Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Amy Vanderbilt House - 438 East 87th Street

John A. Deady was active in real estate operation throughout the city in the decade following the Civil War.  In 1877 he was leasing 438 East 87th Street to the Saltonstall family.  It was one of a recently constructed row of identical, brownstone-faced houses.  Three floors tall above English basements, their staid Italianate design included stone stoop and areaway railings, architrave window frames, and handsome pediments supported by foliate brackets above the doorways.

Deady lost the house in foreclosure on July 7, 1877.  The attention of the tenants was no doubt focused on other things at the time.  A month later, Mrs. Frances S. Saltonstall died.  Her funeral was held in the parlor on August 11.

The new owner, Herman B. Lanfer, continued to lease the house.  His tenants were the family of James T. Lee, a drygoods merchant whose business was at 263 Canal Street.  

Lanfer sold 438 East 87th Street to Bernardt Maybeck on June 7, 1881 for $10,125 (just under $300,000 in 2024).  Maybeck was born in Oelde, Westphallia, Germany in 1830.  His father brought him and his siblings to America in 1851, after losing his property during the German revolutions of 1848 and 1849.

Bernhardt Meybeck was a furniture maker.  He worked with one of the foremost firms in the country, Pottier & Stymus.  He and Elisa (sometimes documented as Elizabeth) M. Kern were married in 1860, originally living on McDougal Street in Greenwich Village.  They had two children, Bernard Ralph and Irene.  It appears that Elisa died in childbirth with her second child.  When Bernhardt moved into the East 87th Street house, Bernard was 19 years old and Irene was 14.

That same year Bernardt got his son a job at Pottier & Stymus as a designer, however it did not go well.  According to James A. Ganz in his 2015 Jewel City: Art from San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition, "his tendency to alter the Pottier & Stymus furniture designs displeased the foreman, and his father sent him to Paris to study furniture design with Pottier's brother Christian."

In 1882, Bernard entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts which was, coincidentally, across the street from the workshop.  He studied there until 1886, honing his new craft--architecture.  Upon returning to New York City, he worked in the firm of his friend, Thomas Hastings of Carrere & Hastings.  In 1889, he left East 87th Street, moving to Kansas City, Missouri to open his own architectural practice.  He went on to become a well-known architect, designing many of his buildings in the Arts & Crafts style.  (The majority of his major works are in the San Francisco Bay district.) 

In 1892, Irene, who was now 25 years old, taught in the Primary Department of Grammar School No. 76 on Lexington Avenue at 68th Street.  She would never marry and around the turn of the century moved with her father to Brooklyn.

The Yorkville neighborhood was greatly populated by German immigrants.  The Ohls, another German family followed the Meybecks at 438 East 87th Street.  Coincidentally, the Ohls' son, Edward, was an aspiring architect.  In 1906 and 1908 the boy won the "medal of the week" from the New York Herald for his "drawing of an architectural ornament" submitted to The Young Contributors' Contest.

The Ohls were followed by Frederick Schafhaus and his wife. In 1908 they searched for a summer rental, their ad reading "two adults looking for small furnished cottage or flat, ocean front, Long Island preferred, to September 15."

William Clarke and his two adult children, Francis J. and Mary J. F. Clarke, lived here by 1913.  Mary was a fashion designer and was looking to change from women's to men's apparel that year.  Perhaps to avoid an almost inevitable sexist reaction, she used only her initials in her Position Wanted ad in Gentlemen's Fashions:

Am a designer and cutter of women's smart custom made garments and desire a change in position as present one is too limited.  Have four years' experience and can furnish first-class references.  I am a "Croonborg Man."  Address M. J. C., 438 East 87th St., New York City.

(A "Croonborg Man" referred to Frederick T. Croonborg's The Blue Book of Men's Tailoring.)

After Dr. Henry M. Friedman and Mary E. Beretz-Friedman purchased the residence in 1921, it was operated as a rooming or boarding house.  Living here, in 1925 was Ida S. G. Seagal, a visiting teacher in the public elementary schools.  Patrick O'Donnell lived in the house on May 2, 1927, when he was sentenced to five days in jail " when he failed to pay a fine of $5 imposed upon him by Magistrate Harry Miller [for intoxication] in the Long Island City Court," as reported by The Daily Star.

The Yorkville Music School operated from a lower floor in 1927.  (It was an apparently short tenancy, and does not appear at the address afterward.)

Tenant William Jenning worked in the yards of the Interborough Rapid Transit.  The 24-year-old suffered a horrific accident on April 1, 1929.  Unaware that Jenning was still coupling a car in the Woodlawn station at Jerome Avenue, the motorman began to pull out.  "Jenning's right arm was torn off and his skull fractured when the train started to move," reported the Times Union.  "He is not expected to live."

Another roomer, Joseph Frum, worked as a bartender at Starr's restaurant at the time.  Unfortunately for him, Prohibition was in full swing.  On July 12, 1930, according to the Daily News, a "squad of raiders swooped down on Starr's restaurant at 546 Pearl St."  Joseph Frum was arrested along with two waiters.  "They took twelve bottles of liquor as evidence," said the article.

Two years after this photograph was taken, 438 East 87th Stret (the center house) would lose its stoop.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In 1943 the house was converted to furnished rooms.  The stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to the basement level.  

The configuration lasted until 1964 when Amy Osborne Vanderbilt purchased the house.  Born in 1908, she traced her American ancestry to Jan Aertson van der Bilt, who arrived in New Netherland in 1650.   She was related to Cornelius Vanderbilt I, who founded the vast Vanderbilt fortune.

Regarded as an American authority on deportment, Vanderbilt had published the best-selling Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette in 1952.  The book (retitled Amy Vanderbilt's Etiquette) is still in circulation and continues to set the standard of social behavior.  In 1961 she published Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Cook Book, illustrated by Andy Warhol.

When she purchased and remodeled the East 87th Street house, she was recently divorced from her third husband, photographer Hans Knopf.  At least one of her sons from that marriage, Stephen, moved in with her.

The renovations were barely completed when Vanderbilt opened her house to the public on April 4, 1964 as part of a tour to benefit the Old Merchant's House museum on East 4th Street.  Ever aware of etiquette, she told journalist Aurelie Dwyer of Newsday, "I don't think people on tours should smoke.  Accidents happen.  Someone might put a cigaret [sic] out in a china saucer, a work of art, which mine are.  I think there should be No Smoking signs, and I think I'll put a container of sand at the front door."

She also cautioned tour participants against comments that might offend the owner.  "I think they should wait until they leave to discuss the house.  They should be respectful of the house whether or not it's their taste."

Newsday described Vanderbilt's drawing room as having "mauve felt walls, French carpeting and Irish point lace curtains with red taffeta jabots."  photo by Kraus, Newsday, April 1, 1964

The article noted, "Miss Vanderbilt's house stands on property that was once owned by her great, great-grandfather.  She discovered this when going over the deed, which also contains the signature of Washington Irving, who witnessed it."  Dwyer said, "The dining room, white-walled with amethyst draperies, has a Dutch alcove bed in one wall.  The drawing room and library, on the second floor, are furnished with Victorian and Regency heirlooms."

In 1968, Vanderbilt married Curtis B. Kellar, general counsel of the Mobile Chemical Co., a division of the Mobil Oil Corp.

Around 7:55 on the night of December 27, 1974, a passerby discovered Amy Vanderbilt's body lying near the front steps of the house.  Police rang the bell to find Kellar and Stephen Knopf, who was home for the holidays from college, apparently unaware that Vanderbilt was not in the house.  Knopf said his mother had been working in the second-floor study and that he had talked to her around 7:35.

Two days later, The Atlanta Constitution reported that the autopsy revealed "extensive factures of the skull and spine, fractures of the ribs and pelvis and a variety of internal injuries."  The article continued, "Miss Vanderbilt plunged from the open casement window of an office adjoining her third-floor bedroom onto the front steps of the four-story brownstone between First and York avenues, just before 8 p.m.  Authorities said no note was found."  Whether Amy Vanderbilt's death was accidental or a suicide has never been determined.

The unassuming brownstone, with its rich history, remains a single-family home.

photographs by the author
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