Monday, July 8, 2013

The Lost Chas. B. Alexander Mansion - No. 4 West 58th Street

The house in 1897 prior to the addition.  The brownstone next door, owned by Clinton Fisk, would be razed to double the mansion's size -- The Architectural Record, September 1897 (copyright expired)
Until 1884 things had been going well for William J. Hutchinson.   The recently-retired broker was married to Mary Emily Oatman, daughter of the notable Vermont physician Joel S. Oatman.    And two years earlier their new brick-and-stone mansion at No. 4 East 58th Street had been completed.

The structure was designed by George B. Post and  sat at the northern edge of Millionaire’s Row, in the most prestigious residential neighborhood in Manhattan.  Around the corner on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street was the hulking French chateau of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and the brownstone residence (albeit somewhat dated) of Clinton B. Fisk next door to the Hutchinson house at No. 6.

Mary, wealthy in her own right, paid for the entire cost of the mansion.  She had inherited a sizeable fortune from her father and by now owned considerable Manhattan real estate and the family’s summer cottage in Seabright, New Jersey.  The Hutchinsons had three daughters, Harriet, Mary Grace, and Lena.

The Architectural Record was mixed in its opinion of Post’s new design.  “The house No. 4 West 58th Street, with all its merit as an elaborate piece of linear design, and as showing in the exterior a great deal of careful thought for comfort and elegance in the arrangements within, is yet open to unfavorable criticism in this matter of contrast of color; and this by itself goes far to injure it as a piece of good proportion.”  The critic praised the “excellent disposition of the vestibule…with a large archway for the entrance door looking northward, and a similar archway looking eastward and serving as a window;” but complained about the hipped roof rather than a gabled one.  “Emphasis is, perhaps, what the exterior of the house lacks.”

But the critic adored the grand, soaring chimneys.  “The only thing about it which seems to be fearlessly carried out is the design of the great chimneys,” the article said.  The writer quickly returned to criticism, however, lamenting that the chimneys were the only sign of boldness.  “Refinement of proportion is a great and rare thing, nor can the best of designers always succeed in combining that precious charm with modern requirements, especially in dwelling houses; but boldness of design is not quite so hard to achieve, nor is this, it would seem, a case in which such boldness would have been far to seek.”

Bold or not, the house was the happy home to the Hutchinson family; at least for two years.  1884 started out badly and things would only get worse.  On Tuesday March 25 the funeral of 78-year old Margaret B. Hutchinson, William’s mother, was held in the mansion.

At the time Mary could not have realized that her husband’s grief and worry went far beyond his mother’s passing.  She was blissfully unaware that William had lost his fortune of over $1 million.  On August 24, 1884 with creditors closing in on him and the knowledge that his financial difficulties would be made public—including to his wife—Hutchinson left New York and went into seclusion at the Seabright summer home.  The New York Times reported on August 26 that he remained there “all day yesterday in a condition of absolute prostration, both mental and physical.”

The newspaper wrote that “The facts in the reported embarrassment of William J. Hutchinson are slowly becoming public, and everything tends to show that he has little, if anything, left of the large fortune with which he retired from active business so very recently.”

Next door neighbor Clinton Fisk stepped in to support both Hutchinson and his wife.  “The fact is,” he told reporters, “that Mr. Hutchinson has worried himself sick by his constant losses.  He has been on the losing side all the time, and what he needs more than anything else is the services of some clear-headed business friend to straighten out his affairs.”

But first Mary Hutchinson needed to be let in on the situation.

Fisk said “Mrs. Hutchinson is a very noble, conscientious lady and it was thought best by many of her friends that, as she was quite ignorant of the true condition of her husband’s affairs, she should be made acquainted with the actual facts.  I accordingly visited her last night and told her.”

One can imagine the scene in Mary Oatman Hutchinson’s magnificent sitting room that evening, surrounded by luxury and the coming and going of an occasional servant, as she heard that her husband had lost a fortune.  The $1 million loss on Wall Street would be about twenty-one times that much today.

No stereotypical hysterical Victorian female, the cool-headed Mary stressed that she would take care of things; but that she would not rush into it.  “She at once declared her willingness to do all that was required to aid her husband,” reported Fisk.  “She is a very good business woman, having a lawyer of her own, and before acting hastily, wished time to ascertain how much would be required, and stated that she would not take advantage of any legal technicalities to adjust the claims against her husband…When matters have quieted down, and she knows just what is necessary, she will do everything necessary to pay off her husband’s creditors.”

Of the several Wall Street firms to which Hutchinson owed money one was George K. Sistare & Sons and, like most of the others, it described Hutchinson as an honorable man and downplayed the debt.   W. H. H. Sistare said that Hutchinson’s debt was “a very trifling sum.  This was in process of liquidation.”

Since all the real estate was in Mary’s name, the mansion at No. 4 West 58th Street was safe from creditors.  She paid off her husband’s debts and restored the family respectability--until March of 1887 when William Hutchinson embarrassed the family for the last time.

George K. Sistare & Sons had given Hutchinson the benefit of the doubt three years earlier.  They would not do so again on March 17, 1887.  The New York Times ran the scandalous story that must have devastated Mary.

“’William J. Hutchingson, gentleman,’ was a prisoner in the Tombs Police Court yesterday.  William H. M. Sistare charged him with having stolen from the firm of Sistare & Sons certain securities of the par value of $97,000.”

A month later, on the opposite side of the country, prominent New York City attorney Charles Beatty Alexander married Hattie Crocker in San Francisco.  Hattie was the daughter of railroad tycoon Charles Crocker and a leading figure in San Francisco society.  The young woman had already created a reputation for herself in her notable charitable works.   A newspaper wrote “Indeed, it may be said that the whole city was interested in the affair, for Miss Crocker, by her many acts of charity, notably in the founding and support of Kindergarten schools, had endeared herself to all classes of the community.”

The New York Times reported on April 27 that “The newly married couple were the recipients of many costly gifts, the most important perhaps being a deed to Charles Crocker’s residence in New-York.”

That residence was No. 4 West 58th Street, recently purchased by Crocker from Mary Emily Oatman Hutchinson.

Hattie, who grew up on Nob Hill, now moved into the vortex of Manhattan society.  Her new husband, aside from his legal practice, was already a Vice-President and Director of the Columbus, Hocking Valley and Toledo Railway, Co.; Director of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States; Chairman of the Board of Palatine Insurance Co.; and a member of New York’s most exclusive men’s clubs, including the Metropolitan, Union and University Clubs.

The new Mrs. Charles B. Alexander threw herself into charity work, as she had done in California.  She immediately became Secretary of the Ladies’ Auxiliary Board of the New York Women’s Hospital; and entertainments in the 58th Street mansion were most often related to a charity event.

In 1896 she took a short break from charitable efforts when she and Charles attended the coronation of Czar Nicholas II in Moscow.

A substantial problem was soon evident, however.  The house was too small.  In 1906 the Alexanders purchased the former Fisk house at No. 6 and doubled the size of their home.   On February 24, 1907 The New York Times reported on the opening of the renovated mansion—noting that the expansion was partly to help in Mrs. Alexander’s charity work.

The addition half-heartedly attempted to meld with the original house -- photo
“This fine residence is the result of the recent making over of 4 and 6 West Fifty-eighth Street into one spacious house that includes a large ballroom, where not only will Mr. and Mrs. Alexander give balls and musicales, but which will be used for many entertainments for charity.”

The newspaper noted that the interior decorations were not garish.  “This ballroom is the only room in the house showing gilt, and even there the gilding is of the attenuated kind, being most delicate.  The color tones are pale gray, pink and gold, in the manner of Gabriel, who designed at the end of the Louise Quinze period.”

Nelson of Paris was brought in to design the interiors.  The ballroom color scheme was copied from a salon in the Paris chateau of Bagatelle built for the Comte d’Artois.  A Boucher tapestry woven with a pastoral scene hung on the wall.

The drawing room was done in Louis XVI “after the manner of Salimbeni,” said The Times.  Here were 18th century wall panels painted by Francois Boucher.  The same style carried on into the Caen stone-lined entrance with French marble trim.  The furniture was covered in tapestry to match the large tapestries that hung on the walls.  The stair railings and pilasters were bronze.

The Alexander dining room opened onto the ballroom.  It was a reproduction of a room in the Convent of Notre Dame des Champs in Paris.  The room was paneled in French oak “of the period of Henri II.”

The remodeled and enlarged mansion was designed specifically for entertaining.   The Times described how guests would arrive for a ball.  “The entrance to the Alexander residence is unique, and is especially adapted for large entertainments.  One enters from the street a little outer hall, separated from the main hall by a half flight of stairs and glass doors set in dull bronze.  If it is a ball or large evening entertainment, the guests turn to the right and descend by a curving marble stairway a half flight, and find themselves in a large, square, furnished hall; turning again to the right, the women enter the boudoir…used as a dressing room, while the men turn to the left into the smoking room.”

Here the guests would remove their coats, then pass to a separate stairway that lead directly back to the main entrance hall.

The Times summed up the house succinctly.  “Taken as a whole, this house is one of the simplest, most convenient, and most spacious in New York.”
As did all wealthy socialites, Hattie Alexander posed for an oil portrait, this one by John Singer Sargent -- (copyright expired)
The new house took back stage briefly that year, however, when Charles and Hattie traveled to London where Mrs. Alexander was presented at court to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria.

Among the most notable entertainments in the renovated house was held on June 20, 1910 when the wedding reception of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and Eleanor Alexander, Charles’ niece, took place.   The five hundred guests included the former President and Mrs. Roosevelt and “many distinguished personages, old friends of the Roosevelt regime at the White House, and society,” said The Times.
In 1905 the massive Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion took up the entire Fifth Avenue block between 57th and 58th Street.  The Alexander mansion sits to the right.  photo by Arthur Vitols of the Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Hattie Alexander kept the mansion buzzing with charity events.  Earlier that same year, in February, she hosted a musical to benefit of one her favorite causes, the open-air class run by the Spence School for tubercular children.  The same month there was a poetry reading for the same cause.  Sitting among the moneyed guests listening to Maeterlink’s “Pelleas et Melisande” as music by Debussy played were socialites with names like Roosevelt, Ledyard and Van Beuren.

In 1913 the Alexander daughters, Mary Crocker, Janetta and Harriett, were growing up.  That year “several large entertainments” were held in the 58th Street house for Mary’s debut.

Society at the time patronized the theater and entertainers were appreciated—on stage.  While opera stars were welcomed in the parlors and sitting rooms of Manhattan’s mansions, stage actors were not.  So in 1914 when Fanny Brice and Nick Arnstein moved onto the block—two doors away from the Alexander mansion—it could have been a problem.   Hattie Alexander, however, became friendly (if not “a friend”) of the Ziegfeld star.

As Europe descended into war, Hattie turned her attention to war relief.  On April 30, 1915 Marie de Page, wife of Dr. Antoine de Page of Brussels, spoke to the Special Relief Society in the 58th Street house.  Madame de Page had toured the United States on behalf of the “Queen’s Hospital” at La Panne Belgium where wounded soldiers were treated.

The attractive woman was booked to sail back home on the Lapland the previous day, but had canceled her passage in order to speak at the Alexander home.  She thanked the well-dressed group of socialites and rushed back to her hotel to pack.  The following day, May 1, she boarded the RMS Lusitania.

Six days later a German U-boat torpedoed the vessel, ending the lives of 1,198 passengers and crew.

In 1916 Harriet married Winthorp W. Aldrich, son of the former senator Nelson W. Aldrich.   The National Courier wrote of the wedding scheduled to take place on December 7 in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.  “A number of well known society folk from Washington, Philadelphia and Boston will go to New York for the wedding,” it said. 

photo The Evening World December 7, 1916 (copyright expired)
While Aldrich had served as a Navy lieutenant, Harriet followed her mother’s lead, serving as president of the Junior League and heading all of that organization’s war activities.

The ceremony was performed by Charles Alexander’s brother, the Rev. Dr. Maitland Alexander.  The Evening World reported that “A feature of the church ceremony will be music by the Nathan Franko orchestra.”  The reception was held, of course, in the Alexander mansion.

Hattie Alexander continued her own war relief efforts.  On July 7 she hosted a meeting of the Women’s War Work Council in the house.  Money raised by the organization was used “in looking after the welfare of the young women and girls in communities near the army concentration camps and in the erection of buildings for the accommodation of families of soldiers and their friends who may visit them,” said The Sun.

In April 1918 Andre Tardieu, French High Commissioner to the United States spoke in the house for the benefit of the children of France “made orphans by the German drive on the Western front.”

A month later the Alexanders announced the engagement of Janetta to Captain Arnold Whitridge of the 5th Field Artillery.  Captain Whitridge was deployed in France and Janetta followed along, working for the Y.M.C.A. there.  The New York Times headline announced “Miss Alexander to Marry in Wartime.”

The final wedding for the family took place, as the others had, in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in October 1920.  Mary Crocker Alexander, the youngest daughter, married Sheldon Whitehouse, in what the New-York Tribune called ‘the largest and most fashionable of the six society weddings that day.

In February 1920 Hattie Alexander was president of the Charity Ball for the benefit of the New York Nursery and Child’s Hospital.  The event was an annual social spectacle.  The New-York Tribune said on February 1 “All the social clans will gather for the occasion, the debutantes as well as the dowagers will be in evidence, and the ball, which is the one event of each winter of a public nature to which society lends its presence, promises to be not only the most fashionable but one of the most successful in recent years.”

Prior to the ball, the Alexanders hosted a dinner at No. 4 West 58th Street.  Sitting at the dining table were Governor Alfred E. Smith and his wife, Prince and Princess Cantacuzene-Speranskey, Prince and Princess Rospigliosi, Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the E. H. Harrimans, Mrs.Whitelaw Reid and a host of others.

That year the French Government bestowed the medal of the Reconnaissance Nationale on Hattie Alexander in recognition of her war relief work.

On February 7, 1927 Charles Beatty Alexander died in the house at the age of 78.  His funeral was held around the corner in the church where his three daughters had been married.   Daughter Mary and her husband, Sheldon Whitehouse, moved back into the house with Hattie.  Whitehouse was appointed American Minister to Guatemala and traveled back and forth between that country and New York.

Hattie spent her summers in Paris at her home at 80 Avenue Foch.  By the early 1930s Sheldon Whitehouse was American Minister to Columbia and Mary would often accompany her mother to France.  On July 16, 1935 Hattie Crocker Alexander died in her Paris home.  Her funeral was held in the American Cathedral the following day, and her body brought home to New York on the Berengaria immediately afterward.  A second funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on July 25.

Newspapers remembered her not for her great wealth, but for her infinite charitable works.  “Her town house was the centre of many activities in the interest of hospitals and charities,” said The New York Times.  “Concerts and lectures were frequently given there for benevolences in which she was interested.”

Sheldon and Mary Whitehouse continued to live on in the 58th Street mansion.  Like her mother, Mary gave luncheons and other events for charitable causes.  And like her mother, she embraced all classes—including entertainers.  On December 17, 1937 The Times noted that “Mrs. Sheldon White of 4 West 58th Street gave a luncheon at her home for Miss Gertrude Lawrence, the actress.”

Mary’s entertainments were not always for charity, of course.  On November 10, 1938 she gave a dazzling dinner party at which her former neighbor, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, was a guest. 

By now the neighborhood had changed from the exclusive enclave of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens to one of high-end retail stores.  The immense Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion had been razed and replaced by the Bergdorf-Goodman store and the millionaires of Fifth Avenue had all moved further north along the park.

On December 7, 1939 Mary and Sheldon hosted a reception and tea for their debutante niece, Jane Whitridge, Janetta’s daughter.   The Times remembered that the house “for many years was the residence of the debutante’s grandparents, the late Mr. and Mrs. Charles B. Alexander.  Mrs. Whitridge and Mrs. Whitehouse also made their debuts in that house, as did their sister, Mrs. Winthrop W. Aldrich."

It would be among the last affairs in the 58th Street mansion, however.  The house was demolished in 1943 to be replaced four years later with a 12-story office, showroom and store building designed by Siegel & Green.   It was one of the last vestiges of an elegant era in what was Millionaire’s Row.
In 1949 the new structure was nearing completion -- photo Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York


  1. the post design was very elegant and beautiful. i can only imagine what the deep red brick and the limestone contrasting each other looked like.

  2. Amazing amount of details in this post. Thank you! That final photo of the site with the apartment building on the spot where the mansion was is great, too. I've been inside the Paris movie theater many times and now I know what crazy fabulous history happened on that spot.