By the first decade of the 20th century, Park Avenue above Grand Central Terminal was no longer the marginal residential thoroughfare of a generation earlier. Mansions rivaling those on Fifth and Madison Avenues, as well as high-end apartment buildings were rising at a rapid rate. In 1913 the newly formed 850 Park Avenue Corp. assembled several properties--four houses and three stables on East 77th Street, and two vacant lots facing Park Avenue--and hired the architectural firm of Rouse & Goldstone to design a replacement apartment building.
The plans, filed on July 11, 1913, called for a 12-story brick structure to cost $500,000 to construct (about $13.5 million in today's money). Completed the following year, its sedate neo-Renaissance, tripartite design featured romantic paired, arched openings at the second floor; carved stone swags and swan's neck pediments at the fourth; and faux balconies at eleventh. The slightly variegated brown brick was diapered in a subtle, overall diamond pattern.
There were four apartments per floor, each with a private elevator entrance. The "desirable new apartments," as described in an advertisement, ranged from seven to ten rooms, with from two to four bathrooms. Rent for the most expensive units in 1914 was $4,200, or about $9,300 per month in today's money.
Elevators opened directly into the reception room of each of the four apartments per floor. Architecture, May 1915 (copyright expired)
Among the early residents were the colorful Andrew Miller and his wife, the former Nina LeRoy. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1857, Miller had been a classmate of Theodore Roosevelt at Harvard University. He entered the journalistic field as a staff member of The Daily Graphic. Then in 1884, a year after Life Publishing Company released its first issue of Life Magazine, he joined that staff, became a part owner, and by the time he and his wife moved into 850 Park Avenue he was its secretary and treasurer.
But Miller was, perhaps, better known as a sportsman. At the couple's country home in New Jersey were stabled famous race horses like Roamer, "winner of many big races," according to The New York Times, and Snapdragon, "which also figured in some sensational races."
Calling him "prominent in the sporting world, The Evening World reported that he was "one of those who underwrote the proposal to send an American polo team to England after the British victory at Meadowbrook in 1914, an enterprise which the outbreak of war prevented." Miller was a steward of the Jockey Club and treasurer of the Saratoga Racing Association.
Andrew Miller began experiencing bronchial problems in December 1919 which, according to The New York Times, "kept him away from the offices of Life." But by December 30 he felt well enough to go to the work. His attempt to return to normal activity was premature, however. When he returned home that evening he complained of not feeling well. He died the following day, on New Year's Eve. His estate, estimated at more than $15 million today, was divided among his wife and two sons, Leroy and George.
Among the Millers' neighbors were the William Jays. While most socialites threw their support to war efforts by backing victims' relief groups and Army and Navy organizations, Mrs. Jay took a different route. She was determined to eliminate anything suggestive of German support from New York. When the German-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Karl Muck, was scheduled to appear at Carnegie Hall in March 1918, for instance, Mrs. Jay jumped into action.
On March 12 the New-York Tribune reported that she had organized a group of Carnegie Hall subscribers who "evolved a plan to prevent him from conducting his orchestra in New York." Mrs. Jay told the reporter, "Those concerts are always filled with German sympathizers who do not care to see this enemy alien conduct, and these seats are occupied by pro-Germans, who applaud and approve their hero."
When Strafing England, a group composed of anti-English, pro-German Irishmen booked Madison Square Garden for a rally two months later, Mrs. Jay did her best to stop it. The meeting was held on May 4, during which speeches were "interpreted as a prediction that Germany might yet be victorious," said The Sun. The article noted, "The meeting was held over the protest of Mrs. William Jay of 850 Park avenue."
The determined socialite had formed the Intimate Committee for the Severance of Enemy Relationship. On June 4, 1918 letters were send to the Yorkville and Irving Place theaters that "called upon the management to cease further productions in the enemy tongue." She seems to have been relentless in her efforts until armistice was declared.
The post-war years saw a trend in Manhattan of tenants buying their apartment buildings and converting them to cooperatives. On May 11, 1920, The New York Times reported that "four tenants and ten outside interests" had purchased 850 Park Avenue. "The new owners will conduct it on a co-operative basis," said the article. "The suites are from seven to ten rooms and the house is considered among the finest along Park Avenue."
Among the well-heeled residents at the time were Philip Rhinelander II and his wife, the former Hortense Le Brun Parsons. The only son of Thomas Jackson Oakley Rhinelander, he was named for his grandfather, Philip Rhinelander. The couple had a young son, Lebrun Cruger, when they moved into 850 Park Avenue. Hortense gave birth to a second son, Thomas Jackson Oakley Rhinelander, in their apartment on March 30, 1920.
Also in the building were attorney Sheridan S. Norton, his wife, the former Beulah Sanfield Einstein, and their daughters Marie and Frances. The family's country estate was at Glen Cove, Long Island where Norton raised pedigree dogs. The New York Times said he was "a leading American authority on shepherd dogs."
Prior to the her debutante ball on January 7, 1922, Barbara Vanderbilt Whitney was "the principal guest at a dinner given by Mrs. Sheridan S. Norton in her apartment at 850 Park avenue," as reported by the New York Herald. The impressive guest list included Seth Low, Jr. and his wife, the Count and Countess Laszlo Szechenyi, John Whitney, Adele Sloane Hammond, Sheila Burden and other members of Manhattan's socially elite families.
Notable was the presence of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. Not only was he the brother of the debutante, but a romance was blossoming between him and Marie Norton, who had come out in society the previous season. Five months after the party, on June 23, 1922, The New York Times reported, "Society was interested yesterday in the report that announcement would be made soon of the engagement of Miss Marie Norton...to Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney." The article said, "Mr. Norton, who is a lawyer, said he was unable to discuss his daughter's plans."
The New York Herald chimed in, saying "Miss Norton is well known in the young set that is identified with social and outdoor life of the North Shore of Long Island that centers about the Piping Rock Club. It was as members of this coterie that she and Mr. Whitney met." The article added that Whitney "is the youngest of three children who are destined to inherit large fortunes."
What the Norton family was, almost assuredly, unaware of was that in June 1921 the Whitney attorneys had accepted a summons against Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney filed by 22-year old Evan Burrows Fontaine. The New-York Tribune described her as "a specialist in exotic Oriental dancing." She had sued him for $1 million for breach of promise. According to Fontaine's attorney, "the case dragged along without any strenuous efforts being made in the direction of a settlement." Now, with an engagement on the horizon, things speeded up.
On August 14, 1922, the New-York Tribune reported that the Fontaine's case was about to be heard. "It will charge that her eighteen-months-old baby is the son of young Whitney and that repeated promises of marriage were never fulfilled." Fontaine had named the child Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Jr. While not denying that he knew Fontaine, Whitney decried the charges saying, "It is a malicious lie. I was never even engaged to her. I have not seen her in a year and I never took her to social or athletic events at Yale."
Marie Norton and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney just prior to their marriage. Merced Morning Sun, March 1, 1923 (copyright expired)
Despite the scandal, Marie Norton and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney were married in Paris on March 5, 1923. The marriage did not survive. They were divorced in 1929. Whitney would marry three more times. Marie married New York Governor and diplomat Averell Harriman, becoming New York's First Lady from 1955 to 1958.
In the meantime, Frances Norton married industrialist William Galey Lord. The girls' parents were still living at 850 Park Avenue when Sheridan S. Norton died on June 3, 1933. Beulah lived to the age of 91, dying on Long Island in September 1968.
Another socially important wedding was that of Florence Edrington in 1926. On June 1, 1926, The New York Times reported, "Miss Florence Edrington, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas R. Edrington of 850 Park Avenue, who have taken a house in Berkeley Square, London, for the season, will be married today in London to George Bruce Ismay, son of Mr. and Mrs. J. Bruce Ismay of London." The wedding took place in St. George's Church on Hanover Square.
Newspapers focused on the groom-to-be's American pedigree. "Mr. Ismay is half American through his mother, who is the former Miss Florence Schieffelin," said The New York Times, and Brooklyn Life noted, "His relatives in New York include Mrs. Hamilton Fish, Mrs. Henry Graff Trevor, Miss Dorothy Schieffelin and Mr. R. D. Schieffelin." What they gently sidestepped was the untidy affair of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
Ismay's father was J. Bruce Ismay, the highest ranking White Star official to survive the disaster. He was savagely criticized by the American and British press for deserting the ship while women and children were still aboard, some papers branding him the "Coward of the Titanic." Although cleared of blame by the official British inquiry, the Ismay name was tainted for decades.
Like the upscale apartment buildings of Central Park West, those on Park Avenue did not fall from favor as the decades passed. No. 850 Park Avenue continued to house prominent families. The Henry S. Fenimore Coopers lived here in the 1930's and '40's, for instance, and on June 22, 1943 Mary Cabell Auchincloss, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Auchincloss, was married in their apartment to Keith James Laidler of Liverpool, England.
Little has changed to Rouse & Goldstone's staid building, which still maintains a commanding presence.
photos by the author
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