Saturday, July 16, 2022

The Samuel Kempner House - 44 East 74th Street


image via

In 1896 the T. C. Gordon had problems with their home at 44 East 74th Street.  On June 23 that year The Journal reported, "Mrs. Gordon spent the greater part of yesterday searching for another house.  The reason for moving is that noises which cannot be accounted for continue all day and night.  Doors that are locked at night are found open the next morning, and the impression is that the house is haunted."

The Gordons' seemingly possessed residence was one of 11 high-stooped Italianate brownstones erected in 1870 by developers Winters & Hunt.  Undaunted by rumored paranormal background, in the spring of 1899 Samuel Kempner purchased the 20-foot-wide residence.  The New York Press reported, "Mr. Kempner will remodel the house."

And remodel he did.  In May, architect George F. Pelham filed plans for renovations to cost the equivalent of $805,000 today.  He stripped off the brownstone front and removed the stoop, pulling the facade forward to the property line.  The resultant five-story English basement mansion was faced in limestone, its Beaux Arts design at the height of domestic fashion.

Above the rusticated base, a full-width stone balcony fronted French windows.  The top floor sat back from the bowed facade, providing an iron-railed balcony.  The design was crowned with a bracketed stone cornice.

Kempner and his wife, the former Rose Content, had no children.  Sharing the East 74th Street house with them were Kempner's parents, Marcus and Hannah.  Marcus died on July 17, 1911 at the age of 74, and his funeral was held in the drawing room that week.

Beginning in 1914, the Kempners leased the residence to Reuel Baker Kimball family.   He and his wife, the former Caroline Know, had two children, Reuel Jr., and Esther C.  America's entry into World War I in April 1917, threatened to upend Reuel Jr's studies.  On July 31 the New York Herald reported, "Reuel Baker Kimball of 44 East Seventy-fourth street, is a second year medical student.  He said he expected to be drafted, but understands that he will be given a furlough to continue his studies."

Young Kimball's medical studies went on despite the war.  original source unknown.

Two months after the article the Kimballs had moved on.  In September 1917 Samuel Kempner sold 44 East 74th Street to Parker D. Handy for $100,000--just over $2 million today.

Born in Fairfield, Connecticut in 1858, Handy was the president and chairman of Handy & Harmon, bankers and dealers in gold bullion and precious metals.  His wife, Anne Kissam Warner, came from an old and socially prestigious family.  They had three children, Truman P., Cortlandt W., and Ruth.

A year after moving in, the Handys announced Ruth's engagement to Ensign Ford Burchell.  The New-York Tribune noted on August 11, "Miss Handy is a member of the Junior League and was one of last season's debutantes.  Ensign Burchell was a student at Princeton, class '19, and left there to enlist in the Naval Reserve."

The wedding took place in the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on November 16, 1918, with a reception in the East 74th Street house afterward.  The Sun noted, "Ensign Burchell and his bride will pass the winter in Newport, R.I., where he is stationed."

The Parkers' summer home, Groendak, in Glen Cove, New York, had been designed by architect C. P. H. Gilbert at the turn of the century.   But like other millionaire families, they traveled extensively, sometimes leaving the Glen Cove property shuttered for a season.  On July 15, 1923, for instance, The New York Times announced, "Mr. and Mrs. Parker D. Handy of 44 East Seventy-fourth Street have arrived at the Ocean House, Watch Hill, R.I. for the season," and on June 2, 1927 the New York Evening Post reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Parker D. Handy of 44 East Seventy-fourth Street have closed their house and will sail on Saturday on the Minnewaska for London.  They intend to take a motor trip through England, Scotland, and Wales, returning in August."

The Parker summer home, Groendak.  Architecture magazine, 1901 (copyright expired)

Parker D. Handy died at the age of 71 on November 12, 1929.  His funeral was held in the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church three days later.  The New York Evening Post noted that all of the honorary pallbearers were graduates of Princeton University, of which Handy was a graduate and a life trustee.

Anne Handy stepped into her husband's post as chairman of the board of Handy & Harmon.  She served in that position until her death on March 15, 1934 at the age of 66.  Her funeral was held in the East 74th Street house on March 17.

The mansion next became home to Perle R. Mesta, the widow of George Mesta, an engineer and president of the Mesta Machine Company who died in 1925.  Upon his death she inherited a fortune of about $15 million in 1925 dollars.

She was highly visible in society, not only in New York City, but in Washington, D.C. where she maintained another home.  On February 17, 1939 The New York Sun reported, "Mrs. George Mesta of 44 East Seventy-fourth street, gave a luncheon party in the Iridium Room of the St. Regis yesterday in honor of Miss Patricia Peale, debutante daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Rembrandt Peale of 138 East Seventy-ninth street."

But by then, Perle Mesta's passion was turning from society affairs to political issues.  Once a staunch Republican, she had taken a leading role in the National Woman's Party.   But around 1940 she switched parties, conducting successful fundraisers for Harry S. Truman and eventually becoming a close friend of the Truman family.

Perle Mesta left 44 East 74th Street around 1941.  Truman would appoint her the first United States minister to Luxembourg in 1949.  Her astounding life and career prompted Irving Berlin to write the musical Call Me Madam based on her story.

Perle Mesta in 1955.  image via

In 1942 the mansion as converted to apartments.  Living on the first floor in 1947 was Meier Greenwald.  At 2 a.m. on June 5 that year, he was awakened by noises and discovered 23-year-old George Weltsch in his apartment.  The Daily Argus reported that Weltsch hit Greenwald "on the head with an automobile lug wrench during a tussle."  Police later found the wrench in the apartment.  Weltsch had made off with $1,000 worth of jewelry and other items.

Greenwald was in the toy business, and he believed he recognized Weltsch as a customer from Eastchester who had visited his apartment about a year earlier to see samples.  Detectives went to every toy and stationery store in Eastchester, New York until they found a proprietor who matched the description.  He admitted to jimmying the apartment door, but did not address the missing items.  Surprisingly, he was found guilty of breaking and entering, but cleared of burglary charges.

photograph by the author

In the early 2000's the ground floor was home to art galleries--first the Thompson, then the Carlton Rochell, and finally the Meredith Ward Fine Art gallery.  A renovation completed in 2014 returned the mansion to a single family home.

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  1. Presumably the poltergeists were encouraged to move on when the house was extensively remodeled?

  2. Mrs. Reuel Kimball was Caroline Knox, not Know. As as side note Dr. Kimball was an uncle of the critic Edmund Wilson.

  3. Any idea who the current family is living in this mansion as a single-family residence? I believe one floor is still the Meredith Ward Fine Art Gallery (the basement nowadays?), but what family occupies the rest of this gorgeous home? Hopefully the facade renovation is keeping them safe from the OG hauntings!