Friday, July 18, 2014

Remnants of Elegance -- No. 264 Fifth Avenue

Although sorely abused and barely recognizable as a former mansion, the massive scale of the house is staggering.

By the decade prior to the outbreak of civil, war brownstone mansions had crept far north of Washington Square.  At the southwest corner of 29th Street stood a massive house that rose four stories above a high English basement. Its 30-foot width was about one-and-a-half times that of the normal residential lot, and stretched 100 feet down West 29th Street.  A broad stone stoop would have risen to the parlor floor, and the hipped roof was interrupted by circular French dormers which announced this mansion was of the latest architectural fashion.

According to The New York Times about a century later, the house “at one time was the home of A. T. Stewart.”  The immensely wealthy merchant could definitely have afforded such accommodations.  His personal fortune in 1855 was estimated to be $2.25 millionAlthough he lived in the fashionable Depau Row in the 1840s it is quite possible he moved into this Fifth Avenue mansion prior to building his white marble palace five blocks north in 1870—directly across from the William Backhouse Astor house.

Alexander Stewart and his wife, the former Cornelia Mitchel Clinch, would have entertained lavishly in the immense brownstone mansion at No. 264 Fifth Avenue.  In 1869 his yearly income made him one of the 20 richest men in history.  His fortune by now would translate to about $90 billion by today's standards.

Stewart’s limitless wealth came from his dry goods business, the A. T. Stewart & Co.  He essentially invented the concept of the department store, recognized the value of customer service rather than overcharging the buyer, and developed in 1876 the idea of mail order business.

But even as the finishing touches to Stewart’s new block-wide marble mansion were being completed in 1870; Fifth Avenue was under siege.  Hotels rose around Madison Square just three blocks below No. 264, high-end retailers were creeping into the residential neighborhood, and 23rd Street was destined to be New York’s entertainment district in just over a decade.

By 1878 commerce had made its way north to 29th Street.  No. 264, once the scene of brilliant balls and refined receptions, was converted to lavish apartments on the upper floors; just one or two per floor.  Called the Knickerbocker Flats they were mostly occupied by wealthy bachelors.  At street level was an upscale jewelry store, Howard & Co.  On reporting on the store’s March 26, 1878 opening The New York Times said “Their stock, which is composed of gold and silver watches, jewelry, and bric-a-brac, made a glittering display.”  A year earlier the newspaper had offhandedly mentioned “It would be absurd to expect that the cheaper kinds should be kept at a store which is frequented only by the wealthy.”

The renovations to the mansion can be seen in this turn-of-the-century photograph by Robert L. Bracklow.  A handsome cast iron store front has replaced the basement and parlor levels; but the carved window surrounds and cast iron balcony remain intact.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The newspaper emphasized that fact in describing some of the “bric-a-brac” now offered, including “a handsome cabinet which once belonged to Charles Jacques, the artist.  Upon an antique cushion was a large silver helmet and visor, which was made in the sixteenth century by Giocami Cellini for Francis I…A wealth of bronzes, statuettes, clocks, and vases was displayed upon tables running down the centre of the room.”

Howard & Co. would stay in the former mansion for decades and its clientele consisted of the wealthiest of New York’s carriage trade.  A few days before Christmas in 1899 Howard & Co. advertised “A remarkable large Marquise shape pink diamond with a superb Canary Diamond Drop.  Exquisite contrasting colors.  Set together as Brooch or pendant.”  The gentleman who purchased that piece of jewelry for some lucky lady’s Christmas present would pay $18,000.  Or, if that was not extravagant enough, he might choose the pearl necklace advertised on the same page of The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review.  Howard & Co. promised that “every pearl is perfectly round, free from imperfections, all the same color and that the best, is most difficult to obtain, especially if of any large size.”  The necklace was priced at $36,000—about $976,000 today.

In the meantime, the suites upstairs were taken by moneyed residents.  One was S. S. Sondheim who shared the third floor with P. A. Fachiri.  He left the apartment for the summer of 1882; possibly headed to a fashionable resort.  The temporary vacancy ended in a messy matter when Sondheim entrusted his furniture and other property with Captain Thomas Collum.  The Victorian term “captain” in this instance is what we would call a “superintendant” today. 

With Sondheim out of town, Collum helped himself to the man’s wardrobe and personal effects.  As his trial approached on May 30, 1886, The New York Times reported that his defense was “the articles in the trunk which was found were given to him, he said, by Mr. Sondheim” and that he was a “victim of persecution.”

Sondheim returned to his apartment despite the affair and the Knickerbocker Flats got a new super, John Cave (who as part of his employment received the entire fifth floor where he lived with his father and mother).  Other tenants in the building in 1885 were Mrs. A. M. Roberts, who occupied the entire second floor; and G. W. Ulshoefer and J. S. Inglis on the fourth.

On June 21, 1885 at around 3 a.m. fire broke out in the workrooms of Mathesius Brothers & Co., manufacturers of “artistic furniture and interior decorations” next door at No. 262 Fifth Avenue.  The Times described that building as “a five-story brownstone structure, one door south of Twenty-ninth-street, and was formerly a private dwelling.”  Mathesius Brothers occupied the entire building and “It was filled with fine furniture and tapestry.”

By 4:00 the top three floors of the building were engulfed and “Through an open window in the southerly wall of the building at No. 264 Fifth-avenue, on the southwest corner of Twenty-ninth-street, the flames entered that building.”  The terrorized residents watched as fire fighters worked to keep the blaze from destroying their homes.

When the fire was extinguished, Howard & Co. sustained no damage and Mrs. Roberts, one floor above, had just “a trifling loss.”  Others were not so lucky.  Water damage to the Fachiri and Sondheim apartments was about $500, the same amount suffered by John Cave and his family; but Inglis and Ulshoefer lost a combined $2,000 in property, nearly $47,000 in today’s money.

The necessary repairs were made on No. 264 to restore the handsome apartments.  Among the upscale tenants in 1893 was L. Vaughn Clark, whom The New York Times said “comes from St. Louis, but he is well known in business and club circles here, being a member of the Union Club, New-York Yacht Club, and the Racquet Club.”  On April 11 that year his engagement to Edith Draper was announced by the young woman’s widowed mother, Victorine Wetmore Draper.  “Both Miss Draper and Mr. Clark are familiar figures in fashionable drawing rooms,” noted The Times.

While the well-dressed residents came and went, liveried doormen at Howard & Co. welcomed Livingstons, Vanderbilts and Belmonts.  Only families with names and fortunes like theirs could afford to shop here.  On November 3, 1899, for instance, Howard & Co. advertised in the New-York Tribune that it had for sale an “absolutely perfect oriental pear shape drop” pearl.  “Weight over 85 grains.”  The jeweler priced the single pearl at $27,000.

As the turn of the century came and went the high-end retailers inched further up Fifth Avenue, following the northern flow of the residential district.  In 1905 Tiffany & Co. opened its opulent headquarters between 36th and 37th Streets; joined by the nearby stores of Gorham, Dreicer & Co., Alvin silversmiths and others; all within one or two blocks of one another and all completed within a year.

But Howard & Co. stayed on south of 34th Street at No. 264.  It was perhaps a bad business decision.  The financial depression of 1907 forced the company to borrow heavily and in 1908 a trustee was appointed to handle its affairs.  In December 1909, Joseph P. Howard died and his son, Montague Howard, took over the business.  But the end of the line for Howard & Co. was on the horizon.  On January 7, 1914 The New York Times reported “The climax came during the recent holiday season, it was said, when a great falling of sales from the average maintained in other years was experienced.  The reduced earnings of the last month, it was said, had convinced the officers of the corporation that it would be fruitless to continue the business longer.”

With the loss of the elegant jewelry store, the retail space at No. 264 became a bit less glamorous.  It was taken over by the ticket office of the Southern Railway.  In the meantime, however, the spacious apartments upstairs continued to be leased to well-to-do residents.  In 1917 attorney Henry Nickman shared a floor with wealthy merchant Edward J. Milliken.

Milliken was a partner in the firm of Stuart, Milliken & Co., wholesale jobbers and dealers in hosiery and lingerie.  In 1919 Milliken’s respectable bachelor pad would become less so when it was publicized as a pivotal point in the divorce case of his partner Harry P. Stuart.  Stuart, who was 46 years old, was married to 26-year old Rose Edith Stuart. 

Rose had little complaint about her marriage.  She told the judge that Stuart “lavished presents upon her, including an expensive motor car, and that he allowed her $100 a month for ‘pin money,’ besides paying all her bills and the household expenses,” said The Evening World on July 28, 1919.  But then another woman came into the picture.

The unnamed woman was married to a soldier who was off fighting the war in 1917.  According to her, she was seduced by Stuart.  “I lived happy with my first husband for two years until Stuart came along, followed me all over town, pestering the life out of me, telling me what a rich man he was, that I would run away and get a divorce from my husband, and that he would pay for it.”

Rose Stuart had little compassion for the woman’s sad story of victimization.  She told of the many times her husband invited the women to their home without her consent and “while I would be in another room or with my back turned I would see them caressing each other.  In fact, I caught her openly with her arms around my husband.”

Rose turned the other woman’s indiscretions into a breach of patriotism.  “Such was this woman’s conduct while her husband was in France as an officer, fighting for his country, and he is still in France, in the belief that, here in this wonderful land of liberty he left a loving and true little wife, when, instead, she proved to be not only unfaithful but disloyal to her country.”

Unbeknownst to Rose, the pair had gone to Reading, Pennsylvania, where Stuart paid for a hotel, a lawyer and the divorce.  But her strong suspicions prompted her to hire a private investigator; who was led directly to No. 264 Fifth Avenue.

“On July 17 I had my husband shadowed from the time he left my house in the morning until we forced our way into Milliken’s bachelor apartment located at No. 264 Fifth Avenue, New York.  This was apartment No. 5 and consisted of one bedroom, a sitting room, and a bathroom.  It was 10:30 at night.  My husband was there with the co-respondent alone.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence based on testimonies from both women, The Evening World reported “Mr. Stuart denies all his wife’s charges.”

By mid-century the once proud neighborhood showed little evidence of its former glory.  In 1946 No. 264 was home to businesses like the Costume Jewelry Supply House which promised to “double your investment with these $25, $50, $100 to $500 bargain assortments.”  Cleopatra Pearls offered “an unusual opportunity to start business with small capital.”

The opulent interiors where Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens were once entertained had long ago been gutted.  When T. Victor Searing purchased the property that same year, it was described as a “five-story store and loft building.”

Only the French dormers survive to provide passersby a hint of the structure's former glory.

Another half century was no kinder to the old structure.  Today only the wonderful circular dormers hint that this was once a grand residence.  All the architectural elements have been stripped away and the brownstone has been painted the color of hot chocolate.  Nevertheless, it is one of the last residential vestiges of this stretch of Fifth Avenue for blocks; a fascinating and abused relic.

photographs by the author

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