The seven acres of land that New York City purchased from the Herring family in 1790 was chosen for its somewhat remote location. The property was used as an execution ground and potter’s field. Seven years later it was increased to 13 acres.
In 1796 John Rogers purchased four acres just north of the potter’s field. When he died the land was divided among his three children, George, John Jr., and Mary. By 1828 the hangings had ceased and Mayor Philip Hone renovated the potter’s field into a military parade ground. George Rogers began construction on his elegant Federal style mansion on the north side of what would be named Washington Square. It was the first step in transforming the square into one of Manhattan’s most refined residential enclaves.
The Sailors’ Snug Harbor owned the block on the north side of the park between Fifth Avenue and University Place, and Washington Square to 8th Street. Three prominent businessmen, John Johnston, John Morrison and James Boorman leased the plots facing Washington Square and in 1832 began construction on a row of graceful mansions—Nos. 1 through 13.
The sumptuous homes were completed a year later. Faced in red brick and trimmed in white marble, the speculative row was intended for only the highest class of resident. Designed as a harmonious set with only minor differences, their columned porticos, deep yards and elegant cast iron fencing and gates bespoke social eminence. Washington Square was successful as a well-to-do residential enclave. It was near Broadway—but not too near—and not inconveniently far from the Bond Street neighborhood and the Astor Place Opera House. Moreover, the large landscaped park with its paths and foliage was a perfect spot for promenading; an important social pastime.
James Boorman, the senior partner in Boorman & Johnston, took the mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue, No. 13, as his own. The additional windows to the side made the house especially desirable. Directly behind, at No. 1 Fifth Avenue, he had constructed another mansion, used as an elite girls’ school, presided over initially by his only sister, Mrs. Esther Smith. Boorman’s niece boarded there and her letters tell of wistfully looking out the windows of her “prison” to watch her uncle “walking in his flower-garden in the rear of his house on Washington Square!”
Next door to Boorman lived Samuel Downer, Jr. A wealthy merchant, he lived in No. 12 only briefly, selling it in 1837 to Samuel Shaw Howland, also a “merchant.” Howland’s older brother, Gardiner Greene Howland, lived in the mansion as well, at least for some years. Able to boast that their family had arrived in America on the Mayflower, the brothers had only recently retired from their firm Howland & Aspinwall. A series of events that bordered on scandalous—or even criminal—had prompted the brothers to step down from the firm (named G. G. & S. Howland until 1831) and to put Gardiner’s eldest son, William Edgar Howland, and his nephew, William Henry Aspinwall, in charge.
Samuel Howland lived at No. 12 for 16 years, until his death in 1853. It then became home to William Butler Duncan. Born in Scotland, he became partner in the New York branch of the London banking firm Duncan, Sherman after completing his education at Brown University.
Wealthy and socially well-connected, he was one of the original 25 “patriarchs”—the elite group chosen by Ward McAllister as the core of New York society. The high point of New York’s winter social season was the Patriarchs’ Ball. Each patriarch was permitted to invite four women and five men, including himself and family, to the ball. Duncan’s inclusion into the select group put him on par with names like Astor, Van Rensselaer, Phelps and Livingston.
William and his wife, the former Jane Percy Sargent, had three children. When James Boorman died in 1866, No. 13 passed to his adopted daughter, Mrs. Josiah W. Wheeler. She sold it to William Butler Duncan. It took Duncan six years to complete; but in 1872 he had renovated Nos. 12 and 13 into a single expansive mansion. The stoop and entrance of No. 13 were seamlessly removed and the combined homes took the address of No. 12.
|Duncan's alterations left subtle hints--the scar of the closed-up entrance to the left and the original ornate gate posts, now part of the fencing.|
Duncan’s timing could not have been worse. Within a few years Duncan, Sherman & Co. was in trouble. A two-day auction held on December 16 and 17, 1875 liquidated Butler’s immense personal library—around 1,000 volumes. The auctioneer advertised the library as “consisting of the best editions of English and American books, for the most part superbly bound.”
The Duncan family relocated to the former boarding school directly behind the house at No. 1 Fifth Avenue. It was a step down, but most certainly still a prestigious address and residence. The grand double mansion was purchased by Edward Cooper in 1879.
Cooper was married to the former Cornelia Redmond. He was the son of industrialist Peter Cooper and the same year the family moved into No. 12 he became Mayor of New York City. His term would last only one year; and in the meantime he ran his iron and steel manufacturing business and served as President of Cooper Union.
Edward Cooper’s business partner and brother-in-law, Abram S. Hewitt, shared his interest in politics. On the night of October 15, 1886 Hewitt worked on his acceptance speech for Democratic nomination for mayor. The following morning the New-York Tribune announced “It will be read by him to the committees of Tammany Hall and the County Democracy, which will assemble in the parlors of the house of Edward Cooper, No. 12 Washington Square, North, at 1 o’clock to-day.”
Society’s disdain for theatrical types did not always extend to foreigners. When the internationally-known actress Mrs. Kendal and her husband toured in American in 1890, they were highly entertained, including a dinner on Washington Square. On March 3 that year The Sun reported “In the evening the Kendals drove from their hotel to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Cooper, 12 Washington Square, where a dinner was given in their honor. Covers were laid for eighteen, and the guests included some people of note in society and a few professionals.” The newspaper intimated that Mrs. Cooper had not gone overboard for the actress. “There was no decoration in the house beyond the flowers used on the dining room table.”
Living with the Coopers at No. 12 were their daughter, Edith, and her husband Lloyd S. Bryce. Edith was honored in 1890 when she was chosen to represent New York City as a “lady manager” of the upcoming World’s Fair. When interviewed by The Sun, she said she would “undoubtedly accept the appointment.” Her husband was quick to chime in. “The duties, Gen. Bryce said, would have to do with woman’s work and the woman’s department.”
The Cooper family repeatedly hosted distinguished foreigners. In May 1891 the British Minister, Sir Julian Pauncefote and his entire family stayed here; and he was back two years later. During the latter visit, The Sun reported that “He had been confined to his room by an attack of gout, and a rumor that he was seriously ill became current.” Later that year the Coopers hosted a dinner in honor of the Duke de Veragua and his party.
The double-wide mansion made elaborate entertainments possible. On February 17, 1892, when Edith Bryce “gave a cotillion…at the house of her mother,” as reported in The Sun, no fewer than 120 guests were present—with names including Astor, Vanderbilt, Livingston, Fish, Cushing, Burden, Goelet, Roosevelt and Whitney. In order that the toes of other socialites were not stepped upon, the hostesses often organized their entertainments to avoid schedule clashes. In this case, Edith’s guests had been fed before arriving at No. 12. “Her guests had been previously entertained at dinner parties given by Mrs. Ogden Mills, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mrs. Frederic Bronson, Mrs. Bradley Martin, and Mrs. Maturin Livingston.”
Perhaps the reason that Edith gave the cotillion that February night rather than her mother was due to Cornelia’s failing health. She suffered what the New-York Tribune termed “a long illness” before her death in the house on Monday March 19, 1894. Four days later her funeral took place at Grace Church. The newspaper mentioned that “The top of the coffin was completely hidden beneath a mass of white and purple violets, lilies-of-the-valley, white hyacinths and white and purple lilacs.” Somewhat unusually, there was no service in the family home. As expected, the church was filled with the most socially important names in New York.
|Edward Cooper would live at No. 12 for 26 years -- photo "Notable New Yorkers of 1896-1899 (copyright expired)|
About three months later, on the evening of June 5, 1894, just as the Cooper family sat down to dinner, a servant ran down the stairs shouting “Fire!” Without pausing he bolted out the front door to find an alarm box. The family’s butler ran up the stairs with Edward Cooper close behind. When they reached a second floor sitting room, they discovered the draperies in flames.
A gas reading lamp was connected to the lighting gas pipe by a rubber hose. A delicate silk shade rested on the glass chimney. Somehow the shade had become tilted and caught on fire. The same servant who had run downstairs noticed the small flame as he passed the door. In his attempt to remove the shade, he knocked the lamp off the table and the curtains caught fire. At this point he panicked and ran from the house.
The butler ripped the curtains from the window and stamped out the fire. He then turned off the gas to the lamp and placed it back on the table. The New-York Tribune said “The burned curtain was flung out in the yard, and a couple of pails of water put out the last spark of fire.”
The fear of fire was prominent in the minds of Victorians. Well-dressed residents promenading in Washington Square saw the flames in the window and rushed to the house. The Sun reported that “several hundred persons gathered in Washington Square opposite the house” and the New-York Tribune said they had “packed themselves about the house when the firemen arrived, and the police had to make a lane through this throng for the fire engines to pass.”
“Besides destroying the curtains the fire scorched the enameled window frame and slightly damaged the carpet and an antique bookcase. The damage was about $500,” reported The Sun. That figure would translate to about $14,000 today.
Edith took over her mother’s role as hostess of No. 12 Washington Square following the period of mourning. The house was the scene of a delightful entertainment on April 14, 1898 when “several children of well-known society people took part” in a play. The juvenile actors included “Miss Ruth Twombly, daughter of H. McK. Twombly; little Miss Iselin, Miss Lee, daughter of Mrs. Charles Carroll Lee; Miss Edgar, and Miss Bryce.”
After a quarter of a century in what the New-York Tribune deemed “the handsome, old-fashioned house,” Edward Cooper died there on Saturday, February 25, 1905, at the age of 81. As had been the case with his wife, there were no services in the house and the funeral was conducted at Grace Church.
On the afternoon of January 16 the following year, the mansion was the scene of Clare Bryce’s marriage to J. Sergeant Cram. The New-York Tribune noted “The wedding was quiet, as Mrs. Bryce is in mourning for her father and Mr. Cram for his sister, Miss Ethel Cram, who died last autumn in Lenox from injuries received in a runaway accident.”
“During the ceremony, which took place in the drawing room, decorated with palms and cut flowers Lander’s Orchestra played.”
Within weeks of the ceremony the Bryces sold No. 12. Lloyd Bryce had purchased property from Andrew Carnegie adjoining the James A. Burden, Jr. mansion. The New York Times predicted he would erect “a handsome dwelling on this plot.”
The Washington Square house was purchased by Eugene Delano, a member of the banking firm of Brown Brothers & Co. His wife, Susan Magoun Adams was directly descended from John Adams. She had died in 1904. The family had barely moved in before daughter Susan Adams Delano was married to Charles M. McKelvey at Glymont, the Delano country estate in Orange, New Jersey. Susan’s three brothers, Eugene Jr., William, and Moreau, and sister Caroline moved into No. 12 with their father.
|The house had sprouted three-sided bays and a rooftop balustrade in the 19th century -- photograph from "Fifth Avenue" 1915 (copyright expired)|
Years later William Adams Delano would be a highly-respected architect and member o the firm Delano & Aldrich. According to Peter Pennoyer and Anne Walker in their The Architecture of Delano & Aldrich, he would recall “this house had a great influence on my architectural thinking…The simple rooms with their large windows and high ceilings, taught me that these elements [were] more important than elaborate decorations, which people tire of in time.”
Tragedy visited the family on January 29, 1913. Twenty-five year old son Eugene had graduated from Yale in 1908. The bachelor purchased a large farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. In 1912 he battled constant bouts of ill health which caused “despondency.” He had been visiting the family in January 1913 and left for Canada on Saturday the 25th. He never made it to his farm.
Four days later his body was found in a Winnipeg hotel room. The New York Times reported he was found “in his room in the Royal Alexandra Hotel with his throat and wrists slashed with a razor. He left this note addressed to Eugene Delano, New York:
‘Dear father, sisters, and brother, forgive me. Eugene.”
Caroline Delano married Dr. Augustus Baldwin Wadsworth in 1910; leaving only her father and brother, Moreau, in the Washington Square home. Moreau would still be here a decade later when Eugene Delano died in the house on the morning of April 2, 1920. He was 75 years old. Delano’s $3 million fortune was divided among his four children.
The heirs sold their father’s house to Rodman Wanamaker, son of department store giant John Wanamaker for $150,000. In reporting the sale The New York Times reminded readers “The land is owned by the trustees of Sailors’ Snug Harbor.”
Wanamaker was a Special Deputy Chief of Police, and Vice President of John Wanamaker Department Stores. His physical condition was frail and would be a constant concern. At the time of the purchase Rodman Wanamaker was living nearby at No. 69 Washington Place. His alterations to No. 12 would take over a year; but as the new year arrived in 1922, he was preparing to move. It nearly did not happen.
A fire broke out in the Washington Place house on January 2. Wanamaker was alone in the house with four servants. “He has been preparing to leave there to move into his new home in Washington Square,” said The Times on January 3, “but his works of art and many antiques had not yet been transferred.”
The fire started in the basement when everyone in the house was asleep. Wanamaker’s bedroom was on the third floor and the servant rooms were on the fourth. The house filled with smoke, overcoming Wanamaker.
The Evening World reported “Early yesterday morning Ernest Schmidt, the butler, seeking his master in the smoke-filled house, stumbled over the latter’s body, picked him up and dragged him to safety on an extension roof.”
According to The New York Times “Mr. Wanamaker was so overcome by the smoke that he was not able to step out on the coping alone. So Schmidt picked him up, his friends say, and carried him to the next building.” He was taken to No. 12 Washington Square to recover.
The Times noted “Mr. Wanamaker’s health has not been good since he was in Paris a year ago, and he was so affected by his experience and the shock of awakening in a smoke-filled room that word was sent to his personal physical, Dr. Harvey Shoemaker, of Philadelphia, who took the first train available for New York.” Wanamaker pulled through; however many of his artworks and antiques did not fare so well, and were “ruined” by water from fire hoses.
Later that year, in November, Rodman Wanamaker was in the news again for health reasons. The New-York Tribune reported on November 15 that doctors had confined him to the Washington Square mansion “for the rest of this week.” In addition “policemen are stationed about the house to prevent any unnecessary noise. This gave rise to a rumor that he was seriously ill.”
In June 1923 the policemen were back “to keep trucks and other noisy vehicles from passing” due to Wanamaker’s ill health. His secretary, Thomas A. Hayes, explained to reporters “The heat during the jubilee celebration last Saturday affected Mr. Wanamaker considerably.”
By January Wanamaker was well enough to escort his daughter, Fernanda, in the quiet wedding ceremony in the mansion. Six months earlier she had divorced her husband, Arturo Juan Alessandro Heeren, in Paris. Now she married Ector Orr Munn in her father’s parlor. (Fernanda’s sister, Anne Marie Louise, was also married to a Munn.) “The ceremony was of the simplest kind and only members of the Wanamaker family and one or two intimate friends and business associates of Mr. Wanamaker were present,” said The Times on January 25, 1924.
Rodman Wanamaker died on March 9, 1928 at his country villa in New Jersey at the age of 65. Daughter Anne Marie Louis Munn was living with him at the time and on January 30 the following year The New York Times reported that she had purchased the Washington Square house from her father’s estate. Her ownership would long be long-lived, however.
In 1933 Marie Louise Munn divorced her husband Gurnee Munn, claiming cruelty. Two years later an auction was held of Rodman Wanamaker’s things. “From the Rodman Wanamaker residence at 12 Washington Square will come Ch’ien-lung, Yung-Cheng and other carved jades, a seventeenth-century paneled walnut ‘pharmacy room’ with a collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century French, Italian and Dutch pharmacy jars and bronze mortars, and period furniture covered in needlepoint and tapestry.”
In 1939 the mansions from No. 7 through No. 13 were gutted and only the facades preserved. Architectts Scott & Prescott created a modern apartment building, with an entrance on Fifth Avenue, which replaced the elegant homes. Their doorways above the white marble stoops are mostly for show and rarely, if ever, used.
non-credited photographs by the author
non-credited photographs by the author