Thursday, February 6, 2014

The 1901 Wm. Colgate Mansion -- No. 5 East 82nd Street

photo by Alice Lum

At the turn of the last century Joseph A. Farley was busy building mansions.  The son of Terence Farley, a well-known builder, Joseph started his own business around 1895.  He focused on high-end residences in the Riverside Drive and Fifth Avenue neighborhoods, sparing no expense on the opulence his customers would not only expect, but demand.

In 1900 he began work on two abutting homes at Nos. 3 and 5 East 82nd Street.  Although the pair shared the same building permit; the architects, Janes & Leo, treated the design of each separately.  The lavish Beaux Arts homes were completed a year later.  No. 3 was almost immediately sold to millionaire banker Solomon Loeb, who presented it to his daughter and son-and-law, Nina and Paul Warburg.

Nos. 3 and 5 (right) East 82nd just after completion in 1901.  The undeveloped plot next door is protected by a rather primitive, in comparison, picket fence.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
No. 5 sold just as quickly.  The five-story limestone bowed façade featured Parisian-style elements like the elegant French windows with arched transoms at the second floor, the elaborate stone-and-iron balcony with carved cherubs, and the slate-covered mansard roof set between high chimneys. 

On April 5, 1901 The New York Times reported on its sale to William G. Park for $150,000 – about $3.2 million in today’s dollars.  Park had recently relocated to New York from Pittsburgh and a few days later The Times mentioned that the sale, along with Park's other recent purchases, “showed his liking for New York realty for speculative and investment, as well as residential, purposes.”

Although there was some speculation that Park may move into the new house, it would not be.  Two weeks later The Times said the purchase was “for resale and not for occupancy.”  On July 21 Park sold the house to Marion Graham Knapp, the wealthy widow of Henry C. Knapp.

photo by Alice Lum
But the socialite would not reside in her elegant new home long.  Readers of the society pages read with interest on July 12, 1904 the announcement from London that Marion was engaged to Lord Bateman of Shobdon Court.   The 48-year old William Spencer Bateman-Hanbury had been a Captain in the Second Life Guards and the marriage would bring to Marion what New York socialites coveted most—an aristocratic title.

Twelve days later the couple was married in St. George’s Church on London's Hanover Square.  Marion was given away by John R. Carter, Second Secretary of the American Embassy.

The new Lady Bateman did not hurry to sell her New York home.  Not until November 19, 1905 was the sale announced.  The buyer was William Colgate, whose grandfather’s soap and candle business had developed into the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet company.  Now 65 years old, the millionaire had retired thirteen years earlier.

Residing with Colgate in the house were his unmarried sister, Hannah, and cousin Harriet C. Abbe.  Hannah had a personal fortune of her own and she invested heavily in railroad stocks and New York real estate.  The spinster heiress owned no fewer than a dozen Manhattan properties.

Just four years after moving into the 82nd Street mansion, Hannah died here on Sunday March 28, 1909.  The funeral services were held in the house three days later.  The aging William and his spinster cousin continued living in the house with their staff of servants.  Hannah left her brother over $1.3 million.  With no immediate relatives, the remainder of her estate went to charities, and about $62,000 to her cousins, including Harriet.

Harriet was the sister of the esteemed Dr. Robert Abbe who had revolutionized the treatment of cancer in America.  He had brought radium from the laboratory of Madam Curie to New York and introduced radium treatments to cancer patients.  When he died on March 7, 1928 the bulk of his estate went to Harriet as his sole survivor.

The two elderly cousins, William Colgate and Harriet Abbe, lived quiet lives in the 82nd Street mansion, supporting charities but otherwise participating little in society’s glittering events.  The Great Depression had little effect on the lifestyles of the two millionaires in the hushed rooms behind the elegant French windows.

On March 7, 1932 William Colgate died at the age of 92.  His estate, which included 32 parcels of Manhattan real estate and 1,300 shares of Colgate-Palmolive-Peet stock, went mainly to charity.  Twenty-two public institutions shared nearly $2 million.  Colgate University received about 30 percent of the residuary estate.  Harriet Abbe received $500,000 in cash and “personal bequests” worth $8,516.  Her share of the estate would equal about $7 million today.

At the time of his death the 82nd Street house was valued at $135,000.  How long Harriet remained in the house is unclear; however The New York Times would later say it was “occupied by [Colgate’s] family up to the time of his death.”

On May 15, 1941 the newspaper reported that the house, “long the residence of William Colgate” was sold by the Central Hanover Bank and Trust.  “The new owner will remodel the mansion into ten small suites, retaining many of the interesting features of the structure, including a recreation room for the tenants.”

Among the “interesting features” were “fireplaces of rare marble, a library paneled in mahogany, an oak-paneled recreation room in the basement, an automatic elevator and a limestone façade.”  Architect James E. Casale was commissioned to execute the conversion which resulted in two spacious apartments per floor.

The caliber of tenants in the newly-renovated apartments was, expectedly, high.  So no one would suspect that the 67-year old stamp dealer, John Von Vorst, would bring unwanted publicity to the address.  But he did.

The German-born Vorst married wealthy Mathilda Grameis of No. 940 Park Avenue on March 8, 1943 and the newlyweds moved into the 82nd Street house.  Vorst embellished his occupation a bit, telling his bride that he was a diplomatic agent of the Argentine Government.

A more serious problem than fibbing about his profession, however, was that Vorst (who also went by the names Frederick Von Stolberg and John Lorenz Von Vorst) was already married.  Three times.

On February 28, 1936 Louise Borho of No 150 West 87th Street had married Vorst, who had been in the country since 1914.   When Louise discovered his philandering, she went to the police.  An investigation revealed that when he came to America he left behind a German wife.   Then he married Leda Saynisch.  Then came Louise Borho and finally Mathilda Grameis.

On June 4, 1943 John Von Vorst stood before a judge in General Sessions with three of his four wives present.   Louise and Mathilda “sat together in court, enjoying von Vorst’s discomfiture,” said The Times.  Leda was more forgiving.  The newspaper said she “tearfully pleaded he be freed on a suspended sentence ‘because I’ll be lonely without him.’”

Judge John J. Sullivan was unmoved by Leda’s tears.  Von Vorst was sentenced to up to three years in the penitentiary.  As the polygamist was led out of the courtroom, the judge agreed to initiate annulment proceedings “started by the two smiling wives” immediately.

The mansion underwent another conversion in 1989 resulting in medical offices in the basement and first floor, one apartment each on the second and third floors, and a lavish duplex above.  None of the interior alterations significantly altered the wonderful Beaux Arts façade.  The Colgate mansion remains an elegant relic of the Belle Epoque in New York.

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