Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Big Old Houses: Questions of Judgment

Big Old Houses: Questions of Judgment
by John Foreman


This is Colonel Elliott Fitch Shepard (1833-1893). Good looking, isn't he? Despite the Civil War military rank and marriage to the daughter of the richest man in the world (that would be the Commodore's son and heir, William Henry Vanderbilt), Shepard led a life with one loose wheel. "Often amusing but always in earnest," opinied the New York Times at the time of his death, adding "no man (was the) subject of more amusing anecdotes." In 1888, with his wife's money, Shepard bought a newspaper called The Mail and Express, dubbed by locals the "Wail and Distress," in which he printed pretty much anything that came into his head.

Shepard's paper, notable for a fresh verse of scripture at the head of each day's editorial page, shocked his guests by publishing private dinner conversations transcribed by hidden stenographers, ran wholly unsubstantiated articles on supposed public threats like "brownstone gangrene" (a fantasy that briefly seized his brain), and advised fellow publisher Joseph Pulitzer that encroaching blindness could be avoided by conversion to Christianity. It became a personal mission of the Colonel's to prohibit public transportation on Sunday.

Sargent's portrait of Shepard's wife, Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt Shepard, a.k.a. Maggie.
Here is a detail of a famous Sargent portrait of Shepard's wife, Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt Shepard, a.k.a. Maggie. Shepard's courtship of her was "not without obstacles," per the Times, probably because her father didn't suffer fools gladly. One of Shepard's failed business plots was the so-called "Bank of Banks," beloved by social historian's for the father-in-law's pithy addendum, "by the crank of cranks."

Maggie Shepard was a background character through much of her life, eclipsed by a husband who romped through money that seemed to have no end. One day in March of 1893, Shepard secretly asked a pair of prominent doctors to meet him at his home on Fifth Avenue to address some undisclosed ailment. They administered ether, his lungs clamped up, and after four hours of desperate struggle he died. His immense new palazzo at Scarborough on Hudson — now the Sleepy Hollow Country Club — was almost, but not quite, finished. Maggie kept the work going, and the money flowing.

The Shepards had 6 children, the luckiest of whom was Maria Louisa, or just "Louisa." She is seen below at about the time of her 1891 marriage to William Jay Schieffelin. Two of her siblings died early, another fell victim to her mother's strict Presbyterianism (she had the nerve to marry a man whose father ran the Louisiana lottery), one was a ne're do well son, and the last married an Italian count.

  "Louisa," one of the six Shepard children, and her husband William Jay Schieffelin.
Louisa Shepard's husband was a remarkable man by the name of William Jay Schieffelin. Schieffelin and Company, the groom's family firm, had been in business — and indeed still is — since 1793, a year before the birth of Commodore Vanderbilt. Besides money, education and background (he was, among other things, a direct descendant of America's first chief justice, John Jay), Louisa's new husband was a famous progressive.

Although he lived in luxury he spent his life fighting for good government (Schieffelin's Citizens Union played a big role in the removal of utterly charming and totally corrupt New York Mayor Jimmy Walker), women's suffrage (in his words, they 'could do no worse than men'), the abolition of sweatshops and the promotion of racial equality.

How many society types back then were trustees of Tuskegee University, active in the NAACP, or defended the Scottsboro Boys? Answer: not many. In early 1891, after what the Times called "one of the most brilliant weddings of the season," the new Mr. & Mrs. Schieffelin moved into a Beaux Arts mansion at 35 West 57th St., which, amazingly, is still there.

When Louisa Schieffelin's sister Edith married Count Fabbri in the late 1890s, their mother Maggie, not wishing to favor one daughter over the other (although continuing to ignore the lottery daughter Alice) took it into her mind to build a new urban palace for each. Heydel and Shepard, the latter being a nephew of Maggie's late husband, designed a limestone confection at 11 East 62nd Street for the Fabbris. Richard Howland Hunt, son of the famous Richard Morris Hunt, prepared plans for a Beaux Arts extravaganza at 5 East 66th St. for the Schieffelins, seen in the image below. Both houses were finished in 1900 at a cost that must have been daunting even for a Vanderbilt, especially one who'd lately been married to a spendthrift. Interestingly, the park block of East 66th Street had been built up 40 years before Mrs. Shepard arrived. She had to demolish a pair of brownstones to make room for her daughter's new mansion.
Here's the Schieffelin house today, home since 1947 of the Lotos Club. The former monster on the block now shares the streetfront with an ersatz collection of formerly grand mansions and newer religious and apartment buildings.
As anyone who belongs to, or has been a guest at, the Lotos well knows, it is a gorgeous old house. The "coup d'oeil" upon entering hasn't really changed. Well, the torchieres aren't the same and the brass rail is an addition.
The club's reception desk is on the right in the image below. It faces the front door, which is beyond the arch on the left. There used to be a fountain on the wall in between.
The fountain wall is behind the camera in the image below. We're looking east, past my hosts Stephenie and Nancy, towards the main stair, and are about to turn right under the chandelier for a look at the living room.
Big old houses like this normally have a reception room near the front door, to which one steers guests who've come for an informal visit, as opposed to a big party. The family congregates in more private areas elsewhere. However, in the vintage view below — which shows photos on the walls, a table for magazines and newspapers, and stretched deer skins with heads attached, no less — what would normally be a public room appears to be to a much more personal space. I'm told the Schieffelins called it their living room, and it works that way for the club today.
The living room on the main floor faces the street. The dining room is on the same floor facing the back. It was connected to the (no longer extant) original basement kitchen via a (still surviving) adjacent serving pantry. Somebody evidently went through this house shopping for big ornamental doors, since many are missing. The frieze under the beamed ceiling in the image below is hors de combat as well. Notwithstanding which, the Schieffelins' dining room is a wonderful survivor. Years ago I was invited to a private black tie dinner in this room, complete with favors and after dinner entertainment. For a night, anyway, I felt like a member of the old "400."
A swing door leads to the much altered pantry, whose stairs lead down to a huge new institutional kitchen. The Schieffelins' dining room is used for banquets and special parties while regular meals are served in a downstairs grill room. We're not going downstairs yet, but returning instead to the most beautiful feature of the house, the main stair.
How gorgeous is this?
Two main rooms flank the second floor landing; a library overlooking the street and a ballroom in the back. We'll explore the library first.
Save for curtains on the bookshelves (which we don't overly miss), original wall sconces, and the sort of fabulous old rug, sofas and tables I personally would die for, this rooms has survived the tumults of the 20th century in remarkably intact condition.
In this ballroom, on November 26, 1906, Booker T. Washington spoke to a meeting of the Armstrong Association, his subject being industrial schools for southern blacks. Washington was invited to this bastion of the New York elite by Armstrong president W.J. Schieffelin himself. Besides its historical associations, the room speaks eloquently to the wisdom of HOLDING BACK ON THE GOLD. Too often I see the work of supposedly informed restoration types who get a book of gold leaf in their hands and turn into drunken sailors. This ballroom has been deprived of another set of grand doors as well as its original fireplace and overmantel. However, it remains a beautiful space whose stewards have (almost, but not quite) resisted the temptation of unnecessary gilding.
Mr. & Mrs. Schieffelin's bedroom suites are on the third floor. Let's go up and have a look.
Mr. Schieffelin's bedroom, bath and study overlook the street. We'll go to the study first and admire its somber Edwardian masculinity.
Back in 1882, W. H. Vanderbilt built a famous double mansion — it read visually as a pair of brownstone cubes — that occupied the western blockfront of Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets. The northern pavilion was actually a cleverly configured double house, shared by two of his married daughters, Emily Sloane and Margaret Shepard. After Elliott Shepard's death, his widow sold out to her sister Emily, who made the place into one big house. The paneling from her husband's library — paneling inscribed with his children's names — eventually wound up in Mr. Schieffelin's study on East 66th St.
Mr. Schieffelin's bedroom, which I could move right into, is now the club office.
His bathroom contains the only surviving piece of vintage plumbing in the entire house.
At the opposite end of the third floor hall is Mrs. Schieffelin's bedroom, bath and boudoir/dressing room. The door on the right in the second image below opens onto the hall. I have a taste for this sort of high class New York circa 1900 look, although neither myself nor, I suspect, Mrs. Schieffelin would have allowed anybody to gild the mirror frame.
Mrs. Schieffelin's roomy old bathroom suffered a not unexpected conversion to office space, in the process of which its tile walls were painted white.
A door built into bedroom paneling leads to a boudoir/dressing room with a wall of closets.
The Schieffelins had eight children — 5 boys and 3 girls — whose rooms, if common practice prevailed at 5 East 66th St., would have been on the fourth floor. I think the floor plan has been altered somewhat, although it's hard to tell exactly where.
What used to be children's bedrooms have become hotel rooms for club members and guests, now equipped with pleasant bathrooms in generic white marble. One little boy who slept up here was named Bayard Schieffelin, whom I met as a man shortly before his death in 1989. I had contacted Mr. Schieffelin in connection with research I was doing for book on the Vanderbilts. Slim, witty, helpful and well into his 80s, he conducted our interview wearing a sport jacket and a bow tie. Both he and his Dutch Colonial house in Short Hills, N.J. — and his wife too, for that matter — had about them an air of unselfconscious and utterly unpretentious elegance. I hope I'll be half as attractive as Mr. Schieffelin when I'm 85. I know I've got a bow tie somewhere.
The main stair stops at four; servants took the back stair to five. And yes, although I forgot to mention it, there is an elevator. The halls on five are narrower, but the accommodations don't differ much from those on the floor below.
We'll take the service stair back down to four, the grand stair to one, then transfer back to the service stair, which has been tarted up as an access to the grill room.
The Schieffelins left 66th Street in 1925, selling their grand house to the Deutscher Verein and following fashion to more convenient digs at 620 Park Avenue. German clubs had an erratic history in New York during the 20th century. The Deutscher Verein suspended operation twice, most recently during the period of the Second World War. After the armistice they sold 5 East 66th to the Lotos, founded in 1870 to promote interest in American arts and letters. The name, incidentally, comes from Tennyson's "The Lotos Eaters." The grill room paneling, covered with club memorabilia, was salvaged from a member's Newport house, destroyed by the hurricane of 1938.
The Schieffelins kitchen was where the grill room is today. The new kitchen displaced what was probably store rooms, pantries and a servant hall.
The Schieffelins may be long gone from 66th Street, but Schieffelin and Co. flourishes to this day. Begun as a drug firm, it changed its focus long ago to the importation of wine and spirits. Schieffelin and Co. is one of the five oldest American businesses in continuous operation today.
Maggie Shepard's building campaigns were those of a woman with no sense of fiscal prudence. The daughter of the richest man in the world probably assumed she'd never run out of money. If better judgement had prevailed, however, it's unlikely 5 East 66th Street would have been built.