Friday, July 22, 2022

Blum & Blum's 1925 791 Park Avenue


Brothers George and Edward Blum were 9 and 12 years old, respectively, when they arrived in New York from France in 1888.  They would both return to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris before opening the New York architectural firm, Blum & Blum in 1909.  It was a partnership that would change the face of apartment buildings in New York City.

Within the next two decades the Blum brothers would be responsible for at least 120 apartment houses.  Their grasp of French architectural trends that transcended their Beaux-Arts training—like Art Nouveau and Art Deco—would impact their designs in New York.  

By the end of World War I, upscale apartments were rising along upper Park Avenue.  In 1924 the newly formed syndicate 791 Park Avenue demolished six vintage rowhouses at the corner southwest corner of Park Avenue and 74th Street, and a tenement building on the avenue, to make way for one more.  The group hired Blum & Blum to design the project.

Completed in 1925, 791 Park Avenue rose 14 stories.  Its Art Deco design sat upon a two-story rusticated limestone base.  While the building had none of the colorful, jazzy terra cotta ornamentation seen in some of Blum & Blum's 1920's designs, the architects distinguished the upper floors with serrated balconies below two-story arches and a decorative parapet along the roof.

photo by Wruts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Designed to attract wealthy tenants, 791 Park Avenue offered sprawling apartments with the amenities of a private home.  An advertisement in The Spur in 1925 offered suites of 12 rooms and 4 baths ranging from $9,000 to $14,000--the more expensive of which would equal $17,250 per month today.  Decades later, on April 29, 1979, Susan Bendheim, writing in The New York Times, would comment, "At 791 Park Avenue, with 28 apartments, there are over 90 maids' rooms.  These apartments represent the normal design features of the 1920's."

Press coverage of the residents centered around social events, like the lengthy coverage of Muriel Bache Richards's coming out on September 16, 1932.  Muriel was one of three daughters of broker Frederick Lloyd Richards and Hazel Joy Bache.  The family's summer home, Hazelmere, was at King's Point, Long Island.

The Richards estate, Hazelmere.  Architectural Record, 1918 (copyright expired)

Muriel's debut started with a dinner party at Hazelmere, followed by a "supper dance" at the Turf and Field Club at Belmont Park.  The New York Times wrote, "Supper was served continuously at tables on the lawn."  The article required several paragraphs to name the scores of guests.

It would not be long before cloud formed over the Richards apartment.  Hazel sued for divorce in 1936, accusing  Frederick of cruelty.  On the very day it was granted, she married Frederic Beckman, an investment broker reportedly half her age.  Hazel retained the Park Avenue apartment and her daughters.

Two years later, on March 24, 1938, The New York Times reported that Muriel was engaged to Francis Warren Pershing, the only son of famed General John J. Pershing.  The ceremony took place in St. Thomas's Church on Fifth Avenue on April 22.

Another engagement announced that year was that of Eleanor Jane Lindsay to Cooper Schieffelin.  She was the daughter of George Nelson Lindsay and Florence Eleanor Vliet.  The prospective groom came from an early New York family and in reporting on the engagement The New York Sun commented, "Many of the important Colonial New York families are found in the Schieffelin family."

Eleanor was one of five children.  The family's summer home was in Oyster Bay, Long Island.  Nicholas Pileggi, writing in New York Magazine on January 4, 1971, said, "the Lindsay children were treated to the educations and amenities of families who have lived on Park Avenue all their lives.  John, for instance, went through an impeccable succession of schools--Buckley, St. Paul's and Yale."  John Lindsay would go on to become a U.S. Representative and, notably, the mayor of New York City.

From 1934 through 1938 novelist, playwright and short story writer Edna Ferber lived in a penthouse apartment.  Born in Michigan in 1885, the award winning writer would never marry.   According to Julie Goldsmith Gilbert in her 1978 Ferber: Edna Ferber and Her Circle, a Biography, Ferber took full opportunity of the terrace for gardening.  She writes that the garden was "so lush that it caused even the inveterate gardener Alfred Lunt to exclaim, 'Peach trees in a New York apartment!  I Never!'"  Gilbert notes:

She hoed and spaded and watered and transplanted; she had awnings put up and new flagstones put down.  She carried on as though that little garden were the Tuileries.

Edna Ferber, Theatre Magazine, July 1928

Other socially-visible families here at the time were the David Tod Bulkleys and the Francis R. Stoddards.  Their entertainments were mostly the expected dinner parties, receptions and teas.  But, at least once a year, Edith Plaut gave a much different sort of affair.

On May 5, 1938, The New York Sun reported on her annual cocktail party "for the circus folk."  If the reporter had expected to see colorful costumes and headdresses, he was disappointed.  "The rooms were swarming with performers, but it was hard to distinguish them from Mrs. Plaut's less spectacular friends."  Among the guests were the Flying Wallendas, "the family that stalks above the audience on the high wire," slack wire walker Nio Naitto, and married aerial acrobats Antoinette and Arthur Concello.

At mid-century, 791 Park Avenue was converted to a co-op.  When attorney Sidney Weisner and his wife were rejected by the board in 1958, Weisner sued.  The case resulted in a landmark ruling that, so long as there were no civil rights violations, the co-op board of directors can reject whomever it pleases, without explanation.  The court wrote, "There is no reason why the owners of the co-operation apartment house could not decide for themselves with whom they wish to share their elevators, their common halls and facilities, their stockholders' meetings, their management problems and responsibilities and their homes."

Among the owners who were accepted were the family of  publisher Charles Scribner, who would remain for decades, and Louis J. Brecker and his wife Dorothy.

In 1916, while still a student at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Brecker "concluded that Philadelphia would not be so dull if it had a ballroom," according to Richard Severo of The New York Times in 1977.  And so he opened one, calling it Roseland.  In 1919 he moved his Roseland Ballroom to New York City, laying the foundation of a decades-long dancing tradition.  Dorothy Brecker died in December 1976, and Louis died on July 8 the following year.

Actress and singer Polly Bergen occupied apartment 11-A at the time.  She was a vice-president of the board of trustees of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Inc., in 1980.  Interestingly enough, on the corporation's list of executives her occupation was listed as "businesswoman." 

As was the case in 1925, there are 28 apartments within the building, two per floor.

photographs by the author
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1 comment:

  1. Polly Bergen had a very successful line of cosmetics in the 1970's.