Saturday, February 12, 2022

The Edward Oppenheimer House - 118 East 61st Street

photo by Ted Leather

In the last months of 1869, a row of 18-foot-wide residences was completed on East 61st Street between Lexington and Fourth (later Park) Avenues.  Three stories tall above high English basements, the Italianate style homes were clad in brownstone.  The floor-to-ceiling parlor windows were, most likely, fronted by cast iron balconies, and the architrave frames of the upper openings wore prominent molded cornices.

Among them was 118 East 61st Street, which was offered for rent "to a first class tenant."  The advertisement in the New York Herald called the $1,600 annual rent the "cheapest in the city."  And, indeed, it was affordable, by today's standards--about $2,725 per month.

The occupants stayed for three years.  An auction of the household goods on April 21, 1873 touted, "handsome furniture, mirrors, piano, &c."

There would be a succession of owners.  On January 17, 1882, Robert White sold it to Edward Hirsch for the equivalent of half a million in today's dollars.  Before long, he sold it to James G. Powers, Jr., a partner with Gustav A. Rechlin in the merchant tailoring firm, Powers & Rechlin.

The Powers family remained until 1889 when the house was sold on August 13 to Guy Culgin.  Listed as a "carpenter and builder," he was a well established and respected contractor and president of the Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen.

Like their predecessors, the Culgins' residency would not be especially long.  The house was purchased by Edward Oppenheimer on October 7, 1895 for $22,750.  Property values in the neighborhood had continued to increase.  The sale price would equal about $725,000 today.

Born on April 23, 1830 in Baden, Germany, Oppenheimer had come to New York City at the age of 19 "with the revolutionists under General Franz Siegel [sic]," according to the New York Herald.   Franz Peter Sigel had been the Minister of War and commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Republican Government of Baden.   When the revolution collapsed in 1849, he and his supporters (including Oppenheimer) fled the country.

Shortly after arriving in his new country, he married Gudel (Julia) Dinkelspiel on March 21, 1852.  She died eight years later, on July 14, 1866, but not before bearing eight children.  Oppenheimer's year-long period of mourning had not elapsed before he married Matilde Levintas, who was also a native of Baden.  Oppenheimer's purchase of the East 61st Street house may have been prompted by his second wife's death.  Matilde, known familiarly as Mary, had died at the age of 49 on June 15, 1895, just four months earlier.

Oppenheimer had already had a colorful history.  He had not left his military leanings in Germany, and was one of the organizers of the Third Regiment of the New York State Militia, New York State's first cavalry unit.  Originally listed as a watch importer with a store on Maiden Lane (the jewelry district in the mid-19th century) Oppenheimer had changed career courses in 1870, becoming a partner in the real estate firm of Oppenheimer & Metzger.

Edward Oppenheimer (original source unknown)

Oppenheimer retired in 1900 and turned his focus to philanthropic work.  The New York Herald noted that he became "actively associated with the building developments of the Mount Sinai Hospital, of which he was a director.  He also gave a great deal of time to various charities."

Half a century of life in America had not diluted Oppenheimer's native roots.  An advertisement for a servant in 1905 suggests German was spoken in the household.  It sought, "A German chambermaid and waitress; three adults in family; liberal pay."

In the summer of 1910, Oppenheimer hired architect Charles Brendon to enlarge the house to the rear.  The four-story addition cost the equivalent of $28,000 today.

Oppenheimer's health began to fail before long.  He died in Jacksonville, Florida, "after a long illness," according to the New York Herald, on December 9, 1918 at the age of 89.  Of his eight children, only four survived him.

The East 61st Street house would become the home of another real estate operator, Milton E. Opton.  He "sold and vacated his home" in June 1937, according to the New York Post, and moved into a 12-room apartment on East 64th Street.

A renovation completed in 1949 resulted in a doctor's office in the basement level and one apartment each on the upper floors.  It was no doubt at this time that the stoop was removed.  In the 1960's, the apartments were filled with Dartmouth College alumni.  An article in the October 1964 issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine said:

It wasn't very long ago that 118 East 61st Street in New York was literally full of '53 bachelors.  In addition to Fred Whittemore, the last couple of years have seen John Corcoran, John Kingsland, Bob Lonsbury, and Bob Douglass fall under the ax of matrimony.  Things got so bad that the survivors, Paul Paganucci and Bob Callender, had to move into smaller quarters.  To make things even worse, they couldn't find another Dartmouth bachelor to take Fred's place and had to settle for a Harvard man."

The house was owned by financier Peter C. Ausnit.  The extended Ausnit family had begun purchasing the properties along the block in the 1950's.  By 1984, according to The New York Times, "only two buildings in that stretch were not owned by a member of the Ausnit family."  The end goal was to demolish the vintage structures and erect an apartment building.  But community activists won a court battle to change the zoning, and thus derailing the plans.

No doubt deflated after three decades of assembling the package, in June 1987 Peter Ausnit put 112 through 118 East 61st Street on the market for $1.95 million each.  The buyer reconverted 118 to a six-bedroom, four-bath single family dwelling.  It sold in August 1998 for $3.6 million.  The new owners had even grander plans for the house.  On August 20, 2001 the Observer noted that a crew was "demolishing its façade and all the interior walls."

The remodeled mansion, now five stories tall, only hints at its Victorian bones.  A two-story stone base supports two floors of red brick and a mansard roof.  Its neo-Georgian design features French windows at the second floor fronted by a faux-balcony.

Thieves entered through the skylight in the summer of 2016.  On July 27, The Jewish Voice reported, "Shoshanna Lonstein Gruss, a 41-year-old fashion designer, felt it was 'beyond violation' when $1.5 million worth of jewelry, as well as passports and Social Security cards, were stolen from her 118 East 61st home sometime between June 25, and July 19."  The former girlfriend of comedian Jerry Seinfeld and ex-wife of music executive Joshua Gruss, she had been at Montauk, Long Island with her three children when the burglary occurred.

More than 150 years after its construction, the long history of 118 East 61st Street is well concealed behind its 21st century facelift.

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many thanks to reader Ted Leather for suggesting this post


  1. I knew Peter Ausnit, in fact I introduced him to a Collection of Collector Cars, owned by a friend of mine Fred C. Brown in Ohio, I was introduced to him by a wonderful Friend of mine Herb Wetensen, of Long Island. The Collection Cost $800.000 consisted of mostly Rolls-Royce and Bentley autos, and one Mercedes Benz 540K Cabriolet plus other cars. I was promised 10% upfront on purchase of the said collection, and 45% of the net profit after they were all sold! Because Fred C. Brown cautioned me that he did not trust Peter Ausnit, I was lucky that Fred C. Brown insisted on giving me the titles of all of the vehicles titles all signed over to Peter Ausnit to hold, other than the title of a Mercedes 220 SE Cabriolet who's title was made out to me (fortunately) with a value of $20.000. After delivering all of the titles to Peter Ausnit, and countless Phone calls, I gave up. It was obvious that he was not going to pay me after all of the vehicles were sold. I had been informed that Peter Ausnit enjoyed a huge profit through my efforts, and to this very day, I have never receive any of the promised money other than a Mercedes Cabriolet. As far as the 45% of the net profit realized by the sale of the said collection, I got nothing! M. de Montfalcon.

    1. Who CARES about your PETTY Greedy comment!!!