Wednesday, February 7, 2024

A House with a Designing Past - 116 East 61st Street


photo by Ted Leather

In June 1869, "several fashionable young gentlemen persisted in paying their attentions" to Ella Hefferan, as reported by the New York Dispatch.  The unwanted wooing finally prompted Ella to confess to her astonished father that she had secretly married Frank E. Nesmith.  "The bride's father when he first learned of the match, did feel somewhat put, out," said the newspaper on October 24, "that his daughter should step out beyond his control in a surreptitious manner, but he now seems perfectly satisfied."  As Nesmith was "a gentleman of the highest character and respectability" and Ella was "his equal in every respect," the journalist hoped they would have a happy life.  Nevertheless, he closed saying, "the least that they can do is get up a grand dejenuer to their friends and well wishers."

With the matrimonial cat out of the bag, the couple leased the new high-stooped brownstone at 116 East 61st Street from developers Peter V. Winters and William T. Hurt.  The 18-foot-wide Italianate style house was three stories tall above a rusticated English basement.  Triangular pediments sat above the parlor openings, while molded sills and prominent cornices adorned the architrave windows of the upper floors.  

The Nesmiths opened their home to callers on New Year's Day 1871.  The New York Dispatch said "continuous calls were received all day and evening," adding, "The parlors of the splendid brown stone house are gorgeously furnished in blue satin, and looked magnificent."

Within the month, Winters and Hunt sold the residence to Louisa and Simon Bing, Jr. for $20,500 (just over half a million in 2024 dollars).  Bing was a partner with Jacob August in the clothing firm of August, Bing & Co.  It appears the Bings continued to lease 116 East 61st Street to Frank and Ella Nesmith until they sold it in October 1872 to Sarah McIntyre for $21,250.

Living with Sarah was her daughter, also named Sarah, and son-in-law Scipio L. Leslie.  Scipio Leslie was the youngest son of Frank Leslie, publisher of the highly popular Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.  The couple's daughter, Lonetta Leslie, was born in 1875. 

Scipio became ill in 1878 and "after a lingering illness," according to The New York Times, died on May 23.  His funeral was held in the drawing room three days later.

Sarah McIntyre died in 1879, and the following year her estate leased 116 East 61st Street to a Mr. Hoffman.  In May he had a house guest from San Francisco, Albert J. Seligman.  Seligman, who was the son of New York banker Jesse Seligman, was stopping here on his way to Frieburg, Germany to take courses and had booked passage on a steamship leaving New York on May 29.  

Two days before the vessel was scheduled to leave, Seligman was nowhere to be found.  On May 28, the New York World reported that his friends had reported him missing, saying he "disappeared a few days ago."  The article noted, "As he was not in his right mind at times, his friends feared that he might have committed suicide."

Seligman's steamship sailed without him.  On June 1, The Sun reported, "Nothing has been heard of Albert Seligman of San Francisco, who disappeared from No. 116 East Sixty-first street, last Tuesday."  Happily, Seligman did turn up.  The following year, on October 21, 1881, The Helena Independent reported, "Albert J. Seligman, son of Jesse Seligman, the well-known New York banker, arrived from the east Tuesday evening.  Mr. Seligman has just completed a course of study at Freiburg, and come to Montana for the purpose of obtaining practical knowledge of mining."

At the end of Hoffman's lease, Sarah moved back into her mother's house.  In the meantime, she had married James G. Powers, Jr.  Lonetta, who was now 7 years old, had a half-sister.  Madelaine Powers was born in September 1881.  Tragically, little Madelaine died on May 11, 1882 at the age of 8 months.  The family's grief was reflected in the notation "funeral private" included in her death announcement.

Sarah Powers purchased her two sisters' portions of their mother's house for $10,000 on September 6, 1882.  The family remained here for nearly a decade, selling it to James M. Cahn and his wife, the former Minnie Harriman, around 1891.

Born in 1859, Cahn was a member of the apparel firm James Cahn Brothers, established by his father in 1850.  When the family moved into 116 East 61st Street, son David Burnett Cahn was attending the Columbia Law School (he received his degree in 1893).  Another son, Louis, was a director in the Jose Lovera Co.

Minnie Cahn died on February 7, 1898.  As was customary, her funeral was held in the residence three days later.

Sharing the house with the three Cahn men by 1916 was the family of Colonel James B. Curtis.  A partner in the law firm of Baldwin & Curtis, Curtis was a veteran of the Spanish American War.  He and his wife had two young adult sons--Brian C., who graduated from Harvard in 1915; and Charles C., who was currently enrolled in Harvard.

Brian C. Curtis began post-graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1915, but the war in Europe prompted him to take a leave of absence.  That year he enlisted in American Ambulance Service in France.  On May 20, 1917, The New York Herald reported, "His mother went to Paris to come home with him at the expiration of his first enlistment, but when the young man decided to serve a second period, she remained in France, taking up relief work with the Belgian refugees in Paris."

James M. Cahn died in the house on September 7, 1918 at the age of 59.  The Curtis family remained in the house, renting it from Cahn's estate.  On January 7, 1921, the New York Herald reported, "Charles C. Curtis, who was graduated in 1919 from Harvard, has just arrived at the home of his parents, Col. and Mrs. James B. Curtis...after a trip to South America to see his brother, Capt. Brian C. Curtis."

On April 25, 1922, James B. Curtis traveled to Indianapolis, Indiana on business.  The following night, he "died during his sleep...presumably of heart disease," according to The New York Times.

Within two years, 116 East 61st Street was being operated as unofficial apartments, and in 1929 it was converted to a two-family dwelling.  The stoop was removed at this time and the entrance lowered to the former English basement level.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

After mid-century, the first of a string of highly-visible interior decorators to occupy 116 East 61st Street moved in.  James Davison, known as Jimmy, lived in the lower portion here when he met British-born designer Nicholas Haslam.  David was, according to Vanity Fair in September 2009, "a Rockefeller on his mother's side and his father was the head of J. P. Morgan."  The upper portion, said the magazine, was occupied by "a young comic named Woody Allen."

Davison and Haslam became lovers and, according to Haslam's Redeeming Features: A Memoir, "Almost immediately Jimmy asked me to move in with him, which I did."

Decorator Billy Baldwin moved in around 1964.  He told The New York Times on September 27 that year, "When I first looked at the New York apartment...I was appalled by all the juts and jags and awkward beams."   Baldwin was a partner in the decorating firm Baldwin & Martin, Inc.  On February 26, 1965, The New York Times said he "has never in his life sought a client and exercised considerable selectivity among those who offer themselves to him.  He will not do just anybody--and nothing could make him more attractive to a certain type of client than that."

In 1970 Baldwin, whose clients included the likes of Cole Porter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Diana Vreeland--moved to Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Decorator and architect Geoffrey Bradfield of Bradfield & Tobin purchased 116 East 61st Street in 1978.  The New York Post called him a "superstar designer" who "has masterminded some of the city's choicest interiors."  The Real Deal would later note, "Bradfield, who was born in South Africa and became a leading interior designer to the global elite, used the townhouse both as his primary residence and his company headquarters."  

The house was the scene of Bradfield's glittering birthday celebration on September 20, 2007.  Attending that evening were well-known names like Mary McFadden, Monique van Vooren, and Carlos Souza.

photo by Ted Leather

Having occupied 116 East 61st Street for 35 years, in 2012 Bradford placed the house on the market.  He sold it three years later to Seema and Somesh Khanna for $9.9 million.  The couple initiated a renovation, completed in 2018, that returned it to a single-family home.   They placed it on the market in 2021 for just under $16.5 million.

many thanks to reader Ted Leather for requesting this post has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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