Big Old Houses: Very Rich, and Very Quiet

Featured image

In January of 1940, Mary Stillman Harkness gave a chapel to Connecticut College. When asked by college president Katherine Blunt to speak at the dedication, Mrs. Harkness replied that to do so would be “so painful to me that it would quite ruin the whole occasion.”

So she tucked her head down in the manner she and her husband had cultivated throughout their lives, and simply watched. Cultured, quintessentially philanthropic, decidedly private, enormously rich, (and incidentally childless), the Harknesses supported worthy social causes to the tune of over $129 million dollars. That would be around two billion today.

The image above taken sometime in the 1940s judging from the car, shows the Harkness house at 1 East 75th Street. The image below shows it today, almost seventy years later and looking remarkably intact. Completed in 1908, it was a wedding gift from Edward Harkness‘s mother. In no way was he a passive recipient of maternal largesse. Harkness worked closely with his architect, James Gamble Rogers, and got exactly what he wanted. Their collaboration led to a string of philanthropic architectural commissions that made Roger’s career.

I can’t imagine anyone walking on this stretch of Fifth Avenue and not stopping to admire this amazing fence. Unsurprisingly, it has a scholarly antecedent — namely, the fence around the Scalegari tombs in Verona. One imagines Rogers trotting out a sample of obscure European fences while the client strokes his chin, deep in educated thought. Cost? Not an issue.

Here’s Edward Harkness (1874-1940), below, left, who, after graduating from Yale in 1897, came to New York to help manage his family’s money. He’s got a sort of Woodrow-Wilson-in-command look in this photo, but in truth he was every bit as shy as his wife. During his entire life, he never once granted an interview. Harkness’s father, Steven V. Harkness, was a successful mid-western entrepreneur whose half-brother, Henry Flagler, convinced him to back John D. Rockefeller in what would become the Standard Oil Corporation. Steven Harkness became Standard Oil’s second largest shareholder.

This lovely creature (below, right) posing in her wedding gown is Mary Stillman Harkness. Her lawyer father, Thomas Stillman, lived only a few blocks from 1 East 75th in a fine limestone house at 9 East 78th St. It was there in 1904 that she married Edward Harkness. Unlike 1 East 75th, the interiors of the Stillman house have been chopped up, and the facade disfigured by an insensitive top floor alteration.

Clockwise from top left: Edward Harkness; Mary Stillman Harkness; James Gamble Rogers.

James Gamble Rogers (1867-1947) was the architect who designed 1 East 75th Street. Notwithstanding the avowedly Italianate look of the house, Harkness and Rogers shared a particular penchant for collegiate gothic revival architecture. Thanks to Standard Oil money, atmospheric Rogers-designed buildings today ornament campuses from Chicago to New Haven. Rogers was despised by modernists, although his Butler Library at Columbia seems a departure from earlier collegiate work. Harkness often made it a condition of his architectural donations that they be designed by Rogers.

I had heard the Harkness house, home today of the Commonwealth Fund, was the most intact old mansion on Fifth Avenue. I liked the idea that Edward’s mother Anna Harkness not only paid for the house in 1908, but founded the Fund in 1918 that occupies it today. One might say this house has never left the family.

A small but opulent polished limestone foyer presages the quality of interior finishes to come.

A sharp left from the foyer leads to the entrance hall. It used to look like this. And here’s what it looks like today, minus portieres, plus a flatscreen, still gorgeous.

There are three elevators — one for servants, two for family. Both family lifts have lost their original cabs. The door beyond the arch leads to a lift off the entrance hall. On either side of it are powder rooms.

The men’s room is totally, brilliantly intact.

The ladies’ room on the other side is a similarly intact survivor.

Immediately west of the entrance hall is a reception room. The window on the left overlooks Fifth Avenue.

Gorgeous as it is today, it’s hard not to love it more in the past. The Harknesses did a lot of redecorating during their years here — and I don’t mean switching a couple of sofas or rugs either. They took down stained glass ceilings, put up chinoiserie cabinets, replaced paneling, etc., etc. This room reflects the 18th century French taste for things Chinese.

The windows on Fifth Avenue, today and yesterday.

Can you guess what this is? Look closely; it’s a light switch.

The ceiling is as clever as it is beautiful. How much do you love that painted monkey?

The reception room is now a conference room; beyond the door is the entrance hall; above it, a profile of Marie Antoinette.

The main stair is out of sight to the left beyond that short flight of steps. The dining room is past the stair landing.

In 2004, the Commonwealth Fund hired the eminent architectural historian Paul Goldberger to write a monograph on 1 East 75th. Besides a great deal of useful information, it contains repeated descriptions of Rogers’ “impressive restraint” and the client’s low profile lifestyle and desire for domestic simplicity. I wondered at first if I had stumbled into the wrong house.

The foot of the stair was originally guarded by a wooden-looking bronze ofNathan Hale. Commonwealth installed the graceful bronze Mercury.

This small foyer mediates circulation between the main stair hall, the dining room, a serving pantry and the back stairs.

The dining room, then and now.

The culinary abundance of land and sea is celebrated in a pair of Kenyon Cox leaded windows.

A dumb waiter originally connected this serving pantry to the kitchen below. The pantry’s pretty unchanged; the kitchen is not.

I love the service areas of old houses, however …

… we’re taking the main stairs up.

The second floor “piano nobile” contains a grand central gallery, a library overlooking Fifth Avenue and a music room above the main floor dining room.

Here’s the library, then and now, paneled in an exotic Brazilian rosewood. Look up and you can see sockets that once powered a long abandoned network of light bulbs originally placed at the intersections of the ceiling beams.

My back is to Fifth Avenue; the window on my right overlooks 75th Street; the gallery lies ahead; the music room is in the distance.

In lieu of a ballroom for high society bashes, the Harknesses used this music room for (probably) restrained recitals. Today it’s a library.

The third floor was essentially one enormous master bedroom suite — Edward at one end; Mary at the other. This corridor led to Mary’s end. Alas, my license to shoot these rooms was void if anyone happened to be sitting in them. In a building with 50 employees, this posed a problem. I was graciously offered the option of coming back, which I actually did, once. However, from the third floor up, my normally obsessive photographic chronicle is full of holes.

The original master bedroom in the image below has, I think, been partitioned into smaller offices. I had only peeked around the door when I glimpsed someone at her desk and hastily pressed myself back against the wall.

The Goldberger monograph waxed so rhapsodic about Mrs. H’s boudoir, that I made a special trip back.

The fourth floor originally had five guestrooms, a sewing room, and quarters for Mr. Harkness’s valet. I got to see the stairs, the hall and one guest room on the Fifth Avenue corner.

At the time of Mrs. Harkness’s death in 1950, the main stair ended at the fourth floor. Natural light from a rooftop bulkhead filtered through an ornate glass skylight that covered the stairwell at the level of the fifth floor. The Commonwealth Fund has been a better architectural steward than most, but demolition of the skylight and installation of this intrusive steel stair was not a sensitive way to improve fifth floor access.

The stairway was installed in 1952 and one hopes the same blunt approach wouldn’t have been used today. There remains a mindset amongst institutional users, however, that many worthy architectural grace notes in old houses — and I include grand original bathrooms — simply have no value and are not worth saving

Up on five, long corridors with tiled dadoes lead to small servant bedrooms used today as offices.

My tour guide, Harkness House curator Paul Engel, soon had me on the roof.

We took the stair back down to the service elevator, and the elevator all the way down to the basement. The original kitchen has been converted to a staff dining room, where I had an exceptional meat loaf luncheon. Despite a rejiggering of the basement plan, much architectural fabric remains.

Finally, a look at the moat.

It’s hard to overstate Edward and Mary Harkness’s philanthropic generosity. During their lifetimes the Commonwealth Fund paid for the construction of hospitals, college halls and chapels, underwrote museum collections and pioneered methods of school instruction. Commonwealth research was responsible for the development of the Pap test and a major mission the Fund remains the improvement of health care.

The Holbein, Stuart and Gainsborough paintings that once hung on the walls of 1 East 75th Street now hang for the pleasure of all in the Metropolitan Museum. Eolia, the Harknesses’ 230-acre estate on the Sound at Waterford, CT, belongs to the public as well. Supported in large part by fervent volunteers, it contains an elaborate James Gamble Rogers mansion which, according to its website, is “dedicated to weddings, celebrations and conferences.”

The vintage photo of the library at 1 East 75th St is from The Architectural Record of May, 1910, “A Fifth Avenue Mansion.” All the other vintage photos are courtesy of The Commonwealth Fund.

Recent Posts