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A Townhouse Reborn

Monday, April 17, 2017

On the south side of East 66th Street between Park and Madison, the façades of three townhouses are adorned with For Sale shingles, their asking prices ranging from a lot ($16 million) to an awful lot ($26.5 million). A fourth, No. 58, recently sold for $24 million to Craig Filipacchi, a real estate broker and scion of the French publishing family.

The skyward trajectory of affluence on this gracious if busy block has been 130 years in the making. By the 1880s the street was lined with solid, unspectacular brownstones built for middle-class families. One row of 10 five-story neo-Grec houses, put up by a developer named Ira E. Doying, included the Filipacchi house and all three lots—Nos. 46, 56 and 60—that are now on the market.

None tell the story of the strip’s evolution better than No. 46, a 20-foot-wide house that today wears a redbrick-and-limestone neo-Georgian façade designed in 1919 by heralded society architect Mott B. Schmidt. Used for decades as the ambassadorial residence of the Republic of Senegal, which allowed it to fall into egregious disrepair, the townhouse was purchased in 2013 for $9 million by an investment group and has since undergone a $6.5 million gut renovation. It is priced at $26.5 million. When No. 46 was built in 1878, it probably looked quite a bit like Nos. 52 and 54, the only two of its siblings that are substantially intact in their original form.

But No. 46 is unusual. In its early life, it counted an uncommon number of women among its owners. In 1892, it was bought by Mary Bullowa, a merchant’s widow, and in 1908 it passed to Emilie Bullowa, one of the first woman lawyers in the United States.

The younger Bullowa, a founder and first president of the National Association of Women Lawyers, raised her ten younger siblings there after their parents’ deaths. Once all her brothers and sisters were safely ensconced in school, she studied law at New York University, later opening up a law practice on Nassau Street with her brother Ferdinand. The 1910 census found 7 of the 11 by-then adult siblings living cheek by jowl in the brownstone, along with three servants.

In 1919, the Bullowa family sold the brownstone to Noel J. Appleton, a granddaughter of John Taylor Johnston, who was the first president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Appleton and her husband, William H. Appleton, a cotton broker, lost no time in updating the dowdy 1888 brownstone. Park Avenue, once a noxious and noisy corridor thanks to the steam-powered trains that ran down its center, had become desirable after the Penn Central Railroad began electrifying the trains in 1906 and buried the tracks in 1910. Wealthier residents moved in and often replaced the déclassé brownstone fronts with tonier façades.

To make their marks on the block, the Appletons and the owners of No. 60 turned to Schmidt to redesign their new building fronts. In the next two years, Schmidt was to design elegantly restrained neo-Georgian townhouses on Sutton Place for Anne Vanderbilt and Anne Morgan, catapulting himself into the first rank of society architects. “By mastering the language of American Georgian classicism,” the architect Robert A.M. Stern has noted, Schmidt “became an architect catering to a monied crowd who liked what he did because it so perfectly coincided with their own views.”

For the Appletons, Schmidt came up with an elegant neo-Georgian façade of Flemish-bond brick, with a grand entrance distinguished by a bracketed broken pediment with a cartouche.

The dignified house was next sold in 1927 to John S. Burke, an executive of the B. Altman department store. Mr. Burke moved in with his wife, the former Helen Churchill, the daughter of a state Supreme Court justice. When the judge died seven years later, his funeral was held in the townhouse. The Burkes stayed until 1960, when they sold it for $150,000 to Mrs. Patrick McGinnis, wife of another railroad executive.

By the time Coralee Investors bought the house from Senegal in 2013, the place was “a disaster,” according to Henry Justin, principal of HJ Development, which undertook the renovation. “Nothing had been touched for 50 or 60 years, there was plaster coming off the walls, and there were tremendous issues with the decay of the joists,” he said. “I don’t think anybody had been in the top floors for the last 35 years. The ambassador was using the third floor, which had a large bedroom with a leaking bathtub that actually fell through the floor between the time we went to contract and closed.”

The developer restored the exterior and reenvisioned the interior in a sleek modern style. A service entrance to the west of the front door was removed in favor of a mahogany window that replicated the original design. The damaged limestone pediment and cartouche were replaced with duplicates hand-carved by a Brooklyn artisan. Inside, 85 percent of the joists were replaced and mahogany floors, windows and cabinetry were installed.

The result is a brand-new five-bedroom, seven-bath home with an elevator inside a restored exterior. After entering through the stately doorway, visitors are carried up a staircase to a luxurious living room with three grand eight-foot-by-four-foot windows facing the street.

The overall effect is a far cry from the row house’s modest origins as a middle-class brownstone. In its lavishly appointed 21st-century incarnation, the long-neglected house again beckons to the upper crust, as it did when Schmidt designed its façade a century ago.


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