When 9-year old James McGinnis found himself orphaned in 1856 in Detroit, he learned to fend for himself. Five years later he was working in a circus. McGinnis took the name of the circus manager who had taken the boy under his wing, thereafter being known as James Bailey.
By the 1870s Bailey was a major player in the circus field; his show aggressively competing with Phineas T. Barnum's as the nation’s premier circus. In 1880 the two managers decided to join forces, creating The Greatest Show on Earth. Bailey, who was a genius at marketing and public relations, preferred to work in the background, allowing Barnum to take credit for many of his innovations.
The circus made Bailey a millionaire and in 1886 he began planning a new residence. As wealthy New York families moved ever northward, he anticipated that the neighborhood of Harlem would become the next Fifth Avenue. The New York Times described the area as “particularly desirable and all the houses that have been put up in this neighborhood are handsome, well-built, elegant structures, and the locality is free from many objectionable features.”
|photo NYPL Collection|
Bailey purchased the lot at 150th Street and St. Nicholas Place and hired New Jersey architect Samuel Burrage Reed to design the building. Reed had just published his “House-Plans for Everybody – For Village and Country Residences, Costing from $250 to $8,000.”
Bailey’s home would cost much more.
A 68-foot wide fantasy of limestone spires and arches, a Flemish gable and whimsical dormers, a corner tower with a conical cap, and a boxed porch supporting a spacious balcony, it was a home fit for a showman. Even more striking than the castle-like façade were the interiors, designed by Joseph Burr Tiffany, cousin of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Each room of the 12,000 square foot home was intended to awe.
Numerous woods were used – quartered oak in the main, two-story entrance hall where the French polished floors had complex mahogany inlaid designs; black walnut in the office; hazel wood in the formal parlor and sycamore in the library. Intricate carpenter’s lace framed the archways leading from one room to another on the main floor. Hand painted wallpaper and frescoed ceilings, art glass chandeliers and carved wooden fireplace surrounds and mantles filled the home.
Most impressive, however, were the windows. Of the 66 windows, many included stained glass by Henry F. Belcher -- called Belcher Mosaics. Belcher held at least 22 patents for his process, by which thousands of glass pieces, most triangular, were laid out then sandwiched tightly between layers of asbestos. A molten lead alloy was poured in to fill the gaps. When the exterior surfaces were removed the complete, intact window emerged.
Belcher's company was in business only from 1884 to 1890, most likely owing to the high cost of the windows.
Photo YojimbotThe house was completed in 1888 but within a few years of moving in, James Bailey became disenchanted with the neighborhood. Rather than becoming another Fifth Avenue or Riverside Drive with palatial mansions lining the streets, it was filling with apartment buildings. He sold the house in 1904 to J. C. Rodgers.
Only six years later, on April 11, 1910, Rodgers sold the house to Dr. Louis Shaefer. “It was considered one of the finest dwellings in that section of Washington Heights,” said The New York Times on reporting the transaction.
Around the same time real estate prices in Harlem collapsed. With the opening of the Lenox Avenue subway in 1904, more and more black New Yorkers immigrated to the neighborhood until it eventually became the center of the black New York community.
Passing the home while walking to Wadleigh High School on West 114th Street every day, one teen-aged girl dreamed of living in the castle on 150th Street. In 1951, now married to a NYPD detective, the grown-up girl got her wish. Marguerite and Warren Blake purchased the nine-bedroom Bailey house from which Marguerite ran her M. Marshall Blake Funeral Home.
By 2000 when a small fire on the upper floors caused firefighters to break out several of the upper windows, the Blakes had retired. Finding replacement windows for the landmarked structure was difficult for the elderly pair. They moved out, leaving the house empty. Water entered through the broken windows. Plaster fell from some of the ceilings. A musty odor hung in the grand, vacant rooms.
At the age of 87, Marguerite Blake put her dream house on the market in 2008 for $10 million. Gala open house wine parties were thrown by real estate agents who showed the remarkable property. There were no takers. The slumping housing market and the neglected condition of the house were too much for potential buyers.
Marguerite agreed to reduced to price to $3.5 million a year later. Still no one was interested in the historic home. A writer for New York Magazine toured the remarkable house, calling it “a modern Grey Gardens.”
The Bailey House now has a chance for renewed life.