Thursday, December 7, 2023

The 1906 Arthur Gibb House - 14 East 55th Street


photograph by the author

Around 1870, a four-story, high-stoop brownstone was erected at 14 East 55th Street.  Midblock between Fifth and Madison Avenues, it was home to the Alexander Marsland family at the turn of the century.  In 1901 Marsland joined others in the neighborhood to petition the city for enamel street signs to be affixed to lamp posts.  The petition pointed out, "it is next to impossible for a stranger to find the names of many of the streets of the city unless he is fortunate enough to encounter a Policeman."

The architecturally outdated Marsland house and five of its abutting neighbors were purchased by the prolific real estate developers William Hall's Sons in 1904.  The firm began construction of a row of six opulent residences on the sites designed by the architectural firm of Clinton & Russell.  Each of the 23-foot-wide homes would be individual, yet would flow  harmoniously together.

Completed in 1906, 14 East 55th Street was faced in red brick above the limestone-clad ground floor.  Designed in the American basement plan, the entrance was just a few steps above the sidewalk.  The fifth floor took the form of a stylish, slate-shingled mansard punctured by two dormers.  An advertisement in August 1906 noted it was "Ready for Occupancy," and read:

New English Basement Dwelling.  Passenger elevator, steam heat, and hot water from street.  Restricted private house location on front, rear and sides.

The mention of the "restricted" location referred to the prohibition of any commercial activities within the surrounding blocks.

The Hall brothers sold 14 East 55th Street to Lila Gilbert, the wife of millionaire H. Bramhall Gilbert.  She had no intentions of living here, having a fine mansion at 826 Fifth Avenue.  It was, instead an investment.  But after leasing it a few years, she sold what The New York Times called "a fine residence" in August 1909 to Arthur and Emily M. Gibb.

Gibb was born in Brooklyn in 1858.  Following his graduation from Adelphi College, he worked for his father's business, Mills & Gibb, until 1897 when he became a partner in the Brooklyn Department store, Frederick Loeser & Co.  By the time he and Emily purchased 14 East 55th Street, he was its head.

Three of the men in Arthur Gibb's family had recently been the victims of a string of rapid-fire deaths.  His brother Howard died in Paris in June 1905; two months later, Gibb's father, John, died at his summer home in Islip, New York; and on July 22 1906 John Richmond Gibb (who was head of Frederick Loeser & Co. at the time) died at the age of 47.  Arthur was left with one surviving brother, Walter, who was also involved with the department store.

Following the death of John Richmond Gibb, Arthur not only took over his position at Frederick Loeser & Co., but his wife.  Almost immediately after the end of her mourning period, Emily married Arthur in 1908.  She brought two daughters, Dorothy and Ruth, and a son John, from her previous marriage to 14 East 55th Street.  The Gibbs summer home was in Glen Cove, New York.  

The purchase of the house came just in time for Dorothy's debut.  On December 15, 1909, The New York Times reported that Emily had given a reception to introduce her.  In the receiving line were socially recognizable names like Atterbury, Havemeyer, and Granville.  The article noted, "There was a dinner for the receiving party after the reception, following which the young people went to Miss Brown's theatre party at Daly's Theatre."

At the time of the event, Arthur Gibbs was not well.  Suffering from kidney disease, he had recently turned over the operations of Frederick Loeser & Co. to his brother Walter.  In January 1911 he was admitted to a private sanitarium on West 61st Street where he underwent an operation on January 11.  The Sun reported, "it was thought that he would recover, but he failed to rally."  The 53-year-old died four days later.  

The New-York Tribune reported that he left an estate of "more than $2,000,000."  (That would translate to about $64 million in 2023).  Emily received the Manhattan and Glen Cove residences and $108,509 outright (approximately $3.45 million today).

Although in mourning, the Gibbs women still needed to be properly coiffed.  On March 3, 1911, Emily accompanied Dorothy to a hair salon.  The New York Times said that Emily "stood near her while the hair-dresser worked."  Abruptly everything went wrong.  The article related, "The dresser used an electrical apparatus.  Suddenly there was a sharp explosion and a spark darted from the machine into Miss Gibb's hair.  In a moment her hair burst into flame."

Dorothy "cried out in pain" and tried to beat the flames out with her hands.  The panicked hairdresser ran around the room trying to find something to use to extinguish Dorothy's burning pate.  Only Emily was level-headed enough to act.  She whipped off her fur stole and threw it over Dorothy's head, "muffling the flames beneath it and beating them out."

The New York Times said "both mother and daughter were hysterical" and initially it was feared that Dorothy had been severely injured.  She and Emily were driven in an automobile to New York Hospital where it was discerned that she suffered only minor burns, although "much of her hair had been burned away."  She was kept in the hospital for several days.  Five days after the incident The New York Times noted, "Her mother was still ill from the shock at her home yesterday."

On January 18, 1914, The Sun reported, "Invitations will soon be sent out for the wedding of Miss Ruth Harold W. Carthart of this city, in St. Thomas's Church on February 19."  The New York Times added, "Miss Dorothy Gibb will be her sister's maid of honor."

John Richmond Gibb gave his sister away and after the fashionable ceremony, Emily hosted a reception in the East 55th Street house for which, according to The New York Times, "700 invitations were sent out."  The article added that Emily, "who was in the receiving party, was in a white moiré gown, topped by a black tulle trimmed hat."

A year later, almost to the day, the process was repeated.  On January 24, 1915 Dorothy married Bache McEvers Whitlock in St. Thomas's Church "in the presence of a large gathering," according to The Sun.  Once again, John Gibb escorted his sister down the aisle.  The article said, "Immediately after the ceremony there was a reception at the home of the bride's mother, 14 East Fifty-fifth street."  

At the time of Dorothy's wedding, the neighborhood around 14 East 55th Street was by no means any longer "restricted."  Millionaires were rapidly abandoning the area below 59th Street and their mansions were being razed or converted for business.  

By 1924, the ground floor of the Gibb house had been converted to the Maybell Manning dress shop.  An advertisement in May that year touted, "Great reduction in charming afternoon and evening creations.  Personal inspection invited."

Architect Louis A. Kornum was commissioned to remodel the first two floors in 1926.  A limestone frame now engulfed two stories of vast show windows.  The exterior of the upper floors remained unchanged.  

Maybell Manning remained into the early Depression years.  A subsequent renovation completed in 1938 resulted in two apartments each on the upper floors.  Where Maybell Manning had operated, the French fashion house of Henry a la Pensee now sold glamorous gowns and dresses.

Although its name was still emblazoned above the first floor, Henry a la Pensee had moved out in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

In 1940 two sets of newlyweds moved into apartments here.  The first were Katherryn Hernan, a professional model, who married chemist Dr. Eugene McCauliff in St. Patrick's Cathedral in April.  The groom of the second couple had a distinct connection to the house.  Bache McEvers Whitlock, Jr. was the son of Dorothy Gibb and Bache Whitlock.  He married Philbin Heath on December 22, 1940.  The Nassau Daily Review-Standard said, "After a wedding trip to Palm Beach, Fla., the couple will be at home at 14 East 55th st., New York City."

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

By 1946 the Gould Galleries occupied the store space.  The upscale firm sold American and foreign paintings.  In the 1970s and '80s, the society beauty salon of Pipino-Buccheri was here.  Run by Richard Buccheri and Marc Pipino, the salon was visited by The New York Times journalist Alexandra Penney in November 1977.  She wrote, "I was pleased by such touches as au courant Italian leather furniture."

In July 2013 Vivienne Westwood purchased 14 East 55th Street.  The fashion designer had established her business in London in 1971 and now had shops in Los Angles, Honolulu, and Paris.   A renovation to the storefront included a new marquee, and the brick was painted.  The upper floors were converted to two duplex apartments.

photographs by the author
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