Friday, April 14, 2023

The Jarvis and Barbara Cromwell House - 159 East 61st Street


Around 1872 the three high-stooped houses at 157 through 161 East 61st Street between Lexington and Third Avenues were completed.  Faced in brownstone, their identical Italianate designs included prim, architrave openings capped with molded lintels, and individual paneled and bracketed cornices.

The original owners of 159 East 61st Street had more house than they needed.  An advertisement on April 25, 1875 offered: "Upper part of house to let--Can be seen to-day.  159 East Sixty-first street."  

By the mid-1880s the Mahon family lived here.  John Mahon died in the house on June 25, 1883 and his funeral was held in the parlor three days later.  The prominence of the family was evidenced in the New York Herald's noting that afterward, "His remains will be conveyed to St. Patrick's Cathedral...where a solemn high mass of requiem will be offered for the repose of his soul."

Within months of Mahon's funeral the residence became home to the Milton Kempner family.  A civil engineer, Kempner's fortune came from real estate operations.  He bought, renovated, and sold buildings throughout the city.  When the family moved into 159 East 61st Street, Irving Isaac Kempner was attending Columbia University.  He would eventually become as well-known in real estate circles as his father.

The Kempners left in 1894, after which the home was operated as a high-end boarding house.  An advertisement for a "good chambermaid and waitress" that year stressed that this was a "fine private boarding house."

Boarding houses were judged by the number of residents--the fewer boarders the more upscale the operation.  Among the professionals who boarded here in the 1890s was Louis Kaufman, a director of the Elite Styles Company, publishers of Elite Styles magazine.

In the early 20th century Adolph H. Rosenfeld, an attorney; legal stenographer Louis Glaser; real estate operator Mrs. M. Brann; and Emil Freund lived here.  Freund, who resided for at least a decade between 1907 and 1917, was a member of the National Association for Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis and of the American Museum of Natural History.

The house was returned to a private home when Rudolph Hermann Kissel purchased it in June 1920.  He was a partner in the banking firm of Kissel, Kinnicutt & Co., described by The New York Times as "one of the important Wall Street houses."

Mary Graff Bell, was Kissel's second wife.  The couple had married in 1910, two years after Rudolph's wife Caroline Morgan, whom he married in 1887, died.  He and Caroline had had four daughters, Gladys, Eleanor, Barbara Mildred, and Alice; and two sons, Gustav H. and Rudolph Jr.  Moving in with the couple were Rudolph's unmarried daughters Barbara Mildred and Eleanora, along with Gladys and her daughter Gladys C. M. Miller.  Gladys's husband James Ely Miller was a major in the Air Services and was killed in action during World War I.  ( Ironically, her brother, Gustav Hermann Kissel, was also shot down and killed in France in 1918.)  The Kissel's country estate was Inamere Farm in Morristown, New Jersey.  

On March 26, 1924 a sub-headline The New York Times read "Two Notable Families Will Be United by Ceremony in the Early Summer."  The article said that the Kissels had announced Barbara Mildred's engagement to Jarvis Cromwell.  The wedding took place on June 21 in St. Peter's Church in Morristown.  The newlyweds moved into the East 61st Street house.

Social attention turned to young Gladys Miller in 1927.  Debutante entertainments sometimes went on for weeks, if not months, and on October 14 the New York Evening Post reported, "Miss Gladys C. M. Miller, whose formal debut is to be made at a supper dance at Sherry's on December 3, will be the guest of honor at a luncheon her mother, Mrs. James E. Miller of 159 East Sixty-first Street, will give for her at Pierre's on November 29."

Among the nearly 50 women at the luncheon were some of the most recognizable names in New York society, including Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mrs. Francis E. Dodge, Mrs. Frederic Foster De Rham, Contessa Hilla Rebay, Mrs. John Sloane, and Mrs. Junius Morgan.

In the meantime, Jarvis Cromwell was making his mark in financial circles.  Having served as a sergeant in the 308th Machine Gun Battalion in World War I, he returned to Princeton, graduated in 1918, and immediately joined the factoring office of William Iselin & Co.  He was made a partner in 1920.  

Cromwell became interested in the Boys' Club of New York City, eventually becoming view president.  Barbara shared his enthusiasm and for years ran the annual benefit events for the group.  

The couple had three children.  David Everett was born on April 2, 1925, Patricia Mary arrived the following year on April 29, 1926, and Roger James Kissel was born on March 4, 1931.

In 1941 only 159 East 61st Street retained its stoop along the row.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Three weeks after Roger's birth, on March 31, 1931, his grandfather, Rudolph H. Kissel, died in the Morristown house at the age of 82.  At the time of his death, only the Cromwells were residing in the East 61st Street house.  Mary Kissel, Eleanora, and Gladys (now remarried to Louis Rokos) all lived permanently in Morristown.

In 1932 William Iselin & Company merged with the CIT Financial Corporation.  Cromwell was named president of Iselin, a separate division.

With the outbreak of World War II, Cromwell was made chairman of the New York Chapter of the American Red Cross.  David became a navigator on a B-29 bomber, and Patricia (known in the family as Patsy), became a nurse's aid.  

Jarvis Cromwell, The New York Times, March 17, 1992

In 1951 Cromwell founded and became president of the Iselin-Jefferson Financial Corporation.  It was sold to the Manufacturers Hanover Trust in 1971, of which Cromwell was director.  By that time he and Barbara had moved to an apartment on Park Avenue.

The East 61st Street house was renovated by the John J. Iselin family in 1972.  It appeared as the home of Archie Knox, the character played by actor Alec Baldwin in the 2007 film Suburban Girl.

The year the motion picture was released, 159 East 61st Street was sold to Robert and Rose Marina Kelly for $14.67 million.  Kelly was the CEO of the Bank of New York Mellon.  The couple initiated a gut renovation, leaving essentially no hint of the 1870s interior detailing.  The six-bedroom, six-bath home was now described as being in the "British Arts and Crafts mode."

The facade was refaced with a rusticated basement and parlor level, and a gray-brown brick veneer on the upper floors.  The stone architrave frames were removed and quoined surrounds installed.  The cornice and the original entrance doors were preserved.  The house was sold in December 2013 for $15.5 million.

photographs by the author
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