photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
By the early 1880s the stretch of Fifth Avenue in the 50's was lined with exquisite palaces, like the Vanderbilt family's "Triple Palace" between 51st and 52nd Streets. Their millionaire owners would spend decades ensuring that no commercial structures sullied the exclusive enclave. But one sneaked in.
A high-end apartment house was erected at 21-23 West 53rd Street, what the Record & Guide deemed, "the sole deviation from private houses in this block." In 1900 the property owners on the block paid the operator $19,000 "so that no change to the apartment house...would be made," said the article.
In 1903 banker George Blumenthal eliminated the potential problem. He purchased the apartment building, demolished it, and began construction on a double-wide mansion that would challenge any along the avenue for attention. His limestone-faced Beaux Arts style chateau was designed by the architectural firm of Hunt & Hunt. The limestone-faced chateau was completed in 1904.
The three arched openings within the rusticated ground floor were adorned with bearded portrait keystones. The height of the second floor windows suggest grandeur of the rooms on this level. The design was dominated by the massive mansard, the dormers of which sat just above the stone pediments of the windows below. Two massive decorative finials crowned the roof. The Sun would later say the mansion "is considered to be the finest example of a French residence in America."
Born in Germany in 1858, Blumenthal was a banker, the head of the American branch of Lazard Frères. He was, as well, the president of Mount Sinai Hospital and a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He and his wife, the former Florence Meyer, had one son, George Jr. Tragically, two years after moving into the West 53rd Street residence the boy died at the age of seven.
On April 7, 1916, Florence hosted a meeting attended by "prominent men and women," according to The New York Times. Although the United States was not yet involved in World War I, socialites were doing their part in providing relief. Those who gathered in the mansion that afternoon learned of the 300,000 French war orphans who "need assistance to preserve their lives."
The meeting would possibly be the last event in the house while the Blumenthals lived there. Five years earlier, on August 26, 1911, the Record & Guide had reported that Trowbridge & Livingston had filed plans for a new residence at the corner of Park Avenue and 70th Street. Now it was completed. Two months before Florence's meeting, The New York Press had reported, "Mrs. Burke Roche is the buyer of the George Blumenthal residence at No. 23 West Fifty-third street...Mrs. Roche will occupy the house as soon as title is passed."
Born Frances Ellen Work in 1857, she had married James Boothby Burke Roche, later the 3rd Baron Fermoy, on September 22, 1880. (Frances's great-granddaughter would be Diana, Princess of Wales.) Four children notwithstanding, the couple's marriage had not succeeded. Frances divorced Roche for desertion in 1891. By now she was a major figure in Manhattan society. Moving into the 53rd Street mansion with her were her two twin sons, Edmund Maurice and Francis George.
Frances Burke Roche is seated to the left. photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Sun described the twins as "two of the most popular young men in the social and business life of New York," and noted, "The Roche brothers, each of whom inherited a fortune from his grandfather, the late Frank Work, are so much alike physically and facially that even their most intimate friends have difficulty in telling them apart."
Francis George Burke Roche (L) and his brother Edmund Maurice Burke Roche. The Sun, September 12, 1920 (copyright expired)
Like Florence Blumenthal, Frances Burke Roche's frequent entertainments in the mansion were sometimes related to war relief. On February 3, 1917 she hosted "a concert and entertainment for the benefit of the Lafayette Fund," as reported by the New-York Tribune.
When America entered the war, so did Frances's sons. Interestingly, while the twins had done everything in unison throughout their lives, including where they went to school and what clubs they joined, one joined the army and the other the navy.
While they were away, Frances received titled houseguests. On May 18, 1919, the New York Herald reported the Hon. Edmund and Mrs. Burke Roche, the uncles of the twins, were visiting. Despite their noble connections abroad, the pair had lived in Canada for nearly four decades.
On September 1, 1920 Frances's former husband became Baron Fermoy. And now, the issue of succession arose. Because Edmund was one minute older than his brother, he was in line to be the next baron. On September 12, 1920, The Sun explained, "The inexorable laws of the British peerage are such that if fate makes one a British peer or son of a peer, citizenship in an alien land cannot change his status as such." The article concluded, "the older of the twin brothers must eventually become the fourth Baron Fermoy whether he likes it or not."
The issue would have to be decided sooner than anyone expected. Two months after James Boothby Burke Roche had taken the title of baron, he died. On November 1, according to the Oswego Daily Palladium, Edmund received a cable informing him of his father's death. The young man had a serious decision to make. On one hand, renouncing his citizenship would result in his losing his share of his grandfather's estate. (The Oswego Daily Palladium called Frank Work "one of the wealthiest New York bankers of his day.") One the other hand, the peerage came with a 21,000 acre estate in Ireland and "an old mansion at Rockbarton, Limerick."
When a New-York Tribune reporter visited the West 53rd Street mansion on November 1, Edmund waffled. He said, "I am an American citizen and I intend to vote tomorrow. I have been brought up as an American citizen." But he added, "my family is a very old one and naturally there is a sense of duty attached to the matter--something that might be termed a call, don't you see?"
Edmund took his time in deciding. Then, on February 8, 1921 he announced that he would surrender his American citizenship in order to receive the British title of the Fourth Baron Fermoy. The New-York Tribune reported, "Mr. Roche said that he had been urged to this action by relatives, and probably would go to Ireland within two months to prove his claim to the title and to the possession of large holdings in Wales and in County Cork, Ireland."
Edmund's theft of the social spotlight from his mother was a temporary thing. The following month the New-York Tribune reported, "Mrs. Burke Roche, of 23 West Fifty-third Street, will sail for Europe next month to pass the summer abroad." For the next two years, she kept the society reporters busy following her movements to her country home in Wappinger Falls, New York, to Newport, and to Europe, and in reporting on her numerous entertainments in the 53rd Street mansion.
Then, on November 12, 1923, The Sun titled an article, "Mrs. Frances Burke Roche Sells $750,000 Residence." She had sold it to Howard Ehrich, who quickly resold it in January. In reporting that sale, The Sun noted that the buyer "will make alterations."
Those modifications resulted in club rooms throughout the former mansion. On August 14, 1925. The Sun reported that the Criterion Club would be be moving in that October.
The Criterion Club was a prestigious Jewish men's club, lesser known than the Harmonie and the Progress Clubs. Like those, it was formed out of necessity. In the 19th century, as the sons of Manhattan millionaires grew to manhood, membership in at least one—but preferably several—of the exclusive men’s clubs was expected. Passing the rigid selection process proved one's good breeding and social status, but most of all money. None of those qualifications mattered much, however, if the candidate were Jewish. And so social clubs for Jewish millionaires were formed.
In 1938 the site of several nearby mansions had been razed to make way for the Museum of Modern Art. from the collection of the New York Public Library.
By 1944 the building was shared by the Horizon Club and The Theater Guild. On April 15 that year The New York Times announced, "The Philharmonic Women's Club and members of the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra will give a supper party followed by a satiric playlet tomorrow night at the Horizon Club...to mark the close of the orchestra's regular subscription season in the afternoon at Carnegie Hall."
On March 8, 1946 The New York Sun reported on a birthday party held at The Theater Guild for Charles Jehlinger, head of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Among those present were Edna Ferber, Oscar Hammerstein II, Arlene Francis, Ruth Weston, Ezra Stone, and other luminaries from the theater.
The Theater Guild was founded in 1919. To celebrate its 35th season, an exhibition was held here. On display, according to The New York Times on April 9, 1953, "will be hundreds of stage photographs, miniature stag settings, programs and other memorabilia."
The Museum of Modern Art can be seen at the right. image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
The Museum of Modern Art had been located at 11 West 53rd Street since 1939. As the complex expanded, it acquired the former Blumenthal mansion, using it in part as its bookstore. But the French Renaissance chateau made a strange bedfellow with its starkly 20th century neighbor. On March 16, 1971, Grace Glueck of The New York Times wrote that for two years "the museum had considered erecting a high-rise structure on the site."
The trustees and directors continued to consider plans for five years. Then, in 1976, the Museum of Modern Art announced its Museum Tower project. With no designation from the recently formed Landmarks Preservation Commission and only tepid pushback from New Yorkers, the Blumenthal mansion was demolished to make way for the 52-story structure, completed in 1982.
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