Thursday, May 25, 2023

Mann & MacNeille's 1925 424 East 57th Street


The transformation of Sutton Place in 1920-21 from a dingy block to one occupied by some of New York's wealthiest citizens quickly affected the surrounding blocks.  Coal yards and a brewery were eliminated to make room for upscale apartment houses.  In 1925 Horace Borchsenius Mann got in on the trend.

Mann was a partner with Perry R. MacNeille in the architectural firm of Mann & MacNeille.  They were best known for large urban planning projects such as Bristol, Pennsylvania, described by the American Architect in 1918 as "America's greatest single industrial housing development."  This project would be considerably smaller.

In 1925 Horace B. Mann purchased and demolished the three old buildings at 422 through 426 East 57th Street, half a block west of Sutton Place.  Mann & MacNeille then designed a six-story apartment building on the site.  Completed within the year, it was faced in rough-faced brown brick.  Its somber design was inspired by medieval Italian architecture and featured an arched corbel table below the understated cornice and tiled roof.  The firm handled the regulated fire escapes--often visual obstructions--by placing them in front of vast sets of French doors and windows, giving them a balcony effect.  The second through fifth floor windows on either side sat within slight recesses that rose to dramatic full-relief terra cotta rosettes nestled within rounded corbels.

Among the initial residents were Philip S. Platt, his wife and daughter.  He had long been involved in public health and social welfare.  In 1914 as Superintendent of the Bureau of Public Health and Hygiene, he had lobbied for sanitary public drinking fountains, saying in part, "The miles which one may walk in New York without finding a place to quench one's thirst, unless it be a restaurant, saloon, or soda fountain, is a deplorable fact."  The family was still in the building in September 1944 when Philip S. Platt was appointed executive director of the New York Association for the Blind.

The building attracted a number of artistic residents.  Living here in 1926 were illustrator and painter Eliza Buffinton, landscape artist George M. Bruestle, illustrator Herman Pfeifer, and concert pianist Howard Brockway.

George M. Bruestle, 1931, © Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum J0119275

George Bruestle and his wife, the former Emma Thompson moved into 424 East 47th Street in 1925.  Born in 1872, he had studied at the Art Students League under H. Siddons Mowbray, and in Paris.  A member of the Lotus Club and the Salmagundi Club, by the time he and Emma moved into the building, his works were in the permanent collections of the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Reading Museum in Pennsylvania.  (Today his paintings hang in other prestigious institutions like the Smithsonian.)

Stewart Woodford Eames and his wife, the former Jessie D. MacNeal, were also initial residents.  Born in December 1866, Eames came from an old New York family and was a member of the Society of Colonial Wars.  He had recently retired from the H. B. Claflin Company, a drygoods concern, founded by his maternal grandfather Horace Bringham Claflin.

Not long after moving into 424 East 57th Street, Jessie Eames died.  In November 1930, Stewart leased a bedroom in their apartment to a 28-year-old architect, John A. Frank.  With the Depression slowing construction projects, Frank seems to have come to New York City from Pittsfield, Massachusetts in hopes of finding work.  His chances, however, were bleak.  A report issued by the American Institute of Architects on January 20, 1931 revealed that more than 500 architect were unemployed, and institute spokesperson Julian Clarence Levi, said some were "in desperate need."

Early on the morning of January 20, 1931, Stewart Woodford Eames attempted to enter the bathroom and found the door locked.  His knocking and calling brought no response, so he had the building superintendent open the door.  They walked into the bathroom to find a horrifying scene.  Frank was in the half-filled bathtub, having slit both wrists and ankles.  A note on a nearby chair said in part, "to live longer would only prolong the agony."

The following year, on February 9, 1932, the 66-year-old Eames was crossing Fifth Avenue at 57th Street when he was hit by an automobile.  He died at Flower Hospital several hours later.

Resident Luella A. Palmer had an impressive career at a time when women normally held more subservient roles in the workplace.  Never married, she began working as a kindergarten teacher in 1897.  On February 15, 1912 she was appointed assistant director of kindergartens and six years later was made director.  She still held that title when she died on January 13, 1934.  Her funeral was held in her apartment on January 16.

Newspapers printed the praises from colleagues like associate superintendent William E. Grady, who called her "a progressive school woman," and said "The kindergartens of our schools achieved, under her able direction, a place among those outstanding in this phase of the process of education."

Another outstanding educator living here at the time was Sarah M. Dean.  Also never married, she was an 1895 graduate of Radcliffe College.  After teaching high school in Newton Massachusetts, she became head of the history department of the Brearley School for girls, noted as one of the most esteemed private schools in New York.  She was later appointed its principal and held the position until her retirement in 1921.

In the spring of 1935, Vera Stretz rented a five-room apartment here, paying $100 a month rent (about $2,000 in 2023).  A graduate of New York University and former substitute school teacher, the 26-year-old had just taken a job as bookkeeper and secretary to Dr. Fritz Gebhardt.  A German native, the 43-year-old Gebhardt was a political scientist.

Vera Stretz's residency at 424 East 57th Street would last only six months.  A romantic affair developed between her and her employer, who lived at the Beekman Tower at 3 Mitchell Place.  Gebhardt convinced her to move there, in an apartment discreetly two floors below his.  Presumably he subsidized the higher rent, and he could certainly afford to.  His personal fortune was reported by The New York Sun to be approximately $5 million in today's money.

Gebhard proposed to Vera with a engagement ring containing "a large diamond circled by emeralds," according to The New York Sun.  But the love-struck young woman's world came crashing down when she discovered in November that her lover had a wife and family in Germany.  On the night of November 11, a Beekman Tower resident notified Leslie Taite, the assistant night manager, that he had heard gunshots.  Taite responded to the 21st floor.  The New York Sun reported, "Miss Stretz was sitting on a settee beside the elevator.  He nodded to her as he walked past, but she seemed lost in thought."

He found Gebhart's apartment door open, and inside was the scientist's body, dressed only in a nightshirt.  Patrolman Holden arrived shortly afterward.  Vera told him, "Yes, I did it.  I was on my way to the station house to give myself up."

Resident Clarence Burgher (here by 1939) graduated from Princeton University in 1885.  Rather than enter the family business (his grandfather had co-founded the sugar-refining firm of Burgher, Hurlburt & Livingston), he became an attorney and inventor.  An avid yachtsman, his pastime spilled over to his professional life.  He was retained by yacht clubs and steamship companies as counsel.  In 1899 he invented the subsurface torpedo and for a decade was president of the company that manufactured it.

Living with Burgher and his wife Edith was their son, Fairfax Carter Burgher, who had also attended Princeton, and a maid, Irenie Ingmire.  The family's country home was in Rye, New York.

When the United States entered World War I, Fairfax left school to become an army aviator.  Following the war Princeton awarded him an "honorary war diploma."  But Fairfax's chosen career following the war may have been a bit of a disappointment to his parents.  Going by the stage name "Fairfax," he was a professional magician.  On January 25, 1939 The New York Sun reported, "A crowd of old and young Princeton graduates is to gather in the Mary Murray Room of the White this afternoon at cocktail time for a special Princeton party honoring Fairfax, socially prominent magician and fellow alumnus who entertains there."

An aspiring actor, as well, Fairfax played the role of Bersonin in the 1922 silent film The Prisoner of Zenda, and had a small part in the short 1929 film A Princess of Destiny.  Although his career continued to be chiefly as a magician, he would appear in television shows in the 1950s such as I Spy and Pulitzer Prize Playhouse.

The 49-year-old Fairfax was still living with his parents here as late as 1946.

The Billboard, October 26, 1946

Living here in 1980 was Carol Louise Conrad.  When she had to leave town on business for an extended period, she sought permission from the landlord, Third Sutton, to sublet her apartment to Mary Lou McGlynn.  Third Sutton replied with a letter dated September 19, 1980 denying that permission, but giving no reason.  Instead, the firm offered to allow Conrad to break her lease without penalty.

Conrad sued and in October won her case.  The ruling was upheld on appeal, the five-judge panel saying that a landlord's refusal to allow a sublet had to come with a reason.  "If he does not give a reason, the landlord has, in effect, consented to the sublet," said the court.  David Saxe, counsel for the Center for Consumer Advocacy, Inc. called it an "impressive and forward-looking decision for tenant rights."

Mann & MacNeille's 424 East 57th Street--a somber departure from the other Jazz Age buildings that were going up in the neighborhood in 1925--is little changed since those early years when this section of Manhattan was changing from what The New York Times had called "a slum" to one of the city's most exclusive residential districts.

photographs by the author
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  1. Tom, thanks for contributing to this New York Times article: