Monday, September 25, 2023

The Lost 1908 540 Park Avenue


Architecture magazine, 1908 (copyright expired)

In the 19th century, multi-family residential buildings were, for the most part, viewed as being middle-class at best.  But by 1906 the concept of fashionable apartment houses had taken hold.  Their sprawling suites included all the amenities of a private home.  In August that year the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that the newly formed Five Hundred and Forty Park Avenue Co. intended to erect a 12-story "fireproof apartment house" on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 61st Street, designed by Boring & Tilton.  Construction costs were placed at $350,000--or about $11.7 million in 2023.

What the article did not say was that William A. Boring, a partner in the architectural firm, was one of the owners.  The journal would explain two years later that the syndicate was composed of "a group of men, prominent in financial and professional circles who wish to have homes in New York."  Each would have a full-floor apartment, with the other four suites to be leased for additional income.

On April 4, 1908, the Record & Guide described the newly-completed building as "one of the most ornate and best equipped of its kind in the metropolis, and certainly none is arranged with more regard for the comfort of those who are to dwell within it.  The architects had produced what the journal called "a rather classic expression of the Renaissance."  The entrance within the three-story marble base sat above a short flight of steps.  Its iron and glass marquee bisected a double-height arch.  The seven-story mid-section was defined by stone balconies that girded the structure, while a substantial stone cornice crowned the design.

The Record & Guide pointed out that the main rooms--the library, drawing and dining rooms--faced 61st Street, "while four bedrooms are arranged along the Park av. side."  It added, "the rooms for the servants face the outer court to the west."  Each apartment had two "iron safes" built into the walls--one for silverware and the other for valuables like jewelry and cash.  An advertisement in 1908 touted, "In character and appointments this building has no equal."

The Douglas Elliman Locator, 1923 (copyright expired)

The full-floor apartments rented for $6,000 a year--or about $16,400 per month in 2023 terms.  The lobby necessarily made the first floor apartment smaller.  It was given a private entrance and marketed as "suitable for a physician."  The nine-room, two bath suite was offered for lease at $3,750 per year.  The advertisement noted, "The service includes vacuum cleaning and refrigeration."

Among the building's initial residents were John W. Castles, his wife the former Elizabeth Eshleman, and their two children, Frances and John Jr.  The family's country home was at Morristown, New Jersey.   

Born in Texas in 1858, Castles was president of the Guaranty Trust Company when the family moved into their apartment.  He resigned on January 1, 1909 to accept the presidency of the Union Trust Company.  It was apparently a stressful change and soon afterward, according to the New-York Tribune, the banker suffered "an acute nervous breakdown."  He was sent to an upstate sanitorium to recover.

On September 8, 1909, Castles returned to 540 Park Avenue.  Elizabeth and the children were spending the summer at the Adirondacks League Club.  The New-York Tribune reported, "his altered appearance, which showed him to be failing in health, shocked his brother and John Fletcher, Mr. Castles's private secretary."  Burton S. Castles employed a private nurse and began arrangements to send his brother to Hot Springs, Arkansas to regain his strength.

Banker John W. Castles's life ended tragically.  New-York Tribune, September 14, 1909 (copyright expired) 

Despite his family's absence, Castles was not alone in the apartment.  In addition to his live-in servants and the nurse, his private secretary was there every day.  On the morning of September 13, he told his nurse and secretary that he felt well enough to go to the office.  At 10:00 the nurse walked with him to the 42nd Street subway station and saw him off. 

The New-York Tribune reported, "When Mr. Castles failed to return to his home by 4 p. m. the brother telephoned to the office of the trust company and immediately became uneasy when he failed to get in touch with the president."  A search of hotels and clubs resulted in a grisly discovery.  Castles had checked into the Grand Union Hotel under his own name, carefully removed his suit so as not to ruin it, laid on the bed and sliced his throat with a razor.  His body was found with his hands folded across his chest.

Other residents well-known to society at the time were Stephen S. and Emma D. Cummins; Helen Garrison Villard, the widow of publisher Henry Villard; Henry Dexter, head of the American News Company, and his wife the former Nellie M. Lawrence; Helen Kelly Gould (who had just divorced millionaire Frank Jay Gould); and bachelor Winthrop Williams Aldrich, the son of politician Nelson W. Aldrich.

The Gould apartment was the scene of Helen's wedding to Ralph Hill Thomas on July 12, 1910.  The next day the newlyweds boarded the Kaiser Wilhelm der Gross for their European honeymoon.  In articles that smacked of disapproval, newspapers made clear note that Helen's two daughters, seven-year-old Helen and five-year-old Dorothy, were not along.  The headline in the New-York Tribune read, "Sail Without Children / To Be Away Two Months."  The article noted that the girls "were not among the many persons at the pier to bid the couple godspeed.  Instead, they were safely ensconced in the home of their aunt, Miss Helen Gould, at Irvington-on-the-Hudson."

It was the beginning of a tug-of-war over the girls.  Their father (who was also remarried by now) and their aunt, Helen Gould, were both poised to litigate permanent custody.  (As it turned out, Helen Kelly Gould Thomas's marriage did not survive.  She would have a total of five husbands before her death in 1952.)

Winthrop W. Aldrich was 29 years old when he finally married on December 7, 1916.  His bride, Harriet Alexander, was the daughter of Charles B. Alexander and came from one of the most prominent families of New York society.  The couple was married in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.  The New York Times noted, "The guests included representatives of the Astor, Fish, Harriman, Rockefeller, Crocker, Webb, Rhinelander, Cutting, Vanderbilt, Bacon and other well-known families."

Architecture magazine, 1908 (copyright expired)

Bertrand Leroy Taylor, Jr. and his sister, Dorothy Cadwell Taylor, had apartments here.  Dorothy would be, perhaps, the most colorful of the building's residents throughout its existence.  She was the former wife of British aviation pioneer Claude Grahame-White.  The couple had divorced in London on December 17, 1916, shortly after Dorothy inherited about $12 million (closer to $330 million in 2023).  

A lost bracelet in 1921 exposed her heretofore clandestine romance.  Dorothy owned an unique neckless "that once adorned a grand duchess of Russia," according to the New-York Tribune.  The piece was composed of 16 sapphires, each set in diamonds, and had been fashioned by the jeweler to the Russian royal family, Saberger.  The necklace, appraised at more than $600,000 in today's money, was made so that it could be converted to pendant earrings and two bracelets.

On May 4, The Evening World reported that Dorothy and Count Carlo Dentice de Frasso had visited Mrs. Herbert Shipman at 439 Madison Avenue.  Dorothy was wearing the two bracelets, the larger one of which was "continually slipping down on her hand."  When she arrived back at her apartment, she realized the bracelet was missing.  Amazingly, the cab driver went back to the Madison Avenue address and found the bracelet at the curb.

Dorothy Cadwell Taylor  (original source unknown).

The incident sparked a rumor that "a wedding may soon climax the six weeks' romance which Mrs. Dorothy Cadwell Taylor...and Count di Frasso have enjoyed," according to The Evening World.  The newspaper said, "The Count and Mrs. Taylor both refused to affirm or deny that they would soon be married.  The Count recently received an annulment decree in Rome from the former Georgine Wilde, daughter of Mrs. Henry Siegel."

The rumors proved true.  On July 5, 1921 the New York Herald reported that Dorothy, her brother and his wife, and Count Dentice di Frasso had sailed on the Aquitania.  "Mrs. Caldwell Taylor will stop at the Ritz in London with her brother and sister-in-law, while the Count goes to Rome to await the annulment."

Dorothy's life only became more colorful.  As the Countess Dentice di Frasso she restored the 16th century Villa Madama outside Rome.  Later actor Gary Cooper was filming a movie in Rome and became ill.  Dorothy took him into the villa during his recuperation, and the two began a torrid affair behind the count's back.  She moved to Beverly Hills, where she eventually began another affair with gangster Bugsy Siegel.  She died of a heart attack aboard a train to Los Angeles with actor George Fact in 1954.

Other noted residents in the 1920s and 1930s were Sarah Fotterall Harriman, the widow of James Arden Harriman; and socialite and social worker Margaret Crane Hurlbut.  Never married, Margaret was the daughter of William H. and Margaret Havens Crane Hurlbut.  Her sterling pedigree was reflected in her memberships in the Colony Club, the Huguenot Society, the Daughters of Holland Dames, the New York Society of Colonial Dames, and the Mayflower Descendants.

Bertrand L. Taylor, Jr. was still living here in October 1934 when he had to fight for his and Dorothy's shares in their father's $5 million estate.  Described by The Spokesman-Review as a "member of the Board of Governors of the New York Stock Exchange, who also is popular in gay cinema circles," he had to face off in court with Geraldine Louise Ott.

Geraldine L. Ott testified that she was known in Europe as "Mrs. Taylor."  Star Tribune, July 31, 1934

Bertrand Leroy Taylor, Sr. had died at the age of 72 in April 1934, leaving the bulk of his $5 million estate to Bertrand Jr. and Dorothy.  Also listed in the will was "my friend, Geraldine L. Ott," who received $10,000.  The bequest was not enough for Geraldine Louise Ott.  The beautiful young woman, who was in her 20s, sought to overturn the will as Taylor's "surviving spouse."  The case extended into the following spring when finally, on April 23, 1935, Judge James A. Delehanty ruled that Geraldine "had failed to establish that she had been the common law wife of Bertrand L. Taylor," as reported by The New York Times.

The building continued to be home to wealthy and socially prominent residents for the next three decades, including Neville G. Hart and his wife, the former Augusta Lyon; Mrs. Peyton Van Renssalaer; and the Ronald Hugh MacDonalds.  

Realtor Jules Pallister, his wife, the former Ethel Nerring, and their five year old son Jeffrey lived here in the early 1950s.  The 47-year-old's death on April 5, 1952 macabrely echoed that of John W. Castles nearly half a century earlier.  Late in 1951, Pallister, who ran his own realty firm, was diagnosed with a nervous disorder.  Still under treatment, he went to the Long Island home of his sister on April 2.  Two days later she found his body in the basement.  He had tied his bathrobe belt to a steampipe and hanged himself.

At the time of the tragedy, the end of the line for the luxurious apartment building was on the near horizon.  In 1961 a demolition permit was granted and two years later the Loew's Regency Hotel opened on the site.

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