Saturday, March 4, 2023

The William H. S. Wood House - 129 East 61st Street


In 1871 Joseph E. and William G. McCormack completed a row of 19-foot-wide brownstone-clad homes on East 61st Street between Lexington and Park Avenues.  The Italianate design of the four-story and basement homes included picture frame-like architrave window surrounds and bracketed cornices with paneled friezes.

William H. S. Wood moved his family from East 33rd Street into 129 East 61st Street.  Born on April 13, 1840, the well-educated young man had graduated from the University of the City of New York and from Haverford College.  In 1865 he was made a partner in his father's firm, William Wood & Company, which published medical books.  The elder William Wood had retired in 1870, making William its head.  According to Genealogies of the State of New York in 1915, "he steadily built up the medical publishing business until the firm became the first in its line in this country."

In 1865 he had married Emma Congdon, a niece of Johns Hopkins.  The couple had two sons, William, who was five-years-old when they moved in, and Gilbert, who was three.  They would have three more children: Edward Arnold, who was born in 1872; Philip Hopkins in 1876; and Mary Underhill in 1881.

The Wood family's occupancy would be relatively short.   On March 17, 1879 they sold the house to Mayer Gutman and his wife Emma for $17,250.

Gutman operated a hosiery business at 426 Broadway.  He paid cash for 129 East 61st Street, and nearly a decade later, in June 1888, testified that he owned the house "free and clear," estimating its value at $20,000 to $25,000--about $735,000 in 2023 on the higher end.  The Gutmans had four children, Abraham Lincoln, Miram, Leonard and Carrie.  

Mayer Gutman died in April 1891.  Emma sold the house to Leopold Miller eight years later.  He resold it in March 1902 to Barend and Edith Van Gerbig.  The couple had been married two years earlier, on May 25, 1900, in Edith's parents' mansion at 4 West 53rd Street.  She was the daughter of banker and politician Frederic Pepoon Olcott and his wife, Mary Esmay.  Edith was also the niece of millionaire banker Dudley Olcott.

Almost immediately, the Van Gerbigs modernized the dated brownstone.  In April 1903 they hired architect H. E. Tichen to make modifications.  He removed the stoop and relocated the entrance to the basement.  Paneled pilasters upheld a three-sided bay at the now-second floor, creating a sort of portico for the entrance.  A rounded oriel at the third floor created a pleasant seating area inside and additional visual interest outside.

Barend was, perhaps, an unexpected match for the heiress.  He was a pianist and composer who had relied on the support of society matrons.  Years earlier, on March 30, 1893, for instance, Town Topics reported on his recital at Music Hall.  Calling him "a very capable young pianist," the article said it was arranged "under the patronage of a number of well-known ladies."

The couple had two small boys when they moved in.  Dudley was two years old in 1903, and Howell was one.

Edith's personal fortune increased following her father's death.  On September 30, 1909, The New York Times reported that she received $669,640 plus "realty valued at $135,000."  The combined inheritance would be equal to about $25.8 million today.

As the boys grew to their teen years, the Van Gerbigs made improvements to the New Canaan, Connecticut summer property.  On June 14, 1913, the Record & Guide reported that architect W. Kiddie had designed a $10,000 "brick and concrete squash court" for the estate.

The Van Gerbig sons attended St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire.  Howell went on to Princeton University where he was a member of the varsity football and hockey teams.  Expectedly, his fiancée, Geraldine Livingston Thompson, came from a socially prominent family.

The couple's engagement was announced on August 1, 1926.  Geraldine was the granddaughter of William Dare Morgan and a niece of A. Gordon Norrie, two of the most recognized names in Manhattan society.  The marriage would not last.  The couple was divorced in 1936 and Howell's engagement to Dorothy Randolph Fell was announced on June 4, 1937.  She, too, came with a sterling pedigree.  Her ancestors included Van Rensselaers, Drexels and Randolphs.  Sadly, Dorothy died of thrombosis of a brain artery on July 28, 1945 at the age of 32.

In the meantime, Edith Van Gerbig had been outspoken in her views against Prohibition.  In 1928 she donated $1,200 to the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment.  She and Barent would remain at 129 East 61st Street until selling it to Bertha Weissberger in September 1941.

An alteration completed in 1956 resulted in two apartments each in the ground through fourth floors, and three on the fourth.  That configuration, plus a medical office in the former basement level, survives.

photographs by the author
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