Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Big Old Houses: My Father's Club

Big Old Houses: My Father's Club
by John Foreman


One afternoon in the year 1923, a couple of rich brothers got into a fistfight. The depressing, unnecessary and all too predictable cause? Money. Robert Sterling Clark (1877-1956), the elder, wanted his French actress wife made beneficiary of his share of the family fortune. This amounted to some $20-odd million dollars derived from the Singer Sewing Machine Company and extensive family holdings in Manhattan real estate. Sterling, as he was called, was a high living thrill seeker who bred thoroughbreds, showered actresses with champagne and diamonds, fought the Boxers in China and collected Old Masters in Paris. His younger brother Stephen Carlton Clark (1882-1960), seen in the portrait above, was just the opposite.

46 East 70th St.
Restrained to the point of dour, dutiful to the point of resentful — "It is I who am doing all the work," he once wrote to his brother — Stephen became the guardian of the enormous Clark estate. "(F)rom a purely selfish point of view, I would cut loose," he wrote, adding, "I haven't of course any idea of doing this." After losing in court, Sterling said of Stephen: "May God curse him on earth as well as in heaven," and they never spoke again.

In 1909, fourteen years before this squalid family drama, Stephen Clark married Susan Vanderpoel Hun. At the time, he was living at 89th and Riverside in his mother's marble palace, a genus of private house that — if I do not fracture my metaphors unduly — flashed comet-like across Riverside Drive before being crushed under the feet of towering apartment blocks.

Soon after his marriage, Clark hired architect Frederick Sterner (1862-1931) to design a more fashionable house on a much more fashionable block in the East 70s. Number 46 East 70th St. occupies a fifty-foot wide lot, basks in the luxury of side wall windows, and towers in neo-Jacobean splendor above the competition on this very competitive block.

Why Frederick Sterner? Clark family descendants explain the choice as an example of Stephen Clark's penchant for choosing "younger people who showed promise." In point of fact, Sterner was 48 years old in 1910, young perhaps by my standards, but not by those of many others. Prior to moving to New York in 1909 he had practiced architecture in Denver for almost thirty years, cranking out ponderous Romanesque and medieval style buildings. His New York reputation would come to rest on clever Mediterranean-stye facelifts of gloomy brownstone row houses. A number of these still stand in the East 60s, mostly around Lexington Avenue. At the time of the Clark job Sterner hadn't done any of them, however, and I'm not sure why or how Clark even heard of him. A footnote to Frederick Sterner; the darling of Park Avenue architects, Rosario Candela, was Sterner's protege.
When his father Alfred Corning Clark died in 1896, Stephen Clark was only 14. By his early 20s, responsibility for the enormous Clark estate had already fallen largely on his shoulders. The fortune was founded by his grandfather, Edward Clark (1811-1882), a founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, a canny investor in Upper West Side real estate, and builder of the famous Dakota. Judging from his expression in later life photos, Stephen Clark did not overly enjoy life. In addition to protecting all that land and money he also published upstate newspapers, sat on the boards of Manhattan banks, was a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, from 1939 to 1946, chairman of the Board of Trustees of MoMA. Clark was an important collector of art, in which capacity one hopes he found at least some pleasure.
Clark was an old school clubman, with memberships in the Racquet and Tennis, Yale, University, Knickerbocker, etc., etc., There's a certain symmetry to the fact that after his death his own house become a club. In 1964, after a high flying Wall Street type named Edward Gilbert defaulted on a purchase contract, Mrs. Clark sold 46 East 70th Street to the Explorers Club, founded in 1904 to promote exploration of the Earth, its oceans and, more recently, outer space.
Here's how the entrance hall at #46 looked in the Clarks' day. I'm no stickler for architectural purity, but Sterner's contrast of architectural influences — shallow Gothic arches and entry hall screen in the context of the Jacobean facade — is a little jarring. This is a very masculine house, which suits the Explorers just fine but may have stimulated Mrs. Clark to sell out the moment her husband died. She decamped to their Cooperstown estate, where she herself died in 1967. The entry hall today is the club's reception area.
I would have expected a house this size to have a reception room off the front hall. That's not the case here. Instead, Sterner has put the dining room practically next to the front door. It seems to have been used for both family and for formal meals, and to have doubled as a sort of informal seating area. (Very odd). The dining room connects to an extensive — and fabulously intact — vintage kitchen suite, which we'll visit in a moment. Nowadays this room is the club lounge and the former serving pantry a barroom. I wouldn't have thought elephant tusks and linenfold paneling would be a natural combination, but they work here.
Let's leave the dining room for a moment, cross the entry hall and have a look at the stair hall — in particular, the big globe at its center. According to club lore, member Thor Heyerdahl used this globe to convince fellow members that the South Pacific was populated by prehistoric South Americans who sailed there. His famous 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition proved the theory.
In case you're wondering, yes, there's an elevator.
Let's go back to the dining room and look toward the barroom. The ladies in the second image below are seated practically where the original dining table sat. The vintage image was taken from close to the same point. In it, a black lacquer screen obscures the entrance to the serving pantry, now the barroom.
Conversion from pantry to barroom has been achieved by tacking assorted curios and a bit of paneling on the walls. Actually, more of the old pantry survives than is immediately apparent. The sink and the metal cabinets above it are clearly original to the house. In fact, the great majority of original fabric and finish in this house is still here.
The route to the kitchen — across a corridor, through a leather swing door (held by my hospitable host, Executive Director Will Roseman), and finally through a second service hall — is virtually unchanged.
How great is this old tile walled kitchen which, despite updated appliances and fluorescent lighting, remains a fantastic antique. I'm continually baffled by people who don't want you to see the inner guts of a big old house. Those innards are often among the most interesting parts. Fortunately Will and I were on the same proverbial page.
The dumbwaiter only goes to the 2nd floor library; the industrial looking back stair goes all the way to 4.
We're going to pretend we're servants, leave the kitchen via corridors that circle around the back of the main stair hall, then peek quickly into the ladies' room before taking the main stair to 2.
The second floor landing is bracketed by a drawing room on the north, glimpsed in the first image below, and a library on the south. Our next stop is the library.
Here's the library at Christmastime, 1960. Note the art on the walls. The I'll-never-speak-to-you-again Clark brothers were both important collectors. Stephen left his pictures to the Metropolitan Museum and to Yale University. Sterling and Francine Clark's collection is now housed in a famous museum that bears their name and is located adjacent to grandfather Clark's alma mater, Williams College. I notice a lot of the original paneling seems to have gone missing.
On the other side of the glass library doors is a luxurious terrace. Another benefit of owning a very wide lot is not having to build right up to the lot line. In the view below we're looking north toward 70th Street. The library is behind the awnings on the left; the drawing room behind that huge leaded bow window directly in front of us. Above the drawing room is what I believe is one of a pair of master bedroom suites, the second (all you can see is its terrace parapet) is on the next floor up. I'm pretty sure this was a his-and-hers bedroom kind of a house, the suites themselves separated not just by connecting doors but by an entire floor.
Let's return to the library, admire the ceiling (reportedly a European import whose dimensions dictated the dimensions of the room), take a closer look at all that red oak woodwork and wonder what became of the original.
The polar bear hails from the Chuckchi Sea, located between Siberia and Alaska. (You'd know that if you were a member of the Explorers Club). Switching the light on above it triggers a kitchy recording of one of its relatives roaring.
The north end of the second floor contains a noble drawing room. The club has been an excellent steward of the Clark house, however, just as old brass sometimes shouldn't be polished, ornate plaster ceilings really shouldn't be painted.
Floor numbers above 2 in this house get a little Harry Potter-ish. Just as Hogwart's Express left from Platform 9-3/4, so 46 East 70th has floors 3, 3-1/2, 4, 4-1/2, 5 and 5-1/2. Really there are only 5 floors; the half-floor designations reflect an upper floor adjustment to the high drawing room ceiling on 2.
I think the master bedroom suite on 3-1/2, consisting of private corridor, bedroom, large bath and boudoir, belonged to Mrs. Clark. There's an almost identical suite on the floor above it, reportedly occupied by Mr Clark. OK, I'm guessing at occupancy, but having climbed around a very great many old houses, I think I'm right. Will's office is in Mrs. Clark's bedroom; staff workers use the boudoir.
The Clarks had four children, two of whom survived their parents. They probably occupied rooms with en suite baths that open onto the corridor below, which runs south down the back of the house on floor 3. There's so much "stuff" in the Explorers Club that a lot of it winds up locked away in old bathrooms. The ones I saw, happily, were in practically untouched condition.
The corridor on 4, directly above the children's rooms, is simpler and the rooms that open onto it share a hall bath. I suppose it's possible the children were up here and guests were downstairs, although I doubt it. The club combined two of the 4th floor bedrooms, all of which are far nicer than your normal maid's cubicles, into an archive. Only two more remain. Herein lies a mystery. The 1920 census counted Mr. & Mrs. Clark, 3 children and 10 servants living at 46 East 70th Street. Unless those servants took turns, I cannot guess where they slept.
What looks to me like a second master bedroom suite — private corridor, bath, den or study, and bedroom — is located on floor 4-1/2. A meeting was unfortunately in progress, so I couldn't see the bedroom (presumably Mr. Clark's) with the little terrace overlooking the big terrace on 2.
Floor 5-1/2 was the art gallery. Clark's collection included works by Hals, Renoir, Eakins, Seurat, Rembrandt, El Greco, Matisse, Bellows, Degas, etc., etc. MoMA's first donated work, Hopper's "House by the Railroad," was the gift of Stephen Clark. The gallery is now the club's trophy room; the portrait above the fireplace is of club member and arctic explorer Peter Freuchen.
On 5, half a floor (well, not quite) below 5-1/2, is the club's map room. A full bath is just outside the door. Maybe it was a guestroom, although I suppose you could also pack those 6 unaccounted for servants in here.
Another big old house, and another long trip down a lot of stairs.
Which brings me to my late father, Harrison Forman (1904-1978), who in 1932 sought the headwaters of the Yellow River and the high peaks of the Amnyi Machen range (reputed to be higher than Everest), and in 1933 organized and led the first motor expedition across the old Marco Polo trail from Hunan to Turkestan.

In 1934, club member George Duncan Grant described him to the admissions committee as "A good two-fisted fellow, gentleman, and active explorer." The Chief of Clann Shearghuis wrote, "His record on the application speaks for itself ... A gentleman as strong physically as he is mentally — every inch a man." The image below captures him at the age of 28, clearly enjoying himself in middle of nowhere, a.k.a. Tibet. Had I taken this photo, he would have lectured me sternly on not centering my subject and cutting off his feet. Harrison was both a life member and a flag carrying member of the Explorers Club. He wore a silver club bracelet with the number 70 on the back until the day he died.