Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The Ford-Kerrigan Mansion - 53 East 77th Street


Despite being born into privilege in 1865, the future for Paul Leicester Ford looked dismal.  The son of Gordon Lester Ford and the former Emily Fowler (whose grandfather was Noah Webster), he suffered a spinal injury which distorted his body and prevented his attending school.  Initially, his sister Rosalie home schooled him in American History, Greek, French and English.  But, following her marriage, the lessons stopped.

Why Gordon Lester Ford, who was a wealthy bibliophile, did not hire a tutor for his son is curious.  Nevertheless, Paul turned to his father's massive library in the Brooklyn home--reportedly containing around 10,000 volumes--to self-educate himself.  His main interest was history.  

Recognizing his son's passion for books and reading, Gordon Ford gave Paul a small printing press when he was 11 years old.  The boy began editing and printing books from the family library.   Before long he published compilations, like a collection of his mother's poems.

In 1890 Ford became an editor of the Library Journal, and in 1897 published his first novel, The Story of an Untold Love.  Two years later his Janice Meredith: A Story of the American Revolution broke publishing records.  Within three months of its hitting the bookshops, the historical romance novel sold 200,000 copies.

Ford's disability had not prevented his literary success, and it did not preclude romance.  On March 30, 1900, the Evening World reported, "Announcement was made to-day of the engagement of Paul Leicester Ford, the novelist, and Miss Grace Kidder, a noted Brooklyn society belle."  

The article added that Paul "is a brother of Worthington C. Ford, of Boston, and of Malcolm W. Ford."  The two brothers were well-known for disparate reasons.  Worthington was a historian and archivist, and Malcolm was a champion amateur athlete.  Malcolm's extraordinary athleticism, while earning him throngs of fans and nationwide praise, was not appreciated within the family.

Paul Leicester Ford and his bride hired architect Henry Rutgers Marshall to design a stylish mansion at 53 East 77th Street, just east of Madison Avenue.  Completed in 1901, the four-story-and-basement mansion was a marriage of Beaux Arts and neo-Federal styles.  Marshall gave the two entrances within the rusticated marble base stylized Gibbs surrounds.  The tympana of the second floor windows were carved with ribbons and wreaths, and the upper floor openings wore splayed lintels and layered keystones.  A stone balustrade sat above the cornice.

Shortly after moving into their new home, the Fords discovered that Grace was pregnant, and they also began construction of a splendid summer home.  But a simmering family resentment was about to derail their sublime happiness.

A stepped series of openings at the side reveal that the main entrance rose to the parlor floor.  The service entrance, without even a step at the threshold, led directly to the working areas of the mansion.  The American Architect, March 22, 1902 (copyright expired)

Gordon L. Ford was, as described by The Evening World as "a man of pronounced ideas about the way his sons should conduct themselves."  When he discovered that Malcolm Webster Ford not only participated in sports, but excelled at them to the point of public acclaim, he ordered him to stop.  Malcolm defied his father, eventually becoming a champion amateur athlete in track and field events.  But that defiance came with a dear price.  When Gordon Ford died in 1891, his will divided his millions among his other five children, with Malcolm being "cast off," according to The Evening World.

Malcolm Webster Ford  San Francisco Call, May 9, 1902 (copyright expired)

Malcolm sued his siblings, asserting in court that they had agreed to contribute part of their inheritances to him.  Most vocal against his allegations was Paul, who stressed that  the agreement came with the caveat that Malcolm give up sports, which he did not.  Malcolm's finances waned as his resentment grew.

At 10:30 on the morning of May 8, 1902, the 37-year-old Paul Leicester Ford was at work in his study when his secretary, Elizabeth R. Hall, noticed a servant escorting Malcolm into the room.  She later said the brothers spoke in low tones, indicating a private conversation.  Had they gotten into a physical altercation, there would have been no contest.  The Evening World wrote that Paul "was weak and a hunchback.  His brother, of course, from his long athletic training, was a powerful man."  But there was no fight.  Instead, Elizabeth Hall heard a gunshot.  The San Francisco Call reported:

In the fright of the moment she jumped up and left the room by a doorway near at hand.  Then she pulled herself together and felt that she ought to return.  As she was about to do so she heard a voice, which seemed to be Malcolm Ford's, call her name.  She re-entered the library at once, and saw Malcolm Ford with the revolver pointed at his heart.  He fired and fell backward on the floor.

The article said, "The two shots threw the entire household into a state of the greatest excitement.  The two maids, the butler, and the hallboy ran to the library."  The family physician was called to the house.  Malcolm had died instantly, but Paul lingered.  Dr. Baruch later said, "He urged that his brother be forgiven, as he forgave him."

By posing behind a chair in 1902, Ford was most likely attempting to hide his deformity.  Little Pilgrimages Among the Men Who Have Written Famous Books (copyright expired)

The Ford family had a conference on May 9, and decided that a single funeral for both brothers would be held in the 77th Street house the following day.  Grace was not in attendance.  The New-York Tribune explained, "She is soon to become a mother, and the shock she endured on Thursday aroused grave fears for her safety."

The funeral was held in the library--the same room where the deaths had occurred.  The New-York Tribune wrote, "Strictly speaking, the service was for Paul Leicester Ford, who died breathing forgiveness for his brother, but some part of it was extended to the murderer and suicide."

One month later, Grace gave birth to a baby girl named Lesta, a variation of her father's middle name.  The infant was already well taken care of.  Ford's will provided for an income of $6,500 per year, of which $4,000 was from royalties from his books.  (The annual income for the infant would equal about $218,000 today.)

Grace had a horrific scare in October 1906 when Lesta fell "into a tub of boiling water," as reported by The Evening Star.  Dr. Linsly R. Williams was called who, "gave the little sufferer his most assiduous attention; and through his efforts her life was saved."  The young doctor's attention soon turned to his patient's mother, and on December 9, 1907 he and Grace became engaged.

By then, however, Grace and her daughter had moved from 53 East 77th Street.  Two months after the accident, Grace sold the mansion to stockbroker Henry L. Wardwell and his wife, the former Florence St. John Adams.

Wardwell existed within a decidedly feminine environment.  He and Florence had seven daughters, Minere, Mary Blair, Rosalie, Alice Dox, Dorothea Fales, Florence and Elizabeth Minturn.  And also living in the house was Florence's widowed mother, Margaret McGregor Adams.  The family's country home, Pinehurst, was in Springfield Centre, New York.

Pinehurst.  (original source unknown)

Having a bevy of daughters kept Florence busy.  On December 6, 1909, for instance, The Evening Telegram announced, "Mrs. Henry Lansing Wardwell, of No. 53 East Seventy-seventh street, who introduced her daughter, Miss Minere Wardwell, on Saturday, will give a dance for her early in January."

The 77th street mansion would be the scene of other debutante events and of wedding receptions.  Dorothea was married the following year, on November 23, 1910.  It, sadly, would be the last of her daughters' weddings that Florence would plan.

She fell ill in April 1912 and did not survive.  Florence died at the age of 62 on April 26.  Rather than being held in the house as would be expected, her funeral took place at the Church of the Holy Communion on Sixth Avenue.   There was a funeral in the mansion the following year, however.  Margaret McGregor Adams was in Bermuda on March 29, 1913 when she died.  Her body was transported back to New York and her funeral held on April 4.

Henry now oversaw the social events of his daughters, no doubt helped by their married sisters.  Alice was married in 1914, and Mary in 1916.  The following July he sold 53 East 77th Street to Bernard E. and Fannie M. Pollak for $175,000 (about $4 million in 2023).

Marble steps lead upward to the parlor level.  The American Architect, March 22, 1902 (copyright expired)

Pollak was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on December 25, 1880, and Fannie was born there the following year.  Fannie was the president of the New York League of Women Workers, and the house was often the venue for meetings and talks.  On December 8, 1918, for instance, Arthur Gleason, "a student of social conditions in war and peace" according to the New-York Tribune, spoke to the members on "Reconstruction Problems in England."   

Fannie was involved in other social reform movements, as well.  On December 30, 1921 The American Hebrew reported on an interpretive recital for children of Humperdinck's opera, Hansel and Gretel.  The article said, "Mrs. Bernard E. Pollak turned over her home at 53 East Seventy-seventh street for the performance."  The ticket sales benefited the Circulating Library of the Federation of Child Study.

On June 24, 1924 The Sun reported that the Pollaks had sold the mansion to Allen R. Campbell.  He soon resold it to Joseph Kerrigan and his wife Esther Slater Welles who initiated massive renovations.

Architect Pleasant Pennington replaced the marble facing of the first floor with brick; created a single, ground floor entrance; and filled in the tympana of the second (now third) floor with brick.  Unexplainedly, he did not bother to match the color of the original brick, leaving ghostly traces of the former arches.  The cornice and balustrade were removed, replaced by a sloping, tile-covered roof reminiscent of Spanish Renaissance architecture.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Esther was the former wife of diplomat Sumner Welles, and heiress to the Slater Mill fortune.  Her cousin, architect Paul Hunt and interior designer Leonard Lock renovated the interiors, which now included rooms for the Kerrigans' extensive art collection.  According to International Studio, two rooms had 18th century American paneling and held artwork by "Gainsborough, Redon, Daumier and Sargent."  (One of the John Singer Sargent canvases was a portrait of Esther.)

The main staircase was executed by sculptor Hunt Diederich, another cousin of Esther.  It was later described as "a sensuous run of curving wrought-iron herons."  The Kerrigans transformed the study where Paul Ford had been murdered into a music room, complete with a hooded Venetian fireplace reportedly brought from the Ca d'Oro in Venice.

The Kerrigans divorced in 1947 and moved out of their unusual urban palace.  That year the Palestine Resistance Fund moved its offices into the house and the following year it was converted to small offices.  Funk & Wagnalls, Inc. moved into the building in 1949 and remained at least through 1979.  The 1960s and early 1970s saw the Standard Reference Library, Inc. and the offices of the Standard Reference Works Publishing Company, Inc. in the former mansion.  In 1987, when it served as the venue for the Kips Bay Showhouse, many of the Kerrigan rooms had been destroyed, although others were surprisingly intact.

In the fall of 1997 Cello Music and Film Systems purchased the property.  Within months the interiors were completely gutted.  Cello's architect, Gerhard Heusch, promised Christopher Gray of The New York Times in February that year that some elements would be preserved.  "The American paneling, for instance, will be put back into its original location after the structure is soundproofed," said the article.

  photos via Brown Harris Stevens.

The upper floors were converted to offices, a recording studio, a screening room, and a music room for performances.  Perhaps surprisingly, a high-end French restaurant, Cello, opened in the ground floor.  On August 11, 1999 The New York Times food critic William Grimes described Cello as "a jewel box in a town house," and said, "There is little to fault in Cello."

The restaurant's manager, French citizen Jacques Le Magueresse, worked at Cello for three years before it was discovered he had embezzled $360,000 "of corporate funds for personal expenses."  On July 27, 2001, The New York Times reported he "surrendered his passport before being released on $50,000 bail."

By August 2022 when the former mansion was offered for sale for $29.5 million, the ground floor was home to a high-end antique furniture store.

non-credited photographs by the author
many thanks to Douglas Burtu Kearley, Sr. for suggesting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to


  1. I was shocked to find that the exterior was ruined at such an early date

  2. Amazing research, as always. Fascinating that Pennington did the exterior and Paul Hunt the interior. I believe that while Hunt Diederich was a cousin, Paul Hunt was actually Mrs. Kerrigan's uncle, not cousin, brother of her fascinating mother, Mabel Hunt Slater. Their father was noted artist Wiliam Morris Hunt, brother of Richard Morris Hunt. Paul was one of four architects in that generation of Hunts. He appears to have practiced in Boston with the Society architects Bigelow & Wadsworth, and his own practice in the firm Goddard & Hunt in Bar Harbor, where all that branch of Hunts summered

  3. Actually, the antique furniture store, Dalva Brothers, owned and occupied the whole building. The panelling was also installed by them and was never owned by Mrs. Kerrigan.