Behind that Brownstone Fascade: a glimpse inside the second floor study of a storied UES Townhouse

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by Kristina Nugent

A town house on 255 East 71st street raises the question of whether or not historic preservation can be proven to demonstrate a bias towards protecting architecturally and aesthetically distinctive buildings at the expense of assigning an equal importance to embodied historic value. Herbert Croly, the founder of the New Republic magazine, editor of Architectural Record and author of several books concerning American politics and Progressive ideals, lived in the townhouse on 255 East 71st street for the final eight years of his life. Author Waldo David Frank noted in The American Jungle that:

Most men are set and long past growing before they are forty. This is true of the conspicuous and successful, no less than of the common. Herbert Croly [on the other hand] was a growing man until he was stricken, and the rate of his growth kept on accelerating with the years. This rare capacity, which toward the end transfigured him, was his true genius.

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But even if one could make the case that Croly’s final years spent in the townhouse on the Upper East Side were indeed the most significant years of his life, is this enough to justify the preservation of his residence at the time, regardless of the building’s architectural qualities?

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A similar question arose in an instance in the summer of 2000 when the New York University school of law, “planned to raze a town house on West Third Street where [Edgar Allen] Poe lived briefly in the 1840’s and replace it with a 13-story tower with classrooms and offices,” after, “the Landmarks Commission declined to designate the building,” according to the New York Times.[i] . The reasons against preserving the town house given by NYU’s president, John H. Beckman, were namely that, “While we agree that commemorating Poe is important, and we are committed to finding a way to do it, we do not believe that preserving this structure is the appropriate way to do it.”[ii] Can – and should – this conclusion be applied to other preservation scenarios where there is a strong case for historic significance but a weak argument for architectural merit?

The House and the Neighborhood

The house where Herbert Croly lived in New York is located on the north side of East 71st Street between Second and Third Avenues. The property upon which the physical structure was built originally was owned as part of the estate of Colford and Eleanor Jones. Prior to Mrs. Jones death on June 23, 1855, the land holdings were divided among her relatives and the parcel upon which the town house in question now sits was originally granted to Isaac Carew and James J. Jones in 1822. In 1831, a portion of the parcel was sold to John Jones Schermerhorn. After the death of Eleanor Jones in 1855, Edmund H. Schermerhorn desired to purchase the entire parcel on East 71st Street from the grantees of Eleanor (Pendleton) Jones, but several family members refused to sell their shares. The matter was brought to the Supreme Court of the State of New York, and the outcome was that much of the land was sold to individual members of the Schermerhorn family while several Pendleton and Jones family members held on to their shares of the estate, including the property that was to become 255 East 71st Street. The land continued to be sold or passed down. In 1865 the area around East 71st street was transforming into a residential area, and accordingly, when the property was granted to Richard M. Hoe by his parents in 1865, he initiated the construction of the row house that has occupied this lot up until the current time.

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The row house came into the Croly’s ownership in July 2, 1923 when Louise Croly obtained it from the Redmond sisters. That same year, Croly was given money from Dorothy Straight of the New Republic to “remodel the house on 255 Seventy-First Street,” and, “Herbert, for the first time in his life, had his own study.”[iii] According to Christopher Gray, Dorothy Straight and her husband, Willard Straight, were both deeply influenced by Croly’s first book, The Promise of American Life, and since, “The Straights were particularly interested in liberal politics, in1914 Croly was invited to meet Dorothy and Willard at their Long Island home. While there, Croly commented that Norman Hapgood, the recently appointed editor of Harper’s Weekly, had failed to turn it into the liberal journal that America needed. Dorothy suggested that the three of them should start their own journal.”[iv] Together, they founded The New Republic journal, which first appeared on 7th November 1914. Willard Straight financed the journal and appointed Croly as its president and its editor-in-chief. The journal was, “outspoken in favor of women’s rights, the labor movement and American involvement in international affairs, and also became a strong supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive movement.”[v]

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In a letter to Mrs. Straight, Herbert wrote “he worked [in the new study on 255 East 71st Street] every morning, usually on next week’s leader or editorial. Around noon he brought his handwritten notes to the typist at the office and, at one lunched with those staff members and guests who happened to be present. He then retired back to his study on the second floor and took a nap on his couch – he had installed a special “vita glass” in the windows because he had been persuaded that it would screen out actinic rays and preserve health.”[vi]

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For Croly, this row house was more than his residence, but was the setting in which several of his most important writings were created.

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Structural History and Alterations

This wood-framed, masonry-sheathed Italianate row house was built in 1869, altered in 1923 by Herbert Croly, and again in 1972 by owner George S. Borey by the architect Robert H. Simpson who converted the former single-family house into a duplex. The original construction drawings are missing from the Building’s Department file, but the 1923 alteration drawings reveal that the formerly transitional Italianate/Georgian-style facade (that still remains on the adjacent row house to the right-hand side of this building) was altered. The architect’s drawings to alter the façade were not fully realized, and while the decorative right-side stoop and second-story entrance was later removed and a new entry door was added to the ground level.

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The former second-story entrance had consisted of Doric-pilasters that flanked the wood-paneled front entry door, with an arched pediment over and an oversized decorative keystone and still appeared in the 1939 tax photo. An additional aspect of the 1923 design was to add a ground-floor entrance on the right side of the building and the architect’s plans indicated that the entry was intended to be recessed (as was popular in Beaux-Arts designs). It is uncertain why this plan was not carried through since there is documentation stating that Croly received funds from Mrs. Straight to remodel the home in 1923; these plans are from 1923 but it is clear from the tax photos that many of the exterior alterations were not made during Croly’s lifetime.

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In 1972 the house was converted into a duplex and a ground-floor entrance was finally added. The plans of the architect indicate that he changed very little on the façade with the exception of removing the stoop and elaborate decoration around the second-story entrance, and adding a metal spiral-staircase to the exterior in order to provide access to the upper-story apartment. More extensive changes were made to the interior in order to add an additional kitchen and more bathroom facilities that were needed to accommodate two tenants.

In past landmark discussions, board members of the Landmarks Commission have given the fact that a building, “had been significantly altered over time,” as a reason for not designating the historic resource.[1] While the modernizations may have substantially altered the original use of the building, the overall aesthetic quality of the row house on 255 East 71st street has not drastically changed from the time in which Croly lived there from around 1922 to 1930. It follows that, while alterations may influence the potential significance of a historic structure, in this instance, the modernizations have had a negligible impact on the historic character of this row house.

Career of Herbert Croly (1869-1930):

­            From his obituary in the New York Times, the defining moments of Croly’s life were noted.

While these few details only begin to hint at the achievements and contributions of Mr. Croly during his lifetime, they offer a succinct biographical sketch:

Mr. Croly was a son of the late David G. Croly of this city, a former editor of The World, and of The Graphic. After spending a year (1884-85) at the College of the City of New York, he studied for a year at Harvard, leaving to return in 1985 and study philosophy with the intention of teaching the subject until 1899, when he left (again) without getting his doctoral degree. He obtained a position with The Architectural Record, was its editor from 1900-1906, and continued as a member of its staff until 1913. He relinquished the editorship in order to throw himself into the preparation of the book that made his reputation, “The Promise of American Life,” issued in 1909. The impression made by this volume led him to write, “Marcus Alonzo Hanna, His Life and Work,” 1912, which was followed by “Progressive Democracy,” in 1914. In November 1914, The New Republic made its appearance. His home in the city was at 255 East Seventy-First Street.”[vii]

To add, author David W. Levy published a longer biographical narrative, Herbert Croly of The New Republic, in 1985. Levy focused his investigation primarily on Croly’s political ideas, but necessarily grounded Croly’s beliefs in a study of his early life, which was seen by the author to have had a measurable influence on his career path, his political writings and involvement in the political events of his adult lifetime.

Although Croly began his career with Architectural Record, it was not architecture that enflamed his passion, but politics. However, from the standpoint of American architectural history, Croly’s contribution to the field was far from insignificant. He wrote several books on the subject, and over one hundred articles relating to American architecture that are useful snapshots of architectural discussions that engaged Americans during that time. In the Architectural Record, Croly, in one instance, looked at the rise and fall of the once ultra-fashionable brownstone facades, and “traced it back to the 1830s and points to its final triumph during the early eighties in the Vanderbilt houses opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral, [but wrote that] thereafter it was abandoned so speedily, both by speculative builders and by the richer men who built their own houses, that the sudden change can only be accounted for on the ground, partly, no doubt, unconscious, of an utter weariness of the flesh and spirit.”[viii] His political ideologies often colored his writings on architecture, and in one such instance he wrote on the lack of progress made in New York City for public improvements, and wrote with great zeal on the role of the city government should play in promoting aesthetics and why it is not practical in his time, given the widespread corruption of city officials:

…Thus the municipal art reform movement is closely associated with the general movement towards municipal reform. As long as our municipal governments are untrustworthy, public opinion will be loath to sanction any considerable increase in their legal powers; and as long as such increase in legal powers remains unsanctioned the vision of a beautified and glorified future for our larger American cities must remain, to a large extent, impracticable.[ix]

As a brief overview of the political events that occurred during Croly’s lifetime, he was raised during the heyday of the “spoils system” in American politics and grew weary of the candidacies of Benjamin Harrison, “ … and Tyler too,” and the dishonesty of “log cabin” campaigns which functioned more as popular spectacles than as serious, issues-based elections. Growing up in New York City, especially, and seeing firsthand the vast exploitation of the city’s immigrant populations through the mastermind political machine of Tammany Hall, and the detestable legacy of Mayor “Boss” Tweed, it makes sense why Croly supported the governmental reforms that were championed by the Progressive Party that aimed to end “machine politics” and re-establish a more just, democratic electoral system.

Yet, Croly refused to align himself with the any political party even though the agenda of Theodore Roosevelt especially resonated with Croly. He was even offered a job by President Roosevelt, himself, which Croly, “politely declined on the grounds of political independence.”[x]Croly’s first book, The Promise of American Life arguably cemented Croly’s reputation as an esteemed political thinker in America during this time.[xi] According to Richard Hofstadter in, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R., “American Magazine, at the height of the 1912 presidential campaign, hailed Croly as the “man from whom Colonel [Theodore] Roosevelt got his ‘new nationalism.”‘[xii]

As Levy wrote, the years between 1909 and 1914: “…were particularly thrilling for Herbert Croly. His work was widely respected. His services were eagerly solicited: to write articles or deliver papers, to prepare planks for the platform of an old party, to serve as an officer for a new one … [and] Croly came to know a number of Washington luminaries … and other socially prominent, politically important men.”[xiii] In 1918, with endowment funds from Mr. Straight, the two men founded a new college in New York City, “to be devoted to Political Science,” which The Nation called, “a profoundly important and fascinating educational experiment,” and arguably was the forerunner for such an educational curriculum that continues to be taught in the current age.[xiv]

The nineteen twenties were initially difficult for Croly after the death of his business partner, and good friend, Willard Straight, which he captured in a biography of Straight which was published shortly after his death. Croly and The New Republic, continued to carry on, and Croly continued to take on more responsibility in order to see to it that his agenda was being carried out by supporting such causes that would further its reach. Unexpectedly, in 1928, Croly became, “seriously ill at his home, 255 East Seventy-First Street, having suffered a paralytic stroke several weeks ago, it was learned yesterday. Inquiries at the home brought the information that he was improved yesterday.”[xv] A day later, it was reported in the Times that he was, “in a “satisfactory condition at his home, 255 East Seventy-First Street, last night.”[xvi]

Yet Croly did not fully recover and two years later, he “died in a hospital in Santa Barbara, Calif. on May 17, 1930 at the age of sixty one (apparently he had been staying with in Montecito, since November).[xvii] Croly’s letter of administration read: “Herbert D. Croly (May 17th). Estate, $35,000. To Louise E. Croly, widow, 255 East Seventy-First Street. Other heir, sister.”[xviii]

Croly House in New Hampshire:

As an aside, Croly’s vacation home in Cornish New Hampshire is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On the designation report, the historic significance of the property was:

Herbert Croly came to Cornish initially in 1893. For the next two summers his family rented “Barberry House”, then belonging to Frank Johnson. In 1897 Herbert Croly, then editor of the Architectural Record bought this piece of pasture land from Edward Bryant and commissioned Charles Platt to build this house overlooking Dingleton Hill, the Connecticut Valley and Mt. Ascutney. It was here that Croly wrote The Promise of American Life (1909) and Progressive Democracy (1914). Croly also served as editor of the liberal weekly, New Republic, founded in 1914. Philip Littell, who lived down the hill, served as the first literary editor. Croly was one of a handful of colonists who remained in Cornish for the greater part of the year.[xix]

The critical aspect of this property, as opposed to Croly’s New York townhouse was its undeniable architectural merit, and that Croly, himself, commissioned the “prominent” architect Charles Platt to design his home, as well as the fact that his formative years writing The Promise were spent at this home.

Conclusion:

The criteria by which most historic buildings become landmarks or are eligible for the national register is by exhibiting distinctive architectural qualities that generally reflect the work of a well-known professional architect. But why include the additional category for historical significance if a building is unlikely to qualify if this unstated, but essential criterion is not met?

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Arguably, historic places have a dual purpose: as a stage for contemporary human life, and as ciphers that collect the memories from an earlier age. The buildings themselves must function didactically, and are essential resources for the present society to learn about the past. Therefore the question in this example is what we can learn about Croly’s life through the townhouse on 255 East 71st street, and does the exemplified personal history in question warrant designation of the physical structure in question? In this instance, the facts at hand justify a hearing. Then, as with any landmarks designation in New York City, it is the responsibility of the Commissioners, based on historic evidence and public input, to make a final finding on this matter.


© Kristina Nugent and Ephemeral Urbanity, [2013 – present]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kristina Nugent and EphemeralUrbanity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


[i] Grady, Jim, “City Lore; Fear! Dread! Torment! Why Poe’s Fans Are Obsessive,” New York Times, February 18, 2001.

[ii] Siegal, Nina, “Rapping on Poe’s Door, A Hint of Nevermore; Anger in Village Over N.Y.U. Tower,” New York Times, July 19, 2000, C4.

[iii] Levy, David W., Herbert Croly of the New Republic: the life and thought of an American progressive, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press), 1985, p.287.

[iv] Gray, Christopher, “Streetscapes/1915 Straight Residence, Until Recently the International Center of Photography; The Northernmost Mansion Built on Fifth Avenue,” October 14, 2001.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] “Herbert Croly Dies at Santa Barbara,” The New York Times, (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, 1851 – 2004), May 18, 1930, pg. 31.

[viii] “Art as a Humanizer,” (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times, 1851 – 2004), Jun 7, 1903, pg. 11.

[ix] Croly, Herbert, “Civic Improvements: The Case of New York,” Architectural Record, 21(May 1907): 347-352.

[x] Levy, David W., Herbert Croly of the New Republic,” p.159.

[xi] “Croly, Herbert David.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 25 Oct. 2007  <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9027961&gt;.

[xii] Hofstadter, Richard, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R., (Vintage: New York, 1955), p.147.

[xiii] Ibid, 160.

[xiv] “Found New College, Faculty to Control,”  (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times, 1851 – 2004), May 10, 1918, pg. 9.

[xv] “Herbert Croly Very Ill,” New York Times,  (ProQuest Historical Newspapers; 1857-Current file), Nov 27, 1928, pg. 25.

[xvi] “Herbert Croly Recovering,” New York Times,  (ProQuest Historical Newspapers; 1857-Current file), Nov 28, 1928, pg. 20.

[xvii] “Herbert Croly Dies at Santa Barbara,” The New York Times, (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, 1851 – 2004), May 18, 1930, pg. 31.

[xviii] “Classified Ad 1 — No Title,” (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times, 1851 – 2004), Jun 8, 1930; pg. 36.

[xix] “Croly House in New Hampshire,” Site: N08-048, Cornish, NH. Location: Saint-Gaudens Road, north side. Site Type: House. UTMs: (Zone 18) E: 713570. N: 4820080. Lisa Mausolf, Preservation Specialist, Upper Valley-Lake Sunapee Council, 314 First NH Bank Building, Lebanon, NH 03766, November 1989.

Images

Image 1: “DWE US Office,” Papers of Dorothy Whitney Elmhirst. (From left: Herbert Croly, Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, and Louise Croly. The car is a 1925 Sunbeam 14/40 coupe.)

Image 2: Croly, Herbert David.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 25 Oct. 2007  <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9027961&gt;.

Image 3: “Croly’s Second-Floor Study,” author, October 25, 2007.

Image 4: “Townhouse on 255 East 71st Street, Evening” author, October 25, 2007.

Image 5: “Townhouse on 255 East 71st Street, Morning” author, October 26, 2007.

Image 6: “Croly’s Second-Floor Study, Morning ,” author, October 26, 2007.

Image 7: “Fence: 255 East 71st Street,” author, October 25, 2007.

Image 8: NYC Department of Finance, Conveyance Records, Block 1426, (Prior to 1916).

(Lot 20 is the current address for 255 East 71st Street)

Images 9, 10: NYC Department of Buildings, File for 1426-0020. Alteration “300,” 1972.

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