Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Big Old Houses: East Seventies Sophistication

East Seventies Sophistication
by John Foreman


I sound like Architectural Digest which, with all due respect, I am not. The view above shows 78th Street east of Park Avenue, a block transformed in the decade following the Civil War from flat earth to urban streetscape. The middle class brownstone block of the late 1860s was transformed again in the early 20th century, when people whose parents had ruled New York from palaces on Fifth Avenue chose, instead, to live on the Upper East Side's low profile side streets. Houses already there were alternately demolished, re-facaded, or combined with others on adjoining lots to make new houses, the latter in some cases almost as grand as those yielding to apartment house construction on Fifth.

Here's an example of scenario No. #1, a sophisticated replacement for a vanished 4-story, high stoop, brownstone spec house, part of a modest identical row, put up in the late 1860s and occupied by long forgotten bookkeepers, municipal employees, engineers, and the like. It's late for what it is — a smart Manhattan city house for old-line society people. Plans were filed in February 1930 and the family was in by late 1931. It is an essay on upper class American taste in the 1920s that got built in spite of the Crash.
The house was designed by Delano & Aldrich, whose socially connected partners, William Adams Delano (1874-1960) and Chester Aldrich (1871-1940), met in the office of Carrere & Hastings.
They formed their own firm in 1903, and soon became society's go-to firm for elite private clubs, among them the Knickerbocker and the Colony ...
... and uber-tasteful Georgian Revival townhouses for people like Harold Pratt, Harrison Williams and Francis Palmer ...
... and a great number of distinguished country places in elite towns like Old Westbury and Laurel Hollow.
Henry Rogers Winthrop.
The client on East 78th was Henry Rogers Winthrop (1878-1958), a prominent broker, investment banker and governor of the New York Stock Exchange. He is seen here in the only image I could find of him, taken from a 1935 New York Times article describing his chairmanship of the "standing committee on customers' men," whatever that means.

Delano & Aldrich gave Mr. Winthrop an 8-story Georgian Revival mansion on the site of a 17-foot, 3-story and basement brownstone, without making it look like a sliver building. Their design solutions were quite brilliant. The building's height is minimized by setting back the 7th floor, making it invisible from the street, and treating windows on the 8th as attic dormers.

The visual impact of the unusual demi-lune entrance alcove not only anchors the composition but diverts the eye from the narrowness of the site. The relatively unadorned facade between dormers above and alcove below gives a sense of correct proportion, in spite of the fact that the place is wildly tall and narrow.
The interior was designed with equal imagination and skill. The client wanted a big house, and by gum that's what he got. Not only is the place 8 stories tall, it covers virtually the entire lot. This adds significantly to interior floor space, but also provides that rare opportunity in row houses, large rooms with double exposures. Public, family and service areas were segregated efficiently by designers who understood sophisticated living.

If I have one criticism of the plan, it stems from my own confusion as to which of the two entrances in the streetside alcove is actually the front door. (I figured it out). The plan below shows the first 3 levels. We'll enter on the so-called Parlour Level, which contains the entrance hall and formal dining room. The level below that houses kitchen, office and service entrance. Laundry, mechanical rooms and a silver safe occupy the Basement Level, at the rear of which is a small light court.
Winthrop was a direct descendant of colonial Massachusetts' "liberty loving" Puritan (if such is not an oxymoron) Gov. John Winthrop (1587-1649). In early August, 1905, already Treasurer of the Equitable Life Assurance Company at the age of 27, Winthrop married Alice Woodward Babcock at her parents' rented manse in the swell Long Island village of Roslyn.

"The wedding was one of the most fashionable of the season," observed the Times,accurately, I'd say. A private train took 400 guests to and from Manhattan, Consuelo Marlborough (Alice had been one of her bridesmaids) attended, Delmonico's catered and Franko's (the Peter Duchin of the day) provided music. Winthrop's boss, embattled Equitable heir, James Hazen Hyde, did a last minute bunk. Since press, public and even the state legislature were all after him with pitchforks and flaming torches, this was understandable. He'd thrown a ball at the Waldorf at the beginning of that year, one of surpassing luxury paid for, according to his enemies at Equitable, by the premiums of widows and orphans. Not true, of course, but the most effective canards often aren't.
The beautiful stair, while sumptuous in its way, has the pared down "good taste" air of the late 'Twenties. We're not going upstairs yet, but heading for the dining room, taking a peek en route at what makes the whole undertaking possible: the elevator.
Years ago, I remember reading in "The Decoration of Houses" (Wharton & Codman) that really good windows don't require curtains. That's certainly the case here. A delicious terrace, now snow covered, its ornamental urns swaddled for the winter, lies beyond french doors at the room's south end.
The serving pantry, redone in the 1980s from the looks of it, is connected by stair to the kitchen on the floor below.
The kitchen of 1930 would have been white and bright, full of hard ceramic and metal surfaces, glass doored metal cabinetry, modern appliances and linoleum floors — a paean to the era's technology.
Let's leave the kitchen, go one flight down to the Basement Level, peek at the silver safe, then return to the family area and the main stair.
With the exception of a big drawing room in the back, about which more below, floors 2,3 and 4 are reserved for private family use.
For a moment, I mistook the room in the image below, located at the front of the 2nd Floor, for a library, at least until I noticed there were no bookshelves. I imagine everyone who's lived in this house has used it as a combination office and small drawing or reception room, ideal for being by yourself or visiting with just a few other people. I'd love to know the story of the paneling. It's been skillfully pieced together with a variety of woods and parts of it are clearly old, but heaven only knows where it came from or what it originally looked like. I'd guess France and painted white, but that's just a guess.
Henry Winthrop was not simply a success in business and society, but a First World War army major, ultimately a colonel in the reserves, recipient of a DSO from the Brits and a Commander of the British Empire. From 1910 to 1950, he was president (indeed, the first president) of the Piping Rock Club, a name to drop if you live on Long Island. Piping Rock was about 12 miles from the Winthrops' Syosset country place, called East Woods.
According to The New York Times on August 29, 1932, Henry Winthrop considered re-election of Herbert Hoover, "essential to quick business recovery and increased employment." He labored hard to that end as chairman of a joint national and state Republican fund raising committee. Interesting to note, by 1933 he was working just as hard to elect Fiorello La Guardia, a Republican to be sure, but a most un-Hoover-like specimen and an ardent supporter of the New Deal.
A large drawing room, designed for both entertaining and book storage, is located at the rear. I've seen this drawing room/library combo in a number of old houses, where for whatever reason, neither client nor architect deemed separate dedicated spaces necessary. This room, with its fine proportions and elegant floor to ceiling windows, is a place for larger groups, for cocktails before going down to dinner, not for intimate talk or private time.
A small vintage bar is in the corner. Very "Cole Porter."
The 3rd and 4th Floors housed family bedrooms. Well, an owners' suite occupies the entire 3rd, while a single guest room, with en suite bath, plus what looks to have been a pair of small visiting servants (?) rooms, now combined, are on 4. Mr. & Mrs. Winthrop's daughter Alice married a man named Robert Payne two years before the house was finished. This was not a place for small children nor, apparently, for very many overnight guests.
Depending on whether or not the Winthrops slept together, there was either a bedroom with bath, fore and aft, on Floor 3, or a shared bedroom in the back and dressing room/boudoir in the front. If the kitchen three levels down shows the decorating hand of the 1980s, today's owners' suite speaks to the aesthetic soul of the 1990s. A glass walled shower currently extends into the former dressing room, while a jet age bathroom adjoins the bedroom in back.
The last family floor is Four, a fact made abundantly clear by a frosted demi-lune skylight over the main stair, marking its termination a full two floors below the roof. There are now two bedrooms and two baths on this floor, but when the house was built, the room in front was divided lengthwise in half, making a pair of skinny bedrooms. I doubt these were intended for guests, which is why I surmise they were intended for visiting servants. (That's just a surmise).
With the exception of the owners' floor below, most of the bathrooms appear to have been altered at the same time as the kitchen.
How do we get to the servants' floors above when the main stair stops here? By taking a sharp right in the view below, and climbing the appropriately industrial looking flight to 5. The elevator made it unnecessary for servants to use the family stair, not that they'd have taken a job in the first place if it required hiking up six flights to go bed.
I have not seen the original Delano & Aldrich plans, but am pretty sure Floors 5 and 6 originally contained 4 servants' bedrooms, plus a servants' lounge with adjacent kitchenette. The 5th floor lounge is now a mirrored exercise room, the kitchenette a walk-in closet. Similar to the floor below, two maids' rooms in front have now been combined into one family sized bedroom. The idea of moving, as soon as one's children are grown and out of the house, into an 8-story manse with accommodations for 4 in live-in help is appealing, I'll admit, but for most of us, I guess it doesn't make a lot of sense.
A pair of combined maids' rooms at the front of Floor 6 are presently used as a sort of Zen retreat. The adjacent bath is the least altered in the house.
There's a very attractive roof terrace at rear end of the 6th floor, but on the day of my visit the snow was too deep to take a look. Oddly, the roof above was much more navigable. My extremely understanding hosts urged me to take a look, which I did.
I think we've now seen Henry and Alice Winthrop's house.
Mrs. Winthrop died in 1942 and her husband, now a 64-year-old widower, retired from business, dissolved his brokerage firm, sold the contents of the house at Parke-Bernet and moved to Sarasota FL. He died there in November, 1958 at the age of 82.
In 1947, the house was sold to a broker with the oddly difficult to pronounce name of Jorge R. Andre. Interesting note: Mrs. Andre, nee Carolyn Storrs, was the daughter of Frank Vance Storrs, owner and founder of Playbill.
By 1960 Carolyn Storrs Andre was divorced (for the second time), and in September of that year married a Davis Polk partner named Charles Spofford (1902-1991).

Charles Spofford.
Mr. Spofford was another Henry Winthrop, but with less emphasis on high society and more on outright accomplishment. Yale '24; Phi Beta Kappa; Harvard Law '28; W.W. II Brigadier General; 1950-2 chairman of the NATO Council of Deputies; president of the Metropolitan Opera; and the friend of John D Rockefeller 3rd who, during a personal chat in 1955 (according to Spofford's Times obit), "gave (Rockefeller) the germ of an idea for what became the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts — with much Rockefeller financial support and Mr. Rockefeller as its chairman."

The Metropolitan Opera's "inadequate" home on 39th St., the New York Philharmonic's sharing of Carnegie Hall, and Robert Moses' determination to demolish a slum in the West 60s presented the sort of opportunities power brokers manage best.

Carolyn Spofford died in 1970, aged only 62. While her husband lived for another 21 years, he sold the house shortly after her death to a celebrated art dealer and neighbor named Harold Reed (1938-2013). During the 1980s, 120 East 78th St. became the Harold Reed Gallery, known, per Reed's New York Times obit, "for seminal shows of works by Botero, Alice Neel and many others." Reed sounds an engaging type, equally involved in art, theatre, historic preservation and local community affairs.

Harold Reed.
Another interesting note: In 1964 Mr. Reed (nee Friedman) married Marjorie Anne Kahn, a direct descendant of Confederate Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin, the first Jewish person in America to be elected to the U.S. Senate (from Louisiana in 1852). Benjamin was also luckier than Jefferson Davis, with whom he escaped from Richmond in 1865. He evaded potential captors, made his way to England, and retired there in 1883 as a rich barrister. He died in Paris in 1884.

A final Winthrop detour: Present-day suburban Syosset gives little hint of what it was like in 1924, when the Prince of Wales, prior to giving up his kingdom for his girlfriend, stayed there during a highly publicized visit to the U.S. Royal headquarters was a Syosset estate called Woodside, designed by Delano & Aldrich and lent to the prince by its absent owners, James and Adele Burden. Woodside was an amazingly gorgeous place. It's now a country club and not quite so gorgeous.

Its grounds are a golf course, its gardens intruded upon by new construction, even though it is still standing. If you're interested — and I don't doubt that many of my readers most enthusiastically are — the Syosset Scrapbook, online, has lots of evocative old photos from the estate days.
In the absence of Mr. & Mrs. Burden, the prince's official hosts were Henry and Alice Winthrop, who moved temporarily into Woodside from their own Syosset place, called East Woods, and seen in the vintage aerial below. East Woods burned to the ground in 1964, the same year Harold Reed married Marjorie Kahn. The estate was subsequently chopped into suburban house lots, but not quite all of it has vanished. An elaborate enclosed tennis court is now a private house. A more evocative survivor is a fragment of the original terrace that once adjoined the south wall of the mansion. Its retaining wall and circular fountain still exist, albeit largely hidden by trees. They're visible in the modern aerial, like Waldo.
Delano & Aldrich's house for Henry Winthrop is currently for sale. If your pockets are deep and your interest is piqued, you can email Brown Harris Stevens' John Burger at jburger@bhsusa.com.
Visit John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
 
Contact John Foreman here
Click here for NYSD Contents