Monday, August 4, 2014

The Lost Keteltas Mansion -- No. 37 St. Mark's Place

photo from "Old Buildings of New York" 1912, copyright expired

The first Keteltas to arrive in New York from Holland landed in 1649.  A merchant, he soon amassed a fortune in the growing community of Nieuw-Amsterdam.  By the time Eugene Keteltas was born on October 18, 1804, the family was fabulously wealthy and highly respected.  Eugene studied law under General Robert Bogardus and began his own practice; but following his marriage to Malvina Gardner (whose family was equally wealthy), he retired.

Like all moneyed families at the turn of the 18th and early 19th century, the Keteltases maintained a summer estate north of the city.  Theirs was in the area just north of what would become 25th Street, near Second Avenue.  Nearby were the country mansions of the Watts and the Kips (who gave their name to Kips Bay), and the Beekman house.  Eugene’s sister, Jane, had married James Beekman.

But by the first years of the 1830s, the northern edge of the city was inching closer and closer to these summer retreats.  Thomas E. Davis would be a major player in transforming the area north of the exclusive Bond Street neighborhood from farmland to an elite residential enclave.  In 1831 he built rows of fashionable brick homes in the Federal Style on 8th Street, between Second and Third Avenues.  The street was renamed St. Mark’s Place and Davis’ high-end mansions would rival any in the city.

At the northwest corner of St. Mark’s Place and Second Avenue he built a massive brick mansion with white marble trim.  Five bays wide along St. Mark’s Place and four bays wide on the avenue, it rose three stories.  The parlor level was girded with a handsome cast iron balcony and white marble steps led up to the marble portico. 

The house was briefly owned by a “Mr. Kane” who decided in the spring of 1833 to sell.  Mayor Philip Hone noted in his diary on April 30 that year “Mr. Kane has sold his large house, corner of St. Mark’s place and Second avenue, to Charles Graham, for $75,000.  He called this morning to offer it to me for the last time before he closed the sale; but I do not wait it.”  Hone told his diary that he could not imagine that property in the area had become worth so much.  The price Charles Graham paid for the mansion would be equivalent to $2 million today.

In 1842 the Graham children were enrolled in the nearby W. Sherwood Select Private School at 201 9th Street.  The exclusive school accepted only 25 students and the roster read like the Social Register with names including Kipp, Archibald, Kernochan, Suydam and Shepherd.

In the meantime, Eugene Keteltas’ fortune grew.  America’s Successful Men of Affairs later said “He inherited a large property in real estate on the east side of New York city from his father and received a large amount also through his wife, which, constantly appreciating in value, amounted…to a great property.”

Eugene and Malvina had ten children, a situation which required a commodious home.  In 1847 Keteltas purchased the St. Mark’s Place mansion.  The old country estate to the north would not last much longer and like so many other wealthy New Yorkers, in 1864 Eugene purchased an impressive summer home in Newport.

Eugene Keteltas’s “retirement” was in reality heavily involved with the management of his real estate, collecting of rents and negotiating leases; as well as his philanthropic endeavors.  Henry Hall, in 1895, remembered "His friends knew Mr. Keteltas as a benevolent man, constantly engaged in works of charity in the unostentatious way.  Retiring in disposition and fond of the scenes of his childhood, he always lived, while in the city, in the old family residence on the corner of 8th street and Second Avenue.”

In the 1850s Keteltas updated the Federal interiors.  The Times later reported on the “rare Italian marble mantelpieces, mahogany doors, and other luxurious furnishings” that were installed.

On December 22, 1869 one of the city’s most brilliant events of the season took place in the mansion.  Edith Malvina Keteltas married George Peabody Wetmore that evening.  Wetmore was for many years a United States Senator from Rhode Island and The New York Times called the affair “one of the fashionable weddings of the season.”

On August 26, 1876, while the family was in Newport, Eugene Keteltas died at the age of 73.  The New York Times said he had “lived in seclusion with his family.”  By now several of the children had married; two, Jane and Eugene, had died in childhood; and the others lived on with Malvina in the family mansion.

Among them was Alice, an independent young woman whose inheritance would amount to just under $1 million today.  Alice would eventually be the last Keteltas to leave No. 37 St. Mark’s Place.

At some point around this time the three-story house received an impressive mansard roof.  The Keteltas family with its dwindling number of occupants did not need additional space; however the modern addition may have simply been a means to update the architecturally-passe home. 

In the spring of 1894 Malvina became seriously ill.  But by early summer she had recovered and made the annual pilgrimage to Newport.  Then on the afternoon of July 20 the 84-year old did not feel well and went to her room.  She died there that evening in the same bed where her husband had died 18 years earlier.

Now Alice lived in the Keteltas mansion with her unmarried sister, Mary, and two brothers John and Philip.  John Gardner Keteltas had been judged “incompetent” and his money was controlled by Alice.

A year after Malvina’s death, Mary died.  That same year Alice went to court and on June 28, 1895 The New York Times reported that “Philip D. Keteltas, a brother-in-law of United States Senator George Peabody Wetmore of Rhode Island, has been adjudged insane in the Supreme Court in this city.”  A separate article said “Philip Keteltas, a millionaire, was yesterday adjudged to be mentally incompetent to manage his affairs.  Mr. Keteltas has an income of $60,000 derived from property estimated to be worth $1,035,000.  He has lived for years in seclusion.”

If anyone thought it odd that both Alice’s brothers had been deemed incompetent and that their financial affairs were in her hands, no one seems to have said so.

By now the once-elegant St. Mark’s Place neighborhood was filled with the tenement houses and music halls of German, Hungarian and Italian immigrants.  Directly behind the mansion were the German Dispensary and the Ottendorfer Library.  But Alice was resolutely determined to remain in the old family mansion—now an anachronism in a much-changed urban environment.

At the turn of the century the Keteltas house, on the corner, is the last surviving mansion in the area.  Outside Alice's windows a bread wagon stands at the curb near the Ottendorfer Library. photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
By the beginning of the 20th century both Alice’s brothers had died and she lived on alone in the house with her staff of about six servants.  The New York Times said “The Keteltas house has long been an object of interest and curiosity to the residents of lower Second Avenue.  For years it has been the only strictly private dwelling in the neighborhood.  Yet the neighborhood, teeming with a mixed Jewish, Italian and Hungarian population, has never seemed to bother the old lady.”

Alice maintained not only the Newport mansion, but a cottage in Saratoga.  When she left for the summer season the St. Mark’s Place house was closed “with the exception of two or three caretakers.”  On the St. Mark’s Place side of the house was a large yard, protected by a high fence.  Alice kept the family stable on 9th Street where her various vehicles and horses were housed, along with her stable crew.

Like her father, Alice was generous to charities and other causes; but she chose her projects carefully.  In 1895 she donated $15 to the New York Protestant Episcopal City Mission Society, carefully noting the money was to be used “for prisoners.”  When the Spanish-American War broke out, she paid for the services of two trained nurses.  Her benefactions were not always merely for charity.  In 1905 she paid for the “prize of a silver cup to be awarded at the rose and strawberry show in June,” reported Gardening.  The magazine noted the cup “has created much enthusiasm, and the competition for this honor will no doubt be very spirited.”

As mansions rose along Central Park leaving Alice Keteltas far behind, she was repeatedly urged to move.  The Times, on October 20, 1912, wrote “Although a descendant of an old wealthy and fashionable family of early New York days, and owning a Summer home in Newport, Miss Keteltas cares nothing for fashionable life, and the associations of her old home were of far more value to her than living in a more refined but yet strange neighborhood.”

But Alice Keteltas finally gave in.  “The last of her two brothers lived there until his death a short time ago and this, combined with the persuasions of her friends and the rapidly changing character of Lower Second Avenue, at last led Miss Keteltas to desert the old homestead.”

The 70-plus year old spinster built a sumptuous mansion at No. 9 East 79th Street, adjoining the massive Isaac Brokaw residence.  Here she recreated some of the rooms of the old house; ordering the marble mantels and other architectural details to be incorporated into the new house.   “They have been taken to Miss Keteltas’s new home at 9 East Seventy-ninth Street, and placed there so as to conform as nearly as possible to their appearance in the well-remembered rooms of the ancient homestead,” said The Times on October 20, 1912.

A week before the article ran, Alice walked out of the house her father had purchased 65 years earlier for the last time.  “Miss Alice Keteltas drove away one afternoon in her coach from the aristocratic mansion on the northwest corner of St. Mark’s Place, never to return there to live….It was a transition from early nineteenth century dwelling conditions to the typical twentieth century type, and it was with a feeling of deep regret that the old lady entered her future home.”

Alice was adamant that her refined family home would not be abused as an apartment house.  She refused to sell; instead putting it in the hands of a broker to lease.  “In leasing her home Miss Keteltas has stipulated that it must be used exclusively for business.  There are to be no apartments or living rooms.”

Two weeks later it was announced that the Samuel Augenbloch Company had filed plans “for altering the landmark into stores and a moving-picture house at a cost of $20,000.”  The Times remarked that the conversion would mark the passing of “the most interesting as well as the last of the fine old private homes in that quarter of the city.”

The white marble portico columns lay against the steps as the venerable mansion is demolished -- photograph by Samuel Landsman, US Works Projects Administration, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The conversion became instead a demolition.  The 1830s time capsule was demolished in 1913, replaced by a mundane Edwardian theater and office building.

The building that replaced the Keteltas mansion still stands (left) - photo by Edmund V. Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York


  1. George and Edith Keteltas Wetmore's daughter Maude would follow in her Aunt Alice's footsteps and remain at Chateau Sur Mer, the Wetmore family summer house in Newport until her death in the 1960's. She left the house to the Newport Preservation Society, a virtual time capsule, unchanged from her girlhood. I highly recommend a visit. I have a wonderful old book on Newport printed in the early 1960's. It has a photograph of Miss Wetmore's aged butler presiding over a beautifully, but simply laid dining room table. The caption of the photo states that the photographer had asked the butler to add a bit more silver to the table for the sake of "composition". The butler replied to the effect of, "The table is properly set for lunch. If you want me to add more silver, I will have to change into my evening uniform".

  2. What a wonderful story Magnuspetrie.

    I visited Newport and its mansions 2 years ago. Chateau Sur Mer and The Elms were my favorites.

    It would be wonderful to see any existing interior photos of the Keteltas mansion. The demolition photo makes me sad. I know it can't all be saved, and this house was pulled down in 1913, but our historic treasures are vanishing at a much faster rate these past ten years or so it seems.


  3. Wonderful Research!

    1. thanks a lot. glad you're enjoying the blog.

  4. Tom, Thanks so much! Would love to know where you found your facts. A friend and I are researching her Keteltas/Smith history and were astonished and delighted to find your article.

    1. I you have any specific facts you need references for, please email me. I'd be glad to help

    2. Hi Tom, thanks so very much. We would deeply appreciate your help!
      We are specifically looking for:
      * documents stating Philip D. Keteltas is the son of Abraham Keteltas.
      * documents stating birth date/place of Philip D. Keteltas.
      * documents stating birth, death, marriage, children of Eugene Keteltas & Marvina Gardner
      * document with death date/place of Charles Bainbridge Smith.
      Thank you so very much from way out here in California!!!