Big Old Houses: The Russian Consulate

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In 1975, Gerald Ford and Leonid Brezhnev decided to let their hair down a notch or two (if such a thing can be done) and add consulates to their respective diplomatic missions. I’m not sure what or where the Americans bought, but the Russians promptly grabbed this limestone palace at 9 East 91st St. The seller was Dr. Ramon Castroviejo, a famous pioneer of corneal transplant surgery who, in 1938 was the first medical doctor to urge an astonished population to will their eyes to science.

Castroviejo’s house was one of a pair, each a sumptuous wedding gift from furniture magnate W.D. Sloane. Sloane’s daughter Emily and her husband John Henry Hammond settled into 9 East 91st in 1902; three years later Florence Adele and husband James. A. Burden unpacked at 7 East 91st. Castroviejo had arrived on the block in 1946, bought the Hammond house, and converted it to a combination ophthalmological clinic and private residence. Retiring in 1972 — a bleak era for big old houses — he was probably ecstatic to find a buyer by 1975.

The Burden Mansion (coming next week) is probably the better house. Warren and Wetmore outdid themselves with an original floor plan and bravura Beaux Arts interior detailing. But … call me perverse if you will, I much prefer Carrere and Hastings’ house for the Hammonds. There’s little excess imagination at work on the exterior, but it is comfortingly lush and weighty. The predictable floor plan, especially when filled with excellent repro furniture from W. and J. Sloane, made it a singularly soothing and luxurious place to live. Convenient too, assuming you were able to employ 16 servants.

In 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, creating that nasty bag that we have wound up holding today. An angry Jimmy Carter retaliated by canceling President Ford‘s consular agreements of 1975. The Soviet consulate 9 East 91st was shut down and locked up before it even opened. Seventeen years would pass before tempers cooled sufficiently for it to open again — or really, to open for the first time.

Urged by a reader, I sent the Russians an email asking for a Big Old Houses tour of the building. To be honest, I didn’t expect a response. Imagine my surprise when I received a prompt and hospitable invitation. Then suddenly, like a tornado on the prairie, came the “open mike” incident, which you may recall took place between our president and Mr. Putin. The tedious Republican response these days to anything — indeed, everything — the president says or does came from Mr. Romney who, for no good reason that I can think of, decided to portray the Russians as our “global foes.” I was certain that my house tour was a dead duck.

Let’s take a political breather and meet Emily Vanderbilt Sloane Hammond (1874-1970), great-granddaughter of Commodore Vanderbilt himself, seen here in a portrait by the fashionable Carolus-Duran painted shortly after her wedding in 1899.

Emily Hammond was a serious girl who grew into a determined and organized woman. She was much given to good causes and social obligations, married a corporate lawyer named John Henry Hammond,had five children, was a proficient amateur pianist, attended an opera, concert, lecture or public meeting almost every night of her adult life, kept a social secretary, and forbade the use of alcohol or tobacco under her roof. As a result, her parties were generally dull affairs.

Here is the front door to the house that Mrs. Hammond ruled. “Global foes” or not, I found myself cordially welcomed by a charming and attractive vice consul named Maxim Vladimirov. Although Mr. Vladimirov was the soul of hospitality, our tour turned out to be on the abbreviated side.

Mrs. Hammond’s granddaughter, who still lives on Manhattan’s East Side, kindly lent me a set of “salon prints” showing 9 East 91st in its prime. How delicious is this reception room, located immediately inside the front door. The curtains, the moldings, the repro furniture (who needs antiques?), the gilded plaster swags on the over-mantel mirror, the muted palette (obvious despite the photo’s sepia tone), the over-scaled pattern on the damask wall coverings and the inevitable bear skin on the repro Savonnerie all speak eloquently (to me, anyway) of an upper class early 20th century American aesthetic to which I respond on a deep level.

Painful as it is to contemplate, here’s that same room today. I don’t know the details of Dr. Castroviejo’s alteration, but the destruction of a Carrere and Hastings interior in the late 1940s wouldn’t have bothered anyone much. Indeed, back then the demolition of fine early twentieth century buildings — be they by Carrere and Hastings, McKim Mead and White, Warren and Wetmore or any of the titans of earlier days — was almost considered a civic duty.

The Hammonds called this the “Long Hall.” We’re looking north, with the door to the reception room behind us and the open door to the dining room in the distance. A grand stairway in a separate hall was located behind the fireplace. The windows overlook a driveway between the Hammond house and that of Mrs. Hammond’s sister, Adele Burden, next door. Don’t you just love that tiger on the floor?

Here’s the dining room. The windows overlook the Burden house across the aforementioned driveway. The door on the left opens onto the Long Hall. For all its scale and ornament, this room is imbued with a sense of classical restraint that lends presence and dignity. It’s gorgeous without being flashy, luxurious without being in the least overdone.

We’re looking in the other direction now. Beyond the dining room is a breakfast room with marble dado, treillaged walls and a glass domed ceiling that suffuses it with light. These beautiful rooms were in a part of the consulate that was not on my tour, but I am told they have all been destroyed. I wish I could have looked for myself.

Now we’re on the second floor, the “piano nobile.” The indented wall on the left covers the original stair well and obscures an elevator and a fire stair. The latter replaces a grand marble original. In the distance is the door to a ballroom overlooking 91st Street.

Russian-American relations had warmed sufficiently by 1992 for reactivation of the consular treaty. Alas, when the Russians unbolted the doors to 9 East 91st St., they discovered the roof had been leaking and the place was a wreck. There was a desire to restore the grandest of the interiors, but not a lot of money to do it.

Enter an unlikely partner in the person of Harold Evans, president of Random House, the publisher of a coffee table book titled The Russian Century. Mr. Evans managed to wheedle, cajole and otherwise convince a constellation of restoration experts to contribute their skills — oftentimes gratis — to a restoration effort.

Even in the depths of the communist past, the Russians never seemed to have lost the knack for building czarist palaces. Artisans arrived from Russia to live and labor at 9 East 91st in nine-month shifts. Stanley Barrows, former interior design chairman at FIT, directed the second floor restoration, choosing finishes, fabrics, colors, fixtures, and reportedly compromising on nothing. On October 26, 1994, the consulate hosted a gala book party for The Russian Century in this ballroom.

Here’s what the room looked like in Emily Hammond’s day — rather different than it does today. Mrs. Hammond used it regularly, often performing on the piano herself. She’s not performing below, only posing for a photo in a silver frame.

This is all very gorgeous, of course, and not to dispute Mr. Barrows’ expertise, but there’s an awful lot more gold here than there used to be.

There are three main entertaining rooms on the “piano nobile.” This is the library, located above the Long Hall on the floor below. How great is that overstuffed furniture — c’mon, it’s comfortable — and would you not just kill for those lampshades?

The library today.

The third room in this suite is the music room, seen today from two directions.

And here is what it used to look like. Today’s Russian oligarch gestalt is quite distinct from the high WASP white-and-gold look of the Hammond period.

The walls, moldings and fireplace of the past now comprise a different room.

Now we’re up in Emily Hammond’s third floor boudoir, part of the master bedroom suite. I love the lofty ceiling, the elaborate moldings, and the elegant wall sconces. The cluttered desk could be my own. How nice it must have been to have a father who owned W. and J. Sloane. Mrs. Hammond was single-mindedly dedicated to bettering the world. She was president of the Home Thrift Association, the Parents’ League of New York, the Peoples’ Chorus of New York, the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association, a commissioner of the Girl Scouts of Westchester County, to name but a few.

According to the New York Times of February 9, 1922 her “Principles of guidance for women in politics” included: press onwards; unite v. evil in the world; study political questions; organize classes amongst ignorant citizens; be good in personal life.

My Russian hosts inform me that with the exception of the second floor, the entire original interior has been demolished and replaced with new utilitarian construction. This seems somehow unlikely to me, but as I say, my tour was (understandably) restricted. This view is of the old fourth floor nursery.

Whatever one thinks of the colors and the gold, there’s no question those Russian artisans were first rate craftsmen. This room is entirely new, located on the main floor overlooking 91st Street, and has nothing whatsoever to do with Carrere and Hastings or the Hammonds. It’s like an encore presentation, courtesy of Russian workers too skilled to stop building.

The Hammond’s youngest son, John Hammond, Jr. (1910 – 1987), looks here like he lives in Tribeca. As a teenager in the 1920s, he traded his platinum spoon for the heighty-ho of Harlem, specifically its rich musical life. Hammond would eventually become one of America’s greatest music producers, discovering and/or providing crucial encouragement to as many African American greats (Billie Holliday, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, Robert Johnson, Aretha Franklin, etc., etc.) as their white counterparts (Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and especially Benny Goodman).

In fact, Hammond introduced Goodman to his sister Alice, recently divorced from an upperclass Englishman named George Duckworth. The couple married and had two children. Benny Goodman was one of many musicians who performed in Emily Hammond’s ballroom.

When the Hammonds sold 9 East 91st Street in 1946 they moved to a duplex at 778 Park Avenue. Emily’s husband, son of a Civil War general who served on Gen. Sherman‘s staff, had been a director of ten corporations and senior partner in the law firm of Hine, Rearick, Dorr and Hammond. He was reportedly enjoying a vigorous retirement highlighted by lots of golf when he dropped dead on the links in 1949. Up until then, he and his wife had kept their place at Mt. Kisco, called Dellwood. After his death, Emily left 778 Park, moved with a Hammond cousin into 136 East 64th St., and gave Dellwood to Frank Buchman‘s Moral Rearmament.

Frank N. Buchman was a remarkable character, but not well loved by the Hammond clan. Emily gave millions to Moral Rearmament (a.k.a. MRA) while she was alive and would have given them everything had there not been a sort of last minute family intervention.

Frank N. Buchman.

She died in 1970 at the age of 95, leaving modest trusts for her grandchildren. Buchman was a Protestant evangelist minister whose Oxford Group, as MRA was originally called, rose in response to the militarization of prewar Europe. President Truman praised MRA’s volunteerism during the war years. Bill Wilson‘s early times with the Oxford Group played an important part in the development of Alcoholics Anonymous.

MRA’s dedication to the task of building a postwar peace — through conferences, training centers, media productions, etc. — are considered by many to have greatly aided Franco-German reconciliation. Emily expected to keep a room for herself at Dellwood, but was evicted in order that she not threaten MRA’s tax exempt status.

What I don’t know — and probably never will — is whether any more of this big old house still survives behind its limestone walls.

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