Monday, November 14, 2011

The Lost 1849 Thurlow Weed House - No. 12 West 12th Street

Nos. 12 and 14 West 12th Street in 1888 -- Magazine of American History
In the first half of the 19th century architect Alexander Jackson Davis was responsible for several memorable structures in Manhattan such as the remarkable row of 1845 contiguous rowhouses called London Terrace.

In 1849 he designed two matching Italianate mansions on West 12th Street, abutting the churchyard of First Presbyterian Church, which had been completed three years earlier.  The handsome brick residences reflected the refined neighborhood.  Each two bays wide, they featured arched entrances four steps above the sidewalk and a cast iron, second floor balcony that ran the width both structures.  Brownstone lintels and a simple cornice added to the understated elegance of Davis’ design.

Davis' ambitious 1845 London Terrace row houses, designed to appear as a single structure, were destroyed in 1929 -- photo NYPL Collection
No. 12 was the home of James W. Phillips, whose father Rev. William Wirt Phillips was pastor at the church next door.  No. 14 was purchased by Charles C. Taber who ran a successful cotton business.  While Davis designed the two homes with identical facades, the interiors were treated individually.

Years later The New York Times would describe the Phillips house as having an “octagonal stair well with the stained glass skylight at the top,” which the newspaper called its “chief feature.”  The interior was outfitted with “rich stucco molding, handsome fireplaces, magnificent woods.”

Meanwhile, Thurlow Weed had been making a name for himself.  Born on a farm in Cairo, New York and receiving little education, Weed had served in the War of 1812.  Afterward the young Weed got a job running the printing presses of the Albany Register where he became involved in politics.  After supporting John Quincy Adam’s presidential run, Weed was elected to the New York State Assembly.

Although his seat in the Assembly was his only political office, he became immensely powerful and was a key player in the nominations of William Henry Harrison, Henry Clay, Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, John Charles Fremont and Abraham Lincoln.  The man who once ran a printing press now owned newspapers.

So great was his influence that when the deep sympathy for the South held by Great Britain and France came to the attention of Abraham Lincoln, he named four Commissioners to travel overseas to “enlighten public opinion there upon the nature of the rebellion and the issues involved."  Included were Thurlow Weed, General Winfield Scott, Archbishop Hughes and Bishop Mellvaine.  The four embarked on their secret voyage in the summer of 1861 and Weed acted as the principal envoy of the group.

After the war, Thurlow Weed moved to New York.  His good friend General Scott lived at No. 24 West 12th Street, just down the street from No. 12 which was now owned by John Blatchard.  Thurlow bought No. 12 in 1869 and moved in with his daughter, Harriet.

Weed’s wife had died in 1856 after nearly 40 years of marriage and her loss heavily affected him.  The couple had borne three daughters and of them, only Harriet remained unmarried.    The Magazine of America History would later comment that “Harriet took her dead mother’s place at the domestic altar.”  She became his helpmate and secretary; a difficult and demanding job considering Weed’s intense schedule and responsibilities.  “Thurlow Weed’s large correspondence, containing the most carefully-guarded political and state secrets, passed under his daughter’s inspection,” The Times would later recall.  “She was thus placed in a position where she could observe not only the course of public events, but also the sources from which they sprung.”

Among Harriet’s duties, along with taking her father’s dictation and preparing his speeches and correspondence, was receiving and entertaining his many visitors.    According to the Magazine of American History in 1888, “Nearly all the distinguished characters of the country paid their respects to him from time to time, and notable statesmen from across the seas were frequently his guests.”

The highly-influential Thurlow Weed -- Library of Congress
The Times called their home “a rendezvous for brilliant politicians and distinguished men of all classes.  Presidents, Senators, titled foreigners, and private citizens, rich and poor, were alike entertained by the sage journalist, and to all who came Miss Weed was the same gracious hostess.”

The library in which Weed met his guests was also the lair of his prized pet parrot.  The two had a special bond, according to some accounts.  On the walls were prints and the shelves along the walls were heavy with books.  Upstairs, Weed’s expansive bedroom looked out towards Fifth Avenue across the lawn of the church.

Thurlow Weed, despite being 84 years old in 1881, still exercised vigorously and took frequent walks.  Upon the death of a politician that year he remarked “So George Law is dead.  Well, he had a pretty full habit, and did not take exercise enough.”  The reporter who quoted Weed said “Mr. Weed spoke with the air of a young man, conscious of health and vigor.”

This all was about to change.

The aged man had begun losing his eyesight over the past few years and Harriet would read his correspondence and newspapers to him.   Early in the fall of 1882 Weed caught a cold.  On October 1 went to bed with a slight fever and chills; although the situation did not seem worrisome.    Two months later, though, he had declined alarmingly.  “I do not expect to get well,” he told a family member, “nor do I wish to.  I have lived long enough and am ready to go.”

Through the last months of his life Harriet sat by his bed, holding his hand and watching for the rare moments of consciousness.  A few days before his death, the physicians allowed his parrot to be brought to his bed.  “The feeble invalid showed his pleasure by tenderly caressing his pet, which cooed in unaffected delight,” reported the press.

At 8:55 on the night of November 22, 1882, Thurlow Weed died in his bed at No. 12 West 12th Street.  During the day the house had been besieged with callers, including former Governor F. D. Morgan and his wife, General J. Watson Webb, General James Bowen, Mayor Grace, and the Honorable Edwards Pierrepont.   Flags on many buildings throughout the city were lowered to half staff.

The coffin was displayed in the large second floor parlor in the mansion until about noon the next day.  The stream of prominent names among the political, military and social circles was continuous.  The pall bearers from the First Presbyterian Church next door included two former Governors, two generals, a the district attorney.   Nearly 2000 mourners crushed into the church.   Harriet Weed was too overcome to attend her father’s funeral.

Thurlow Weed’s will directed that “To my daughter, Harriet A. Weed, whose life has been regulated by duty and affection, and who, since the death of my wife, has kept my home in order, seeking constantly to promote my health and happiness, I give, devise, and bequeath my dwelling-house and lot. No. 12 West Twelfth-street, New-York, in fee simple absolute, together with my furniture, silver, paintings, books, papers, and wines.”
Harriet lived on in the house, changing little, until her death on November 1, 1893.  In her obituary, The New York Times said “It has been her endeavor to preserve the home just as her father left it.  The only change that has been made is an addition built at the rear of the house which Mr. Weed had contemplated building.”

By 1899 the First Presbyterian Church had acquired the Weed house as its parsonage, which it now called “The Manse.”   Two servant girls received a scare here at 2:00 in the morning on May 12 that year when they were awakened by what they first thought was the gnawing of rats.  Deciding the noise was louder than a rat would, make they investigated only to find the face of a black man sawing through the protective bars of an upstairs window.  The 58-year old would-be burglar was caught and held for $1,500 bail.

In February of 1958 the church, which now owned both of the Alexander Jackson Davis houses, decided that it was time for a modern church house.   The Times reported that “Though church folk dislike the idea of having the old mansions torn down, and architects in town frown on the notion, too, they know they must go.  The space is sorely needed for the children.  So, one by one, the master works of great architects vanish from the city.”

And so rather than find another spot for the needs of the children, the church demolished the last two examples of Alexander Jackson Davis designs in the city.  “All that will remain of his dreaming on paper when the Twelfth Street mansions go down in rubble,” regretted The Times, “will be a few villas up in Hudson River Valley.”

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