Friday, July 30, 2010
It's a lot of fun - for me, anyway - to look at a block of apparently different houses and mentally reconstruct a row of vanished identical "builders' specials." Take this row on the north side of 62nd Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. When built, probably just after the Civil War, all 9 of them were absolutely identical. I'll bet the one on the far left was simplified sometime in the 1920s, when skirts were getting shorter, jazz was getting louder, sex was getting more obvious, and "smart" people were de-Victorian-izing old houses. The one next door to it may well have lost its stoop around the same time. Stoops are being put back on vintage houses today, but there was a time when they were considered hopelessly out of fashion, and better dispensed with. The facade on the 3rd house from the left is in original condition, except for being painted white. The 4th house has a sort of Ramada Inn Colonial thing going on, and the less said about it the better. The brick house in the middle of the row replaces 2 of the original houses, a verifiable fact because the same houses pick up again on the other side of it. It's a good chance that this place was built before the house on the far left. It's scale speaks more to the arrival of upscale social types, who were colonizing this part of town in the very early 20th Century, than it does to the scaled down taste of the sophisticates who were doing house alterations in the '20s. The house just past the brick mansion looks to be in completely untouched condition, at least on the outside. The one next to it had a recent, very upscale renovation that added an extra floor.
I suppose you could call these houses big, or at least relatively so. Most passersby on Madison Avenue between 62nd and 63rd Streets don't realize that they are walking past a unified row of 6 identical speculative residential row houses. The original high stoops and elaborate front doors have all been replaced with the 2-story shopfronts we see today. Upstairs in some of them, wonderful old rooms with marble fireplaces and heavy plaster ceiling moldings still survive. It's easy to date these houses. The geometric patterns on the window surrounds are called "Eastlake motifs," in honor of a Brit named Charles Eastlake whose "Hints on Household Taste" was all the rage in the late 1860s and 1870s. The "Neo-Grec" style of New York townhouse, which enjoyed a fleeting fashion between the Italianate of the 1860s and the Queen Anne of 1880s, incorporated Eastlake's aesthetic. His signature motifs, seen in close-up on the window surrounds, make Neo-Grec houses easy to spot. There's a slightly earlier row of houses on the next block up, where one of the original entryways survives. My guess is a street widening precipitated the removal of the stoop. The inner foyer door is now the front door, reached by a new iron stair anchored at sidewalk level by handsome - and clearly not original - wrought iron newels.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Best Buy gets horrible online reviews, but I'm thinking only cranky people write online reviews. I was treated just fine, got a sexy Canon Power Shot camera, and have felt like that Russian tennis star with the little dog all week.
My first photo shoot - well, after my daughter's engagement party last Saturday - was this morning, all within a one block radius of my apartment. People call the Upper East Side sterile and boring, but how could anyone not swoon over these houses?
1) Here's my locator shot, my corner at 63rd and Madison. I'm actually in the middle of this block, half way to Park Ave.
2) Shot #2 is of 36 East 63rd St., a private house these days, but built in 1929 as the Hangar Club, for rich guys who owned their own airplanes. Now it's the home of a rich guy who keeps our block lined with hulking Escalades and guys in suits with plastic tubes in their ears. We all, as a result, feel extremely safe here.
3) Shot #3 is 11 East 62nd St., now owned by the Japanese Government. Too bad that tacky truck is right in front, but I had to get my shot and then get to work. If I recall correctly, this place was a wedding gift, built in 1898 for Ernesto Fabbri, a swell Italian with the good sense to marry a grand-daughter of William H, Vanderbilt. I was in it before the sale to the Japanese, at which time most of the original kitchen and bathroom finishes were still extant. Probably all gone by now. You should see the staircase in this place, and the big panelled room in front on the second floor. "To die," as they say.
4) Before leaving 62nd St., I figured I'd better sneak around that truck and get a shot of the front of the house. Heydel and Shepard were the architects, Shepard being Mrs. Fabbri's cousin (if I've got that straight).
5) Close-up of the gate at 11 East 62nd.
6) How about this one? 3 East 64th St., now the Indian Consulate, which is why all those people are lined up out front, waiting for the visa office to open. It was built in 1900 for Orme Wilson, the husband of "The" Mrs. Astor's daughter, Carrie. Wilson's parents were famous for contriving to marry their 3 children to the most fashionable society people of their day. Orme's sisters were married to Ogden Goelet and Cornelius Vanderbilt III respectively.
7) This is Edwin Berwind's house on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 64th St. If you've visited the Elms at Newport, you've been to his summer house. And you know he was a coal baron who never married and lived out his life with his sister.
How could I not love the Upper East Side with these kinds of houses within one block of my own?
Sunday, July 18, 2010
I did a few good deals this month and finally have some extra cash to buy a new digital camera. "Best Buy," here I come. For now, however, I'm going to use another couple of photos from my book, "The Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age; Architectural Aspirations 1879 -1901," published in 1991 by St. Martin's Press in New York. Between 1882 and 1925 this house stood on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd St. The NBA Football store is on the site today, at street level in the office building called 666 Fifth Avenue. The house was built for William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of the Commodore, and designed by America's first Beaux Arts trained architect, Richard Morris Hunt. The project really belonged to Vanderbilt's wife Alva, a woman with an equal abundance of money and taste. Historians love to condemn Alva as a cold-blooded social climber, but she was in fact a remarkable woman whose remarkable life did not entail kowtowing to men. Her New York house at 660 Fifth Avenue started a craze for the "Chateau Style" that swept the country. The photo below shows the drawing room. This is no copy of a European room, but rather a careful interpretation of classic French interior design for a sophisticated (the Vanderbilts spoke French at home) American client. It was executed by a guy named Jules Allard, who back then was outfitting mansions all over the place with rooms like it. A critic of the time remarked on the "effortless elegance" of Alva's interiors, an opinion with which I heartily agree. OK, OK, so it's a little formal. What can I say?I have a taste for formality
Saturday, July 10, 2010
This is Elm court in Lenox, MA, designed by Peabody and Stearns at the end of the 19th Century. It was built for Emily Vanderbilt Sloan and her husband, furniture magnate W.D. Sloan. I devoted a chapter to it in my book, "The Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age, Architectural Aspirations 1879-1901," with an Introduction by Louis Auchincloss. My co-author, Robbe Stimson, and I sneaked up there one afternoon when Elm Court was in derelict condition. It was one of the most enjoyable days I can remember. We took photos showing the wreck the place had become for our book. They caused a local sensation in Lenox. The house was - and still is - in family hands but interestingly, our most notable supporter was a family member. Not long after "Vanderbilts" was published, the son of this family member took the house over and did an incredible renovation. Stimson thought it was "compost," but the new owner managed to transform mulch to magnificence. For a short period he lived there and operated a sort of ultra-luxurious bed and breakfast. And then....he moved out and the place was closed down again. I wonder what's happened to it now.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Any old country place worth its salt will have interesting ancillary buildings. Daheim, the estate on which I have lived for 28 years, has an abundance. In addition to the bowling alley (see below), the gatehouse, the Bungalow, the dairy barn, the farm house, the pump house, my house (it being the main house), the many greenhouses (all, alas, in ruins), and the gardener's cottage, we've also got a tennis house. It's located on what we call the tennis lawn. That lawn is directly in front of the main house, which I rented in December of 1981, moved into on June 2, 1982, and remain in today. The original clay tennis court "lawned over " years before I was born. The net and fencing probably biodegraded at least a half a century ago. Happily, the tennis house itself - a picturesque pavilion designed to store racquets, balls, cushions, nets and whites - is still standing. The hippies in the Leary period called it the "meditation house," although how much meditation actually transpired here is open to debate. Twenty years ago, I wrote "The Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age" at my old desk from 81st Street, which is still inside. The tennis house has been kicked around over the years, and I confess that today I am barely keeping it weatherproof - and trying not to be too dismayed by carpenter bees. Every so often I still go out and sit at my desk. Old photos show crossed tennis raquets on the gable end facing the lawn. One surviving stained glass transome depicts crossed cricket bats. BTW, That stone staircase leads down from the south side of the tennis house to what was originally a walled orchard below. The last shot shows what it looks like from the orchard.
Friday, July 2, 2010
I'm a great fan of Delano & Aldrich, a firm that was, I suppose, the Robert A.M. Stern of the 1920s. William Adams Delano could have been a J.C. Leyendecker illustration (think: Arrow Shirt ads, ca. 1922) - urbane, well born, sophisticated, with a lot of taste and talent. I've never had the pleasure of living in a Delano-designed house. He was a big Georgian Revival guy, and a man who turned restraint into a hallmark of luxury. No easy feat. Here are a few good D & A houses - High Lawn in Lenox, MA; Oak Knoll outside Oyster Bay on Long Island; Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's studio in Westbury (view from the air); Willard Straight's house on Fifth Avenue and 94th St (recently returned to single family use); and one of theirmost famous clubs, the Knickerbocker on Fifth Avenue and 62nd St.