Monday, March 1, 2010

The Joseph De Lamar Mansion

By the turn of the last century, Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens had abandoned most of the once-elegant residential neighborhoods below 50th Street.  A few stalwart old guard families remained along Washington Square; and despite increased commercial invasion the Murray Hill neighborhood retained its prestige.    That district was about to get a booster shot of prestige.

On April 17, 1901 a casual mention of a real estate sale appeared in The New York Times.  “The Noyes estate has sold to J. R. De Lamar the four-story brownstone-front dwelling 233 Madison Avenue, northeast corner of Thirty-seventh Street, 25 by 100.”

Joseph Raphael de Lamar was a relative newcomer to Manhattan society.   A Dutch-born merchant mariner, he was lured to the far West in the 1870s by the prospects of mining.  Unlike most of the hopeful miners, he struck it rich.o

De Lamar moved New York in the early 1890s laden with money and high hopes of entering society.   He married Nellie Sands and the pair produced a daughter, Alice, in 1895.  De Lamar bought the necessities--a yacht and cottage in Newport—and joined the exclusive clubs.  Now he wanted a palace that reflected his financial station.

Three days after the Times reported on the Madison Avenue sale, mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert filed plans “for the new fireproof residence” for De Lamar.   Four months later the millionaire purchased the property next door, No. 235 Madison, which now gave him a plot 100 feet along 37th Street and 49 feet along Madison Avenue.  Directly across the street was the staid brownstone mansion of J. P. Morgan and it was soon to be overwhelmed.

Wealthy Murray Hill residents at the turn of the century were busily razing or radically remodeling their old Civil War period homes; transforming their property into stylish, up-to-date residences.   De Lamar would go much farther.

The nickel magnate had already embraced the new automobile over carriages and on August 22, 1902 as the house was rising, The Times reported on an innovation.  “A unique feature of the new residence to be erected by J. R. De Lamar…is to be an automobile storage room in the vaults under the sidewalk, with an electric elevator for raising the vehicles to the street level.”  The millionaire’s chauffeur would need only to drive up onto the sidewalk and the limousine would be lowered to a garage below street level.

Long before the mansion was completed in 1905 the De Lamars had divorced.  Joseph moved into the new house with his daughter, Alice, now ten years old, and their nine servants.    Gilbert had produced a gargantuan French palace six stories tall with a commanding mansard roof that overshadowed the fashionable old homes around it.



Joseph De Lamars haunted the auctions, hauling back rare vases, tapestries and paintings to the mansion.  Young Alice was regularly mentioned in the society pages as she passed the age of her debut into society.  But reportedly she was never really happy in the cavernous castle that was her father’s most overt attempt at social inclusion. 
In 1917 the city assessed the De Lamar house at $400,000—about $4.5 million in today’s dollars.
Thirteen years after moving into his new mansion, Joseph De Lamars died on December 1, 1918 of gall stones.  Alice had already left Madison Avenue to serve in World War I as a volunteer mechanic and driver for the Red Cross Motor Corps.
The stalwart Alice would be a staunch advocate for affordable housing for working women.  Having inherited an estate of about $10 million (her father left at least that much to medical charities), Alice moved uptown to a 20-room, 7-bath flat at No. 270 Park Avenue.  In 1920 the artwork, rare carpets and tapestries, and furnishings of the mansion were auctioned off—ironically similar to the auctions Joseph De Lamar attended.
The grand mansion would never again be a private residence.  It became the clubhouse of the National Democratic Club until the Polish Government purchased it in 1973 for $900,000 as its New York Consulate.
The consulate initiated extensive restoration of both the exterior and interior of the house and it still demands attention on the corner of Madison Avenue and 37th Street.


The two Morgan mansions with the De Lamar Mansion behind (NYPL Collection)


  1. Bravo! Now find your way into that house!

  2. A large residence pipe organ was installed in this house in 1915, manufactured by the Aeolian Company as Opus 1354. An accomplished organist, De Lamar also had a residence pipe organ inside his palatial home on Long Island, "Pembroke" at Glen Cove.