Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Cook Block

Ozymandias himself could not have imagined a more impregnable fortress of money and magnificence than Manhattan's Upper East Side, Fifth to Park, on the eve of the First World War. "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Indeed! Less than 20 years later, it was crumbling so fast that on August 10, 1930 The New York Times ran an illustrated spread titled "New York's Mansions are Almost Gone." In the midst of the chaos was an exception - the so-called Cook block, in the words of the Times, "safe for all time against the encroachment of business and apartments." In 1883, railroad millionaire Henry H. Cook (1821-1905, seen in the photo above) had bought the entire block from Fifth to Madison and 78th to 79th. Wishing to preserve the "ton" of the neighborhood, he divided his new block into strictly-single-family lots, protected them with stringent deed restrictions, and proceeded to dole them out slowly to mansion builders only. Cook built a ponderous house for himself, illustrated below, on the site of today's Duke mansion. It was originally intended to be one of four big houses anchoring each corner of the block. That plan never came to pass. An elderly watchman interviewed at the time of its 1909 demolition observed morosely, "they don't put buildings up that way now." (Plus ca change...).
Despite decades of unsympathetic court decisions, leavened by occasional dumb luck, the Cook block has survived in unexpectedly intact condition - at least from the outside. Historic district legislation has happily made its rescue permanent. The image below shows the southeast corner of the Cook block, with Stanford White's 1898 house for Stuyvesant Fish in the foreground at Madison and 78th. A trio of stylistically unified limestone front spec houses stands to the right of the Fish house, at numbers 1014, 1016 and 1018 Madison Avenue respectively.
In the spring of 1902, Cook sold a 90 x 102 foot parcel on the southwest corner of Madison and 79th to the J.C. Lyons Building and Operating Company, a developer of upscale Manhattan commercial and residential property. Within a few years, Lyons had constructed the three houses at 1014 to 1018. By October of 1907, when financial panic rocked the markets, only 1014 had been sold. The firm's treasurer, Ernest Stedman, lived at 1018, not because he owned it but because it looked better to have the house occupied rather than empty. Number 1016, seen in the middle of the image below, was unsold and unoccupied.
The Lyons houses, while not architecturally iconic, are wonderfully luxurious examples of top of the line, ready built housing for people of means, circa the early 1900s. The dignified limestone facades speak to the French Beaux Arts without getting too caught up in the subject. The facades are ornamented with attractive carved stone and wrought iron elements, not the work of Saint-Gaudens perhaps, but certainly good quality. If the hands of the period's legendary architects aren't individually in evidence, their influence is felt.
On December 20, 1907, faced with a glut of vacancies and unsold property, J.C. Lyons found itself unable to pay a trio of embarrassingly insignificant creditors. The law firm of Philbin, Beekman and Menken took the matter to court on behalf of the plaintiffs, whereupon Judge Hough of the United States Circuit Court forced Lyons into an admission of insolvency. Lyon's bankers refused to intercede, and Judge Hough appointed a receiver to liquidate the company's holdings. The day after Christmas, 1907, Lyon's treasurer Stedman was observed pacing nervously up and down the 14th Street platform of the IRT subway. As the train thundered into the station, he flung himself onto the tracks and was "ground to death" as the media put it, rather sensationally, by the first six cars. The body was "beyond recognition." Stedman lost his entire personal fortune in Lyons' failure, as well as the savings of friends who'd invested in the firm on his advice.
On March 3, 1910, a special sale was held in the Vesey Street salesroom of auctioneer Joseph P.Day. The former Stedman house, 1018 Madison, went down under the hammer for a little under $100,000. The buyer was Morton H. Meinhard, a private investor often misidentified, due to certain of his underwritings, as a woolen merchant. More on him later. Lawyers Title Insurance and Trust bought 1016 Madison, selling it subsequently to a relocated Brit named Francis Henry Lenygon (1877-1943). Not many of us have heard of Lenygon, but he was an uber-prominent decorator in his day. He did work at Buckingham and Windsor palaces for English royals, then came to the U.S. to decorate for American royals like Ogden Reid, Hamilton Twombly, Percy Pyne, and M. Robert Guggenheim. Lenygon's wife Jeannette, who survived him by 34 years, was herself distinguished in scholarly design circles. Among her other achievements was supervision of the 1966 decoration of the Mott Schmidt designed addition to Gracie Mansion.
The Lenygons were the first of a string of owners who lived and worked at 1016 Madison while playing important roles in the world of decorative arts. I don't know if Lenygon used the house as more than a private residence, although I assume he must have, at least to some extent. After his widow left in 1954, the lower floors became a public gallery operated by Klaus and Dolly Perls. Since 2006 the building has been home to the Arader (pronounced 'uh-RAY-der') Gallery, and could fairly be called a treasure trove of prints and maps.
The majority of 1016 Madison remains as the Lyons company built it. Reconstructing its past as a private house was easy and fun. Beyond the iron grills and stone floored entry foyer is a luxuriously wide entrance hall stretching the width of the lot. Servants entered through a separate street door next to the main entrance. Inside the service entrance is a treacherously narrow landing and an exceedingly steep stair down to the basement. Stair and landing are hidden from the main hall within a box adjacent to the entry foyer. The fireplace mantels on 1016's upper floors are pleasant quality contractor grade. Lyons would have installed grander models on the first and second floors, but all of these are gone. Lenygon likely as not replaced them with far better - probably museum grade - substitutes which were too valuable to leave behind when the house was sold to the Perls.
For me, old city houses like 1016 are so "comme il faut" - the graceful stair, the mahogany paneling, the sense of space, even the predictable sequence of rooms. Design wise, there's nothing unique in this house. It's very conventional, but well done and eloquent of its period.
One of the developer's "bells and whistles" was an elevator.
Behind a grand sliding door at the back of the main floor was the library. When 1016 was built, mahogany was a favorite for halls, stairs and dining rooms. Oak was the popular choice for libraries, possibly due to the tree's reputation for strength and depth. Not a hard and fast rule, of course, but one frequently seen. A builder of this class of house wouldn't skimp on hardwoods, whichever ones he used, as the door frame shows.
The paneled bay in the images below was originally glazed, its windows blocked today with sheets of carefully matched oak. When the house was built this room would have been surrounded by a high oak dado. An elaborate matching fireplace, probably flanked with bookcases, would have been centered on the north wall behind the big portrait. The ornate antique door surround leading into the rear extension is one of several installed by the present owner.
The door on the right goes back to the main hall; the one on the left opens onto a service stair that runs from the basement to the sixth floor.
We'll take the graceful main stair to the second floor landing.
Edith Wharton called proportion the "good breeding" of architecture. The second floor drawing room overlooking Madison Avenue has beautiful proportions. Even without the original fireplace, enough mahogany detail survives to give a good idea of what the room was originally like.
The rear of the second floor was - and still is - the dining room. The bay window, paneled in "dining room mahogany" and containing one original stained glass light, survives behind a display cabinet. The fireplace mantel is an improvisation, and the fantastical door surround is obviously not part of the original house. A Venetian chandelier, also obviously not original, was so lovely I couldn't resist taking a photo.
Those of us who live in big old houses and treasure our vintage kitchens and pantries often deal with the frustration of having them on different floors. It is the special old manse whose kitchen, serving pantry and dining room are all in a line. The serving pantry adjacent to the dining room at 1016 has been ingeniously renovated into a real kitchen, and done so without ruining it. A good thing too, since the original kitchen is two floors down!
In addition to the dumbwaiter and the grand family stair, access to the dining room is also via the service stair, located behind yet another visiting antique door surround. I decided to run downstairs for a look at the old kitchen.
Not much to see down here. The original kitchen is now a workroom; a tub survives in the former laundry. I passed the elevator en route to the servants' entrance, and shook my head at the impossibly steep afore-mentioned stairway leading up to the shelf-like street door landing.
I returned to the service stairs, climbed back to the dining room, went out to the main stair hall, and continued up to the third floor.
In 1954, the famous gallery owners Klaus Perls and his wife Dolly bought 1016 Madison, opened Perls Gallery on the lower floors and lived upstairs. The room in the images below, now a salon, was the master bedroom when the house was built. It has survived unscathed for over a century, its fireplace - and others from this floor up - being part of the original construction. The door on the left of the entrance from the hall once led to the master bathroom.
How gorgeous is this door? Beyond it, the original bath has been converted to an unexpectedly elegant storage closet.
After admiring the mahogany hall door to the master bedroom, I headed to the back bedroom, which preserves another original fireplace.
This bedroom's en suite dressing room and bath have also survived, at least partly. The tiles and fixtures look to me like a stylish late '30s or '40s update. How great is that sink?
The front bedroom on the fourth floor was cobbled together from a smaller bedroom plus an assortment of adjacent closets. The flooring looks oddly patched, however, the proportions of the enlarged room are greatly improved. Its original bath has become another storage closet.
The back bedroom on four is slightly smaller than the one on three, but it and its bathroom are otherwise similar.
The front bedroom on five, also reconfigured from a collection of rooms, is now the master, complete with an excellent repro bath.
At the back of floor five is another family bedroom which could have doubled as an upper servant's room. Floor to ceiling wood paneling is not usual on this high a floor, especially in the back of the house. My guess is Francis Lenygon saved the woodwork from someplace else and installed it here. When the Perls owned 1016, this room was a sometime workspace of one of their most famous clients, the American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976). Despite the haute bourgeois townhouse, the Perls were modernists, remembered today for generous donations of African art and works by Modigliani, Soutine, Picasso and others of that ilk to the Metropolitan Museum. I don't know what Calder was up to in this room, but wild daubings cover the walls behind today's hanging prints. If you ever wondered about the sidewalk out front of this house - the one that looks lifted from the beach at Ipanema - that's Calder's work too.
There's only half a floor on six, with narrow corridors, servants' cubicles, and a single vintage bathroom whose basin, to my eye anyway, is also a work of art.
When I was a boy my father kept an office - an eyrie, really - on the 55th floor of 500 Fifth Avenue. This good looking Deco skyscraper, which opened its doors on the northwest corner of 42nd St. in 1931, was originally owned by a man named Walter Salmon (1871-1953). Salmon owned the building, but leased the land from the Gerry family. Actually, he didn't own 500 Fifth by himself, but had a partner, namely Morton Meinhard of 1018 Madison Ave. In 1902, Meinhard's cash enabled Salmon to convert the hotel that had stood on the 500 Fifth Avenue site into a wildly profitable office building. As the land lease under this cash cow drew to a close, Salmon went behind Meinhard's back and negotiated his own extension with the Gerrys. Learning of this perfidy, Meinhard sued and won. The win was famously upheld in New York State Supreme Court by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo (1870-1938). Meinhard v. Salmon is famous because it set a precedent of partnership law. Cardozo held that partners - or "co-adventurers" as he described them - have a fiduciary duty to one another that is by definition above and beyond the ordinary. Likening Salmon's acts to "stealing a march under cover of darkness," he concluded that "Loyalty and comradeship are not so easily abjured." Meinhard was awarded half of Salmon's deal. Writing to colleague Felix Frankfurter, Cardozo noted, apropos of the decision, that "some of my colleagues think that my poetry is better than my law. I think its law is better than its poetry." The decision has had widespread influence, and there isn't a modern corporate or business organization casebook today that doesn't contain an excerpt. The Arader Gallery at 1016 Madison is open to the public; the link is www.aradergalleries.com