Thursday, July 5, 2012
A Chateau on Fifth Avenue
Here is a picture of a lucky man. Charles Pierrepont Henry Gilbert (1861-1952), known generally as C.P.H. Gilbert, was a Mayflower-Yankee kind of a guy who became famous for designing some of plutocratic America's most opulent mansions. When just twenty-seven yesrs of age he produced a hulking great Brooklyn townhouse in the Richardsonian Romanesque style for a Brooklkyn chewing gum mogul named Thomas Adams Jr. Still extant on the corner of 8th Avenue and Carroll Street in Park Slope, the Adams house ultimately led to commissions from the likes of Felix Warburg (today's Jewish Museum on Fifth and 92nd), J.R. DeLamar (now the Polish consulate on Madison and 37th), Edmund Converse (the Gothic palace at 3 East 78th), and, in 1897, a Fifth Avenue chateau for Isaac D, Fletcher (now the Ukrainian Institute, and the subject of today's post, located at 2 East 79th St.).
Both the Ukrainian Institute itself and the house it has occupied for over half a century fly, rather oddly, under most people's radar. We're going to fix that, but first let's take a closer look at Gilbert's 1899 essay on the then popular chateau style. Fletcher's iron fence is calm compared to Edward's Harkness's at 1 East 75th, but you couldn't say that about much else on these facades.
This is actually one of a pair of lanterns that flanks the front door. There's a bulb inside that bronze globe on the kneeling figure's shoulders. It wasn't until I got home to write the text that I even noticed the chatting Munchkins below him.
Snarling dolphins, for reasons I cannot guess, are a leit motif throughout the house. And is that a cat in the image below them? With wings? Being bitten by a what?
"Inventive" is too tame an adjective for Gilbert's Isaac Fletcher house. Twentieth Century modernists crapped all over this style of architecture, but the fact remains that most sixty-year old "modern" buildings look shopworn and boring, while this old pile is as intriguing to the eye and enriching to the neighborhood in which it stands as it was the day it was built.
Isaac Dudley Fletcher (1844-1917) hailed from Bangor, Maine, came to New York as a young man, and grew rich in the paving and roofing business. As president of the Barrett Manufacturing Company (absorbed after his death by Allied Chemical), he was able to not only build a palace on Fifth Avenue, but amass a famous art collection to hang on its walls. When he died he left his house and virtually everything in it - Rubens, Gainsborough, Millet, David and some of the finest Rembrandts in America - to the Metropolitan Museum. Fletcher was a member of both the Union League and, more tellingly, the Metropolitan Club, but I've never seen his name in the (very) many society annals of the period that I have read. It rather appeals to me that so sophisticated a man should have made his money in coal tar.
The entrance hall probably hasn't changed much since Fletcher's day. The next owner left the hall alone too, but not the rest of the house.
Here's oil man Harry F. Sinclair (1876-1956), who bought the Fletcher house from the Museum in 1920 and lived here with wife, son, daughter, and a squadron of servants until 1930. No doubt you remember the "Teapot Dome" scandal from your school days, but I'll bet you haven't a clue what it was all about. (I'd forgot too). Seems Warren Harding's Secretary of the Interior, one Albert B. Fall, took bribes from oil men to arrange cheap leases on government owned fields. One of those fields was called Elk Hills and located near the town of Teapot Dome, WY. Fall, described as a "faithless public officer" by the U.S. Supreme Court judge who revoked the lease in 1927, ultimately went to prison for a year and paid a $100,000 fine. Responding to the defendant's plea for leniency on grounds of ill health, the sentencing judge observed that he'd already factored Fall's health into the sentence, which otherwise would have been 3 years and a $300,000 fine. Interestingly, Edward L. Doheny was acquitted of giving Fall a $100,000 bribe, but Fall was convicted of receiving it. (Go figure). Harry Sinclair was acquitted of bribery in the same series of trials, but sentenced to 6 months in jail for contempt of court in connection with jury tampering. He served his time, bounced back, eventually became chairman of Richfield Oil Corp., and died in Pasadena in 1956, a multimillionaire.
By 1920, upper class taste was well on the way to abandoning the ornate heft of Edwardian decor. Admittedly I'm hypothesizing, but when I look at this reception room overlooking Fifth Avenue, I don't see much C.P.H.Gilbert here. Instead, I see the work of some fashionable unnamed architect/interior designer of the 1920s sprucing up an old house for a new owner with a lot of money. The detail in this room is just a tad too delicate for a space so grandly scaled.
My Institute hosts, Oksana Pidhoreckyj and Jasper Santa Ana, may or may not agree with me.
Two guest powder rooms off the main hall have floors, tiled baseboards and fixtures almost identical to those of a pal of mine with a '20s house in Tuxedo Park.
An alcove at the eastern end of the entrance hall contains the recently restored elevator.
On the other side of the main hall from the reception room, and used now as the Institute's office, is the original main kitchen. Except for missing appliances, it is in a magnificent state of preservation.
Now this is a floor from the 1890s. I have no idea what that thing is standing on it.
Beyond the glass screen is the servants' hall, rather small for so large a house.
The annunciators are too modern for the 1890s. The printed cards inside them are clues to the story of who lived here and how.
I had to take a picture of the servant hall, although other than confirming the survival of vintage architectural fabric it's hard to see much else.
Beyond this door lies the servants' entrance and a dumbwaiter that sends food to the serving pantry upstairs.
Time to go upstairs to the piano nobile, which contains a great drawing room overlooking Fifth Avneue and a redesigned dining room.
I might be wrong but to my eye that chandelier looks a little too "Boardwalk Empire" for a C.P.H. Gilbert house. I mean, I like it, but the ceiling fixture below speaks more eloquently to the building's original aesthetic.
The drawing room overlooking Fifth Avenue is forty-one feet, eight inches long, twenty-six feet, eight inches wide, has towering windows overlooking the park, a particularly nice marble fireplace, amazing wall sconces and an unusual vintage system of indirect lighting nestled against the ceiling moldings.
On the other side of the landing is the dining room, which to me looks like a 1920s neo-Georgian retrofit of a much older room. Further obscuring the original architecture are the remains of pigeon's blood red paint in the overdoors, left from a Costume Institute After-Party given by Prada in May of 2012. Talk about the Devil wearing you-know-what. The Ukrainians rented Prada the entire house, giving them permission to paint pretty much all of the second and third floors in whatever manner they wished. In exchange, Prada agreed to strip, refinish and repaint when they were done. Academy award winning art director Martin Childs is directing the Prada job, which runs parallel to the Institute's own ongoing restoration.
Stripped of a century's worth of paint, one sees how the dado is really just pieced together paint grade pine.
A small conservatory is located at the corner of the dining room. No sooner had the bronze framing and windows been restored than a maintenance man working on the gutters above dropped a snake and shattered one of the roof panes.
The Ukrainian Institute did everything right in the restoration of this serving pantry adjacent to the dining room. It actually still looks old, even though the appliances and the stainless shelving are all new. Instead of tearing out the silver safe and the annunciator, they left them; in lieu of demolishing the dumbwaiter, they restored its oak woodwork; old and new elements are subtly united by the use of new white subway tiles on the walls. Result: a supremely serviceable room that in no way compromises the look of the house.
Prada partied on the third floor too, if you haven't guessed from that purple room at the top of the stairs. What I expected as I climbed these stairs was a pair of his and her master bedrooms, each with en suite bath, and a boudoir in between. The Sinclairs had precisely this arrangement on four, but they made other plans for three. Clues survived in the annunciators.
When houses big enough to have annunciators changed owners, the identifying room tags often stayed in situ. In 1930, when Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant and his sister Anne bought 2 East 79th St., it was simpler to just write "Mr Stuyvesant" in hand on the tag connected to his room, and "Miss Anne" or "A V H S" (for Anne Van Horne Stuyvesant) on hers. I will probably never know who Miss Farrell was, but I do know her room was Anne Stuyvesant's.
Prada has stripped and refinished the beautiful walnut woodwork in the Farrell-Stuyvesant bedroom. Next to go is the purple paint.
A beautiful bathroom with marble walls that match the Sinclairs' baths above is adjacent. The fixtures are missing but if it were up to me, I'd be shopping for period replacements right now. That's because old bathrooms are as important to the aesthetic of an historic house as the fine paneling in the library or the marble fireplace in the drawing room.
The door on the right opens onto a delicious oval boudoir, now midway in careful restoration.
Beyond the boudoir is another elaborate bathroom. The fixtures are missing, but the built-in scale, mirrored closets and marble walls are all intact. It would be an easy matter to restore this room to something very close to its original appearance. I'd expect it to be connected to the other master bedroom, but it's not.
Instead, it's connected to this grand library, which really does look like a C.P.H.Gilbert room. Except I don't think that it is. That white marble bathroom with dressing closets, bathtub and weigh scale is logically part of a bedroom suite. It doesn't belong next to a library. I think the Fletchers' bedrooms originally shared this floor. When the Sinclairs bought the house, they moved the master bedrooms upstairs, installed Miss Farrell (whoever she was) in Mr. Fletcher's old room, and renovated Mrs. Fletcher's room into a library.
The fourth floor at the top of these stairs would normally have been for guests. The Sinclairs' his and her masters were on this floor instead, each with en suite bath, a boudoir in between.
Mrs. Sinclair's is the better of the masters, being slightly larger and overlooking the park. That was typical; the lady of the house always got the better bedroom. Yes, there is a mirror over the fireplace, boxed in to facilitate hanging art.
Mrs. Sinclair's bathroom is worthy of the Waldorf Towers, although there's so much stuff in here it's hard to tell.
Beyond Jasper's toes is the boudoir, rather a simple room compared to the oval number on the floor below. After the Sinclairs left, this was Augustus Stuyvesant's room. In 1930 he and his sister Anne had refugeed uptown from their old house at 3 East 57th St., a district which by then had turned entirely commercial. The Stuyvesants were heirs to significant Manhattan real estate holdings, some of which had been passed down through nine generations, from the Dutch governor himself.
Here's Mr. Sinclair's bedroom and bath. The restoration of the fourth floor is finished, so everything that was in the way downstairs is now up here for safekeeping.
Unlike other fine houses we've visited in this column, the original skylight over the main stair at 2 East 79th St. has not been demolished to make way for a new steel stair to the floor above. We're taking the servants' stairs to five, they and the elevator being the only way to get there. The valves in the bathroom in the distance probably came from Mrs. Sinclair's tub on four.
The fifth floor is divided into what I assume was a governess's suite, and an adjacent children's wing. The windows on the left of the corridor overlook the skylight above the main stair; Jasper stands in the door of one of the children's rooms (the Sinclairs had two, a boy and a girl); the door at the end of the corridor leads to a playroom.
Charm meets sophistication in these delightful playroom sconces.
The 6th floor is a warren of servants' cubicles, often with good views, interspersed with elaborate closets (one extends to the floor below, for hanging curtains).
The servants' stair goes all the way to the basement, but we're taking the elevator.
Here's the machinery that hauled us down.
One of the pleasures of a big old house is rooting around in stuff that's been left behind. Despite fifty-seven years of institutional ownership, there's a lot of interesting stuff still piled in odd corners and packed in basement boxes. We might not at first recognize what in the world it is, but it might come in handy some day.
Anne Stuyvesant died a spinster in 1938. For the next fifteen years her bachelor brother lived alone in the house, receiving few visitors, dining in splendid solitude in his grand dining room. At his 1953 funeral at St. Mark's in the Bowery, the sole mourner was his butler, who wept alone in the front pew. Such was the press description of the final years of Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant. For all I know, he was a jolly old guy with tons of friends and a funeral packed with mourners. However, the first version, which made for a much better newspaper story, has become gospel on the subject of the late Mr. Stuyvesant.
In 1955, the Ukrainian Institute of America bought the house for its assessed valuation of $225,000, and has endeavored to do right by it ever since. Money for the purchase came from industrialist and institute founder William Dzus, whose Dzus Fastener Company became famous for a patented type of fastener that secures skin panels on aircraft. The Fletcher-Sinclair house, as it is known today, hosts all manner of art, film and music events for the purpose of promoting appreciation of Ukrainian culture. Or, like Prada, you can rent it for your own event. The link is www.ukrainianinstitute.org; Oksana's email for rental inquiries is email@example.com