Monday, January 4, 2016

The houses in our lives; the lives in our houses

A hydrangea plant still flowering outside the Museum of Natural History through the new year. Photo: JH.
Monday, January 4, 2015. Sometimes cloudy, sometimes sunny, cold winter days, this past weekend in New York. With temps in the low 30s at night and mid-40s by day.

The double weekend holiday weekend is over. The city was very quiet, traffic-wise, although there were a lot of people out for walks, running, bicycling and skateboarding. I’ve seen the news coverage of the new two-wheel rage, the Hoverboard exploding, burning, many of their first-time riders falling on their derriere, spraining or breaking God-knows-what.

However, I’ve seen them here on East End Avenue and in Carl Schurz Park, all occupied/driven/ridden by kids in their early to late teens. All of them looked as if it’s an effortless task to ride. On the other side of the story, the New York Post featured a piece with videos of people on Christmas morning attempting to ride around the house, providing evidence that there are no small risks for those of us without the perfect balance and dexterity. Ouch! 
The January Quest is on the stands with our friend Annette Tapert Allen on the cover photographed by Harry Benson sitting by the pool with her pooch at the Allen manse in Palm Beach. There’s a beautiful spread on PB residents with their favorite canines, photographed by Harry, as well as some photographed by Lucien Capehart.

Much of the editorial focus is on the Palm Beach lifestyle and of course the houses where so much of the social life of the community takes place. Houses are always of interest to this writer for the histories and tales that are often contained therein.  In my New York Social Diary in this issue, I recount a story of a famous house here in New York on the Upper East Side:

The houses in our lives; the lives in our houses. When Edith Shepard, great-grand daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the daughter of Mrs. Elliot Fitch (Margaret Vanderbilt) Shepard married Ernesto Fabbri in 1898, her mother gifted the newlyweds with their own house at 11 East 62nd Street.

It was a five story, 22,500 square foot Beaux Arts-style mansion with a mahogany paneled 25-by-41-foot dining room, gentlemen’s and ladies’ reception rooms, a ballroom with an ornate plaster ceiling, a sweeping staircase leading to the second floor, the banister of which supports a pair of Louis XIV-style bronze candelabra with cupids nearly six feet high. There was an Aeolian organ is in the second-floor music room.
Clockwise from above, left: Edith Shepard Fabbri; Edith and Ernesto Fabbri; Ernesto, Edith and Egisto Fabbri.
The newlyweds moved into the house in 1900. Ernesto Fabbri, a wealthy Florentine, was a partner in J. Pierpont Morgan’s firm. The couple were both in their twenties (she was two years older than he) when they moved in. They lived as grandly as such a house would allow. They were also often joined in residence by Mr. Fabbri’s two brothers Egisto – the eldest, and Alessandro, the youngest.
Egisto Fabbri. Alessandro (Sandro).
The Fabbris were a close, well-to-do Florentine family whose mother was American and as children were brought up here in New York.  When their father (also Ernesto) died at a young age, his brother (also Egisto) a wealthy Florentine businessman adopted them. When the uncle died, he left each a fortune of $2 million. Besides being a banker, young Ernesto Fabbri was a “linguist and world traveler.”

His elder brother Egisto was an artist, and considered the most talented of the three brothers with a great interest in art and music. He was an early and enthusiastic collector of Cezanne. Before the Great War he lived the Bohemian life in Paris painting and collecting art. During the War he lived in America.
11 East 62nd Street in 1900, when the
Fabbris were still living in the house.
The house as it appears today, the Japanese embassy in New York
Ernesto Fabbri’s business often took him to Europe and especially to Italy. In 1905, Ernesto was transferred to the office in Florence and the couple rented out 11 East 62 Street to a cousin of Edith’s, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the son of her uncle Cornelius Vanderbilt II. While they were still living in Italy, Ernesto and Edith sold the house at 11 East 62nd Street (it is now the Japanese embassy), and its contents in 1912.

When the Fabbris returned to the United States they decided to build a new house – a very different house which reflected the Italian background and influence. They bought two lots on 5 and 7 East 95th Street, just off Fifth Avenue, and retained the architect Grosvenor Atterbury. However, main credit for especially the interior design is given to Egisto Fabbri who was well-versed in historic aspects of Italian architecture.
The Fabbri mansion at 7 East 95th Street, now the House of the Redeemer.
Under Egisto’s supervision, whole sections of original wood ceilings and wood paneling of the library were transported from Italy by two ships during World War I, with the house designed and constructed to contain them. The most important room is the library which was originally built in the 15th century for the Ducal palazzo in Urbino, Italy. Contained therein is a coat of arms dated 1605-1607, on the vaulted 25 foot ceiling. The library includes a monumental fireplace as well as a balustrade gallery which contains an Aeolian organ as well as a secret passageway that leads to a motion picture booth for screenings that were shown in the library. This very early equipment was the result of Alessandro (known as Sandro) Fabbri’s intense interest in motion picture photography.
Looking through the wrought iron interior gate to the oak front doors of the Italianate home at 7 East 95th Street.
The official completion of the house in 1916 was celebrated by a house warming at which violinist Fritz Kreisler performed.

The census taken in 1920 showed the Fabbris living at the house with 11 servants, and the youngest brother, Sandro, who was forty-three, five years younger than Edith Fabbri.
The reception hall and main stair.
The monastic dining room.
The view from one of the dining room windows ...
Across the way, looking at the back of no. 8 East 96th Street. The windows, coincidentally, are of the bathroom and a bedroom of an apartment which DPC rented along with two roommates in 1963.
The serving pantry is virtually unchanged from the Fabbris' day. Here's an antique Minton porcelain plate pulled from the pantry. The plate holds the Fabbri coat of arms.
Families of parents, siblings, even grandparents living together were not uncommon in any households up until the middle of the 20th century. Sandro occupied a small set of rooms on the fourth floor of the house. He also followed the family to Bar Harbor in the summers where he was involved in building a radio receiving station in 1918. His brother Egisto funded the project and it became the sole receiving station for European communications during World War I. After a fire destroyed the original Fabbri house in Bar Harbor, Sandro was involved in the design and building of the new house, Buonriposo in Bar Harbor (which is still standing).
The marriage of Edith and Ernesto Fabbri, however, after 20 years, was less durable. Ernesto now spent much of his time living separately at the couple’s house on the North Shore of Long Island. When asked about it, Ernesto is said to have replied that he preferred living apart from his wife.

In 1922, Alessandro Fabbri died in of pneumonia that he’d come down with three days before. He was forty-four. The following year Ernesto and Edith divorced. Ernesto soon remarried to Mary Valentine Darrah, a woman seventeen years his junior, who died suddenly in 1934 at age 43. Ernesto died nine years later at age 67.
The woodwork in the library, including this carved mantelpiece, was constructed in the 1400s for the Ducal palace in Urbino, Italy, and purchased by Edith Fabbri at the start of WWI. The woodwork was shipped to the US on two different vessels so that at least half of the room would survive if one ship was torpedoed.
A reception room ceiling fields are 15-century originals. (one is a copy, and not even John Foreman knoweth which one).
Mrs. Fabbri's boudoir.
And her bedroom.
The original servants' rooms are still intact.
Edith Fabbri continued living at the house on 7 East 95th Street. In 1983 Louis Auchincloss published “Maverick in Mauve,” a memoir of his wife’s family in the earlier part of the 20th century. Adele Auchincloss was related to the Vanderbilts through marriage. In his book Auchincloss wrote:  “Edith Shepard Fabbri was in love with Alessandro Fabbri, her divorced husband’s brother, and ultimately had him buried in her lot in the Vanderbilt cemetery on Staten Island.”

Whatever the details of the Fabbri marriage, they’ve long been forgotten (and buried). Edith Fabbri continued living at 7 East 95th Street after the divorce. Twenty-six years later, in 1949, inspired by a sermon in the Episcopal  church on the necessity of silence and prayer in spiritual life, Edith deeded the house to a Board of Trustees under the auspices of the Episcopal Church. 
In the foyer to the chapel and library on the second floor.
The House of the Redeemer's chapel overlooking 95th Street.
Her instructions that it be used as a religious retreat and known as the House of the Redeemer. She herself vacated the house with almost all of its furniture and art (still intact at the time of this writing sixty-six years later), and moved to an apartment on East 63rd Street where she died five years later at age 82. The house on 95th Street remains as it was left with all its contents, as a retreat, owned and managed by the Episcopal diocese, Edith Fabbri’s House of the Redeemer.
The view from the roof of the Fabbri House looking west towards Central Park at Fifth Avenue.
 

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