Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Big Old Houses: The Rise of Hubert T. Parsons

Big Old Houses: The Rise of Hubert T. Parsons
by John Foreman

The colossal Colonial Revival house in these photos is Shadow Lawn, designed in 1902 by a Chicago architect named Henry Edward Cregier. For 25 years this house was a celebrated attraction in the once (if no longer) fashionable New Jersey resort town of West Long Branch. Cregier's client was Manhattan insurance baron John A. McCall, president of New York Life. McCall was caught up in an industry-wide bribery scandal that, interestingly, was precipitated by a shamelessly luxurious ball.

James Hazen Hyde and his sister Comtesse de Rougemont at the Hyde Ball at Sherry's in 1905.
Given at Sherry's on January 31, 1905, the infamous Hyde Ball was hosted by James Hazen Hyde, the 23-year-old playboy heir to controlling interest in the Equitable Life Assurance Society. Equitable had been founded, conveniently, by Hyde's father.

As the Strenuous Life was exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt, so Equitable Life was exploited by James Hazen Hyde, or so wags of the period would say. Public outrage over his $200,000 ball precipitated a state investigation of squandered insurance premiums. This in turn unearthed an industry-wide culture of brazen bribery. High-salaried heads rolled, first James Alexander of Equitable, then Richard McCurdy of Mutual Life, and finally, when confronted with proof of $275,000 in bribes to greedy elected officials, John McCall of New York Life. McCall resigned and, facing personal and financial ruin, went into a self-destructive alcoholic spin. Five months later he was dead of acute cirrhosis of the liver.

Shadow Lawn was promptly bought on the cheap by a sketchy gambler/speculator named Abraham White, who changed the name of the place to White Park before default and foreclosure in 1908. Another speculator named Robert Smith then tried, without success, to convert the estate into a country club.
Smith was out by 1909, at which point Shadow Lawn was bought by Joseph Benedict Greenhut, president of the Siegel-Cooper Company, the Macy's of its day. Siegel-Cooper's gigantic emporium at 6th Avenue and 18th Street, called "The Big Store," still stands, home today of T.J.Maxx and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
In 1916, Greenhut invited President Woodrow Wilson to use Shadow Lawn as a combination summer White House and planning center for Wilson's second term campaign. The president is seen below during that summer, addressing the faithful from the south porch of Shadow Lawn.
Apropos of Wilson in lieu of Greenhut at Shadow Lawn, is seldom mentioned that on April 28, 1915, Judge Learned Hand declared J.B. Greenhut & Company, owner of, among other things, the Siegel-Cooper store, bankrupt in United States District Court. In the way rich people sometimes have of holding onto things you'd expect them to lose, Greenhut managed to hold onto this not very good luck house until he died in 1918.
WARNING NUMBER TWO: Greenhut poured $400,000 worth of improvements (assuming improvements can be poured) into Shadow Lawn, but this was nothing compared to what was coming. In 1918, Hubert Templeton Parsons (1872-1940), president of F.W. Woolworth & Company, bought Shadow Lawn for $800,000 in cash plus a $150,000 purchase money mortgage. Parsons' face, seen below, combines cunning intelligence with the doggedness of a pitbull, and his career demonstrated both. After further improving the property with another million of his own dollars, Shadow Lawn, in an example of gross cosmic ingratitude, burned to the ground in 1927.
With virtually no delay, a new house rose from the ashes of the old in the form below. The new Shadow Lawn is a sophisticated, if perhaps overly large, Parisian confection completed in the ominous year of 1929 from plans drawn by society architect Horace Trumbauer (1868-1938) and his chief designer, Julian Abele (1881-1950). Now, West Long Branch, even at its glittering mid- to late-19th century peak, was never a "society" resort. It had a few big places and some genuinely rich people, but for those with honed social instincts — of the Newport, Palm Beach, Long Island, Aiken and similar stripe — it was completely off the radar. Did Parsons or his wife Maysie, whom he married in 1893 when they both were 21, care? That would be a no.
Parsons began at the bottom and rose to the presidency of F.W. Woolworth by dint of genuine talent. In the process, he became the son Frank Woolworth never had. He was a son, however, who had to be bailed out repeatedly, despite the big salary. The problem was Maysie.
Parsons met Maysie through her sister, Bertha Gasque. Maysie was a seamstress in Brooklyn; Bertha was an co-worker at Woolworth's. Sister-in-law and, for a while, even mother-in-law were soon a part of Parsons' married household. There were no children.
Besides Shadow Lawn, the Parsons kept a house at 1071 Fifth Avenue in New York and a palace on the Avenue Foch in Paris. They liked Paris in the summer and didn't care — or perhaps didn't notice — that the city was abandoned by the upper crust during exactly those months. For diversion, they toured the countryside in one of two Rolls Royces shipped over with chauffeurs each summer.
At the time of the Shadow Lawn fire, 34 years of marriage to Hubert Parsons had established in his wife an unshakeable sense of entitlement. For ideas on a new house, the two of them set out to look at other people's palaces. They came at last to E. T. Stotesbury's Whitemarsh Hall outside Philadelphia. Whitemarsh, alas destroyed long ago, impressed even the jaded Maysie. The architect was Horace Trumbauer, whom her husband hired without delay.
Here's the west side of Shadow Lawn, beyond a garden designed by Achille Duchene (1866-1947), French society's landscape architect "extraordinaire." Sister Bertha's suite overlooks the garden from the terrace on the second floor.
Angling off to the west is a 3-story service annex with kitchen suite on the main level, above which were 2 floors of servants' rooms housing an in-house staff of 25. Trumbauer's Shadow Lawn had 130 rooms, 17 bedroom suites, 19 bathrooms, incorporated 50 different types of marble, was completely clad in Indiana limestone, and cost about $10 million eve-of-the-Depression dollars to build.
The columned porch on the north side of the house is an echo — admittedly, a faint one — of the north porch on the original house. Shadow Lawn's present owner, Monmouth University, uses this as today's main entrance. That wasn't Horace Trumbauer's idea, however. The proper entrance to Shadow Lawn is through the porte cochere on the east, which is where we'll go now.
In August, 1929, the "Magazine of Business" ran an article under Parsons' name (in fact, written by a flack in publicity) titled "What 40 Billion Sales Have Taught Us." It taught Parsons the meaning of being really rich. Money was literally no object for this man. Why did he and his wife have 19 bedrooms at Shadow Lawn when they had practically no friends? Good question. Why include a 125-foot long, 3-story high central hall in your new house when you could only come up with 18 guests at your housewarming?
Shadow Lawn overall is in a spectacularly well preserved state. I was in fact amazed. Classrooms and offices have been accommodated not by tearing out everything beautiful and replacing it with dropped ceilings and new institutional architecture, but rather by simply erecting removable partitions. I don't think I've ever seen a happier work staff, tucked as they are next to towering fireplaces, beneath ornate bookcases, sometimes even inside imperially scaled vintage bathrooms. The front door, seen in the image below, is a case in point. It's locked all the time because the entrance anteroom behind it is now somebody's office.
Beyond the entrance anteroom, past a grill with Mr. Parsons' initials, is a small black and white marble floored lobby with gents' on one side and ladies' on the other.
Let's take a look at the ladies' first, which is on the left or north side of the lobby in the image below.
It takes a minute to realize everything is still here, right down to the bathroom fixtures.
On the other side of the lobby is the gents'. It's the same thing over there. Do staff members resent working in these conditions? To the contrary, they LOVE it.
On the other side of the glass doors below is what I'm calling the East Foyer which, for reasons that escape me, Monmouth calls a rotunda. Out of sight to the right beyond the doors, is the library.
Seen below: typical Monmouth staffer delighted not to be trapped in a fluorescent lit box. At first I thought the Parsons' library was a sort of stage set lined only with fake books. I don't know whether Parsons or Maysie or Bertha were actual readers, but there do turn out to be actual book shelves behind the fake ones. An odd arrangement, to be sure.
Facing the library on the other side of the East Foyer is the music room. When I first walked into this room, having not yet wrapped my brain around the library full of fake books, I wondered whether the Parsons were particularly musical either.
Shadow Lawn's interiors were Maysie's department, and she was ably assisted by the famous firm of William Baumgarten & Co. Back in 1870, young Baumgarten had gone to work for Herter Brothers, decorators to Vanderbilts, Mills and Morgans. Baumgarten was running Herter Brothers by 1881, out on his own by 1891, and huge by the turn of the century. By the late '20s, however, the firm was a bit passe. There is competence in the craftsmanship at Shadow Lawn, but also an air of relentlessness, lest any decorative element or historical precendent be accidentally omitted.
Now we're at the heart of the house, gazing west down the cortile. It is pronounced cor-TEE-lay, if you wonder, and will be recognizable to many from the movie Annie. A similarly showy devourer of BTUs had been a feature of the original house, and the Parsons insisted it be included in the replacement. Much as I love Trumbauer, to my eye Cregier's cortile is a lot more attractive.
I love the name "social hall" sufficiently to lift it from McCall's Shadow Lawn and attach it to Parsons'. It is that vast and amorphous open space flanking the cortile on the south. Perhaps those 18 housewarming revelers congregated here.
On the south wall of the social hall (or whatever you want to call it), at the symmetrical center of the main block, is a door to the sun room. Looks very Trumbauer to me, although I believe Baumgarten did everything indoors. The view today is to a college playing field.
A door next to the fireplace at the west end of the "social hall" leads to the morning room. Morning rooms in sophisticated households are usually informal spaces for family use — reading the paper, talking to children, maybe having breakfast, doing the mail, reading a book, that sort of thing. Even architecturally elaborate morning rooms convey a sense of domestic intimacy which, alas, is wholly absent here.
Outside the morning room is the West Foyer (or rotunda, if you read Monmouth's plan), which is a sort of architectural overture to the dining room.
Beyond the dining room, at the western end of the house, a conservatory with tall glass doors overlooks the Duchene garden.
The panel to the right of the dining room fireplace was once a swing door to the duplexed serving pantry. A heavy silver safe still sits on the pantry mezzanine. I love old pantries, even this one, which has been pretty much dismantled. The original kitchen, however, has been obliterated, its footprint covered with modern office construction.
In the view below, we're looking west down the cortile from the West Foyer. The billiard room is around the corner to the left.
In the north foyer below, one of a pair of doors to the billiard room is on the right. The stairs to the basement movie theatre are on the left. A fireproof projection room once held twin Paramount movie projectors which, when operated in tandem, permitted seamless film projection. I envision this vast room in the Parsons' house — indeed, practically every vast room in the vast house — being occupied by 2, or maybe 3 people at the most.
Beyond the doors below is the bowling alley, obscured but still intact beneath new partitions and modern office installations. Workmen hit an underground stream during construction, necessitating uber-expensive remediation measures totalling some $600,000. The alleys got built, and the Parsons never used them.
Here's a quiz: what do you think the large room in the images below used to be?
Answer: An indoor swimming pool, also totally intact beneath partitions and temporary flooring.
Pull down the acoustical ceiling, lose the printers and the filing cabinets, and the original gym will reappear. An elaborate adjacent bathroom remains essentially untouched.
We're not finished with Shadow Lawn. Next week, we go upstairs.
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