred to devote his time to charitable organizations.  He was, for instance, the president of the Northern Westchester Hospital, chairman of the finance committee of Flower Hospital, president of the New York Orthopedic Dispensary and Hospital, and was highly involved in the Young Men's Christian Association.

Robert Stanton Brewster, from the collection of The Century Association Archives Foundation

He had married Mabel Martin Tremain on June 1, 1904.  In 1907, shortly before moving into their new residence, a daughter, Sylvia was born.  Two other children would follow, Robert Dows and Phyllis.

Like her husband, Phyllis Brewster was more interested in charitable activities than in glittering social events.  She was especially involved with St. Bartholomew's Church.  Therefore, William A. Delano explained, "The program called for a house to be used for entertaining, but entertaining on a small scale.  It was to be a house for dinners primarily, and not for dances or large gatherings."

The Brewster dining room (top) and reception room.  The New York Architect, June 1908 (copyright expired)

For that reason, the dining and reception rooms were placed on the ground floor, along with the men's and women's coat rooms.  On the second floor were the drawing room and library, and on the third the "ordinary bed-rooms, sitting rooms and bath rooms for the family," according to Delano.

Two views of the second-floor library.  The New York Architect, June 1908 (copyright expired)

The first floor rooms had 12.5-foot ceilings.  The the walls of the entrance hall were of Caen stone, a soft, yellowish stone with a marble-like look.  The floor was paved in black and white marble squares.

At the second floor the staircase opened onto a 30-by-18 foot hall, which Delano said "is more properly speaking a large living room."  It was paneled in oak, with matching beams spanning the ceiling 15 feet overhead.  At the Park Avenue side on this floor was the library, paneled in Circassian and French walnut.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide called the Brewster mansion, "one of the most distinguished-looking houses of the recent constructions in that quarter of the city."

With the townhouse completed, the Brewsters set Delano & Aldrich at work on their country estate in Mt. Kisco, New York.  On December 12, 1908 the Record & Guide reported that plans were being prepared for a residence there to cost just under $2 million in today's money to construct.

Among the first gatherings at 100 East 70th Street was a somber one.  Mabel's widowed mother, Eliza Martin Tremain, died on February 18, 1909.  A service was held in the Brewster house prior to the funeral in Albany the following day.

Mabel's entertainments were almost exclusively for charitable purposes.  On February 25, 1912, for instance, The Sun reported that she would hold "a summer sale" in the house on the afternoon of March 12 for the benefit of the Kip's Bay Day Nursery.  Socialites would be able to shop for all things necessary for the coming summer season.  The article said, "There will be offered for sale at the lowest possible prices the newest models of spring hats, bathing caps, jabots and collars for summer waists, cushions for porches and hammocks," and dozens of other items.

The New York Architect, June 1908 (copyright expired)

The country house was completed in the fall of 1912.  The Los Angeles Herald noted "Mr. and Mrs. Brewster...made many trips abroad to furnish the Westchester county show place.  There were brought scores of paintings from abroad, tapestries from periods of the middle ages, and a staircase in marble and antique wood imported from Rome."  That staircase alone had cost $10,000.  In all, including the construction, they spent a total of $300,000 on the mansion--more than $8 million in today's money.  

Fifteen servants began preparing the house for the family's initial arrival on April 2, 1913.  There were five furnaces necessary to heat the sprawling structure, all of which were put in service in the chilly March temperatures.  Tragically, one of them was defective.  It overheated and caused a basement fire.  The Sun reported on April 1, "The flames had gained much headway before the servants discovered them...The servants and neighbors did their best to get the furniture from the burning building, but they only saved a little of it."

A messenger arrived at the East 70th Street mansion with a telegram informing the Brewsters of the conflagration.  According to The New York Times, Brewster "made a wild automobile ride from New York in company with Mrs. Brewster...When the automobile sped up the Croton Lake Road to the house Mr. Brewster found the entire structure blazing fiercely, while the Mount Kisco Fire Department had abandoned efforts to save it."  The new mansion burned to the ground.  The New York Times remarked, "Neither Mr. and Mrs. Brewster seemed affected by the large financial loss...but both were overcome to think that their tapestries and paintings were destroyed."  

Delano & Aldrich was re-hired to start the project all over again.  While the replacement was to be a nearly exact copy of the original, this time Brewster stressed that it be "fireproof."

An aerial photograph reveals the scope of Avalon, the Mount Kisco estate.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

In 1917 the Standard Oil Company launched an oil steamer named for Robert's father.  The names of children of high society families rarely appeared in newsprint before their introductions to society.  An exception to that rule was when 10-year-old Sylvia Brewster was given the honor of christening the Benjamin Brewster.

Nine years later Sylvia, in December 1926, was introduced to society with a dance in the main ballroom suite of the Ritz-Carlton.  The Sun called it "a fashionable event."

On March 23, 1929 Sylvia was married to Lieutenant Edward Frederic Maude of the Royal Horse Artillery of Great Britain in a military ceremony in St. Mark's Church in Mount Kisco.  Phyllis was her maid of honor.  The reception was held at Avalon.  The New York Times reported, "After a short wedding trip in this country the couple will sail next month for India, where Lieutenant Maude will rejoin his regiment."

The entrance hall (bottom) and the second story staircase call.  The New York Architect, June 1908 (copyright expired)

Like her sister, Phyllis's debut into society took place at the Ritz-Carlton where, on December 30, 1932, the Brewsters hosted a "supper dance" to introduce her.  

Robert Brewster preferred to stay out of the public eye, doing his charitable works quietly.  A friend said "His favorite remark was, 'The advantages of obscurity are not half appreciated.'"  But that necessarily changed in 1933.  A devotee of the opera, Brewster had paid $200,000 for Box 4 at the Metropolitan Opera.  When the future of the company was threatened that year, he took a leading role in "the drive to 'save' the Metropolitan," according to The New York Times.  Fellow Century Association member Geoffrey Parsons later said, "The one glimpse the public had of him was through his interest in the Metropolitan Opera House."

He was made a director of the Metropolitan Opera Association that year, and in 1935 he was named president of the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Association.  He headed the renovation of the opera house prior to the 1934-35 season.

A view of Mabel Brewster's boudoir.  The New York Architect, June 1908 (copyright expired)

On November 7, 1936 The New York Sun reported on Phyllis's engagement to William S. Farish, Jr., saying it was "of wide interest to society."  Something went wrong in the relationship, however, and the engagement was quietly called off.

In October 1939 Robert Brewster was diagnosed with cancer.  He died on Christmas Eve that year at the age of 64.  His discreet service to the public was revealed in his obituaries.  Geoffrey Parsons described him saying, "He was more of a family man than a club man," and another friend said, "He never did a mean or cheap thing...He was not a great man; but he did what was right as he saw it more than most."

Mabel remained in the East 70th Street mansion with Phyllis.  On February 19, 1941 she announced Phyllis's engagement to John Randolph Burke.  Eight months later, on October 29, Mabel died at the age of 64.

The Brewster mansion was demolished within a few years, replaced by an 18-story apartment building designed by Emory Roth, completed in 1948.

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  1. Insert joke about two dollar house...

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. A Delano & Aldrich mansion built for and used by one family for roughly 40 years before being demolished.

    The replacement Delano & Aldrich country house at Mt. Kisco fared better. The Yeshiva of Nitra Rabbinical College website states that in 1948 "the Yeshiva purchased the Brewster Estate in Mount Kisco, New York, which consisted of several buildings and 300 acres of farmland." They still own the house, which looks little altered on the outside.