Monday, May 6, 2013

The Lost Van Buren Mansion -- No. 21 W. 14th St



In 1906 the mansion is encroached upon by commercial buildings.  Past the garden is the red brick house at No. 29 -- photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The idyllic life of Manhattan’s country estates was shattered by the American Revolution.  The grand summer homes of the British officers were shuttered as their owners fought the rebellion.  Others were taken over by American or British forces as temporary headquarters.  And after the American victory, the estates of wealthy merchants who had sided with the British were confiscated.

Henry Spingler was a successful merchant in the last quarter of the century.  Born in Germany, he arrived in America in 1755 and married Miss Bonsall in 1780.  Eight years later he would purchase the sprawling farmland north of the city in the area that would become Union Square.

According to The New York Times in 1902, Spingler “bought the farm direct from the first owner of the land, who, frightened at the stirring events of the Revolution and lacking faith in the Government of the then new United States, decamped back to his native country, Holland.”

The article got the fact slightly wrong, if a bit more romantic in the telling.  The first owner was, indeed, of Dutch descent.   Elias Brevoort and his wife, Leah, sold the property to John Smith, “a leather dresser,” according to old documents, for 340 pounds.  Upon his death, his executors sold the land on February 29, 1788 to “Henry Spinger of the city, shopkeeper,” for 950 pounds.

The Spingers first lived in what was assumedly the house of John Smith.  Over a century later The New York Times would say “The house was a quaintly built Dutch structure.”  But according to the newspaper, he “soon found that it was lonely living down the lane from the Bowery Road.  He therefore built a house on a hill in what is now part of Union Square, which house faced on the Bowery Road, or what is now Fourth Avenue.”   Here Henry Spingler died in 1814.
 
As the city crept northward the farms and estates were consumed.  In 1832 creation of a new park, Union Square, was begun and by 1845 it was being ringed with the fine brick residences.  That year $116,000 was spent on paving the surrounding streets and landscaping the square.

The same year the Spingler house  was taken over by the city through condemnation proceedings. It had been occupied by Henry’s married daughter, Eliza Fonderden, her husband, James, and daughter Mary.    Undaunted the family moved back into the old Dutch farmhouse.   Mary married Michael Murray Van Buren, a young man apparently below her social station.  The Times remarked “It was a love match.  The young man had been a mechanic.”

The couple moved into a new house at No. 29 West 14th Street, in the center of the Spingler estate.  While Van Buren (the name appears variously in documents and periodicals as Van Buren, Van Beuren and Vanburen throughout the 19th century) may have started as a mechanic, his management of the Spingler holdings was brilliant.  The family’s fortune increased yearly.

In 1845 Mary convinced her mother to leave the old Dutch farmhouse and erect a more suitable home.  She constructed an imposing brownstone mansion at No. 21 West  14th Street, the next to her daughter’s.  Four stories high over an exceptionally deep English basement, it stretched five bays wide.  Stone balconies flanked the entrance and an iron fence protected the wide lot.  The height of early Victorian taste, the doors and woodwork inside were done in rosewood.

The houses were separated by a large garden that extended through the block to 15th Street.  In the rear were the conservatory (essential to wealthy Victorian households to provide potted plants), the stable, arbors, dove cotes and remnants of the farm life—chicken coops and a cow or two.  In front of No. 21 a poplar tree was planted at the curb where carriages would receive or drop off their passengers.

By 1859 the Van Burens had moved into Mrs. Fonderden’s house.  Michael Van Buren was now “Colonel Van Buren who commanded Ninth Regiment, formerly known as the 'City Guard.'”  On October 14, 1859 the unit had its first regimental parade followed in the evening by a glittering reception in the Van Buren mansion.

The Times reported that “The ‘light shone over fair women and brave men,’ last evening” and called the event “one of considerable interest.”  The newspaper said “An hour was spent in an interchange of good feeling, and congratulation at the success of the organization, after which the compay partook of a sumptuous entertainment, which was followed by speeches and sentiments.”

At the time one of the Van Buren’s staff was Charles Holmes, a coachman.  On four occasions Michael Van Buren gave the man $20 to pay Bernard E. Gray of Bedford, Long Island, for hay.  Holmes dutifully took the cash and the hay repeatedly appeared in the stable. 

Van Buren was rightfully embarrassed and enraged when Gray “personally applied to Mr. Van Buren for payment of his claim,” as reported in newspapers.   The coachman soon discovered that pocketing what would amount to over $1,500 today was a mistake. He confessed to Detective Pool who arrested him that “he had squandered the money in the purchase of lottery tickets.”  In March 1860 he was sent to prison.

The Van Burens had two daughters, Mary Louis and Elizabeth Spingler Van Buren.  Mary would marry attorney John W. Davis who assisted his father-in-law with the management of the estate.  The house soon began filling with Davis children as two daughters and two twin sons came along.

John W. Davis died in 1878.  By now Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens were moving uptown along Fifth and Madison Avenues, erecting lavish palaces.  The Van Burens and Davises would not join the trend.  As the once-residential 14th Street neighborhood turned commercial, the family stood firm.  Business and store buildings—all of which provided high rents to the family—replaced the old houses and surrounded what was familiarly known as the Van Buren Homestead.  And, like the reclusive Hannah Goelet Gerry who lived alone in her old mansion at 19th Street and Broadway, a cow and a few chickens could be seen in the rear yard.

But unlike Miss Goelet, the Davis family was fully visible in society.   On December 31, 1882 The Times reported that “The social observances in this City to-morrow promised to be quite as extensive and pleasurable as have been known on any previous New Year’s Day…The old-time custom of receiving New Year’s calls will be in vogue in fashionable circles.”  The newspaper noted that “among the ladies who have indicated their intention to ‘receive’ to-morrow” were “Mrs. John W. Davis and the Misses Davis.”

In 1885 Riverside Park had been under development for nearly a decade.  On September 8 young Louisa Vanburen Davis and her friend, Leila Berry, chose to take a ride to the park in Louisa’s victoria.   The girls were described as “young ladies well known in society circles.”   Plans for a pleasurable outing would turn into horror.

Louisa’s coachman, Charles Kearns, drove the handsome carriage without event to the park.  Then things went wrong.  “The horse behaved well until, in returning on Seventy-second-street, near the Boulevard [Broadway] and Tenth avenue, it was frightened by a steam drill at work blasting rocks and ran away.”

Leila Berry panicked and jumped from the speeding vehicle.  She landed hard on the pavement.  Both Louisa and the coachman were unnerved.  As the horse galloped across Broadway toward a pile of rocks, Louisa was either tossed from the carriage or jumped.  The back wheel caught her dress and whirled her around, crashing her body to the pavement.  Kearns was thrown from the carriage when it struck the curb with violent force.

When the driver hobbled to the girls, he was sure Louisa was dead.  “Miss Berry was insensible and bleeding from the mouth, nose, and ears when she was carried into a drug store.  Miss Davis appeared to be dead when taken to the same place.”   A physician soon arrived who found “Miss Berry in a hysterical condition.  Miss Davis was alive, but appeared to be seriously injured.”

Louisa had suffered a concussion, internal injuries and cuts.  Her mother appeared at the hospital, where Louisa was kept “as comfortable as possible in a ward.”

Leila Berry had a sprained ankle, shock, and cuts to the face, hands and arms “but not such as will permanently disfigure her,” assured The Times.  She was taken to her uncle’s Fifth Avenue mansion “as she was not strong enough to go home.”

When Louisa married James B. Reynolds, they moved into the house next door to her mother at No. 29.  They would have two sons, Frederick and Henry, and one daughter Sara.  By 1893 both of the Davis sisters were widowed and the delightful homestead occupied by the two fabulously wealthy families was a conspicuous relic.

That year The Times wrote “”It is not generally known that from the Van Beuren estate is derived an annual income of nearly a million dollars.  The ancestors of the family owned a large farm which covered several hundred acres in the region of Broadway and Fourteenth Street.” 

The newspaper remarked on the incongruity of their wealth and antiquated lifestyle.  “A cow may frequently be seen roaming about the yard.  Two horses exercise themselves in front of the low wooden stable, and a drove of chickens scratch about in the grass and gravel.  The present heads of the Van Beuren family, now both far advanced in years, live in the immense houses at either end of the open lot.”

The newspaper would have the opportunity to remark on the house again the following year when, on August 8, 1894, Mary Spingler Fonderden Van Buren died.   It said “The great brownstone house in which Mrs. Van Beuren lived a retired life in the midst of the bustle of one of New-York’s busiest retail business districts, has long been a source of curiosity to those not acquainted with its history and the history of the Van Beuren family.  Standing back from the street, and surrounded by ample grounds, it has the appearance of a country mansion out of place.”

The funeral was held in the mansion on August 11 and only relatives and immediate friends were present.  “The services were simple and impressive,” reported The Times.  “The body lay in the west drawing room of the old mansion and was surrounded by floral pieces.  There were several great crosses and wreaths of white roses.  A quartet from St. Mark’s furnished the music.”  Outside a large crowd gathered on the sidewalk.

A year and a half later, on January 28, 1896, the house hosted a more joyous event when the wedding reception of Louise Van Buren Davis to Alfred Huidekoper Bond of Boston took place here.  But like so many of the later events in the venerable brownstone, it was understated and nearly private.

The aging spinster Elizabeth Van Buren went on about her affairs here, hosting a lecture by Mrs. Milward Adams of Chicago a few months later.  The somewhat peculiar subject was “A Study of Tone as Used in the Singing and Conversational Voice.”

On  January 31, 1902 Mary Louise Van Buren Davis died “in the historic old house…which for over half a century has been known as the Van Buren mansion,” said The Times.  “The house stands in a large garden in one of the busiest and most crowded business blocks on Fourteenth Street.  It covers twelve city lots, and in Summer, with its shade trees and its distant vista of orchard and arbor on West Fifteenth Street, presents a curious contrast to its surroundings.”

Mary’s obituary noted that “She had lived in the old house, and everything is just as it was when her mother and grandmother were alive.  It is filled with quaint and beautiful furniture, and the plans of the gardens, the dovecotes, and the shrubbery have not been changed in the least.”

Mary’s twin sons, Michael and John, “among the most popular clubmen in town,” remained in the house, along with their elderly  aunt Elizabeth Spingler Van Buren.  The newspaper mentioned that “One of the features of the old mansion is a poplar tree on the sidewalk, which was planted when the house was built, and which has given grateful shade in Summer to countless shoppers in this busy district.”  Next door in the red brick house at No. 29, Louisa Reynolds and her unmarried daughter Sarah still lived on. 

After Hannah Gerry's death the old Goelet mansion was demolished in 1897 to be replaced by a commercial building.  Now New Yorkers wondered if the same fate would befall the Van Buren mansion.  The Times noted that “Artists, poets, and lovers of the picturesque have long feared the destruction of this quaint structure.  It will be a gratification to them now to learn that it is to remain.”

John Davis told reporters that “The heirs of Mrs. Davis are few, and there is no need of splitting up the property for the purpose of reaching a settlement.”  Davis was saying, in effect, that the family was vastly wealthy and did not need to liquidate the homestead.  

It was, however, a decidedly valuable chunk of real estate.  A speculator calculated that based on the property values each egg that the chickens laid was worth about $128 each.  “There was nothing modern about the place,” said a newspaper, “It had all the marks of a true homestead inhabited by an old and long-wealthy family who could afford to throw away the enormous profit they could make by turning this valuable land over to business purposes for the mere gratification of being in the old house endeared to them by many associations.”

A few months after Mary’s death, 73-year old Elizabeth Van Buren went for a drive in Central Park.  Returning home, her carriage was passing the Fifth Avenue Hotel when two women stepped into the path of the team of horses.    Both women, Alice Trumbull and Grace Curtis, were knocked down and one was struck by a horse.

Miss Van Buren’s driver, William Webb, pulled the carriage over and the wealthy dowager got out to see if the women were hurt.  Although both assured the elderly woman that they were unharmed, she sent them home in a hansom cab.  Later, still shaken, she sent her coachman to make sure they had arrived home safely.

The unmarried Elizabeth would watch the funerals and marriages of her family throughout the years in her 14th Street mansion.  On April 19, 1904 Michael died in the house at the age of only 38.  His obituary remarked that “There were few men in club life in New York who were more popular or who have had more friends than the Davis twins.”   The Davis brothers’ great wealth allowed them a leisurely lifestyle.  The Times noted “He was not engaged in any active profession.  Of late years he took great interest in the turf, and was a frequent visitor at Morris Park, and the Coney Island Jockey Club, and other places where he had holdings in stables.”

Elizabeth’s great niece, Elizabeth Josephine Van Beuren, was married in the house on November 9 the following year.  “The wedding brought out a number of members of old Knickerbocker families;” reported the New-York Tribune, “and while the invitations to the ceremony…were limited to relatives and intimate friends, those to the reception which followed were more general.”

The mansion housed one of the oldest Knickerbocker families of the city -- New York Times August 7, 1927 (copyright expired)
Finally, on July 21, 1908, the 79-year old Elizabeth Spingler Van Buren died in the family residence.  “All her life Miss Van Beuren had lived in the old family mansion in Fourteenth Street,” said The New York Times.  “In a district now given up to department stores, with the trolleys crashing by and the elevated railway within a few yards, it stood, an excellent example of the stately brownstone family homes of a century ago.

“Its garden is still kept up.  Its fine trees give a pleasant shade, and its old-fashioned wooden gate and railings speak of the fashion of a by-gone age.  Until a very few years ago it was maintained as a small farm, and the visitor to the city was often brought to see the very last cow which ever browsed in lower Manhattan as it cropped the little stretch of turf.”

Louisa Reynolds, still living in the brick house next door, was quick to squash ideas of development.  “Mrs. Reynolds said yesterday that the Van Beuren homestead would still be kept intact, in spite of the death of her sister,” reported the Tribune.

The homes with their gardens and outbuildings would survive, miraculously, until 1927.  On August 7 of that year The New York Times reported that “One of New York’s most interesting landmarks, the old Van Beuren mansion in West Fourteenth Street, erected when all that section north of Washington Square was occupied principally by estates and truck farms, has finally succumbed to the march of improvements and will be demolished to make way for a theatre and office building.”

As the house was being prepared for demolition, the rear gardens and stable (right) were still intact -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The 23,000 square foot property was assessed by the city at about $12 million.  The house, said the newspaper, “is furnished in the Victorian style…A few antiques from earlier periods were retained.”

“Every old New Yorker had an affection for this house, and even newcomers to the city learned to love it.  It was an agreeable break to the architectural monotony of down-town New York, like Trinity Church, standing on land worth a million dollars an acre and defying the land speculator and the real estate man,” said The Times.

But the land speculator and the real estate man got his way, with little or no public outcry.   Today a stretch of non-descript brick apartment building and retail stores lines 14th Street where a magnificent early Victorian mansion and a poplar tree stood for nearly a century.

photo by the author

4 comments:

  1. Fascinating, as usual! Thanks Tom.

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  2. Thanks again for your hard work on this topic, near and dear to me as I'm a van Beuren. You've begun to strip away inaccuracies that have snow-balled through the last two centuries... But, as I've posted on another page of this blog, some things you've sketched out are a little misleading> The "upon (Smith's) death" is wrong. The New York Times in 1902 was wrong to say that Spingler “bought the farm direct from the first owner of the land" ~They must have been on deadline ;).... There had been many prior owners. If anyone is interested, I have assembled the details on Geni.com at
    Henry Spingler and Col. Michael M. van Beuren.... It would be tedious of me to post the many corrections here. I love your blog. Keep up the fascinating work. I appreciate the focus you give on al your topics.

    If anyone wants to compare facts please look at http://www.geni.com/people/Henry-Spingler/6000000019187979782 (there might be a small temp. sign-up fee)... Regards, Michael M. van Beuren

    PS: In general: Newspaper and magazine articles of the day, such as the NYT and McClure's, botched the facts. Historians end up being hampered by the crude generalities formed on the pages of their publications.

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  3. One major correction to the story of the houses on Spingler's farm:
    1) When he purchased the farm it had a house on it but he decided not to live there. At that time Henry Spingler was married to Jane Sloo. (Jane was part of a family that included a constable of Bridewell Prison at City Hall Park)

    In a 'fun fact': Jane's half-sister's daughter married John Jacob Astor, "America's 1st Millionaire". Astor and Spingler, both German immigrants, were contemporaries.

    2) Henry had a 2nd house built, one that was not remotely located on the 22 acres as the 1st on was. While it was being built, Jane died.
    3) Henry married Mary Bonsalll and moved into the new house with Mary.
    4) They had one child, a daughter, Elizabeth (Eliza).
    5) The City, as you say, condemned the new house and Mary Spingler (Bonsall), now a widow, moved into the old house with her Eliza who had married James Fonerden of Baltimore.
    6) James and Eliza had one child = Mary, who married a poor working man the son of a discredited Loyalist family that had abandoned New York and were exiled to Nova Scotia, only to return to the NY area in 1790. This husband's name was Michael M. van Beuren whose fortune was made by virtue of this union. (So this was a family that relied on the wealth of Spingler, who was German, and his commercial connection to the English Bonsall family) ~> There is no connection to continuing Dutch, aka Knickerbocker, wealth.
    7) The 1st house later became a relic that stood in the way of the widening of 14th st. It was abandoned after the first of several brownstones was built (21 W.14th st.)
    8) Two more brownstones were built on part of the footprint of the original house (#1).

    ( all these details were confirmed by research at the NYPL's Mitchell collection )


    ~ Not that any of this really changes the later story all that much.... Just thought someone might be interested to get the back-story in order.
    ~ Michael M. van Beuren, one of the hundreds of descendants of Henry Spingler and Mary Bonsall. An untold number of these live on today. Many remain in New York City but I am not of this number.... :)

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