Saturday, September 17, 2011

The 1854 Phelps-Morgan Mansion No. 231 Madison Avenue


In the decade before the Civil War, wealthy New Yorkers in the fashionable Bond Street neighborhood were just beginning to consider leaving their refined homes like those composing the white marble LaGrange Terrace as commercial enterprises slowly encroached.

Three connected families, however, evacuated early. The Phelps and Dodge families had made their immense fortunes mining copper. In 1852 John Jay Phelps, Isaac N. Phelps and William E. Dodge purchased the block of land on Madison Road (later to become Madison Avenue) between 36th and 37th Street and began construction on three impressive brownstone mansions with shared gardens and stables. At the time Madison extended no further than 42nd Street.

The residences were completed a year later. A graceful wrought iron fence set in a limestone wall wrapped the properties, protecting the three impressive Anglo-Italian homes.

Isaac Newton Phelps owned No. 231, the northern-most of the houses. Unlike his copper mining neighbors, his wealth--estimated at the time at around $5 million, or nearly $130 million by today's standard--was made in hardware, banking and real estate.

Phelps was already retired when he moved in with his wife Anna and their children.  At the time of his death thirty-five years later in 1888, the house and furnishings, valued at $175,000 were left to his daughter Helen Louise Stokes.

By this time J. Pierpont Morgan was living in the home built by John Jay Phelps at the 36th Street corner, having purchased it in 1882.



Mabel Youngson was employed as a maid at No. 231 in 1892. Working with her boyfriend, Arthur Morley, who was a servant a block away at No. 214, she slowly spirited costly items out of the mansion. After several months, Mrs. Stokes realized that over $2000 worth of china, jewelry and even rugs were missing. Youngson, however, gave the police the slip.  Although much of the stolen property was recovered, the maid escaped to England.

Within a week of the death of Mrs. William E. Dodge in 1903 in No. 225, the house next to his, Morgan purchased her home.  Before a year had passed he had also purchased the Stokes house at No. 231 as a gift to his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr. and his wife, the former Jane Norton Grew.

With no real need for the former Dodge house between the two residences, Morgan Sr. demolished it to create space for a shared garden.  In the meantime, Morgan, Jr. had the forty-five rooms of No. 231 professionally redecorated. The mid-Victorian interiors were renovated with lavish woodwork, intricate ceiling plaster detailing and richly carved mantles.

Young girls roller skate past J. P. Morgan Sr.'s house as a carriage with liveried coachmen passes the spot where the Dodge mansion had stood.  -- Library of Congress
The house was the scene of theft once again when John Bernauer sneaked in on January 26, 1912. Despite the family’s staff of 18 servants, he was able to make off with $4,500 worth of silver and cut glass. Unlike Mabel Youngson, however, the police finally arrested him in October after a string of similar burglaries of upscale residences.

In 1928 No. 231 became the last remaining house on the block when J. P. Morgan Senior’s mansion was demolished to accommodate an annex to the Morgan Library.


In 1928 No. 231 was the last of the original three mansions still standing -- nypl collection
The house was often the scene of sumptuous entertaining.  Even after Mrs. Morgan died on August 14, 1925, Morgan hosted a string of debutante dinners and dances in the house from 1934 through 1939 for his granddaughters. Five hundred guests were entertained on December 18, 1936, for instance. The Alexander Haas orchestra played as guests danced in the library and the entire first floor was decorated with palm trees, chrysanthemums, roses and other flowers.

J. P. Morgan, Jr. died on March 13, 1943. By September the United Lutheran Church in America was planning the purchase of the house as its national headquarters.  In December Parke-Bernet Galleries announced that the furnishings and artwork from the mansion would be sold at a series of three auctions beginning January 6, 1944.

Items being sold from the house were an Oriental Lowestoft porcelain bowl, said to have been used at the christening of George Washington in 1732, 18th century gold boxes, two French 18th century enamel portrait miniatures of Benjamin Franklin, French and English furniture and Oriental rugs.

The Lutheran Church of America moved in a year later, having spent $245,000 on the purchase. The Rev. Franklin Clark Fry established his office in front of the built-in cabinet where the Morgan children’s toys had been stored. The Rev. George F. Harkins, assistant to Dr. Fry, worked in what had been Mrs. Morgan’s boudoir under the frescoed ceiling by German artist Rosa Kauffmann. Crystal chandeliers on the main floor were still in use – valued at $5000 each in 1955.


Not long after this photograph was taken, the tall brick chimneys were demolished, as was the carriage house immediately behind the mansion.  -- nypl collection
Although the Lutherans treated the interiors with respect, they place no historical importance on the structure. In June 1955 the tall, imposing brick chimneys were hammered apart and the coach house was demolished. In its place a modern 4-story building was erected.

As summer approached in 1965, the Lutheran Church applied for a zoning change that would allow the demolition of the mansion and construction of a 12-to-15-story office building. The church complained that it needed more space.

Strong opposition from civic and political groups was voiced at a public hearing at City Hall. Mrs. Eleanor Clark French, the city’s Commissioner to the United Nations protested that it would “destroy part of a beautiful entity.” Surprisingly, perhaps, the Rev. George Koski, a Lutheran minister from the Bronx was extremely vocal against the demolition, calling the mansion “an oasis of beauty in the middle of a turbulent town.”

Other protestors included the American Institute of Architects and the Municipal Art Society.

The New York City Landmark Preservation Commission rushed to protect the structure, giving it landmark designation that year. But the church was undaunted and sued in the State Court of Appeals.

The magnificent exterior ironwork was a late-19th century addition.
Two years later the battle was still raging. H. Ober Hess, speaking for the Lutheran Church in America, felt that the mansion “has never been in a New York City guidebook,” and therefore was expendable.

To the astonishment and severe disappointment of preservationists and most New Yorkers, the Court of Appeals reversed the landmark status on July 15, 1974 in a 5-to-2 decision. The fate of the Morgan Mansion, it seemed, was sealed.

But by now the Lutheran Church had run out of money. A church spokesman said that because “money is no longer available today for building,” it would keep the Morgan house “as is.” The perilous situation, however, unnerved preservationists.

Beverly Moss Spatt, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission was “shocked and disappointed” by the decision. Eminent preservation architect Giorgio Cavaglieri said the ruling “concerns itself with the fact that the owners of this building deserve the consideration of certain amounts of money. If they are entitled to compensation the local government has the responsibility to provide such compensation so that New York’s citizens in the future , as well as the present, can at least have some living record of their visual heritage.”

The Commission refused to give up and in 1974 it re-designated the house a landmark.

The Morgan Library's 1988 addition now fills the void where the William E. Dodge mansion once stood.
Finally in 1988 the mansion was purchased by the Morgan Library. Architects Voorsanger & Mills melded the house with the Library by means of a modern glass wing. The interiors of the house were tenderly preserved. The rooms in which 500 guests dined and danced in 1936 are now home to the gift shop and bookstore, as well as a small café. Offices and conference rooms are housed upstairs.

The Morgan mansion is one of Manhattan’s few existing free-standing brownstone mansions; one which only barely managed to survive.  In 1974, Beverly Moss Spatt urged “We must preserve such buildings not only for themselves but for the preservation of the entire city. The Morgan house is evocative of its period and has a wealth of architectural detail, dignity, and simplicity.”

non-credited photographs taken by the author

3 comments:

  1. What an interesting post, particularly with all of the various photos. I'm so glad it's still standing.

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  2. Thanks. And if you ever get a chance to visit the Morgan Library, make sure you go inside the mansion -- the interiors are incredible.

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  3. I am glad this house was preserved. The people who built these beautiful, are also the ones that got New York, to be..New York. Their influence on the city is unmeasurable. Can't wait toill I get to NYC to see all these beautiful, histical buildings!! One day, One day....

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