Monday, April 10, 2017

The Lost "Mayfair" Apartments - 449 Park Avenue

Architects' and Builders' Magazine, February 1908 (copyright expired)

On February 16, 1907 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide commented on the Mayfair, which was rising on the southeast corner of Park Avenue and 57th Street.  The 12-story apartment building, it said, would be "of a very choice type."  And indeed it would be.

Henry C. Tinker had owned the property since 1870 and a year earlier had commissioned architect Charles A. Rich to design the Mayfair.  It would replace the Kensington, described by the Guide as "the first high-class apartment house erected in New York."  But at the time of the article, construction was frustratingly sluggish.

On April 6, 1907 the Record & Builders' Guide addressed the delays.  "If the new 'Mayfair' apartments are not ready by December 1, of this year, tenants will be freed from their leases.  About one-tenth of the apartments are now rented."  At a time when most large structures were completed in about a year, Tinker was dealing with impatient and wealthy tenants.

The deadline, marking 22 months of construction, was met.  The $100,000 structure (about $2.6 million today) was most likely worth the wait.   There were just three apartments per floor--two of eight rooms and one of seven.  Each contained the amenities expected by upper class families, including one servant's bedroom.  The drawing rooms were paneled in mahogany, the dining rooms in "antique oak," and the bedrooms were outfitted "in white woodwork with mahogany doors."

Rents ranged from $2,500 to $3,500 per year.  The most expensive being around $7,600 per month today.

Rich's lumbering design might have been more expected along Broadway on the Upper West Side.  A two-story rusticated limestone base supported eight floors of sparsely ornamented red brick.  Sharply angled bays not only added dimension, but captured breezes on warm nights.  The top two floors, which sat above a  projecting balcony, gave the Mayfair a somewhat top heavy appearance.  The steep, nearly windowless mansard contained "bathrooms for the use of servants."

A typical floorplan with the three apartments per floor.  Architects' and Builders' Magazine, February 1908 (copyright expired)

The Mayfair apartments were described as "housekeeping" apartments; a term differentiating them from residential hotel suites which did not necessarily have kitchens.  The nearly self-sufficient building included its own electrical plant and refrigeration plant in the basement.

Newspapers followed the comings and goings of the Mayfair residents as they traveled to Europe or their summer estates.  Sometimes, however, the press coverage was less mundane.

Such was the case on September 24, 1910.  An incident surrounding Frederick S. Minott's arrival in San Francisco from Hong Kong elicited nationwide news.  Like his father, Joseph A. Minott, Frederick was an officer in the Goodyear Rubber Company.  His brother, J. Otis Minott, was a well-known portraitist. 

While in Hong Kong Frederick had hired two English valets whom he intended to bring back to the Mayfair.  As the three men attempted to disembark the steamer Chiyo Maru immigration officials refused to admit the valets into the country.  They were, according to the agents, contract laborers.

Unaccustomed to not getting his way, Minott argued with the officials.  When that did not work, he took other steps.  The New-York Tribune reported "Minott's remonstrance proving of no avail, he decided to stay aboard with his alien servants."  No urging could budge the disgruntled millionaire from the ocean liner.

A more disturbing incident appeared in newspapers the following year.  Minott suffered a breakdown of sorts, resulting in his being confined to the Packer Sanitarium in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in October.  Then, on November 10 he disappeared.  A "searching party" was sent out, but no trace of the 50-year old could be found.

Minott somehow made his way to Manhattan by the following day, and attempted to withdraw funds from the Knickerbocker Trust Company.  But word on his disappearance was already publicized and bank officials stalled while the sanitarium was notified.

Minott's family was no doubt mortified when The New York Times described him as "wandering around the city for nearly twenty-four hours."  The article ended saying "Dr. Packer took the wandering millionaire back to the sanitarium."

A popular topic of conversation among socialites was "the servant problem" and the fact that "good help" was difficult to find.  Things got out of hand within the apartment of broker Joseph Baker Bourne in January 1912 when the French butler "had a row with the cook," as described by one newspaper.  Mrs. Bourne apparently could not successfully intervene as the disagreement bordered on violence.  It all ended up in court on January 21.

It was not the battle of servants that drew press attention--such incidents were not uncommon.  It was the judge's bilingual skills.  The New York Times reported "Magistrate Kernochan surprised the Yorkville Court yesterday by acting as his own interpreter in the case against a French butler."  Having heard both sides, the judge felt both parties were at fault.  "The Magistrate decided that honors were about even, and set the butler free."

Julia Bourne did not agree about those "honors" being even, and fired her butler.  She apparently had found a replacement by May 16 when she hosted "a small and informal dance" in the apartment.

Like the Bournes, Legg Howard and his wife, Annie, regularly appeared in the society columns.  That was especially true in 1913, the year that daughter Dorothy was introduced to society.  On November 21, for instance, Annie hosted a reception and dinner, followed by a theater party.  The events lasted into 1914.  The Times reported on February 19, 1914 that "Mrs. Legg Howard gave [a dinner] at her residence, 449 Park Avenue, for her daughter, Miss Howard."

A society wedding with a decided military flavor took place on September 16, 1919.  Margery Hamilton Clinton was married to Commander Lamar R. Leahy of the U.S. Navy.  The New-York Tribune reported "The bride will be given away by her brother, Captain Kenneth Clinton, U.S.A...and the ushers will be Commander Frederick Halstead Poteet, Lieutenant Commander Paul H. Bastedo, Captain Harold Earle Cook and Captain Adolphus Andrews."  The newspaper noted "After their wedding trip Commander Leahy and his bride will live at 449 Park Avenue."

When military assignments later caused the Leahys to relocate to Washington DC, Margery's widowed mother moved into the Mayfair apartment.   She was still here in 1923 when Leahy was ordered to command the U.S.S. Wright of the Atlantic fleet.  The Times reported on May 2 "Mrs. Lamar R. Leahy has come from Washington, D. C., to spend the Spring with her mother."  Leahy would later achieve the rank of rear admiral.

Another socially prominent name in the Mayfair was that of Sydney J. Smith, whose sister was the Countess of Strafford.  Smith had moved into the Mayfair after a messy divorce from his wife of 13 years, the former Fannie B. Tailer, in 1909.  Fannie was given sole custody of their two sons at the time (no doubt because of her photographic evidence of Sydney with a "very small, very dark little woman, with a very French accent").   But by the summer of 1925 both Sydney, Jr. and Earl were sharing the apartment with their father.

Reporters caught up with Fannie (now Mrs. C. Whitney Carpenter, Jr.) at her Newport villa, Cliff Lawn, on July 10.  Earl was now 21 years old and a senior at Yale.  They asked her about rumors that he was engaged to Consuelo Vanderbilt, the niece and namesake of the Duchess of Marlborough.  She replied that "she had never heard of the report."

Simultaneously the press knocked on the door of the Mayfair apartment.  The Times reported that Earl "denied that he was engaged to Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, as had been reported."  He admitted that he would attend the wedding of Consuelo's sister, Muriel, to Frederic Cameron Church, Jr. in Newport on July 25.

The leaking of engagements within high society before their formal announcement was aggressively avoided; and untrue denials were commonplace, expected and forgiven.   So it was no surprise when, on August 12, 1925, The New York Times reported that "it was learned yesterday" that the marriage would take place early in January.  "Miss Vanderbilt is considered one of the greatest heiresses of the country," said the article.

Simultaneously there was another romance blooming in the Smith household.  Five months after Earl's wedding, his father was "quietly married" to Mrs. Florence Hawthorne Durant on June 5.   The Times noted "The marriage is of much interest in this city.  Mr. Smith took a prominent part in the series of entertainments in the early Winter preceding the marriage of his son to Miss Vanderbilt at the home of Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, 666 Fifth Avenue, early in January."

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Another quiet wedding had taken place a few months earlier, in March, in the Mayfair apartment of Robert Olyphant.   Now retired, Olyphant had been a partner in Ward, Talbot & Olyphant, coal merchants, and a director of the Title Guarantee and Trust Company, and the Thompson-Starrett Company.  He was the president of the Sons of the Revolution, as well.

The wedding of his granddaughter, Marie de la Roche Anderson, to George L. Degener, Jr. had been planned as fashionable affair in the Brick Presbyterian Church.  But just as the date neared, Deneger's grandfather died.  At nearly the last minute the ceremony had to be moved to the Olyphant apartment.

The following year, in October 1927, Olyphant fell ill.  He died in the Park Avenue apartment 15 months later.  In addition to half of his personal and household effects, his will left an annual income from $115,000 for life to his widow, Marie; an amount equal to about $1.6 million today.

The joys and tragedies surrounding the lives of the Mayfair's upscale residents continued to play out through newspaper columns for the next 17 years.  Ending his family's 75-year ownership of the property, Edward Larocque Tinker sold it to the Tishman Realty & Construction Company in December 1945.  The firm announced plans or "a twenty-one story structure representing an investment of $5,500,000."

Following the demolition of the Mayfair, the Universal Pictures Building, designed in the International Style by Kahn & Jacobs, was erected. 

The Universal Pictures Building is better known today as 445 Park Avenue rendering from The Robinson Library

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