Monday, April 29, 2024

The Lost George Blumenthal Mansion - 50 East 70th Street


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

When U.S. Attorney Elihu Root erected his splendid mansion at 733 Park Avenue in 1905, the neighborhood was only marginally fashionable.  But that was quickly changing.  On December 4, 1909, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported, "Within a very few weeks the probability that the entire neighborhood will be devoted to fine residences has been strengthened as the result of the sale of the Union Theological Seminary's block front, between 69th and 70th streets, to Commodore Arthur Curtiss James and George Blumenthal, of Lazard Freres."

George Blumenthal and his wife, the former Florence Meyer, were currently living in the sumptuous residence at 23 West 53rd Street, steps from what was familiarly known as Vanderbilt Row.  But commerce was inching up Fifth Avenue, threatening the exclusivity of their neighborhood.  Construction on their new home would have to wait until the demolition of the Union Theological Seminary, and it was not until April 15, 1911 that the Record & Guide reported that work had begun.

Designed by Trowbridge & Livingston, the limestone-faced, Italian Renaissance-inspired palazzo opened onto East 70th Street.  Prominent intermediate cornices defined the tripartite design.  The rustication and bold voussoirs of the ground floor, or piano terra, were drawn from Florentine models.  Trowbridge & Livingston's restrained ornamentation of the upper floors relied only on molded architrave window frames and subtle corner quoins.

The interiors were intended as much for displaying the Blumenthals' massive art collection as they were for living and entertaining.  Perhaps the most impressive space was the large interior patio complex that was removed from the abandoned Spanish castle Vélez Blanco. The expense of the architectural and artistic details within the mansion were evidenced in an article in The Morning Post of London on February 25, 1913. It reported that "a pair of sixteenth century andirons, surmounted by figures of Apollo and Mercury...are to adorn the new house that George Blumenthal is building at Park Avenue and Seventieth Street, New York." The items had been purchased at Christies for $48,300--about $1.5 million in 2024.

The two-story Spanish patio was a focal point of the Blumenthal mansion.   The 15th century marble fountain came from the Palazzo Pazzi in Florence, Italy and was attributed to Donatello.  from the Watson Library Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Blumenthal came to America as a youth.  He was the head of the American branch of the French banking firm Lazard Fres.  

This portrait of George Blumenthal was painted by Charles Hopkinson in 1933.  from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

George married the 23-year-old Florence Meyer in 1898.  The couple maintained a home on the Boulevard Montmorency in Paris; a chateau at Grasse, near Cannes in the south of France; and a lodge called Knollwood Club in the Adirondacks.  Florence was equally interested in art and in 1919, as France reeled from the war, she founded La Fondation Américaine Blumenthal in Paris.  It provided financial assistance to rising French artists.

French photographer Adolf de Meyer dramatically posed Florence Meyer Blumenthal in the 70th Street library in front of a Renaissance Madonna.  from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Blumenthals' staggering philanthropies were seemingly limitless.  On February 22, 1920, The New York Times reported that George had received "the insignia of Knight of the Legion of Honor" from the French Government.  The article said, "Mr. Blumenthal has been particularly active in the important organization of the Fatherless Children of France."

 from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

George Blumenthal sat on the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Following the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, the museum sent an expedition to assist Howard Carter.  The New York Times reported on July 20, 1923, "Mr. and Mrs. Blumenthal made an extended visit to Luxor during the past Winter and had an opportunity to study, which they did with great interest, both the expedition's progress and its needs."  Back home in New York, the couple donated $2,000 "which will make possible the purchase of an automobile for the use of the members of the Museum's Egyptian Expedition," said the article.

 from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Newspapers continually reported on the couple's financial gifts.  On June 19, 1925, The New York Times reported that George had "presented 1,000,000 francs to the Sorbonne" to be used "in the best interests of French culture."  He had previously made donations totaling 8,000,000 francs to the organization.  Later that year, in December, Blumenthal announced he would retire to focus entirely on philanthropy.

 from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Blumenthal's gifts were not always massive.  In the first nine months of 1926, for instance, nine police officers were killed in the line of duty.  On August 28, Blumenthal sent a letter to Police Commissioner McLaughlin that began, "Some of the men of your force who have been killed lately in the performance of their duty have no doubt left families greatly in need of assistance."  He inserted a check for $5,000 (about $90,000 today) "with the request that you kindly distribute this amount among those families which, in your opinion, are most needy and deserving."

That year George and Florence donated $60,000 to the Children's Hospital in Paris.  In recognition of the couple's continued generosity since the end of the war, in 1929 the French Government honored George and Florence by presenting them both the Legion of Honor.  In April 1928, the couple presented a gift of more than $103,000 to erase the deficit of the Mount Sinai Hospital.  The New York Times noted, "The contribution brings the total of Mr. and Mrs. Blumenthal's gifts to the hospital to almost $1,000,000."

 Two views of the ballroom.  from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Blumenthals were in Paris in 1930, when Florence contracted bronchial pneumonia.  She died there at the age of 55 on September 21.  According to the Jewish Women's Archive, during her lifetime Florence had "donated millions of dollars to established institutions and public charities in America and France."

In the basement was a "plunge," or swimming pool, its walls decorated with sea motif mosaics.   from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Two years later, in December 1932, George Blumenthal closed their "spacious home" in Paris, as described by a French correspondent.  A week-long auction was held of the antique furnishings, the 18th century French art, and Blumenthal's extensive library of rare books.  The New York Times Paris correspondent described the items as "a remarkable assemblage of paintings, drawings, engravings, bronzes, porcelain, tapestries, rugs and furniture."  Prior to the first day of the auction, a private showing was held for potential buyers that included "many representatives of the nobility."  

On January 10, 1934, Blumenthal was elected president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  (He had already added the presidency of the Mount Sinai Hospital to his resume.)  In reporting the assignment, The New York Sun mentioned, "He and the late Mrs. Blumenthal gave the museum $1,000,000 in 1928."

 from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A year later, on December 19, 1935, the 77-year-old married Mary Ann Payne Clew.  His bride was 46.  The Washington Post reported, "the couple's long heralded marriage took place quietly yesterday afternoon at Mrs. Blumenthal's New York apartment."

The newlyweds at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on December 19, 1935.  The Washington Post.

The article noted, "the Blumenthal home at 50 East Seventieth street in New York, where Mr. and Mrs. Blumenthal will live after a brief honeymoon in the South, contains one of the finest private art collections in the country."

Mary had just emerged from mourning following the death of her broker husband, James Blanchard Clews, on December 17, 1934.   She received half of his $3 million estate.

Mary Ann Clews Blumenthal's bedroom was a slice of Versailles.   from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

On June 26, 1941, George Blumenthal died in the East 70th Street mansion at the age of 83 after what the Times Herald of Washington D.C. called "a lengthy illness."  His estate was appraised at more than $8 million (around $165 million 
today).  A private funeral was held in the mansion on June 30.  The New York Times noted it would be "attended only by relatives, close friends and members of directing boards of organization with which Mr. Blumenthal was connected."

(Mary Ann Clews Blumenthal, incidentally, would marry General Ralph Kenyon Robertson in 1943, and Baron Carl von Wrangell in 1969.)

Blumenthal left the 70th Street mansion and much of the artwork to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The New York Times explained that the bequest was "for the purpose of having the house dismantled, of having such structural parts of his house as possible installed in the present museum building, of having other structural parts disposed of in such manner as the museum authorities might see fit, and of having the land sold."

World War II delayed the museum's careful dismantling of the mansion, including "removing and installing in its own building what is considered the most valuable structural element in the residence, the celebrated patio from the palace of los Velez," according to The New York Times.  The trustees, said the article, had decided to use the mansion during the war, "for such purposes of storage, work space and exhibition as might be arranged with the city authorities."

On  July 21, 1942, The New York Times reported that the Met "has installed a collection of arms and armor in the residence...and opened it to the public as a temporary branch museum."

On August 15, 1945, three months after Germany surrendered and a month before the Japanese capitulated, the careful demolition of the Blumenthal mansion began.  The next day, The New York Times reported, "The patio and paneling of two of the rooms have been taken by the museum and present plans are to use the patio in the museum's post-war building program."

image by Eden, Janine and Jim

In 1948 ground was broken for 710 Park Avenue, a Sylvan Bein-designed apartment building that survives on the site of the Blumenthal mansion.

many thanks to architect Douglas Burtu Kearley, Sr. for suggesting this post.
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1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for researching and posting this!