Big Old Houses: “The King of New York”

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During the 1920s, humorist Rube Goldberg wrote a gag piece in the The New Yorker about a tourist who comes to New York. Everywhere he turns — from the docks to the Ritz, from Wall Street to a first night on Broadway — he keeps running into Otto Kahn.

Otto Kahn on the cover of Time, November 2, 1925.

When Kahn finally appears on stage at two in the morning playing drums at a Harlem after hours club, the visitor loses his mind and is carried off to Bellevue.

Yes, the great financier and patron of the arts, Otto Kahn (1867-1934), was the inspiration for Parker Brothers’ Mr. Monopoly. Kahn made a fortune as a partner in Kuhn Loeb, the great underwriter of American railroads, absorbed by Lehman Brothers in 1977.

Kuhn Loeb in its day was second only to the House of Morgan, but no one was second to Otto Kahn as an investment banker of skill and imagination, a bon vivant of legendary charm, and an influential patron of the arts.

Kahn gave millions to the Metropolitan Opera, despite a management loath to let him buy a box because he was Jewish. (When they finally did, he refused to use it, lending it instead to important visitors).

He cultivated, subsidized and/or enjoyed close personal relationships with Nijinski, Stanislavski, Toscanini, Caruso, Pavlova, not to mention Isadora Duncan, Max Reinhardt, Paul Robeson, Will Rogers, the Moscow Art Theatre and Charlie Chaplin, to name only a few. Wags of the period said he wouldn’t rest until he met every important person on earth.

Otto Kahn in recognizable mode, tossing greenbacks.

Kahn was the beau ideal of the cultivated, cosmopolitan New York millionaire of the 1920s – immaculately dressed, immensely rich, irresistably charming, seemingly ubiquitous and profoundly influential.

In 1933, Senator Ferdinand Pecora, lead counsel of the U.S. Senate hearings on the causes of the Great Depression, wrote of him, “No suaver, more fluent, and more diplomatic advocate could be conceived. If anyone could succeed in presenting the customs and functions of the private bankers in a favorable and prepossessing light, it was he.”

Here he is playing golf, or perhaps simply posing, possibly at a club somewhere, but more likely on the links of his private golf course at Cold Spring, Long Island.

And here is the house (above, right) that was attached to that course. It is called “Oheka,” the name being a conjunction of Otto Herbert Kahn. Perhaps Kahn himself gave it that unsophisticated name, although absent a dependable citation I tend to doubt it. (The place is called ‘Oheka Castle’ today).

Kahn’s wife Addie.

Kahn bought the estate’s original 443 acres in 1919, having soured on country living in elite Morristown, New Jersey. Upon his marriage to Addie Wolff, her father, Kuhn Loeb partner Abraham Wolff, had given the newlyweds a house there called Cedar Court. In one attempt to conciliate tiresomely chilly — read that, “anti-Semitic” — Morristown society, Kahn gave the local field club a swath of land located between his house and the club.

The management was sufficiently shamed into belatedly offering him a membership, in the wake of which an ungracious club member observed that Kahn “at least had the good taste not to use it.”

Kahn loved his 109,000-square-foot Long Island mansion, designed by Delano and Aldrich, albeit not with their usual light touch. It was the only millionaire’s estate in the direct line of the Northern State Parkway to escape the earth movers, thanks to a secret contribution to one of Robert Moses‘ pet funds.

Kahn’s wife Addie, shown here (right) in high Gilded Age feather, was a cultured product of New York’s so-called “Our Crowd.” She was mostly in the background during her husband’s flamboyant career, devoting herself to children, charities and the acquisition of a significant art collection.

The spouses of the Kahn children speak in a way to the experience of their parents. Maud married Sir John Marriott; Margaret (Nin) married John Barry Ryan; Gilbert married Elizabeth Whelan; and Roger married Hannah Williams.

Kahn’s city house on Fifth Avenue and 91st Street was the largest private house in Manhattan. He bought the land in 1914 from Andrew Carnegie, who lived across the street.

The Kahn house is attributed to architects J. Armstrong Stenhouse and C.P.H. Gilbert. Every big old house fan knows Gilbert, whose great mansions, built for vanished heavyweights with names like Woolworth, Bache and Converse, still hunker down on the Upper East Side. Nobody, including myself and even google, seems to know much about Stenhouse. The Landmarks plaque on the wall says the house was “modeled” after the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome. There’s a house up here in Millbrook called Migdale, which local lore insists is a “copy” of Andrew Carnegie’s Skibo Castle in Scotland. In truth, no two houses could look more dissimilar.

In the case of the Kahn house and the Roman palace there is clearly a resemblance — in detail and composition, if not in scale and massing. An unknown architect designed the Cancelleria for a Roman cardinal who, it is said, won the funds to build it in a single night of gambling. Our cardinals apparently had different obsessions back then. Construction started in 1486 and took almost 30 years to complete. The Cancelleria is the earliest Renaissance palace in Rome.

Having liberally and repeatedly dropped the name of New York Social Diary, I was invited on a private tour of the Kahn house by its owner, the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Otto Kahn had lived here less than sixteen years when he died of a massive heart attack in 1934. His widow sold it almost immediately to the Convent, which has operated the house as a school for girls ever since.

The big difference between Kahns’s house and Carnegie’s house (across the street) is not visible from the street. The beautiful interiors at Kahn’s are virtually intact. At Carnegie’s, save for a few rooms on the main floor, the heart of the place has been literally ripped out.

I’ve wanted to see the inside of 1 East 91st St. for years, but have had neither a child in the school, nor a reason to hire one of its grand rooms as a venue. So here I go.

The luxurious vehicular entrance on 91st Street allowed visitors to arrive with dignity, even in a downpour. Interestingly, the apartment house at the other end of the block has a similar entrance on 92nd St. The George Fuller Company, which built 1107 Fifth Avenue in 1925, designed that drive-in especially for E.F. Hutton. In exchange for allowing the demolition of his house on the site, Hutton got an enormous triplex at the top of the new building, connected to a Kahn-like drive-in at street level.

Among the many things I like about this front door is the peep hole — just like any apartment.

Here’s the entrance hall, front door on the left, Jesus welcoming us on the right, a miscellaneous clutter of desks and chairs, plants and rugs, lending an air of friendly democracy.

There is an elevator, of course, whose original hand painted cab is protected by sheets of lucite. How delicious that it is still here.

Why take the elevator when you can ascend to the piano nobile on this stair?

A vast, dark-paneled dining room, currently used as a chapel, is off limits to photographers. After a quick peek, we continued into the original drawing room, located on the Fifth Avenue corner of the building. Presently in use as one of two rooms housing the school library, its brilliant original decoration is amazingly intact.

This enclosed spiral staircase leads to Kahn’s bedroom on the floor above. I don’t know whether or not he shared it with his wife, although in an establishment of this scale, and in this period, I think it unlikely. Otto Kahn was famous for mistresses and party nights at his suite at the Ritz. It seems unlikely he would bother to sneak anybody up to his room via this staircase, although that has been suggested.

The book stacks, modern tables and overhead lighting obscure the architectural grandeur of the library pictured below. The fireplace may no longer be functioning and the upholstered pieces and old masters of the Kahn days long gone, but the room remains blessedly intact.

The door on the balcony also opens onto the private stair to Kahn’s bedroom.

Here again it’s obvious that if one simply looks beyond the superimposed distractions of institutional use, Kahn’s bedroom is completely intact. The headboard would have gone where that projection screen is today, facing the fireplace in the middle of the opposite wall. Beyond the windows you can just make out the Carnegie house on the other side of 91st Street.

The ballroom, rechristened the Music Room, is used for school assemblies, theatricals, and as a venue for private functions. There was a time when big old houses were sold complete with sconces, chandeliers and often a good deal of original furniture, all of which was once considered to be of little or no value. That’s hardly the case today. Fireplaces, paneling and sometimes even stair rails don’t always make it to modern day closings. Sacred Heart’s 78 years of uninterrupted ownership has fortunately left in situ much that might otherwise have disappeared.

As if opera and railroad reorganization weren’t time consuming enough, Kahn was enamored of Hollywood as well, and deeply involved with Paramount Pictures. Here he is posing with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. I assume they’re posing since Chaplin probably didn’t walk around like that all the time. Kahn invested in Broadway too, famously putting $10,000 into Lady Be Good after he heard Gershwin play “The Man I Love.” He quipped at the time that he preferred investing in artistic projects with no chance of making a profit. Lady Be Good, to his surprise, yielded a whopping return.

Here he is with Enrico Caruso (above, right). Ever the music lover, Kahn reportedly once told New York City’s mayor that putting a piano in every house would do more to reduce crime than having a cop on every block.

The main stair rises from a landing outside the ballroom. That’s yours truly resting in the middle.

If there’s one thing missing in the Kahn house, it’s the original bathrooms. I know nobody mourns these things except me. To my eye, however, they are often as visually interesting and, in a way, even as grand as major public rooms. Too bad institutional use always dooms them. The bathrooms may be gone, but the servants’ staircase and elevator are very much in existence, complete with a fabulous original copper elevator cab.

The only other “below stairs” survivor I saw was this fragment of pantry cabinetwork adjacent to the dining room. It looks deceptively modern and nobody loves it much, but I’m pretty sure it’s original to the house.

Two floors of finely proportioned bedrooms, designed for luxury and privacy, have escaped the institutional gutting that has ruined the upper floors of the Carnegie house across the street. The original floor plan remains intact, and the preserved spaces function perfectly as classrooms and offices. Since no one has seen fit to rip down the walls, the original finishes — box locks, overdoors, fireplaces, moldings, etc., etc. — are all still here.

“The pen is mightier the the sword” — an appropriate motif in a mansion converted to a school.

There are terraces on the roof, out of bounds last week due to the construction, and a grand central courtyard, which was getting pretty dark by the time I got there.

My last stop was a small — well, small by Kahn standards — office or reception room on the first floor.

Beyond the foyer was a pleasant room, against whose western wall sat the great man’s desk. My guide told me it was there because no one had ever been able to get it out the door. True or not, I’m glad it’s survived.

Groucho Marx knew Otto Kahn too. In fact, Roscoe W. Chandler, the millionaire mark in Animal Crackers was a parody of Kahn, who in real life was a constant target of petitions for money. In a speech at the University of Wisconsin, Marx recalled, “I knew a fellow named Otto Kahn. His close friend was Marshall P. Wilder, who was a hunchback. One day they passed a synagogue on Fifth Avenue and Kahn turned to Wilder and said, ‘You know, I used to be a Jew.’ ‘Really?’ said Wilder. ‘I used to be a hunchback.'” Otto Kahn is buried in St. John’s Episcopal Cemetery in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island.

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