NYSD House

Big Old Houses: Edith and Ogden

Edith and Ogden
by John Foreman


"We asked him to alter and decorate the house," Edith Wharton wrote in "A Backward Glance" in 1934. "(It was) a somewhat new departure, since the architects of that day looked down on house-decoration as a branch of dress-making, and left the field up to the upholsterers, who crammed every room with curtains, lambrequins, jardinieres of artificial plants, wobbly velvet-covered tables littered with silver gee-gaws and festoons of lace on mantelpieces and dressing tables." (Excuse me while I sneeze). Mrs. Wharton gave job of updating her Newport cottage to a well bred, quick witted 28-year-old wag named Ogden Codman (1863-1951), a young man she found amusing on the subject of all the boring people in Newport, and with whom she was in profound agreement on the subject of aesthetics.

Ruins left by the Great Boston Fire of 1872.
I'd never heard of the great fire in 1872 that leveled 65 acres of downtown Boston. Aside from the 30 people who were killed outright, legions more were dealt financial body blows, among them the aristocratic Codmans of Boston and, in the summer, a fine old house in Lincoln, Mass. called The Grange. (P.S. If you're interested, BOH was there in March of 2014). Rental portfolio in ruins and cash spigot reduced to a trickle, Ogden Codman Sr. did what many upscale Americans did in those days (and continiued to do until the late 1950s) ... they moved to France.

Living was cheap, culture abundant, and one's reasons for relocation weren't necesarily obvious. His son, Ogden Jr., was a sensitive 12-year-old at the time of the family's move to Brittany's Emerald Coast resort of Dinard. He was 19 when he returned to the States and entered MIT, a convert to the aesthetics of 18th century France, but not so much to Dinard. "Anything is better than that wretched hole of a place," he wrote his mother in 1883. I don't know if she agreed or not, but the family came home in 1884.
Besides native aesthetic acuity, Ogden Codman Jr. had the benefit of two uncles — architect John Sturges and decorator Richard Ogden — whose encouragement led him in 1891 to open a office with branches in Boston and fashionable Newport. It was in society's summer capital at Newport that he met the not-yet-famous but very-well-connected Edith (Mrs. Teddy) Wharton (1862-1937). It was she who, in 1894, introduced him to Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the churchy, stuffy, unimaginably rich eldest son of the late William Henry Vanderbilt. Mr. Vanderbilt's Newport cottage, called the Breakers, had just burned to the ground. Richard Morris Hunt designed the new house, and French decorateurs did the state rooms on the ground floor.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937).
The upper floors, however, were given to young Codman. His elegant, uncluttered, clearly French-influenced designs and furniture choices launched a career in high society that would included clients like John D. Rockefeller in Pocantico Hills and Fred Vanderbilt at Hyde Park. Three years after the Breakers commission, realizing they had a lot to say on the same subjects, Edith and Ogden wrote a famous book titled "The Decoration of Houses."

During the last 20 years, I've seen a boatload of fancy New York apartments designed by architects who should have read this book and clearly didn't. Had they paid attention to Edith and Ogden's dictum that proportion was the "good breeding" of architecture, rich America would have been spared a whole lot of lumpy rooms. The chic professionals who labor to obscure the rotten proportions of these rooms are, ironically, not so far off Edith's 19th century "dress-makers."

Edith and Ogden's relationship — definitively platonic, I might add — was way too hot not to cool down. They had a terrible falling out (alas, over money) in 1902, amidst construction of the Mount, Edith's house in Lenox, Mass. Codman's life was unaffected by the breach, however, and in 1904 he found a new best friend in the form of Leila Griswold Webb, widow of railroad man H. Walter Webb, and mother of two orphaned boys, aged 9 and 14 respectively.

Of Codman, then 41 years old, one reporter noted, in the code of the day, that, "it had been supposed that he would die a bachelor." In 1907, career going gangbusters, coffers bulging with the former Mrs. Webb's millions, Codman bought a double lot on East 96th Street off Fifth and began planning a new house. Then in 1910 Mrs. Codman unexpectedly died before the house was even started. Just as Oliver Belmont's Belcourt in Newport was intended as a palatal stable with grand public rooms and a single bedroom, so Ogden Codman's 7 East 96th Street was built as a French "hotel particulier" intended for his own artistic self.
Worthy of note is the unprepossessing tenement neighborhood in which 7 East 96th Street was built. 19th century speculators had kept land prices high on most Central Park blocks, which in turn discouraged multi-family projects. East 97th Street, however, was not one of those blocks, a function of New York Central trains emerging from muffled camouflage to noisy glory at 97th and Park.
Codman is said to have lifted the Louis XVI facade of 7 East 96th Street directly from plates in Cesar Daly's 1880 "Motifs Historiques d'Architecture." M. Daly did indeed write such a book, but I was unable to verify the plates in question. Given Ogden Codman's background, interests and sophistication, however, it's probably true. Codman spent less than eight years at 7 East 96th Streeet before backwash from the First World War ruined his architectural business and, in a reprise of his own parents' path, he moved to France. This time, however, he had the Webb millions to cushion the blow. 7 East 96th was first rented, then sold to a succession of occupants including the Nippon Club, founded in 1905 as the first and only Japanese Social Club in the U.S. The Manhattan Country School bought the building in 1966 and substantially altered the interiors for classroom use.
At the center of the wrought iron balcony railing outside the second floor library are the owner's initials, "OC." But who in the world are "D" and "B" appearing at either end? Perhaps a socially informed reader will clear that one up for me. Codman's stepsons were John and Henry, not that their initials were likely to be blazoned on his house.
A mid-1960s alteration and 50 years of school use have had an unsurprisingly massive impact on 7 East 96th's interiors. That said, it's quite possible to recreate the past, thanks to original plans and surviving details. First item of note on the original first floor was the porte cochere, really an entrance for autos, complete with curb cut at one end and, at the other end of an open courtyard, a garage with turntable and two parking slots.

One of those slots doubled as a lift to enable the chauffeur (expected in that era to be both driver and mechanic) to get underneath the car. Also on the first floor was a reception room (labeled 'living room,' which it wasn't), and the main kitchen and servants' hall. A dumbwaiter in an adjacent pantry carried food to the dining room on the second floor. The elevator was (and still is) in a small lobby between the main stair and the entrance to the kitchen suite. Except for the reception room and the main stair, everything else on the first floor was blown out in the Sixties.
If it weren't for the garbage cans, fire escape, storage shed and basketball hoop, you could drive a car through here today. The windows behind the hoop replaced the original garage door.
The images below are views of the courtyard from a vantage point now located somewhere in the middle of the prewar coop at 1150 Fifth Avenue. Codman's kitchen was at the bottom of the semi-circular bay; his dining room directly above it. The third floor was divided between the private rooms in front and a string of servants' rooms in the back. The fourth floor was guests and an office in front, and more servants in the back. The pioneering nature of tony New York real estate is nothing new, a fact illustrated by all that flapping tenement laundry.
Let's go back to the porte cochere and step inside. If you were arriving for some big "do," you'd progress in stately fashion straight up that grand looking staircase to the big rooms on the second floor. If you were dropping something off, or there for a quick meeting, or if Mr. Codman had no idea who you were, the butler would direct you to the reception room and there you'd wait. Industrial carpeting, Danish modern furniture upholstered in tomato can red and hanging globe lights from the 1960s tend to obscure Codman's beautiful proportions and subtle wall treatments.
Beyond today's blue doors was the original kitchen suite, now a classroom. Beyond the kitchen was the garage.
You take the house's proper measure — it's got 15,000 square feet — on the second floor. The old butler's pantry and servant hall have been combined into a new institutional kitchen, but otherwise the second floor is intact.
After decamping to Paris in 1920, Codman rented the house to a couple of swell tenants, among them, for a brief period, Mr. & Mrs. Ronald Tree. In 1944 Tree's ex-wife, who in 1948 became Nancy Lancaster, bought Colefax & Fowler, the famous decorating firm that gave us the English country house look. "I had learned from going to Houghton," Ms. Lancaster wrote, "that to make a room quiet, to make it harmonious, you never wanted to have only one 'mouvement' thing like the Savonnerie rug that would stand out. You must have 'mouvement' everywhere." Now those are words I'd like to live by. The library, letting onto that balcony with the enigmatic railing, is in front overlooking 96th Street.
In 1924 Codman sold 96th Street to socialite E. Oliver Iselin, who used it as a city house before renting and finally selling it in 1927. More tenants of the high society persuasion ensued, culminating with Richard Allen Knight, a deranged lawyer who in 1942 threatened a judge, got himself disbarred and served 3 months in a workhouse. At the beginning of January, 1948, according to the New York Times, the 49-year-old Knight died of "general visceral congestion" (you tell me what that is) in his home at 7 East 96th St. The butler found the body, but I don't think he found it in the dining room, which lies behind the door below. Oh, how beautiful that dining room was — and could easily be again. The Nippon Club left the house looking pretty shopworn, but mostly intact.
Outside the dining room, a fragment of wall tile identifies the location of the original serving pantry, once connected by dumb waiter to the kitchen suite below. Today's cafeteria kitchen occupies the footprint of the former butler's pantry and servant hall.
Let's go back to the second floor landing and head upstairs to 3. It's one thing to access the major public rooms on 2 with a grand marble staircase, but quite another to reach private areas of the house on the floors above. It is, in fact, a canon of Edith and Ogden's "Decoration of Houses" that private areas be reached via private stairs, neither architecturally obvious nor tempting to visitors or unwanted guests. Two doors open discreetly onto the private private stair at 7 East 96th; one from the library, one from the second floor landing.
Of Mr. Codman's sophisticated plan for the third or owner's floor, virtually nothing remains. The owner's suite in the front, misleadingly labeled as a pair of bedrooms, has been inelegantly repartitioned. The smaller one has been made bigger, the bigger one smaller, and one of the beautiful stone mantlepieces is no longer centered. The original bathrooms have, of course, been altered beyond recognition. And yet, tantalizing clues remain — a window detail, a wall of bathroom tiles from 1912, a radiator cover.
As noted earlier, the sitting room in the middle of the 3rd floor was likely a private living room or study, or possibly a more personal library. Expanded and re-purposed in the 1960s, it's become the school library. The terrace outside, rarely if ever used I'll bet, was enclosed as part of the expansion. Servants' rooms on the back of this floor were combined into a large classroom.
The service stair, which hasn't changed at all, may be convenient, but I'm a private stair kind of a guy.
Even less of the original 4th floor remains today. Guests and probably Codman's stepsons were billeted up here. Judging from the adding machine, card files and organized tabletop litter in the vintage view below, Codman also kept an office on 4. What's been done to it seems gratuitous to me. Much was lost in the 1960s to now discredited architectural conceits. Save for the dormer windowed rooms in the front, nothing else remains of Codman's plan.
The private stair continues to 5, for which I do not have a plan. I'd guess there was family storage at the front of the house accessed by this stair. The service stair in back ended at a little chauffeur's penthouse. Can we talk? How cool is that penthouse? It's safe to say that, for such a place atop a mansion off Fifth, many a pied a terre hunter would, put simply, kill. Penthouse and storage were originally separated by an open terrace, now filled with a school addition.
Of course I went to the roof, looked down at the filled-in terrace on 5, then at 96th Street below the dormers, didn't take the service stairs, but descended in style via private and ceremonial.
In 1929 Codman bought a rundown villa in Villefranche-sur-Mer called La Leopolda, resurrecting it with such lavishness that he could barely afford to live there. An amusing story concerns efforts by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to rent the place, subject to certain alterations. Codman's response to that idea was terse: "I regret that the House of Codman is unable to do business with the House of Windsor." Leopolda guzzled Codman's funds — reduced significantly in the wake of the stock market crash — and even, to his posthumous shame, soaked up a sizable chunk of his stepsons' inheritance. He survived the war better than most, treated with courtesy by Nazi officers billeted with him at his Château de Grègy.
Let me end our visit with Ogden Codman with Harper Pennington's portrait of a nude blond youth, inscribed on the back, "To Ogden Codman, 1901." For a painting that's only about a foot and half high, it rather throbs.
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