Charlotte’s Web Untangled, New York Neighborhood History

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The ivy-draped walls and lush vegetation creep up the walls of Charlotte Hunnewell's mansion in Turtle Bay, c. 1920.

“Charlotte” of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Webb was inspired by Charlotte Hunnewell, an heiress from Back Bay, Boston. In 1894 The New York Times described her as, “brunette, strikingly handsome, and has for several seasons borne the title of ‘a Newport belle’. She is always a favorite at social gatherings.”

Charlotte Hunnewell Sorchan.

Orphaned young, she inherited a fortune from banking and railroads. Her life encompassed romantic liaisons, high society dramas, a love for artists, philanthropy, and a belief in the obligation of aristocracy. She wrote, “One of the aristocrat’s attributes needed now more than ever is his endeavor to preserve the culture of the golden gifts of the past. Men have always lived with symbols, and culture is the outward form of the spirit within.”

Charlotte’s enduring gift to New York City is Turtle Bay Gardens.

In 1918 she purchased 21 houses on the north side of 48th and the south side of 49th Streets. Working with architects Edward C. Dean and William L. Bottomley, she altered the brownstones, updating the old facades facing the street and creating Mediterranean styles facing interior gardens, while also reorienting the houses, placing the service areas on the street and the principal living and entertainment areas facing the garden.

An overview of the exquisite greenery of Turtle Bay Gardens, c. 1920.
The ivy-draped pergola sits in the center of Turtle Bay Gardens, c. 1920.

The shared garden still exists today, a single great green room of shrubbery, flowers, and mature trees. Each home’s backyard is separated only by low brick wall, perhaps three feet high, with a common path down the center of the block, lined with fountains, statuary, and picturesque details inspired by the Medici Gardens in Florence.

A view of the Hunnewell Mansion from the gardens, c. 1920.
The flora of Turtle Bay Gardens are still striking today.

Among the first purchasers was Charlotte’s friend, Maria Bowen Chapin, founder of the Chapin School.  Other residents over the years include Bob Dylan, Ruth Gordon, June Havoc, Katharine Hepburn, Garson Kanin, Henry Luce, Ricardo Montalban, Maxwell Perkins, Tyrone Power, Olivier Sarkozy, Stephen Sondheim, Leopold Stokowski, and E. B. White.

The Flemish-style architecture of 226 East 49th Street, aka The Hunnewell Mansion, on full display.

For herself Charlotte Hunnewell took the finest, largest, and best positioned of all the Turtle Bay Garden homes, 226 East 49th Street, known thereafter as The Hunnewell Mansion. At 38 feet wide, five stories tall, and 9,000 square feet, it includes a baronial great room with two marble fireplaces and a 22-foot coffered ceiling.

A modern day view of the living room of The Hunnewell Mansion, with its 22-foot-high ceilings and original marble fireplaces.
A wooden archway leads out into the green room.
The Green room leading directly out onto Turtle Bay Gardens.

Secured on The Hunnewell Mansion walls is a poem composed by Le Duc Charles Orléans in the 1400s while in an English Prison:

ALLEZ-VOUS-EN, allez, allez,  Soussi, Soing et Merencolie,
Me cuidez-vous, toute ma vie,
Je vous promet que non ferez; Raison aura sur vous maistrie:
Allez-vous-en, allez, allez, Soussie, Soing et Merencolie.
Se jamais plus vous retournez avecques vostre compaignie,
Je pri à Dieu qu’il vous maudie Et ce par qui vous reviendrez:
Allez-vous-en, allez, allez.

Our rough translation:

Go away, go, go, care, sadness, and melancholy.
Govern me as did you? I promise you no will and no reason will have a new mastery.
Go away, go, go, and never again will you turn around with your companion.
I pray to G-d that he curse you and that by which you will return.

Original wood finishing in the library give the space a warm and cozy feel.
A door leads out onto a balcony from the study.

The Hunnewell Mansion includes six bedrooms, four full bathrooms, three half bathrooms, an elevator, a private garage (complete with a “driver’s room”), a paneled library, the dining room and an art studio open to the garden.

This remarkable residence is now available through Sotheby’s International Realty by Michael Bolla.

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