Monday, December 17, 2012

The Lost John D. Rockefeller Mansion - No. 4 West 54th Street

photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The area around Fifth Avenue and 54th Street during the Civil War was still mostly undeveloped.   Construction on the great St. Patrick’s Cathedral four blocks south had ground to a halt as workers marched off to war.   The block between 50th and 51st Streets, on same side of the Avenue was filled with the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, and St. Luke’s Hospital took up the block along West 54th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.   In between the building sites were, for the most part, still vacant.

Around 1864 wealthy merchant William P. Williams shot ahead of the northward progression of New York’s wealthy and constructed a fine brownstone residence at No.  4 West 54th Street directly across from the hospital.  Taking full advantage of the available lot, he constructed a two-story carriage house to the side, rather than to the back as expected, and surrounding gardens.   The Italianate brownstone-clad house rose four stories over an English basement.  The dignified façade offered little embellishment to call attention to itself.   A handsome portico sheltered the entrance and provided support to a bay window at the second floor.  Quoins ran up the corners and Italian pediments surmounted the front windows.

Looking west from Fifth Avenue in 1867 St. Luke's Hospital is on the right, William P. Williams' house is on the left.  The low brick building in front of the house is the two-story carriage house.  -- photo The Sun, March 7, 1915 (copyright expired)

Williams then sat back and waited for the neighborhood to come to him.

While the mansion was being constructed a drama was unfolding in Richmond, Virginia.  Catherine Yarrington’s husband died in 1859 so she opened a boarding house to support herself and her five children.  But in 1865 much of the surrounding neighborhood had been burned to the ground and her options were dismal.

With the war ended, the married New York City railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington initiated a series of visits to Richmond which would culminate in his purchase of what would become the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.  Uneducated and unpolished, he was described by newspapers as “As ruthless as a crocodile” and “scrupulously dishonest.”  And he was rich.

Catherine Yarrington recognized an opportunity.   Her daughter, Arabella, was 19 years old and attractive.   Huntington played cards at a faro parlor owned by John Worsham, not far from Catherine Yarrington’s boarding house.   Huntington was introduced to Arabella and before long they were involved in a torrid affair.

In 1869 Collis P. Huntington drove the golden spike into the rail line connecting the East and West.   There was no longer a reason for him to travel south.  That same year the entire Yarrington family moved to New York City—including John Worsham.  

To keep the affair discreet, Arabella  Yarrington and John Worsham posed as a married couple—in fact Worsham had a wife, Annette, back home.  With Huntington footing the bills, Catherine and Arabella dressed in the finest of fashion; no one suspecting that the refined women with their Southern accents were anything but the most respectable Mrs. Yarrington and Mrs. Worsham.

A year after they arrived, Arabella Worsham bore a son and soon after was tragically widowed.  At least that was what respectable society was informed.  In fact, John Worsham had returned to Richmond to his wife.  In all probability little Archer Worsham was the son of Collis Huntington.

The millionaire moved the clan into a smart house he owned at No. 109 Lexington Avenue near fashionable Gramercy Park where many of the leading names of New York society lived.    In the meantime, Elizabeth Huntington, whether even slightly aware of the affair or not, continued to live on in their Park Avenue mansion at 38th Street.

By 1877 Arabella would move again.  By now Fifth Avenue was Manhattan’s most exclusive address and with Huntington money she purchased the brownstone at No. 4 West 54th Street and the garden lots surrounding it.    The class-conscious Arabella had one problem with her new mansion however.  It was out of date.

Arabella added the extension to the house near the rear -- photo Brooklyn Museum
Arabella Yarrington Worsham knew fashion.  She studied architecture and decorating books.  She spoke French and read extensively about art history.   Although polite society living in the homes around her—Astors, Vanderbilts and Goulds—did not include her name on their guest lists; she nevertheless had the money to redecorate her house in the latest fashion.

The remodeled house included stained glass (as in the entrance doors) and built-in furniture, like the entrance hall sideboard -- photo by Samuel Herman Gothscho, Library of Congress collection
She enlarged the residence to the side and contracted a foremost decorating firm—either George A. Schastey or Pottier & Stymus—to completely renovate the interiors.   The concept of interior decorators was relatively new, as wealthy citizens focused more on the overall design of the room, rather than individual pieces.  There is little doubt, however, that Araballa had a great deal of input into the décor.

The 1870s were the hey-day of the Aesthetic Movement and Arabella’s house would be the epitome of the style.  All traces of the stuffy, restricted Civil War period décor were ripped out, replaced by Moorish, Oriental and Eastland designs.

A dizzying array of materials decorated the dining room:  stained glass, stenciled patterns, hand painting, carved woodwork and gilding -- photo by Samuel Herman Gothscho, Library of Congress collection
There was a Turkish bath, a Japanese bedroom with ebonized woodwork and a silver and gilt chandelier.  The smoking room was Moorish.   Woodwork was inlaid with ivory, ceilings were stenciled or frescoed, mantels were carved in exotic patterns.  While the work was being done, Arabella and her son, now 7 years old, traveled.  They returned to a magnificent transformation.   The somber interiors were now brilliant with primary colors, gold leaf, and sumptuous furnishings and draperies.

The dazzling Moorish Smoking Room included ebonized woodwork, elaborate, polychrome plasterwork and exotic furniture -- photo
In 1883 after having suffered from cancer for some time, Elizabeth Huntington died.   Now Arabella, 34, and Collis, 64, were free to marry.   On Friday July 7, 1884 Huntington transferred the deed to his Park Avenue mansion “and two houses and lots around the corner of Thirty Eighth street” to “Mrs. Belle D. Worsham,” as reported in The Atlanta Constitution.  The following day they were married in the parlor of No. 4 East 54th Street.  The newspaper added that “Rumor had it that Mr. Huntington purchased the house many years ago and presented it as a testimonial of friendly regard to Mrs. Worsham.”  The famous minister, Henry Ward Beecher, performed the ceremony.

The newlyweds took up residency in the Park Avenue house and Arabella looked for a buyer for No. 4 West 54th.  She found one in oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller.

Rockefeller, a devout Baptist, had been spending more and more time in New York and less in Cleveland.  He brought his family with him, staying in expansive suites in the Buckingham. Fifth Avenue and Windsor Hotels.  By now he decided on a permanent New York residence.

While other Manhattan millionaires were building lavish palaces along Fifth Avenue, the somber Rockefeller disdained ostentation.  He purchased Arabella’s house and moved in with his wife, Laura, and their children.    Although he was quickly becoming one of the richest and most powerful men in America, Rockefeller saw no need to change anything in the house—except for the purchase of new rugs.
photo by Samuel Herman Gothscho, Library of Congress collection
Six years later, on November 25, 1890, The Evening World described the tycoon.  “John D. Rockefeller is fifty-one years old.  He is a plain, ordinary man in appearance.  He wears a mustache, is a good husband and a kind father,enjoys his home, which is at 4 West Fifty-fourth street, opposite St. Luke’s Hospital, and looks like a solid businessman.

“He puts on no airs, but is a natural gentleman—police, suave and gentle to all, be they rich or poor, lofy or humble.  He claims no praise for getting rich, and sticks faifully to Dr. Armitage’s Baptist Church, of which he is a member.”

The painted ceilings and walls, such as those in the parlor above (looking into the dining room) installed by Arabella Worsham were kept intact -- photo by Samuel Herman Gothscho, Library of Congress collection
The newspaper noted that “there are few servants,” although census records a decade later would count ten.  Daughters Alta and Edith “two pretty girls just growing into women, have but one maid between them” and “all the members of the family wait on themselves as a rule.”  The article even claimed that Laura Rockefeller “is her own housekeeper.”

The exquisite inlaid doors and wainscot in the rear hallway were never seen by guests -- photo by Samuel Herman Gothscho, Library of Congress collection
The thought of the mistress of a mansion behaving as a housekeeper and young heiresses sharing a maid was no doubt shocking to Caroline Astor or Alma Vanderbilt; yet the Rockefellers were not like most fabulously wealthy families.  Dividing their time quietly between their country estate, Pocantico Hills, and the 54th Street house, The Evening World said they had never “been prominent in society simply for the reason that they never desired to be.  To lead a simple, unostentatious life is one of the strongest characteristics of all of the members of the Rockefellers, and they are all religiously inclined.”
Stained glass separates a small sitting area in the extension and the master bedroom -- photo by Samuel Herman Gothscho, Library of Congress collection
As it does today, wealth brought notoriety and possible danger.  In February 1892 Jay Gould received threats against his life.  Rockefeller hired three private watchmen to guard the 54th Street house in successive eight-hour shifts.   The oil man played down the security move to the press.  “Mr. Rockefeller, like all notoriously very rich men, receives many begging letters and letters from cranks, but he said last evening that there was no especial incentive of this kind that led to setting so strict a watch upon his house,” said The Sun on February 29, 1892.  “The reason for employing watchmen was that he was out of town frequently and that the family felt more secure with a watchman within call.”

The guards did not suppress every beggar or crank, however.   In the spring of 1894 while Rockefeller was at his office, a “wild-eyed, poorly-dressed man, with a shuffling gait, walked hurriedly up Fifth Avenue…and turned west into Fifty-fourth Street,” reported The Times on May 1.   The man, whom the newspaper account said “swung his arms above his head in an excited manner and mumbled something to himself,” mounted the steps to the Rockefeller mansion and rang the doorbell.

The Rockefeller butler, Christopher Allson, opened the door and, according to The Evening World, “saw at a glance that the man was crazy.”  Camille Reinhardt, Jr., 26-years old, demanded to see Rockefeller or the lady of the house.  The butler said that no one was at home and shut the door.

Undaunted, Reinhardt waited in the vicinity, then climbed the steps again.  This time he informed Allson that a friend in heaven had informed him that the end of the world was at hand and “for that reason he wanted to ask Mr. Rockefeller to give him a few of his millions, which he knew the latter would not need at all after a short time, and which would keep Reinhardt in very comfortable circumstances,” said The World.

Allson persuaded Reinhardt to leave, but he merely hid behind a bush in the hospital yard.  Within a few minutes of  John Rockefeller’s return home the doorbell rang again.  It was, of course, Reinhardt.  Rockefeller was a kind, patient and religious man.  But this was apparently enough.   “He saw at once that the man was demented,” reported The New York Times, and while the butler engaged the latter in conversation, Mr. Rockefeller sent for a policeman.”

Camila Reinhart spent the night at the East 51st Street Police Station.  The end of the world never came.

Reflected in a large mirror, a dressing room included a lavatory with running water -- photo by Samuel Herman Gothscho, Library of Congress collection
Later that year The Sun commented on daughter Edith’s musical talents.  “Miss Edith Rockefeller has a fancy for pianos.  There are five in her home, 4 West Fifty-fourth street.  She likes them in wood to match her boudoir, or in rosewood like the drawing room.  She plays beautifully, and is rich enough to indulge the fancy to her heart’s desire.”

By the turn of the century Rockefeller had ostensibly retired, although his enormous holdings in Standard Oil continued to enlarge his fortune.  He purchased large tracts of land in the surrounding area to protect his mansion from encroaching commerce.   While Fifth Avenue began changing, John D. Rockefeller’s free-standing home with its gardens and quaint carriage house steadfastly remained.

Behind the Rockefeller house was St. Thomas Church.  The tall white building is the enormous mansion built by John D. Rockfeller, Jr.  The quaint two-story carriage house is separated by a wide garden. -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1902 the butler was Nicholas Stanton and, like Christopher Allson before him, he was tasked with turning away beggars.   But on Christmas Eve that year, his job was more difficult.   He answered the doorbell to find a shabbily-dressed nine-year old girl on the stoop.  She asked for Mr. Rockefeller “saying that he was to give her money to buy Christmas presents,” said The New York Times on Christmas morning.

Little Mary Basanian had spent much of the day on the 9:30 train from Worcester, Massachusetts.  She roamed the streets, asking various people how to find the Rockefeller house.  Now at the door, she explained that her father had given her money for the trip, saying that “Mr. Rockefeller would give her money for Christmas.”

The butler explained that Mr. Rockefeller was not in the city, and had her wait in the warm foyer while he got his coat.   With the family gone, he had no choice but to take the little waif to the East 51st Street Station, the same police station where the demented beggar had ended up 13 years before.   Sadly, little Mary spent Christmas in the station house.  “She will be in the Children’s Court on Monday,” reported The Times.

The street where just one house and a hospital stood in 1865 was now lined with impressive mansions.  John D. Rockefeller, Jr. moved into No. 31 in 1905.  Philip Lehman lived at No. 7 and neurologist Moses Allen Starr was at No. 5.    Everything on the tree-lined street was prosperous and happy.  But inside the house at No. 4 Laura Rockefeller was failing.

She spent the first years of the century as a semi-invalid and by 1910 was essentially bed-ridden and in pain.  John Rockefeller was her thoughtful companion.  On September 8, 1914 as they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, he proclaimed “I have had but one sweetheart and I am thankful to say that I still have her.”

As the world changed outside the double entrance doors, everything stayed the same in the Rockefeller mansion -- photo by Samuel Herman Gothscho, Library of Congress collection
Six months later, on March 12, 1915, the 75-year old Laura Spelman Rockefeller died of a heart attack.   John D. Rockefeller closed the New York house he had shared with his “sweetheart” and never returned.

During the war years, the mansion was opened to Red Cross workers.  The Sun reported on May 12, 1918 “Mr. Rockefeller had their workrooms equipped with sewing machines, chairs and tables.  The dining and reception rooms on the first floor, are used by Auxiliary 236, New York County Chapter, of the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church.  Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. is general chairman of this unit.  The basement is used by Auxiliary 211, composed of older workers from the church.  Special lighting was installed for the work, and workers have the use of the kitchen for preparing their lunches.”
Later that year, in October, the three upper floors were outfitted as dormitories for the Y. W. C. A. “for women taking special courses in recreation.”  Fifty resident students lived in the bedrooms where Rockefeller children had grown up.

On May 23, 1937 John D. Rockefeller, Sr., died in his winter home, The Casements, at Ormond Beach, Florida.  He had hoped to live two more years “until July 9, 1939, when he would have rounded out a century of life,” said The New York Times.  Because his death was sudden, he died with no family members with him.  Over the course of his life, the quiet-living philanthropist had given away more than $530 million.

With the end near, Samuel H. Gothscho photographed every room of the house -- photo Library of Congress
The following year John D. Rockefeller, Jr. announced plans to raze the family mansion on West 54th Street.    The house was an unbelievable time capsule of 1870s Aesthetic Movement décor.   Unfortunately, not many recognized the irreplaceable value of the museum-like interiors.  Edward R. Walsh, in charge of the demolition, told The New York Times “Little of the expensive carved hardwood stair rails, wall paneling and pillars will be salvaged.  They would be out of place in the smaller rooms of modern homes, and will not be of much value after being torn out of their present setting.”

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated two rooms—the master bedroom and dressing room—to the Museum of the City of New York, and the Moorish smoking room to the Brooklyn Museum.   And then the demolition team descended.  The Times said of the house “Its old walls, dating back more than eighty years, will offer no particular problem for the wrecking crew.”

The site of the old mansion became the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art, which was co-founded by Abby Rockefeller, John’s wife.  An astonishing, intact example of Victorian domestic interiors was lost forever.
The site of the Rockefeller mansion as it appears today -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. Fascinating post. Thanks. But the itle should read West not East.

  2. Wonderful post and fascinating details of the early life of Arabella Huntington, one of the more interesting figures of the "Gilded Age". I hope that you can be induced to undertake an article on her Fifth Avenue house which formerly occupied the site of today's Tiffany and Co. at 57th Street. For your readers who venture to the West Coast, I highly recommend a visit to Arabella Huntington's California abode, San Marino,- the Huntington Library and Museum in Pasedena.

  3. This is a a great post. There is not much written or shown about this house except that it is the site of MOMA. Thanks for filling in some of the background. One question - if this is 4 w. 54 and JDR Jr. house is on the same side, wouldn't Jr's house have an even number also?

    1. John Junior first moved across the street ( ) then crossed back over to the south side to build his mansion next door to his father's house.

  4. Fantastic post. Have never seen any interior photos of the mansion except the Smoking Room at the Brooklyn Museum. Quite a Gilded Age time capsule and quite an architectural loss.

  5. Huh: those interior shots remind me of my first studio apartment...

  6. Depressing. Wish it was still around. Looks simply stunning! I'm sure what is there now is fine, but it makes me sick that something this wonderful was torn down.

  7. It is not, alas, easy to find, but the saga of Arabella and this house, as well as several others, is explored in James T. Maher's "The Twilight Of Splendor." A detailed look at both the human tales and architectural history of what Maher calls "the American palace," it is dense but highly satisfying reading.

  8. My grandfather had dinner in that house with Mr. Rockefeller...I have wondered why I felt comfortable walking around MOMA...

  9. Would enjoy seeing some information on 685 E. Fifth Avenue at 54th - JDR partner in Standard Oil Henry Flagler's mansion.

    1. just did the Henry Flagler, Jr. residence ... guess I have another one to work on! Thanks!

  10. Great article! In addition to the rooms that survive in NY museums, there are several architectural elements from the 4 West 54th Street house that were installed in the Playhouse on the Rockefeller family estate in Sleepy Hollow, NY. Included are the entry hall sideboard, the parlor fireplace, the master bedroom chandelier, and the massive fireplace with the bronze relief (original location not mentioned in your caption). The parlor fireplace and one other fireplace were installed on the indoor tennis court; an odd choice!