Monday, August 11, 2014

The Lost Minturn Mansion -- No. 60 5th Avenue

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

Robert Bowne Minturn was born into a life of privilege in 1805.  His father, William, was a wealthy merchant shipper and one of the founders of the Mutual Fire Insurance Company of New York.  But the War of 1812 changed the family’s circumstances.

Within a few years of the outbreak of the conflict Minturn and Champlin failed and Minturn’s fortune was wiped out.  Desolate, William Minturn became ill and died in 1818.  His 13-year old son Robert was determined to rise to the top again.

Within the year he found work as a clerk in the counting house of Charles Green; and became a partner six years later in 1825.  Robert’s sister, Sarah, had married Henry Grinnell in 1822 and in 1830 he entered the firm of Fish and Grinnell, a transatlantic shipping firm.  Two years later the firm was renamed Grinnell, Minturn & Co.

Robert further enhanced his ties with the company’s partners when he married Anna Mary Wendell in June 1835.  She was the daughter of John Lansing Wendell, also a partner.  By the mid 1840s the men had created a shipping empire whose fleet of 50 clippers sailed to every continent.  In little over 20 years the indomitable Robert Minturn had become one of New York’s richest citizens and one of its most influential businessmen.

Robert and Anna lived in one of the city’s most elegant neighborhoods—St. John’s Park.  But by the 1840s commerce was moving unsettlingly close.  In the meantime, in 1834, Henry Brevoort had started a new trend when he built the first mansion on what was still an unpaved Fifth Avenue.  Quickly the blocks north of Washington Square sprouted brownstone or brick mansions that rivaled one another for opulence.  The Minturns and the Grinnells would soon join the Fifth Avenue enclave.

In 1847 the Minturn mansion was completed.  It was a solemn brownstone cube that encompassed two building lots on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street.  A heavy cast iron fence guarded the mansion, behind which was an ample yard and a stone carriage house.  As was the case with even the most lavish mansions in 1847, there was no ostentation—the outward decoration being reserved for simple carved window framing and a slightly-projecting portico that supported a stone-balustraded balcony.

The house was completed just in time for debutante ball for granddaughter Edith.  That same year Robert bankrolled the construction of the $1.6 million clipper ship Flying Cloud.  It was the largest, most glorious vessel of its kind in the country.  The New-York Daily Tribune reported “she is expected to make the voyage to San Francisco in less than ninety days, and her appearance seems to justify these anticipations.”  A California newspaper proclaimed “Just think of eating butter in San Francisco on the heel of summer that was made in New York in May.”
Robert Bowne Minturn -- Booth's History of New York (copyright expired)
Soon after moving into the Fifth Avenue house, Robert Minturn initiated his male-only get-togethers on Thursday nights.  Wealthy businessmen, thinkers and politicians gathered to discuss current events and concerns.  Throughout the next decade the topic would often center round the shaky conditions of the Union; as well as the problem of the poor, and Anna Minturn’s passionate dream.

Mid-century Victorians enjoyed the promenade.  More than a casual stroll, the promenade was regulated by a strict protocol.  Small books and pamphlets were poured over by ladies and gentlemen alike to ensure no breach of promenade etiquette.   The Minturns and their wealthy neighbors promenaded in Washington Square and sometimes along the top of the massive Croton Reservoir at 42nd Street.  But Anna Minturn had a grander idea.

In May 1848 the entire Minturn family (there were seven children) embarked on an 18-month tour abroad.  They visited England, Italy, Egypt, Jerusalem, Germany, Switzerland and France.   While in Europe Anna marveled at the sprawling manicured parks outfitted with decorative benches and ponds and handsome statuary. 

Upon the family’s return, Robert’s Thursday night meetings revolved around the idea of a central park modeled after the Bois de Boulogne or Hyde Park.  Uncharacteristically, Anna was allowed to add her voice to the male-only group.  She stressed that not only would a grand park provide a lovely space for the wealthy to stroll and drive; but it would provide a healthful environment for poor children and provide employment during its building.   The decision to create the Central Park was hastened by the Minturns’ donating the land.

Robert Minturn’s ancestors were Quakers and he was staunchly against slavery.  He reportedly traveled to the South to purchase slaves, simply to set them free.  According to Jean Zimmerman in her “Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance, “ Minturn also built a model apartment house for one hundred poor African-American families in what is now New York’s Chinatown.”  He and Anna were outspoken regarding the treatment of immigrants.  He donated generously to the Freedmen’s Association and helped found the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor.

On the 9th of January, 1866 Robert Minturn “was seized with apoplexy, and expired in a few hours,” as recorded by historian Anne Ayres in 1880.  She wrote “Mr. Minturn, though actively engaged in commercial business, never wearied in works of practical benevolence.  His thoughtful head and large heart were given to such, with the greatest earnestness and sincerity, even in his hours of relaxation from the counting-house, and he was extensively occupied in helping forward or governing a vast variety of agencies for the benefit of the poor and afflicted.”

Dr. William Augustus Muhlenberg, the esteemed Episcopal minister, lamented “The loss seems irreparable.  Who can repair it?  Who now will be our foremost man in enterprises of good?  To whom now shall we go first in any new project of humanity?...Who will be his successor, with his adamantine integrity, in places where, alas, such virtue is rare?”

Anna Mary Minturn lived on in the mansion with her unmarried daughter.  Robert, the eldest son, and John took over their father’s business as partners.  John was described by The New York Times later as “a man of large wealth” who owned “a magnificent residence at Hastings-on-the-Hudson.”  But John’s health was not good.  He suffered constant headaches and “nervous prostration.”

In October 1880 John W. Minturn took his family to Europe “in the hope that rest and change of scene would restore his health,” according to The Times.  Although he returned to New York occasionally, he and his wife and children lived principally in Paris.

In April 1881 John returned to New York to conduct some business and stayed in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  He told his mother and sister “that his vacation had done him very little good thus far, but he had hopes of deriving benefit from a continuation of his residence abroad.”  Several times after his arrival he complained about his headaches.

Then, on the morning of April 30, 1881 John went to the offices of Grinnell, Minturn & Co. at No. 78 South Street.  He carried a large bundle under his arm.  The following day The New York Times reported “This is believed to have contained the revolver with which he afterward took his life—a weapon of the navy pattern, too large to be carried in the pocket.”

John Minturn had placed the muzzle of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger at around 10:00 in the morning.  Mahlon D. Sands, who had been on the Gallia from France with Minturn told reporters “He has suffered indescribably, and while physical disorder was undoubtedly the primary cause of his troubles, mental disquietude resulted…He has been positively mad; there can be no question about that.”

Although Anna Minturn did not sell the mansion, before not too much longer she would no longer live there. 

In September 1886 New York society was a bit shocked when news arrived from London of the marriage of Civil War General Daniel Butterfield to Mrs. Frederick P. James.  “This was somewhat in the nature of a surprise to all but a few persons who were in the secret and who knew that during Gen. Butterfield’s administration of the estate of Mr. James, who died two years ago, he had developed a decided tendresse for the widow,” opined The New York Times on September 26.  The newspaper noted that “On their return to the city, which will be within a month or two, Gen. and Mrs. Butterfield will occupy Mrs. Minturn’s house at Fifth-avenue and Twelfth-street, which they have taken for the Winter.”

The three-month lease lasted for years.  In 1888 the Magazine of American History made note of the prominent neighbors.  Along with Thurlow Weed, who lived on the opposite side of 12th Street, the magazine listed “General Winfield Scott, a few doors west in Twelfth Street…James Lenox, in Fifth Avenue, near by; Moses H. Grinnell, at the corner of Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue; and Jonathan Sturges, Richard M. Blatchford, and Robert H. Mccurdy, in Fourteenth Street, but a few doors from Fifth Avenue.”
While upscale carriages still travel along 5th Avenue, business buildings have already appeared.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,
Two years later the Minturn mansion was put on the market.  Lower Fifth Avenue had, by now, changed.  Modern mansions of the Gilded Age were being built further up the avenue and commerce was closing in above Washington Square.  On June 15, 1890 The Times reported “The property at 60 Fifth Avenue, having a frontage of two full lots, was sold for $160,000.  This price would have been considered very low a few years ago, but since Fifth Avenue below Fourteenth Street is now well out of the line of travel it is quite as good a price as could be expected.”   The somewhat disappointing sale price would equate to about $4 million today.

The house became home to newlyweds Harry Le Grand Cannon and the former Elizabeth Mary Thompson of Detroit.  Their June 9, 1891 wedding was called by The Times “one of the important events of the kind that Summer.”  The pair would have two children—a boy and a girl.  The newspaper said that Cannon was “well known as a n artist, and especially so as a clubman.”

If entertainments in the mansion were understated while the Minturns lived here, they would be far less so now.  On January 13, 1893 225 guests filled the drawing rooms as Harry Le Grand Cannon hosted a “private salon concert” by the entire Boston Symphony Orchestra.  It was the second of a series of such events in the house.

“The large drawing rooms and adjacent halls of the mansion…proved admirably adapted to the large orchestra,” said The Times the following day.  The guest list included the most elite names in New York society, including “Fish, Havemeyer, Iselin, Kernochan, Sloane, Schuyler, Townsend Vanderbilt, Whitney, Oelrichs, Burden, Alexander, Clews and Mrs. John Minturn.

The beautiful young Elizabeth would shortly become a widow when Harry died on May 6, 1895.  Then in 1898 she remarried in Grace Church where “about 100 people, many of them prominent in New York society,” gathered “to witness one of the most fashionable and at the same time one of the most unostentatious church weddings of the year.”

Elizabeth married the wealthy widower, Theodore Frelinghuysen, Treasurer of the Coats Thread Company.  “The guests adjourned to the bride’s home, at 60 Fifth Avenue, where Mr. and Mrs. Frelinghuysen will probably live, and a wedding reception took place there,” said The Times.

Despite the changing neighborhood, millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan purchased the old Minturn house and stable on February 13, 1901.  Ryan’s unlimited wealth was such that the following year he announced his intentions to built a cathedral in Richmond, Virginia in his wife’s name.  “In her home at 60 Fifth Avenue last evening, Mrs. Ryan said that work on the cathedral is to be begun soon,” said The Times on October 20, 1902.

Ryan was determined that his immediate neighborhood would not fall victim to the rising apartment buildings that were edging up Fifth Avenue.  He bought up the abutting properties, as well as the old Lenox mansion across the avenue, to protect his investment.  Ryan’s amassing of real estate around the mansion prompted The New York Times to remark on July 30, 1905, “The prospect that the lower end of Fifth Avenue will keep its present residential character has been greatly improved within the last two or three years.”

Ryan apparently leased the house to Mrs. George Lovett Kingsland that year.  The Times noted on January 14, 1906, “Mrs. George Lovett Kingsland…was Miss Helen S. Welles, a sister of Benjamin Wells, and a niece of Mrs Astor.  For some time she has occupied the old Minturn mansion.”

The Ryan family was back in the house by April 11, 1909 when son Joseph J. Ryan was arrested for speeding.  “Mr. Ryan was driving a racing machine on Broadway, near Dyckman Street, when arrested.  He seemed surprised when told he was going nineteen miles an hour when Policeman Echols of the West 152d Street Station arrested him.  He gave a diamond ring as security for his appearance in court to-day,” reported The New York Times the following day.  As it turned out, the millionaire’s son did not appear.  His lawyer claimed that young Ryan was “too ill to appear.” 

That same year Thomas Fortune Ryan shocked members of the Washington Square Association when he gave up on Lower Fifth Avenue.  He moved his family to No. 858 Fifth Avenue, far uptown.  The Ryans held onto the property until April 1915 when it was sold to the 11 West Twelfth Street Company.  Robert E. Dowling, head of the company, told reporters “the old corner house was being torn down because it was not suitable to the neighborhood and it was a waste to pay taxes on the old building.”

The Macmillan Company building survives as the Forbes building today -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
Within months the property was purchased by the Macmillan Company which built its stoic, no-nonsense headquarters building designed by Carrere & Hastings and Shreve & Lamb in 1924.  Now the Forbes Magazine Building, it survives today.


  1. The Jean Zimmerman book you mentioned is a wonderful account of the life of Edith Minturn and her husband Isaac Newton Stokes Phelps.