Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Harris C. Fahnestock Mansion - No. 15 E 66th Street



On May 8, 1915 the Record & Guide noted that "despite the fact that the recent financial depression has affected almost everyone in some degree, and has been felt particularly by many of our wealthy families, the construction of private residences continues on a large scale.  Many handsome and costly dwellings are now being erected."  Among the projected mansions the article mentioned was that of broker Harris C. Fahnestock to replace the vintage four-story brownstones at Nos. 13 and 15 East 66th Street which he had recently purchased.  "This residence will be five stories in height and will probably cost more than $100,000," the article said.

That the financial depression was "felt particularly" by the wealthy was relative.  Fahnestock had paid the Costello estate $167,000 for the property, bringing the total cost of his project to about $6.5 million in 2016 dollars.

He had commissioned the firm of Hoppin & Koen to design the mansion and The Guide noted that Frank V. Hoppin would be in charge.   Two months earlier the periodical had described the plans.  "The facade, which has been designed in the style of the American Colonial, will be built of brick, and trimmings of limestone.  A reception-room, large stair hall and dining-room will be located on the first floor, and on the second floor the space will be devoted to a large drawing-room, library and study."   The third and fourth floors were reserved for the family's bedrooms.  The two upper floors were devoted to servants quarters.

The 41-foot wide mansion was completed in 1918.  If Hoppin & Koen had indeed intended to produce a brick-and-stone neo-Georgian structure, those plans had been drastically rethought.  Instead the Fahnestock home was a stately neo-Palladian palace faced in limestone.  Within the deeply-rusticated base two arched openings--the main and the service entrances--flanked a matching window.  Above, two-story Corinthian pilasters rose to a distinctive cornice.  From sidewalk level the mansion appeared to be four stories tall; the two-story mansard being disguised by a stone balustrade.

The top floors hid behind the elegant stone balustrade.  photo by Wurts Brothers from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Fahnestock was a member of the brokerage firm of Fahnestock & Co. at No. 1 Wall Street, founded by his father, Harris C. Fahnestock, Sr.  He had married Mabel Metcalf in 1896 and the couple had two daughters and a son.  His personal fortune had been greatly increased in 1914 upon the death of his father, the year before he purchased the 66th Street property.  The estate, divided among him and his five siblings, was estimated at more than $17.75 million.

Mabel was the daughter of James Betts Metcalf and Annie Tiffany Metcalf.  The New York Times later mentioned that her "ancestors were distinguished in the Colonial history of New England," and noted she was a member of the exclusive Colony club and was "prominent in New York society and also in the colony at Lenox, Massachusetts."  (The Fahnestocks maintained a lavish, 450-acre summer estate called Eastover, there.)
Visitors were immediately struck by the sumptuous entrance hall.  photos by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Millionaires were routinely concerned about preserving their property values, the light and air around their homes, and the exclusivity of the neighborhood.   And so buying up surrounding property was not uncommon.  Around the time that No. 15 East 66th Street was completed, Fahnestock "purchased for protective purposes 14 East Sixty-seventh street," according to The Sun on August 22, 1918.  The house was directly behind his and with the country embroiled in World War I, he turned it over to the Red Cross.

The dining room and ballroom.  photos by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Mabel involved herself in the charitable activities expected of a socialite.  In the early 1920s she routinely hosted the sewing class which "takes care of the needs of the new York Nursery and Child's Hospital," as well as the sewing class "conducted by the clothing committee of St. Luke's Hospital Social Service."  In March 1923 the annual spring sale and tea dance to benefit St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children was held in the Fahnestock mansion.

But then in 1925, entertainments took a much more personal turn.  The announcement of the engagement of Harris Jr. to Alice Muriel Post on November 29 made headlines.  Alice was the granddaughter of famous architect George B. Post.

Mabel's boudoir was French; the library decidedly English.  photos by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

That same month the Fahnestocks hosted an elaborate reception and dance at the Ritz-Carlton to introduce daughter Ruth to society.   Then, amidst the flurry of debutante entertainments, on the day following Christmas, Mabel hosted a "reception with dancing" for Alice Post.  (The wedding of Harris to Alice would not come to pass, however.)

In reporting on the engagement The New York Times had mentioned Eastover, saying it was where "Mr. Fahnestock Sr. keeps up his interest in the four-in-hand over the roads of the Berkshire Hills section."    A four-in-hand was a carriage or coach pulled by a team of four well-trained horses.  The Times was not the only newspaper which occasionally made note of Fahnestock's unusual hobby.

In the Roaring '20s, when millionaires rode about in shiny limousines and touring cars, Harris Fahnestock enjoyed taking out his extensive collection of vintage horse-drawn vehicles, not only in Lenox, but in Central Park.   Journalists routinely noted that his were the last of the quaint vehicles to be seen on the roads.  Years later The Times remembered "As late as 1925 he drove through Central Park in one of his colorful coaches-and-four with high-stepping chestnut horses, a silk-hatted driver and a pair of uniformed footmen, reminiscent of a scene in the late Seventies."

The social excitement in the 66th Street mansion continued as Ruth's engagement to A. Coster Schermerhorn was announced on May 4, 1926.  The couple was married in St. Thomas Church on November 30 and the bride's father took the opportunity to bring out one of his handsome carriages.

"Quite a bit of the old time was suggested at the wedding, the bride driving to and from the church in the family brougham behind a span of perfectly matched sorrel horses," reported The Times.  There was some romantic nostalgia connected with the affair, as well.  "The coachman, furthermore, assisted in the same capacity at the marriage of the bride's parents."

The social significance of the event was not only evidenced in the list of ushers--including, for instance, George Temple Bowdoin, Pierpont Morgan Hamilton, Goodhue Livingston, Jr., and John T. Lawrence--but in the guest list at the reception in the Fahnestock ballroom.  Among the prominent society names were Schermerhorn, Vanderbilt, Van Rensselaer, Blair, de Rham, du Pont, Cushing, Pyne, Iselin and Stokes.

On May 27, 1930 Mabel died in the mansion at the age of 60 following a prolonged illness.   Her estate ("of considerably more than $1,000,000," according to The Times), went mostly to Harris and the children.  An exception was the $1,000 bequest to Alice Loosley, "for her devoted care of Faith Fahnestock during a long illness."  The nurse's inheritance would be equal to more than $14,000 today; no doubt especially appreciated during the difficult Depression years.

Still, unmarried, Faith remained in the house with her father.  Seven years later, on March 30, 1937, she and her brother attended the quiet wedding of their father to Mrs. Georgette Gerard-Varet Hyde.  The bride had been divorced from her husband, Fletcher Sprague Hyde a few years earlier.  The marriage took place in the Fifth Avenue home of Harris's brother, Ernest Fahnestock.  The New York Times glossed over the fact that Ruth was not present, simply saying "He has another daughter, Mrs. A. Coster Schermerhorn."

Her absence was, most likely, explained when her father and step-mother announced on November 29 that year "the marriage in Reno yesterday of Mr. Fahnestock's daughter, Mrs. Ruth Fahnestock Schermerhorn, to Marie Alfred Fouquereaux De Marigny of Marutius."  Ruth had obtained her Reno divorce the day before the wedding.

Unlike the fashionable first wedding and sister, Faith's marriage on May 16, 1938 went nearly unnoticed.  With only her siblings to witness the ceremony, it took place in the marriage chapel of the Municipal Building and was performed by a deputy city clerk.  The Times noted "After the ceremony there was a small informal reception at the home of the bride's father and stepmother."
Just one of the exquisite Georgian mantelpieces in the Fahnestock mansion.  photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the spring of 1939 Harris Fahnestock donated his beloved collection of vehicles including 16 carriages predating 1900 to the New York Historical Society.  Later that same year, on October 10, while on a visit to Boston, he died in the Copley-Plaza Hotel.

Although his will gave Georgette a life interest in the 66th Street mansion, the family sold it in 1941 to archaeologist and art collector Hagop K. Kevorkia.  In December The New York Times reported he had commissioned architect James F. Casale to convert the mansion "into a nine-unit apartment."

Perhaps its most celebrated tenant was detective novel and screenwriter Dashiell Hammett, who moved in in September 1945.  He remained here until about 1947 when he relocated to a house owned by Lillian Hellman at No. 63 East 82nd Street.

By 1960 the mansion had become the Consulate General of the Philippines and Mission to the United Nations.   Known as Philippine Townhouse, it was converted by Imelda Marcos, according to The Filipino Star News, "to her personal use and decorated with valuable works of art, furniture and antiques."  The Times was a bit more diplomatic, saying the "mansion was used by Ferdinand E. Marcos and his wife for receptions."

In February 1986, following the fall of the Marcos regime, the new Government conducted an inventory of the house.  On February 28 The New York Times said "There were giant Ming-style vases, Persian carpets, a 1763 harpsichord, gold bathroom fixtures, mother-of-pearl geese, laminated orchids and a trove of other treasures in the Manhattan mansion."

A tour reflected the lavish lifestyle the dictator and his wife enjoyed.  "There was a music room with two grand pianos and a Baker Harris harpsichord.  The library contained books said to be original editions of Balzac and Dickens as well as a 1662 volume of the royal Arms of Louis XIV."

Not everything enjoyed by the couple was as classy.  The ballroom had been transformed into an "elaborate mirrored disco with revolving lights" and there was "a vast collection of records by singers such as David Bowie and Madonna and saucy cushions with sayings such as 'I love champagne, caviar and cash.''

More troubling, however, were the items not in the house.

"But other works of art and valuables were conspicuously missing.  There were large empty spaces on the walls, hooks and scratches and plaques of works by Picasso, van Gogh and Brueghel the Younger, but the paintings have not been found.  There are also many empty jewelry cases and empty boxes bearing the names of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels."

The Filipino Star News reported on two other pieces apparently stolen, Claude Monet's 1899 Japanese Footbridge Over the Water-Lily Pond at Giverny, and his 1881 L'Eglise et La Seine a Vetheuil.  And the final inventory reflected that masterpieces by Rubens, Gauguin and Goya had been spirited out as well.  Government officials hired investigators to "search for the $100 million worth of jewelry and other items."

Later that year, in August, a two-day auction of 772 lots was held by Sunrise Galleries.  A spokesman hoped that not only valuable antiques and artwork would bring high prices, but household items as well.  "I've met at least 100 people who would like to own a pair of Imelda Marcos sheets," he said.

As for the 6,000 pairs of her shoes, "there was some confusion over whether any would be offered," said The Times.

The Philippine Government continued to doggedly search for its lost property.  As late as June 1998 it sued Christie's when the auction house received Picasso's 1954 Head of a Woman on consignment.  That same year it moved its Consulate to No. 556 Fifth Avenue.


The Fahnestock mansion was subsequently converted to two three-floor residences.  Despite its often colorful history, it retains its stately and serene 1918 countenance.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. So, ruined an elegant mansion to make a Studio 54 disco with massive fraud and missing art. Nice.

    ReplyDelete