Monday, November 24, 2014

The Lost Anson R. Flower Mansion -- No. 601 5th Avenue

The elegant renovations to No. 603 (left) and the Flower mansion were completed in 1902 -- photo "Collins' Both Sides of Fifth Avenue"  1910 (copyright expired)

Around 9:00 on the evening of October 5, 1891 Governor Roswell Pettibone Flower and his wife left the brownstone mansion at No. 601 Fifth Avenue.  They walked, unescorted, a block north to the Democratic Club where Flower was guest of honor at a glittering reception.   The house where the Flowers were staying was the home of Emma A. Schley, wife of millionaire lawyer William Schley and the sister of the Governor’s wife.

Perhaps less powerful but no less wealthy were Flower’s brothers, partners in the banking firm of Flower & Co.  Frederick Flower lived near Emma Schley at No. 615 Fifth Avenue, while Anson Ranney Flower’s mansion was at No. 500 Madison Avenue. 

Like most wealthy New Yorkers at the time, Anson Flower was involved in more than his banking firm.  He was a Director in the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Railroad Co.; Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad Co.; the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Co.; the Colonial Trust Co.; Federal Steel Co. and at least at dozen other corporations.

photograph by Alwan & Co, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 

The Successful American said in 1899 “The firm of Flower & Co. is well known to the banking houses of the world as one of the most solid financial institutions in America, and also as one of the most daring and successful in speculation.”    The entire Flower family was well-respected and The Successful American said of Anson, “The family traits are faithfully preserved in Mr. Flower and he represents the best qualities of the stock.”

When Emma Schley died in 1900 she left an estate of “several millions of dollars.”   Her generosity extended even to her favorite clerks at B. Altman’s Department Store.  Mrs. Nagle, a clerk in “the white underwear department” there received $5,000 as did another clerk, Mrs. Flanagan.   The handsome inheritances would equal nearly $145,000 today.

The New York Times reported on July 1, 1900 that Emma’s daughter, Emma G. Halsey, received the largest bequest.  “To her Mrs. Schley leaves her home at 601 Fifth Avenue, with all it contains.”  Emma Schley had earlier purchased the house next door, No. 603; and Roswell P. Flower by now owned the two flanking houses at Nos. 599 and 605.

On January 6, 1901 the New-York Tribune reported that Anson R. Flower had purchased Nos. 601 and 603 from Emma Schley’s estate.    According to the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide, Flower paid $150,000 for No. 601 and $110,000 for No. 603.  The newspaper described them as “two four story and basement brownstone dwelling houses” and proposed that “Mr. Flower may unite the two houses into one for his own use.”
Both No. 603 (left) and No. 601 were about to get remarkable make-overs -- New-York Tribune, January 6, 1901 (copyright expired)

The Tribune’s supposition was not far off the mark.  At the turn of the century Manhattan’s millionaires were quickly razing or remodeling outdated brownstones into modern American basement showplaces (American basement homes were entered at street level, eliminating the high stoops).

But instead of joining the two houses, Flower quickly sold No. 603 to real estate operator Jeremiah C. Lyons, making a quick $20,000 profit.  Both Flower and Lyons remodeled the two residences and within the year they were unrecognizable.   Similar in style, they rose five stories to steep copper-clad mansard roofs.   While the Flower mansion was clad in red brick in contrast to the limestone front of No. 603; it made up for it in opulence.  Near matching six-foot iron fencing protected the areaways of both mansions.  The architect carried the material up to the entrance of the Flower mansion, having the elaborate door grills in cast iron rather than bronze.

The Record & Guide used the entrance doors as an example of fine cast iron work  August 8, 1908 (copyright expired)

Both houses were completed in 1902 and Lyons sold No. 603 to James B. Clemens for $200,000.   

The Times remarked on the Flower mansion. “The house is handsomely furnished, the tapestries and furniture having been imported for Mrs. Flower.”

While construction on the Flower residence was continuing, Anson Flower had added one more item to his resume.  In June 1901 he was elected President of the Amalgamated Copper Company, filling the position vacated by Standard Oil Company executive H. H. Rogers’s resignation.  Rogers appears to have gotten out of the copper business just in time.

It was a time when multimillionaires with names like Carnegie, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt were feeling attacked by the government, which was seeking to break the monopolistic empires the moguls had worked so hard to build.  Summonses to appear were often met with cold defiance.

Five months later, on November 24, 1901, the New-York Tribune reported that “Several of New-York’s wealthy and well known men have been summoned to appear before Judge Lacome, in the United States Circuit Court, on November 29, to show cause why the judge should not commit them to jail or fine them, or otherwise punish them at his discretion, for contempt of court.”  Anson R. Flower was among those “wealthy and well known men.”

Six days later The New York Times ran the headline “Anson R. Flower in Custody.”  Judge Lacome found the stubborn tycoon “guilty of contempt of court” after he refused to testify.  The judge committed him “to the custody of United States Marshall Henkel until he shall consent to appear and testify in an action brought against the company in the Montana courts.”

While the tempest played out, Ida Flower continued her charitable works and entertaining.  Eventually the scandal passed and life at No. 601 Fifth Avenue returned to normal.   Anson and Ida, who had no children, maintained a country estate in Watertown, New York.  When the summer season of 1908 drew to a close, the Flowers remained upstate after Anson’s heart condition took a serious turn.

On November 17 a Watertown newspaper reported “Anson R. Flower of the banking firm of Flower & Co., New York, was so ill at his home in this city yesterday that prayers were offered for his recovery in the Episcopal Church.”   But family members assured the reporter that the millionaire was resting “more comfortably and was apparently upon the road to recovery.”

As it turned out, there would be no road to recovery.   Anson Ranney Flower died in the Watertown house less than two months later, on January 3, 1909.   The ugly court case of 1901 was forgotten in his obituary.  Instead his vast charities, including the co-founding of Flower Hospital with his brothers, and his magnanimous contributions to the Stonywold Sanitarium in the Adirondacks; along with his vestryman position with St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church were remembered.

Ida remained in Watertown, leasing the mansion on Fifth Avenue to Washington B. Thomas, President of the American Sugar Refining Company.   On September 20, 1909 the New-York Daily Tribune noted “it is rented, fully furnished, as a temporary home for Mr. Thomas.”  The following year it was leased to Mrs. C. H. Mellon “of Morristown, New York,” according to The Times.

By now commerce had engulfed the Fifth Avenue neighborhood around the Flower mansion.  Although its handsome renovations were only 10 years old, The New York Times called the house “the old Anson R. Flower residence” when Ida leased it in June 1911 “on a long term for business.”

The “long term” lease lasted less than a year.   On March 24, 1912 The New York Times reported “Within the next month one of the fine old residences on Fifth Avenue above Forty-eighth Street will be torn down, giving way to a five-story business structure…The old residence has been the town home of Mrs. Anson Flower for about twelve years.”  An auction of the artwork, tapestries, and imported furniture was held inside the house on April 10.  Within five months the new building, designed by Albert Joseph Bodker, was completed.

The upper floors of the Clemmons mansion, next door, survive nearly intact.  photo by the author

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