The Goelet family settled in New York in the 17th century and soon established a family tradition of constant, quiet acquisition of Manhattan property. There was one cardinal rule: land was never sold. The Goelet fortunes increased through leases rather than sales.
When eccentric bachelor Peter Goelet died in 1879, the bulk of his estate went to his two nephews, Robert and Ogden. By now New York City was spreading northward and the value of the Goelet vast land holdings – once rural meadows and woods—was multiplying. The fortunes of the already wealthy Robert and Ogden Goelet were nearly doubled upon the death of their father.
Unlike some of the self-made industrialist millionaires of 19th Century New York, the brothers were well-educated and well-mannered. There was a refinement about them that set the brothers a bit apart from the nouveau-riche.
As they married, each commissioned the architect E. H. Kendall to design a grand mansion on Fifth Avenue, diagonally across from one another. Construction of Ogden’s residence, at No. 608 on the southwest corner of 49th Street, began in 1882. Kendall designed a lavish, four-story structure above a deep basement of rough-cut stone.
Absent were the curves and arches fashionable on homes of a decade earlier. Instead sharp angles and geometric lines defined the mansion. It would be set back from the sidewalk, protected by a wide, deep light moat. The top floor would detonate in pyramidal caps, ornate iron cresting, highly-ornamented dormers and elaborate chimneys.
While the exterior was meant to impress, the interiors would be staggering. Louis Comfort Tiffany’s interior design firm, Associated Artists, was commissioned to decorate the home and the project required a full year to complete.
Then, April 14, 1884 the Ogden and Mary Goelet opened the doors to society. The New York Times society page sub-headline read “Their Splendid New House thrown Open to Their Friends.” “Their friends” required over 500 invitations, most of which were accepted.
In the 1880s in Manhattan, grand balls and glittering entertainments were a matter of fact. Men in evening clothes and women dripping in pearls and jewels routinely dined and danced in the opulent rooms of Fifth Avenue. But this night was special.
The guests who ascended the wide entrance stairs into the large hall filled with palms and flowering shrubs included the Astors, Belmonts, Vanderbilts, Van Rensselaers, Lorillards and Livingstons. John Jay and his wife were there as were the Rhinelander sisters, Edwards Pierrepont, Mrs. Lloyd Aspinwall and General and Mrs. McClellan. Ward McAllister, cohort of Caroline Astor and self-appointed authoritarian on society protocol, was among the high-toned crowd. No one, it seems, wanted to pass up the opportunity to be seen at the opening event of the Spring social season of 1884.
Guests danced in the 14-century style drawing room with its oak paneling. Tiffany brightened the somber wooden walls by hanging the windows with embroidered gold and chenille draperies.
A second drawing room was decidedly French with painted insets in the paneling and above the marble mantel with its bronze figures was hung a carved marble medallion of Louis XV. Beyond the dining room was the conservatory to the rear of the home.
As was normal for 19th century society, things began late. The guests began filing in around 11 pm. Mary Ogden had Tiffany & Co. create “very pretty favors in silver,” as The Times reported; and after dancing supper (which was catered by Pinard, Mary’s favored chef) was served in the dining rooms on petite Louis XVI tables.
Mary’s entertaining was always lavish and tasteful; and her floral arrangements became somewhat of a trademark. On February 1, 1886 the Goelet’s hosted a formal dinner, as usual served by Pinard, which prompted The Times to note “There was the usual elaborate floral decoration, novel features of which were two floral peacocks, upon which the favors for the guests were hung.”
Both Ogden and Mary were yachting enthusiasts. Although he donated the Goelet Cups as prizes for the annual New York Yacht Club races, his interest was in cruising rather than racing. And although they did build one of the most lavish mansions in Newport, Ochre Court, the couple preferred to sail abroad on their schooner Norseman. The house on Fifth Avenue saw less and less of Ogden and Mary Goelet.
The Goelets purchased Wimborne House, one of the most attractive mansions in London, and were nearly as well-known in Paris and London society circles as they were in New York and Newport; even becoming close friends with the Prince of Wales.
In 1896 Goelet hired ship designer George L. Watson to design a new yacht. Built in Glasgow, the twin screw steel yacht Mayflower became Ogden’s preferred place to live. The New York Times said that “in luxurious appointments this yacht has never been surpassed.”
1896 was a socially-stellar year for the Goelets. England was celebrating the Golden Jubilee of Victoria and Wimborne House was the scene of a dinner for the Prince of Wales, reported to be “one of the social successes of the season.” On April 7, while in Nice, the Prince received his mother, Queen Victoria, aboard the royal yacht Britannia and took advantage of the occasion to present the Goelets to her Majesty.
At the time, however, Ogden’s health “had not been rugged for several years,” as The Times worded it. The following summer he became ill. The Mayflower was at anchor off the Isle of Wight when he took a turn for the worse. The Prince of Wales’ physician, Sir William Henry Broadbent, was called to the yacht and stayed with Goelet for several days.
On August 27, 1897 Ogden Goelet died aboard the Mayflower.
A month later the millionaire’s will was made public. Eyebrows were, perhaps, raised when it was announced that “No public or charitable bequest of any kind is made, and the entire estate is left to the widow and two children.”
Mary received the houses, including No. 608 and its “engravings, prints, books, pamphlets, household furniture, silver plate, china, paintings, tapestry, statuary, bric-a-brac, works of art, jewelry, watches, trinkets, horses, carriages, stable, farm and garden tools, etc.” The estate was valued at around $60 million.
Mary continued to winter abroad on the Mayflower and, beginning in 1898, loaned the house on Fifth Avenue to her sister, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. and her husband in her absence. When Prince Henry of Prussia made a trip to the United States in 1902 the Vanderbilts gave a formal dinner party for the Prince here. The National Souvenir of Prince Henry’s Visit to the United States reported extensively on the affair. The overflow of guests was seated at tables in the conservatory but “There was no difference in the elegance of the two tables, the appointments of both being in most approved taste,” said the Souvenir. “There was, of course, a notable display of gold and silver plate.”
“The floral decorations of the house, arranged by Small, were in most refined taste, not at all obtrusive, and such as might be expected at one of the regular dinner parties of the household during the season.” The book noted that “even the finger bowls were filled with flowers, gardenias and jasmine.”
Dinner was served by Sherry’s, “whose men wore handsome liveries” and the guest list included the most elite of continental and New York society. Along with foreigners like the Countess Grey, Count Quadt, Captains von Grumme, Schmidt von Schwind and von Mueller, were John Jacob Astor, August Belmont, Stuyvesant Fish and Assistant Secretary of State David J. Hill.
The Souvenir added “As can well be imagined, there was a collection of handsome women who did full justice to the occasion as regarded costumes and jewels. Nearly all the married women wore superb head ornaments of jewels, and stomachers, as well.”
When, on January 2 that same season, the Vanderbilts hosted a musicale by some of the most noted musical stars, The New York Times commented that “The Ogden Goelet residence, which Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt have leased for the season…is one of the largest and handsomest private establishments in town, and admirably adapted for an entertainment of the character of that of last evening…The large reception rooms, opening into the hall, which is a noble apartment, were given over as dressing rooms. The floral decorations were superb, and consisted of immense palms and masses of American Beauty rose. Large vases of the flowers were placed in the hallway and rooms by Hodgson and on the large and small tables in the dining room and conservatory, where the dinner was served by Sherry.”
The following year the home was the center of activity as Mary prepared for the society wedding of the season. Daughter Mary would marry the Duke of Roxburghe in St. Thomas Church and New York society was atwitter with the arrival of titled Europeans.
Because of the small number of guests invited to the church—merely 500—the immense sanctuary was “reduced by the use of huge palms to the size of an English chapel,” reported The Times. The vested choir of 50 men and boys led the procession down the aisle as a cordon of policemen prevented anyone without a card from entering the church.
Afterwards, 150 guests were entertained at the Goelet house. The reception rooms were decorated with a veil of orchids and vines and the large mantel in the hall was banked with American Beauty roses and yellow orchids. A trellis work of deep red roses was formed over the sides of the massive staircase to the second floor.
On the evening of June 20, 1904, Mary Ogden returned home from “a small function” and removed her jewels, placing them in their case. They were then secured in the safe in her boudoir. Only Mary and her maid had the five keys necessary to access the jewelry.
The following month the maid carried the jewel case to the carriage as Mary prepared to go to the Newport mansion. While dressing for dinner at Ochre Court on July 19, she was startled to find the $200,000 worth of jewels missing.
Tiffany & Co. circulated fliers with illustrations of the jewelry and the Pinkerton bureau was put on the case. A reward of $10,000 was offered.
Within a few days it was announced that Mary Ogden had found the jewels back in her safe in the Fifth Avenue house. The search was called off and not everyone was content to believe that Mary had merely forgotten that she had left the jewel case at home. Many looked askance at the maid who, they believed, had stealthily replaced the stolen jewels in a panic.
While most of society moved northward along Central Park after the turn of the century, Mary Ogden remained in the immense mansion at No. 608. In 1911 a widening of Fifth Avenue was cause for the wide and dramatic front stoop to be removed.
The work site became something like a scene from a silent movie comedy when, around 5:00 on September 22, a dense swarm of bees descended on a wooden soap box sitting on a sawhorse. Before long the box was covered with buzzing insects and passersby were collecting to see the curious sight.
When one workman overturned the box, trapping most of the bees inside, those still free began stinging the crowd. “All hands scattered. No policeman could have done better,” reported The Sun.
When one woman complained that the poor bees were suffocating, a workman thrust a stick under a corner of the box to admit air. Immediately the swarm came out, flying into taxi cab windows and scaring delivery horses. Mrs. Ogden’s refined and cultured home was the scene of panic and chaos.
When the bees returned to the box, things came to a peaceful end when Policeman Lawler soaked it in kerosene and lit a match.
The Times reported that all the bees were not killed and “some sought refuge in chimneys and others wandered down side streets in quest of adventure. Other bees visited the Hotel Buckingham at Fiftieth Street to the terror of guests.” Despite all this, the newspaper added “No arrests were made.”
Mary lived on in the stoop-less house and in 1914 purchased a Renault motorcar. Four years later Arthur Barlett Maurice in his “Fifth Avenue” mentioned her house among those that “recall the tradition and flavor of the older New York" by holding on “despite the invasion of business.”
An aging Mary Goelet moved into a suite at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel in 1926. The blinds on the windows of No. 608 were pulled, the doors were locked and the house sat empty on a busy Fifth Avenue now lined with office and retail buildings.
Three years later the 73-year old Mary contracted influenza which developed into pneumonia. Within six days she was dead.
As she had requested, her funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue house. On February 25, 1929 the rooms of the Ogden mansion were bedecked with flowers for the last time—lilies, roses, gardenias and lilies of the valley. The entire St. Thomas Church choir was grouped in the entrance hall and New York society spilled into three rooms.
As Mary’s casket, covered with violets and orchids, was carried out of the house through the massive doors draped with orchid-colored streamers and laurel, policemen held back the gawking crowds.
The grand home would not be opened again until November when the furnishings and artwork were auctioned. Rare carpets, Hepplewhite dining chairs, and Louix XV antiques were sold along with Sevres porcelain vases, tapestries and silver. When it was over, the rooms that had glittered with the lavish entertainments of the 1880s and 1890s were empty and silent.
On March 2, 1930 The New York Times briefly reported that “The Goelet residence…is being razed to make way for a ten-story structure to house stores and office buildings. It is one of the few last remaining of the distinctive home with once lined Fifth avenue south of Central Park.”
In its place rose the Goelet Building, a remarkable 1930s office building that survives today.
|In 1932 the Goelet Building had taken the place of the last great mansion on 5th Avenue below Central Park -- photo NYPL Collection|