In her 1920 novel of New York society during the Gilded Age,"The Age of Innocence," Edith Wharton paints a written portrait of Mrs. Manson Mingott—the shrewd social leader who constructed her lavish mansion far north of the affluent residential district.
“It was her habit to sit in a window of her sitting-room on the ground floor, as if watching calmly for life and fashion to flow northward to her solitary doors. She seemed in no hurry to have them come, for her patience was equaled by her confidence. She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries, the one-story saloons, the wooden green-houses in ragged gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene, would vanish before the advance of residences as stately as her own—perhaps (for she was an impartial woman) even statelier.”
The character of Mrs. Mingott was a slightly-veiled portrayal of the very real Mrs. Mary Mason Jones, Wharton’s aunt. Like Mrs. Mingott, she erected a massive white marble chateau on Fifth Avenue and East 57th Street, more than 20 blocks above the northern fringe of society.
Mary Mason Jones had inherited two blocks of land stretching from Fifth Avenue to Park Avenue, between 57th and 58th Streets, in 1854. Her father, banker John Mason, had bought up several acres of undeveloped, rocky terrain in 1823 for approximately $10 a city lot. The land would eventually be carved into sixteen city blocks in what would become known as Midtown.
Mason’s will was tied up in the courts for fifteen years. (Apparently two daughters and their husbands were with him as he neared death. In his semi-conscious condition, they propped him into a sitting position, tied him between a chair in back and a board in front to keep him from slumping over and forced his signature. Court papers said “He wandered in his mind, talking and muttering to himself about horses and chemicals. In this decayed state of body and mind he executed the famous Mason will.) Once the property was hers outright, the widowed Mary Mason Jones set to work improving it.
In 1867 she sat down with architect Robert Mook and laid out her vision for the Fifth Avenue block. There would be no grim brownstone and no high stoops. Instead she pointed to the exuberant residential designs of Paris and the French country palaces. A newspaper said the “buildings were built from plans of her own, made by an architect from ideas she derived from Fontainebleau.”
Two years later her series of isolated white marble mansions was completed. They quickly earned the name Marble Row and were like nothing the city had seen before.
Decades later The New York Times would say “Mrs. Jones built the series of residences and introduced French tendencies in the architecture. Her innovation has been credited by some as ending the fashion of ‘brown stone fronts’ as the home hallmark of ‘society.’”
Mrs. Jones ensconced herself in No. 1 East 57th Street and, as the fictional Mrs. Mingott had done, waited for society to come to her. And it did.
Within two decades Fifth Avenue was paved and the monumental mansions of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens rose along the blocks around Mrs. Jones’ marble palace. Mary Mason Jones’ emulation of things French did not stop with her mansion. She instituted the practice of Sunday evening “salons,” in which artists and writers would mingle with society figures. Discussions centered around literature and other subjects more substantial than the superficial dribble heard at teas, dinner parties and receptions.
Mary Mason Jones was an undisputed leader of society, a position she refused to allow even her advancing years to impede. On December 30, 1884, she hosted a debutante dance in the house for her great-granddaughter, Lena De Trobriand Post. (The New York Times made note that the first ball Mrs. Jones had given was 63 years earlier.) “It was an early ball, as Mrs. Jones, who is 83 years old, wished to be present and witness the social triumph of her great-granddaughter. She had brought into society her sister, her daughter, and her granddaughter, and last night her happiness was complete at witnessing the first ball given in honor of a great-grandchild.”
The article noted the décor of the mansion: “The halls of the large house last evening were filled with palms and rare exotic plants. Broad steps ascend from the square hallway as one enters, and leading to the second floor terminate at the entrance to a large ball room…It is a large square room, with high ceiling and furnished with brightly colored upholstering. It was ornamented last evening simply with holly and a few flowers. On one side is a reception room, which was given up to the guests last evening, and was prettily decorated with flowers and greens. On the first floor is the suite of parlors.”
Earlier that year, in April, the house saw the wedding of Mrs. Mary Mason Jones’ granddaughter, also named Mary Mason Jones. The guest list included the most elite of New York society—Astors, Goelets, Van Rensselaers, Iselins, Schieffelins, and Waldos among them. Expectedly absent was the wealthy widow Mrs. Paran Stevens.
Like her counterpart, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, Mary Mason Jones defined “society” by the age of one’s money. Only members of New York’s Old Guard danced at a Mason ball or were invited to tea. The socially ambitious Mrs. Stevens had millions; but her husband had made his money in hotels and rumor was that she had been a housekeeper when she met him.
The sometimes overt social clashes between the two women reportedly resulted in Marietta Reed Stevens’ famous announcement that she would never set foot in Marble Row by invitation. And she did not—possibly because that invitation never came.
On May 29, 1891 the 90-year old Mrs. Mary Mason Jones died in the marble palace at No. 1 East 57th Street. The Times noted that she “was in comparatively good health up to a few weeks ago, and her death was the result of old age more than any specific disease.” Mrs. Paran Stevens was about to get her revenge.
Within the year she moved into the mansion of Mrs. Mary Mason Jones. But first she redid the Jones interiors. On October 2, 1892 The New York Times mentioned that “Mrs. Paran Stevens is having her newly-leased marble residence…renovated.” The lease would become a deed before long.
Paran Stevens had died in 1872, leaving the management of his extensive real estate holdings to his wife and a group of trustees. Marietta Reed Stevens was vociferously opinionated, strong-minded, and obstinate. “There seemed to be an entire lack of harmony between the widow and the trustees to whom Paran Stevens left the management of his property,” The Times would later say. In her determination to get her own way, she spent approximately $250,000 in legal fees fighting her partners in managing the properties—over $6 million by today’s standards.
Mrs. Paran Stevens strove onward in her quest to become a social leader; and she succeeded. Her ballroom would see the city’s most prominent names, just as it had during Mary Mason Jones’ residency. On March 17, 1893 it was the scene of a “salon concert” by the entire 60-member Boston Symphony Orchestra. Among the guests there that night were Mr. and Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs. Also there were Stanford White and his wife. Theresa Oelrichs and the architect would meet again in the house years later under greatly changed circumstances.
A month later Marietta Reed Stevens scored a social coup. In 1890’s New York nothing caught the attention of society like a royal title and the Duke and Duchess of Veragua with their retinue were in town. She managed to entertain the royals with a glittering affair.
“The important function of the evening was the reception given to the members of the ducal party by Mrs. Paran Stevens at her handsome home at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street,” reported The Times on April 21, 1893. “Mrs. Stevens invited a number of society people to meet the Duke and Duchess, and received her guests in the ballroom on the second floor…The reception was not held till 9 o’clock, and many of the guests were much later in arriving. In all about 150 persons were present.”
|The house as it looked when Mrs. Paran Stevens lived here. -- photograph Library of Congress|
The same year that she entertained the Duke, she received troubling news about one of her premiere properties, the Victorian Hotel at Fifth Avenue and Broadway. Her lessees were falling behind and the hotel was not doing well. The Times said that her “financial interests are so closely identified with the success of the hotel” and its prosperity was “a matter of serious consequence to her.”
The intense emotional character of Marietta Stevens would take its toll on her in March 1895 when she received the news that the Victoria Hotel had failed. On April 2 The Times ran the headline “Mrs. Paran Stevens Prostrated” and wrote “Since the assignment last week Mrs. Stevens had been unable to leave her house, at Fifty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue. Acquaintances who called have been informed that she caught cold at a musicale, and that the probabilities of serious developments were so near at hand that she could not receive visitors.”
The doors to the Fifth Avenue mansion were closed and “The butler refused to take cards or to give any information, except that Mrs. Stevens was suffering from a very severe cold,” said the newspaper. The truth was, with the news of the hotel’s collapse she had suffered a massive stroke.
A telegram was sent to Marietta’s daughter, Lady Paget, to board the first steamship to New York. She would not arrive in time. On April 4, 1895 The New York Times wrote “To persons familiar with the peculiarly nervous and excitable temperament of Mrs. Paran Stevens, and to all who knew of the shock that the failure of the Victoria Hotel was to her, the sudden announcement of her death yesterday afternoon was not a surprise.” Even in reporting her death, the newspaper did not hold back concerning her peculiarities. “No woman in New-York society was better known than Mrs. Paran Stevens, and despite certain personal idiosyncrasies that all her friends thoroughly understood..She was an impulsive woman, never hesitating to give full expression of her opinions about everybody and everything uppermost in her mind for the moment.”
Mariette Stevens’ body lay for days in a room with drawn curtains on the third floor of the mansion while her daughter traveled from Liverpool.
Later that year, in November, an auction was held of the Stevens artwork removed from the mansion. Included were 97 oil paintings and several marble sculptures. Although there were a few rather important pieces, including a life-size portrait of Daniel Webster by A. G. Hoit; The New York Times was blatantly catty in its critique of the collection.
“Most of the works, however, are of a style popular many years ago with our fashionables…There are copies of old works, curious canvases, of such infinite variety of subject as certainly to stamp the collector’s taste as eclectic, to say the least.”
The massive marble mansion became the property of Herman Oelrichs and his wife, the former Theresa Fair. “Tessie” was one of two daughters of James Graham Fair—one of the four partners in the fabled Comstock Lode and a former Senator of California. Tessie commissioned Stanford White to renovate the house. (Two years later, just as the renovations were completed, he would design the Oelrichs’ grand Newport cottage, Rosecliff).
On January 3 1897 The Times described the changes. “Since Hermann Oelrichs and his wife came into possession of the white marble house at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, which was occupied for many years by Mrs. Paran Stevens, some pronounced improvements have gone into effect. Rich and artistic decorations, external as well as internal, have converted the old mansion into one of the most beautiful residences on the avenue.”
The newspaper made note of the opulent homes now standing in what was barren terrain when Mary Mason Jones built the house. “The junction of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street may now with truth be called ‘the palace corners.’ There is Cornelius Vanderbilt’s great mansion on one corner, Collis P. Huntington’s castle on another, the ivy-clad Whitney palace on a third, and now the luxurious home of the Oelrichses on the fourth.”
Living with the Oelrichses in the house was Tessie’s sister, Virginia Fair. The Times said of her “She was popular from her first entrance into society, and while not exactly a great belle, has always been much liked, both in New York and Newport.” Among those who “much liked” the girl known popularly as “Birdie” was a neighbor, William K. Vanderbilt, Jr.
Newport society took notice in 1897 when the 18-year old Vanderbilt showed attention to the 21-year old Virginia Fair. A year later their engagement was confirmed. “The news of the engagement it is not expected will greatly surprise New York society,” said The Times. “Mr. Vanderbilt has been assiduous in his attentions to Miss Fair,” said the newspaper. “He was constantly with her at Newport last Summer, and since he returned from college for his Christmas holidays has been seen much with her in public.”
The Vanderbilt-Fair wedding would be the grandest event held in the Oelrichs mansion. Preparations required an army of carpenters, decorators and florists. The service would be held in the conservatory and to prevent gawking eyes, the glass walls were covered in yards of pink fabric. An altar was constructed in the center of the room, and full-grown blossoming fruit trees were brought in.
The ballroom, which opened onto the conservatory, was “transformed into a rose garden.” Tessie had rose trees, six feet in diameter and 12 feet in height, placed throughout the room along with several sundials. An organ was placed in the musicians’ balcony where the singers performed.
The pre-publicity of the wedding—the guest list, the decorations, gowns and other details—drew crowds on the street. The wedding was scheduled to take place at 12:10 and “an enormous crowd, almost entirely composed of women, began to assemble in the vicinity of the Oelrichs house at an early hour,” reported The Times.
A squad of policemen were dispatched to keep “this feminine crowd, with some difficulty, on the south side of Fifty-seventh Street, and away from the doors of the Oelrichs residence.”
The women were shocked when the bridegroom was seen leaving the house. “He had been paying an early morning visit to his fiancée, and left the house on foot, in order to go to his father’s house, at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street, to dress for the ceremony. This was evidently considered a very unconventional proceeding and led to much discussion.”
The Oelrichs’s butler, Johnson, kept vigil at the entrance, lest anyone uninvited should sneak in. “The musicians, caterers’ assistants, and other attendants began to arrive at the house soon after 11 o’clock. They were obliged to pass in each individual case the scrutiny of the argus-eyed Johnson, who had taken his stand at the entrance of the canopy, which had been erected over night.”
As the socially-prominent guests began arriving, the crowds got out of control. “The police exerted themselves, but found the utmost difficulty in restraining the surging mass of women, who pressed forward with such eager curiosity that it was almost impossible for those of the arriving relatives and guests who were on foot to force their way through.”
Throughout the elegant ceremony and wedding breakfast the impatient mob of women stayed their grounds; now lining the west side of Fifth Avenue and the south side of 57th Street. When the Vanderbilt carriage pulled up to the mansion with its driver and footman wearing claret-colored coats and white breeches; pandemonium broke out. The curiosity seekers demanded a glimpse of the bride and groom.
“The crowd, which up to this time had been under half-way control, burst its bounds when the carriage drove up for the couple. Clubs were used to keep them back, and many people were knocked down. The bridegroom grew impatient and the bride declared she could never get to the carriage. In a few moments, however, the way was cleared.”
Eventually Herman Oelrichs spent less and less time in the Fifth Avenue mansion. He traveled often to San Francisco to administer Tessie’s and Virginia’s inherited properties and investments. Never one to enjoy the pomp and pretensions of society, by 1906 he had purchased a farm outside San Francisco where he lived most of the time. The Times said “He had virtually retired from the New York house…He rarely came to New York, but would make short visits here about twice a year. Mrs. Oelrichs and their son visited yearly in California.”
On the morning of April 18, 1906 the 56-year old Oelrichs was in San Francisco managing Tessie’s properties when the infamous earthquake hit. Already in poor health, he worked tirelessly in relief efforts. “In the horrors that followed the quake he took charge of the house of Mrs. Eleanor Martin, beyond Van Ness Avenue, which was converted into headquarter for army offices,” reported The Times. “He also did much effective relief work, but the strain proved too great for him, and his doctor advised him to go to Carlsbad and try the waters there.”
On his way home from the German spa, on the steamship Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Herman Oelrichs died. Tessie was in Newport, visiting Virginia and William Vanderbilt, when the news came. The three, along with Herman Oelrichs, Jr., arrived back at Grand Central Terminal on September 4 and went straight to the Fifth Avenue house. Because it had been closed for the season, servants were set to work preparing it while the Vanderbilts, Tess and young Herman went to the Hotel Belmont.
The following day the family waited at the pier for the steamship to dock. Dressed in mourning, Tessie was surrounded by the gleeful families of those returning on the ship; unaware of her grief. “The friends of those on board knew nothing in their joy of the little mourning group, and swarmed around them, shouting greetings and calling their pleasure at seeing their friends return alive and well. After a few minutes the ordeal was more than Mrs. Oelrichs could bear, and she left her chair and moved away a little from the crowd."
The coffin was eventually put in a hearse and taken to the Fifth Avenue mansion “where it was placed in a mortuary chamber, made beautiful with flowers and palms and ferns,” said a newspaper. The funeral was held in the double drawing room that same afternoon. Oelrichs’s esteemed place in society was reflected in his distinguished pallbearers: Gustav H. Schwab, Stuyvesant Fish, De Lancey Nicoll, Pembroke Jones, Davis Barnes, Charles A. Childs, O. H. P. Belmont, and Frank Gray Griswold.
With Theresa Fair Oelrichs having a sizable fortune of her own, The San Francisco Call reported that Herman Oelrichs’s entire fortune of $52 million was bequeathed to his 15-year old son Hermann, “without reservation—when the son should attain his majority.”
Tessie Oelrichs lived on in the house, summering in Newport at Rosecliff, and abiding a few notable bumps in the road. The year following Herman’s death she had been riding in her $16,000 limousine with Virginia and several other women. When she returned home around 5:00 she instructed her chauffeur Frank W. Shaw, to return the car to the private garage she shared with about a dozen other wealthy families. About a half hour later one of her guests reported that she had lost her purse and possibly had left it in the automobile.
Tessie called the garage and was surprised to discover the car had not been returned yet. By 9:00 that evening she reported the car and chauffeur as missing. Police searched for the limousine and put an officer at the garage awaiting Shaw’s return. “Reports came in occasionally of an automobile resembling the Oelrichs machine flying around the Tenderloin with a merry party. It was exactly 4:30 A. M. when the car was run into the garage by Shaw,” reported The Times. Shaw had been carousing in the car with two friends.
Theresa Fair Oelrichs was not pleased. The Times said “the automobile looked like a mud cart, the policemen say. Both lamps in front were smashed, windows were broken, and the rear of the machine was scratched, evidently where it had been backed into something. All three men had been drinking, and were locked up.” In court later, a stern Tessie told the judge “I wish to make an example of Shaw.”
In February 1908 as she was being driven home she was “grossly insulted” by two young boys. As the limo neared the mansion, “two boys jumped on her carriage step and asked for money. She refused and they spat upon her.” The incident resulted in a mounted officer trailing the Oelrich limousine when it traveled Fifth Avenue, “keeping so close that his mission could not be mistaken.”
In 1911 as New York’s wealthiest families moved farther up Fifth Avenue and business buildings overtook the former mansion district, Tessie had a large wrought-iron fence built around the south and west sides of the building. But by the fall of 1918 she gave in to the advance of commerce and left her mansion, the last standing remnant of Mrs. Mary Mason Jones’s Marble Row.
On November 24, 1918 The New York Times reported that "The New York Trust Company will open its new uptown branch tomorrow morning [in] the home of Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, with practically no alteration to the building. The atmosphere of the comfortable home will be retained by placing in it furniture which will harmonize with the old interior decorations. The dining room, which will be used for the general banking business is finished in paneled oak, and oak counters will be put in. The bookkeepers will have the ballroom, the library will be used as the ladies’ room, the parlor for the trust department, and the remaining rooms for consultations.”
Tess Oelrichs moved into a duplex apartment of eighteen rooms and seven baths on the first and second floor of the newly-completed No. 910 Fifth Avenue, at 72nd Street. In the meantime the well-intentioned preservation of the marble mansion by the bank lasted only about a decade before it was no longer feasible.
|By 1929 the bank had removed the conservatory. When this photograph was taken the days of the white marble mansion were numbered -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library|
On September 22, 1929 it announced its intention to erect a new building on the site of the white marble house. The Times said “Marble Row, a block of stately residences which once frowned disapprovingly upon the noisy jingle of equipages in Fifth Avenue from Fifty-seventh to Fifty-eighth Street, is to go…All the units of Marble Row have gone except 1 East Fifty-seventh Street.”