Architectural Record, 1921 (copyright expired)
By the first decade of the 20th century, the stigma of living in apartment buildings had faded for affluent families--mostly because high-end buildings offered accommodations that equaled private homes. In 1911 George R. Goughlan formed the Park Avenue and Fifty-Fourth Street Company to erect a posh structure at 401-405 Park Avenue on the northeast corner of 54th Street where a two-story commercial stable stood.
The firm hired the architectural firm of Cross & Cross to design the structure. The plans, completed in December 1911, called for a 12-story edifice that would cost $400,000 to construct--around $12.7 million in 2023. The tripartite, neo-Renaissance style structure was completed in 1912. Its three-story, stone-faced base was dominated by an over-sized Renaissance entrance. The mid-section was defined by rows of stone balconies that girded the fourth and ninth floors. A stone balustrade crowned the cornice. The handsome design earned Cross & Cross an honorable mention at the American Institute of Architects' annual banquet in February 1913.
Typically, there were two apartments per floor, one with eleven rooms and three baths, and the other of thirteen rooms and four baths. A brochure assured potential residents, "The plan has been so arranged that even larger rooms or duplex apartments can be obtained." It stressed, "The living quarters are entirely separated from the chambers [i.e., bedrooms], while the servants' rooms and kitchen are entirely shut off from the balance of the apartment." For those families with larger domestic staffs than the plans accommodated, there were additional servants' rooms and baths in the basement, which could be rented.
Elevators opened directly into the vestibules of each apartment, assuring privacy. The brochure noted, "Each apartment has the exclusive use of a private laundry, fully equipped, in another part of the building. Vacuum cleaners, refrigerating service, private storage rooms and interior telephone system are provided." For decades, domestic fireplaces had burned coal. Now in 405 Park Avenue the "large, open fireplaces have flues specially constructed to burn wood."
A typical floorplan showed the service rooms clustered together. The World's New York Apartment House Album, 1913 (copyright expired)
Living here was expectedly pricey. When a 12-room, five-bath corner apartment with eight fireplaces became available in October 1915, the rent was listed at $6,000 per year--about $15,000 per month today.
Among the initial residents were the Henry Hobart Porter, Jr. family. Born in 1865, Porter had grown up in a mansion on Washington Square North. He and his wife, the former Catherine Delano, had four children, Seton, Dorothy Dwight, Margaret Seton, and Kathrine Delano. The family's country estate was in Hempstead, Long Island.
An engineer, Porter had co-founded the firm of Sanderson & Porter in 1894. In 1914, a year after moving into 405 Park Avenue, he was elected president of the American Water Works and Electric Company.
In the meantime, Catherine busied herself with social responsibilities. On November 11, 1913, for instance, The Sun reported, "Mrs. H. Hobart Porter has sent out invitations for a reception on the afternoon of November 28 at 405 Park avenue, when she will introduce her second daughter, Miss Margaret Seton Porter, who was last summer in Southampton with her parents before going to the Adirondacks."
Another of the original families in the building were the William Mood Baldwins. They were no doubt well acquainted with the Porters, since their summer home, too, was in Hempstead. Baldwin and his wife, the former Lydia Perry, had two daughters, Ruth and Dorothy.
World War I upset the wedding plans of many families as prospective grooms were deployed to military camps or overseas. Ruth Baldwin was engaged to Army Captain Roger G. Alexander in the fall of 1917, but things got moved up. On May 22 they were married in the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, Long Island. The reception was held in the Baldwin summer home. The Hempstead Sentinel explained, "The wedding was originally planned for the Autumn, but the time was advanced owing the war. Captain Alexander is...stationed with the Signal Corps at Albany."
Around the time of Ruth's wedding, Dorothy Dwight Porter left Junior League dances and benefits behind to sail to France to work in the American Ambulance Hospital at Neuilly. She later was stationed at a field hospital at Cugny "for which she had raised money to purchase and support a barracks kitchen," reported the New-York Tribune. It was most likely during her time in France that she met Captain Harold E. B. Pardee of the Medical Reserves Corps. On April 7, 1918, the New-York Tribune reported that the Porters had announced Dorothy's engagement to Captain Pardee.
The flurry of military romances continued the following month when the William Baldwins announced Alice's engagement to Ensign Francis W. Murray, Jr. The New-York Tribune noted on March 24, "Miss Baldwin made her debut two winters ago, and is a member of the Junior League."
War did not greatly interfere with the social and charitable activities of most of the residents of 405 Park Avenue. Georgine Iselin was the daughter of millionaire Adrian Georg Iselin. On January 5, 1918, the New-York Tribune reported she had volunteered "to raise a fund of $50,000 for the purchase and distribution of coal to the poor of the city."
On October 20 that year, The Sun announced that "Mr. and Mrs. Garrett B. Kip have left Massena, their summer home in Barrytown, N. Y., and are at 405 Park avenue."
The Porters' names would be in print in 1920 for the right and wrong reasons. On March 13, The Evening World announced that Katherine was engaged to Robert Lyon Hamill. The article noted, "Miss Porter is one of the debutantes of the winter, and was elected Chairman of the provisional members of the Junior League."
Four months after that article and three months before the wedding, her father was summoned to the office of Judge W. M. K. Olcott to be questioned by August Hasenflug, a Prohibition attorney. On July 10, the New-York Tribune reported, "Porter admitted having purchased four cases of whisky from an employee of [Joseph Bowne] Elwell." (Elwell was a known bootlegger and his mysterious murder was being investigated.) The article said, "Immediately after the investigation, agents from the Prohibition Enforcement Office went to the home of Porter, 405 Park Avenue, and confiscated the liquor."
By now the Porters' summer home was in Lawrence, Long Island. Katherine's wedding as held in Hewlett, Long Island, on October 9, 1920 and the reception held in the Porter house, named Lauderdale.
Another wedding to catch the attention of society was that of 35-year-old resident Cathleen Neilson Vanderbilt on January 26, 1921. Cathleen had divorced Reginald C. Vanderbilt on April 9 the previous year and moved into 405 Park Avenue. She had charged Vanderbilt with "willful desertion" and was given custody of their 17-year-old daughter, Cathleen.
The same year that she obtained her divorce, Sydney Jones Colford, Jr., "prominent in New York, Newport and Philadelphia society," according to The Evening World, divorced his wife, the former Clara Knight.
On the afternoon of January 26, Cathleen and Sydney obtained a license at the Municipal Building and were married in Cathleen's apartment at 5:30 that evening. The Evening World reported that among the select persons present was "Miss Cathleen Vanderbilt, only daughter of the bride, and just approaching the debutante age, who was her mother's only attendant." The Evening World added, "Immediately after the ceremony Mr. and Mrs. Colford left to spend their honeymoon at Sagamore Lodge in the Adirondacks." The couple returned to 405 Park Avenue on February 11, 1921.
The lobby included a marble staircase, bronze sconces and a wood-burning fireplace. Architectural Record, 1921 (copyright expired)
Taking what The Evening World described as "a luxurious apartment" here in July 1920 was Claire Louise Hyllsted Burton, who had just separated from her millionaire husband, Frank Vincent Burton. The couple had been married in fashionable St. George's Church on Stuyvesant Square a few months earlier, on November 20, 1919.
Burton was a widower and Claire a divorcee, having divorced August Hyllsted in Chicago in July 1908. Their period of domestic bliss came to an abrupt end in February 1920 when Claire had several trunks of clothing and personal items shipped from Paris to New York. The Evening World reported that Burton had them "diverted to his office." What he found inside was shocking. Claire had kept more than 200 "amorous letters," as described by The Evening World, from wealthy men including Charles T. Yerkes. They left no doubt that she had not only carried on intimate trysts with the moguls, but that she had extorted money from them.
One, a telegram dated October 18, 1913 and signed Fred, begged her not to divulge their indiscretions to his wife:
The scenes and insults have upset me so that I must ask you not to look upon me as a friend any more, and I fear your threat to inform my wife of what has happened would cause the unhappiness of an innocent and good person. I therefore beg you to be generous and allow me to send you a remembrance of 2,500 francs and to send you a Christmas present of another 2,500 francs. Why do you try to ruin my sense of duty? How terrible is the remembrance of yesterday evening. Please let us part in a friendly way. Let me hear from you at the Hotel Kasten, Hanover. God protect you.
Frank Vincent Burton walked out on Claire. She moved into 405 Park Avenue and, unknown to her, he rewrote his will. The Evening World reported that she "was cut off without a penny." He informed his children of her scandalous past and directed "that if Mrs. Burton ever made an attempt to raid the estate they were to conceal nothing and take all the cards to court."
Burton's amended will left $1.3 million to his five children (more than 22 times that much in 2023 dollars). He had changed it with little time to spare. He died on March 11, 1922. And, as he suspected, Claire immediately contested the will. The children, as directed, hung out all the dirty laundry for the courts and the public to see. In response to her suit, she was "charged with having been an international flirt and companion of rich men."
On April 18, 1922, a reporter from The Evening World visited Claire at her apartment. "A monstrous fabrication!" she exclaimed when showed the charges. She said she had never heard of any of the men and knew nothing about a trunk of letters. The physical presence of the trunk and the letters in court, however, were powerful evidence.
When she was unable to overturn the will, Claire tried another tactic. Burton had grown up in a mansion at Fifth Avenue and 38th Street. When commerce invaded the neighborhood, the Burton family leased the land to the Lord & Taylor department store, upon which they erected their building. On May 24, 1922, the relentless Claire sued the Burton children for a one-sixth interest in the property.
The Porters and Kips resided in the building into the 1930s. On January 2, 1937, The New York Times reported that Carola de Peyster Kip was engaged to Benjamin R. Kittredge, Jr. The article noted, "Miss Kip is a granddaughter of Mrs. Johnston Livingston de Peyster and is a descendant of Hendrik Kip, a member of Peter Stuyvesant's council. The Kip family settled in Rhinebeck in 1686."
Portrait artist Dietz Edzard signed a lease "for a large apartment," according to The New York Times, in January 1938. Born in Germany in 1893, he had just married artist Suzanne Eisendieck in Paris.
On June 28, 1954, The New York Times reported that the building was to be demolished, replaced by "an office and store building to cost $1,250,000."
Designed by Herbert Tannenbaum, it survived until 2022, demolished for "a possible office skyscraper," according to New York YIMBY on March 13, 2023.
many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for prompting this post
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