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2 Cooper Road Hangs in the Balance: Former Home of Nazi Agent of Influence

2cooperaerialWhile the Board of Trustees deliberates on the fate of a historic home at 11 Dolma Road, an application to take down another iconic Scarsdale home has been filed for consideration at the February 23, 2021 meeting of the Committee for Historic Preservation. Perhaps one of Scarsdale’s oldest and largest homes, and certainly one of the grandest now faces an uncertain future. The application can be viewed here.

The 10,656 square foot , 21-room Colonial Revival mansion at 2 Cooper Road was built in 1914 and features a grand stairway and rooms for every occasion, including a game room, a music room, a library, an upstairs family room with built-in bar, and a third floor with spacious accommodations for staff or guests. There are 10 bedrooms and 8 bathrooms and a tennis court. There was originally a guesthouse, a pool, and a 5-car garage.

In 2013 the home was selected to be a Designer Showhouse of Westchester, and 20 designers decorated various rooms on the property. Contributions from visitors benefited the nonprofit Cerebral Palsy of Westchester.

The 27-room home on 3.75 acres at 2 Cooper Road was put on the market in 2014 for $16.5 million, but languished until it was ultimately sold at auction for $6.050 million in June 2018.

The purchaser at the auction was local developer Bobby Ben Simon who attained permission from the planning board to subdivide the property into three lots in 2019. Subsequently he applied to demolish the 5-car garage and servant’s quarters in 2019 to make way for the division of the property. His plan includes two more homes to be built on Cooper Road. It is not known whether he has been successful at selling homes on these two lots.

Ben Simon has been attempting to sell the house at 2 Cooper Road and remaining 1.59 acres, dropping the price to $2.675 million but apparently still not finding a buyer. Now he claims that the house has no historic significance and he has applied to take it down. His application was filed with the Village for the February 23, 2021 meeting of the Committee for Historic Preservation.

Perhaps even more interesting than the house itself are the stories of the people who owned the house during its 107-year history. The home’s owners included titans of industry, men of wealth and surprisingly, an oil tycoon and alleged Nazi collaborator who assisted Hitler’s efforts during World War II.

The first owner was John T. Kelly who purchased the original 4 acres in Scarsdale Estates and built the house in 1915. Kelly was a founder of the Kelly and Jones Company, manufacturers of brass and iron fittings and valves. The company was formed in Greensburg, Pa., and established branches in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago and San Francisco. He remained as its active head until October 1925, when it was sold to the Walworth Company of Boston. Mr. Kelly died in Scarsdale at the age of 74 in September 1927.

Following Kelly’s death, the home was purchased by Arthur H. Spero, a stockbroker from Rye, who bought the estate on Cooper Road, for a reported price of $225,000.

The most infamous owner of the estate at 2 Cooper Road was undoubtedly William Roades Davis, who, after his death, was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. Rhodes supplied petroleum to Nazi Germany to fuel the war effort and made political contributions in the U.S. to influence policy toward Germany with the personal approval of Hitler. His playbook was perhaps a presage to some of the actions political operatives took recently to influence U.S. politics on behalf of Russia and to undermine the presidential election.

Davis, born in Montgomery Alabama to “parents in reduced circumstances,” and he claimed that he was a direct descendant of Cecil Rhodes on the maternal side and of Jefferson Davis on his father's side. He started out selling candy on railroad trains and eventually became one of the biggest independent oil promoters in the world.” His obituary says, “It is said that he had “won and lost millions in thirty years of operations in the Western Hemisphere, in Europe and in Africa." After attending Stark College in Alabama for a short time, he became a candy salesman on the Texas and Pacific Railroad, then a fireman and later a locomotive engineer. In 1913, he organized an oil and gas company in Muskogee, Oklahoma. During the World War he served with the A.E.F. in France in the Twenty-first Engineers Light Railway detachment and was discharged as a second lieutenant in 1920.”

In 1933 Davis built an oil refinery in Hamburg, Germany and served as the principal negotiator of an arrangement that allowed Germany and Italy to build up their oil reserves in the years before World War II using expropriated Mexican oil, until the British blockade put an end to the enterprise.

In 1940, Davis arranged for multiple contributions, evading the restrictions of the Hatch Act, to back Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie’s campaign to defeat FDR, without Willkie's knowledge. During the 1940 U.S. elections, Davis used funds provided by the German government to contribute approximately $160,000 to a Pennsylvania Democratic organization to help defeat Sen. Joseph Guffey, a Democrat and a prominent critic of Germany, and to bribe the Pennsylvania delegation to the 1940 Democratic National Convention to vote against Roosevelt, moves which both failed. The German government allocated $5 million, stored at the German embassy, to support Davis's efforts.

In December 1940, Verne Marshall, head of the 'No Foreign War Committee,' claimed that Davis, upon returning from a trip to Germany in 1939, presented the State Department with a peace plan representing Hermann Göring's views and called for President Roosevelt to serve as mediator between the warring nations. Marshall criticized FDR for failing to take advantage of the opportunity, but most viewed the plan as an attempt to impose a "German peace.” The German government denied any knowledge of such a plan.

On December 31, 1940, in reaction to Davis's role in forming and financing the 'No Foreign Wars Committee,' U.S. Senator Josh Lee (D-OK) said Davis's support of the new group represented "the diabolically cunning betrayal of the American people." He continued, “The record of this man Davis shows conclusively the great financial stake he has in a complete Nazi victory in the European war. Much of the gasoline sending showers of fiery death into the defenseless heart of London was sold to the German government by this man Davis.... He is still trying to promote a phony peace through the White House to pull Nazi Germany's chestnuts out of the fire.... The 'No Foreign Wars Committee' is a timely object lesson in the technique of all Nazi infiltration.”

In response, Davis said he was loyal to the US and hoped to negotiate peace to end the war. He distanced himself from Marshall and the DavisWilliam Roades Davis: Photo Credit Library of CongressNo Foreign War Committee while expressing sympathy for its aims. He asked Sen. Burton Wheeler, a prominent isolationist, to call him before a Senate committee so he could defend himself against "an organized nation-wide campaign ... by financial and competitive interests.”

On January 7, 1941 he was subpoenaed to testify before a Washington, DC, grand jury investigating campaign expenditures for violations of the Hatch and the Corrupt Practices Acts during the 1940 presidential campaign. The same day, Wheeler scheduled Davis to testify before the Senate Interstate Commerce Subcommittee about the "peace place" described by Marshall.

Some people regarded Davis as a profiteer; others as a man who would furnish needed markets for Mexican oil; and others as a ... Nazi agent or as a crook. In reality, he was a composite of each of these descriptions.

Davis died of a heart attack in Houston, Texas, on August 2, 1941. A few years after his death, Davis was named in Assistant U.S. Attorney General O. John Rogge's Nazi Report identifying him as Abwehr agent C-80, not a spy but an "agent of influence" whose activities were financed with the personal approval of Hitler, and who in that role supplied petroleum to Nazi Germany and helped Germany try to influence U.S. politics.

The United States government released captured Nazi government documents in 1957 showing how Davis funneled Nazi funds into the 1940 U.S. elections.

Jack Wasserman and Sol Berger

The next owner on record is Jack Wasserman a dress manufacturer from New York who then sold it to Sol Berger for less than $100,000 in 1953. The home stayed in the Berger family for over 60 years until it was auctioned in 2016. Berger founded and ran a shirt manufacturing company in Woodbury, Tennessee where his company eventually grew to employ 2,200 people. Additional plants were opened and at one time numbered 20 factories.

According to the Cannon Courier, "It is estimated that Mr. Berger was directly responsible for pumping approximately $200 million into the economy of Cannon County (Tennessee) in the form of payroll checks alone. In today's dollars, that would amount to more than $200 billion. This made it possible for one to see new washing machines on the front porches of homes in every section of the county in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Later we saw new homes, shiny new cars and pickup trucks everywhere. Television antennae were growing from every rooftop. Inside plumbing, add-on rooms and new appliances and new furniture were enjoyed in almost every home....There is not a single home in the county that was not affected by the presence of Colonial Corporation of America. Families were able to send their children to college. The quality of life of most of our people vastly improved due in part to the economic growth caused by the presence of Colonial Corporation of America."

Berger sold the company in the 1960's and then went into investing in real estate. He died in 2009 and is survived by two daughters, Renee and Sandy Berger, and their children and grandchildren who sold the house to current owner Bobby Ben Simon.

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