Monday, February 20, 2023

The Lost John Aitken House - 72 East 56th Street


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

On March 25, 1881 Luke and Martha A. Slater purchased the 20-foot-wide brownstone at 72 East 56th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues.  They paid Samuel Zeimer $35,000 for the four-story residence, or about $957,000 in 2023.

Born in Fishkill, New York in 1832, Slater was of "Dutch and Yankee heritage," according to The New York Times.  As a boy he left home to work in a machine shop in Newburg, New York and before he was 21-years-old opened his own firm, the Redfern Iron Works.  Slater focused on ship repairs.  In 1875 he closed that company and established a new partnership with Alexander Reid named Slater & Reid.  The New York Times later said the firm had repaired "three-fourths of all the foreign vessels that entered the port of New-York."

Luke Slater would not enjoy his handsome home for especially long.  On June 26, 1887 he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 55.  His funeral was held in the house three days later and he was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York where the Slaters' country home was located.

Martha left East 56th Street almost immediately afterward, never to return.  An advertisement in the New York Herald on October 8 offered, "To Rent Furnished--four story brown stone house to private family; perfect order."

In 1903 she leased the house to Eleanor Claire Hughes Munde.  Her renowned husband, Dr. Paul Fortunatus Munde had died the previous year.  Her wealth and social station were reflected in the reception held in the house following her daughter Natalie Morris Munde's wedding in St. Bartholomew's Church on April 26, 1905.  Among the guests were several members of the Roosevelt family, the Frederick Dent Grants, Mrs. J. Pierpont Morgan, the Augustus D. Juilliards, Mrs. Henry Lewis Morris and other high-level socialites.

Before the wedding, the New York Herald had announced that Eleanor "will probably pass part of the coming summer in Europe."  What was certain was that she would not be returning to 72 East 56th Street.  In February Martha A. Slater had sold the house to John Aitken.  Six months later the New York Herald commented, "John W. Aitken is remodelling [sic] No. 72 East Fifty-sixth street into the American basement type of house."

Aitken had hired architects Foster, Gade & Graham to transform the outdated brownstone into a modern Edwardian home.  The all-encompassing plans, filed in May, called for new facades, a rear extension, and new internal stairs and walls.

Construction was not quite completed when this photo was taken.  The stone parlor window railing has not yet been installed.  The Brickbuilder, September 1908 (copyright expired)

Foster, Gade & Graham created a charming Colonial Revival home faced in red brick and trimmed in white stone.  An ample arched fanlight crowned the entrance and the grouped parlor windows were fronted by a stone faux balcony.  The second story windows opened onto an iron-railed balcony, their splayed lintels typical of Colonial architecture.  The mansard featured two dormers behind a brick parapet.

The first and second floor plans reflect the extension Aitken had added to the rear.  The Brickbuilder, September 1908 (copyright expired)

Aitken was a member of the dry goods business Aitken, Son & Co. founded by his father.  A 1901 graduate of Princeton University, he and his wife, the former Ethel Ralson, had been married in her parents' home in Chicago in 1902.  When they moved into their newly remodeled home, they had a baby son, John William, who was born on May 28, 1904.  The couple would have two daughters, Barbara and H. Jean.

The family's summer home, Cumbernauld, was at Oyster Bay, Long Island.  Twelve years after Foster, Gade & Graham had remodeled their townhouse, the firm was called back to improve the country estate.  On August 11, 1917 the Record & Guide reported that the architects were designing a one-story garage and wing, a two-and-a-half-story chauffeur's cottage, and a farmer's cottage of the same size.

That year the United States entered World War I.  Although John Aitken was 38-years-old, he entered the navy, attaining the rank of lieutenant.  While serving with the transport division at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, he met Chief Yeomanette Harriet D. Berry.  Shortly after the war, in January 1920, John and Ethel Aitken were divorced in Reno, Nevada.  Four months later, on April 23, John and Harriet D. Berry were married.  

With their divorce pending, the Aikens had sold 72 East 56th Street in November 1919 to Arthur N. Peck and his wife, Ella.  Peck was the head of the stockbrokerage firm Peck & Co.  The couple had a son, Arthur K. and a daughter Ruth P.  Their summer home was in Woodmere, Long Island.

Two views of a bedroom, most likely a guest room, during the Peck residency.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

When the Pecks moved into 72 East 56th Street, commerce was inching into the formerly exclusive neighborhood.  They would remain only through 1925, after which the basement level was remodeled for a restaurant, Gus Christo, and the upper floors to apartments.

A writer for the humor magazine Judge reported the "important news" on December 11, 1926 that "Gus [Christo] has opened a place at 72 East Fifty-sixth that's a darb--best meals in town!  I get a free meal for this ad!"

In 1941 the basement restaurant had large windows and a shop has been installed at the parlor level.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In the mid-1940s photographer Harriet Arnold lived and worked from an apartment here.  In its March 1945 issue, Popular Photography said she "has successfully solved one photo-economic problem, to wit, how not to pay additional rend for a studio."  That solution made for tight conditions, however.  "Miss Arnold lives in a one-and-a-half room apartment...which means that she lives, eats, sleeps, entertains, and works in one room."

Harriet Arnold sets up a fashion photo shot in her tiny studio apartment.  Popular Photography, March 1945

In 1950 D. D. and Leslie Tillett opened the House of T. Fabrics here, selling drapery and upholstery materials.  Their fashion-forward designs reflected mid-century tastes.  On June 15, 1951 The New York Times reported on a new collection "enlivened with the hot colors and amusing patterns usually associated with Mexican designs."  The journalist was amused by one multi-colored print called Bouillabaisse.  "Drawings of the recipe's ingredients, including octopus, clams and different shell fish, are printed in stripes on the fabric."

In 1979 Les Petites Gourmandes opened in the former Gus Christo space.  The New York Times's food critic Mimi Sheraton said, "Walking back into the small dining room of Les Petites Gourmandes is like taking a step back in time to an intimate supper club of the mid 1930's or early 40's."  She called the French restaurant's menu "as stylish as its décor."  The restaurant remained well into the 1980's.

By then the Jay Johnson Gallery and the America's Folk Heritage Gallery operated from the building.  But the end of the line for the former residence was on the near horizon.  It and the surrounding properties on 55th Street and Park Avenue were demolished to make way for the Park Avenue Tower, designed by Murphy/Jahn Architects, which opened in 1986.

photo by Epicogenius

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1 comment:

  1. Hello! Thank you so much for posting such an informative piece. The John Aitken mentioned is my great great grandfather.

    I love filling in our family history with pieces of history like this.

    Thank you again,