Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Chester A. Arthur House -- 123 Lexington Avenue

Even the brownstone has been stripped off the once-refined home of President Chester A. Arthur -- photo by Alice Lum

When the Virginia-born Ellen Lewis Herndon was introduced to Chester A. Arthur, a New York City man, in 1856 rumbles of unrest between the South and the North were already being felt.  The romance resulted in the 30-year old Arthur marrying his 22-year old sweetheart on October 25, 1859 in New York City’s Calvary Episcopal Church.

Despite any tension the oncoming war might cause—Ellen’s family were slaveholders and Chester was a general in the New York State militia—theirs was a loving and happy marriage.  They moved into the Herndon family’s Manhattan townhouse on Gramercy Park where they lived for two years.

Ellen, called Nell, was a refined Southern belle accustomed to a house filled with servants, elegant entertaining, music and the best of food and wine.  Chet, as she called him, learned much from his bride, including stylish dress—his fashion sense would later become a hallmark.

In 1860 the couple’s first child was born.  With the arrival of William, the family moved to a nearby upscale residential hotel on Broadway.  The additional space also lent itself to the Arthurs’ grand entertaining.

The beautiful Ellen Herndon Arthur was trained as an operatic singer -- photo from the collection of the Library of Congress.
Immediately following Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Chester Arthur resigned his post with the military.  He felt that the President’s action would only prolong the already wearisome war.  He turned his attention to his legal practice, which flourished.

At No. 123 Lexington Avenue was the brownstone-fronted home of the Bush family.  The rowhouse was identical to the eight others that lined the block between East 28th and 29th Streets.  Four stories tall over a high English basement, it stretched three bays wide.  The cast iron railings that rose along the wide brownstone stoop turned to form balconies at the parlor windows.

The house was pictured in an Arthur biography shortly after his death (copyright expired)

Now Chester and Ellen Arthur would purchase the former Bush residence as their first permanent home.  According to Bill Harris and Laura Ross in their The First Ladies Fact Book, “Nell embellished it with the finest furniture and accessories that money could buy, and she hired a staff of Irish immigrant servants to help her step up her lavish entertaining.”

Along with the couple came infant Chester Junior.  William had died in 1863 at the age of two and a half; little Chester arriving the following year.  By now Chester Arthur was one of Manhattan’s most successful attorneys.  His affiliation with the Republican party and his legal practice brought him in contact with the city’s wealthiest and most influential men; and earned him memberships into exclusive social clubs.  As was expected of socially-conspicuous couples, the Arthurs held a much-coveted box at the Metropolitan Opera.

A year before daughter Ellen was born, Arthur was appointed Collector of the Port of New York by President Ulysses S. Grant in November 1871—earning him the more-than-comfortable salary of $50,000; about $925,000 a year in today’s dollars.  When the new president, Rutherford B. Hayes, asked him to step down in 1878, Arthur penned a well-publicized letter of refusal from the Lexington Avenue house.  So Hayes fired him. 

Chester Arthur became well-known for his side whiskers, expensive taste in clothing, and love of food, drink and entertaining.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
On January 10, 1880 Chester was in Albany attending meetings.  Ellen, left home alone, attended a concert.   While she waited for her carriage in the rain, she caught a chill, which worsened to a cold the following day, then rapidly turned to pneumonia.

Chester Arthur received word in Albany and immediately headed to New York.  By the time he reached No. 123 Lexington Avenue Nell was comatose.  Arthur remained at her bedside for nearly 24 hours, up to the moment she slipped away, never having regained consciousness.

Chester Arthur deeply grieved his wife’s death.  The beautiful and refined Ellen had apparently been the center of his life.   Within months the Republican Party chose him to run as Vice President, a move meant to balance the ticket of presidential nominee James Garfield--a Midwestern congressman running with a polished New York City sophisticate.  He accepted; however he privately said “Honors to me now are not what they once were.”  He reportedly told the eight-year old Nell, “There is nothing worth having now.”

Arthur shielded his grief from the outside world and he and Garfield won the election.  Chester Arthur’s tenure as Vice President would not be long.  He was in New York on July 2, 1881 when a telegram arrived at the Lexington Avenue house from James G. Blaine, Secretary of State.  The first line read “The President of the United States was shot this morning by an assassin names Charles Guiteau.”

Throughout the day a flurry of messenger boys brought telegrams up the brownstone stoop of No. 123 Lexington Avenue; returning to their offices with messages from Arthur.  The first was to Blaine, and said in part “Your telegram, with its deplorable narrative, did not reach me promptly, owing to my absence.  I am profoundly shocked at the dreadful news…I await further intelligence with the greatest anxiety.”

James Garfield hung on until September 19, 1881.  In the meantime, Chester A. Arthur was concerned about being perceived as snatching the reins of office while the President lived.  He remained in his Lexington Avenue house , refusing to go to Washington.  Word arrived on the evening of September 19 that Garfield had died.  At 2:15 a.m. the following morning Judge R. Brady of the New York Supreme Court administered the oath of office in the parlor of No. 123 Lexington Avenue—only the second time that a United States President took the oath in New York City.

Arthur takes the oath of office in the parlor of 123 Lexington Avenue -- Harper's Weekly, October 1, 1881 (copyright expired)
Later that day The New York Times reported “Thoroughly fatigued by the extraordinary events of the preceding 24 hours, President Arthur retired to his private apartments in his residence, No. 123 Lexington-avenue, soon after 11 o’clock Tuesday night.  Although prompted by his sensitive regard for the laws of hospitality to remain in the parlor and entertain the few privileged callers, who lingered at that late hour, he was prevailed upon by his more considerate friends to go to bed and try to obtain much-needed rest.”

The following morning Arthur descended the steps of his house, boarded his carriage and headed for Washington D.C.  Within weeks Burton T. Doyle and Homer H. Swaney would advise Americans about their new president in Lives of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur.  “The household now called to the White House by the death of president Garfield has no lady to preside over it.  President Arthur lost his wife a year ago last January, and sadness over her loss is among his griefs…He has two children, one a youth of 17, named after his father, but called Allan by the family; the other a girl of 11, named Nellie.  These, with the servants, constitute the household of the modest Lexington avenue residence.” 

Chester’s sister, Mrs. Mary McElroy, had helped a great deal in the household since Ellen’s death and the writers predicted “Mrs. McElroy will most probably be the lady who will preside at the White House.”  And indeed she was.

Arthur’s term in the White House was marked by glorious entertainments, dinners and dances.  Yet he desperately missed New York and his Lexington Avenue home.  He routinely returned to New York and spent periods resting and working from his make-shift executive office in the Fifth Avenue Hotel.  He was also beginning to show symptoms of Bright’s Disease, a kidney condition.

In 1885 Chester Arthur returned to his Lexington Avenue home permanently, his term in office being over.  He took up his legal practice again; but his health was failing.  On May 19, 1886 The Sun wrote of his first venture out of the house “in many weary weeks.”  The newspaper noted “His face was colorless, and he was sixty pounds short of his normal weight as he walked feebly down the steps of his residence at 123 Lexington avenue and stepped into his closed landau, the carriage he used in Washington, and was whisked away behind a pair of bays.”

A month later, on June 25, 1886 The Times reported “Ex-President Arthur went to New-London, Conn., yesterday, where he will spend the Summer, at the Pequot House, in the endeavor to regain his health.  Soon after 1 P.M. he stepped from his house, No. 123 Lexington-avenue, dressed in a suit of mixed gray clothes, high white hat, dark brown necktie, and patent leather shoes.  His flowing side whiskers, which were one of the distinguishing features of his person, were gone, and the mustache was of recent growth.  His face was pale, but his eyes were bright, and he walked with much vigor for one who has been confined to the house for so long a time.”

The former President would not improve.  On November 17, 1886 he oversaw the bundling of his personal and officials papers, which he ordered to be taken out of the house and burned.   The following day he was dead.

On November 19 The New York Times reported that “Ex-President Chester Alan Arthur died at 5:10 o’clock yesterday morning at his residence, No. 123 Lexington-avenue.  The immediate cause of his death was cerebral apoplexy, due to the rupture of a small artery within the brain.”

The President’s body lay in the parlor where the family was visited by the city’s and country’s most esteemed citizens.  Then at 8:30 on November 22 the coffin was closed and removed from the Lexington Avenue house Arthur loved.  It was taken to the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue where more than a thousand people crowded in.  Police held back the throngs for two blocks above and below the church.

Chester, Jr., and Ellen lived on in the house for only a short period afterward.  Then in September 1902 the house was purchased by publisher William Randolph Hearst.  In reporting the sale the New-York Tribune said “The house…is one of the most famous houses in that avenue…President Arthur had a great fondness for the house, principally on account of the many happy years he had passed under its roof.  This fondness he showed in many ways.  When he was Collector of the Port under President Grant he lived there.  Later, when he was elected vice-president, he did not close the house, and seek a grander and more modern dwelling uptown or tear down the old building and rebuild a better house.  He just stayed in the old house and made no more changes than were necessary.”

William Randolph Hearst had no intentions of making “no more changes than were necessary” to the historic property.  The newspaper noted “Alterations to cost $800 are to be made to the premises.”  The money was spent on demolishing the English basement and installing a garage for Heart’s motorcars.

Hearst apparently lived in the Arthur residence for about seven years, for a letter to him dated October 24, 1906 from John G. Agar is addressed to No. 123 Lexington Avenue.  But then on October 15, 1909 the New-York Tribune reported that “The old house No. 123 Lexington avenue, which was for many years occupied by the late President Chester A. Arthur, is to be remodeled.  The ground floor is to be made into a store.  There will be apartments on the upper floors.  The property is owned by William Randolph Hearst.”

In 1909 historic significance was consigned mostly to battlefields and, sometimes, structures like Fraunces Tavern.  Although Mount Vernon had long been recognized; it was the home of the nation’s first President—a distinction that far outshone the Arthur home.

Hearst obliterated the basement and parlor floors for a commercial front.  The house next door still retains its elegant cast iron balcony.-- The Presidents of the United States, 1914 (copyright expired)
There was no public outcry as Hearst commissioned architect James C. Green to convert the upper floors to bachelor apartments and commercial space below.  The New York Times reported “A new front is to be built up to the third story, new show windows installed, partitions removed and new stairs built.”

On February 8, 1919 The Evening World briefly lamented “The Chester A. Arthur house, in Lexington Avenue, has fallen prey to the march of trade to some extent, although not so completely as T. R.’s birthplace.”

Once tree-lined and fashionable, the block in the 1920s had succumbed to commerce.  No. 123 is third from the corner. -- photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
Throughout the 20th century a variety of stores and residential tenants came and went.  Author and
“soldier of fortune” George Witten lived here in the 1920s; as did James Clellon Holmes in the 1940s, who was sometimes visited here by Jack Kerouac.   In 1944 an Indian grocery store, Kalustyan’s, opened in the ground floor.

By the mid-1950s the house was neglected and in February 1955 the landlord, Abraham Yarmark, was arrested for violations.  One tenant complained he had been without gas for 47 days and authorities said there were more than 400 violations against Yarmark.

Kalustyan's is protected by a security grate in 1976 -- photo National Parks Service

Within months it was sold to Dr. Leo Lindenbaum.  “The house now contains a store, an office, and six apartments,” said The Times.   As the 20th century drew to a close, Kalustyan’s had expended into the former parlor level with a restaurant.
Where Ellen Arthur entertained and the widowed Chester Arthur took the oath of office, an Indian restaurant is bathed in neon lighting -- photo by Alice Lum

Although the Native New Yorkers Historical Association, now disbanded, placed a plaque in the building in 1981, the house that was home to a standing United States President is horribly abused and totally forgotten.

4 comments:

  1. Despite the terribly abused building it is nice to see that the grocery store has survived since 1944.

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  2. I went looking for his decades ago, and didn't find it (I didn't have the internet!). I might have been more than a little disappointed.

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  3. It has to be said that, regardless of the massacring of this fine building (for which they have no responsibility of course) Kalustyan's is a magnificent emporium with two grounds floors (next door knocked through) stuffed with Indian spices, condiments, and all manner of exotic groceries unobtainable outside of Bombay and Karachi!

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  4. No the "massacring of this building" is not anyone's fault but our own lack of respect for historical and important cultural institutions, structures, and sites across this entire country. So few actually care about their own surroundings and the importance of preservation is it any wonder that a former home of one of this country's presidents is barely known outside of a blog like this? I would bet most people walking on the street infront of this building today would even know the person who lived there was actually one of this countrys presidents, since most students of high school age probably cant even tell you who the current Vice president is or where Malaysia is located but they surely can tell you what is the latest tweet from K Kardashian. Unfortunate that every once in awhile this blog reminds one how poorly we teach our children in this country and the lack of concern we place on our past will definetely bite us one day as our rankings in the world continues to drop in most education categories. Okay I'm stepping off my soapbox. Hopefully it survives long enough for someone to respect it's history. NY

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