Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Marquesa de Who?

It is the archetypal preservationist's dream - the beautiful historic house snatched from the clutches of a cold-hearted developer, while the wrecking ball is actually swinging. And it happened right here in River City. In 1965 a certain Marquesa de Cuevas appeared, deus ex machina, literally out of nowhere bearing $2 million in cash to halt developer Sigmund Sommer from doing the dirty on McKim Mead & White's Percy Pyne house at 680 Park Avenue (far left in the image above). The whole block is now a landmark, in great part because of her.

The question is, who was this woman? Usually the answer is limited to her maiden name; Margaret Rockefeller Strong (1897-1988). The Marquesa's life and the circumstances surrounding her 1965 largesse are a lot juicier than the simple fact that she was just one more Rockefeller. Margaret Strong was Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller's favorite granddaughter, a solemn child, raised in Fiesole, Italy by her expat intellectual parents, heiress Bessie Rockefeller and her husband, former University of Chicago psychologist Charles Augustus Strong.

She grew into a cultured, multi-lingual, homely, overly serious, not to mention tremendously rich, young woman. Sent by her father in the late 'Twenties to find a husband in Paris, she met George de Cuevas (1885-1961) at Irfe, the chic couture house of Rasputin-assassin Prince Felix Yusupov. "The Rockefeller and the Ballet Boys," Dominick Dunne's amusing piece in the February, 1987 "Vanity Fair," describes the mise en scene - Yusupov in pink rouge and green eye shadow, his wife Irina wooing haute Paris into their "hothouse of fashion," and sleek little Cuevas who, when asked by the somber Ms. Strong what he did at the couture, replied, "I'm the saleslady." Did she care? Evidently not. In 1928 they married and embarked on a no-boundaries life of party-giving and conspicuous consumption. She learned to enjoy herself, and he got his own ballet company - the Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas - courtesy of his rich wife. The legitimacy of his title might have been questionable, but its aesthetic appropriateness was not.

Cuevas, notwithstanding marriage and 2 children, was generally acknowledged to be the lover of Felix Yusupov. Likewise, the Marquesa's 2nd husband, Raymundo de Larrain Valdes (1935-1988), seen below (at left) in 1957 with the Vicomtesse Jacqueline de Ribes, was generally assumed to have been the lover of George Cuevas. The Vicomtesse is wearing a headdress designed by de Larrain for a contest at the Baile de Tetes. The judges included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; the contestants included Dior, Balenciaga and Dali; the winner was young Raymundo de Larrain (who, incidentally, was actually 5 years older than he said he was); and the event is what launched him seriously into the haute boheme.

Richard Avedon's famous 1961 photo of de Ribes and de Larrain, to my eye anyway, captures both the gorgeousness and the heartlessness of European high society. (Well, that's just me). George de Cuevas died that same year, leaving his Marquesa to the devices of his former lover de Larrain (who now also styled himself a marquess), plus an unsavory Dutch race car driver named Jan de Vroom, a man who ultimately had his throat slit by a couple of toughs he brought home from a bar. I've no room to catalogue all the mad eccentricities of the Marquesa de Cuevas - the pair of limousines waiting daily by her door, just in case she wanted to go somewhere, the decaying teeth, the slovenly dress, the radios playing 10 different stations, the embarrassingly over-the-top gifting (a boat, a Rolls, a pair of Ferraris, even a plane to de Vroom alone). You can read about them in Dunne's piece in "Vanity Fair." It was in the middle of her early widowhood, that she paid Sigmund Sommer to halt demolition not just at 680 Park, but also at 684 Park and an adjoining Sommer property around the corner at 49 East 68th St. The Marquesa by that time had become such a notorious stay-at-home one wonders how she knew what was going on.

In 1977, when de Larrain was 42 (even though he was really 47) and the Marquesa was 80, the couple married at an oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach. Even her children, who later sued him, admitted their mother's new husband was always nice to her. On the day of the wedding, the groom famously gave the bride a new set of teeth and an improved wheelchair. de Larrain cleaned the old lady up thoroughly and thoughtfully - nails, hair, clothing, hygiene - and kept her that way until she died. That said, between 1977 and her death in 1985, some $30 million of her assets managed to go missing.

For 17 years prior to developer Sommer's acquisition of his parcel at Park and 68th, the Pyne house had served first as consulate, then as United Nations mission of the Soviet Union. Doubtless all manner of sinister doings unfolded within, but once the Russians stepped outside, they assumed an air of unfailing jollity.

Not so jolly was the reality of demolition, not just threatened but underway.

680 Park, seen below before Mr. Pyne filled his garden (at the extreme right) with a house for son-in-law Oliver Filley, was a particularly exquisite example of the newly fashionable Federal Revival style - which one could just as easily call Georgian or Colonial Revival. McKim Mead & White started design work in 1909, and the Pynes moved in in 1911.

A few weeks ago, while photographing 68th to 69th on Park for my piece on the Park Avenue Houses, a stern voice interrupted me mid-shot demanding to know why I was taking pictures of her building. Thanks to old John's charm, within 10 minutes we were friends, and a week later the Americas Society Facility Manager, Claribel Colon, was taking me on the sort of house tour nobody gets - or maybe asks for - except me.

The Americas Society, which describes itself as "the premier forum dedicated to education, debate and dialogue in the Americas" has owned 680 Park since the Marquesa's cousin, David Rockefeller, gave it to them in 1965. The main hall was recently redone and I'm not a fan of the result. Fortunately it's less radical than it appears and close observation shows that most of the original architecture is intact.

The great ornament of 680 is its graceful elliptical staircase, which basically is untouched. The boxy post-modern portal to the elevator is depressing, but removable.

Except for the main hall, today's first floor bears no resemblance to the original McKim Mead & White floor plan. What's labeled "RECPT'N ROOM" on the plan below is way too small to have been anything of the sort. I'm sure it was a coat/dressing room, especially since it's next to a half bath. The "BILLIARD R'M" on the plan was the real reception room, a fact illustrated by early photos. It and the entire kitchen suite have been demolished, the windows that overlooked Park and 68th blocked up, and the space converted to a large gallery. At some point, either during the Soviet period or maybe while the Pynes were here, a 2nd servants' elevator was inserted into the back stairwell and a dumbwaiter snuggled against the west wall of the pantry.

The coat room is now wall-less and contains the Society's reception desk. It looks directly across the hall to the old reception room, now gallery, entrance.

Here's what the reception room looked like in Percy Pyne's day. As readers of my column well know, reception rooms were handy venues for unscheduled and/or informal visits when grand drawing rooms could seem a bit much. Some of the paneling, including the chimney breast, survived the apocalypse and was reinstalled in the owners' bedroom suite on 3. Claribel and friend are standing in front of the door that connects the gallery to the main hall.

This was the kitchen. Blocked windows behind the camera overlooked 68th St.; the door on the far wall led to prep and service pantries, dumbwaiter and Valet Room, an area now converted to shared office space.

Let's return to the main hall and head upstairs.

Thomas L. Moore, architect in charge of Walker O. Cain & Associates 1965 alteration, termed the job "a fascinating and challenging assignment." Bear in mind this was an era made infamous for insensitivity to historic architecture by demolition of Pennsylvania Station. The client was also an institution in need of gallery, meeting and office space - use demands not always in harmony with old mansion interiors. Considering the destruction under way when Moore took over, it's amazing anything at all got saved, leave alone restored. The antique mantels were gone, the parquet ripped up, and walls on the lower floors already partly removed. Moore gutted the top two floors for modern office space and replaced most of the ground floor with a windowless gallery. But he also located very creditable antique mantelpieces to replace the ones that had been sold, even located a few of the originals and brought them back. The public rooms on the second floor are today in a very close approximation to original condition. Together with the staircase, they have preserved the heart of the house.

The images below show the library, then and now. Marble insets on the fireplace contain Pyne family devices.

The Den, reached through a door on the north wall of the library, was Mr. Pyne's office. With the exception of its 1965 bathroom, it's essentially intact.

How bad was it when the Marquesa arrived on her white horse? You can see for yourself in the views below, looking west from the library down the second floor hall.

The door to the drawing room (Salon on the plan) faces the main stair in the middle of the landing. The ceiling was supposedly inspired by a Robert Adam design for the Duchess of Bolton's London dressing room at Bolton House (designed 1770; demolished 1913). In fact, it turns out to be the actual ceiling, detached from its 18th century moorings by means mysterious to me, shipped to New York, and installed in Mr Pyne's Park Avenue house in 1911. The first image below shows the room last week. The second shows it right after Cain & Associates finished the job and Mr. Moore finished the furnishing. The chairs and sofas aren't in the same league as the chandelier, mirrors or 18th century English fireplace but, taken as a whole, there's been a quantum leap since the eve of destruction.

What else went missing between 1911 and 1965? Beautiful mahogany doors, for one thing, none of which is anywhere to be seen today, plus a large section of wall that formerly separated the dining and drawing rooms.

The Cain alteration replaced the original parquet with wide planks of Brazilian Imbuia, a walnut substitute used in fine furniture. Those planks accurately date images that might otherwise be taken for Pyne period views. Although I'm told the furniture in the restoration views, some of which looks pretty snappy, is all still in the building, I didn't see much of it.

The door to the serving pantry hasn't moved, and neither has the dumbwaiter beyond. The pantry itself is now a modern catering kitchen. I don't know what's going on in the middle of the demolition view. The fireplace would have been behind the leaning panels in the middle of the view.

The original mahogany doors - trust me, they were mahogany - may all be gone, but McKim Mead & White's magnificent stair looks as good as the day it was built.

I don't have the original 3rd floor plan, but I'm pretty certain Mrs. Pyne's bedroom would have been on the corner overlooking Park Avenue (wives always got the best views). It was probably connected on the north to a boudoir and bath, and on the west to her husband's bedroom and bath, the latter rooms overlooking 68th Street. Assuming I'm right, and in this sort of thing I usually am, the former boudoir would be dead ahead of us in the image below. It is now the Society's library, portions of which were paneled with woodwork and chimney breast from the old reception room downstairs. Not exactly a museum restoration, but better than nothing, I guess.

I think the image below shows the boudoir in the period between grave robbers and installation of the reception room woodwork.

Mrs. Pyne's bedroom is now the librarian's office. The fireplace, which used to be in another bedroom, was carted off during demolition, after which some clever fellow spotted it in a local antique shop. The Society bought it back, and their architect had it installed here.

The rest of the floor, with one exception, has been reconfigured for office and seminar use. The original plan is obscured and the old bathrooms are gone.

The exception is this very handsome room located at the western end of the house, directly over the serving pantry. I am told it was the family's breakfast room, an idea I like, even though the dumbwaiter doesn't come to the 3rd floor. I do think it unlikely such fancy scenic wallpaper - "Les Incas," hand printed in Paris in 1832 - would be tucked away in a guestroom.

Blocking the windows and painting the tile walls has made the back stair appear more changed than it really is.

The 4th and 5th floors, traditional domains of children and servants respectively, were totally rebuilt as modern offices.

Time to head downstairs.

A few words are now in order about titles, or, at least, about the respective Marquises of Cuevas and Larrain. George de Cuevas was a good guy, a loving husband in his way (gay or not), and kind and understanding in relations with his difficult and overly entitled wife, even after they stopped living together. He was a much loved figure in the world of ballet, so I suppose it doesn't much matter whether his title was entirely legit or not. de Larrain was equally kind to Margaret Strong, and perhaps more creative in the world of ballet. His Paris production of Sleeping Beauty is remembered as the most beautiful production ever. de Larrain was the man who engineered Rudolf Nureyev's successful defection to the West. Titles, like people and properties, fall vacant from time to time. In November of 1956, Raymundo de Larrain joined a line of distantly related people who struggled to reclaim and rehabilitate a family title vacated in 1852 due to lack of direct succession. Like the others before him, he didn't succeed, which didn't stop him from saying he did.


  1. What an amazing story, so juicy, so fabulous. Shame about the ruined parts of the interior of the house, though the key restorations are acceptable, if not worthy. The staircase is marvelous I think, as well as the third floor 'breakfast room'. Thank you, Marquesa de Quevas, for saving it, wherever you are.

  2. Talk about crossing bridges while they burn beneath one...! If the Marquesa had saved only the breakfast room wallpaper, she'd rate acknowledgement as a patroness of the arts. Thank you, John, for treating her unconventional personal life without condescension and displaying her image as an elderly lady in soft focus. (No woman deserves to be shown beside de Ribes in evening dress and full maquillage. She has always reminded me of Nefertiti, but without that queen's storied maternal good humor."

  3. Loved the article and photos! Margaret had a degree in Chemistry from Cambridge - she was no dummy!

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