Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Joseph E. McCormack House - 112 East 61st Street


In the late 1860's and early 1870's brothers Joseph E. and William G. McCormack were erecting rows of high-stooped brownstone homes in the neighborhood around Lexington Avenue and 61st Street.  Joseph and Eliza J. McCormack moved into one of them, at 112 East 61st Street.

Identical to its neighbors, the three-story and basement house was faced in brownstone and was 18.6-feet-wide.  The parlor level openings wore triangular, Renaissance inspired pediments, and the architrave frames of upper floor windows sat on bracketed sills and wore molded lintels.  An ornate cast metal bracketed cornice crowned the structure.

Not long after moving into their new home the couple suffered unspeakable tragedy.  Their only son, Thomas A. McCormack, died on the evening of April 6, 1871.  He was three months short of his third birthday.  The little boy's funeral was held in the parlor on April 8.

The house next became home to Dr. Bernard Sachs and his wife, the former Bettina R. Stein.  The couple's daughter, Alice S. Sachs, was born on September 15, 1888.  Sachs was the youngest of five children.  His brother Samuel was a partner in the banking firm of Goldman, Sachs & Company.  His eldest brother Julius founded the Sachs Collegiate Institute for Boys, where Bernard finished his early education.

Dr. Bernard Sachs around 1900.  (original source unknown)

After graduating from Harvard, Sachs studied medicine in Europe.  He focused on nervous system disorders in children and in 1887 described the fatal genetic neurological disorder he called Amaurotic Family Idiocy (later renamed Tay-Sachs Disease).  He wrote several books, including the 1895 A Treatise on the Nervous Diseases of Children for Physicians and Students.

Around 1895 112 East 61st Street became home to another physician, Dr. Abram Brothers.  He and his wife, the former Minnie Epstein, had three children, Viola, Madeleine, and Arthur J.  

An obstetrician, like his predecessor Brothers was well regarded in the medical community.  He was the author of medical articles and was a professor of diseases of women at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital, and visiting surgeon to Beth-Israel Hospital.  He operated his private practice from the house.  A Renaissance Man of sorts, Brothers was also an author, violinist and actor.  

Minnie's story was no less colorful.  According to the family, while her mother was pregnant with her in New Orleans, a Southern gentleman somehow attacked her.  Her father retaliated by shooting him, and then fleeing.  Reportedly, Mrs. Epstein then followed her husband in a canoe paddled by a Native American.  They settled in New York where Minnie was born and where her father became the city's first kosher butcher.  While her husband tended to his medical practice and wrote articles, Minnie dealt in real estate, buying and selling properties in Manhattan and Brooklyn.  

Viola took an interest in the arts.  Her father taught her to play the violin.  She left school at the age of 16 to pursue a musical career.  Viola Brothers Shore would go on to become a poet, biographer and playwright.  She would win several Ellery Queen awards for her mystery stories, like the 1932 Murder on the Glass Floor.

In 1904 the Brothers family took a summer house in Sea Cliff, Long Island.  They were there on October 15, 1910 when "after a long illness," according to the Times Union, Abram Brothers died.  The 61st Street house was sold to Virginia Kent Magee that year.

She was the widow of Louis J. Magee and, like Minnie Brothers, dealt in real estate.  She hired architect John H. Van Pelt to modernize the outdated brownstone.  He added a two-story addition to the rear, removed the stoop, and added a sweeping bowed oriel at the former parlor level.  The renovations cost Virginia Magee the equivalent of $177,000 in 2023.

The entrance was moved to the former English basement, below sidewalk level.

She briefly leased the remodeled house to J. W. Schiffern.  Then, by 1913, Baron and Baroness Alfred Von de Ropp were living here.  The couple had two children, Harold and Vera.

As might be expected, entertainments in the house were notable.  On December 4, 1913, for instance, The Sun reported that Baroness de Ropp would be giving a reception that afternoon for former First Lady Mary Dimmick Harrison, wife of Benjamin Harrison.  Gatherings were not exclusively social.  On February 6, 1915, The New York Times announced, "The Baroness de Ropp has sent out invitations for 11 o'clock Saturday morning, Feb. 13, at her residence, 112 East Sixty-first Street, to hear Mme. Grevitch speak on the war in Servia [sic]."

While debutantes received most of the social attention as they came of age, young men of society were nonetheless celebrated.  On December 17, 1915 The New York Press reported, "The Baron and Baroness Alfred de Ropp of No. 112 East Sixty-first street will give a large dinner party to-morrow evening at Sherry's in honor of their son, the Baron Harold de Ropp.  The guests will be from the younger set."

Vera was married to Major Eric Fisher Wood, Assistant Chief of Staff to General Edwin F. Glenn in Los Angeles on April 20, 1918.  While the wartime wedding may have had military overtones, there was no question that this was the marriage of a titled bride.  The New York Times reported that Vera "wore a white satin robe draped with tulle and a tulle train bordered with satin, silver braid, and orange flowers."

There was another wedding around the same time.  Virginia Kent Magee was now Mrs. Stephen Swete Cummins.  She and her husband briefly moved into 112 East 61st Street.  Then, on October 2, 1919, Virginia arranged an auction of the artwork and furnishings.  An advertisement said the "complete antique and modern appointments" had been "chiefly collected in Europe by the owner."  

Included in the sale were an 18th century watercolor portrait of George Washington, English and French prints of the same period, oil paintings, antique Oriental rugs, a Sheraton bracket clock, Delft, pewter, a "fine Old English luster chandelier," a Queen Anne tall case clock, and other antique and modern furniture.

Virginia leased 112 East 61st Street to Harold C. Whitman, and then sold it to him the following year, in May 1920.  He, too, used it as a rental property.

In its section titled "Where Prominent People Live," the 1920 Valentine's City of New York listed Arthur Brisbane at 112 East 61st Street.   Among the best known newspaper editors of the period, he and his wife, Phoebe Cary had six children.  He was the editor of the New York Mirror at the time of the family's residency.  

There would be a relatively rapid turnover of occupants.  In 1924 John R. Green purchased the house, followed by cotton broker Adolph Eugene Norden.  Norden was a member of the firm A. Norden & Co. founded by his uncle, Adolph Norden.  The wealthy young man was separated from his wife, Rensa Wyenberg, who lived in Amsterdam.

While never divorced, Norden's relationship with his wife was apparently strained.  When he died at the age of 49 in the East 61st Street house on February 25, 1932, The New York Times mentioned only his mother and brother as his survivors.  Nevertheless, he left one-quarter of his estate, reported by The New York Sun to be the equivalent of $11 million in 2023, to Rensa.

No. 112 East 61st Street continued to be home to well-to-do residents.  On February 2, 1966, The New York Times reported that Mrs. M. Dreher Armstrong had hosted a cocktail party "honoring Miss Liane Augustin, the Viennese Singer."  Mrs. Armstrong was the committee chairperson for the upcoming Viennese Opera Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria.

The family of plastic surgeon Dr. Teresita Mascardo followed Mrs. Armstrong.  She established a medical office in the basement level.  They remained here until 1999 when Dr. Mascardo purchased the former home of Seymour Durst just steps away at 120 East 61st Street.  In reporting the sale, The New York Times said, "Dr. Mascardo and her family...will make the house their residence and also the home of the Woman to Woman Plastic Surgery Center."

Although the brownstone has been painted and architecturally unsympathetic windows installed on the upper floors, the McCormack house retains most of its integrity since Virginia Kent McGee completed renovations in 1910.

photograph by the author
many thanks to reader Ted Leather for suggesting this post has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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