Wednesday, August 23, 2023

The Capitol Apartments - 12 East 87th Street


In an article titled, "Fine Apartments for 87th Street" on September 17, 1910, the Real Estate Record & Guide announced that brothers George and Edward Blum were "busy preparing plans for an eight-story high-class apartment house" at 12 East 87th Street for the Pioneer Realty & Construction Co.  The article pointed out that there would be only eight apartments in the building, which would have "its own ice plant and every up-to-date equipment."  Construction costs were projected at $300,000--about $10.7 million in 2023.

Charles Meyer, who headed Pioneer Realty & Construction Co. originally called the building The Capitol.  But, as architectural historian Christopher Gray would explain decades later, it "lost its name even before it opened."  Blum & Blum's neo-Renaissance style apartment building was clad in gleaming white terra cotta.  The architects gave the building a modern touch with Chicago style windows that flooded the apartments with light.

The World's New York Apartment House Album, 1912 (copyright expired)

Meyer understood that his wealthy target audience would have individual decorating tastes and, although each apartment engulfed a full floor, might desire additional space.  As the building rose, an announcement noted, "Two apartments may be thrown into one by an interior staircase, if so desired, or any other changes will be made to suit the needs of the tenants, the architects being directed to remodel the apartments as may be required."

Completed in 1912, 12 East 87th Street was designed for sumptuous living and entertaining.  An announcement said:

Every possible modern improvement has been incorporated in this building, including steam heat and hot water, vacuum sweeping with a stationary engine in the cellar, mechanical refrigeration for boxes in kitchens and pantries, complete filtration of all water used throughout the building, electric light, baths in each apartment, etc.  In short, no effort is spared in making each apartment equal to the finest type of private house.

The large reception room, living room, and salon in this apartment were connected by large openings, enabling large entertainments.  The servants area is clustered at the upper left.  The World's New York Apartment House Album, 1912 (copyright expired)

Railroad mogul Julius Kruttschnitt and his wife, the former Elise Minna Krock, leased an apartment as the building neared completion.  On December 23, 1911, The Chicago Daily Tribune reported, "Until the furnishing of their apartment at 12 East Eighty-seventh street, Mr. and Mrs. Kruttschnitt are stopping at the Hotel Gotham."  The couple had just relocated from Chicago, "owing to the removal of [Kruttschnitt's] office from Chicago to New York," said the article.

Julius Kruttschnitt, from the collection of the Library of Congress

Being transplanted from Chicago to New York society may have been a bit uncomfortable for Minna Kruttschnitt.  For decades Manhattan society had looked down on Chicago.  When asked by a Chicago Daily Tribune reporter what she thought of "that social set known as the 'four hundred,'" she did not hide her disdain.

"Society, in a restricted sense, does not interest me.  It bores me."  She went on to say, "Chicago is spoken of generally as a social joke, but I know of no city where so radical and vivid a change in social life is taking place...They may talk about Chicago as not being artistic and unappreciative, but New York might learn something from her."

Paul Arthur Sorg and his wife, Grace (often spelled Grayce) Aull were also initial residents.  Born in 1878 in Middletown, Ohio, Sorg had inherited $10 million from his father, Paul J. Sorg, "one of the biggest tobacco manufacturers in the world," according to The Evening Post.  In 1902, Sorg became the youngest national bank president in the United States.  The Sorg's duplex apartment had 22 rooms and a staff of eight.  Their country home Bide-a-Bit was in Lakewood, New York.

While Paul Sorg was known in society for his thoroughbred horses, his wife was notable for her expensive taste in fashions.  Sorg's sister was Ada Drouillard, wife of Captain J. Pierre Drouillard.  On November 12, 1912, The New York Herald mentioned that Grace Sorg "developed a wonderful fondness for furs of exquisite selection and texture," adding that she and Ada "took the utmost feminine pride in obtaining a fur wrap that was better than the last purchased by her sister-in-law."

Arts and Crafts style tiles (here mostly covered by carpets) originally made up the lobby floor, and bronze sconces graced the walls.  Architecture & Building magazine, January 1912 (copyright expired)

Eleven months before that article, one of Grace's furs had made  headlines.  She attended a benefit performance at the Globe Theatre on January 25 wearing a fur coat "which was the only one of the kind in the world," according to The Thrice-A-Week World.  The article said she had paid $15,000 for the article, or about $465,000 today.  "She had hung it up with the wraps of the other guests, and when she went to get it after the show, it was missing," said the article.

Five months later, Grace Sorg received a ransom demand of $500 for her coat.  She paid the cash, but when the article was not forthcoming, she went to the police.  A former Globe Theatre usher was tracked down to Philadelphia and arrested, however Grace's expensive fur was gone.

While her husband has his horses at the country home, Grace had Pekingese dogs.  The Jamestown Evening Journal explained, "There are 25 dogs in the Sorg kennels...The kennels were started by Mrs. Sorg as an experiment to supply her with diversion."  She was successful in her experiment.  Among her dogs were "Gu Ten Ming, the first American bred Pekingese to win a blue ribbon at a national dog show, and Gee Young Duke, a native bred Pekingese, which has taken many prizes in shows all over the country," said the article.

Paul Sorg died on May 4, 1913 at the age of 34.  Grace remained alone in the apartment until July 1917, when she married Paul's former intimate friend, attorney Reginald W. Brixey in Bide-a-Bit.  In reporting on the wedding, The New York Times mentioned, "During the Winter they will reside at 45 East Sixty-first Street."

In the meantime, 12 East 87th Street continued to fill with millionaire tenants.  When William A. Redding leased a twelve-room, three-bath apartment "overlooking the private gardens of Bradley Martin, Jr." in May 1914, the Record & Guide pointed out it "completed the renting of this building."

Among the Reddings neighbors were the Leonard Moorhead Thomases.  Born in Philadelphia in 1878, Thomas married Blanche Marie Louise Oelrichs in January 1910.  The New York Herald said they were "widely known socially in Newport, R. I., this city and Philadelphia."  The couple had two sons, Leonard May Oelrichs Thomas, born in May 1911, and Meredith Michael May Thomas, born in May 1912.  In 1915 the couple rethought their choice of their sons' names.

On September 7, the New York Herald reported the Thomases felt their children's names were "too cumbersome."  Too, Leonard Thomas explained that he and Blanche "also desired that their first son should bear the name Moorhead, after the family of his paternal grandmother," adding that the boy's interests would be "substantially promoted by the change."  The boys were renamed Leonard Moorhead Thomas, Jr. and Robin May Thomas.

Blanche Oelrichs Thomas, from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Blanche Oelrichs Thomas was a fascinating figure.  A staunch suffragist, she bobbed her hair and participated in the 1915 women's march up Fifth Avenue.  A year earlier, she had begun writing poetry and plays, and in 1916 was first published under the pseudonym of Michael Strange.  None of this fell in line with the expected deportment of women in high society.  Tensions between her and Leonard developed and the couple was divorced in 1919.  The following year, on August 5, 1920, Blanche married actor John Barrymore.

Living in the building in 1915 were millionaire lumber and oil merchant William Hoover Yawkey and his wife, the former Margaret A. Draper.  An avid sports fan, Yawkey had purchased the Detroit Baseball Team (later named the Tigers) in 1903.  The couple maintained a "moose lodge" in Cook County, Maine; a shooting preserve on South Island, Georgia; and a summer home at Hazelhurst, Wisconsin.

Living with William and Margaret were William's widowed sister, Augusta and her son, Thomas Yawkey Austin.  Childless, upon the death of Augusta in September 1918 the Yawkeys adopted Thomas, who was 15 years old.  His name was changed to Thomas Austin Yawkey.

A few months later, the family took a "motor trip" through the South.  They stopped at Augusta, Georgia to visit William's long-time friend, baseball player Ty Cobb.  While there, on March 5, 1919 William Yawkey died at the age of 44. 

The now 16-year-old Thomas, who had been earning $1 a week allowance, was suddenly heir to a massive fortune.  On March 30, 1919, The Argos said that he shared with his adopted mother "timber and mining lands worth in the neighborhood of $40,000,000."  At the age of 25 he would inherit $4 million, and at the age of 30 would receive the rest of his portion of the massive estate.

In 1920 Margaret donated $60,000 towards the building fund of the Fifth Avenue Hospital in her husband's memory.  Thomas Yawkey would grow up to be a major industrialist, philanthropist, and conservationist, and the long-time owner of the Boston Red Sox.

In 1917 a fourteen-room apartment with four baths rented for $7,500 per year, or about $14,250 per month by 2023 conversions.  Among the families living here that year were Julia Hyneman Barnett Rice, whose husband Isaac L. Rice had died in 1915, and her unmarried daughters Marjorie, Muriel and Marion.  While perhaps best-known for her years-long battle against noise pollution (she was president of the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise), Julia was equally passionate about other causes.  On December 13, 1919, for instance, the New York Herald announced she had donated $1 million dollars for the erection of a stadium and fields for all forms of outdoor sports."  

Julia Hynaman Barnett Rice, The Cyclop√¶dia of American Biography, 1918 (copyright expired)

One wonders, however, if her neighbors were especially warm to one of her efforts in the fall of 1918.  On September 4, The Sun reported that she "will open a service club for soldiers and sailors to-morrow at her home, 12 East Eighty-seventh street.  A roof garden has been furnished for the fighters."  The article explained that enlisted men could use the roof on Wednesdays and Sundays from 5 to 11 p.m., and officers were welcomed on Thursdays during the same hours.

Sharing a sprawling apartment at the time were Harry Livingston Kaufman, his wife, the former Emily Hope Hamilton, their two children, Harry Jr., born in 1915, and Hope Hamilton, born in 1917.  Also living with the family was Emily's mother.

The family's affluence was reflected in Harry's attending an auction of the estate of Henri S. de Souhami on November 11, 1921.  The New-York Tribune reported that Kaufman "purchased several of the most important objects for upward of $20,000."  He walked away with a set of "six royal needlework fauteuils or armchairs from the Louis XIV period for $7,650."  Formerly owned by the Comtesse de Gallard, they were upholstered "with the finest Saint Cyr needlework known, presenting varied allegorical scenes," said the article.  He also bought a pair of "rare French eighteenth century cheek chairs with high serpentine backs" covered in needlepoint designs of birds and flowers for $4,000.

Society pages followed the movements of wealthy New Yorkers, and on September 13, 1922, the New York Herald noted, "Mrs. William A. Hamilton and Mr. and Mrs. Harry L. Kaufman, her son-in-law and daughter, have returned from the West and are at 12 East Eighty-seventh street."  Four years later The American Hebrew announced on January 15, 1926, "Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Rentner have returned to town from Larchmont, N.Y."

Two views of the Rentners' living room.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1889, Rentner came to America at the age of 13.  He and his wife, the former Dorothy Fineberg, had two daughters.  He had begun his career in his father's button making factory.  In 1923 he formed Maurice Rentner, Inc., a fashion house that created quality women's suits and dresses.  The New York Times said, "He was known on Seventh Avenue as 'The Dean,' 'The King,' and 'Napoleon.'"  The newspaper would later point out, "Mr. Rentner, a millionaire, made much of his fortune in real estate."

The Rentner's Spanish style dining room featured wrought iron gates that opened onto the reception room, and folding doors into the living room.    from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Among the building's most socially visible residents was Katherine Duer Blake.  Born on May 9, 1879, her father was  attorney William Alexander Duer and her mother was Ellin Travers, daughter of William R. Travers.  She traced her American roots on her father's side to William Alexander Duer who arrived in New York in 1768.

Katherine Duer Mackay in 1904.  Harper's Weekly (copyright expired)

Like Blanche Oelrichs Thomas, she was a suffragist and a writer.  In 1898 she married millionaire Clarence H. Mackay.  The couple had three children.  Mackay underwent two operations performed by his personal physician, Joseph A. Blake, and in the summer of 1911 rumors circulated about a relationship between Dr. Blake and Katherine.  The rumors were true.  Katherine divorced Mackay in 1913 and married Dr. Joseph A. Blake on November 28, 1914 in Paris, one day after he obtained his divorce.  The couple had one more child.

Then in 1928 Blake began an affair with a nurse who was 40 years younger than he.  The couple separated that December and Katherine's daughter, Ellin Mackay Berlin (who was married to the popular song writer Irving Berlin) convinced her mother to take an apartment here.  In July 1929 the Times-Union said Ellin "persuaded her mother to lease a 17-room apartment at No. 12 East Eighty-seventh street at $14,000 a year."

A week after moving in, Katherine began divorce proceedings, which were finalized on July 5.  But Katherine Duer Mackay Blake's residency in her commodious apartment would be very short.  A year after her divorce, on April 21, 1930, she died of complications of cancer and pneumonia.  Her son, William, took over the lease.

The building was renovated twice--in 1935 and in 1943--dividing the original eight apartments into a total of 32.  The changes did not damage the prestige of the address, however, and it continues to house socially prominent families.

photographs by the author
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  1. Doug Floor Plan
    Nineteen-year-old Katherine Duer Mackay was largely responsible for the look of Harbor Hill, a French style mansion built 1889 - 1902 for her and Clarence on the highest point in Nassau County, NY. The house was the largest private residence Stanford White ever designed. I agree with others who said the exterior was imposing, but sterile, the rooms grand, but cold. When Katherine divorced Clarence in 1913, she walked away from Harbor Hill. Eventually, the house became too expensive to maintain and was damaged by vandalism; it was demolished in 1947.

    In 1929, Clarence and Katherine's son, John William Mackay III built a much smaller Tudor style house directly across Glen Cove Road from Harbor Hill. He named it, Happy House.

  2. This is directly across the street from where my mother lived in the 1990s. I always admired the outside. Thanks for this informative history!

  3. Please correct spelling of "...including steam head and hot water..." which should be "steam heat and..."

    1. Another reader caught that, too, and emailed me directly. Thanks for catching.