A considerable number of residences of the elite in Gilded Age New York were documented at the time in private publications. These were illustrated vanity press catalogues devoted to the house and collection of the elite, and were circulated among social peers and influential tastemakers. These frequently two-volume books were intended sotto voce to establish a stamp of approval on matters of domestic good taste.
They were the intent of the socially ambitious. A century later, these publications still provide rich documentation of the architectural taste and interior and exterior decoration of the era. The documentary value was valid particularly amongst a group of Old Guard families who were secure in their identity. A modest photo album devoted to their architectural foray sufficed.
Such is the case of the Lewis Gouverneur Morris residence at 1015 Park Avenue, built 1913-1914 by architect Ernest Flagg (1857-1947) and documented with annotated photos by Mrs. Morris, née Nathalie Lorillard Bailey (1883-1935), amateur tennis champion, architectural historian and photographer.
Following her 1908 marriage to socially prominent banker and distant cousin L.G. Morris (1882-1967), Nathalie Bailey became mistress of the Morris summer estate Malbone, a castellated 1849 Gothic Revival villa at Newport built by architect Alexander Jackson Davis.
Her fascination with the house inspired the energetic Mrs. Morris to embark on a mission to research and photo-document 19th-century American Gothic Revival architecture throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England region.
From 1910 through the early 1930s, Nathalie Morris was driven by her husband or chauffeur to sites designed by A. J. Davis, Richard Upjohn, James Renwick and others. The resultant photographic archive was deposited in the Avery Library at Columbia University.
Following their marriage, the young Morris couple initially resided in the city on Madison Avenue with the bride’s mother, Mrs. James Muhlenberg Bailey. A move uptown was in the spirit of the times and desirable lots on the newly redeveloped upper reaches of Park Avenue were steadily increasing in demand. Amos R.E. Pinchot, in particular, had acquired considerable property in the area of 85th Street and Park and was selling lots with middle class multi-family dwellings on them for clearance in favor of large restricted private homes.
On January 14th, 1913, Pinchot sold Mrs. Morris a three-story brick and brownstone row house with ground floor shop and rear service ell at the southeast corner of 85th Street and Park.
Demolition was begun in April after Ernest Flagg filed plans with the city in February for a new $50,000.00 brick and marble residence on the site at 1015 Park.
The choice of Flagg was likely inspired by his association with Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, II, a first cousin of the architect. Flagg’s education at the Ecole des Beaux Arts was financed by the Vanderbilts and Mrs. Vanderbilt helped the architect to receive the commission for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, together with directly commissioning him to design the Gwynne Building (1912) in Cincinnati and additions to the Palais Széchenyi (1911) on Andrassy Road in Budapest (residence of Countess Laszlo Széchenyi née Gladys Vanderbilt).
The Morris family was closely tied socially to the Vanderbilts in both New York and Newport, and it was probably through this family connection that Ernest Flagg was selected.
The choice of architectural style was, however, a joint collaboration between Nathalie Morris and Flagg. Rather than the “modern French” still favored by the Vanderbilts, Mrs. Morris chose Georgian Colonial and Federal design references with a hint of the playful asymmetry of Richard Norman Shaw’s English Queen Anne.
The amalgam was emblematic of Lewis and Nathalie Morris’s pride in their genealogical pedigree. Mrs. Morris was Secretary of the Society of Colonial Lords of Manors of America being a descendant of Robert Livingston, first Lord of the 160,000 acre Livingston Manor (Columbia County, NY); and Lewis Gouverneur Morris was a descendant of Lewis Morris, first Lord of the Manor of Morrisania (now the southwest Bronx).
From the outset, the couple’s desire was to build a composite rendition of a Colonial patrician townhouse. As early as the summer of 1912, Nathalie Bailey Morris was scouting Federal style doorways and fanlights and houses around the City from which she would borrow details. Of particular interest were “modern Colonial” buildings on the Upper East Side where she photographed the window surrounds and massed dormers of 123 East 74th Street (now demolished), the fanlight door of 113 East 69th Street (now demolished) and the window muntins of 121 East 52nd Street (now Consulate General of Bulgaria).
By October 1, 1913 demolition and work on the foundations was completed and the brick outer walls began to rise. Mrs. Morris captured the monthly progress. Positioning herself across the street she shot her 1914 Simplex model 50HP “speed-car” parked next to the building site with chauffeur Patrick standing at curb.
By February 1, 1914, the brick and marble trimmed shell was essentially complete and ready for roofing. On February 6, Lewis Gouverneur Morris was captured on the newly topped off roof by his wife the day before sailing to Nassau.
Interior finishes were completed the following year and the family moved in by April 1915.
The entrance of the house was via a recessed courtyard on East 85th Street, adorned with a Federal fanlight double door, staggered stair well windows, bulls eye windows and half fanlight windows. The west elevation along 85th Street featured a picturesque double oriel window over the garage entrance, a detail borrowed from the townhouses of Richard Norman Shaw. Nathalie Bailey Morris brings us through her camera’s eye on April 3rd, 1915, into the ground floor T-shaped hall as she has decorated it with ancestral collections from the Bailey, Lorillard, Remsen, and Morris families.
On the right hangs an 1874 oil painting by Robert W. Weir depicting the Bailey family gathered at their Fordham-on-Harlem home (below) and nearby on another wall stands a Federal period tall case clock and New York Sheraton side chairs (bottom). The dining room is hung with ancestral portraits including, over the Sheraton sideboard, companion portraits of Jacob and Eliza Meir Lorillard, separated by a portrait in the center of Julia Strong.
The circa 1805 mahogany dining chairs are part of a notable suite descended in the Remsen family and attributed to Slover and Taylor, New York.
Over the Federal style mantel hangs a portrait of Emily Lorillard Morris and to her right a portrait of a maternal ancestor Col. J.P. Muhlenberg of the Continental Army.
In the library, shot on April 4th, 1915, Chippendale style seat furniture is grouped on the periphery while the mantel, decorated with Capodimonte porcelain groups and Chinese vases, is crowned with a circa 1680 oil painting of game and wild birds by Melchior Hondecoeter (Dutch, 1636-1695) whose animal paintings were widely collected in late 19th-century New York. In front of the glazed bookshelves stands a Queen Anne Philadelphia side chair said in the family to have descended in the family of William Penn.
The nearby roundabout chair is a Newport piece of circa 1780 while over the modern button-tufted velvet sofa hangs a Romantic period Dutch seascape.
On the second floor, a federal style drawing room, the primary reception room, strikes a more formal note with Louis XVI style French seat furniture, a French crystal chandelier inherited from the Langdon family, Aubusson verdure tapestries, and two polar bear rugs adding a touch of domesticity.
Unlike the highbrow vanity press house monographs, the Nathalie Bailey Morris album is both more candid and more comprehensive in its photo documentation of the more intimate domestic spaces. For instance, the third-floor Morris master bedroom with its caned French beds, nightstands, art prints and wall-to-wall chenille carpeting strikes an insider note for this is no formal “state bedroom.”
Similarly, the front library with its cozy assemblage of Chinese porcelain, bronzes, engravings, family photos and comfortable seating records family moments rather than architecturally significant grandeur.
This sense of intimacy culminates with the inclusion of the nursery of the three-year-old Alletta Morris (1912-1986) with its tidily arranged toys, utilitarian brass beds and child’s furniture. What this character-filled album so evocatively conveys is Nathalie Bailey Morris’s passion for evoking and living with family legacies.
Arranging collections with a deferential sense of respect, the house exudes a certain honesty, far removed from the ambitious trappings of the leading French decorators of the moment. The house was sold out of the family in 1968, a year after Lewis Gouverneur Morris’s death. It would perhaps reassure Mrs. Morris to know that virtually all of the decorative furnishings of 1015 Park survive amongst her descendants or in Chepstow, the Newport cottage of her daughter Alletta Morris McBean, now one of Newport’s more authentic house museums.