Monday, January 7, 2013

The Lost Bostwick Mansions -- Nos. 800-801 5th Avenue



Daughter Nellie would move into No. 801 next door to the family home on the corner in 1887.  By now the Bostwick mansion had been extensively remodeled. -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Delaware-born Jabez A. Bostwick was doing quite well for himself by the 1880s.  A self-made man, he was born, according to The New York Times, “a poor boy of humble parentage.”   After moving to New York and working in the cotton trade, he drifted into the oil business, establishing an office at No. 138 Pearl Street.   Eventually he became acquainted with oil magnates Rockfeller and Flagler and Andrews.

After the men formed the Oil Trust, with Bostwick as its treasurer, he became “a millionaire many times over,” as The Times worded it.   In 1876, several years before Rockefeller permanently relocated to New York, purchasing his mansion at No. 4 East 54th Street, Bostwick moved his family into a  fine new residence nearly 10 blocks north across from Central Park. 

Jabez Bostwick
The mansion at the northeast corner of 61st Street was a French Second Empire beauty.  Sitting above an impressive set of stone stairs and encircled by a carved balustrade around a deep light moat, it silently announced the wealthy of the owner.  A tall mansard roof, where pointed urns capped the elaborate dormers, was crowned with lacy iron cresting.

The Bostwick family included his wife, Helen, his two daughters Nellie and Fannie, and a son Albert.   During the summer season they retired to their sprawling Mamaroneck estate, “Friedheim,” on the Long Island Sound.    The oil man’s income was estimated by The Evening World to be about $1 million annually with a daily income of $2,739 (about $65,000 today).

Jabez Bostwick's mansion was among the first in the neighborhood.  Where the Meltzer Brothers Restaurant stands the gargantuan mansion of Elbridge T. Gerry would rise -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On February 6, 1879, Jabez Bostwick attempted to mend a leak in an oil tank at the Fifth Avenue house.  While bending over it and holding a lit match, he was burned severely on the hands and face when the oil exploded.   The near-fatal accident left him in dread of fire—a condition that would prove ironically prophetic some years later.

Prior to 1887, when eldest daughter Nellie married stock broker Francis Lee Morrell, Bostwick had the Fifth Avenue house remodeled; at about the time two harmonious homes at Nos. 801 and 802 were constructed.  The rear section was enlarged to a full four stories, a three-story three-sided bay was added to the side and a bowed section above the entrance was added, among other renovations.   The near-matching mansions to the north were luxurious; but left no doubt as to which of the three homes was in charge.

Nellie married Francis Morrell September 21, 1887 in the Mamaroneck house.  The New York Times reported that “The handsome villa was elaborately decorated, and the parlors and reception rooms were bowers of roses, vine leaves, and sweet-smelling plants.”    Like the Rockefellers, the Bostwicks were Baptists and the Rev. Dr. T. Armitage of the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church made the trip to officiate.  The ceremony took place in front of 700 guests in the drawing room, under “a canopy of roses, Autumn leaves, and maidenhair ferns, interwoven with dogwood branches and berries.”

The Times remarked that the newlyweds would leave “for a tour among the Canadian lakes and on their return will make their home in New-York.”  That home would be next door to the Bostwicks at No. 801 Fifth Avenue.   Francis Morrell ran the brokerage firm of Francis L. Morrell & Co. with offices at No. 52 Broadway and No. 2 Exchange Place and could easily keep Nellie in the lifestyle to which she was accustomed.    Many of the items for their new house were received as wedding gifts that day—an onyx pedestal and embossed porcelain jardinière; an onyx lamp and pedestal with brass trimming; a fruit bowl, spoon, and fork of hammered silver inlaid with gold and with a belt of silver clam and mussel shells around the bowl; an antique rocking chair from Holland; two large bronzes; a moleskin table scarf; a “magnificent” Royal Worcester vase and a dozen matching plates; a hammered silver pitcher inlaid with gold and copper; a case of Venetian champagne glasses; a large clock “and ornaments of novel design in bronze;” a bronze study lamp; and “any quantity of small vases, plates, and dishes of Crown Derby porcelain” among them.

In the meantime 10-year old Albert and his older sister Fannie continued to live with their parents.   During the winter season of 1890 Fannie, who was “a conspicuous member of the ‘hunting set’ of Pelham and Long Island, and rode exceptionally well,” according to The Times, threw a “hunt breakfast” in the house.   According to newspapers Fannie was a great beauty and “much admired in New-York society.”  Fannie’s breakfast guests arrived in full hunting dress; “an event which created much discussion in society at the time,” said The Times.

Two years later tragedy would strike the Bostwick family.   Fannie had married Captain Albert Carstairs of the Royal Irish Rifles in London during the summer of 1892 and was traveling abroad, as were Nellie and her husband.   Jabez was summering at Freidheim with Helen and Albert.   In late August Jabez played billiards with Clement Gould and Horace Hotchkins after Helen went to bed.  When his guests left, Bostwick retired as well; only to be awakened by a commotion outside.   Flames were shooting from one of the large stable buildings.

Against his wife’s pleas, Bostwick quickly dressed and rushed outside to help the stable hands and coachmen rescue the horses and vehicles.    The men worked furiously pulling the horses and nearly a dozen carriages from the burning buildings—by now both stables were in flames. Before the buildings burned to the ground Jabez Bostick, who was deathly afraid of fire, and two stable hands were dead.

The funeral was held in the Mamaroneck mansion.  Among the 200 mourners present were the country’s most powerful titans of industry: William Rockefeller, William E. Dodge, Thomas F. Oakes, William T. Cornell, J. D. Archibald, H. M. Flagler, and William H. Macy.   Bostwick left an estate estimated at an unfathomable $20 million.

The death of Jabez A. Boswick brought to an end what had seemed to be a perfect existence for the family.    Nellie and Francis had two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom had died.  Less than a year after Jabez’s death, on May 31, 1893, Francis Lee Morrell was driving in a light wagon on Seventh Avenue near 125th Street with his valet.   When his horses were spooked by a passing cable car, Morrell struggled to get the runaway team under control.  “Finding the team unmanageable, Mr. Morrell stood up and tried to rein the horses in, but his feet slipped, and the team sheered, throwing him to the hard roadway,” reported The New York Times.

In a grisly blur, Morrell struck the back of his head on the wheel hub as he fell.  The heavy wheels of the wagon ran over his body and he became entangled in the reins which he had still been holding.  The stockbroker was dragged by the out-of-control team until the valet was able to climb out over the horses’ backs, seize them by the bits and stop them.

Badly battered and suffering a skull fracture and concussion, Morrell was taken to the house at No. 801 Fifth Avenue around 2:30 in the afternoon.  At 5:30, surrounded by his family, he died without regaining consciousness.

Joy seemed to finally come back to the houses at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 61st Street when Nellie remarried on February 21, 1898.   The wedding to Hamilton Wilkes Cary took place in Helen Bostwick’s mansion and was, according to The New York Times the following day, “one of the most notable events of the kind this season.”

“Mr. Cary has an especially large and intimate acquaintance among people of social prominence in this city,“ said the article, “and society was well represented.”   A glance at the guest list reinforced the statement.  Among those present were Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Sloane, Mr. and Mrs. Ogden Mills, the entire Gerry family (who lived in a magnificent mansion at the opposite corner of 61st Street), Mr. and Mrs. W. C. Schermerhorn, R. Livingston Beekman, and Mr. and Mrs. Edmund L. Baylies.

Helen had the parlors elaborately decorated with palms and roses “used in profusion.”  The Times reported that “A priedieu, trimmed with white satin, was set in one room, before a canopy of asparagus fern, Bridesmaid roses, and greenery, and here the ceremony was performed.”   Sherry’s Austrian orchestra played the wedding music and a lunch and reception followed.

Rather than move into Cary’s Park Avenue home, Nellie preferred that they stay in her mansion next door to her mother.    Her new husband was more well-known for his club affiliations than for his professional standing.  Routinely described by the newspapers as a “clubman,” he was a member of the most exclusive men’s clubs of the city including the Union, Metropolitan, Country, and Knickerbocker Clubs.

In the meantime, however, Fannie was enduring an unhappy marriage.  Finally, on December 18, 1902 The Sun reported that “It was no surprise to New Yorkers to learn that Capt. Albert Carstairs and his wife were in the English divorce courts.  They have been unhappy for several years and this was well known to the friends of Mrs. Carstairs.”  With a nearly I-told-you-so attitude, the newspaper said “She was beautiful and was an heiress when the marriage took place, eleven years ago.  It was a love match, as Capt Carstairs was poor and socially in little better position than were many of Mrs. Carstairs’s admirers here.  She had been taken up by society and might have made any sort of a match that suited her in this country.”

Before long Nellie, too, would experience problems.   Despite her enviable marriage and her personal fortune inherited from her former husband and her father, Nellie seemed to forget to pay for her many purchases.  Although she had a personal income of $54,000 a year, her spending went far beyond her means.   Recognizing his wife’s disorder, Hamilton Cary sent her to a sanatorium; but it was to no avail.

In 1904 Nellie was running a yearly account of around $30,000 with one Sixth Avenue retailer.  That year her husband visited the dressmaker Bertha Adams and paid her $14,000.  Cary insisted that she not allow Nellie to run up a large bill again.

Later that year, on June 12, the New-York Tribune ran an embarrassing story that informed New York society that the Lichtenstein Millinery Company had won a $5,678 judgment again her “for millinery and furs sold between September and December” of 1903.  The items included 19 hats, a baby lamb coat and muff that cost $1,300, a sable stole, a cream net gown and a pink silk cushion.

Things got worse when Nellie’s bill with Jacob and Michael Dreicer, Fifth Avenue jewelers, mounted to $85,000 in 1905 with the purchase of an emerald ring valued at $32,000 and a string of pearls at $53,000.  Now Albert Bostwick stepped in.   Nellie’s brother was most well-known as an “automobilist” and had held the seat of president of the Automobile Association of America.  Now, however, Albert served as his sister’s voice in court.  Nellie Bostwick Cary had been deemed “an incompetent and insane person” and Albert managed to arrange a compromise with the jeweler based on her insanity.

Nellie Cary died in January 1906.  But the bills kept coming in.  Hamilton Cary was forced to appear in court to answer to Mrs. Bertha Adams.    The judge ruled in favor of Cary, however, when the dressmaker was unable to explain why she allowed Nellie to purchase $8,500 worth of dresses a year after she had been instructed not to give her credit.

Albert died in 1911, Fannie remarried the noted French surgeon, Dr. Serge Voronoff and moved to Paris, and Helen was left alone in the grand mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 61st Street.   Here, on April 27, 1920, the aged matriarch died.    Helen left an estate of just under $30 million.  Ironically the bulk of her assets were bequeathed to Fannie who died almost simultaneously.

Helen was generous in death to her staff, giving Lillie Hilpert of the Bronx “a faithful employee” $30,000 and $125,000 to Laura Covington, her “faithful friend and companion.”   Her granddaughter, Evelyn Francis Bostick, received all of her jewelry—a considerable windfall.    The New-York Tribune reported “Among the more valuable pieces of jewelry were a diamond necklace, with pear-shaped diamond pendant weighting about twenty carats, $60,000; pearl necklace, 133 pearls, $45,000; three-string pearl necklace of 254 pearls, $35,000; pearl necklace with ruby clasp, sixty-one pearls, $40,000; pearl-shaped pearl pendant, $10,000; amber and diamond back comb, $8,000; sapphire ring, $7,600, and ruby ring, $10,000.”

Two years later family friend Mrs. E. Geraldine Dodge, daughter of William Rockefeller, purchased the Helen Bostwick mansion.  By now Albert’s widow, his daughter Lillian, and son George were living in Nellie’s former house at No. 801.  Mrs. Dodge, the wife of Marcellus Hartley Dodge, had no intentions of living in the outdated mansion.  Although The New York Times noted that “Last year plans were prepared by J. E. R. Carpenter for a twelve-story apartment house to cover the site,” it now said “It is the intention of Mrs. Dodge to improve the site eventually with a residence.”

“Eventually” took a while to arrive.    When Lillian Bostwick was married in 1928 and her brother in 1933, their mother was still living in the old mansion at No. 801 Fifth Avenue.

photo by Alice Lum
Today no trace of the Bostwick houses remains.  In their place a soaring 33-story luxury apartment building stands.   While the residents enjoy the 21st century equivalent of the domestic luxuries of oil and railroad tycoon Jabez Bostwick; the linear surfaces of the tower lack the charm of iron-crested mansards and picturesque bays.

6 comments:

  1. The now demolished Dodge house built on the site of the Bostwick house and torn down to make way for the apartment building in the last photo was one of the more peculiar houses in New York: It's owner, Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge loved dogs and was a well known breeder of German Shepards (I think that was the breed). My great uncle owned the construction firm which built the New York house for Mrs. Dodge. His grandson told me that Mrs. Dodge was a woman of firm, if occasionally misguided opinion. She was a strong proponent of good air circulation which she believed was only succesfully achieved in low ceilinged rooms with large windows.So it was in that very large house, much to the architect's and builder's dismay, there was not a ceiling taller than 7 foot. The top floor of the house, given over to a warren of servants' rooms in more conventional townhouses of the era was also somewhat odd, and was occupied almost entirely by accoutrements for the kenneling, feeding and grooming of dogs. I have vague memories of the house and if I recall, it was brick and in a rather restrained (dare I say insipid) Federal style, an utterly uninteresting replacement for the far more robust Bostwick house.

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  2. One more memory- If I recall correctly, as property adjoing her townhouse came up for sale, Mrs. Dodge would purchase it and demolish whatever structure occupied the site. By the time of her death, she had amassed a good portion of the block which she used as probably the world's most valuable dog run.

    And sorry for using the possesive It's in the second sentance of my first post. Damned auto correct.

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  3. The Bostwick grandchildren included the somewhat notorious Josephine Carstairs - a biography of her can be found on Amazon.

    And the Dodge house, which I remember seeing before it was torn down, was vaguely Federal in style, and as dull as it possibly could be. In its last years it also looked forlorn and neglected. However, it occupied one half of the block front on Fifth Avenue, and as the other half is occupied by one of New York's luncheon clubs (Knickerbocker?), the entire block front was a nice time capsule of New York as it used to be.

    And the building which replaced it is as ugly as any other post-war building on Fifth Avenue along Central Park, which is saying a lot, given that New York's builders seemed determined during the period from 1945 through 1990 to make that part of Fifth Avenue as ugly as possible.

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  4. Wonderful post of some interesting buildings and the families trials and tribulations, but what an incredibly ugly and uninspired brick box that occupys that 5th Ave location today.

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  5. Hmmm.... my maiden name is Bostwick, I wonder if they are my ancestors.

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