Monday, June 11, 2012

The Lost Elbridge T. Gerry Mansion -- Fifth Avenue and 61st Street

The house was still under construction when American Architect & Building News published this photo in 1895. (copyright expired)
After graduating from Columbia College in 1857 Elbridge Thomas Gerry’s career, like most lawyers, might have been unspectacular.  But his unparalleled compassion and sense of humanity set him apart.

Gerry came from the land-owning Goelet family on his mother’s side, and the important colonial Gerry family on his father's.  In 1867, already wealthy in his own right, he married Louisa M. Livingston, of one of the oldest, most prominent and wealthiest families in New York.    The blissful bond further cemented Gerry’s status.

By 1870 his practice was highly successful and he took on many important civil and criminal cases.  Ever studying, he had amassed perhaps the largest personal law library in the country.  And it was a year when his career would take a marked turn.

Today we think mainly of cats, dogs and other small pets when the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is mentioned.  But in the 1870s there was a much different purpose for the organization – horses.  The streets teemed with draft animals pulling carriages, drays, omnibuses and other vehicles and the animals were often sorely abused and over-worked.

The Society hired Gerry as its counsel and he whole-heartedly threw his sympathies into the cause.  By the turn of the century a great percentage of the State laws regarding the treatment and welfare of animals was due to the efforts of Elbridge Gerry.

Perhaps it was this work that prompted his attention to children; but in 1874 Gerry was instrumental in founding the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  Five years later he became its president and held the post for decades.  The Society addressed cases of child labor and physical abuse; but not everyone was pleased about it.

Elbridge T. Gerry was descended from the Goelet family, as well as the colonial-period Gerrys, one of whom signed the Declaration of Independence.

Gerry was personally attacked for the Society’s work in some areas.  One of the most publicized cases was that of young Josef Hofmann, a brilliant 10-year old pianist who came to New York with his parents in 1887 to give concerts in the Metropolitan Opera House.    Society was taken with the prodigy and he was in constant demand in the music rooms of Fifth Avenue’s mansions for private musicales.

The Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children became aware that the boy was suffering from exhaustion.  The New York Times said “His natural guardians, doubtless tempted by liberal offers, filled in all his spare time with engagements at private houses, and as some of these engagements were in other cities, the overworked lad was frequently subjected to the excitement and unrest of railway travel at night.  The pace began to tell on him visibly, and Mr. Gerry felt obliged to interfere, which he did only after an eminent physician had made a careful examination of the young performer.”

The Society demanded that the boy be given an extended period of rest.  New York society was not happy.

“The musical people who had enjoyed Josef’s playing; the fashionable people who had in their selfish way made a pet of the boy; the ill-informed but noisy sticklers for personal rights, and the newspapers which invariably glow and burst into lurid flame over any interference with popular whims and desires, all joined in vigorous denunciation of Mr. Gerry and his society,” said The Times.

Gerry also turned his attention to the overworked children on the vaudeville stage.  It angered stage parents, performers and impresarios who relied on the draw of the chubby-cheeked little singers and dancers.  Buster Keaton’s father railed against the Society, vocally wondering why it did not focus on the abandoned waifs and shoe shine boys in the tenement neighborhoods.

Elbridge Gerry’s compassionate nature resulted in his sitting on a three-person panel, the Gerry Commission, charged with deciding the most humane method of executing criminals.  As a result the State of New York abandoned its long standing practice of hanging and replaced it with electrocution.

Through it all Gerry continued his law practice, served as Governor of the New York Hospital, was Chairman of the 1889 Centennial celebration and was Commodore of the New York Yacht Club from 1885 to 1892--earning him the title Commodore that stuck for life.

In 1891, like most of the city’s millionaires, the Gerrys planned a move northward along Central Park.  They hired Richard Morris Hunt to design a lavish French Renaissance chateau at the corner of East 61st Street—one that would reconfirm the family’s wealth and station.

photo--American Architect & Building News 1894 (copyright expired)
Hunt quickly realized he had a difficult client with whom to work.  One of the major considerations in the new house was a fitting library.  Gerry’s collection of law books now exceeded 30,000 volumes; many exceedingly rare.  As the architect was working on the servants’ quarters or service rooms like the kitchens or pantries, Gerry insisted that the cook, butler and valet review the designs and make suggestions.

As the plans were being developed, Hunt contracted Carlhian & Beaumetz to design and manufacture the reproduction antique furniture for the house.  The French government allowed the esteemed firm to borrow pieces from museums, government-owned properties and historic palaces for use as models.

On May 15, 1892 the plans were formally announced.   The New York Times reported that it would be “a combination of French, Gothic and Renaissance.”  The massive brick and limestone chateau would be entered on 61st street “with a covered carriage way.”  The newspaper spoke of “ornately-carved windows,” “crocheted lintels and heavily relieved frieze,” and said “two great chimneys will rise from the Sixty-first Street gable and will ascend forty feet from the nearest cornice.”

Unlike the limestone mansion he created for the Vanderbilts, Hunt designed the Gerry mansion in brick -- photo NYPL Collection
Inside  a grand stair hall ran through the building.  Here was the marble, winding staircase and, for those too weary to climb it, an elevator.  The first floor would house the dining room, Gerry’s den, the library, a picture gallery and two large drawing rooms.

On the second floor were the family bedrooms.  Each had a private bath and an adjoining servant’s room.  Along with bedrooms on the third floor were Gerry’s study and an innovative addition thought up by Gerry himself. 

It was an “isolating room,” which was essentially a clinic, “for the care, comfort, and safety of a sufferer from contagious disease,” said The Times.  The newspaper added, “This unique and somewhat lugubrious apartment will be tiled and arranged so that it will be a complete hospital in itself.  It is to be built simply to meet an emergency which the owner of the house hopes will never occur.”

Below the dormered roof were more servants’ rooms.  As the $250,000 mansion began rising, the Gerrys set off for the summer at their Newport estate.

Elbridge Gerry wanted to dispel any accusations of excess, saying that his new home would “not be a palace, but simply a comfortable modern home.”

Construction did not always go smoothly.  In the summer of 1894 sixty construction workers walked out on strike, refusing to come back until a written guarantee was provided promising that no imported marble would be used for the mantelpieces.  Unphased by the strike, the six French ironworkers who were constructing the elaborate porte-cochere kept working, however.

French artisans were hired to construct the elaborate iron porte-cochere that served as the main entrance -- American Architect & Building News 1897 (copyright expired)
Eventually the gargantuan chateau was completed and on January 11, 1897 the Gerrys opened the house to society with a large reception and dancing.   The Times called it “a sort of housewarming” of the “new and handsome residence.” 

The often acerbic critic Montgomery Schuyler admired the house, calling it “the most interesting and most successful” of Richard Morris Hunt’s New York mansions—other than Vanderbilt’s.

Among the up-to-date conveniences in the house was a central heating system.  And Elbridge Gerry was well-pleased with its performance.  He wrote to the manufacturers, Richardson & Boynton Co., saying “I write to express my great satisfaction with your admirable system of Perfect warm air furnaces recently placed in my house, No. 2 East 61st Street, in this city.  They possess the advantage, as to the character of the warm air, that is neither the disgusting steam heat which dries up the skin and affects the head, nor, on the other hand, is it the almost equally dry hot water heat, as it is called; but during the entire cold weather of the late winter, even during the blizzard, my house has been thoroughly heated.  The heat is uniform and the ventilation perfect.”

The far-sighted Gerry trained his house staff with fire drills.  The practice proved practical on October 26, 1900 when an electrical fire broke out below the butler’s pantry just before 7:00 a.m.    The basement filled with smoke, which then seeped into the conservatory, main hall and the reception room of the main floor.  The domestics jumped to action.

Some went to work closing off the doors leading to other parts of the house, others grabbed fire axes and a bucket brigade was established from the kitchen to the fire.  By the time the firemen arrived, the servants were cleaning up the debris.  They had chopped away some of the woodwork, doused the area with water and extinguished the blaze.  Although a few rugs were destroyed, a hardwood floor was burned and the butler’s pantry was heavily charred, the loss was low because of the quick, unruffled action of the servants.

Mrs. Gerry’s annual ball in the house was a much anticipated event; noted, according to The Times, “for their distinction and exclusiveness.”  Normally around 500 guests were invited and the ball rivaled Mrs. Astor’s as one of the main social functions of each season.

The affairs were always lavish.  When on January 12, 1914 the Gerrys gave a dinner dance for several hundred The Times mentioned that the house was “one of the largest in New York and admirably adapted to dinner dances.”

For this event, tables for the dinner were arranged both in the dining room and the law library.  Afterward the tables in the library were removed and dancing took place there and in the picture gallery.  Because the two spaces opened into one another, they formed one long ballroom.

Mrs. Gerry’s guest lists always contained only the most elite of New York Society.  On this particular night she entertained the likes of Mr. and Mrs. Ogden Mills, Mr. and Mrs. W. Earl Dodge, Mr. and Mrs. August Belmont, Mr. and Mrs. Goodhue Livingston, Mr. and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, and Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The dinner dance in 1914 would be one of the last, however.  Louisa M. Gerry was seen less and less at her box at the opera and the grand entertainments were few.  She spent less time in the New York mansion, preferring to live at Newport.

In the Spring of 1920 she became ill and on March 27 she died in the house at No. 2 East 61st Street.  Elbridge T. Gerry lived quietly on in the mansion until his own death in 1927.

The grand chateau that had been the scene of some of the most exclusive and glittering social events in New York history sat eerily dark and empty for two years.

Then, on February 9, 1929, The New York Times announced “The home of the late Commodore Elbridge T. Gerry at Fifth Avenue and Sixty-first Street will pass into the hands of wreckers in a few days.  When the graceful chateau dwelling, rich in memories of another day, has been demolished, construction of a forty-story hotel will be started.”

Otto Kahn and Finley J. Shepard were among the group who leased the land from Gerry’s heirs.  Their hotel, they said would be “characterized by its simplicity and refinement.”  Within months construction of the $15 million Hotel Pierre began and Richard Morris Hunt’s masterful Elbridge T. Gerry mansion, only 32 years old, faded into memory.


  1. The glass and iron porte-cochere is just magnificent and I presume like most of the mansions in its day, when the demolition crews came in they destroyed pretty much everything. Architectural salvage was a rare if not unknown concept.

  2. This is really a great piece of writing.The architecture looks beautiful..

  3. The porte cochere is particularly noteworthy, and as practical as it was handsome.

  4. What sad times to see these beautiful 19c buildings all torn away...and look what we have to look at today...concrete and glass. no rare woods, stained glass..beautiful hardware. or the views of 19th c walks down these streets!

  5. Does anyone know the source of the un-cited sketch of Elbridge T. Gerry that appears in this excellent article.

    Joseph T. Gleason
    Director of Archival Services
    The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
    161 William Street, 9th Fl.
    New York, NY 10038
    Tele: 212-233-5500

  6. One of the biggest mansions ever erected on Millionaire's Row, but it stood somewhat isolated.The truly great section of the Avenue was from 64th to 70th, or 71st if you include the latter Frick palace.This area, low 60s wasnt particularly desirable.There were a couple of famous families residing there, but the mansions were all 22-28 feet wide, fairly small.This section really was one of transition, from the prime section in Midtown-the upper 40s and 50s, where the Vanderbilts, Huntingtons, Goelets ...all lived and the prime Uptown section, 64th to 70th.There lived families like Berwind,Gould, Astor,Havemeyer, Gary,Ryan,Yerkes, Whitney or Ogden Mills.
    The 70s were also very prestigious but some blocks werent fully developed.