Thursday, April 24, 2014

The 1854 House at No. 80 Irving Place

As the exclusive Gramercy Square filled with brick and brownstone mansions in the 1840s the newly-fashionable neighborhood spilled into the blocks around it.  Among the high-end residences off the park was No. 80 Irving Place; constructed between 1853 and 1854.

Dignified and reserved, the red brick Italianate residence was an ample 25 feet wide and stretched 80 feet down East 19th Street.  Foregoing the high brownstone stoops common to many of its contemporaries, the house was accessed by a stone porch just two steps above the pavement.  Heavy Italianate cast iron newels and railings flanked the porch and a handsome iron fence guarded the areaway that wrapped the house. 

At the second floor, two sets of French windows opened onto exquisite lacy cast iron balconies.  Around the corner, at the same level, the flat fa├žade was relieved by a deep floor-to-ceiling oriel window. 

The mansion became home to the family of Dr. James Rushmore Wood in 1865; who moved here from No. 2 Irving Place.  The Sun described the doctor as “considerably below medium height.  His head, which was covered with snow-white hair, was large in proportion to the rest of his body.  He had bluish-gray eyes and was always clean shaven.  A genial smile was constantly playing about his face.  He was scrupulously neat in dress.”

Wood was born in Mamaroneck, New York on September 14, 1813 to Quaker parents.  The family was by no means wealthy and Wood was unable to attend college.  He took one course of lectures at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, but as The Sun later reported, “had no more money and was obliged to leave the college.”

He earned his medical knowledge in the offices of Dr. Valentine Mott and Dr. David Rogers.  Around 1835 he opened his own practice.  In 1853 he married Emma Rowe and by the time they moved into No. 80 Irving Place, the family had grown to include a son and two daughters.  One child died in infancy.

Dr/ James R. Wood -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
Wood, who was connected with Bellevue Hospital,  had what The Sun called “almost a monopoly of the surgical work on the east side.”  He was instrumental in wresting hospitals from the control of politicians (the newspaper called them “filthy almshouses”) and reforming them into modern facilities.  He also led the battle to enact the law—the Dissecting Bill--that permitted bodies of the homeless and unclaimed to be taken by medical schools, thus ending the macabre practice of cadaver theft.
A handsome Italianate fence wrapped the property and an oriel on the side added interest.

As was the case with wealthy New York families, the Woods had a summer estate; theirs was at Laurelton near Oyster Bay, Long Island.  But unlike the bankers and lawyers who stayed at their clubs during the week and traveled to Newport and the other elite resorts on the weekends; Dr. Wood commuted every day by steamboat.

“The Doctor had a room permanently engaged on the boat, and every afternoon he went to his country place, returning in the morning.  By having a private room he was enabled to utilize the time in reading and preparing lectures,” explained The Sun on May 5, 1882.

As a child Wood had reassembled the skeletons of dead rodents and birds.  It was a practice that followed him into adulthood.  When he became associated with Bellevue, he collected anatomical and pathological specimens.  As the years passed he held what was considered the finest private collection in the nation.  Eventually he donated it to the Bellevue Hospital Medical College and the building erected to house it was named the Wood Museum.

In the Spring of 1882 Dr. Wood contracted pneumonia and on the morning of May 4 he died in the Irving Place house.  The International Record of Medicine and General Practice Clinics said “Dr. Wood passed away in the unabated possession of his powers.  His death was an interruption.  It came to him in all the wonderful activity of his professional life, but it came, as he always expressed the wish that it should come, while he was still working.”

Before long the house was home to the colorful former actress, Agnes Ethel Tracy.  A star both in America and Europe, she had already amassed a small fortune of her own when she married millionaire Frank Tracy in 1886 and retired from show business.

Frank Tracy had a serious alcohol problem.  On July 21, 1886 The New York Times commented “While getting shaved by a  barber in his own house Tracy would ‘finish two pints’ of liquor.  While under the razor he would fall asleep and make the barber wait for several hours to finish the shave.  Once with three friends he went to a saloon at midnight and drank until 5 o’clock in the morning.  The party drank 27 pints of champagne with many orders of brandy, Tracy consuming most of the liquor.”

The newspaper mentioned “he had Hugh Gleason, one of the servants, entertain him in his private apartments at midnight with a hand organ.  This was to cheer up Mr. Tracy.  The house servants first knew of this when Hugh had to have some oil to lubricate the crank of the hand organ.”

Frank Tracy died in 1886 and an inquest, initiated by his daughter by his first wife, was held in Buffalo to determine whether he was insane when he wrote his will.  “The witnesses examined were all former servants at the Tracy mansion,” reported The Times.  “The evidence forms a most astonishing record of what a man can do in the drinking line if he devotes himself to it.”  Tracy was deemed sane and his entire fortune went to Agnes.

Agnes Ethel at the height of her career-- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Except for an occasional charity performance, Agnes Ethel did not return to the stage.  She remarried in 1890 to Clive Roudenbush; but soon divorced him and, according to the New-York Tribune, “since lived quietly at No. 80 Irving Place with her niece.”

It appears that either Agnes or her niece misplaced a valuable accessory in 1893.  A classified advertisement in The Evening World on October 20 that year read: “Lost, Thursday, Oct. 12, black leather pocketbook, with silver trimming, contained about $90 in money, some samples of silk, three keys, lock of hair.  If finder will return pocketbook and its contents other than money he may keep money, and will received $10 reward at 80 Irving place.  No questions asked.”

The cash in the leather pocketbook was the equivalent of about $2,000 today.

In March 1895, the house was the scene of a series of lectures on Tuesdays and Fridays given by Jane Meade Welch, a well-known and respected historian and speaker.  Miss Welch’s six lectures were on “the Colonies,” and The Times described No. 80 Irving Place as “the house of Agnes Ethel, well-remembered by all frequenters of Daly’s Theatre.”

Despite no longer performing, the once-celebrated actress attended opening nights and remained involved in theatrical affairs.  She gave financial support to young players and contributed the interest on $10,000 each year to the Actors’ Fund charity.

Agnes first showed symptoms of heart disease in 1902.  She and theatrical manager Francis Mahler were discussing marriage; but because of her ongoing illness it was postponed.  Perhaps it was because of her health that she leased the Irving Place mansion to Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Leroy Dresser for the winter season of 1902-03.  The New-York Tribune noted on December 21 1902 that “Mrs. Daniel Leroy Dresser will be at home on the first and third Thursdays of the month until April at No. 80 Irving Place.”

No sooner had the Dressers left the house and Agnes returned than she suffered a fatal heart attack in the mansion on May 26, 1903. 

The esteemed Ingraham family moved into the house.  George Landon Ingraham was Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York; his brother Arthur was Secretary of the Ingraham Realty Company and was prominent on Wall Street; and George’s son Phoenix Ingraham was a justice of the New York Supreme Court.  George and Phoenix were continuing the legal tradition of the family.  Daniel P. Ingraham, father of George and Arthur, had, too, been a Court Justice. 

George Ingraham in 1910 as Presiding Justice of the New York Supreme Court -- photograph New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division First Department

Arthur Ingraham died in the house of a heart attack on December 1, 1914 at the age of 66.  George retired from the bench the following year and it was now Phoenix (called by The Sun “a lawyer and well-known club man”) who would garner attention.

An erudite collector, Phoenix gave a dinner in the house on February 12, 1915 for members of the Hobby Club.  The Sun reported that “Mr. Ingraham talked on Thackeray and showed his collection of Thackeray letters, portraits, drawings and first editions.”

By 1922 William W. Worthington, a 31-year old lawyer and member of the firm Mooney & Worthington and his wife were living here.  He found himself acting as his own lawyer when he was required to appear in Jefferson Market Court early in January that year.

“The lawyer was arrested Saturday on the complaint of Joseph Eisler, a taxi chauffeur, of 518 East 139h Street, who charged that Worthington beat him about the head with a cane,” reported The New York Times on January 9.  Worthington asserted that the taxi backed into his wife, knocking her down.

By the time of the Great Depression the mansion was being operated as a rooming house.  Among the residents here in 1928 and 1929 were Avis Todd, a research worker at the Rockefeller Institute; and retired banker Wilfrid Hartley.

By 1950, when W. Savage purchased the building it was described as a “four-story elevator apartment.”  At the time there were nine apartments, two doctors’ apartments and a duplex with a terrace.  The property would continue to house “professional apartments” and offices until 1971 when three philanthropists contributed $75,000 to buy it for the newly incorporated Women’s Medical Center.  It would become the first freestanding legal abortion clinic in the Western world.

Then in 1987 the house was reconverted to a single family residence. The following year it was seen in the motion picture Working Girl as the home of Sigourney Weaver’s character, Katherine Parker.

The stately ivy-covered mansion has not changed much, on the outside, from the days when carriages dropped off richly-dressed guests and the glow of gaslight shown through the French doors.

non-historic photographs by the author


  1. I love this house, especially when the ivy is in leaf. The iron balconies are exquisite.


  2. Having gone out with a Lady who lived next door, I spent a lot of time staring up at this beautiful building. Thanks for the informative post.

  3. Quite a story. If only the walls could talk!

    1. Your comment is funny: I sort of thought the article just about had em talking. What more do you want, actual talking walls?