The Magnificent Mayer House: No Such a Thing as a Free Gift

Dedicated to Ludmila Schwarzenberg Bidwell

“Following a decision by the Board of Trustees at their November 1997 meeting, the U.S. base for School activities since 1974, was put on the market and sold in May for $5,850,000.” This story appeared in the summer issue of the 1998 ASCSA Newsletter (“Mayer House Sold,” no. 41, p. 4). By then, the U.S. base of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School hereafter) had already been transferred to Princeton. That fall I was invited by Catherine Vanderpool, the School’s Executive Director in the U.S., to visit Princeton for two reasons: to meet Homer A. Thompson who was contemplating the idea of leaving his personal papers to the School (which he did) and to examine a large number of boxes containing the administrative records transferred to Princeton after the sale of the Mayer House. Many of the records had been damaged by flooding that precipitated the sale of Mayer House.

Mayer House, entrance. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, 2014.

Built in 1882, the four-story brownstone house was one of nine houses on East 72nd Street from no. 39 to 55. The family of Bernhard and Sophia Mayer had moved into the neighborhood in 1899 after purchasing a pair of brownstones in the row at no. 16 and no. 41. (I draw some of this information from the Daytonian in Manhattan, a blog about the architectural history of New York city.) Two family members were later active in New York’s intellectual and academic circles. Albert Meyer (1897-1981), an architect and city-planner, designed many apartment buildings in New York, as well as the master plan of Chandigarh, the new capital of the Indian Punjab. His older sister Clara (1895-1988) was an educator and associated with the New School for Social Research for more than thirty years. She served as Dean of its School of Philosophy and Liberal Arts (1943-1960), and from 1950 to 1962 also as Vice President of its Board.

Clara Woolie Mayer (1895-1988)

“Miss Mayer had her first acquaintance with the School in 1953, when she was shown around by Eugene Vanderpool, who was introduced to her by Emerson Howard Swift, Member and then Fellow of the School in 1912-15. On her departure from Athens she offered ‘to do anything to help the School on the other hemisphere,’ and, two decades later in 1974, she fulfilled her offer by giving her home to the School as a U.S. headquarters” wrote the author of “Mayer House Sold” explaining briefly Mayer’s connection with the ASCSA and the decision to donate her family’s house to the School. Indeed, in the School’s Administrative Records, there is a letter by Emerson Swift, Professor of Classics at Columbia University, announcing Miss Mayer’s visit to Athens and urging the School’s Director John L. Caskey to make an effort to contact her.

“Dean Mayer is a lady of wide interests, sound culture, and considerable wealth, it would seem advantageous from several points of view that she should be brought into first-hand contact with the American School, –to learn something of its history and attainments, and to be made aware of the problems it faces today.” (AdmRec 1001/4, folder 6, Jan. 17, 1953).

Speaking of problems in 1953, Swift must have had in mind the School’s efforts to finance the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos.

The Art of Negotiating

However, Mayer’s decision to donate her Manhattan house to the American School in 1974, “had nothing to do with her enthusiasm for our Agora Excavations,” correctly pointed out Richard (Dick) Howland in a letter to Catherine Vanderpool (Feb. 22, 1999). Howland was in a position to know more about Clara Mayer’s gift because he was Chairman of the School’s Managing Committee during the negotiations. According to Howland (and without his testimony we would not have known it since it is not attested in the School’s administrative records), the pivotal role was played by Charles Blitzer, founder and director (1988-1997) of the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. Howland knew Blitzer from the Smithsonian, and Blitzer “knew Clara from his New York days, via academic circles, Jewish intellectual circles, and educational projects.” According to Howland, “in 1967 Clara told Charles that she was giving up the 72nd street house, and would the Smithsonian like it for a N.Y. ‘headquarters or guest-house’.” Mayer, who had severed her ties with the New School in 1961 when she was forced to resign after 35 years of service, was in search of a cultural institution to leave her property to.

Richard H. Howland, ca. 1996. ASCSA Archives, Richard H. Howland Papers

The Smithsonian declined Mayer’s offer since the Institution was in the process of acquiring the Carnegie House in New York for “its Cooper-Hewitt branch.” But “how to tell Clara diplomatically and politely NO?” recalled Howland in his missive to Vanderpool. In his letter he related how he met her at 41E 72St. and, after explaining why the Smithsonian had to turn down the offer, asked “if she would consider giving the house to the Archaeological Institute of America (which had no fixed central headquarters).” At the time Howland was also serving as Vice President of the AIA. “Clara said yes, to the above suggestion. The AIA mulled it over for a while and said no. Back to Clara, I asked her if she would consider the ASCSA as the recipient and she said yes” added Howland to his narrative.

The School’s Administrative Records offer a somewhat different version of Howland’s narrative, but this was not unexpected. Howland, at the age of 89, was recalling events that had occurred almost thirty years later. According to the School’s records, the initial proposal was for a joint ownership of the Mayer House between the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the ASCSA, with the understanding that AIA would own 80% of the building (26 July 1974). This proposal was drafted after a meeting attended by John Dane (ASCSA Trustee), Dick Howland, Andrew Newburg, and Alan Shapiro of Howard, Needles, Tammen and Bergendoff, an architecture, civil engineering consulting and construction management firm.

A month later, after a special meeting of the AIA Trustees, on August 22, 1974, the President of the AIA, James B. Prichard, scribbled a slightly different story in a memo, namely, that “the American School of Classical Studies at Athens had been offered the gift of a brownstone house… [and that] the committee of the ASCS… would consider the offer provided the AIA would make use of a portion of the house as its central office and be responsible for a proportional share of the cost… We, as well as other Trustees who have been consulted informally, believe that the offer of the American School deserves serious consideration… The Managing Committee of the ASCS, which is meeting on September 10, would like to have some indication of our interest before their meeting.”

A preliminary report accompanied Prichard’s memo providing information about the size and the market value of the building, but also posing serious questions, such as “whether the AIA should now commit itself to permanent Manhattan quarters, or whether it [was] ready to assume the burdens of ownership, or whether it wished to engage in agreements with other organizations regarding shared occupancy of one building.”

Mayer House, sketch of ground floor plan. ASCSA Archives, Administrative Records. Click to enlarge.

On September 17, 1974, William Kelly Simpson, the President of the ASCSA Board of Trustees, informed Clara Mayer about the results of the School’s investigation concerning architectural and legal questions, such as the tax status of the house and the need to be removed from the New York City tax rolls and be exempt. In addition, he stated that the house should be given unconditionally. Although the School was willing to keep some of the rooms unchanged (as the Mayer family wished), this commitment could not be “made a legal restriction and condition.” The School would use “the ground floor for its publication distribution, American office, and storage and use of archaeological records, and plans,” but it would rent the rest of the space to “related archaeological or Greek oriented societies.”

Jim McCredie, Director of the School at the time, was excited about the prospect of the School finally having a U.S. base. “A central office for the School in America would be a considerable help, both for us here in Athens and for the administration of the School in general. It might relieve some of the confusion to which our present scattered administration gives rise, and it would provide a central repository for records… There is no central address in America from which one might expect to receive information about the School, let alone to achieve action,” wrote McCredie to Simpson (Sept. 6, 1974).

A Gift That Keeps on Asking

The Mayer House was acquired on January 24, 1975 with the American School as the sole proprietor. The immediate market value of the property was estimated by Bowery Savings Bank at $400,000. The estimated costs of renovating the space were in the range of $100,000 to $150,000, while the annual operating expenses were assessed at about $30,000. The School appointed a “Mayer House Committee” (Richard H. Howland, Robert A. McCabe, William Kelly Simpson, Andrew W.G. Newburg, and James A. Duncan) to supervise remodeling and management of the House.

The gift was finally announced to the School community in the fall issue of the ASCSA Newsletter in 1978.

“It is said that good gifts come in small packages, but the American School of Classical Studies at Athens received as a gift a superb five story at 41 East 72nd Street in New York, together with a modest endowment.”

Howland, the author of the essay, probably was referring to the $50,000 that Clara Mayer had promised to give to the School for maintenance because she and her brother Albert wished the School to keep some of the rooms intact.

Albert Mayer would frequently inquire about the state of the furnishings. “I had hoped that by now the School would have reached the point of an early firm date for re-doing the silk panels in the drawing room.  My thought was that the occupancy of the entire second floor by the Park people would have been sufficiently revenue-producing to have made it possible to do now what is so urgently important, and really quite overdue.” Mayer also inquired whether “Mayer House” could be added to the School’s stationery (Mayer to Howland, July 30, 1980).

Robin Haag, Ludmila Schwarzenberg, Matthew Dickie and Betsy Gebhard, ASCSA gardens 1992. ASCSA Archives, Photographic Collection.

Albert Mayer died in October 1981. It is not coincidental that a month later, the new Administrator of the Mayer House, Ludmila Schwarzenberg sent a note to the tenants of the House (Central Park Conservancy, Royal Oak Foundation, U.S. Committee for United World College Schools, among others) that the School “had entered into negotiations with the Real Estate Division of Southeby and Co. for a possible sale of Mayer House” (December 2, 1981).  Two days later, the new President of the Board of Trustees, Elizabeth A. Whitehead, announced to Clara Mayer that the School was “deeply concerned about our ownership of the Mayer House in the light of new circumstances which have changed dramatically since our acceptance of your generous gift” and that the sale of the house was under consideration. To lessen the “pain,” the School promised that “in the event the house [was] sold, a suitable permanent and visible memorial will be established by the Board of Trustees in your honor at the School in Athens, as a living and lasting recognition of the gratitude we feel…” (Dec. 4, 1981). We do not have Clara Meyer’s answer to this news, but the School, for one reason or the other, did not proceed with the sale of the house.

Mayer House squeezed among modern buildings. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, 2014.

One gets the impression that the maintenance of the Mayer House was a source of constant worry to the School. In 1984 Schwarzenberg informed the tenants of the House about an upcoming increase of 8% in the monthly rent. A year later, she notified the Trustees that one of the tenants had left Mayer House “over Thanksgiving weekend without notice” and that his roommate had asked if she could continue to stay on a month-to-month basis…”  Ludmila agreed “on the theory that it is better to have half the rent rather than none.” In addition, two more tenants, the World Monuments Fund and the Kress Foundation, had also announced that they were moving out, which meant that “rental income would fall from the current budgeted figure of $4,680 to approximately $1,600/month.” Over the next 14 years, until its sale in 1998, the Mayer House would house a host of tenants, including the Friends of the Benaki Museum, the Trearne Foundation, the Robert Schalkenback Foundation, and the Phoenix Theater.

Clara Mayer died in 1988. Her obituary composed by Dick Howland appeared in the fall issue of the School’s Newsletter (1998, no. 22, p. 15). In addition to highlighting Mayer’s intellectual achievements, Howland, an architectural historian himself, ended his piece with a paragraph underlining Mayer’s intimate relationship with the house on 41 E 72nd: “Clara Mayer loved her family home… She refused to donate the magnificent 1898 mahoganny-panelled, leather walled dining room and its accoutrements to the Museum of the City of New York, preferring to keep the character of the entire house intact.” Trustee Doreen Canaday Spitzer described the interior with enthusiasm to Philip Hamburger, one of the most celebrated writers in The New Yorker:

“As for the salon paneled and curtained in gold damask and set about with gilt furniture, mirrors, marble sculpture, classical models and objets d’art.”

It reminded her of “Zeffirelli’s Traviata!” (AdmRec 307/4, folder 13, undated [January 1983]). It is unfortunate that no pictures of the Mayer House’s magnificent interior are preserved in the School’s Archives (if anyone does have any, please consider sharing copies).

After a meeting at Mayer House in May 1992, Wallace McLeod, Professor at the University of Toronto and member of the School’s Managing Committee, described the space as “a decayed elegant red limestone building” with two commemorative plaques on the entrance pillars, one commemorating the Mayer family, the other Clara W. Mayer’s gift to the American School.

Having heard for many years about the Mayer House, I made a point to look for it when I last was in New York in August of 2014. I took several photos of its exterior but hesitated to knock on the door.  I stood outside admiring the original lanterns and the Art Nouveau carvings on the stone balustrade and around the windows, and wondered whether any of its magnificent interiors still survived.

Mayer House, view of ground floor windows to the right of the entrance. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, 2014.


Note: Since I posted the essay, with the help of Cathy Vanderpool who remembered the family name of the new owners (Loeb), I discovered an article from 2012 that features the house and also includes a wonderful slide show of its interior spaces (https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/02/magnificent-obsession/). The Mayer House remains magnificent!


Imagining and Reimagining Greece


Posted by Clayton Miles Lehmann

Clayton M. Lehmann, Professor of History at the University of South Dakota, here contributes an essay about American college students coming to Greece, as part of study-abroad programs. This post represents a modified and shortened version of the 63rd Annual Harrington Lecture, which he delivered 28 October 2015 to the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of South Dakota.  Lehmann was a Regular Member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in 1982/3, lived in Greece while he wrote his doctoral dissertation, and has returned often, three times as the Director of the Summer Session for the American School and regularly since 2005 as one of the professor-captains of the University of South Dakota’s short-term faculty-led study-abroad program “The Isles of Greece!”.


After disappointing tourism numbers for the 2004 Olympics, the Greek National Tourism Organization launched a major campaign, “Live Your Myth in Greece,” to rekindle Greece in the world’s imagination.  When a group of my students arrived in Athens in 2005 for the study-abroad program The Isles of Greece!,[1] they saw the advertisements for this campaign on the billboards and buses on the way into the city.  At first glance, the images appeal to the typical touristic expectation of the Greek quartet of sea, sun, sand, and sex.  But the classical architecture and supernatural figures suggest a more complex imaginary mix.  The fine print on some of these posters read:

Greece: a land of mythical dimensions. Where the spirit of hospitality welcomes you as a modern god. And the siren song draws you into its deep blue waters. Where a gentle breeze through ancient ruins seems to whisper your name. And a dance until dawn can seem to take on Dionysian proportions. In Greece the myths are still very much alive. And in amongst them sits your own . . . patiently waiting for you to live it. Live your myth in Greece.  Ask your travel agent.

 

Eros and Mermaid posters for Live Your Myth in Greece, Greek National Tourism Organization campaign, 2005; designed by K. Karavellas; and creative design by McCann Erickson-BBDO-Cleverbank Joint Venture. Photographs courtesy of the GNTO.

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Greece 1935-1938: Involuntary Testimonies

For the really significant history is that grass roots history which reveals the everyday life of people, in their homes, and at their retreats, in their work and in their play, in turbulence and in repose.
Theodore C. Blegen, 1948

“I suppose you have heard about the Revolution which is taking place here. It began last Friday night -March 1st. During dinner we heard various rumblings and shots out in the city, but didn’t think much about it, believing them just the ordinary noises of the city. But afterwards they became so pronounced that we knew something was happening. So Betty [Dow] and I went down-town, in the direction from which the shots came. We met many troops marching through the streets, and finally came to the region where the firing came from – near the Akropolis. A revolution is such a strange thing here – everyone takes it as a matter of course, and a little as a joke – and the firing isn’t widespread at all. We were able to approach so near –without any danger – that we witnessed a tank storming a barracks for soldiers, and saw the firing on both sides… after the attacks on the barracks which we saw (we were in a crowd of about 25 – the sole witnesses), we saw other tanks, at close range and finally came upon battalions of soldiers drawn up with guns and bayonets in the streets and ready for action… ” wrote Richard (Dick) H. Howland, age 25, to his family back in America.

Most of Howland’s letters carry the “Stadium” stamp, which was issued in 1932 as a supplementary stamp of the 1927 “Landscapes” set. The “Stadium” was withdrawn from sale in 1939. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Richard Howland Papers.

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Athens at the Turn of the Century: A Sentimental Capital and a Resort of Scholars

On February 17, 1901, a young American archaeologist and member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) was “roaming over the city in search of Mr. Kavvadias, the general ephor of antiquities in Athens, in order to get a permit to begin work at Vari tomorrow” (letter of Charles H. Weller to his wife).  Together with a small group of students from the School, he had conceived of the idea of conducting a small excavation at the Vari Cave on the southern spur of Mount Hymettus, near the ancient deme of Anargyrous. Known since the 18th century, the cave had been visited and described by several European travelers who were particularly taken by the reliefs and inscriptions carved on its walls.

Vari Cave interior with sculpted figures, 1923. Source: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

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Expat Feasts in Athens on the Eve of the Balkan Wars

One of Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor's letters to her mother, October 1910

One of Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor’s letters to her mother, October 1910.

“Maybe I asked you before, but will you save all my letters, dear, for I may want to use some of the material in them” Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor (1886-1960) reminded her mother a month after her arrival in Greece (Oct. 20, 1910). And because Emma Pierce respected her daughter’s wish, a valuable collection of private correspondence describing the daily life of a young American bride in Athens in the early 20th century has been preserved in the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA).

This is the second time From the Archivist’s Notebook features an essay about Zillah Dinsmoor.  In February 2014, guest author Jacquelyn Clemens published an account of Zillah’s Greek experience, mining information from her letters. “Students and scholars who study at the American School… have often been accompanied by their spouses, significant others, and children who live with them here in Athens. In the early 20th century, Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor was one of these women who traveled to Athens along with her husband, architect William Bell Dinsmoor” wrote Clemens in her introductory paragraph. (Read J. Clemens,”Letters from a New Home. Early 20th Century Athens Through the Eyes of Zillah Dinsmoor“)  Barely 24 years old (and away from home for the first time), this fashionable young woman from Massachussets wrote long letters once a week to her mother about her new life in Athens. Read the rest of this entry »


The Man from Damascus, the Good Wife, and Baby Solon: R.I.P. at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

ASCSA Library, 1902

ASCSA Library, 1902

“You enter a reception hall of marble and go up a flight of marble steps which give the effect of entering a museum, as there are marble busts and old sculptures round that have been dug up…” Major A. Winsor Weld wrote to his wife on October 26th, 1918, upon entering the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School hereafter). He and six other officers of the American Red Cross including Lieutenant Colonel Edward Capps would live in the School’s premises until July of 1919. (At the time one entered the Library through the Director’s residence.) Although the ASCSA was already building a small collection of antiquities –mostly pottery sherds and other small objects picked up on walks and informal surveys– the antiquities Weld described are of a different scale. The busts he refers to must have been plaster casts of originals similar to the one displayed above the fireplace mantle in the Library in a photo from 1902. I believe that the other “old sculptures” on display, the ones that “have been dug up,” were three Roman marble funerary reliefs unearthed in 1894, at the corner of Vasilissis Sophias (then Kephissias) and Merlin (then Academy) street, exactly opposite the Palace (now the Greek Parliament), during the construction of a mansion by Charles Edward Prior Merlin (1850-1898). Named after one of Merlin’s French ancestors, the “Hôtel Merlin de Douai” has housed the French Embassy since 1896.

“Hôtel Merlin de Douai” (French Embassy at Athens)

The “Hôtel Merlin de Douai” (French Embassy at Athens)

“In digging for the foundations of the large house which Mr. C. Merlin, the well-known artist and photographer of Athens, is building at the corner of Academy and Kephissia Streets, the workmen came upon considerable remains of an ancient cemetery. At my suggestion Mr. Merlin made over to the American School the right of publishing these discoveries, and afterwards generously presented to the School three reliefs and one other inscribed stone, together with some smaller fragments. The finds were made in the autumn of 1894. Only a part of them came under my observation at the time; hence the description of the graves and their location rests in part upon the accounts of Mr. Merlin and his workmen” reported Thomas Dwight Goodell a year later (American Journal of Archaeology 10, 1895, pp. 469-479).

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Communism In and Out of Fashion: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the Cold War

Posted by Jack L. Davis

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes an essay about attitudes of the ASCSA and its members toward Communists and Communism in the 20th century.


“Feeling they were witnessing the demise of capitalism, many writers moved left, some because their working class origins helped them identify with the dispossessed, others because they saw socialism or Communism as the only serious force for radical change, still others because it was the fashionable thing to do; they went where the action was.”
Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark (2009), pp. 16-17.

DancingDark_smallIn 1974, when I first arrived at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), we youngsters were told that we should not express our political views in public. The ASCSA’s institutional mission might be hurt, were it perceived not to be neutral. In September 1974 that was certainly a reasonable position for the ASCSA to assume. Yet I was curious. In 1974, I was myself radicalized, and had definitely headed left. I could not condone U.S. policy in respect to the Junta, or the suppression of the Left in Greece. Could I say nothing? Had the ASCSA always maintained a position of strict neutrality? Or were its postures more convenient than sincere? Read the rest of this entry »