In April 1837 George Sutton acquired a summer estate on the east side of Manhattan on the bluffs of the East River. Four decades later as the formerly bucolic area saw development, his son Effingham B. Sutton subdivided the land into building sites. In 1875 he erected 18 brownstone-clad rowhouses that formed a modified U from 57th Street to 58th Street along Avenue A. His high-stooped, Italianate style houses were intended for upper-middle-class families. Eight years later that block of Avenue A was renamed Sutton Place.
By World War I the smokestacks of the New York Steam Company loomed over the neighborhood. The Queensboro Bridge is in the background. from the collection of the Library of Congress
By the end of World War I the neighborhood had declined. Peter Doelger's brewery and the New York Steam Company sidled up to the vintage brownstones, most of them now operated as boarding houses. The New York Times flatly called the neighborhood "a slum" in 1920. But Effingham Sutton's block caught the eye of architect Eliot Cross that year when he looked down onto "the odd formation of the houses and the little garden," while crossing the Queensboro Bridge, according to the New-York Tribune on December 12. Among the passengers in his car was millionaire William Seward Webb, Jr., the son of Lila Osgood Vanderbilt. The New-York Tribune recounted, "the suggestion was made that it might prove a very interesting place to live...Very quietly the property was secured and associate owners selected."
Before long Cross and Webb had recruited other millionaires to organize Sutton Square, Inc. Their unique urban planning project would revitalize the residences into a unified community. Each owner was required to remodel his Victorian home into an American basement (i.e., sans stoop) residence. Restrictive deeds directed that the “brownstone stoops, the window ledges and other protrusions are to be cleaved off, leaving a straight front to the outside world.”
The New-York Tribune noted, "The area behind the formation, instead of being subdivided into back yards, is an open space." While owners were permitted to "build a tearoom in the garden extending not more than twelve feet from the house," the yard on a whole was a common space.
Among the first members of Sutton Square, Inc. was Anne Harriman Vanderbilt. Her husband William Kissam Vanderbilt died on July 22, 1920 and six months later, on January 29, 1921, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that she had purchased the four-story house at the northeast corner of 57th Street and Sutton Place. The New York Herald added, "In moving to the new locality, which is in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, Mrs. Vanderbilt will become a neighbor of her sister, Mrs. Stephen H. Olin, W. Seward Webb, Jr., Eliot Cross, Robert C. Knapp, Mrs. Lorillard Cammann, Miss Elisabeth Marbury, Dr. Edgar Stillman and Prof. J. P. Chamberlain of Columbia University."
On March 27, 1921 The New York Times reported that work on transforming the old brownstone had begun. Anne Vanderbilt had hired architect Mott B. Schmidt, who was concurrently working on several Sutton Place homes. "Mr. Schmidt has designed the house in the Georgian type of architecture and the main entrance will be an adaption of one of Sir Christopher Wren's charming doorways in London," said the article." (The specific Wren doorway was at 2 King's Bench Walk.)
Schmidt had provided Vanderbilt with two options--the entrance opening onto Sutton Place or onto 57th Street. She chose the latter.
The New-York Tribune described Schmidt's plans on March 20, 1921, noting the entrance hall would be paved "with small waxed red tile from which arises a stairway leading to the upper floors." In the reception room an "interesting old deal room" removed from the Forbes House in Eastgate, Gloucester was installed. It dated from the early William and Mary period. The article said the walls "will be finished without paint, the old panels being merely waxed." Also in the reception room was an Italian marble fireplace "faced with carved wood."
The dining room was tiled in black and white marble. French windows opened onto the terrace and garden. "Over the garden door will be placed an unusual carved wood overdoor in the shape of a shell with carved supporting brackets," said the article. Schmidt had imported the Georgian period element from High Wycombe, England.
The Georgian entrance hood was still in place in High Wycombe, England when the New-York Tribune published this photo on March 20, 1921.
The living room on the second floor was 37-feet long, entered through a painted, antique Italian doorway. The third floor contained bedrooms and the fourth held the servants rooms and a guest bedroom. The New-York Tribune noted that the guest room had a "dome and skylight," as well as "a glass door opening on to an upper deck, from which may be had a magnificent view of the river." The massive renovations cost Vanderbilt $75,000--just over $1 million in 2023.
Visitors staying in the third floor guestroom had the benefit of a large deck (seen at right) from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.
In its March 1927 issue, McCall's Magazine opined:
Among America's great hostesses, Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt has a few peers. Few have quite her quality of distinction, quite her high-bred charm. She entertains in her chanting home in Sutton Place with delightful informality. Yet she cares less for society than for serving humanity, and practices a hundred quiet ways of doing good.
And, indeed, Ann Vanderbilt was highly involved in charitable causes. She financed the construction of four large apartment buildings on York Avenue for tuberculosis patients. During World War I, according to The New York Times, she was "among the most tireless of the American women Red Cross aides." For that work the French government made her a Knight of the Légion d'Honneur in 1919 and an Officer in the Légion d'Honneur in 1932.
On January 11, 1940 Vanderbilt entered the New York Hospital. Three months later, on April 20, she died. Her funeral was held in St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue three days later. Among the mourners was Count Charles de Ferry de Fontnouvelle, French Consul General. Her casket was draped in an American flag and a folded French flag was displayed at its foot.
The following year, on January 23, 1941, syndicated columnist Maury Paul reported, "agents are, I believe, still looking for a tenant for the red brick mansion at 1 Sutton place, formerly occupied by the late Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Sr." That tenant was found in the Reavis family. With World War II raging abroad, thirty-year-old Clarinda Reavis, like her predecessor had been, was active in war efforts. She was a member of the Mayor's "city patrol corps," a volunteer defense auxiliary.
Equally patriotic, however, was the Reavis's next door neighbor at 3 Sutton Place, Anne Tracy Morgan. And in May 1942, with gas rationing in force, Morgan smelled the vapors of gasoline emanating from the basement 1 Sutton Place. She notified the Bureau of Combustibles of the Fire Department and investigators found more than 65 gallons of fuel stored in the cellar. Clarinda Reavis explained that she was fearful that the rationing card she received would not provide enough gasoline for her patrol duties. She was fined $100 after which the neighborly relations were most likely somewhat strained.
The mansion was sold in 1943 to the De Rham family for $55,000 (about $557,000 today). They resold it to Swiss-born art dealer Gustave Pierre Bader who filled the mansion with priceless paintings and sculptures. He had arrived in the United States in 1941, and now conducted his art business from the house. He became a United States citizen in 1947.
Bader suffered embarrassment on March 5, 1954 when he was detained by French authorities at Orly Airport and charged with "attempting to smuggle out a painting by Camille Pissaro," according to The New York Times. Officials recognized that the signature of a contemporary artist had been forged over the original on an authentic Pissaro worth about $2,900 (about $30,000 in 2023).
Never married, Gustave Pierre Bader died during a business trip in Geneva, Switzerland on April 22, 1959 at the age of 48. The mansion sat shuttered, still filled with remarkable furnishings and artwork until October 31, 1962. An auction of the property was held in the house that day. The New York Times reported, "The sale attracted about 200 persons and drew 14 bids, including a telephoned bid of $300,000 from Zsa Zsa Gabor, the actress." She and the others were outbid by the president of Steuben Glass, Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. (who lived in the former Anne Morgan house next door). He paid the equivalent of just under 4 million in 2023 dollars. Gustave Pierre Bader's furnishings and artworks were sold at a two-day auction at Parke-Bernet Galleries the following week.
Houghton leased 1 Sutton Place to the United Nations Ambassador from The Netherlands Robert Flack and his family until 1972 when he sold it to Henry John Heinz 2d, chairman of the H. J. Heinz Company, and his wife Drue. Heinz was the grandson of Henry J. Heinz, who founded the food processing company in 1869.
Two views of the mansion during the Heinz residency. Photos by Travis Mark for Sotheby's International Realty
Henry John Heinz died in Florida on February 24, 1987 at the age of 78. Drue lived on in the Sutton Place mansion until her death in 2018 at the age of 103, after which it was placed on the market for $21 million.
Today 1 Sutton Place is home to Andrew Bolton and Thom Browne. Bolton is the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute. (It is Bolton who makes the annual Met Costume Gala happen.) Thom Brown is a fashion designer and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Inc.
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