Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The 1911 Adelaide Townsend Douglas House -- 57 Park Avenue


photo by Alice Lum
In March 1902, when excavation for the Park Avenue subway resulted in a calamitous cave-in that seriously damaged several mansions, a scandal was being quietly ignored by New York society.  As the clean up on Park Avenue began, Mrs. William P. Douglas and her daughter, Edith Sybil, were anticipating an ocean voyage as guests of J. P. Morgan on his yacht the Corsair.

Adelaide Townsend Douglas was married to capitalist William Proctor Douglas.  Although he had been a member of the first American international polo team, he was best known as a yachtsman.   In 1871 he successfully defended the America’s Cup with his schooner Sappho.  But since 1895, according to Jean Strouse’s “Morgan: American Financier,” Adelaide had been carrying on an affair with Morgan.

Rumors of Morgan’s and Adelaide’s affair never rose above a whisper.  William Douglas moved out of their home on East 46th Street in 1903.  In 1908, after son J. Gordon Douglas married, William moved again, this time to No. 12 West 76th Street and, finally, the Social Register listed him and Adelaide separately.

Meanwhile, John J. Murphy had sold his mansion at No. 57 Park Avenue just weeks following the cave-in.    The New York Times reported that it was “one of the houses which was badly damaged by the subway cave-in” and described it as “four stories in height…It is understood that before the cave-in Mr. Murphy held the property at $65,000.”   (That valuation would translate to over $1 million today.)

Now, in 1909 with only Sybil left at home, Adelaide laid plans for a new home—one just steps from the J. P. Morgan mansion at Madison Avenue and 37th Street.  On April 8, 1909 The Times reported that “Architect Horace Trumbauer of Philadelphia has filed plans for the new six-story residence to be built by Mrs. Adelaide L. Douglas at 57 Park Avenue.  It is to be 25.1 feet front, with a fa├žade of granite and limestone, and will cost $120,000.”  It is interesting to note that by now, although never divorced, the newspapers referred to Adelaide by her own name and not her husband’s.

The unlivable mansion of John Murphy had been purchased in a settlement by the Interboro Rapid Transit Company.    Now it was razed to be replaced by an elegant and restrained townhouse in the French Classic style of Louis XVI.   Apparently Adelaide did not need to worry about the high cost of the structure—her grandson later reported that Morgan financed it; and nearly half a century later The New York Times brashly announced that it was “originally built for J. P. Morgan.”

Construction went on for two years and in 1911 it was completed.   Trumbauer managed to ornament the house with exquisite bas relief carvings, French ironwork and a full menu of window shapes and dimensions; all the while maintaining calm and elegance. 


Urns of full-blown roses and panels depicting children adorn the facade (encroached upon by creeping ivy) photo by Alice Lum
Guests entered into a marble-lined reception hall.  On the first floor was the sumptuous dining room.  Above, where tall French doors opened onto the Park Avenue balcony, were two salons decorated in the French 18th century style.  Adelaide’s bedroom was on the third floor, facing the rear, along with the library to the front.

The one guest who did not enter through the double entrance doors on Park Avenue was J. P. Morgan.  According to family members, the millionaire had a private entrance at the rear of the house.

If New York society rebuffed those involved in extramarital affairs, it made an exception for the fabulously wealthy.  Dinner parties in the Park Avenue house were regularly noted in the society pages—and attended.

Adelaide was alone in the mansion following her daughter’s marriage.  Edith—referred to as Sybil by friends—was married on January 27, 1913 in fashionable St. George’s Chapel.   She was wed to William Fitzhugh Whitehouse.  Although The Sun, cautioned that “only relatives and a few intimate friends will witness the ceremony,” those who attended the wedding included society’s elite.  The Times listed both Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt and “Mrs. Vanderbilt,” Colonel and Mrs. William Jay, Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Iselin, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Iselin, and Alfonso de Navarro among others.

Following the ceremony, Park Avenue was lined with smart vehicles and waiting drivers as Adelaide hosted the reception in the house.

photo by Alice Lum
On June 3, 1919 Adelaide’s husband died in his home at No. 12 West 76th Street at the age of 77.   Her affiliation with William Douglas was apparently cordial.  When the will was read, Adelaide received $50,000 of the over $1 million estate and one third of the income from her husband’s real estate.

Adelaide continued the expected schedule of a wealthy New York socialite.  Each summer her Newport estate “Cozy Nook” was opened and every fall it was closed.   In front of No. 57 Park Avenue, horse-drawn carriages gave way to shining limousines that dropped guests off for dinner parties and receptions.

Adelaide made the change as well.   In 1932 her chauffeur was 22-year old Servie Laccesaglio who, with other staff, lived in the house.  Apparently Laccesaglio felt his Depression Era wages and free board were not enough to see him through.

Early on the morning of December 30, 1932 the chauffeur and two other men noticed Brooklyn restaurant owner Max Advocate emerging from the 20th Avenue subway station in Brooklyn on his way home.   The men forced him into their automobile, drove him several miles then robbed him of $150 in cash, a $25 check and his bank book.

A passerby had seen the abduction, noted the license plate and notified the police.  Unfortunately for Laccesaglio and his accomplices, the New York Police Department had recently installed radios in its patrol cars.  The New York Times credited the technological innovation with their arrests.  “The police radio system early this morning snared three men half an hour after they had released a Brooklyn restaurant proprietor,” it said.

Adelaide Douglas’s young chauffeur learned that crime does not pay--and assumedly lost a job and free room.

Three years later, on October 23, 1935, the 83-year old colorful Adelaide Townsend Douglas died in her Park Avenue mansion.  Ironically, her New York Times obituary related more about her husband’s life and accomplishments than it did about her.

The Douglas mansion sat vacant for a period, then was leased by Athur Charn in June 1937. Before long, however, the house would be converted to high-end apartments.   Here in 1940 Maurice and Martha Speiser lived.   The couple auctioned off their extensive art collection in 1944 at the Parke-Bernet Galleries.  Included were 115 canvases by Picasso, Chagall, Matisse and other masters; 15 sculptures by artists like Epstein and Brancusi; and 761 books on modern art.  Among the masterworks sold were Modigliani’s Garcon a la Vest Blue and Utrillo’s Eglise Sainte Marguerite.

In 1942 the Douglas Estate sold the house built for Adelaide.   For a few years it housed the offices of American British Technology, Inc. and the Welfare League for Retarded Children, Inc.  Then on June 17, 1959 the United States Olympic Association, Inc. announced that “shortly will have a new home.”  The organization, which had been operating from the Hotel Biltmore, purchased the house at No. 57 Park Avenue.

photo by Alice Lum
The Olympic Association remained in the Douglas mansion for nearly two decades.  In 1978 what was now referred to as the “Olympic House” was sold for $5 million to the Government of Guatemala as its Mission to the United Nations.   As the Landmarks Preservation Commission remarked the following year, “Despite changes to the interior of the house, the exterior remains almost entirely intact.  As such it is a reminder of the period before World War I when Park Avenue was an elegant residential thoroughfare.”
photo by Alice Lum

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