|A servant conscientiously cleans the doorway of the mansion next door to the Flagler residence in 1905 -- photograph by Wurt Brothers from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1G3QLWH2&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915|
By the 1880s the Murray Hill neighborhood of Park Avenue south of 42nd Street was lined with imposing mansions, one of which belonged to railroad magnate William H. Osborn. The former president of the Illinois Central Railroad and called by The New York Times “one of the most prominent railroad men in this country or England,” Osborn retired in 1882 and devoted his time to philanthropy and art patronage.
The Osborns lived at No. 32 Park Avenue near 36th Street in a brick and brownstone mansion with unusually ample gardens. The millionaire filled the house with his “gallery of fine paintings,” according to The Times. He was especially interested in the Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church and owned several of his paintings.
In the spring of 1892 the Osborns drew notice for their gardens. The Times, on April 26, noted “The people who do not expect to leave town for the present are beginning their front-door gardening. Especially is this true along Park Avenue from Thirty-fourth to Fortieth Street. Mr. and Mrs. William H. Osborn of 32 Park Avenue have laid out their large front and side yards in beds of pansies and tulips, and on every front and side window sill is a box of growing pansies and ivy.”
Two years later Osborn died in the Park Avenue mansion, having being sick for several months. The funeral was held in the parlor at 10:00 on the morning of March 5, 1894. The social prominence of the millionaire was evident not only in those present—including Cornelius Vanderbilt, Stuyvesant Fish, George Bliss, John A. Stewart and General Daniel Butterfield—but in his honorary pall bearers who included former Mayor Hewitt, William D. Sloane, William E. Dodge, Samuel Sloane and William Walter Phelps.
Osborn’s patronage of Church apparently led to a close personal relationship, for when the artist’s invalid wife, Isabelle, died on May 13, 1899, the couple was living in the Osborn house.
In the meantime Henry Harkness Flagler, Jr. and his new bride, Anne, were leasing the house at No. 53 Park Avenue. In March 1902 there was a massive cave-in of the subway being constructed below Park Avenue. It resulted in the wrecking of three mansions, a burst water main and general mayhem. The New York Times sub-headline read “Occupants of Falling Houses Flee in Panic.” The house occupied by the Flaglers was amazingly unharmed and just two weeks later Flagler showed “his confidence in the safety of that thoroughfare for residential purposes” by purchasing the Osborn mansion.
Flagler paid Osborn’s son $167,000 for the now stylishly-outdated house. Three years later he commissioned the architectural firm of Little & O’Connor to renovate the house. For at least a decade there had been a renewed interest in the Dutch Colonial roots of Manhattan and Flemish Revival structures dotted the city—especially on the Upper West Side. Little & O’Connor would bring the old brick-and-brownstone residence into the 20th century.
On July 23, 1905 The Sun described the anticipated changes. It reported that the façade would be extended to the sidewalk and “a new façade of ornamental brick erected, colonial in design, with a peaked roof of tile. The interior is to be remodeled throughout.” The Flagler make-over was expected to cost about $50,000, or just under $1 million today.
The resulting mansion was striking indeed. Steep stepped gables on three elevations--mimicked by the brick walls flanking the entrance--were pierced by terra cotta trimmed oculi. The parlor floor windows, around eight feet tall, were composed of leaded and stained glass. Ornamental elements of terra cotta, cast iron and carved stone completed the old Dutch motif. Where the Osborn garden had been there was now a service alley, protected by a magnificent iron gate.
In the days before sophisticated security systems or even electric burglar alarms, the mansions of New York’s wealthy were vulnerable to thieves. And in the summer months, with the bulk of the city’s millionaires away at Newport and country estates, the barely-staffed homes were prime targets.
On July 16, 1909 at around 9:00 in the evening Policeman Frederick Lander noticed a group of men at the front door of the Flagler mansion. As he approached, the men scattered and ran. “The policeman drew his revolver and fired after them,” reported The Times. “Two of the men got away, but the others stopped under the hail of the policeman’s bullets.”
After taking his prisoners to the station house, Lander returned to the residence. The caretaker opened the door, unaware of the attempted break in. The policeman “found marks of a burglar’s jimmy on the front door.”
The Flaglers were not so lucky on Saturday April 7, 1912. While the family was having dinner, a thief removed at least $1,000 in jewelry and other valuables from the third floor rooms. The Sun reported that “It was not determined whether some sneak thief had crept into the place or some person who was in the house had succumbed to temptation.’
Earlier, in 1897, Henry Flagler, Senior had committed his wife to an asylum, had her declared insane, and divorced her. Ten days after the divorce he remarried. It was the last in a series of events that infuriated Henry Junior, who refused to speak to his father thereafter.
As the Standard Oil tycoon lay dying in May 1913, Henry Junior visited him in Florida and made amends. A few days later his father died, leaving the bulk of his estate—between $60 and $70 million—to the stepmother. The three children, including Henry, each received just over $1 million.
|photo NYPL Collection|
In June 1919 Flagler purchased the two adjoining houses at Nos. 34 and 36, apparently to maintain control of who would become his neighbors and to ensure the tone of the neighborhood. Two months later he sold No. 34 to William Church Osborn a familiar name to the block. Osborn already owned the corner property and the New-York Tribune noted that “these two men now control the northerly half of the block.”
|In 1931 the Park Avenue neighborhood was still mainly one of mansions -- NYPL Collection|
The decades of dinners, teas and receptions in the mansion came to an end when Anne Lamont Flagler died of a heart attack at their country estate, Edgewood, in Millbrook, New York. Henry Flagler stayed on in the house until his death in 1952.
In 1953 the Flagler Estate began demolition of the mansion to make way for a 20-story apartment building. As the old home was being demolished, 47-year old electrician David McNulty was building his own cinder-block home in Shirley, Long Island from plans he bought at a model house display in Queens.
“When he started,” said The New York Times, “Mr. McNulty was prepared to use conventional materials, including commercial lumber for framing and sheathing, plasterboard walls and wallpaper.” But then he saw the Harkness house being demolished.
The contractor gave him access and he purchased the irreplaceable paneling to use in his Long Island ranch home. The Times reported on his progress on November 20, 1955. “The teakwood interior that once graced the spacious library of the Flagler mansion at 32 Park Avenue, near Thirty-fifth Street, has been called into service as the décor…of David McNulty.”
McNulty’s house was described as “a white stucco rancher with a flat roof. Its exterior walls are of cinder blocks. A course of cinders marks the outline of the two-car garage which he is now adding to his home.
“The interior of the living room, kitchen and dining area consists almost entirely of teakwood paneling. The kitchen cabinets were cut from the hard lumber, as were the trim around the stove and sink.”