The history of a house

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Draining the swamp (Conservatory Water) in Central Park.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019. It was in the low 50s, yesterday, after a much chillier night before. But overcast and it felt colder than that. Unlike last weekend, the first weekend in Spring which gave us a warmer Saturday for its debut.

Yesterday morning, Kathy Prounis, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club, called and invited me and JH to visit the location of the Club’s annual Decorator Showhouse. This was a spur of the moment thing for me. I was making my coffee when the phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize.

Richard Whitney (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Kathy, who has been involved as a Patron of the Showhouse for over five years, told me that the night before she was doing some research on this year’s Showhouse – a double wide 12,000 square foot Georgian style house measuring 40’  built in 1920 by Richard Whitney, a prominent banker with J.P. Morgan. The house, which sits mid-block on 36 East 74th Street between Park and Madison Avenues, has six floors, 10 fireplaces, plus a pool in the basement.

Kathy called me because in her research she found a Diary I’d written about my late friend Dorothy Hirshon who had bought it in the early 1940s when she was married to William Paley.

Kathy wanted to know if I’d like to see the house which was in the process of being torn up (literally) to ready it for the Showhouse. More than 20 interior designers will contribute and design separate rooms for the Showhouse which opens on May 1st.

Dorothy Paley, later Hirshon about the time she bought the house.

This is the 47th year of the Showhouse. It’s a big hit for thousands of design enthusiasts, and aside from a great event for the interior design industry (and it is a major industry in New York), it’s all for the very good cause raising money for Kips Bay — a home away from home for 10,000 kids by providing after school programs.  As Kathy likes to say: “Good design is designing a good life for a kid!”

Checking out a Showhouse under construction at 11 on a weekday morning is not of particular interest to me although of course I respect the objective. This one, however, as Kathy Prounis  suggested in making the call, might be of interest since it once belonged to Dorothy.

She was right. I hadn’t known the history of the house or who built it. Nor had I ever been inside. It had been an important house to Dorothy specifically because it was big enough for their two young children, Jeff and Hilary, to live with them. Mr. Paley was not fond of living around/with children. At all. There was a separate house for them at Kiluna, the estate she bought from one of the Pulitzer heirs. In their divorce in 1947 and his subsequent marriage to Barbara (Babe) Cushing Mortimer, Mister kept Kiluna and sold Dorothy the house on East 74th Street. For a decent profit also.

It was many years later – in the early 1990s when I first met her, having been introduced by John Richardson. She was living in Glen Cove in a beautiful California-style house that she built when she was 80. Dorothy had great style. She was an initial member of the original Best Dressed List that Eleanor Lambert started during World War II when France was occupied by the Nazis. It was Dorothy who initiated the Paley collection, which he also kept in the divorce and later he left to MoMA. Her great interest and knowledge in art collecting began as a very young woman when she was married Jack Hearst. His father William R., fond of his beautiful young daughter-in-law, often took her with him when he visited a gallery.

In 1940, Dorothy, then married to William Paley, came back from their trip to South America with a bagful of emeralds. She brought them to Fulco and told him she wanted a necklace of these stones with no diamonds, something she could wear in day time.

Dorothy was a fashion plate and an activist although the word wasn’t applied to a woman in those days. It was she who, along with a black reverend from Harlem, canvassed all the New York hospitals where medical staffs were segregated, to integrate. They finally succeeded with one hospital, and from there eventually all hospitals’ medical staffs were integrated, which today is ordinary. As it should be.

She had her hand in many philanthropies as well as being on the board and an early supporter of the New School, and Phoenix House. It was a powerful personality who rescued animals (she had seven cats and four dogs living with her at the time of her death), often from highways between Long Island and Manhattan, and she “knew everybody” — including all the Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

Coincidentally, across the street from Dororthy’s former home stands the last home of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Dorothy was most certainly acquainted.

Having the opportunity to see that house’s interior, just to be reminded of this remarkable personality who filled her world with interest, I couldn’t turn it down. JH and I got there about 11:30. I had passed the house many times, maybe hundreds of times over the years. And always in my head, to my eye, I was looking at a residence once occupied by someone whom I had come to know well, to know her history well, and to know her way of life style well.

On arrival, once inside, we walked into a house that was in extensive renovation, all dust, and walls and floors of empty rooms with no sign of any human residence, with a score of carpenters, painters, electricians preparing for the arrival of the interior designers who are making their mark.

The spiral staircase spanning 5 stories.

Although what impressed me was the light. Big rooms, high ceilings in the public rooms with all tall windows, a garden space in the back, a magnificent spiral staircase that circles up to the fifth floor (there was an elevator, too). And lots of natural light. Multiple bathrooms, a kitchen area, bedrooms for staff. Grand. Dorothy had selected a house that must have impressed her husband who with his ego was naturally attracted to the grand. Grand but not intimidating; because the scale of the rooms except for the public rooms were either welcoming because of the natural light coming through the large, tall windows. Or intimate. And comfortable.

The rooms are all gracious in size and bathed in natural light.

All of that was my imagination working, of course. The Kips Bay Showhouse which will occupy the mansion as of May 1st will be fascinating because of the combination of multiple spaces, from the serving pantry above the grand dining room, to the variety of bedrooms from small to spacious (but not ridiculously), and even cozy. With all those fireplaces.

The master bedroom mantel.

She must have chosen it for all of those reasons, and for knowing what impressed and pleased her husband (of that time) — which of course would reflect on his own sense (or need) of  “position” in the world. But between the War (WWII) where he was away in London frequently for long periods (CBSwas the leading wartime broadcasting source, headed by Edward R. Murrow), and then as the marriage was failing, obviously from his extra-marital activity. From all reports, and I was aware of a lot of them (biographies fill you in), and although Dorothy was a strong and steady woman psychologically, when he left and divorced her quickly only because his new wife-to-be was already expecting, the house no longer could serve the purpose of pleasing him and his needs and his ego.

That was her weakness, to be sure; he was the man that got away. This great house, like much of the great art she led him to, no longer fit the bill. She sold the house not long after and moved into something more adaptable for her and her children. A grand memory, still standing, and now a history pretty much forgotten by time. The Kips Bay Showhouse will mark its revival of a great house for some new owners and family.

For tickets to opening night on May 1st, and access to the Show House, click here

The back of the house where no doubt there would be bowers of flowers to please the eye and the sense, for Dorothy loved color.

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