Monday, April 1, 2024

The Lost Donn Barber House - 125 East 74th Street


The Brickbuilder, January 22, 1913 (copyright expired)

In 1878, architect John C. Burne designed a row of identical, high-stooped houses for developer John McGlynn on the north side of East 74th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.  They became home to upper-middle-class professionals, like civil engineer Octave Britton Hebert, who occupied 125 East 74th Street in the early 1890s.  He was followed in the house by Dr. Alpheus Freeman, described by The New York Times as being "said to have a large private practice."

Freeman and his wife Josephine were married in the Jane Street Methodist Church in 1877.  Living with them was their adult son Charles, who also was a physician.  Domestic problems came to the Freemans at the turn of the century.  They landed the couple in court on March 6, 1902.  The New York Times reported that Josephine...

charged that Dr. Freeman had installed a woman named Alice Pitcher in their home at 125 East Seventy-fourth Street as housekeeper against her will, and had instructed the servants to take their orders from Mrs. Pitcher; also that the newcomer had already rearranged the interior of the house without consulting her desires.

Eventually, Alice Pitcher left and, for the most part, so did Alpheus Freeman.  Josephine said that in August 1901, "under the name of 'Mr. and Mrs. Brown' he had occupied a flat with his new housekeeper" on East 119th Street.  (He apparently still ran his medical office from 125 East 74th Street, since Josephine claimed he ate dinner there.)  Dr. Freeman countered that his visits to the Pitcher flat "were purely of a professional character, as she was an excellent nurse," and that "his wife drank to excess."

Regarding Josephine's intemperance, the judge said flatly, "I don't believe you."  He awarded Josephine $25 per week alimony, to which she exclaimed, "I don't want to leave my house."

Magistrate Pool told her, "You'd had better get another house."

Dr. Freeman remained at 125 East 74th Street for at least another year.  On May 6, 1905, the Record & Guide reported that architect Donn Barber had purchased the property for $22,000 (about $755,000 by 2024 conversion).

Born in Washington, D.C. on October 19, 1871, Barber graduated from Yale University in 1893 and entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris two years later.  Back in New York, he apprenticed in three of the most esteemed architectural offices of the time--Carrere & Hastings, Cass Gilbert, and Lord & Hewlett.  He opened his own firm in 1900.   

Barber and his wife, the former Elsie Yandell, were married on November 22, 1899.  When the couple purchased 125 East 74th Street, they had two small children, Elizabeth, born in 1902; and Louise who arrive a year later.

Before the family could move in, Barber did a gut remodeling of the old brownstone house.  He removed the stoop and lowered the entrance to grade, and replaced the stone facade with variegated brick.  (Somewhat unexpectedly, with the stoop gone he did not pull the front forward to the property line, as most architects were doing and thereby increasing the interior square footage.)  A two-story, pressed metal bay decorated with neo-Classical English motifs dominated the design.  He also enlarged the house by adding a two-story rear extension.  

Living with the family were Barber's widowed mother, Georgiana Williams Barber, and his sisters, Georgiana and Helena.  Donn and Elsie would two more children.  Elsie was born on February 13, 1907 and Donn Jr. on April 20, 1911.

When Barber moved his family into 125 East 74th Street, he had not yet received any substantial commissions.  Nevertheless, the family lived a comfortable lifestyle.  On October 25, 1910, for instance, The New York Sun reported that the family had "closed their house at Rye and are at their town residence."

The Brickbuilder, January 22, 1913 (copyright expired)

On February 12, 1911, Donn Barber hosted a dinner here for his good friend and former employer John M. Carrere.  The architect was to sail to Rome the next day to inspect the American Building which he had designed for the Rome Exposition, set to open the next summer.  Afterward, Carrere headed home in a taxicab.  Only a block and a half away, at 74th Street and Madison Avenue, Carrere's cab was struck by a trolley car.  The famous architect suffered a fractured skull and two broken arms.  He was taken semi-conscious to the Presbyterian Hospital where he died on March 1.  

Donn Barber, Real Estate Record & Guide, July 15, 1911 (copyright expired)

At the time of the tragedy, Donn Barber had designed some substantial structures, including the 1908 Terminal Station in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the Connecticut State Library and Supreme Court Building, erected between 1908 and 1910; the  1910 Berzelius Society Building at Yale; and the Lotos Club on West 57th Street, completed in 1909.  And he was about to receive his most prestigious commission to date.

On July 15, 1911, the Record & Guide reported on "the greatest building project in America"--the construction of the three marble buildings for the Departments of State, Commerce and Labor, and Justice in Washington D.C.  Donn Barber's design for the Department of Justice Building had been chosen by President William Howard Taft and the National Arts Commission.

Barber's rendering of the Department of Justice Building.  Real Estate Record & Guide, July 15, 1911 (copyright expired)

Barber's sister Georgiana was married to James Benham Malcom in St. Thomas's Church on April 29, 1914.  Touchingly, her maid of honor was Marion Dell Carrere, the daughter of John M. Carrere.  The reception was held in the East 74th Street house.

Donn Barber's successful career was reflected in the family's lifestyle.  In 1913 he purchased Donnybrook, the former country estate of W. A. Read in Purchase, New York, and in 1914 he drove a Pierce Arrow.

On April 9, 1913, The American Architect published a tantalizing photo of a section of Donnybrook with Donn Barber's remodeling.  (copyright expired)

With the outbreak of World War I, Elsie turned her focus to the war effort.  She had previously been involved in charitable works like the Winifred Wheeler Day Nursery, but now devoted her time to the National League for Women's Service. She became Canteen Chairman, overseeing the work of 2,500 women volunteers working in 12 canteens for army and navy men.  Elsie had strict rules for the young women.

While you are working in the canteens do not make up with rouge, powder, and lip sticks, and do not wear laces and jewelry.  The boys misjudge the women wearing make-up, and elaborate clothes are out of place.

Elsie Barber in her National League uniform.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Elsie's sister, designer, sculptor and artist Enid Yandell, had moved into the Barber house by 1917.

The Barber daughters were approaching their debutante years as the war came to a close.  On January 5, 1921, the New York Herald reported on the "bal masque" for debutante Estelle Manville.  The "green only" masked ball was a social event of that winter season.  The article said, "Numerous dinners were given in advance of the dance, the largest being that of Mr. and Mrs. Donn Barber in their home 123 East Seventy-fourth street.  Their party included the Misses Betty and Louise Barber, who were dressed as pirates, of course in green."

Elizabeth Elliston Barber, known in society as Betty, was also a debutante that season.  She was attending Bryn Mawr College, due to graduate in 1924.  Her sister, Louise Yandell, would be introduced to society in 1922.

On October 8, 1922, the New York Herald reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Donn Barber and the Misses Betty, Louise and Elsie Barber, have returned from Europe and are at their apartment [sic], 125 East Seventy-fourth street."  What was not mentioned in the succinct article was that Joseph Larocque, Jr., had also been in Europe and had spent much of his time with the Barber family.

Two months later, the Barbers gave a dinner at the Colony Club for Louise.  The New York Herald said that during the event, "they made the interesting announcement of the engagement of their daughter, Miss Louise Yandell Barber, to Mr. Joseph Larocque, Jr."

The couple's engagement was relatively long.  It was not until April 22, 1924 that they were married.  A year later, on April 1, 1925, The Spur reported that Betty Barber would be married that month to Richard Sanford Hoffman.

At the time, Donn Barber was working on the plans for the Broadway Temple.  Pencil Points said he hoped to make it "his crowning achievement."  Neither it nor Betty's April wedding would come to pass.  Barber fell ill and died in the 74th Street house on May 29, 1925, at the age of 54.  The Architectural Forum said his death came "at the height of the development of his marked abilities," and Pencil Points said he "was just at the peak of a brilliant career in architectural work."

Following his funeral in the drawing room here, Barber was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery at Tarrytown.  His entire estate, estimated at around $6.1 million by 2024 conversion, went to Elsie.  

Elsie Barber remained at 125 East 74th Street for a year, rented it to C. Morton Whitman and his wife in 1927, and sold it in 1928.  That year it and three neighboring houses were demolished to be replaced with a 10-story apartment building designed by Lafayette A. Goldstone, which survives.

The original appearance of the Barber house can be seen in the surviving brownstone next door to the replacement building.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for suggesting this post.
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  1. Donn Barber was also the editor of The Architectural League of New York's annual catalogues for several years in the early 1900s, after he joined the group in 1905. Those annuals illustrate some of the greatest architectural designs during, in my opinion, the pinnacle of architectural excellence in the United States.

  2. He designed what was arguably the best of the five finalist designs for the Union Club's 51st Street and Fifth Avenue clubhouse. It was the building committee's preferred design, overruled by referee Charles McKim. His ideas were incorporated into Delano & Aldrich's 69th Street clubhouse.