Saturday, October 5, 2013

The J. M. Strong House -- No. 41 West 54th Street

photo by Alice Lum

Wealthy real estate developer Joseph Montgomery Strong lived at No. 41 West 54th Street in 1893.  The house was full of life—Strong and his wife, Elizabeth, known as Lizzie; had seven children and his mother-in-law lived here with the family.

The Strong mansion sat among a row of brownstone-fronted rowhouses built a generation earlier.  The eastern half of the block, towards Fifth Avenue, was dominated by the hulking St. Luke’s Hospital and grounds.  And although Strong’s residence was nearer to the grittier Sixth Avenue than the mansion-lined Fifth Avenue; the home of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. across the street more than atoned for the arguably-marginal location.

The Strong house stood out among the brownstone relics around it.  The Beaux Arts design and America basement plan were up-to-the-minute in architectural vogue.  The French-inspired five-story limestone house boasted all the features expected of a fashionable home in the exclusive neighborhood.

French doors would originally have opened onto the second floor balcony -- photo by Alice Lum
It was Lizzie who brought social pedigree to the home.  Strong was the son of Rev. Paschal N. Strong and his wife Cornelia; certainly a respectable family .   But Lizzie was a  Livingston; one of the oldest, wealthiest and most respected names in New York.  Her deceased father was Van Brugh Livingston who added a hint of old Dutch lineage to the Livingston name.

A partner in the firm of Strong & Ireland, Joseph Montgomery Strong was visible in the circle of millionaire businessmen.  He was a member of the New York Yacht, the Atlantic Yacht, the Oakland Golf and Badminton Clubs and the Society of Colonial Wars and Sons of the Revolution.  The family summered at Lenox, Massachusetts and it was here, in 1893 that trouble began to brew.

During the Lenox whirl of summer entertainments 18-year old daughter Mary Livingston Strong caught the eye of Harvey Spencer Jr.   The New York Times described Mary as “a member of a very old American family, being a descendant of the Livingstons who were among the early settlers of this country.  She is of a very attractive personality…For the last two or three years she has been well known in society, and has received much attention at the different entertainments she has attended.”

The attention that was lavished upon Mary now came from Harvey Spencer, who was about 15 years older than the girl.  Although Harvey was said to be “of good American lineage,” Mary’s parents were vocally against his romantic interests in their daughter.

The following spring, on Thursday March 1, 1894, Mary slipped out of the West 54th Street mansion and did not return.  Five days later The New York Times reported the socially-shocking news.

"The marriage of Harvey Spencer, Jr., and Miss Mary Livingston Strong, which took place in the City Hall last Thursday, is still the subject of much discussion and gossip among society people.  Until Mr. and Mrs. Spencer return from their wedding trip little will be known regarding the details of the affair.

“It is certain, however, that Miss Strong’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Montgomery Strong of 41 West Fifty-fourth Street, have opposed the match from the very first, and that the marriage was nothing less than an elopement.”

One can imagine the wringing of hands and the tears of Lizzle Strong and her mother, the dowager Mrs. Van Brugh Livingston, as the scandal spread through the drawing rooms of Fifth Avenue.

photo by Alice Lum
The family stayed on in the 54th Street house through the turn of the century.  Mrs. V. B. Livingston was visible in her charity work, especially St. Rita’s Home for Friendless Women of the City of New York, of which she was secretary. 

By 1905, however, the mansion was home to the Edward Kemp family.  Kemp was a partner in Lanman & Kemp, wholesale dealers in drugs and perfumes.  With Kemp and his wife, the former Josephine de Mott, in the home were their daughters and two sons, Edward, Jr. and Van Horne Kemp, and daughters.

While most other wealthy businessmen were still relying on horse-drawn vehicles, Edward Kemp had moved on to the automobile.  Kemp’s luck with the motor cars was not always the best, however.

On the afternoon of September 19, 1905 Kemp and his family were on their way to visit friends in Boston.  In the tonneau, or passenger compartment, of the car were Mrs. Kemp and the two boys; Edward was riding up front with the chauffeur.  While riding in the country near Stamford, Connecticut the vehicle approached two buggies parked on either side of the road as it climbed Knapp’s Hill.  In one of the buggies was real estate developer Cornelius B. Fish and his daughter.

Suddenly, a speeding automobile appeared at the crest of the hill heading directly down the slope towards the Kemp vehicle.   Kemp’s chauffeur swerved to avoid the car.

“Mr. Kemp’s big motor car hit one of the buggies…containing C. B. Fish of 254 West Eighty-fourth Street, New York, and his daughter.  The buggy was hurled fifteen feet and reduced to small pieces.  Mr. Fish and his daughter were thrown out.  One of Mr. Fish’s ribs was broken, and he was badly shaken up, but his daughter was not much hurt,” reported The Times.

Kemp was tossed from the limousine “and the occupants of the tonneau made ready to jump.  Their car, traveling at a high speed to get over the steep grade, swerved wildly and bounced toward a four-foot ditch at the side of the road.  The chauffeur kept his head, and sticking to the wheel, brought the car to a standstill on the edge of the ditch.  The front wheel was broken and the hood was bent.”

The speeding auto that caused the accident continued on and disappeared.  Police later disclosed that just prior to the wreck that car had run down little Salvator Rose at the top of Knapp’s Hill, leaving him in the road with a “great gash on his head.”  The Times said “but the party, never heeding his cries, went on down the hill and just missed Mr. Kemp’s car.”

The following year, in May 1906, Kemp took his wife and eldest daughter on an afternoon “spin out on the island,” as reported in the Brooklyn Daily Standard Union on May 27.  Kemp had paid about $5,000 for his touring car—about $95,000 by today’s standards.  As the vehicle climbed a long hill in Long Island City, Kemp remarked to his chauffeur that he smelled something burning.

The chauffeur pulled the expensive vehicle to the curb.  “On jumping out he saw that the lower part of the automobile was on fire,” reported the Daily Standard.  Mrs. Kemp and her daughter had hardly been helped out of the car by Mr. Kemp and the chauffeur when the fire blazed up and the whole machine was in flames.  It is supposed that the engine tank leaked and that a spark set the liquid on fire.”

The fire department was called, but as the Kemp family looked on, their touring car was destroyed.  “Nothing was left of the automobile except the wheels,” reported the newspaper.

As the country entered World War I, 27-year old Edward Kemp, Jr. joined the First Motor Battery of New York.  The Army private shared his father’s love for motor vehicles; a passion that would end tragically on March 6, 1917.  Kemp was riding his motorcycle on Fifth Avenue near 96th Street that afternoon when it skidded.  The Sun reported the following day that the cycle “crashed into the rear of a brewery truck.  Kemp was thrown several feet, landing on his head.”  The young private was instantly killed.

Like James M. Strong before him, Edward Kemp was a prominent yachtsman and well-known in private men’s clubs.  He held memberships to the Downtown, Automobile, Seawanhaka-Corinthian Yacht, Nassau Country, and Rumson Country Clubs and the Sons of the Revolution.  The Kemp summer home was on Rumson Road in Seabright, New Jersey.  But, as was also the case with the Strong family, social position and wealth could not defend against scandal.

Trouble had been brewing in the 54th Street house in 1919 and by September of that year Kemp was staying in a bungalow on Green Island in Lake George.  On September 17 a knock on the door put Kemp face-to-face with a summons server.  Josephine had sued her husband for separation.

Josephine wasted no time in leaving the house.  Less than a month later, on November 12, she had rented the mansion to Mrs. Horace E. Andrews.  Notably, the notice in The Sun dropped Josephine’s married name, calling her Mrs. De Mott.

Antoinette Devereux Andrews was widow of railway mogul Horace Ellsworth Andrews who had died on December 1 the year before.   With her mourning period ending, the impressive mansion would make an appropriate stage for the social marketing of her two unmarried daughters, Dorothy and Margery. Five months after moving in Antoinette announced the engagement of Dorothy Devereux Andrews to a Navy man, Lieutenant Commander Emanuel A. Lofquist, who was stationed on the Pennsylvania, the flagship of the Atlantic fleet.

The lease on the 54th Street house apparently expired in 1921.  The New York Times reported that Mrs. H. E. Andrews and Miss Margery Andrews have closed their town house, 41 West Fifth-fourth Street, and are at the Ambassador Hotel.  Within a year the former mansion was converted to a “boarding house/apartment.”  Department of Building records demanded “Not more than 15 sleeping rooms, not more than 2 families cooking independently on premises.”

While it sounds like a inglorious end, the neighborhood still lured high-end tenants.  In 1926 a German artist and her husband, Captain Alexander Ruemann, formerly of the German Imperial Navy were living here.  Madame Ruemann, as she preferred to be called, had spent a great deal of her life studying graphic arts and exhibitions of her work had been held in Berlin and Munich.

When a private viewing of her oil paintings and water colors was being staged by the Art Patrons of America, Inc. at No. 9 East 57th Street in January, 1927, Mrs. Ruemann’s former identity became known.

The New York Times reported on January 25 “Princess Alexandra Victoria Ruemann of Schleswig-Holstein, former wife of the German Kaiser’s son Prince August Wilhelm, who has been in the country incognito for the past month, disclosed her identity yesterday.”

The Princess explained her reluctance to expose her title.  “The difficulty in being a Princess and an artist at the same time lies in the anxiety of persons to pick flaws in one’s art for no other reason than that one is not known primarily as an artist.”

She explained that before the war it was considered “nice” for well-bred young ladies to paint; however “it was never regarded as anything more than a pastime.”

Since coming to New York the artist had been busy painting portraits of society women, including the Princess Braganza, Mrs. Cosmo Hamilton and others.  “Mrs. Hamilton is such a sweet, don’t you think?” she said to reporters.

On December 20, 1932 the Contemporary Arts gallery opened its new headquarters in the house.  One of New York’s leading galleries for modern artists, it hosted exhibitions here for years.  The gallery was followed in the late 1930s by Brussels Contemporary Arts.

In 2000 the former Joseph Montgomery Strong mansion was converted to offices on the first two floors with a staggering three-story residence above.  Although the multi-paned windows have been replaced, the exterior of the mansion remains largely unchanged—a reminder of a time when the homes of millionaires lined this now-bustling block of 54th Street.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. Paul McCartney lives in the top floors. His company, MPL communications, takes up the first couple floors of the building

    1. I pretended to ring the doorbell last time I was in Manhattan. Just to see if Sir Paul would answer. He didn't.