A relic of a past world has emerged at 330 Riverside Drive.
The townhouse was bought around the turn of the last century by the baking powder magnate Robert B. Davis for himself, his wife Jennie and daughter Lucretia, know as Lulu. After Lulu’s parents died, she continued to live at 330 with her husband George Jephson, eventually moving out in the 1950s. Two Catholic institutions have owned it since, including the current occupant, Opus Dei, which uses it as a residence for priests and celibate men. The relatively few owners — and Opus Dei’s considerable financial resources — have ensured that the place is a kind of time capsule, remarkably similar to images from 1912. Some of the same furniture is even still there.
One of the residents is Brian Finnerty, an Opus Dei official who was very helpful to me in the writing of the book. Brian moved into the townhouse around 1995 and took notice of a round metal object, made up of two bowls with a hinge and a handle. The men back then used it to empty ashtrays. Smoking has since gone out of style in the house, but the object hung around.
Then came the move. Opus Dei is renovating, so everything inside had to be thrown out, sold off, stored up, or taken in at the men’s new quarters in New Jersey. Brian told me that as he was sorting through stuff, his eyes fell on the object and he began wondering both what it really was, and why it was there. He had always assumed it had some connection with the original owners. Now he really wanted to know. So he contacted Brenda Steffon, a descendant of the Davis family. Brenda had knocked on the door one day to take a look around and Brian kept her contacts. (Brian put me in contact with Brenda, and she was hugely helpful for me book, providing a cache of family archives.)
Yup, Brenda confirmed, the object was always in the house and she knew what it was: a bed warmer.
“It’s now part of the history of the house,” Brian said. “It’s a link to the past.” It was proof, he added, that “The ghosts of the house are still there.”
These days, the ghosts are living behind plywood-covered windows. The major renovation is underway. The landmarked facade with be untouched but some changes inside will wound the hearts of preservationists. The beautiful birdcage-like elevator cab is going, the interior of the conservatory will be gutted and doors will seal off hallways leading to the open staircase. The reasons are all valid: handicapped access, a better life for the kitchen staff (the conservatory is off the dining room and near the kitchen) and fire codes. But – pangs.
Brian also pointed out an error in the book — the Opus Dei-linked business school is correctly called IESE, not IESI. Next edition!