John C. Ensslin
Updated 5:38 PM EST Dec 15, 2019
No one appreciated the Gloria Crest mansion in Englewood quite like the woman for whom it was built.
Edith Poniatowski was the daughter of a prosperous Paterson silk mill owner. She married Stefan Poniatowski, who claimed to be a Polish count and heir to the throne. In a diary she kept in 1936, Edith described the feeling that came over her during winters at the mansion. “Winter is always so beautiful at Gloria Crest. The tall and small evergreens give the place such a bright and cheerful look and when the snow is on the trees it’s a picture indescribable,” she wrote on Dec. 3 that year. “I always cheered myself by walking on the estate. No matter how many times I walked on it, I was always thrilled because it belonged to me and I came in feeling so happy.”
But by the time she wrote those words, the mansion no longer belonged to her. Stefan Poniatowski suffered a reversal of fortune in the October 1929 stock market crash. By 1936, his Cretona Print and Dye Works in Clifton, which used to make 35 cents on every yard of silk, was making three cents a yard, according to his wife. The business went bankrupt. The couple sold the mansion and its extravagant furnishings and moved to an apartment on West 67th Street in Manhattan.
But Gloria Crest lives on as one of the most opulent homes in Bergen County.
Built in 1926, the mansion quickly became known at the “White House of Englewood” for its gleaming terracotta exterior that simulates white marble. With its red tile roof, the mansion was built to resemble an Italian villa in the Renaissance Revival style with a pair of three-story towers on either end of the building.
“I don’t know of any other building comparable to Gloria Crest in Bergen County,” says Will Lee, the Englewood city historian. “You really have to go to Europe to find buildings that look Gloria Crest. So, in America and a small city like Englewood, we have nothing like it.”
It was built in the midst of the Roaring ’20s when Englewood was known as a “bedroom of Wall Street,” Lee says. The mansion is located at 83 North Woodland St. on a historic streetscape of other notable buildings in the city’s East Hill Historic District.
The Englewood Historical Society honored the current owners of the mansion with a historic preservation award for the work they have done both on the exterior and interior of the building.
“We’re proud of the house,” Lee says. “We were happy to give it an award.”
Diary of a countess
Below the hill on which Gloria Crest sits, in the basement of the Englewood Public Library, a book containing the “Diary of Countess Ponyatovsky” (spellings of the last name vary over the years.) sits on a shelf.
The diary is a collection of typewritten pages all in caps dense with single spaces between the lines and a minimum of punctuation. A sense of what it was like to live in that final fateful year at Gloria Crest runs through the diary like an old silk thread.
There are descriptions of shows the couple saw, clothes she wore, the wine red blanket on their bed and the two swans, Bunkie and Bibsy, that lived on a pond on the property.
The Countess considered herself a writer and submitted stories to magazines like Colliers. Her writing does show an eye for detail. For example, on March 4 she wrote an entry that foreshadowed some of her husband’s financial problems. That night after dinner she and Stefan were talking on the couch in the big reception room when the phone rang. After the call, he told her to come upstairs and that they needed to talk. He told her not to turn on the lights. By lamplight, Stefan explained he had been tipped off that that he might be arrested for a bad check that another man wrote. He considered it an outrage but left right away for New York City. Edith was to explain to the officers that her husband was out of town. But the police never arrived, she wrote.
By May, the couple had begun planning to move to a penthouse in New York City. Edith wrote about wanting to take some valuable items along, such as a few tapestries to brighten their rented apartment.
When moving day arrived on Sept. 23, Edith wrote that they woke early and were busy packing items for New York — a box of fur coats, neck pieces and a case of Spanish wine and some champagne. The moving men were late so she sent a servant named Humbert out to get some chocolate milkshakes and sandwiches. Finally, with their car packed – and after leaving Humbert with a list of items to be shipped to a warehouse, they headed out.
“It felt a little odd leaving my heavenly paradise still so gay and sweet with the perfume of petunias and roses wherever you looked,” Edith wrote. “As I drove out the huge iron gate I looked back and said good bye to my lovely Gloria Crest. Then, I dismissed the mansion from my thoughts.”
The public auction of the contents of Gloria Crest — done over the course of one week in October 1936 — was a huge story. It was a kind of rags-to-riches in reverse that could be evident in this story from the New York World Telegram on Oct. 12: “Today will be the swan song for the fabulous furnishings of Gloria Crest – known as the White House of Englewood.”
From her Manhattan apartment, Edith Poniatowsky wrote in her diary on that same cold and windy day: “Today, Columbus discovered America but in 1492, and now strangers are discovering treasures at Gloria Crest,” she wrote.
The strangers came in droves. Englewood police estimate some 2,500 people streamed through the mansion during the six-day auction. For many it was their first peek inside the big white mansion on East Hill.
A catalog prepared for the auction gives some hint of what they saw. Besides individual items like a stuffed llama head and a Chinese Han dynasty jade snuff bottle, there was unrestricted access to a solarium with the cherub fountain in the center and the master bed with a doll laying across the pillows.
According to The New York Times, Mrs. Dwight Morrow of Englewood purchased an early colonial hooked rug and Mrs. Marshall Field of the famous Chicago department store bought part of the contents of Edith’s boudoir.
The Timesalso reported that a New York City art dealer paid $3,000 for a ruby-studded antique silver chalice and $1,000 for a diamond studded dagger that had been given to the Poniatowsky family by Napoleon Bonaparte.
When the final gavel came down, the auction raised $109,262 for Poniatowsky’s creditors or nearly $2 million in 2018 dollars.
Goodbye Gloria Crest
Edith Poniatowski said she had put the mansion out of her mind as she drove through the iron gates for the last time. But on Dec. 3, she wrote how she laid in her bed staring at a small needlepoint tapestry of an autumn scene showing the red and yellow trees around the white mansion.
“The tapestry fascinates me. It makes me feel as though I am looking out of the window at the view I loved so much,” she wrote.
“Oh Diary, I am getting homesick for Gloria Crest. It’s just breaking my heart,” she added. “I wondered how long I would be able to go along without missing that heavenly place of mine. I always thought I could forget it but I can not.”
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