Monday, April 22, 2013

The Lost Brevoort Mansion -- 5th Ave. and 9th Street

Shortly after this photograph was taken in 1925 the Brevoort mansion would be demolished -- NYPL Collection
In 1828 George Rogers began construction of his country home on the northern edge of what would soon become Washington Square.  An unpaved road named Fifth Avenue stretched north of the square through the farmland of Henry Brevoort—a wealthy landowner so influential that when the City Fathers planned the extension of Broadway they were forced to swerve it to the west at East 10th Street rather than demolish his orchard. 

Brevoort’s son, also named Henry, was born in September 1782.  In 1817 he married Laura Carson of South Carolina.   Brevoort was what The Evening World would later call a “gentleman of great wealth and unlimited leisure.” 

He was a patron of literature and arts and became close friends with Washington Irving and Sir Walter Scott.  The World said “Himself a writer of no mean skill, Brevoort stood always ready to aid those who found writing, in a day when writing won little material reward, a gateway to financial embarrassment.  To him Irving owed much of his fame and happiness.”

In the first years of the 1830s the younger Henry began plans for a new mansion and looked towards the Bond Street neighborhood, then among the most exclusive residential areas in New York.  But his feisty father had other ideas.  Almost a century later a relative would recall, “I remember hearing the family tell how great-grandfather wanted to build his home on Second Avenue, which was then the fashionable section, but his father, who owned all of the Brevoort farm, running back to where Grace Church now stands and taking up considerable space along Fifth Avenue, greatly objected to giving him land on Second Avenue.  ‘No, sir, go further back on the farm; go back to Fifth Avenue, for things are going to move that way,’” he reportedly directed.

Henry, “feeling very much in the woods and quite out of it,” therefore constructed the first house on Fifth Avenue.  His mansion would set the tone of the street for a more than a century to come.

Brevoort commissioned Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis to design his new townhouse.  The pair was among the most highly respected architects in the country and they produced an imposing Greek Revival  home surrounded by gardens.  Completed in 1834, it broke ground with several architectural innovations—a sectioned Greek key pediment and a “paneled” front fa├žade accomplished by slightly recessing the two outer bays, for instance.

The house in 1900 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The house was designed as much for entertaining as for living.  There was a billiard room, a library and two large parlors separated by the entrance hall.  William Cullen Bryant would call it “a kind of palace in a Garden.”  Upstairs were seven large bedrooms on the second floor and nine servants’ rooms on the third..

The sophisticated Brevoorts stepped out of the box, once again, in 1840 when they planned the first grand entertainment New York society had seen.  Until now, entertaining was relatively understated.  Yet in Europe extravagant fetes were not only commonplace, they were expected.  Invitations went out in February 1840 for a bal costume, so popular in European society.  It would set the pace for social events of high society for the rest of the century.

Anticipation among wealthy New Yorkers was fevered.  Philip Hone, former mayor and family friend, wrote a few days before the event, “Nothing else is talked about; the ladies’ heads are turned nearly off their shoulders, the whiskers of the dandies assume a more ferocious curl in anticipation of the effect they are to produce, and even my peaceable domicile is turned topsy turvy by the note of preparation which is heard.”

The Herald noted that people were “moving heaven and earth to get an introduction to this highly respectable Dutch family, and hence an invitation.”  The final guest list included old New York names, foreigners including the Swiss and Neapolitan consuls, literary figures, and relatively new names in society like John Jacob Astor and August Belmont.

On the evening of the ball, Philip Hone threw a “preparatory gathering” of friends so they could see his family’s impressive costumes.  Philip dressed as Cardinal Woolsey in a scarlet merino robe and ermine cape.  His three daughters came as Day and Night and as a character from “The Legend of Montrose.”

Between five and six hundred of New York’s wealthiest citizens filed into the Brevoort house for the ball.  Socialites and moguls appeared as historic and literary characters such as Joan of Arc, Queen Esther and Diana.  Mrs. Jonathan Ogden dressed as Queen Catharine of Arragon; author Charles A. Davis was a Quaker; Mrs. Robert Gracie came as Portia; Delancy Kane as a goldfinch and her sister Lydia was a sorceress; Bache McEvers dressed as William Penn; Mrs. Rufus Prime was Esmeralda; close family friend Henry C. De Rham, Jr. was “a Greek;” and Nicholas Schermerhorn most assuredly raised eyebrows when he arrived as “a Dutch girl.”

Philip Hone was rightfully impressed.  He wrote in his diary “The mansion of our entertainers, Mr. and Mrs. Brevoort, is better calculated for such display than any other in the city.  Mrs. Brevoort, in particular, by her kind and courteous deportment, threw a charm over the splendid pageant, which would have been incomplete without it.  Never before has New York witnessed a fancy ball so splendidly gotten up, in better taste, or more successfully carried through.”

The glamorous party, however, resulted in scandal and public outrage. 

The scandal involved Matilda Barclay, the daughter of British Consul George Barclay.   Mr. and Mrs. Barclay came to the party dressed as a fox hunter and a peasant woman.  Matilda came as Lalla-Rookh in a costume made by Madame Harche that reportedly cost $300—about $8,000 today.  The Herald snidely reported it was “a thin slice from the fortune of $150,000 which, with her excellent heart and beautiful self, she intends to bestow on one of the gallant young gentlemen whom she meets at the ball.”

Matilda had no intentions of bestowing her fortune or heart on any gallant young gentleman, however.  Also attending was the dashing T. Pollock Burgwyne of South Carolina, dressed as Feramors, a character in the same poem as Lalla Rookh.   When the evening was over and the Barclays prepared to leave, their daughter was nowhere to be found.  She had slipped out with the Southerner and married him.

The Herald gleefully reported that the newlyweds were seen at the Astor House the following day where Matilda was “playing the fancy dress character of a married lady.”  The elopement caused a righteous backlash and, as The Evening World later reported “As a result masked balls were made taboo, and a fine of $1,000 was imposed on any one who should give one—unless the giver told on himself, in which event the fine was reduced one-half.”

A tintype captured the Brevoort doorway which would have been described when the house was built as "pure Greek."  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

James Gordon Bennett took advantage of the affair to sell papers.  His Herald fueled an uproar among the working class when, on March 2, he devoted his entire front page to the Brevoort ball.  He countered his description of the extravagant ball and over-the-top expenditures with the suffering of the laborers.  The article added the floor plans of the house for good measure.

Philip Hone was outraged at Bennett’s meddling.  “This kind of surveillance is getting to be intolerable and nothing but the force of public opinion will correct the insolence.”  He gathered support from wealthy merchants, financiers and politicians in an effort to urge “respectable people [to] withdraw their support from the vile sheet.”

For a while The Herald lost advertisers and it was boycotted by clubs, fashionable hotels and homes. 

Henry Brevoort died in 1848 and two years later Laura sold the house to Henry De Rham for $57,000 (over $1 million today).  Henry was a dry goods merchant and banker and the De Rhams were not only close friends of the Brevoorts, they were distant relatives. 

The De Rham family remained in the house through the First World War as the lower Fifth Avenue neighborhood changed from one of mansions and carriages to businesses.  Little changed to the great house, including the name—New Yorkers continued to refer to it as the Brevoort Mansion, despite the De Rhams living here four times as long as the original owners.  The New York Times later suggested that “The house, however, has always retained the name of its original owners, partly, perhaps, in view of the prominence of the family and partly because of the unusual magnificence of the house in its early days.”

In the summer of 1903 the De Rhams had the shutters tightly closed against the heat.  The Brevoort carriage house can be seen behind on 9th Street -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In July 1919 the house was finally sold, and again it went to a distant relative.  The New York Times reported that “it was bought by George F. Baker, Jr., whose wife is the great-granddaughter of the builder of the house.”  The fabulously wealthy Bakers lived on Madison Avenue and toyed with the idea of restoring the old mansion for their personal use.

“The return of the venerable house to a twentieth century descendant of the original Brevoort farm owners is an interesting incident in the vagaries of real estate changes on Manhattan Island,” said The Times.  “It is now assessed at $205,000.”
Edith Kane Baker told The Evening World in October of the following year, “Yes, I intend to entertain quite a lot when I move into this ancestral home.”  She added that the purchase was “of a sentimental nature.  I greatly appreciate Mr. Baker’s thoughtfulness and desire to have our children live in a home which their great-great-grandfather built so many years ago.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Baker will have a great deal of remodeling and altering to make their new, old-fashioned homestead as modern and as comfortable as their present home at No. 260 Madison Avenue,” said the article.  “The house has no way of heating besides an old-fashioned furnace and grates; parquet flooring is only laid upon the first floor, while the upper floors bore traces of carpets and the kitchen is still in the basement.”

Renovations, however, did not come to be.  In November 1920 Baker leased the mansion to the Red Cross for $1 a month.  By April 1925 nothing had been done to the old house and, in fact, the Bakers were eying another mansion far uptown at 93rd Street and Park Avenue.

On April 4 of that year The Times reported with regret “To the residents of [Washington Square] and to every lover of old New York there will come a feeling of personal and civic loss when the stately Brevoort mansion [is] leveled to the ground.”  George Baker had sold the property for the erection of an apartment house.

In an earlier article in 1919 the newspaper said “Few residences on Manhattan Island have such an interesting history as the old Brevoort mansion on lower Fifth Avenue.  Situated on the northwest corner of that thoroughfare and Ninth Street, it suggests, as it did more than three-quarters of a century ago, the quiet dignity and social elegance of New York aristocratic life long ago.”

A view up the Avenue on May 26, 1912 shows still-extant mansions.  In the distance is the tower of First Presbyterian Church -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Outlook perhaps captured the mood of New Yorkers best.  On April 8, 1925 it wrote “But the old Brevoort mansion is to be destroyed, to make way for another apartment-house and the modernization of that section of the avenue will be practically complete—and wholly depressing to those who love some flavor of the past.”

A high-end apartment house fills the site of the old Brevoort Mansion -- photo by the author

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this article. The Brevoorts were my great great great grandparents. I am always interested to hear stories about them- real characters!