Friday, March 25, 2016

Janet Sabine on Park Avenue

Janet Sabine (Mrs. Frederick A. Ley), circa 1930.

Researchers are never satisfied. After finding The Brick Church in Manhattan, where Janet Sabine got married in 1945, I became curious to know more about where she'd lived as a newly transplanted New Yorker. So, soon after we got home from Manhattan, I did some online, late-night digging. 

I don't know why I often get the urge to go on a Google quest when I should be asleep, but my long nights of digging have often been profitable, and there's nothing like finally going off to bed tuckered-out but triumphant. (My first-thing-in-the-morning searches often turn up results, too.)

I already had some of Janet's New York addresses, and I knew it would probably be easy to find photos of those exteriors (and often floor plans, oddly enough), but I was much more interested in finding interior photos of her homes, of course, although I knew that finding anything online would be highly unlikely. (More than anything, I'd love to find old photos taken in my apartment or anywhere in my building, but I doubt I ever will.)

I Googled "Frederick A. Ley," and "Frederick S. Ley," which were the names of her first husband and her father-in-law. Janet married Frederick in Boston in September, 1929, and I'd already found detailed descriptions of her husband's lavish childhood birthday parties in the social pages of various newspapers. His parents were wealthy and socially prominent Manhattanites. Janet was in a similar social circle in Boston and was wealthy enough to travel and not work.

Frederick and Janet met abroad, while she and her mother Jane were taking a trip around the world following Janet's graduation from Radcliffe in 1928. The wedding announcement in The Boston Herald indicates that their wedding was a small, quiet affair. After I found the announcement, I woke up one morning wondering who had been ill. So I got up, went on Google, and quickly found the answer to my question. Jane sent a newsy letter to her Smith College class nearly every year from her graduation in 1888 to her death in 1950. Some of these annual printed booklets are available online, including the one from 1929, where Jane reported that she was on a ship heading to Europe one week after Janet's wedding, to convalesce from a bad fall she'd had in the spring. I am continually amazed at what I can find online, using public sources or sites like

To get back to my quest for interior photographs: using Google, I was astonished to find a few photos of Janet's in-laws' apartment at 280 Park Avenue, taken on January 19, 1927. Mr. Fred Ley was in the business of building elegant, multistory apartment houses in Manhattan, and his son was an engineer in the family business. Here is where he and his family lived, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York, which has a collection of work by photographer Samuel H. Gottscho:

The living room.

A corner of the living room.

The dining room.

Another view of the dining room.

The hall.

It's possible that Janet and Frederick A. lived here as newlyweds. By the time of the 1930 Census, they had their own "charming" (according to mother Jane) apartment (with butler and maid) at 75 Central Park West (where the penthouse recently sold for $19 million), but they are also listed in the New York Social Register (or Blue Book) as living with his parents at this address.

There is now a 43-story office tower at 280 Park Avenue now, but it was a 17-story apartment building in the 1920s, and I believe the Leys owned it.

I'm pretty clueless about 1920's decor, so I can only describe this decorative style as Renaissance-inspired and vaguely... I don't know... Spanish?  It's "Old World" and "Romantic," and I wouldn't be surprised to see a Hollywood house from the 1920s decorated like this. Someone worked very hard to give the impression that the family had a fine old European pedigree; and, for all I know, they did have one. Whatever this look is supposed to be, it strongly suggests that the family pilfered their ancestral castle back in the Old Country to furnish their New World digs.

I'm pretty certain that the Ley family's lavish apartment was a far cry from the Back Bay townhouse where Janet grew up and where I live now. While I'll probably never know for sure, I imagine that this house was filled with classic 18th- and 19th-century New England family heirlooms, perhaps from Rhode Island and Connecticut, where Jane's ancestors lived for six or seven generations after they debarked from the Mayflower. I also imagine that the Sabines liked their decor to be fresh and up-to-date (unlike me) so they probably filled in the gaps with new furniture befitting a nice Back Bay family. That might be Colonial Revival, perhaps. I'm imagining Persian rugs, wing chairs, a high boy, and maybe a Chippendale or Queen Anne dining room suite. I know a man who visited Dr. Sabine, in what is now my living room, in the 1940s, but he couldn't give me a single concrete detail. (Men! He was 100 years old when we spoke but I don't consider that an excuse.) All he could tell me was that the house looked well-kept and reasonably up-to-date, although Dr. Sabine "showed her age."

I wonder if I'll ever find out what this place looked like when the Sabine family lived here....

1 comment:

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