20.12.12

GILDED AGE MANHATTAN DOWN EAST


Whenever I pass this townhouse at 9 East 68th St. in Manhattan, I stop in my tracks, enchanted by the odd arrangement of the balustrade sitting on the columns of the facade, which are evocative of Palladio's Vicenza, yet break all the rules.  Despite its attention getting style, I've only recently  learned more about it and connected a few dots in the process. Sometimes these things are in the air:  two weeks ago, even as the facts were filtering into my consciousness, 'Daytonian in Manhattan' blogged about the house.  Then, as I began writing this post a week ago---before a Fairpoint 'upgrade' undid my internet service for three days, a friend, not knowing of my recent interest, rang to mention that he had been to a party that evening in one of the apartments that now occupy the house, and his surprise that the elegant rooms lacked original woodwork.  Well, for those who don't already know, here's the rest of the story---and the answer to Monday's quiz.
A photograph of the Bliss house under construction, 1907, underscores its inspiration from Palladian buildings in Vicenza (courtesy Bowdoin College Archives)
Loggia del Capitano, Vicenza
Palazzo Schio
 The house was designed by Heins and LaFarge in 1907 for Jeanette Dwight Bliss, the daughter of a wealthy cotton merchant, and widow of George T. Bliss, the namesake son of  the partner of former Vice-President Levi P. Morton in the banking house of Morton, Bliss & Co.   Bliss Jr., who died of appendicitis in 1901, was a collector of  rare books, and his wife continued his collecting, in addition to her own fine collection of French decorative arts.  For her new house, Mrs. Bliss and her architects collected, in the manner of the day, an assortment of antique European interiors and architectural elements to provide the proper atmosphere for her collections.  Mrs. Bliss attended the 1906 sale of Stanford White's collections, including architectural elements, it is certain that some of her purchases were made there.

The dining room of Stanford White's New York townhouse, showing mantel sold at the sale of White's effects..
Stanford White's dining room mantel as used in the reception room of the Bliss house with 17th century French painted paneling (Courtesy Bowdoin College Archives)

Catalog entry for dining room mantelpiece from the catalog of the Stanford White estate sale
One wonders where these doors are today
The music room occupied the entire frontage on the piano nobile, overlooking  East 68th  St.  an alley between  the Bliss House and the neighboring J.J. Emery-Anson house allowed two exposures a rare commodity in townhouse interiors.
Above one of the two fireplaces in the music room hung  a self -portrait of  Rose-Adelaide Ducreaux, attributed in the Bliss's time to Vigeé-le Brun
Among the glories of the house were a small boudoir originally designed by Pierre-Adrian Paris for the Hôtel de Crillon on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, a sixteenth century Neapolitan ceiling for the library, and early 18th century boiserie designed by Lasurrance for the music room of the medieval Hôtel de Sens in the Marais.

Boudoir from Hôtel de Crillon, as installed in the Bliss House (courtesy Bowdoin College Archives)


Two views of the library, with woodwork designed by C. Grant LaFarge, and 16th century Italian ceiling and antique Istrian  marble fireplace (courtesy Bowdoin College Archives)

The Bliss salon, with boiserie originally designed for the Hôtel de Sens (courtesy Bowdoin College Archives)
Hôtel de Sens, Paris
Not all the interior decoration was antique.  Mrs. Bliss's architect, Christopher Grant LaFarge, was the son of the stained glass artist John LaFarge, who created the 'Welcome' window for the stair landing, with Mrs. Bliss's daughter, Susan posing for the central figure.
"Welcome" by John LaFarge (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Susan Dwight Bliss never married, and lived with her mother at East 68th Street. When they left town for the summer, they apparently preferred to lease, and they varied resorts from season to season, sometimes Newport, sometimes the Hamptons or the New Jersey shore, and sometimes here in Maine, at Bar Harbor, where their quarters ranged from 'Cornersmeet', a modest cottage on the Malvern Hotel grounds, to the more opulent surroundings of George Vanderbilt's 'Pointe d'Acadie' in 1910 (the Vanderbilts were economizing in Paris after financial reverses, all things being relative)  By 1912, they were in Seabright in New Jersey, and the New York times reported, with some consternation, that thier houseguest of the previous season, Count Eugene de Villa-Franca Soissons, a grandson of Prince Eugene of Savoy-Carignan, was 'noncommital' about reports that he was engaged to Susan Bliss, and speculated that his family did not approve of marriage to a commoner, no matter how rich.
17th century painted reception room from the Bliss house.  Location unknown
(Courtesy  of Bowdoin College Archives)
In 1924, Mrs. Bliss died, and Susan Dwight Bliss continued on at 9 East 68th, through the Depression and World War II, caring for and adding to her parent's collections, quietly supporting her many charities.

By 1945, it was thought that the age of the great town houses was over forever--the neighboring Marquand house by Richard Morris Hunt, on the corner of Madison Avenue and 68th St., had been demolished years before and replaced by an apartment house.  Many other houses in the neighborhood had fallen to institutional uses or been divided into apartments.  Rather than leave her house for an apartment, as many of her set had done, Susan Bliss decided to remain, but divided the house into several apartments, creating for herself in a 20 room duplex on the 3rd and 4th floors.   Her mother's grand interiors were gutted and dismantled, and Miss Bliss dispatched several of them to new homes.  

The Crillon boudoir, and many art objects, including the Harpsichord and self-portrait of Mme. Ducreaux, went around the corner to the Metropolitan Museum, where the boudoir is one of the delights of the Wrightsman Rooms .  
The Crillon Boudoir as installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, decorated by Jansen  for the
Wrightsmans.
The library paneling designed by Christopher Grant LaFarge, supporting the antique Italian ceiling, was offered, along with a collection of her father's books and fine bindings and light fixtures and furniture, to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  Bowdoin, although surprised---Miss Bliss had never before had direct involvement with the college--accepted the gift with alacrity.  Other portions of the rare book collection went to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
As originally installed in Hubbard Hall at Bowdoin, the Bliss Library, with modifications designed by McKim, Mead & White, perfectly evoked the luxe of Gilded Age Manhattan, transplanted to the coast of Maine. (courtesy Bowdoin College Archives)

The library ceiling (Bowdoin)
The Bliss Room as it appears today.
Also to Bowdoin went the boiserie from l'Hotel de Sens, where it was installed in Harvey Dow Gibson Hall, also by McKim, Mead & White, which houses the music department.
A contemporary photograph of the music room is not available---it may be viewed here in a Quicktime movie on the Bowdoin website. (The modern bookcase on one wall is undeniably regrettable.)
Portrait of a Lady, attributed to Alonso Sanchez Coello
(Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of Miss Susan Dwight Bliss)
 And that, children, is the long answer to Monday's quiz question.  Congratulations to Anonymous, who answered it correctly (and in several hundred fewer words)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
A Few Links:

For more about the Bliss House, click HERE.  More about the Bliss Room at Bowdoin, HERE .  For the complete set of Bliss House photographs in the Bowdoin Archives, several of which are reproduced here with permission, HERE.  For a plan of the piano nobile of the Bliss house, click HERE

PS.  As I continue to research for my book (Acanthus Press, early 2014, start saving your pennies), I keep passing the clothes of former owners of the houses, mostly in the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum.  Here is one of Miss Bliss's boots, from that collection


12 comments:

Reggie Darling said...

Another in your masterful series of academic, interesting, and information-packed posts of social, architectural, and domestic cutural history. Hats off to you, Sir!

ArchitectDesign™ said...

What a shoe - like the wicked witch of the west or something! ahh fashion.
I'm eagerly awaiting your book- pennies SAVED!

HalfPuddingHalfSauce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
balsamfir said...

When I first saw the photos I thought it was going to be another tale of destroyed glory, but not quite that painful. So relieved that she was generous and intelligent enough to save the details.

The Devoted Classicist said...

The Crillon boudoir is one of my all-time favorite rooms.

FordCornell said...

Outstanding research; terrific article. Isn't curiosity the best of talents? Followed, perhaps, by erudite use of language and common sense. You, D D, seem to combine all three traits in just the right measure. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

like your site
note the Marquand mansion was on madison ave
see link with pic..Bliss house had yet to be built
http://luna.library.cmu.edu/luna/servlet/detail/CORNELL~3~1~75626~10040120:Marquand-Residence?qvq=q:new%2Byork%2B;lc:CORNELL~3~1&mi=37&trs=85
whitney house in back on fifth.. I believe
BT

The Down East Dilettante said...

Duh. I actually knew that the Marquand house was on Madison, if I'd stopped to think about i(which I all too rarely do). The Dilettante needs a proof reader and fact checker on staff :-).

Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Duly corrected.

Wonderful photograph, btw.

Toby Worthington said...

I have worshipped the boudoir from the Crillon Hotel
for many years. It is magical. But not until now had
I any idea that it had been installed at East 68th St
before residing at the Met Museum. This was a marvelous post, dear Dilettante. One of your very best!

Hels said...

A photograph of the Bliss house under construction at the turn of the century does indeed show its debt to Palladian buildings in Vicenza. I had never seen an image of Loggia del Capitano in Vicenza before, and agree with you that the family or architect must have proposed it as a model.

I have been very pre-occupied with Palladio's architecture this month, focusing on Inigo Jones and the Whig taste makers. But I should have spread my search beyond Vicenzan buildings like Villa Capra/Rotunda.

Thanks for the link
Hels
http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/palladios-architecture-inigo-jones-and.html


Dovecote Decor said...

Thank you again for your well researched and informative work. Next time I pass that house I will sound so brilliant!
Best,
Liz

P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

I've been in the neighborhoods figuratively speaking-rereading a couple of Wharton bios and picked up the trail of your book upcoming-which I am so happy about. pgt