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Where Nixon Mingled with Monet

Saturday, October 1, 2016

To walk through the aristocratic enclave of Sutton Place and Sutton Place South, built on a midtown Manhattan bluff overlooking the East River, is to feel the wealth and influence hidden discreetly behind the genteel façades of the district’s townhouses and apartment buildings. Though the doings within tend to remain private, now and again the discussions that take place in these gracious residences are momentous enough to change the face of the city.

One such conversation took place in 1972, when James Hester, then the president of New York University, was enjoying a drink in the sprawling apartment of Elmer Bobst at 1 Sutton Place South. The university was struggling financially, and Hester told his host, a pharmaceutical executive and philanthropist, that he hoped to make NYU “a beacon university for the nation,” but that the school lacked the wherewithal to complete a major research library. Bobst, who never attended college but believed strongly in education, excused himself and went into his own wood-paneled library, according to Dr. Mazen Kamen, a nephew of Bobst who heard the account from his aunt Mamdouha, the philanthropist’s second wife. When Bobst returned, he said to the university president, “ ‘This is a check for $11 million: I want you to establish the library,’” Dr. Kamen recounted. “Dr. Hester dropped his jaw and said, ‘Are you serious?,’ and my uncle said, ‘I’m very serious.’ ” The 12-story Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, designed by Philip Johnson and Richard Foster, was dedicated soon after on Washington Square South.

The Bobsts’ elegant 12-room apartment, with five bedrooms, four exposures and breathtaking panoramic views up and down the East River, was recently put on the market for $8.995 million with the Cathy Franklin Team and Scott Stewart of the Corcoran Group. Built in 1926 after the designs of Cross & Cross and Rosario Candela, the dean of prewar New York City apartment house architects, 1 Sutton Place South is known as one of the most luxurious apartment buildings in Manhattan. Apartment 8A, the Bobst residence, occupies the entire eighth floor of the building’s southern wing, and it has all the hallmarks of the golden era of the city’s apartment houses: gracious proportions, woodburning marble fireplaces, servants’ call boxes, and herringbone-patterned wooden floors with buttons that once summoned the butler with a tap of a white shoe.

Over the past few decades, the apartment served as the repository of major artwork and jewelry, as well as the setting for presidential visits. Mr. Bobst was an early and major financial backer of Richard M. Nixon, and the two men’s families were very close, sometimes dining together on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Nixon daughters called Mr. Bobst Uncle Elmer, and after Mamdouha Bobst, a public health advocate and former Lebanese delegate to the United Nations, fell in love with Tricia Nixon’s dog in the 1960s, Mr. Nixon gave Mrs. Bobst a white Yorkshire terrier for Christmas. The Bobsts’ oceanfront Palm Beach mansion, which Corcoran sold for Mrs. Bobst’s estate in June for $13 million, even had a “Nixon wing,” which the Bobsts built expressly for hosting the president and his wife.

The president returned the favor. On his 85th birthday, Mr. Bobst was the guest of honor at a White House dinner attended by 100 people. Although jewelry valued at $100,000 had earlier been stolen from the bedroom safe of the Bobsts’ Sutton Place South apartment, Mrs. Bobst was far from unadorned when she arrived: She wore a platinum and diamond tiara created for the marriage of Queen Geraldine and King Zog I of Albania in 1938.

Mr. Bobst died in 1978, and after Mrs. Bobst passed away last November her jewelry and art collection were auctioned at Sotheby’s to benefit the philanthropic works of the Bobst Foundation. (The tiara fetched $225,000.) The proceeds from the sale of the apartment will also go to charity, said Dr. Kamen, who sits on the foundation’s board.

The major paintings owned by the Bobsts—including works by Monet, Bonnard, and Chagall—caused something of a stir when they went under the hammer at Sotheby’s in May, as many of them had been hidden from public view for decades. But Dr. Kamen had the rare pleasure of seeing them on a daily basis in the early 1980s, when he lived in the Bobst apartment with his aunt while studying medicine at NYU.

A resplendently colorful Impressionist painting of the Normandy coast by Claude Monet had pride of place in the grand entry foyer. A midcareer modern painting of a village by Marc Chagall hung above a credenza in the library. A study of nudes and flowers by Pierre-Auguste Renoir was displayed above a carved wooden fireplace, also in the library.

These paintings might not have survived undamaged were it not for Dr. Kamen’s alacrity in responding to a frantic 3 a.m. phone call in the early 1990s. While Mrs. Bobst was in Palm Beach one winter, the superintendent of 1 Sutton Place South called Dr. Kamen (by then living in his own home) with the troubling news that water was seeping down the walls of the Bobst apartment from a burst pipe upstairs. Dr. Kamen, who had the keys to the Bobsts’ alarm, raced to the scene.

“My aunt freaked, and I was like a maniac getting these paintings into the kitchen, the only place where there was no leak,” Dr. Kamen recalled with a laugh. “Needless to say, the insurance company thanked me a lot.”

One Sutton Place South was built at a time when the lavish palaces of Fifth Avenue were falling before the wrecking ball, and the social and real estate worlds of New York were aflutter with the increasing popularity of co-operatives. “The mansions gone?” asked the New York Times. “No, they have simply moved—moved into apartment houses.”

The ascendance of the co-operative apartment building gathered momentum after World War I, and in 1926 demand for co-ops reached a new peak. By that time, $200 million had been invested in co-operative apartment houses in the city, chiefly south of 59th Street and east of Fifth Avenue.

The renaissance of the Sutton Place neighborhood was jump-started in part by the family of steel baron Henry Phipps, a partner of Andrew Carnegie, which razed a coal-storage facility and put up 1 Sutton Place South, a 13-story-plus-penthouse building, on the full block along the East River between East 56th and 57th Streets. Built of redbrick and limestone, the neo-Georgian building has a porte cochere reminiscentof Fifth Avenue palaces, and a gracious Italian Renaissance–style entrance with three arches whose keystones are richly carved with mythological characters. The co-operative was an instant success, selling out in January 1927, by which time land values east of 57th Street and First Avenue had tripled in three years. Sutton Place had arrived.

From the beginning, 1 Sutton Place South was unabashedly exclusive. Henry Phipps’ four children all took up residence in the building, along with some of their high-society friends, and a 1931 advertisement in the New Yorker noted that all tenants “must be socially acceptable to the directors.” Consequently, the building bristled with Astors, Vanderbilts, Hamiltons and Morgans, along with the likes of publishing titan Major G. H. Putnam.

In 1941, during World War II, the neighborhood held its breath after a mysterious package was delivered to Godfrey Haggard, the British consul general, who lived in an eighth-floor apartment in 1 Sutton Place South, possibly the residence later purchased by the Bobsts. The consul called the police, and before long the area was swarming with patrol cars, a police emergency truck and five fire engine companies. Police lines were established all along the street, while the fireboat Thomas Willett took up position on the East River.

The emergency squad set up a large container of oil in the building’s private rear garden, and after the package was gingerly lowered into it, men of the police technical laboratory deployed their fluoroscope. Around this time, the consul received a letter from Nathalie Sedgwick Colby, the ex-wife of a former U.S. secretary of state, telling the consul to keep an eye out for an early Easter gift she was sending him: six dozen eggs laid by her own hens. When the consul ran out to the garden to inform the police that the package contained nothing more explosive than eggs, the head of the police bomb squad, having cracked open one of the suspicious orbs, replied, “That is what our tests showed, sir.”

The building’s spacious garden overlooking the East River, a magnificent greensward accessible through glass doors in the grand lobby, has in recent years again been the focal point of sustained neighborhood attention. Built atop the roof of the East River Drive in 1939, the garden has been the exclusive preserve of the co-operative’s residents ever since. But that private space will soon shrink considerably. Most of the garden, it turns out, sits on city-owned land that had been leased to the co-op for just 50 years. When the lease expired in 1990, the co-op kept quiet, continuing to enjoy private use of the garden and even swearing prospective apartment buyers to secrecy on the matter.

Ultimately, however, the city elders got wise. This fall, the city plans to begin construction of a long-delayed, publicly accessible waterfront promenade on some 10,000 square feet of the land once enjoyed exclusively by the co-op, according to a Parks Department spokesman. The new public parkland, funded by $1 million each from the City Council and the 1 Sutton Place South co-op, will connect existing pocket parks at the ends of East 56th and 57th Streets. To the west of the new parkland, the co-op will retain private use of a roughly 4,000-square-foot garden: not quite the majestic greensward once enjoyed by the Phippses and Astors, but still—given the rarity of such lush private spaces in Manhattan—not too shabby. 

John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in March 2017


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