Friday, March 23, 2012
In Defense of Excess
Freshman Congressional opinion notwithstanding, the world is not an essay in black and white. Grownup life, as any grownup knows, is measured in shades of gray and gray can be good. A case in point is 7 East 91st Street, a house of surpassing - some would say excessive - luxury, paid for by furniture magnate William D. Sloane, completed in 1905 to the designs of New York's great proponent of the Beaux Arts, Whitney Warren, and used as a city residence by Sloane's daughter Adele and her husband James Abercrombie Burden. If your father gave you a gift ten years after you were married, would you still call it a wedding gift? I'm not sure I would, but that's the usual description applied to 7 East 91st. This is what it looked like when it first went up. The big house next door, a sliver of which is visible to the right, belonged to Adele's sister, Emily Hammond.
And here's the Burden house today. It looks remarkably intact which, to a certain extent, it is. Whitney Warren and his partner Charles D. Wetmore are best remembered for their design work on Grand Central Terminal, but the firm also did a great many office and apartment buildings, several sumptuous clubs (among them the New York Yacht), the Royal Hawaiian Hotel of all things, and a number of houses, among them one in Tuxedo for banker Henry Munroe where yours truly lived for several luxurious years, and of course the Burden house.
The architectural preservation mandarins of New York consider 7 East 91st Street to be the finest Beaux Arts mansion in town.
Although I live in a big house myself, I would hesitate to call it "The Foreman Mansion." I'm sure my friends would tease me if I did. "The Burden Mansion" belongs to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, and I suppose no one's going to tease them. Both it and the former Kahn house next door are used today as a school and, particularly in the case of the Burden Mansion, offer rentable venues for ornate social affairs. When guests in black tie aren't swanning in and out to weddings and receptions, the school uses this modern glass stair tower, nestled unobtrusively between the two houses, to connect the one to the other.
I say of myself that I am a "front door" kind of a guy, so that's where we're going to start our tour. Florence Adele Sloane started her married life with James A. Burden on June 7, 1895 at Trinity Church in Lenox, Mass. If you read my post last week you know already that the bride's parents were Lenox cottagers who owned a famous place there called Elm Court. According the The New York Times, Trinity was practically buried on the day of the wedding in palms, white roses, white lilies, and white poppies. The bride's father had hired fifty freight cars to haul a hundred and eighty of his guests' carriages up to the country. He reserved the entire Curtis Hotel, located in the center of Lenox, for three days. A hoard of wedding booty, worth seven hundred thousand dollars (so the papers said) sat glittering in a pile at Elm Court. Sherry's came up from New York to cater the wedding breakfast. Twenty-four year old James Burden was perfectly able to hold up his head amidst all this, well, excess. His personal income from the Burden Iron Works of Troy, New York, was a million a year.
This isn't an ordinary door, as you can see, but rather a vehicular entrance. Carriages - later cars - pulled out of the weather, dropped passengers off, and returned to the street via an alley between Adele's house and that of her sister, Emily Hammond, next door.
Whitney Warren was big on detail.
Now we're inside the main hall, looking back at the vehicular entrance through the front door.
The signal feature of the Burden house is its swooningly beautiful main stair, which we will revisit as we work our way upstairs.
I haven't seen the original floor plan, but despite the institutional jiggering, the original layout is fairly easy to reconstruct. This main floor library, paneled in oak and pictured below, faces south over the street. A private staircase, illustrated further on, connects it with Mr. Burden's bedroom above.
On the other side of the main hall is an elongated oval reception room, which would have been used for informal meetings, visits, occasional interviews, but not for evening parties. Immediately next to it was a billiard room, now largely devoid of detail.
A tremendous amount of skill and art goes into the making of a curved door.
There's an elevator, of course, but we're not going to miss an opportunity to take the amazing stair to the second floor.
This door on the second floor landing leads to the owners' bedroom suite, a drawing room and a family dining room.
There are no historic labels on these rooms, but I'm pretty sure this was a private living room. It is appropriately ornate and formally scaled. Adjacent to it was a breakfast room that probably would also have been used for less elaborate family dinners. Food would have been served from an adjoining pantry connected by dumbwaiter to the kitchen on the floor above. According to the 1910 census, the Burdens occupied the house with three children, seventeen servants, four laundresses, three footmen, and a chauffeur with a drinking problem. Well, the drinking problem emerged later. The same year as the census, the chauffeur went on a tear with a couple of girls while the Burdens were off vacationing in the Adirondacks. Drunk as a lord, piloting his employers' car at high speed down 129th Street, he crashed headlong into a taxi on Lexington Avenue. We assume he lost his job.
This little lobby with its picturesque step-up mezzanine is the entrance to a three-room master suite containing Mrs. Burden's boudoir, her bedroom, her husband's bedroom and an elaborate dressing room and bathroom. The little door nestled against the railing opens onto that afore-mentioned stair down to the library. I've never seen a his/her suite, especially in a house like this, with only one bathroom and I had a devil of time discovering the second one here. Happily a reader sent me a copy of the original plans (thank you, Mr, Sutor), from which I discovered that the westernmost of the three rooms, now a somewhat featureless classroom, was originally divided into Mr Burden's bedroom and his private bath. All architectural details, as well as what was probably a terrific old bathroom, were demolished in the process of the combination.
The private stair to the library.
Here's the bedroom lobby, looking the other direction.
The three large south facing rooms comprising this suite have, alas, lost most of their original detail. This room has about the most.
All the original bathrooms at 7 East 91st Street are long gone. This single surviving bathroom ceiling in the master suite is a sad reminder of what must have been.
A palace like this was designed for entertaining, and its impressive stairway was intended to create high expectations en route to the third floor "piano nobile." The risers are quite low, so while there may be a lot of stairs they're surprisingly easy to climb.
Three grand entertaining rooms occupy the entire third floor. The music room in the image below is in the middle; the ballroom is to the south; the formal dining room to the north
Could I resist taking a photo of the heat register? Answer: no.
"What is Doing In Society" in The New York Times of February 23, 1906, described the Burden housewarming as the day's "chief event of social interest." Society in the Gilded Age was all about entertaining - and often nothing more. Balls, dances, grand dinners and musicales, with famous people either attending or entertaining, were regular events on the third floor of 7 East 91st Street. Of course, why would you live in a place like this if they weren't?
Do I look relaxed and at home? That would be a "yes."
This is the view north from the ballroom, through the central music room, to the dining room in the distance.
People who kept townhouses on this scale might not have eaten all their meals in such splendor, especially since there was inevitably a cozier family dining room elsewhere. State dining rooms like the one below would have been especially good for big dinner parties and ball suppers. The original kitchen and serving pantry, now replaced with a modern installation, were located immediately to the left of that incongruous looking stainless steel cooler. According to vintage photos, there was once an elaborate fireplace at the base of the gilded arch. So much else in these apartments is intact that one wonders why this in particular went missing.
All the doors on this floor are mirrored. Here's a closeup.
The main stair at 7 East 91st Street was a ceremonial - nay, "triumphal" - route from front door on one to the ballroom on three. It enhanced the day to day life of Mr. and Mrs. Burden on two but stopped on three. The image below shows the stair to the childrens' rooms on four, where I'll wager parents rarely ventured. While handsome it is modest by comparison.
The fourth floor was for children and guests. This corridor survives essentially in original condition, but the rooms off of it have been substantially reconfigured.
The fifth floor was a warren of servants' rooms, reconfigured by Sacred Heart into classrooms. It is set back behind a limestone balustrade, invisible from the street, and surrounded by the sort of terrace that latter-day subdivided mansion dwellers would kill for.
So what happened to these people? The Lenox, Massachusetts of Adele's youth was apparently too dull for the Burdens, who in 1917 built their own country place in rural Syosset, Long Island. Called Woodside and designed by the celebrated firm of Delano and Aldrich, it was an essay in restrained Georgian Revival architecture - and an eloquent illustration of the evolution of upper class taste. The Prince of Wales himself (later Duke of Windsor) honored the Burdens by borrowing it during a famous polo competition in 1924. Quite a feather in their social cap.
In June of 1932, J.A. Burden died suddenly at Woodside of an embolism. He was only sixty-one. Adele promptly abandoned her Gilded Age palace on 91st Street, which must have seemed more than a little over the top in 1932, and moved to the River House. The following year, John Jacob Astor, whose father had gone down on the Titanic, was all set to rent 7 East 91st Street in anticipation of his marriage. Unfortunately, the would-be bride bolted two days before the ceremony. The house was vacant in 1936 when Adele married a San Francisco banker and former U.S. diplomat named Richard Tobin in Paris. Two years later Parke-Bernet auctioned the furniture for a grand total of $31,591. The Convent of the Sacred Heart, which had owned the Otto Kahn house next door since 1934, bought 7 East 91st in 1940. Tobin died in 1952; Adele followed him to the grave in 1960. Woodside became a golf club in 1968; it is now called the Woodside Acres Country Club. And whereas J.J. Astor couldn't manage to get married at 7 East 91st Street, if you'd like to give it a try, the link is www.burdenkahnmansion.org.