Friday, June 7, 2013

The Emma Lazarus House -- No. 18 West 10th Street

In 1854 the Wall Street banking firm of Winslow, Lanier & Co. had made millionaires of its principals.   The senior member of the firm was James Winslow, whose wife, Margaret, was the daughter of partner James F. D. Lanier.

The West 10th Street block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was, at the time, becoming more and more fashionable as the mansions of New York’s wealthiest citizens crept northward along Fifth Avenue.   Impressive residences replaced the earlier modest Federal style homes as the affluent Fifth Avenue neighborhood spilled onto the side streets.

That year a pair of grand brick town house was begun at Nos. 14 and 16.  Completed a year later, No. 16 was purchased by Lanier.  As the Lanier family moved in, a new home was begun next door at No. 18.  It would become the residence of the Winslows.

The Winslow mansion was completed in 1856, an exceptionally handsome Italianate-style residence that rose four floors above an English basement.  The architect distinguished the structure with a basement and parlor level base of brownstone that supported the brick upper stories.

The most striking feature was the three openings of the parlor level.  Two floor-to-ceiling windows shared identical proportions with the entranceway—creating an unusual symmetry and appeal.  Rather surprisingly, instead of the expected Italianate scrolled brackets below the cornice, the architect reverted to the more outdated dentiled cornice and fascia found on Greek Revival homes.
The parlor level featured windows that matched the proportions of the entrance.

Nearly a century and a half later the “AIA Guide to New York City” would dub the mansion “serene.”

The Winslows lived in the house for only three years.  In 1859 it was purchased by Dr. George H. Humphreys and his wife May.  As had been the case with the Winslows, the deed was put in the wife’s name; a common practice to ensure the financial stability of the widow should the income-earner die.

Although the Humphreys held on to the property until 1880, it appears they rented it for at least one year.  In 1879 George and Harriet Hammond were living here when their son was born in the house on November 6.

The following year the Humphreys sold the house to John E. Devlin.  The importer was president of John E. Devlin & Co. and a director of the Houston, West Street and Pavonia Ferry Company; and of the Guardian Fire Insurance Company.   Devlin sold the house in the fashionable neighborhood just three years later, in 1883, to wealthy sugar merchant Moses Lazarus, a member of the firm Johnson & Lazarus.

Lazarus had retired in 1865 with what The New York Times deemed “a very large fortune.”   Now 67 years old, his health was not good.

Lazarus’ daughter, Emma who was already established as a poet, was no doubt pleased with the location.    The block had filled with artists.  Two doors away lived painter John La Farge, and at No. 51 was the renowned Tenth Street Studio Building where artists like Albert Bierstadt, Winslow Homer and William Merritt Chase worked.

The treatment of the cornice, while handsome, was unexpectedly outdated.
Emma sailed for Europe just weeks after the family moved in.   At the time Richard Morris Hunt’s pedestal for the Statue of Liberty was already half completed and in Paris the statue was ready to ship.  In order to erect it, all that was needed now was the raising of the necessary money.

In May, while Emma was still abroad, J. Carroll Beckwith and William Merritt Chase, both instructors at the Art Students League, agreed to organize a fund-raising art exhibition for the statue.   In conjunction, writer Constance Cary Harrison asked two poets—one of them Emma Lazarus—to pen short verses for its opening.

Harrison would later recall “I begged Miss Lazarus to give me some verses appropriate to the occasion.  She was at first inclined to rebel against writing anything ‘To order’ as it were.”   Nevertheless, she completed “The New Colossus,” a sonnet to “Liberty Enlightening the World” in time for the exhibition’s opening on December 3, 1883.  After that night, Emma Lazarus’s stirring poem was largely forgotten.

On March 9, 1885 Moses Lazarus died in the house on West 10th Street from “a complication of diseases,” according to The Times.  The esteemed Jewish businessman had obtained memberships in some of the most exclusive clubs in town; a highly unusual achievement at the time.

That year Emma set off on her second visit to Europe.  When she returned to New York in September 1887 she was seriously ill.   On November 20 The Sun reported “Miss Emma Lazarus, the well-known poet, translator, and general writer for the magazines, died yesterday at 18 West Tenth street, in this city, which was the home of her parents who are both dead.”

Emma Lazarus was 36-years old.  Although newspapers reported that she “had been ill for about a year, though death was due to a recent development of congestion of the lungs,” it is now believed she died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The funeral took place in the house the following morning.

The Sun noted “Miss Lazarus was one of the leading woman writers of the age, a great and strong writer, and despite the fact that death came to her just as she had reached her prime, she had gained a place and made a mark in literature far above the achievements of many eminent lives well rounded by age.”

Ironically, Lazarus’s longest-lasting achievement would be her overlooked sonnet “The New Colossus.”  When the Statue of Liberty was opened the year after her death, the poem played no part in the ceremony.  Not until 1903 when the text was mounted in bronze on the pedestal would the poem become eternally linked with the monument.

The statue, intended as an embodiment of personal freedom and democracy, was forever transformed by Emma Lazarus’s poem to a symbol of immigration and welcome.

The Lazarus family sold the house in May 1889 to stock broker Henry B. Livingston, a member of one of New York’s oldest and most respected families.    Livingston was a partner in the firm of Lee, Livingston & Co., a member of the New York Stock Exchange.  Like Moses Lazarus, he was a member of the Knickerbocker and Union Clubs.

The Livingston house was the scene of expected social entertainments.  On December 7, 1895 The New York Times reported that “Among the social incidents to-day will be [a reception by] Mrs. Henry R. Livingston, 18 West Tenth Street.”

That event was a tea given for Angelica Livingston who was making her debut and was it was deemed by the newspaper to be one “of the largest” of the season.
The original, exquisite Victorian window grills survive at the basement openings.
In 1900 the Livingstons leased the house to banker Edwin M. Post, a member of the firm Thomas & Post.  Born in Cincinnati, the wealthy financier was also President and director of the Express Coal Line and Georgia Car Co.; vice-president and director of the Southern Iron Car Line; and secretary-treasurer and director of the Manhattan Car Trust Co.; among other positions.

Post was in the house only a year and in 1901 it was rented by Mrs. Charles Lea.  The widowed Mrs. Lea used the mansion not only for meetings of her favorite social group, the Junior Thursday Evening Club; but for debutante events for daughter Marjorie that year.

On January 11 Angelica Schuyler Church gave a luncheon “of twelve covers” in Marjorie’s honor.  It was quickly followed by two coming-out receptions in the 10th Street house, the second being held on January 25.

On March 21 the Junior Thursday Evening Club had a symposium in the house “where several members of the Comedy Club gave a little play,” reported The New York Times the following day. 

Mrs. Lea and her daughter moved on when, in August of that year, Henry B. Livingston sold the house to John Barry Ryan and his wife, Nina.   Fortune was the son of the immensely wealthy Thomas Fortune Ryan, a prominent financier.

John Ryan had grown up in the family mansion at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street.   His mother, the former Ida M. Barry of Baltimore, died on October 17, 1917 and, much to the surprise and shock of the family, his father married Mrs. Cornelius C. Cuyler “a prominent society woman of New York,” according to The Times, just twelve days later.

The newspaper said “John Barry Ryan, who lives at 18 West Tenth Street, would make no comment on his father’s marriage.”  It added “As far as could be learned last night, none of their families or friends even knew that they contemplated marriage.”

The Ryans would rear four sons and a daughter in the house; not all of whom would bring welcomed publicity to the family.  John Barry Ryan’s personal fortune was greatly increased upon the death of his father on November 23, 1928.  Thomas Fortune Ryan left an estate of over $200 million, about one-fifth of which went to John.

That same year daughter Adele met nightclub entertainer Robert Johnston and his wife in Cape Antibes, France.  There was an immediate attraction and when Johnstons traveled to London the following winter, Adele decided to visit her sister there.  Johnston was entertaining at the Night Life Club, of which the Prince of Wales was a member. 

Adele visited the Johnstons during the day at their Pall Mall house and would come to the club in the evenings.  The constant attention got on the nerves of the entertainer’s wife who complained that Adele wrote frequently to her husband and “willfully” tried to break up their marriage by sending him gifts.

When the Johnstons returned to the their New York home nearby at No. 41 West 11th Street, Adele continued her pursuit of Johnson and “induced Mr. Johnston to accompany her on trips to Boston and on Oct. 3 [1929] persuaded him to escort her to the Park Chambers Hotel…and to register with her as ‘Robert Johnston and wife,’” as reported in The New York Times.

Johnston left his wife and moved into the house next door to the Ryans, at No. 16 West 10th.   The family’s name was scandalously in the headlines when Muriel Johnston filed a $500,000 suit “for the loss of her husband’s affections.”

In June that same year, Adele’s brother, Thomas Fortune Ryan 2nd, was arrested in France as he prepared to sail to New York.  He was charged with issuing checks for $2,600 without having the funds to back them.  Then he upset the family further by marrying the divorcee, Mrs. Margaret Moorehead Rea in Sheridan, Wyoming.   The marriage was kept generally quiet, but young Ryan displayed an uncanny ability to appear in the newspapers.

In March 1930 he drove his automobile into a truck, resulting in a slight skull fracture.   Seven months later, in October he obtained a divorce “on the ground of desertion.”  On June 27, 1931 the 32-year old was in love again and secretly married the 23-year old divorcee Mrs. Mayme Cook Masters.

John Barry Ryan had had his fill.  On August 12 The New York Times reported that “News of the ceremony leaked out and rumors had been current since that Ryan’s parents planned to have the marriage annulled.”

The newspaper said on August 11 “Forced to choose…between his father’s millions and his bride of six weeks, Thomas Fortune Ryan 2d today declared that he had refused to give up his wife and therefore had been disinherited by his father, John Barry Ryan of New York.”

In the meantime, perhaps to ensure the quality of the block around his residence, John Barry Ryan purchased the three adjoining houses at Nos. 18, 20 and 22 that year.

Before long it would be John Barry Ryan rather than his children who were bringing unwanted publicity to West 10th Street.    The Ryans left the house in 1930, apparently in an effort to evade warrant servers and collection agents.

In 1932 Ryan was accused of “hiding or evading service of a suit in the Plaza Hotel” and by April 1933 his property was being seized to satisfy judgments against him.

Amazingly, the man who had inherited millions was now skirting servers.  Two of his automobiles had been seized and on April 23 The Times reported that “representatives of Milton Eisenberg, attorney for W. Rossiter Redmond, who was appointed receiver for Mr. Ryan’s property on Thursday, failed in their second attempt to station custodians in the Ryan home at 18 West Tenth Street here, where there are paintings and objects of art valued at about $1,000,000.”

Indeed Ryan had filled the house (which was sitting unoccupied and guarded by the Holmes Electric Protective Company) with an impressive collection, including busts by Houdon.  His financial problems plagued him for years to come.  The Government filed an income tax lien against him for $210,916.74 in 1937 and another in 1938.

John Barry Ryan died in 1942 and three years later Nina sold the house.  In reporting the sales The New York Times said “This is one of the picturesque old brick dwellings for which that neighborhood long was known, and is one of the few remaining in its original appearance, without remodeling.  It dates back about a century.”  The newspaper noted “It was acquired by the Ryan family in 1901 and occupied as their home until 1930, but has been vacant since then.”

The amazingly-unaltered house was purchased by attorney Charles Abrams and his wife, artist Ruth Abrams.  The visionary urban planner and housing expert created the New York Housing Authority and was one of the first to use the expression “Socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.”

At some point the carved moldings enframing the upper story windows were shaved flat; but no other significant changes were made to the house.   While Charles worked on housing projects, Ruth pursued her artistic career.  She was Art Director at the Research Association of The New School between 1965 and 1966.

 Abrams died of cancer in the house in 1970.  Ruth lived on in the house until her death in March 1986, after which a New York Times critic called her “a woman unfairly neglected in a macho era.”

In 1996 the basement level was converted to a separate apartment; however today the upper floors remain a single-family house.  The 28-foot wide residence is an elegant remnant of old West 10th Street, and the place where one of America’s most moving poems was penned.

photos by the author


  1. Great post! I walk by this address almost every weekend

  2. Thanks for the posting. Amazing, the pictures make the stone look like the hue is pink. But I am guessing it is a sandstone...?

    1. Yes, you're right, the stone is regular old brownstone (aka sandstone) but my poor photographic talents make it look very pink in these photos. (this is why I need Alice Lum!!)

  3. I'd love to see a post about the white townhouse next door, it looks so pristine. I always wonder if it's a single family or a apartment house.

    1. No. 16 is the James Winslow house mentioned in the article, and also the house where Robert Johnston lived when he was having his scandalous dalliance with Ryan's daughter. It has been altered, but certainly has a past worth noting. I'll put that one on my list.

    2. It's an apartment house upstairs with a psychoanalysis school on the lower levels. There are several rent control tenants that have been there since the eighties and some more recent tenants. It is not in great shape.

  4. The balustrade around the front area and across the parlour floor is a recent introduction, and being of cast stone has always looked to me very odd and ungraceful, and to my eyes at least quite unhistorical.