Monday, April 17, 2023

The Lost Lemuel Bolton Bangs House - 32 East 51st Street


The entrance doors had not yet been installed when this photo was taken.  The Brickbuilder, September 1903 (copyright expired)

Architect Charles Brendon had worked for several years in the office of developer Charles Buek.  When Buek retired in 1901, Brendon and Alexander Milne, Buek's nephew, acquired the business, renaming it Charles Brendon & Co.  On February 2, 1901 the Record & Guide noted, "Their first effort...will be the erection of a handsome modern five-story American basement dwelling, with all the latest approved appliances of the up-to-date house, on the lot recently purchased by them on East 51st st., between Madison and Park ave."

The plot sat within an exclusive residential neighborhood, directly behind St. Patrick's Cathedral and nearly abutting the magnificent mansions erected by Henry Villard in 1884.  Brendon's plans projected the construction costs of the 25-foot-wide residence at $33,000, or about $1 million in 2023 money.

Construction progressed rapidly and only eight months later Charles Brendon & Co. was advertising the home for sale.  The Record & Guide noted, "The front is of granite, Indiana limestone, handsomely carved, and a light shade of red brick."  Brendon's Beaux Arts design featured "elegant wrought-iron entrance doors and railings," as described by the Record & Guide, flanked by two robust brackets.  The second and third floors were dominated by a rusticated limestone frame for the grouped windows, those of the third floor sitting within a beveled arch.  The slate shingled mansard sat behind a stone balustrade capped with two large urns and punctured by a large, pedimented dormer.  

The house was purchased by H. Durant Cheever and his wife, the former Zora Horlocker.  Cheever was the head of the Okonite Company, founded by his father, John Haven Cheever.  The couple's country home was in Greenwich, Connecticut.  It is unclear whether the Cheevers ever moved into the house.  They were leasing it to the Julius Pauly family in 1903.  Daughter Martha Paul was married to Myers Jacobs on June 2 that year.

Guests would have seen little of the ground floor other than the reception room, before being escorted to the first floor, or piano nobile.  The Brickbuilder, September 1903 (copyright expired)

The Cheevers sold 32 East 51st Street to Dr. Lemuel Bolton Bangs and his wife, the former Isabel Hoyt in March 1905.  Bangs and his first wife, Frances Augustus Edwards, had three children, Merwin Bolton, Mary Edwards, and Helen Augusta.  Frances had died in 1885, and Bangs married Isabel on December 5, 1894.   They would have one son, Nesbitt Hoyt, who was born in 1896.  Mary, who was 23-years-0ld, and Helen, who was  21, were still unmarried and moved into the 51st Street house with their father, step-mother and half-brother.  The family's summer home, Manatuck Farm, was in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Born in 1842, Bangs graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1872, and then studied in Berlin and Vienna.  By now he was a noted expert in genito-urinary surgery.  In 1895 edited the American Text Book on Genito-urinary Diseases, and in 1898 published the Atlas of Syphilis and the Venereal Diseases.

When his father purchased the East 51st Street house, Merwin Bolton Bangs was living far away and had already led an exciting life.  He had attended the exclusive St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire before entering Yale University.  On May 3, 1898, during his junior year, he enlisted in the army to serve in the Spanish-American War.  After his military service, he returned to Yale.  He was a stockbroker for only a few months before traveling to Kansas where he became a successful rancher.  Sadly, he died there on Christmas Day 1909 at the age of 32 of a diabetic coma.

Manatuck Farm was the scene of Helen's wedding in the summer of 1910.  On June 28 the New-York Tribune reported, "A fashionable country home wedding took place this afternoon, when Miss Helen Augusta Bangs, youngest daughter of Dr. and Mrs. L. Bolton Bangs, of No. 32 East 51st street, New York City, and John Nevin Sayre, of South Bethlehem, Penn., were married."  Mary was her sister's maid of honor.

Dr. Bangs died at the age of 72 on October 4, 1914.  In reporting his death, The New York Times called him "for many years a prominent surgeon of this city."

The Brickbuilder, September 1903 (copyright expired)

Isabel and Mary lived on quietly in the townhouse, spending their summers not only in Stockbridge, but other fashionable resorts.  On July 5, 1918, for instance, The New York Times reported, "Mrs. L. Bolton Bangs, who has returned from Newport, is entertaining John Kendrick Bangs of New York at Manatuck Farm, Stockbridge," and three months later, on October 18, The Sun noted, "Mrs. L. Bolton Bangs and Miss Mary Bangs have returned from Lenox to 32 East Fifty-first street."

Isabel sold 32 East 51st Street in July 1921 to the colorful Margaret Hawkesworth for $110,000 (about $1.67 million today).  Margaret was what was known as a "society dancer."  She had signed a $8,750 entertainment contract with the Hotel Plaza in 1914, equal to more than a quarter of a million in 2023 dollars.

Margaret Hawkesworth, The Theatre, May 1916 (copyright expired)

In its May 1916 issue, The Theatre remarked, "A feature of Miss Hawkesworth's first professional engagement has been the large number of parties chaperoned by fashionable matrons, who have studied from loges and boxes the newest steps which will probably be popularized at Newport and the fashionable resorts this Summer."

Margaret had just returned from Europe when she purchased 32 East 51st Street.  On April 21, 1923, The New York Times had reported on the six ocean liners that would depart New York that day, saying, "Many notables in the world of finance, diplomacy, the stage and society are represented among the outgoers."  Among those on the Majestic was Margaret Hawkesworth.

Amazingly, 32 E. 51st Street was still a private home when this photo was taken in 1941.  The Villard Houses are to the right, and across Madison Avenue is the Archbishop's residence.  via NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

With World War II raging in 1942, 32 East 51st Street became Freedom House, described by The Sun as "a center of relief activities."  An inaugural dinner was held at the Hotel Commodore on March 19, 1942 with Archibald MacLeish and Wendell L. Willkie being the principal speakers.  A feature of Freedom House was the "big war mural," as described by The East Hampton Star, executed by Dutch artist Joep Nicolas.

Not every event in Freedom House was war-related.  On May 16, 1942 The New York Age reported that the following day the New York branch of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Club, Inc. would hold its 10th annual Women's Day Program and Art Exhibition there.

Astoundingly, as the mansions of Midtown gave way to businesses, 32 East 51st Street was still described as a "large private residence" when it was sold by the Continental Bank & Trust Company in October 1944.  Its use as Freedom House had not altered the interiors.  The New York Times commented, "it was learned that the property will be occupied under lease by the Downtown Gallery."

The New York Times, October 26, 1944

The Downtown Gallery would be a fixture among the Midtown galleries for decades.  On October 5, 1963, The New York Times's Stuart Preston announced, "Artists of fame and promise meet in the 38th-anniversary exhibition at the Downtown Gallery, 32 East 51st Street."

Then, on August 12, 1971, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York announced it would move its administrative offices from the Villard Houses to a proposed building to be constructed at First Avenue and 55th Street.  The New York Times reported, "Church officials said that the archdiocese planned to maintain ownership of the 19th-century architectural gems and was nearing the end of negotiations to lease the structures on a long-term basis to a 'conservative commercial firm that will use and maintain them in a style befitting a landmark.'"

That was and was not true.

Hotelier Harry Helmsley commissioned architects Emery Roth & Sons and Hardy Holzman Pfieffer to design a modern high-rise hotel behind and incorporating the Villard Houses.  To accomplish that, the pristinely intact Bangs mansion had to go.  It was demolished in 1977 to make way for the Helmsley Palace, known today as Lotte New York Palace. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

1 comment:

  1. John Kendrick Bangs was a a famous author, humorist, editor and satirist of the time, related to the owners of the house. Much more about him here: