In The Magazine

Townhouse of Many Faces

Monday, February 1, 2016

Like many celebrated Upper East Siders, the townhouse at 17 East 65th Street, which was born in 1941, had some work done on its face as it approached its 40th birthday. 

But in this case, the enhancements were not just a nip and a tuck but rather major

reconstructive surgery, which radically transformed the building’s façade from a boldly horizontal landmark of modernist design to an austere, geometric composition of red granite and stainless-steel piping.

The new façade, designed by Milton Klein and completed in 1981, was so lapel-grabbingly noncontextual with its more traditional prewar neighbors that Woody Allen gave the building a cameo in Hannah and Her Sisters as the work of a glib, Jaguar-driving architect played by Sam Waterston. Angling for a date by flattering the architect, a young woman played by Carrie Fisher described the building with an impressive cascade of faux-erudite mumbo jumbo: “It has an organic quality that’s almost entirely wholly interdependent, if you know what I mean. I can’t put it into words. The important thing is, it breathes.”

The townhouse, currently listed for sale at $40 million with Brown Harris Stevens, has long been home to French & Company, a pedigreed art dealership with a client roster that has included the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, J.P. Morgan, and J. Paul Getty. But the building began its life with a very different appearance and a very different owner, aviation pioneer Sherman M. Fairchild.

The only son and heir of George Winthrop Fairchild, the longtime chairman of IBM, Sherman was a restless and ingenious inventor who founded Fairchild Aviation and dozens of other companies, held over 30 patents, and pioneered aerial photography for use from Manhattan to the moon. His groundbreaking products included a silicon semiconductor and a sound camera for home movies.

Dissatisfied with conventional design, in architecture no less than in technology, Fairchild tore down a dowdy 1880s row house between Fifth and Madison Avenues and hired architects George Nelson and William Hamby to create a domicile as innovative as its owner. The pair obliged, producing an iconoclastic layout that split the house into two halves overlooking a glass-walled interior courtyard. To connect the front and back sections, the architects provided glassed-in ramps that lent a sense of openness and light unknown in traditional brownstone stairwells.

Because most of the views from these crisscrossing ramps “look out on the house rather than the neighboring buildings,” Architectural Forum noted in 1943, “and because the interiors have been thoroughly sound-conditioned, the sights and sounds of the city seem very remote to the occupant, and the feeling of privacy is virtually complete.”

The home’s exterior was equally unconventional, with the main entrance set into a grille of glass and wood spanning the entire façade at street level. On the upper floors, windows were hidden behind horizontal, redwood louvers operated by the same mechanism used to raise and lower convertible car roofs.

Fairchild’s house was a highly efficient “machine for living,” but it was also a machine for making more machines, as the industrialist was an inveterate tinkerer who used the gadget-filled building as a workshop and office as well as a home. He was forever developing new ideas for such things as sound and camera equipment, and he regularly dictated letters into tape recorders in different parts of his house, to be typed later by shifts of secretaries at desks in his basement.

A jazz aficionado and audio-recording innovator, Fairchild worked his architects “to a frazzle,” in their words, to achieve the effects he wanted, which in the case of the living room meant installing unparallel glass walls that ensured the requisite high-quality acoustics. In the corner of the room, Fairchild kept a pair of perfectly matched white Steinway pianos “bolted together like a love seat, as if they were one instrument,” according to jazz historian Paul de Barros. The pianos were miked to a recording booth.

Fairchild was a lifelong bachelor who hosted vibrant parties, attracting musical greats like Hoagy Carmichael and movie stars like Jeanne Crain, an Academy Award nominee who played opposite Cary Grant in the 1951 drama People Will Talk.

“It would be sort of expected that you would play, so I would get to do duets with Hoagy or whoever was there,” recounted jazz pianist Marian McPartland in Jazzwomen Speak, by Wayne Enstice and Janis Stockhouse. Over the years, the performances of Carmichael, the Rev. Gary Davis and other musicians were recorded in the house with Fairchild’s state-of-the-art equipment, sometimes yielding albums bearing the credit line “recorded at Sherman Fairchild Studio.” In 1969, when McPartland grew frustrated with her lack of recording opportunities, Fairchild helped her found the Halcyon record label with music producer Hank O’Neal.

After Fairchild’s death in 1971 at the age of 74, his 65th Street townhouse was bought by Martin Zimet, the owner of French & Company and a former Wall Street banker, who moved the art dealership into the building.

Toward the end of the decade, the noted architect Michael Graves was commissioned to redesign the façade in a postmodern style, to the dismay of the New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who declared that the building should have been landmarked years earlier as a rare International Style New York townhouse. Architectural historian Paul Goldberger was more sympathetic to Graves’ proposed façade,

drawings of which were exhibited at a midtown gallery in 1979. Goldberger, also writing in the Times, described the prospective façade, some versions of which were pale blue with subtle stripings in salmon color, as an admirable mix of “the new with the traditional vocabulary.” He concluded that “one can only hope that this design gets built.”

It didn’t, although the Graves design was considered important enough that the architect Philip Johnson acquired and donated one of Graves’ facade drawings to the Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile, the front of 17 East 65th Street was aggressively remade according to Klein’s plans, its new red-granite face punctuated with dark windows,

some of them reminiscent of a castle’s arrow-slit apertures. Inside, the glass walls of the interior courtyard were removed and its space recaptured as a large, high-ceilinged room capped with an enormous skylight. Today, zigzagging ramps lead visitors from one level to another. There are bedrooms on the third, fourth and fifth floors.

What buyer will want to move his family, business, or institution into such a place is the $40 million question. It’s certainly not your ordinary Lenox Hill townhouse, but then again, it was never intended to be. Φ


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