Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Society Types on East 93rd Street

I read in the Times last week that a "mystery European buyer" plonked down $47,782,186 (and 53 cents) for the 58th floor at One57, that suavely anonymous glass tower across the street from Carnegie Hall. (The one where the crane blew off during Hurricane Sandy). I wondered how $47 mil compared to the $200 thousand paid in 1931 by the not-so-anonymous Mrs. Graham Fair Vanderbilt to build the French mansion seen above, located at 60 East 93rd St. estimated the answer to be anywhere from $2,270,000 to $37,800,000, depending if the question pertained to "historic opportunity," "labor" or "economy cost." I'll admit I almost flunked statistics in college, but one takeaway informed my adult life ever since, to wit: decide on your conclusion first, then find the statistic to back it up.

Mrs. Vanderbilt (1875-1935), nee Virginia Graham Fair, was the daughter of a rough and tumble '49-er named James G. Fair (1831-1894), a self-centered, womanizing, heavy drinking, child neglecting Irish immigrant known, not too flatteringly, as Slippery Jim. In 1859, the Nevada Comstock Lode turned Fair and three Irish cohorts - Mackay, Flood and O'Brien - into silver kings. Fourteen years later, the so-called Big Bonanza mine made them even richer. Fair became a U.S. Senator from Nevada in 1881 and spent his single term in Washington promoting silver issues, chasing skirts and drinking heavily. His wife, a former frontier rooming house operator named Theresa Rooney, divorced him in 1883, took a fat settlement, the four kids (including the 8-year old future Mrs. Vanderbilt) - and left.

Here's Birdie, as friends and family called her, painted by Boldini in 1905. In 1899 she had married William K. Vanderbilt Jr. (1878-1944), grandson of William Henry Vanderbilt, the richest man in the world. Birdie traveled a very long way from the shoot-em-up saloons of boomtown Nevada to the society salons of the New York Vanderbilts, not that she needed money. Her reprobate father, dead at the age of 63, had settled a multi-million dollar trust on her and her sister Tessie, in spite of the fact the latter had specifically dis-invited him from her 1890 wedding to East Coast socialite Hermann Oelrichs. Tessie was worried, with justification, that her father would turn up drunk. From generosity or remorse, he gave her a wedding check anyway, for a million dollars.

Handsome Willie Vanderbilt Jr. spoke French, sailed yachts, raced cars, even worked in the family railroad empire, albeit not to exhaustion. He was a faithful husband who gave his wife three children and apparently drove her crazy. She left him 1909. Perhaps because of her own parents' divorce, Birdie resolutely refused to divorce Willie, citing her Catholic religion as an excuse. They lived married but apart for the next 18 years.

When he moved out in 1909, Willie left Birdie and the children here, at 666 Fifth Avenue. Designed by McKim, Mead & White and completed in 1905 (the same year as the Boldini portrait), the house had been a gift from Willie's father. Willie Jr. and Birdie, naturally enough, also kept a country place, located at Lake Success on Long Island and seen in the second image below. The main house at Deepdale, as the place was called, is, amazingly, extant (mostly, anyway), albeit hemmed in now by a postwar suburban subdivision.

Willie kept Deepdale after the breakup, but Birdie, needing the requisite country place for herself, hired John Russell Pope (1874-1937) to design this astonishing looking Tudorama composition deep in the formerly spacious woods of Jericho, Long Island. Mrs. Graham Fair Vanderbilt, as she now styled herself, took possession in 1911.

The day came, however, when her estranged husband fell in love. For reasons unclear (at least to me) Birdie relented at last, agreed to a divorce, and in 1927 W.K. Vanderbilt Jr. married the former Rosamund Lancaster (1898-1947), divorced since 1926 from aviator sportsman Barclay (Buzz) Warburton.

Willie's second marriage seemed to unblock his former wife, at least as far as real estate was concerned. She sold 666 Fifth Avenue to John D. Rockefeller, who tore it down in 1928 to build what was essentially a 6-story taxpayer on the site. Then she bought an immense triplex occupying the entire first, second and third floors of 660 Park Avenue, a coop then under construction on the corner of 67th Street. The Times described Mrs. Vanderbilt's future home as "generally considered one of the finest apartments ever built in New York." Something gave her cold feet, however, because before the place was finished she flipped it to an engineering bigwig named Seton Porter, and rehired Pope to design a house on a trio of lots on East 93rd Street. Pease & Elliman had, in fact, assembled half of the southern blockfront between Madison and Park on behalf of Birdie and her pal, Mrs. William Goadby Loew (a.k.a. Queenie). Their side by side houses were finished 1931. Why 93rd Street? I think because Queenie's brother, George F. Baker Jr., lived across the street.

Around this same time, Birdie disposed of her Pope-designed house in Jericho, bought a place in Manhasset, and named it Fairmont. It also survives, in a manner of speaking, as the Strathmore Vanderbilt Country Club, centerpiece since 1939 of William Levitt's Strathmore subdivision. Pope was a classicist, although you wouldn't guess it from Jericho. He was the first winner of the Prix de Rome (in 1894), attended the American Academy in Rome, studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and worked for Bruce Price in New York. If none of this means much to you, take it from me, it's impressive. Pope is the man who designed the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C., the classical entrance wing of the Museum of Natural History on Central Park West, and many many fine houses in town and in the country. He was an ardent believer in the City Beautiful Movement, and his best houses display an unerring grasp of 18th century Georgian and French design. His colleagues called him "the last of the Romans."

60 East 93rd was finished in 1931, has a 57-foot streetfront, and is clad in limestone quarried and cut in France, then shipped to New York and assembled onsite. Its interiors have been subjected to very hard use and a good deal of architectural cannibalism. At least to my eye, however, it is like an aristocratic old woman whose bone structure renders her shockingly beautiful, in spite of the vicissitudes of time. Queenie's house, finished the same year, is still next door st #56. It's now a part of the Spence School.

The greatest damage to the house occurred during ownership by the Lycee Francais de New York. This otherwise admirable institution bought the building from the Romanian U.N. Mission in 1978 and converted it - none too gently - to classroom use. Details were trashed, partitions thrown up, antique parquet de Versailles trampled to wafer thinness, accoustical ceilings hung, institutional bathrooms inserted... you get the picture. It may have been inevitable, but resulting damage to a thing of beauty still hurts. In 2002, international antiques dealer "nonpareil," Carlton Hobbs, bought the place, stripped away the dross, and embarked on a continuing program of restoration. Today's interiors no longer have original fireplaces, light fixtures or paneling, but their fine proportions have reemerged. Lit like a museum, the house is now a showcase for up-market antiques.

At the south end of the architectural entrance corridor, a 90-degree turn to the left leads to the main hall.

The door in the middle of the image below leads back to the entrance hall. The open door on the left goes to the dining room, the most intact room in the house. The fireplace is unchanged; in order to minimize food odors the walls are stone (no faux finishes here); the parquet (and that throughout this floor) replicates the antique original.

A duplexed serving pantry, packed to the ceiling with storage but apparently intact, survives behind a leather swing door, hidden in turn by a mirrored wall panel.

Let's leave the dining room, cross the main hall and have a look at the drawing room. Houses like this are frequently decorated with paneling and fixtures that started life elsewhere and, as often as not, continue life elsewhere after a sale. Between Mrs. Vanderbilt and the Romanians, 60 East was owned by a stylish socialite named Thelma Foy, about whom more later. and between them I suspect there's been a lot of putting in and taking out. Mr. Hobbs found this room cut in half. Simply by restoring its original footprint he has recaptured much of its original beauty. The noble mantlepiece, like everything else, is for sale.

Let's return to the main hall, follow a short corridor under the stair, and head down to the basement. The original kitchen, pantry and and servant hall have been re-purposed as offices. Metal cabinetry salvaged from all over the house has been sandblasted (or however they removed the original paint) and reused for a staff kitchen. Outside is a large ivy-walled garden facing south.

Time to go upstairs.

Mrs. Vanderbilt was 56 years old when she moved into 60 East 93rd St., a divorcee with two married daughters, a son on whom she doted, plenty of money in spite of the depression, and a comfortable position in society. She was also the owner of Fair Stable, home of Sarazen, a two-time (in 1924 and 1925) United States Horse of the Year - in spite of his small size and ugly temper. There were three main rooms on the second floor of the house on 93rd Street - a morning room and library in the back, and a music room facing the street. The library, now painted a soft sea green, is hard to recognize as such without its vanished built-in bookcases.

The room in front was the music room. At least that's what the New York Times labeled it in a description of Mrs. Vanderbilt's 1935 funeral. In November of 1933 her son, William K. Vanderbilt III, age 26, disembarked his father's yacht at Miami and began driving north to visit his mother. Cousin Erskine Gwynne came along for the ride. Also in the car was a chauffeur named J. W. Guppy, more groom/postilion/relief driver than actual chauffeur. On November 14th, outside Bunnell, Florida, with young Vanderbilt at the wheel, the car was moving so fast that a bird crashed through the windshield and lacerated his face. After getting stitched up in Jacksonville, and installing a new windshield on the car, Vanderbilt and companions continued north.

The next day, cruising at 75 on a country road outside Ridgeland, S.C., Vanderbilt sideswiped a parked fruit truck, ripped off the entire right side of the car — being a European right-hand drive model, that's where he was sitting — hurled both himself and Gwynne into the air and trapped Guppy under the overturned wreck. Gwynne, amazingly, wasn't badly hurt; Guppy was pinned under the car but survived; Vanderbilt landed hard on the pavement and died in ten minutes. Does this sound like alcohol was involved? To me, that would be a yes. His devastated mother went into a decline from which she never really recovered. Two years later she died of pneumonia in her bedroom at 93rd Street at the age of 60. While the funeral proceeded in the flower banked music room, a crowd of silent curiosity seekers stood in the rain outside.

A door on the south wall of the music room leads to the stair to 3.

The third floor was strictly for family, as that soignee little staircase, tucked away as it is, makes only too clear. The floor was laid out as two luxurious bedroom suites, each with separate boudoir and en suite bath. The baths are gone, as are most of the fireplace mantels, but the moldings and proportions are all still there. The suite in the front looks like this.

Mrs. Vanderbilt's suite was at the southern end of the corridor in the image below, her rooms accessed from a small circular anteroom. Another original fireplace survives in her bedroom; pale brown woodwork peeps above storage in her former bath; a boudoir is on the other side of the anteroom.

A mirrored door in Mrs. Vanderbilt's bedroom leads to an elevator landing and stairs to servants' room above. Repartitioned by the Lycee into modern office space, the former servants' rooms are now mostly filled with storage.

60 East 93rd Street is an erudite design job, grandly scaled, beautifully proportioned, carefully detailed, and cleverly planned for a sophisticated client. I like it a lot.

In 1937, Birdie Vanderbilt's daughter, Mrs. Henry Gassaway Davis, sold 93rd Street to what the Times called a "well-known New Yorker." This was Thelma Foy (1902-1957), eldest daughter of auto baron Walter Chrysler and wife of a Chrysler director named Byron Foy. Mrs. Foy is remembered as a high strung, vivacious taste-maker, and an authority on Impressionist art and French 18th century furniture, with which she filled her new house. Even before she died, Mrs. Foy was donating some of her more fabulous gowns to the Costume Institute at the Met. In 1954 she began to sicken with leukemia, and she and her husband moved from 93rd Street to a supposedly more manageable apartment at 740 Park Avenue, described by "Vogue" as "the finest French residence in Manhattan." She died at the Memorial Hospital for Cancer in August of 1957, in the midst of ordering a new fall wardrobe.

The Romanians didn't arrive in a '56 Chrysler Imperial, and I doubt Thelma left in one. However, it seems a fitting metaphor with which to wave (if one can wave a metaphor) goodbye to Thelma Foy. She was one more glamorous taste-maker who took her French fireplaces and paneling with her when she left. My focus in these columns is on architecture and social history, not on furniture. If you own a house like this, you've probably already been shopping at Carlton Hobbs, and if you haven't, you should.


  1. A fitting re-use of this fine house. The stories of these society families, laced with tragedy, read like the plots of old movies although doubtless the tragedy was real enough to the participants, sadly.

    Birdie's county house by Pope looks like a 1920s illustration for a fairy tale.

    Love that shot of you and Antinous having a stare down in the stairwell!


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  2. Another fabulous post. Thank you SO much for sharing these photos and stories with us. I thought of you Tuesday when I was on 5th Avenue during Museum Mile night and I was checking out the grand old houses. Were you out there? It was such a fun and gorgeous evening!

  3. Wonderful. The proportions of the rooms and their windows, even the ones without the antique paneling, is masterful. And a gorgeous main stair, also a charming private one. How I wish you'd given us a few vintage interior shots, but I know we can't have those every time. You made up for it with the Thelma Foy photo. How you spoil your readers.

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  13. Thanks for the photos. I went to school there, during the LFNY days (mid to end 1980s) . And like the buildings on 3-5 E95th we could see what it used to be but could not be anymore... Glad to see it converted back to a more glamorous use.

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