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!