Saturday, March 14, 2015

The H. H. Benedict Mansion -- No. 5 East 75th Street



Although most of New York’s millionaires who moved up Fifth Avenue along Central Park at the turn of the last century chose their own architects and gave input on the design of their new mansions; developers still got into the act.  Among them was the firm of William Hall’s Sons which produced high-end residences aimed at the wealthiest of potential homeowners.

In 1901 the developers commissioned Welch, Smith & Provot to design two speculative mansions at Nos. 5 and 7 East 75th Street.  Completed in January 1902, the Beaux Arts homes were fraternal twins; each with unmistakable shared genes; yet each with its own distinct personality.

Like its sister, No. 5 boasted all the modern conveniences necessary to lure wealthy buyers.  On January 11, 1902 the Real Estate Record and Guide noted that construction had cost $100,000 (over $2 million today).  There were over two dozen rooms inside.

The near twin houses as they appeared around a year after the Benedicts moved in -- photograph by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWR8TIAQ&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894
Despite their elegant facades and lavish interiors, the two houses did not immediately sell.  It was not until a year after completion that Henry Harper Benedict purchased No. 5.  Benedict had risen from humble beginnings, Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography saying he “attended the traditional little schoolhouse.  When the three ‘R’s’ were mastered he tramped to the Little Falls Academy and later completed his studies at Fairfield Seminary…and at Hamilton College where he was graduated in 1869 with the degree of A.B.”

Fate would shine on Benedict when he landed a job as bookkeeper in the E. Remington and Sons firm—the famous manufacturers of firearms and war materials.  When the company took on the manufacture of sewing machines, Benedict was made Director and Treasurer of the Remington Sewing Machine Company.  His greatest accomplishment came in 1873, six years after his marriage to Maria Nellis, when James Densmore brought in a typewriter. 

The contraption had been invented by C. Latham Sholes.  It was a crude ancestor of the perfected typewriter; but Benedict recognized its potential.  He convinced Philo Remington to purchase the exclusive rights to manufacture and sell the machine.   The Remington firm spent a great amount of time and money perfecting it—but just a year later, in 1874, over 400 typewriters were sold, mostly in Ohio.  In 1882 Benedict helped form the corporation, Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict, whose sole purpose was the manufacture and sale of the Remington typewriter.  Four years later the firm purchased the entire typewriter plant along with the Remington Typewriter Company.
Henry and Maria had had four children—two sons and two daughters—but only one, Helen, was still living. 

The family moved in to the mansion along with the staff of servants.  The Benedicts apparently had an ample selection of carriages, buggies and broughams; for the family owned two carriage houses nearby at Nos. 165 and 167 East 73rd Street.

The address was handsomely incorporated into the carved cartouche above the doorway.
As with all the wealthy homeowners in the neighborhood, Benedict filled his mansion with antiques and art.  America’s Successful Men of Affairs said of him “A man of refined tastes, he has made a collection of engravings and etchings by the great masters, which is of the highest quality, perhaps unsurpassed by any other of its size anywhere.  He also possesses a good library and a collection of oil paintings mostly by American artists, which, like his prints, represent the several artists at their best.”

On August 7, 1904 the engagement of Helen was announced.  Just two months later her marriage to Archibald A. Forest took place at St. George’s, Hanover Square, in London.  Following the honeymoon the newlyweds moved into the 75th Street house with the Benedicts.


1913 Henry Harper Benedict retired.  Maria, now 74 years old, was showing signs of declining health.  Two years later her condition would be further strained by disturbing news.  On July 19, 1915 the New-York Tribune reported “Word was received yesterday by Mrs. Henry Harper Benedict, wife of a director of the Remington Typewriter Company, that her nephew, Robert Nellis, a wealthy contractor of Fort Plain, N.Y., had been found dead in the Erie Canal, near his home.”

Nellis had received several threatening letters in the prior week.  An examination of the body showed that there was no water in his lungs; proving that he was dead before being tossed into the canal.  The gruesome details of the case pointed to murder.

A month later, at the age of 76, Maria Nellis Benedict died in the house.  The Sun noted that she “had been suffering for some time from a complication of diseases.On Friday afternoon, August 27 at 4:00, her funeral was conducted in the drawing room.

A social eyebrow or two may have been raised two years later when, on February 8, 1917, the New-York Tribune ran the headline “H. H. Benedict, 72, Manufacturer and Clubman, to Rewed.”  It was not so much the relatively short period between Maria’s death and the announcement that was surprising—it was the intended bride’s age.  At 26, Josephine Geddes was nearly half a century younger than Benedict.  No doubt expecting indelicate questions from the press, the family chose not to receive reporters.  The Tribune mentioned “He could not be reached at his home last evening.”

The couple was quietly married in St. Thomas’ Church on March 5.  The Sun remarked “It was a simple wedding, with few present.  The  bride entered the church with her mother.  There were no wedding attendants, and among those who witnessed the marriage were Mr. and Mrs. Archibald A. Forrest, son-in-law and daughter of the bridegroom.”

Henry Harper Benedict may have been in his 70s; but he was still vibrant.  Baby Josephine Catharine Benedict arrived before long.

With the leisure time the millionaire gained after retirement he focused on increasing his already-impressive art collection.  The New York Times later said “Mr. Benedict was devoted to the study of art  and maintained an excellent private gallery.  He specialized in painters of the Barbizon School.  His collection included works by Corot, Millet, Ruysdael and Turner.

“It also contained many hundreds of prints, including some of the beset plates of Rembrandt ad Duerer, and the entire etched work of Millet.  He also possessed the original copper plates of Millet’s etchings.”

While Benedict collected and studied, the new Mrs. Benedict threw herself whole-heartedly into social and charitable affairs.  Her name consistently appeared in the society pages as a patroness of balls, concerts and other events for the benefit of worthy organizations.  But that would all come to a sudden end in 1935.

At 6:00 on the morning of June 12 Henry Harper Benedict died in the house on East 75th Street.  “Death was caused by a cerebral thrombosis resulting from a heart condition,” said The New York Times.  His widow, who went by the name of Katherine, withdrew from the social spotlight.   The Times would later say “Mrs. Benedict…lived quietly away from public notice after the death of her husband.”

Nonetheless, the house at No. 5 East 75th Street would repeatedly be the scene of drama and public attention in the decades to come.   On Friday January 7, 1938 Josephine Benedict married Dr. J. Douglass Sharpe in St. Thomas Church where her father’s funeral had been held three years earlier.

Before Josephine died in 1946 there were two children born to the couple.  Upon Josephine’s death, Katherine Benedict sued Dr. Sharpe, a psychiatrist, for custody of her grandchildren and won.  The children, Gamble and her brother Douglas, moved into the house on East 75th Street and were given their grandmother’s last name.

On December 21, 1959 18-year old Gamble was introduced to society at the Cotillion Ball in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  Five days later the Briarcliff College freshman was the center of attention at her coming out party.  Outwardly it would appear that everything in the Benedict household was going perfectly.  It wasn’t.

The previous summer the Benedict family was summering, as always, at their Southampton estate.  Gamble met the chauffeur of Mrs. Ilene Bulova, a friend of the family.  The Rumanian Andre Porumbeanu was everything that the strict and assertive Katherine disapproved of in a suitor for her granddaughter.  Not only was he a servant; he was married with a child, and was 35 years old.  Secretly a romance smoldered and then ignited.  

The day after Gamble’s coming out party, she and the chauffeur climbed aboard a freighter headed to Antwerp, Belgium.  Upon their arrival on January 9, 1960, they went to Paris.   Katherine Benedict set the New York Police Department as well as private detectives on the case.  On January 10 newspapers reported that there were no leads; although “The police thought that Miss Benedict had eloped and left the city or country.”  The New York Times said “she had been reported to have been in the company of a man described as about 35 years old, well-dressed, dark-haired and of swarthy complexion.  [A witness] said the man spoke with a foreign accent.”

The lovers’ elopement would not last long.   When word came that the couple was in Paris, Katherine sent her attorney, Robert Hoffman, and her grandson Douglas to bring her back.  When Gamble refused to break off the romance, her brother and Hoffman went to the Paris courts.  Because Gamble was still a minor, the Juvenile Court placed her in Douglas’s custody.  On January 23, with Andre Porumbeanu in the hands of the Paris police, Gamble Benedict was escorted off an airplane in New York.

The girl had sobbed uncontrollably at Orly Airport in Paris, but strode through the flashbulbs and television cameras at the New York airport in stiff control.  “She did not smile, and appeared disconsolate,” said The Times.  “Miss Gamble, darked-haired and tall, was hatless.  She wore a black coat with a mink collars, black suede shoes and a red and black dress.”

When someone passed a note from Andre to her that read “I adore you very much.  There is no power on earth that can break up our love for each other,” the girl’s controlled façade collapsed.  
Newspapers reported that she was “weeping and nearly hysterical” in the lobby of the airport.  The Times said “At times the police literally carried the sobbing girl.”

When the Benedict limousine pulled up in front of No. 5 East 75th Street there were more than two dozen photographers and reporters along the sidewalk.  A police sergeant, lieutenant, captain and three police officers were there to control the media frenzy.

Hoffman addressed the reporters after the love-struck girl had gone inside where she went directly to her bedroom.  He said “that since Miss Benedict was under 21 she was still under the control of her grandmother and that she would not be allowed to see Mr. Porumbeanu again.” 

The lawyer added that the chauffeur had attempted to “get Miss Benedict to make a will in his favor.”

The New York Times reported “In Paris yesterday, Mr. Hoffman promised the Rumanian refugee ‘a mass of troubles’ if he returned to the United States.”

If Gamble Benedict was at all inclined to forgive her grandmother for forcing her back to New York and away from her lover; those inclinations most likely dissolved when Katherine took her to court and had her declared a wayward minor and a ward of the court.  A court order restrained Gamble from seeing Andre Porumbeanu until she was 21 years old.

On January 25 The Times said that Gamble Benedict…was secluded yesterday at her grandmother’s town house at 5 East Seventy-Fifth Street.  Three young women and two young men were allowed to visit her, but Miss Benedict’s father, Dr. J. Douglass Sharpe, was denied admittance.”

“This is typical,” he told reporters as he stormed away.

Some New Yorkers sided with the wayward debutante and during the night “Heil Granny” was scrawled on the steps of the house in lipstick.

In the meantime Andre hurriedly obtained a divorce in Mexico on March 15, which became valid on April 5.  A few days before the divorce was finalized, Gamble slipped away again.  She and Porumbeanu applied for a marriage license in Dillon, South Carolina on April 5; but there was a 24-hour waiting period in that state and they could not obtain the license until 3:00 on April 6.

While they were waiting, New York Magistrate Peter M. Horn sent a telegram to Dillon informing officials that Gamble was a ward of his court and she was prohibited from marrying without court approval.  He issued a warrant for her arrest on a wayward minor charge and a subpoena for Porumbeanu to appear in court.  Yet despite all Katherine Benedict’s efforts, the couple evaded arrest, and managed to be married in a hunting lodge near Hendersonville, North Carolina.

Friends of Gamble said the newlyweds were spending their honeymoon “in a secret hideaway after an overnight automobile trip.”  Reports said that they kept the location secret to avoid any efforts to bring them back to New York and annul the marriage.

Now with an heiress as his wife, Porumbeanu started legal actions himself.  He unsuccessfully attempted to have Katherine Benedict's guardianship revoked.  Astonishingly, his former wife then sued Katherine for $1 million “for allegedly using her as a pawn to break up her granddaughter’s romance with Mr. Porumbeanue.”


The scandal, heartbreak and court appearances would soon be over for Katherine Geddes Benedict.  Just before 9:00 on the evening of October 29, 1961 servants found her body on the floor of a fifth floor bathroom.  The 70-year old left an estate estimated at about $50 million.

Surprising, perhaps, to many, Gamble Benedict Porumbeanue and her brother shared equally in the inheritance; both receiving about $20 million.   The bitterness between her and her grandmother was not over, however.  Even in death Katherine Benedict got the last word.  On November 1, 1961 The New York Times said “Magistrate Peter M. Horn, who had signed warrants of arrests for the couple after the marriage, said yesterday he would not vacate the warrants so they could return from Switzerland to attend the funeral.”

In 1977 the magnificent Benedict mansion was converted to six apartments and two duplexes.  Thankfully much of the interior detailing was preserved.  In 2013 one apartment sold for just over $3 million.
photo http://www.corcoran.com/nyc/Listings/Display/1545197

6 comments:

  1. Your article started me off on a search for more of the story (& additional photos of the interiors of these buildings). Thank you for the time you spend writing these articles...you consistently start me off on a fun mini research projects!

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    1. Glad you're having fun with it. The story of this family is like a televised mini-series--almost too over-the-top to believe!

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  2. The house next door was used as backdrop for "The Nanny's" Sheffield house

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  3. A Google search revealed that the marriage of Gamble and Andre ended badly, with an annulment granted in 1964. Thanks for another great story.

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  4. I love this website. There's nothing like old New York.

    Lorraine

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    1. I'm really glad you're enjoying the blog.

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