Architecture magazine, January 1917 (copyright expired)
Following Martha Fiske's death in the Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo on January 23, 1908, her impressive mansion at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 70th Street sat shuttered for four years. It was sold in April 1912, at a time when the purchasers of significant real estate parcels often preferred to remain, at least initially, anonymous. And so it was not until September 19, 1914, that the Record & Guide reported, "C. Ledyard Blair proves to be the buyer of the plot 33.5x175 on the south corner of 5th av and 70th st."
Clinton Ledyard Blair was born on July 16, 1867, the grandson of one of 19th century America's wealthiest men, John Insley Blair. A graduate of Princeton, Clinton was a partner in the banking firm founded by his grandfather, Blair & Company. He and his wife, the former Florence Osborne Jennings, had four daughters, Marjory Bruce, Florence Ledyard, Edith Dodd and Marie Louise.
Blair commissioned the architectural firm of Carrere & Hastings to replace the Fiske house with a modern mansion. The firm had been responsible for designing the Blairs' 1903 country home, Blairsden in Peapack-Gladstone, New Jersey. Both the Record & Guide and Architecture magazine would give Thomas Hastings sole credit for the design of the New York townhouse.
Completed in 1917, the 66-room Regency Revival mansion was faced in limestone. Four stories tall, its entrance was centered within the rusticated base. The wide 70th Street elevation was divided into three horizonal portions, the end sections marked by double-height, fluted Corinthian pilasters. The top floor sat atop a stone cornice. Here the central section sat slightly back to provide a stone balustraded balcony.
As the house was rising, on November 21, 1915 The New York Times had reported on the several mansions being built in the neighborhood. It noted, "the one that stands out with prominence is C. Ledyard Blair's big house on the south corner of Seventieth Street. With the new Frick house on the block to the north and the splendid homes lately completed on the old Lenox block, the Blair house takes an important place." The article continued:
Of a simple but dignified Colonial architecture type, with its great limestone front relieved with low iron balconies at the second-floor windows, a grass plot on the Fifth Avenue side in which have been planted two plane trees, the Blair residence is an excellent example of good architectural taste combined with the luxuries and comforts of a Fifth Avenue home.
The Real Estate Record & Guide (which, incidentally, described the mansion as "a four-story marble structure"), placed the construction costs at "between $150,000 and $200,000. That would translate to about $5.5 million on the higher end in 2022.
In addition to Blairsden, the family maintained a Newport cottage, Honeysuckle Lodge (which, coincidentally, had also been the home of Martha Fiske), and a home in Bermuda, named Deepdene. Florence and her unmarried daughters often spent weeks during the cold months there, arriving on Blair's sumptuous yacht, the Diana, described by The New York Times as "one of the largest of the yachts of the New York Yacht Club...She is 254 feet over all and was a waterline of 216 feet."
If the Blairs had hoped to have their townhouse completed in time for the weddings of their daughters, they were disappointed. Marjory was married to William Clark in "a Grecian temple" on the lower terrace of Blairsden on September 20, 1913. Six hundred guests rode to the estate on a six-car special train. The boys choir of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine led the procession from the mansion.
Blairsden would be the scene of another wedding reception on June 16, 1916. Florence was married to H. Rivington Pyne in St. John's Chapel in nearby Bernardsville, New Jersey. The New York Times reported, "Blairsden was lavishly decorated for the reception with flowers from the conservatories on the grounds. The house is one of the largest country homes in New Jersey, set in the midst of a magnificent estate."
Prior to the completion of his townhouse, Blair's already significant personal fortune was enormously increased. On June 17, 1915, The New York Times reported, "To C. Ledyard Blair and J. Insley Blair is left the bulk of the estate of their father, De Witt Clinton Blair...who died recently. The estate is valued at $50,000,000." (The total estate would be closer to $1.39 billion today.)
Although the lavish townhouse was completed in the summer of 1917, Edith's wedding to Richard Van Nest Gambrill took place at Blairsden on June 21. Once again, guests road to the estate in a private train.
The last of the daughters to wed was Marie Louise. Society columns normally highlighted the bride in reporting engagements and marriages, but the social and historic prominence of the groom, in this case, supplanted tradition. The New York Times reported on September 12, 1919, "The wedding of Pierpont Morgan Hamilton, the older son of Mr. and Mrs. William Pierson Hamilton and a grandson of the late J. Pierpont Morgan, and Miss Marie Louise Blair...was solemnized at 4:30 o'clock in St. John's Chapel-on-the-Mountain, near Bernardsville, N. J." The article added that the groom "is a great-great-grandson of the famous Alexander Hamilton."
It is unclear whether the Pynes moved into the 70th Street mansion, or if Florence (as was common) simply came here during the last stages of her pregnancy. Either way, in October 1917, the New-York Tribune announced, "Congratulations are being extended to Mr. and Mrs. H. Rivington Pyne on the birth of a son at the home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. C. Ledyard Blair, No. 2 East Seventieth street."
Six months earlier, the country had entered World War I. Blair turned the Diana over to the Government as his donation to the war effort.
Like most socialites, Florence became involved in relief efforts. On March 30, 1919, the New-York Tribune reported, "An American Memorial Hospital in the city of Rheims is to be established by the American Fund for French Wounded." The project had been established at a meeting of the National Executive Council of the American Fund for French Wounded the day before in the Blair mansion. During that meeting, $100,000 was pledged toward the construction of the hospital.
C. Ledyard and Florence Blair spent nine winter social seasons at 2 East 70th Street. In January 1926, they sold the magnificent limestone palace to real estate developer Anthony Campagna for $1.25 million. He replaced it with a 14-story apartment building, designed by Rosario Candela, which survives.
many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for prompting this post
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