Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Edith and Ogden

"We asked him to alter and decorate the house," Edith Wharton wrote in her 1934 memoir, "A Backward Glance." "(It was)...a somewhat new departure, since the architects of that day looked down on house-decoration as a branch of dress-making, and left the field up to the upholsterers, who crammed every room with curtains, lambrequins, jardinieres of artificial plants, wobbly velvet-covered tables littered with silver gee-gaws and festoons of lace on mantelpieces and dressing tables." (Excuse me while I sneeze). Mrs. Wharton gave the job of updating her Newport cottage to a well bred, quick witted 28-year-old wag named Ogden Codman Jr. (1863-1951), whom she found amusing on the subject of the boring people they knew in Newport, and with whom she was in profound agreement on the subject of aesthetics.

I'd never heard of the Great Fire of 1872 which leveled 65 acres of downtown Boston. Aside from the 30 people who were killed outright, legions more were dealt financial body blows, among them the aristocratic Codmans of Boston and, in the summer, a fine old house in Lincoln, Mass. (BOH visited 'The Grange,' as it's called, in March of last year). Rental portfolio in ruins and cash spigot reduced to a trickle, the Codmans Sr. did what many upscale Americans families in those days (and continued to do until the late 1950s) - they moved to France. Living was cheap, culture abundant, and one's reasons for relocation weren't necessarily obvious. Ogden Jr. was a sensitive 12-year-old when the family resettled in the "Emerald Coast" resort of Dinard. He was 19 when he returned to the States and entered MIT, a convert to the aesthetics of 18th century France, but not so much to Dinard. "Anything is better than that wretched hole of a place," he wrote to his mother in 1883. The family returned to the States in 1884.

Besides native aesthetic acuity, Ogden Codman Jr, had the benefit of two uncles - architect John Sturges and decorator Richard Ogden - whose encouragement led him in 1891 to open his own design office, with branches in Boston and fashionable Newport. In Newport he met the not-yet-famous but very-well-connected Edith (Mrs. Teddy) Wharton (1862-1937), and it was she who, in 1894, introduced him to Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the churchy, stuffy, unimaginably rich eldest son of the late William Henry Vanderbilt. Mr. Vanderbilt's Newport cottage, called the Breakers, had just burned to the ground. Richard Morris Hunt had designed the new house, and French decorateurs were doing the state rooms on the ground floor. The upper floors, however, were given to young Codman. His elegant, uncluttered, French-influenced interiors launched a career in high society that would ultimately include clients like John D. Rockefeller and Frederick Vanderbilt. Three years after the Breakers commission, realizing he and Edith had a lot to say on the same subjects, they wrote a book together titled "The Decoration of Houses." It was an instant classic and remains one today. I've seen a boatload of fancy New York apartments in the last 20 years, designed by architects who should have read this book and clearly didn't. Had they paid attention to only one of Edith and Ogden's dictums, that proportion - that subtle harmony between width and length and height - was the "good breeding" of architecture, rich America would have been spared a whole lot of lumpy rooms. The chic professionals who labor today to obscure the rotten proportions of so much modern architecture are, ironically, not so far off Edith's 19th century "dress-makers."

Edith and Ogden's relationship - textbook platonic, I might add - was way too hot not to cool down. They had a terrible falling out (alas, over money) in 1902, amidst construction of the Mount, Edith's house in Lenox, Mass. Codman's life was unaffected by the breach, however, and in 1904 he found a new best friend in the form of Leila Griswold Webb, widow of rich former client named H. Walter Webb, and mother of two orphaned boys, aged 9 and 14 respectively. Of Codman, then 41 years old, one reporter noted, in the code of the day, that, "it had been supposed that he would die a bachelor." In 1907, career going gangbusters, coffers bulging with the former Mrs. Webb's millions, Codman bought a double lot on East 96th Street off Fifth and began planning a new house. Mrs. Codman died unexpectedly in 1910, before the house was even started, and left her widowed husband unfettered not only financially, but in every other way. Just as Oliver Belmont's Belcourt in Newport was originally intended as a palatal stable with one bedroom for a horse-mad bachelor, so Ogden Codman's 7 East 96th Street was built as a French "hotel particulier" for a single aesthete.

Worthy of note is the unprepossessing tenement neighborhood in which 7 East 96th Street was built. 19th century speculators had kept land prices high on most Central Park blocks, and that had discouraged tenement projects. East 97th Street, however, was not one of those blocks, due in large part to New York Central trains emerging from muffled camouflage in the Park Avenue tunnel into noisy glory under the sunshine at 97th and Park.

Codman is said to have lifted the Louis XVI facade of 7 East 96th Street directly from plates in Cesar Daly's 1880 "Motifs Historiques d'Architecture." M. Daly did indeed write such a book, but I was unable to find the plates. Given Ogden Codman's background, interests and education, however, this is probably true. Codman spent less than eight years at 7 East 96th Street before backwash from the First World War ruined his architectural business and, in a reprise of his parents' past, he moved to France. This time, however, he had the Webb millions to cushion the blow. 7 East 96th was first rented, then sold to a succession of occupants, including the Nippon Club, founded in 1905 as the first and only Japanese Social Club in the U.S. The Manhattan Country School bought the building in 1966 and substantially altered the interiors for classroom use.

At the center of the wrought iron balcony railing outside the second floor library are the owner's initials, "OC." But who in the world are "D" and "B" appearing at either end? Perhaps a socially informed reader will clear that one up. Codman's stepsons were John and Henry, not that their initials were likely to show up on his house.

The Manhattan Country School's mid-1960s alteration, combined with 50 years of galloping schoolchildren, have had an unsurprisingly impact on the Codman house interiors. That said, it's quite possible to recreate the past, thanks to original plans and scattered details surviving here and there. First item of note on the original first floor plan is the porte cochere. This was really an entrance for autos, complete with curb cut at street-side and, at the opposite end of an open courtyard, a garage with turntable and two parking slots. One of those slots doubled as a lift, which enabled the chauffeur (expected in that era to be both driver and mechanic) to get underneath the car. Also on the first floor was a reception room (labeled 'living room,' which it wasn't), and the main kitchen and servants' dining room. A dumbwaiter in an adjacent pantry carried food to the main dining room on the second floor. The elevator was (and still is) located in a small lobby between the main stair and the entrance to the kitchen suite. Except for the reception room and the main stair, everything else on the first floor was blown out in the Sixties.

If it weren't for the garbage cans, fire escape, storage shed and basketball hoop, you could drive a car through here today. The windows behind the hoop replaced the original garage door.

The images below are views of the courtyard from a vantage point now located somewhere in the middle of the prewar coop at 1150 Fifth Avenue. Codman's kitchen was at the bottom of the semi-circular bay; his dining room directly above it. The third floor was divided between the owner's private rooms in front, a sort of private living room in the middle, and a string of servants' rooms in back. The fourth floor housed guests and an office in front, and more servants in the back. The pioneering history of tony New York real estate is nothing new, a fact illustrated by tenement laundry literally flapping against Mr. Codman's back wall.

Let's return to the porte cochere and step inside. If you were arriving for some big "do," you'd progress in stately fashion straight up the grand stair to the second floor. If you were dropping something off, or there for a quick meeting, or if Mr. Codman had no idea who you were, the butler would direct you to the reception room and there you'd wait. Industrial carpeting, Danish modern furniture upholstered in tomato can red and hanging globe lights from the 1960s tend to obscure Codman's beautiful proportions and subtle wall treatments.

Beyond today's blue doors was the original kitchen suite, now a classroom. Further on was the garage.

You really get the measure of this house - it's got 15,000 square feet - as soon as you get to the second floor. The old butler's pantry and servant hall have been combined into a new institutional kitchen, but otherwise the original pan is intact.

After decamping to Paris in 1920, Codman rented 7 East to a couple of swell tenants, among them, for a brief period, Mr. & Mrs. Ronald Tree. In 1944 Tree's ex-wife, who in 1948 became Nancy Lancaster, bought Colefax & Fowler, the famous decorating firm that gave us the English country house look. "I had learned from going to Houghton," Ms. Lancaster wrote, "that to make a room quiet, to make it harmonious, you never wanted to have only one 'mouvement' thing like the Savonnerie rug that would stand out. You must have 'mouvement' everywhere." Now those are words I'd like to live by. The library, letting onto that balcony with the enigmatic railing, is in front overlooking 96th Street.

In 1924 Codman sold 96th Street to socialite E. Oliver Iselin, who used it as a city house before renting and finally selling it in 1927. More tenants of the high society persuasion ensued, culminating with Richard Allen Knight, a deranged lawyer who in 1942 threatened a judge, got himself disbarred and served 3 months in a workhouse. At the beginning of January, 1948, according to the "New York Times," the 49-year-old Knight died of "general visceral congestion" (you tell me what that is) in his home at 7 East 96th St. The butler found the body. I don't think he found it in the dining room, which lies behind the door below. Oh, how beautiful that dining room was - and could be again today. The Nippon Club, incidentally, left the house pretty shopworn, but mostly intact.

Outside the dining room, a fragment of wall tile identifies the vanished serving pantry, once connected by dumb waiter to the kitchen below. A cafeteria kitchen now occupies the footprint of the former butler's pantry and servant hall.

Let's return to the second floor landing and head upstairs. It's one thing to access major public rooms with a sweeping marble staircase, but quite another to reach private areas of the house on floors above. It is, in fact, a canon of Edith and Ogden's "Decoration of Houses" that private areas be reached via private stairs, neither architecturally obvious nor tempting to visitors or unwanted guests. Two doors open discreetly onto the private stair at 7 East 96th; one from the library and the other from the second floor landing.

Of Mr. Codman's sophisticated plan for the third, or owner's, floor, virtually nothing remains. The owner's suite in the front, misleadingly labeled on the old plan as a pair of bedrooms, has been inelegantly repartitioned. The smaller room has been made bigger, the bigger room smaller. A beautiful stone mantlepiece is no longer centered on its wall. The original bathrooms have, of course, been either eliminated or altered beyond recognition. And yet, tantalizing clues remain - a window detail, a wall of old bathroom tiles, a radiator cover.

As already noted, the sitting room in the middle of the 3rd floor was likely a private living room or study, or possibly a more personal library. Expanded and re-purposed in the 1960s, it's become the school library. An unusable terrace was enclosed as part of the expansion. Servants' rooms on the back of this floor have been combined into a large classroom.

The service stair, which hasn't changed at all, may be convenient, but I'm a private stair kind of a guy.

Even less of the original 4th floor remains. Guests and probably Codman's stepsons were billeted up here. Judging from the adding machine, card files and organized tabletop litter in the vintage view below, Codman also kept an office on 4. What's been done to this room seems more than gratuitous. Much was lost in the 1960s to now discredited architectural conceits. Save for this room and the one next door, nothing else remains of the original floor plan.

The private stair continues to 5, for which I do not have a plan. I'd guess there was personal storage at this end of the house. The service stair in the back ended at a little chauffeur's penthouse. Can we talk? How cool is that penthouse? Safe to say that, for such a place atop a mansion off Fifth, many a pied a terre hunter would, put simply, kill. Penthouse and storage were originally separated by an open terrace, now filled with a school addition.

Of course I went to the roof, gazed down at the filled-in terrace on 5, then at 96th Street below the dormers. I didn't take the service stairs, but descended in style via private and ceremonial flights.

In 1929 Codman bought a rundown villa in Villefranche-sur-Mer called La Leopolda, resurrecting it with such lavishness that he could barely afford to live there. An amusing story concerns efforts by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to rent the place, but only subject to certain alterations. Codman responded briskly to the idea, writing, "I regret that the House of Codman is unable to do business with the House of Windsor." Leopolda guzzled Codman's funds - reduced significantly in the wake of the stock market crash - and even, to his posthumous shame, soaked up a sizable chunk of his stepsons' inheritance. He survived the war better than most, treated with courtesy by Nazi officers billeted at his Chateau de Gregy.

Let me end our visit to 7 East 96th Street with Harper Pennington's portrait of a nude blond youth, inscribed on the back, "To Ogden Codman, 1901." For a painting that's only a foot and half tall, it has a lot of message.


  1. I've long been curious about this house, having seen a few vintage photographs of the stairwell and that lovely circular dining room.

    "The Decoration of Houses" remains a rewarding read. In addition to proportion, Wharton and Codman's other credo is "suitability" (a room must have furnishings appropriate to its purpose & use) for "when suitability departs, every room tends to become a living room".

    That chauffeur's apartment is surprisingly sexy. One wonders if Mr. Codman paid the occasional discreet visit up that private staircase to see how his man was doing? After all, the potting shed was up there, too. For the chauffeur, I'm picturing a young Clark Cable clad in his tight-fitting uniform as the wicked chauffeur in "Night Nurse" (1931).

    One wonders about such things. The secrets these old houses must hold!

  2. John, have you ever read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase? It's a kids book, technically, but still a great read and a central plot point involves a stately manor home being turned into a boarding school by a wicked governess. I think you'd like it.

  3. I could be amiss but that lovely pastel portrait called Harper Pennington's portrait of a nude blond youth, is genteel soft core porn. What else could it be.

    Also, the hallway that snakes around the Butler's Pantry on the Dining Room floor is truly bizarre.

    1. re. the Pennington portrait, yep, that says it.

  4. I LOVE YOUR BLOG! One of the best if you adore well built and stylish houses in classical architectural styles and their reinterpretations. The effort you put in this and quality of your writing and photography is really amazing, it makes me feel almost like I was there. Keep doing what you do so well, it is a source of great inspiration for me and many other people for sure. In the end, when "they" finish destroying even the last of these beauties your blog and your photography will be a worthy reminder of what was once there.

    Big hug from your big fan ;)!

  5. All our children and now our grandchildren went to Manhattan Country School. We thought we knew every nook and cranny,but you've shown us many more. We are heartbroken to leave this beautiful house.

    Linda and Patrick P.

  6. I used to walk by this house all the time in the late '60s. There was an old Bentley sedan parked outside it regularly. I wondered if the car went with the house. They looked like a bit of old elegance amid the faceless apartments.

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