Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The 1849 Dr. Valentine Mott Mansion - No. 1 Gramercy Park


By the time Samuel B. Ruggles' ambitious vision of Gramercy Park was becoming reality in the 1840s, Dr. Valentine Mott had created quite a reputation for himself.

Born in 1785 in Glen Cove, Long Island, Mott came from a Quaker medical family.  After earning his medical degree at Columbia Medical College in 1806, he studied surgery in London under the renowned Sir Astley Cooper.  Mott showed such potential that Astley appointed him assistant in surgery almost immediately.  Three years later he returned to New York, recognized as a skilled surgeon at a time when operations were painful (anesthesia was uncommon at best) and often fatal.

The doctor was the first to successfully perform surgeries previously considered impossible.  The fact that Mott was ambidextrous and could operate with either hand no doubt contributed to his success.    He garnered international fame when he performed successful operations on arteries, including his 1818 surgery on a tiny vessel two inches from the patient’s heart.  It was the first time ever the daring surgery had been attempted. 

Two years later, with three other doctors, he founded the Rutgers Medical College.  Beginning around 1830 he devoted his time mainly to lecturing, attaining professorships at Columbia, Rutgers Medical College of New Jersey, and the University of the City New York.

In 1844 Gramercy Park had been landscaped and gracious residences began rising around it.  Ruggles intended his enclave to rival the elegant St. John’s Park where many of the city’s wealthiest citizens lived.  And he succeeded.

In 1849, the same year that Valentine Mott was elected President of the New York Academy of Medicine, he moved into the new No. 1 Gramercy Park, a dignified four-story Italianate brownstone mansion.   Mott and his wife, the former Louisa Dunmore Munn, reared nine children in the house.

 Life changed for the family when civil war broke out in 1861.  The carefree evenings of entertainments and medical discussions in the library drew to a close.

Dr. Valentine Mott poses in the studio of Civil War photographer Matthew Brady -- Library of Congress
On October 10 that year, Louisa Mott opened her parlor to a group of women to organize the Ladies’ Union Aid Association.   Explaining the cause, she wrote “Owing to the melancholy circumstances which at this time overshadow the happiness and prosperity of our country, many families have been reduced to the extreme of poverty, who never knew the misery of want before.  This revulsion in the state of public affairs, though it bears upon all, falls most heavily on the poor, especially upon those deprived of their natural protectors, by absence or death, and who either from sickness or inability to obtain work, have been reduced to a state of suffering beyond the power of moral or physical endurance.”

The ladies organized a bazaar in December “where clothing for the poor will be provided, and articles of taste and elegance, suitable for the holiday season, will be offered for sale.”  Mrs. Mott hoped the money the bazaar made would “enable us to temper the storms of Winter to the afflicted, to give them the necessaries of life, and cheer their desolate homes with the genial light of sympathy.”

Perhaps the sole bright spot for the Mott household that year was a visit by the Prince de Joinville.   Valentine Mott had been “intimately acquainted” with the prince’s father, Louis Philippe, according to The New York Times and in 1841 the prince had been entertained by Mott.   Before leaving for Washington on September 17, 1861, “a visit was paid by the Prince and part of his suite to old Dr. Mott, in Gramercy-park,” reported The Times.

Mott’s son, Thaddeus, enlisted in the Union Army and was assigned as captain of artillery.  He would subsequently earn fame for his valor and military expertise.    For his part, the 75-year old Valentine Mott dedicated his full attention to the war effort, offering President Lincoln his services.    As consultant to the War Department, he gave advice on the administering of anesthesia in battlefield hospitals.

Valentine Mott died in his bed at No. 1 Gramercy Park on April 25, 1865; a little over a week after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  The story is often repeated that Mott died from the shock of the president’s death; a possibility given the doctor’s history of a nervous system disorder and his advanced age.

Harper's Weekly accompanied Mott's obituary with the above sketch.
Harper’s Weekly joined the major newspapers around the country in eulogizing Mott.  “He was one of the most eminent among our citizens, and will be remembered not only as a very skillful surgeon but also as a kind and philanthropic man.”  Sir Astley Cooper added “He has performed more of the great operations than any man living, or that ever did live.”

By 1882 the house that welcomed a prince had become a boarding house.  The New York Tribune ran an ad for “No. 1 Gramercy Park—to rent, with board, the entire second floor and one room on third floor delightful city rooms for summer.”

Respectable boarders continued to rent rooms for several decades.  A 1905 advertisement mentioned the “privilege of park,” referring to the gated and locked Gramercy Park and in 1909 the Tribune advertised “large corner rooms with or without private bath; table board optional.”

In 1907 the house still retained its brownstone stoop -- "Old Buildings of New York" (copyright expired)
Then, on November 4, 1917, The New York Times bemoaned the alteration of the house.  “Gramercy Park has just witnessed another change in the row of old fashioned residences on the west side of the square…Number 1 Gramercy Park, on the corner of Twenty-first Street, and the adjoining house have been altered into studio apartments.  The high stoops have been removed.”

In place of the brownstone stoop, a rather handsome portico was added.  In the modernization the stone frames of the windows were shaved flat, as compared with the once-matching house next door.
Where the “high stoop” had been, the entrance was lowered to the English basement, below street level.  An attractive brownstone portico was added and the original doorway became a window.   The apartments became home to financially-comfortable tenants like William G. Sickel, vice-director of the Hamburg-American Steamship Line and artist W. T. Benda.

In 1925 the stoop had been removed, but the stone framing of the windows was still intact -- NYPL Collection
Beginning in 1939 the house underwent a rapid series of sales.  That year the estate of Dr. George F. Cottle sold it to Federick H. Meeder of the Dion Realty Company.  Two years later Harry Marks, president of the Delnor Realty Corporation purchased it for about $50,000.  At the time of the sale The Times remarked that “The exterior of the brick building retains the characteristics of the early days, but the interior was rebuilt some time ago and provides accommodations for ten families in two-room and three-room suites, in addition to an artist’s studio on the top floor.”


Marks sold the property in July 1945.  The buying syndicate purchasing the house “plans more extensive alterations in the near future,” reported The Times.

In 1959 the house still had ten apartments—two each on the first through third floors, three on the fourth and two (one including an artist studio) in the basement.   Today luxury coops are home to residents such as Tatiana von Furstenberg, daughter of fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and Prince Egon of Furstenberg; and interior designer Sara Story.  Story purchased her 3,000 square foot, three bedroom apartment from children’s book author Sarah Kilborne for just under $1.5 million.

The exterior of the Mott house was used in the 1991 film “Delirious” as the home of actor John Candy’s character Jack Gable.   While the wide stone stoop and window details were sadly removed; the mansion of the 19th century’s most celebrated surgeon remains, externally, essentially preserved.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

2 comments:

  1. An earlier movie was set here- mid-century- maybe a Hepburn film? Anyone remember?

    ReplyDelete