Friday, July 9, 2010

Straus Reunited

Herbert, Jesse Isidor, and Percy Straus in front of Midletown Farm, circa 1920.
By Ned Brown

When we last left the Straus story, I was digging-out of two feet of snow at the former Straus family country estate in New Jersey. Writing about the Straus family (former owners of R. H. Macy & Co.) and their homes in New Jersey, is a labor of affection (I live in one of the dependencies). It is also a story about how two families (Straus and McConnell) met, and how a spectacular property brought them together. Before you go on, I encourage you to read the NYSD Straus story back in December for background and contrast of the photographs.

Herbert Straus Townhouse, 9 East 71st Street.
The Herbert Straus estate in the early 1900s was then known as Middletown Farm. It was sold at auction by his wife, Therese Kuhn Straus in 1949 after her husband predeceased her in 1933. Not that Mrs. Straus needed the money.

She lived in a spectacular apartment in New York, and owned a grand 40-room townhouse in New York at 9 East 71st Street designed by Horace Trumbauer (NYSD 4.15.09).

Trumbauer also designed Clarendon Court in Newport formerly owned by the late Sunny Von Bulow.

Post-war America in 1950 was a transitory era. Large estates, whether in New Jersey or on Long Island were falling out of fashion — many were torn down in New Jersey. They were expensive to maintain, and simply made too much of an overt social statement. So, while Therese Straus cherished Middletown Farm, it could not be sold in its entirety.

In 1949, the estate was sold in four parcels. However, true to Therese Straus’ strong personality, she retained a 90-day cancellation provision if she did not approve of the buyers. The buyers of the rear part of the property housing the stables, gardener’s, stableman’s, and butler’s houses were the McConnell family, who still own it today. Fortunately, the senior Mr. McConnell and Mrs. Straus got along famously from the get-go.
Ned Brown and Spicey at “Red Bank” (aka Middletown Farm), December 20, 2009. Same driveway, May 2010.
Therese’s son, John Wendell, lived in the butler’s house for one summer when he first married Anne Helburn. From there, he and his new bride moved to the Superintendant’s House, which was renamed “Meadow Cottage” for a brief period. New York City still remained their principal residence. It was during the early 1950s that Therese (TKS or Granny Straus as she is known in the family) and the rest of the Straus’ moved away from New Jersey as their country home.

TKS relocated to Connecticut, and was a founding member of the Greenwich Kennel Club. John and Anne Straus built their country home in Pound Ridge, NY designed by Edward Larabee Barnes, the famous neo-modern architect of the IBM building on Madison Avenue. The design that John Straus sought for his country home stood in sharp contrast to his parent’s home in New Jersey. It was a break from the past in many ways.

And so it came to be that two new generations of the Straus family from Herbert and TKS, heard about “Red Bank” (aka Middletown Farm) only in passing references. None of the subsequent generations of Straus’ ever visited in 60 years. When I would speak with Arthur “Bud” McConnell, son of the buyer in 1949 and current owner with his wife, Katherine, there was only some sketchy history of the Straus family.
Arthur "Bud" McConnell.
I was having a conversation about the property with a friend in Washington, D.C., Haroon Khan (a senior advisor to United States Senator Chris Dodd), when he asked if I knew Jessica Straus, Finance Director for United States Senator Chuck Schumer. In today’s two degrees of separation world, Jessica and I were quickly put together via e-mail and telephone.

Of all the extended Straus family, I lucked into Jessica, who is the great-granddaughter of TKS and Herbert. I also learned that neither Jessica nor her parents knew much about what happened to “Red Bank.” Had it been sub-divided into 200 tract houses? Was a shopping center now on the property? Had the buildings been torn down and the land paved over? I told Jessica “none of the above." In fact, the property is pretty much as it was when her grandmother sold in 1949, and beautifully maintained.

When I told Bud McConnell about my conversation with Jessica Straus, he also was intrigued. It was then that it occurred to me to bring the Straus family to their former homestead for a visit with their past, and to connect the Straus and McConnell families.
Straus family tour on main drive.
This event would not have come to pass without the support and encouragement of Joan Adler, Executive Director, of the 400-plus members of the Straus Historical Society based on Long Island. And so it happened in the spring of this year that a handful of Strauses returned to their grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ country home for the first time in 60 years.

We started our walking tour at the clock tower and garages of the former, where we learned of an eerie coincidence between the Straus’ and McConnells. Bud McConnell still has his father’s 1938 Cadillac parked in the garage; the same car Bud took his driver’s test in when he was sixteen. Jessica Straus’ grandfather, John Straus, had a 1938 Bugatti coupe, which he used decades ago to drive to the Westchester train station on his way to his job at Macy’s. The car sat hibernating in the Straus Pound Ridge garage for 45 years until it was sold at an antique car collectors’ auction in 2007 for $852,000.
Clock tower and main garages.
McConnell 1938 Cadillac.
Straus 1938 Bugatti coupe.
The rear part of the former Straus estate is a cluster of six distinctive buildings: the clock tower and main garage, the gardener’s cottage (also used to lodge visiting chauffeurs), the butler’s house, the supplemental garages and turret (which TK Straus formerly used as her office), the stableman’s house, and the former stables, which Bud and Kathy McConnell converted to their home 15 years ago.
Gardener's House.
Turret and TK Straus' office.
Butler's House.
Stableman's House.
Straus Stables, today the McConnell House.
Swimming pool (mostly used by dogs on the farm).
Spicey Brown (Lab) and Ollie Brown (Westie) in the pool.
Our group then progressed to the former main house, and down the long driveway to the main entrance. Just next to the entrance sits the Superintendent’s house, or formerly “Meadow Cottage” when John and Anne Straus lived there briefly before moving to Westchester.

Today, it has been magnificently restored and expanded by Angela and Hendrick Bennick. We then proceeded across Cooper Road where TK Straus kept her beloved cows. The cow barn complex, known as Cobble Close, was superbly restored by its current owner, Fred Century, and his late partner, Woody Bowne. Fred’s house formerly housed many of the Straus family servants and has a magnificent limestone covered walkway overlooking a pond. Today, the cow barns have been converted to residences.
Superintendant's house, Meadow Cottage.
Elsa Bennick on guard at Meadow Cottage.
Cow Master's House, Cobble Close.
Garages at Cobble Close.
Pond at Cobble Close.
Fred Century giving tour of Cobble Close.
Salon of Fred Century Home, former Straus servants' house.
The tour was completed with a wonderful seated lunch with the Straus family members, the McConnells, various owners/occupants of the buildings on the former estate, and the granddaughter of TK Straus’ personal maid, who possesses a wonderful collection of Straus memorabilia.

Bud McConnell, in his toast, summed-up the reunion best by welcoming the Straus descendants and saying that the six decades his family has enjoyed loving and caring for the property would not have been possible without the vision, dedication and financial resources of Therese Kuhn and Herbert Straus.
Bud McConnell and Jessica Straus (Herbert Straus' great-granddaughter) looking at Straus family photos.
A special thanks to Jessica Straus for the Herbert and Therese Kuhn Straus family history.

All photographs courtesy of Frank Adler & Christina Baxter.

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