Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Augustus Whiting House -- No. 137 E. 27th St.

The largest archway, to the right, would have been the parlor floor entrance.  With almost no doubt, carved brownstone surrounded the windows and doorway originally.
Just before and during the Civil War East 27th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues saw substantial merchant-class homes rising.   Clad in either brownstone or brick, they were respectable residences built for successful businessmen and their families.  Among them was No. 137, a 21-foot wide home three stories tall over an English basement.

Unlike a few of its neighbors that sat gently back from the street, affording a small grassy lawn, No. 137 hugged the property line, its brownstone stoop spilling down to the sidewalk.   The three bays of arched openings, growing slightly shorter with each successive floor, were the height of mid-Victorian architectural fashion.

The comfortable but unexceptional house would live a quiet existence for several decades.  And then its owners would thrust the upper tiers of New York society into turmoil and feuding.

Augustus Whiting had lived for some time in New Orleans where “he was engaged in business and acquired considerable property,” according to George Lockhart Rives years later in 1914.  The young Sarah Swan caught his eye and on October 19, 1843 they married—he was 47 years old, she was 23.

The Whitings moved to New York City, eventually moving into No. 137 East 27th Street.  The middle-aged Augustus was not only financially comfortable, he was vigorous.  The Whitings had seven children here, one of which was Sara Swan Whiting who was affectionately called Sallie.

Augustus died in the 27th Street house on January 12, 1873 at the age of 77.  Sara continued on, raising the children in the style expected of the wealthy.  The Whitings summered in the Newport villa she inherited from her father and young Sallie became close friends with Caroline Astor, the daughter of William Backhouse and Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.  

Sallie was introduced to society in 1880.   Shortly thereafter the lovely 21-year old Sallie (the St. Paul Daily Globe called her “an exquisitely beautiful young woman”) caught the attention of Oliver H. P. Belmont, the son of fabulously wealthy banker August Belmont.   The Globe said “among her first admirers was young Oliver Belmont…young Belmont became her devoted slave.” 

Two days after Christmas that year, the couple was married in the Whiting mansion, Swanhurst, in Newport.  The National Republican glowed “The affair was a very brilliant one.”

There were only four in the bridal party; however their names signified the ranks to which Sallie Swan Whiting had risen.  “The bridesmaids were Miss Astor, Miss Whiting, and Miss Tiffany,” reported the Republican, “The best man was Congressman Perry Belmont.”

The New York Times called Sallie, “a pretty and most accomplished young lady, who is a great favorite in society” and remarked that “The house was profusely and handsomely decorated with tropical and other plants, flowers, evergreens, etc., which were neatly and artistically arranged.”  The “large and fashionable company” that attended the wedding brought with them a pile of expensive gifts.

“The presents represented a fortune, and were the gifts of many warm friends,” said The Times.

As the newlyweds left for their honeymoon, few of the guests could suspect that the marriage was ill-fated.  “They sail for Europe early in January,” noted The New York Times, and will be followed soon after by Mrs. Whiting and her two unmarried daughters.”

Three months into the honeymoon trip the couple came home.  The Globe reported “The lovely bride went directly to her parents’ house, the groom to his, and in another three months they were divorced.

“Every one tried very hard to find out the reason for the divorce, but they could not and they did not. The young people, who had gone away happy and loving each other, came home bitter enemies, but neither one would tell about the trouble.  The divorce was private and absolute.”

The rift between the couple caused a larger and more dramatic rift in the highest levels of New York society.  The Belmonts refused to speak of their former daughter-in-law and Mrs. Belmont cut her ties with anyone who dared side with Sallie.

On September 1 Sallie’s baby, Natica Caroline Belmont, was born.  The christening was held “in great state” in St. Thomas’ Church on Fifth Avenue with Carrie Astor as its godmother.   The Astors, in Mrs. Belmont’s eyes, had chosen sides and a cold war at the pinnacle of society ensued.

“From that day Mrs. Belmont refused to speak to Mrs. William Astor or any of her daughters, and they have not spoken since,” noted The St. Paul Daily Globe nearly five years later on March 25, 1888.

Natica and her mother lived with Sara Whiting in the East 27th Street house and every month or so the little girl was “taken around to see her papa.”  A newspaper said of Sallie, “She has a handsome fortune, a large number of friends and is greatly admired…The young people have never ‘made up’ in the slightest and probably never will.”

Sallie moved on and on March 20, 1889 married George Lockhart Rives.   The widowed lawyer had been Assistant Secretary of State under Grover Cleveland, served as Corporation Counsel to the City of New York and was President of the Board of the New York Public Library. 

Five years later on June 6, 1894, Sara Swan Whiting died in the Newport mansion at the age of 74.  Six weeks later her only son, Augustus, died of a heart attack there.

The 27th Street neighborhood had ceased to be fashionable as Manhattan’s wealthiest families continued to move northward.  At the turn of the century Joseph Pierro lived in the house.  He endured the embarrassment in 1902 of having his name published for owing noncollectable property taxes from 1899.

In 1941 the house was converted to one apartment per floor above a store in the former basement.  The stoop was removed and all traces of Victorian detailing were removed.  The building was used by a variety of businesses throughout the 20th century—in the 1950s the Helen Goodman Gallery was here, as well as the Davenport Theatre.  In 1956 the first and second story apartments were combined into one duplex.

Today a cleaners operates in Sara Whiting’s basement.  The abused façade gives no hint of the wealthy family who lived here in New York’s Gilded Age, pitting two of the city’s most powerful socialites against one another.

photographs taken by the author


  1. If my somewhat faulty memory is serving me today, OHP Belmont was a notoriously negligent father to Natica as she grew into adulthood, even going so far as to question her paternity. Natica died as a young woman, reportedly a suicide. This is said to have fazed OHP not in the slightest. I suppose that he "got his in the end" as the second husband of Alva Vanderbilt who, by all accounts, was a battle ax of the first order.


      Here's the article: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9500E6DC1639E333A25751C2A9649C946997D6CF