Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Norrie and Sybil Sellar House - 52 West 74th Street


With the fortune he garnered in the Singer Sewing Machine Company, Edward C. Clark invested heavily in property in the developing West End--what we call the Upper West Side today.  On October 14, 1882, two years before the completion of his Dakota Apartments, Clark died of malarial fever.  The millionaire left a stretch of property on West 74th Street (from No. 18 through 52) to his one-year-old grandson Frederick Ambrose Clark.

In 1902, Frederick Clark, now a young man, commissioned architect Percy Griffin to design a row of homes on the property.  Griffin, who is not well known today, worked almost exclusively in the stately neo-Georgian style, and the 18 homes of the 74th Street row would be an architectural tour de force.  Completed in 1904, the 25-foot-wide brick-and-stone residences rose five floors with three-story rear extensions.  Each cost, according to The New York Times, $110,000 to construct, or about $3.88 million by 2024 terms.

The Architectural Record, November 1906 (copyright expired)

The Architectural Record, in November 1906, said the block "presents the appearance of a composite whole well studied in its entirety for silhouette fenestration and general composition."  The article added that Griffin, "has varied the individual facade treatments to give to each house a distinctive character, yet to preserve in its composition certain lines, which allow it to properly take its place in the block."

An advertisement in The Sun on October 2, 1904 boasted, "NO residences have ever been offered for rental in New York City comparing with these in construction, equipment, appointments and detail.  They have been designed and built with the careful attention to details of construction given only to the highest class houses built for private ownership."

Anchoring the row to the west was 52 West 74th Street.  Instead of a centered, porticoed entrance, its doorway was placed to the side of a full-height protruding bay.  Three stories of brick trimmed in stone sat above a limestone base, while the fifth floor was discreetly tucked behind a pierced stone parapet.  Inside were 21 rooms (including a billiard room and library), five bathrooms and an elevator.  An advertisement touted a water filter, silver safe, and wine refrigerator.

Clark did not sell the houses, but rented them.  By 1909, Norrie and Sybil Sellar occupied the house.  That same year they purchased the former summer home of Le Grand L. Benedict in Cedarhurst, Long Island.  Norrie Sellar had been a cotton broker, but on February 24, 1909, The Wall Street Journal announced the 36-year-old had been admitted into partnership with the brokerage firm of Dick Bros. & Co.  

Sybil, the daughter of millionaire William Watts Sherman, had grown up in the family mansion at 838 Fifth Avenue and in Newport.  

Norrie and Sybil Sellar, images via househistree.com

Norrie was Sybil's second husband.  Her marriage to John Ellis Hoffman had ended in divorce.  Living with the couple were two children, Audrey Annie (from the first marriage), and Norrie Sherman; and five servants.

The socially-prominent Sellars appeared in society columns repeatedly.  On July 28, 1910, the New-York Tribune reported they had sailed for Europe, noting they "will spend the next six weeks in Scotland."  The Sellars were likely headed to Andrew and Louise Carnegie's Skibo Castle where they were occasional houseguests.

The Sellars were home in time for Sybil to attend the fashionable New York Horse Show with her half-sister Mildred Sherman on November 12.  A known fashion plate, Sybil arrived "in a gown of black velvet, with a mink hat, a mink muff and a mink scarf," according to the New-York Tribune.

Sybil's up-to-date fashion sense had irked a society journalist from The New York Times a year earlier when her choice of headgear blocked the view of the stage at the Metropolitan Opera.  A March 28, 1909 article said, 

At the premier of 'Falstaff' Mrs. Norrie Sellar, in a parterre box, wore a huge hat, huge as to width, and set back on her head to form a wide spreading but not towering frame.  Of light beaver or velvet, it spread out each side beyond her shoulders, and was so fastened to the back of her head as to rise like a frame that slanted from the right shoulder almost diagonally across the head.

The Sellars left 52 West 74th Street in 1913.  Two years later the Clark Estate rented it to George W. Hill "for a term of years," as reported by the New-York Tribune.  When the country entered World War I, the Hills made an extraordinary gesture for the war effort.  On May 12, 1918, the New York Herald reported on some houses and estates being "tendered for hospital sites," while other "patriotic [citizens] make fighters contented."  Rooms in mansions of millionaires like Joseph Pulitzer and Whitelaw Reid were being used by the Red Cross for making surgical dressings or teaching "first aid, home dietetics, hygiene and the like."  The article said, "Among the numerous other houses where Red Cross work is going on mention may be made of the home of Mrs. George W. Hill, 52 West Seventy-fourth."

On April 2, 1921, the Clark Estate sold the residences along the 1904 row.  No. 52 became home to the Milton C. Blum family.  The head of the textile converting firm Milton C. Blum, Inc., Blum and his wife, the former Florence Rice, had two children, Margaret, born in 1905, and Milton Jr., born in 1909.  Florence was the daughter of philanthropist Henry Rice.  

The Blums' residency would be relatively short-lived.  In February 1925, The New York Times reported that Blum had sold 52 West 74th Street to "the well-known physician, Dr. Arnold J. Gelarie," noting, "The building contains an elevator and is considered one of the finest on the west side."

The following month, the Harry A. Jaffe Galleries held an auction of the Blums' furniture and artwork.  Among the items mentioned in the announcement were, "distinctive home furnishings, rare English and Italian antiques, Chinese jades and porcelains, tapestries and textiles."

A bachelor, Arnold James Galerie was born in Poland and graduated from the university at Jena, Germany.  During World War I, he worked with the Government as Expert Bacteriologist at the Quarantine Station at the Port of New York.  A specialist in "rheumatic diseases," he was associated with the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

On January 19, 1935, the Brooklyn Times-Union reported that Gelarie had been appointed chief of staff and director of medicine and laboratories at Beth Israel Hospital in Passaic, New Jersey.  The article noted, "Dr. Gelarie is the author of numerous medical papers, and also has made contributions on advanced medicine and experimental research to various medical publications."

Despite the considerable commute to his new position, Gelarie remained at 52 West 74th Street at least through 1943.  Major change came in 1946 when the residence was converted to the Park Terrace Nursing Home.  The Department of Buildings documented 14 beds on the ground floor, 19 beds on floors two through four, and 17 beds on the fifth floor.

In 1964, the published room rates here were $7.56 per day and $230 per month.  (The monthly rate would translate to about $2,250 today.)

The Park Terrace Nursing Home operated until February 7, 1975 when the United States Department of Health Education and Welfare shut it down for fire safety violations.  The New York Times reported, "the New York State Department of Social Services had arranged to transfer the home's patients to other facilities."

A renovation completed three years later resulted in two apartments per floor.

photographs by the author
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  1. Wonderful!
    Have you thought of 575 Park Avenue.
    Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Lived here and Woody Allen edited his films here. Also, the first floor was the location of one of the legendary French restaurants of the 40s and 50s, Voisin.

  2. What an incredible view of that spectacular row of townhouses.