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A Piece of Paris in Murray Hill: The James F.D. Lanier Residence

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Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Lisa Santoro traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.

On a block of stately townhouses sits one that stands apart from the rest. Located at 123 East 35th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues, this grand residence was constructed between 1901 and 1903 for prominent banker James Franklin Doughty Lanier and his wife, Harriet Bishop Lanier. The house was designed by the architectural firm of Hoppin & Koen in the Beaux-Arts style and is considered one of the firm's finest residential designs in New York City.

The house was located in the upscale Murray Hill neighborhood, developed as a residential enclave in the mid-19th century and full of the brownstone (sandstone) construction that became a popular material at the time. The neighborhood's name derives from the estate of Robert and Mary Murray, who lived in the vicinity during the mid-1700s. At the time, the area was considered "uptown" and thus attracted prominent residents such as financier J.P. Morgan and department store magnate A.T. Stewart. The area remained a fashionable enclave well into the early 1900s, when Lanier purchased two adjacent 1854 brownstone row houses for $31,000 with the intent of demolishing them to erect his fancy new residence.

It makes sense that a man of Lanier's pedigree would want to build a residence that reflected his status. He came from a family of wealth and privilege and was employed by the banking firm of Winslow, Lanier & Company, which was founded by his grandfather in 1849. According to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report, "an avid sportsman, Lanier was one of the founders of the Meadowbrook Hunt Club and a pioneer automobile driver in America with a strong interest in motor touring and racing." In 1885, he married Harriet Bishop, who achieved status in her own right by being the founder (in 1913) and president of the Society of Friends of Music, which aimed to perform "rare and little-known works, old and of today" for New York's music aficionados.

They commissioned the architectural firm of Hoppin & Koen to design a fashionable residence in the style of King Louis XIV, Mrs. Lanier's preferred aesthetic. Hoppin & Koen were a solid choice?they had both received expert tutelage in the Beaux-Arts tradition during their tenure at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts as well as their experience working for McKim, Mead & White, a New York firm known for designing in this style. The five-story Parisian-inspired house was completed in 1903 and featured a rusticated limestone base and arched openings decorated with swagged and bracketed keystones (one for the main entryway and two for the windows). Unlike the brownstones of yesteryear, the architects chose to eliminate the stoop and instead create a shallow porch with a grand entryway, reminiscent of the London's Regency row houses. The base is supported by two stories of handsome brick construction featuring fluted Ionic pilasters and decorative window detailing and is crowned with a dentil and modillion cornice. The recessed fourth floor features a balcony enclosed with an ornate cast-ironing railing, and a copper-covered mansard roof with three dormer windows tops the home. The finished product was not only a residence well-suited to the client's wishes, but also an exemplary Beaux-Arts design.

Stately as the residence was, it housed scandal in its early years. After about four years of living in their home, the Laniers leased it and its furnishings to Theodore P. Shonts, the new President of the Interborough-Metropolitan Company, and his wife, Millie Drake Shonts, in 1907. Mrs. Shonts traveled abroad the very year in which they moved into the house. Upon returning, she "smuggled dutiable articles into the house which caused a raid by Customs House officials." To conceal her crime, Mrs. Shonts implored their maid to store the items?including several boxes of opera gowns?in her own home until she was able to retrieve them. However, when the case was brought to trial and the maid was asked to testify, she informed the court of Mrs. Shonts' illegal actions and said that Mrs. Shonts had used her as "a tool to help defraud the Government."

Not surprisingly, the Shonts' marriage did not last, and eventually the Laniers resumed possession of their house. When Mr. Lanier died in 1928, he left an estate of nearly $10 million to his son Reginald, which he could claim after his mother's death. When Harriet died three years later, Reginald and his family moved into the house, "maintaining its tradition as a socially prominent address." Reginald's wife would frequently host tea and cocktail parties until the 1950s, and according to the LPC designation report, the Laniers would retain ownership of the house until at least 1979. More recently, a model of the house (shown at left) appeared in a model train show. Although there is not much information available about the house and its inhabitants since then (and if any readers have details or information, please share!), the house still offers a glimpse of what life must have been like in high-society Murray Hill at the turn of the century.
?Lisa Santoro

Further reading:
· James F.D. Lanier Residence [BldgDb]
· Customs Raids and Charity Teas [Daytonian in Manhattan]
· LPC Report: James F.D. Lanier Residence [NPC; Warning: PDF]
· Curbed Classics archive [Curbed]