Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Gouraud House -- No. 46 West 56th St.

photo by Alice Lum
On March 20, 1902 Noah Davis died at his home at No. 46 West 56th Street of what The American Lawyer called “old age and bronchial trouble.”  The 83-year old former judge had served as Presiding Justice of the Supreme Court of New York County for thirteen years.  A personal friend of Ulysses Grant, he was best known for presiding over the trials of Boss Tweed and that of Edward S. Stokes for the murder of “Jim” Fisk.

By the time of his death his Fifth Avenue neighborhood had greatly changed from comfortable rows of identical brownstone homes to one of grand limestone mansions.   Justice Davis, however, had been content to live out his life in his no longer stylish rowhouse.

While Justice Davis had been hearing high-profile cases in New York, a flamboyant heiress was making headlines in California.  Amy Crocker was the daughter of the immensely wealthy railroad magnate Edwin Bryant Crocker and upon his death in 1875 she inherited several million dollars.   The spirited young woman was in no way the prudish Victorian socialite.  In 1883 she ran away from school and married Kentucky horseman R. Porter Ashe.   The pair had a daughter, Gladys. 

The New York Times would later report “The marriage was not a happy one, and the couple were divorced in 1889, Mrs. Ashe retaining the care of her daughter.”

But as The Sunday Oregonian noted years later, for Amy “affairs of the heart have been merely a means to an end.”   Within months of the divorce she married Henry M. Gillig, the Commodore of the Larchmont Yacht Club.  That marriage quickly ended in divorce and she married Jackson Gouraud in 1901.

Finally Amy had found someone whose temperament and interests matched hers.   Gouraud was the son of the colorful Colonel George E. Gouraud who claimed to have fired the first shot in the Civil War and of whom the New-York Tribune said “startled the world on more than one occasion by his gigantic schemes and dreams, one of which was to found an empire of his own in North Africa.”

A ragtime composer, Jackson Gouraud was a flashy dresser with expensive tastes.  The Times said that when he arrived in New York he had “very little money, but he had great ideas on how men should dress.”   Amy Crocker-Ashe-Gillig had finally met the man she could stay with.  The newspaper explained “Their tastes ran in the same bohemian grooves and they appeared to live happily together.”

At the time of their marriage, Amy was living in a mansion at No. 439 Madison Avenue and owned a sprawling 14-acre summer estate in Larchmont, New York called La Hacienda.  Before too long they would be living in the former Justice Davis house.

Seven months after Davis’s death, in November 1902, real estate operator Mitchell A. C. Levy purchased the home.  He told reporters he “considered the erection of a bachelor apartment house on the lot.”  He obviously reconsidered the scheme, and in 1903 leased the residence to M. J. Clark for a term of three years.

In the meantime, Amy’s Larchmont house burned to the ground on February 4, 1904.  In typical Amy Gouraud fashion, she replaced it with a larger, more lavish mansion.  The New York Times called the new La Hacienda “one of the show places along the Sound shore and is said to represent an outlay of about $1,000,000.”

A year earlier Gladys, who went by her mother’s maiden name, had added to the family’s eyebrow-raising reputation.  She was fifeen years old when Jackson and Amy married and “was thrown a great deal into the society of her mother’s younger brother-in-law, Powers Gouraud, who was only two years older than she.”  In 1903 Gladys and her step-uncle eloped to London where they were married in St. Clement Danes Church.

The newspapers had a field day.  The New-York Tribune said “By this marriage Mrs. Jackson Gouraud became the sister-in-law of her own daughter, and his own brother became Jackson Gouraud’s stepson-in-law, while Mrs. Powers Gouraud is also her stepfather’s sister-in-law.”

Amy and “Jack” had established themselves as well-known “first-nighters” at the theater.   The New York Times explained “The regular bona fide First Nighter is a man to be feared.”  The paper said that “The First Nighter knows exactly how the play should have been written, or he thinks he does, which in effect is the same thing.  It provided a list of “habitual first-nighters” which included, along with the Gourauds, the cream of Manhattan society:  the Cornelius Vanderbilts, the J. Pierpont Morgans, the August Belmonts, the Chauncey M. Depews, the George Goulds, the Oliver H. P. Belmont and the Stuyvesant Fishes, among them.

On May 9, 1906, the New-York Tribune reported that Mitchell A. C. Levy had sold the old Justice Davis house to Samuel Kridel.  By now the outdated brownstone was barely marketable and Kridel intended to make the most of his investment.  “The buyer will alter the structure into an American basement dwelling house,” said the newspaper.

Two years later Davis’s staid old home had been transformed.   It now wore a French façade of gleaming white limestone.  The entrance was centered in the rusticated base below a stone balcony.  Heavily-carved panels of fruity festoons and ribbons separated the second and third floor windows, and panels of cherubs, oddly sitting in baskets, and twining flowers flanked the fourth story openings.  Above it all a dormered mansard sat behind a limestone balustrade.

Prior to the transformation, No. 46 looked much like the brownstone houses on either side.  photo NYPL Collection
Jackson Gouraud purchased the renovated mansion.   At the same time that he and Amy were moving from Madison Avenue into the new house, Gladys was living in the Larchmont estate.  After she and Powers married, they had spent the summer in Paris.  Then The Times said that “on their return to this country the bride took up her residence at La Hacienda, her mother’s house at Larchmont, while Powers Gouraud had an apartment at the Holland House.  Since then they have been little together.”   In January 1907 their divorce proceedings were begun.

Since their marriage Amy and Jack had traveled extensively—not only to the expected destinations of wealthy Americans like Paris and Rome, but to India and other exotic lands.  Amy’s avante garde tastes were reflected in the decorating of the new house and she filled the rooms with curiosities gathered from around the globe.

Amy's "Indian Room" displayed exotic items gathered while traveling -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Entertainments in the Gouraud house were equally unusual.  The Sunday Oregonian would later say that Amy’s “truly oriental entertainments in her New York City home made even ultra-Bohemia gasp.”   In January 1908 she hosted a “Salome dinner” and “snake ball” in the Café Martin a year later which The Times said “attracted considerable attention.”

photo by Wurts Bros. from the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York

When the pair was not traveling, Jackson continued composing.  His greatest success was the ragtime song “Waldorf Hyphen Astoria,” which was sung by Marie Dressler and became a popular hit.   The New-York Tribune said his “career bordered on the sensational.”  Then on Thursday evening, February 17, 1910 he contracted tonsillitis.  Within a few days it developed into blood poisoning and Monday the 21st he died in the 56th Street house.  “Even at the last it was said that his death was unexpected,” reported The New York Times.

The morning funeral was held in the house two days later.   Amy did not want a large crowd, so she sent word that the service would be held in the afternoon.  “Contrary to expectation, not more than a half dozen persons, and those his most intimate friends, were there,” reported The New York Times.  “When a number of theatrical folk and Broadwayites called about 2 P. M. they were told that the funeral was over for several hours.”

The strange cherubs in baskets survive under a layer of grime -- photo by Alice Lum
Amy Gouraud closed the house on 56th Street and traveled.  Seven months later The Times noted that “Since the death of her husband, Jackson Gouraud, last February, Mrs. Gouraud has spent but little time at her home, 46 West Fifty-sixth Street.”   Her mourning was soon over and by January she was back in New York and entertaining as usual.

On January 14, 1911 vaudeville and silent screen star Valeska Surratt married Fletcher Norton, an actor who was currently appearing with her on stage.  The Times noted that Valeska “attracted considerable attention in ‘The Girl with the Whooping Cough,’ a play whose run was terminated by the Mayor.” 

Amy drove the wedding party to the Justice of the Peace in Jersey City in her touring car.  The newspaper added “After the ceremony Mr. and Mrs. Norton and friends speeded to the home of Mrs. Gouraud at 46 West Fifty-sixth Street.  There a light luncheon was set, after which the newly wedded couple returned to the theatre in time for their appearance.  After the theatre they returned to Mrs. Gouraud’s, where a number of friends awaited them.”

Before long Amy would try her own hand on the stage.   On April 3, 1911 The Times said “one fact about the new Folies Bergere that the management was holding back to be sprung as a ‘coup de publicity’ the day before the opening performance inadvertently became known yesterday, when some one discovered that Mrs. Jackson Gouraud is to be a member of the company.  She is to have a speaking part in what the actors are beginning to talk of as the ‘hell number’ in one of the revues.”

The newspaper said “Mrs. Gouraud has done a great many other things on the spur of the moment—written books, lived in native Oriental huts, given strange dances, and danced in them.”

Before long Amy tired of New York.  The Larchmont estate was being leased to Urban H. Broughton, the son-in-law of Standard Oil director H. H. Rogers; and the 56th Street house was put on the market.  In her typically independent way, Amy handled the sale herself rather than entrust the deal to a broker.

Amy Gouraud placed her own ad in the newspapers (although she got the "English basement" wrong) -- New-York Tribune December 8, 1912 (copyright expired)
In June 1913 Rebecca Crear paid Amy $150,000 (about $2 million today) for the house.  Newspapers reported “The building will be altered and used as a dressmaking establishment.”   She ran her dress shop from the house for seven years before leasing the building to Horace J. Phillips in September 1920.  Phillips signed a 21-year lease, at $10,000 per year, telling reporters he intended to convert the building into “small apartments.”

In the meantime, Amy (who now used the French spelling Aimee) was living in Paris.  Elizabeth Van Benthuysen, a Paris correspondent, wrote on May 23, 1920 “Last Sunday at high noon Aimee Crocker-Ashe-Gillig-Gouraud, formerly of San Francisco, Cal., and more recently of No. 46 West Fifty-sixth street, New York City, globe trotter and high priestess of the occult faith, motored from her Paris residence, No. 4 rue Alfred de Hudonque, to the corner of the Champs Elysees.  There she alighted with her escort, Prince W. Cantacuzene de Tzikaivty, and in solemnity joined the slowly moving procession of fashion plate promenaders.

“And all well-dressed Paris, being there to see and to be seen, gasped in amazement as she passed.

“Mme. Gouraud returned home satisfied.  She had triumphed.  An American woman had attracted more attention than any Parisian in the clothes capital’s Sunday morning parade of frocks, frills and furbelows.”

Before long Amy would add another name to her growing surname.  And a title.  According to French newspaprs, she became the Princess Tzikaivty when she married the man who had escorted her that Sunday.
Even in her later years, Amy's flamboyant style shined through -- photo Library of Congress

Back home the mansion on 56th Street where she entertained vaudeville stars and snake dancers had been converted to a store on the first and second floors, and apartments above.  In 1932 the apartments gave way to factory and showroom space.  Any trace of Amy Gouraud’s exotic interiors were obliterated.

In the mid-20th century the street level was home to upscale art galleries, the Marino Art Gallery followed by the Westerly Gallery.   Then in the 1960s it was home to The Coffee Mill where midtown workers were served “assorted sandwiches, soups and salads and ‘hamburgers of the world.’”

Today a retail space is on the first floor and a beauty salon on the second.   A huge commercial opening has been gouged into the rusticated base of the house and flat panes of glass replace the French windows of 1912.  But above street level the home of one of the most colorful couples of Edwardian New York lived is remarkably intact.
photo by Alice Lum

1 comment:

  1. I remember going to the Coffee Mill around 1963, 1964.