Saturday, June 6, 2015

The 1836 Hubbard Mansion -- No. 22 Washington Square

Among the speculative investors who quickly recognized the potential of Washington Square as an elegant residential enclave was wealthy attorney Edmund Wilkes.  In 1835 he began construction on three brick-faced mansions at Nos. 21 through 23 Washington Square North.  Completed a year later, they were stately Greek Revival homes with high brownstone stoops, columned porticoes and floor-to-ceiling parlor windows which opened onto handsome cast iron balconies.

The land on which the houses were built was leased, not owned, by Wilkes.  The practice of signing a “leasehold” on the land was not uncommon—as a matter of fact all the houses being built along Washington Square North east of Fifth Avenue were on leased land.  That property was owned by the Sailors’ Snug Harbor. 

Wilkes signed a lease on the vacant lots on January 10, 1835 for a term of 19 and a half years.  The contract demanded that he construct a building within two years and that “there shall not at any time…be erected, permitted or suffered upon the said hereby demised premises more than one dwelling house.”  Wilkes complied with the terms of the lease which said the homes “be constructed of brick or stone and covered with slate or metal, and be three or more stories high above the basement.”

It all seemed very simple at the time.  But that leasehold would prove to be more than problematic a century later.

In May 1837 No. 22 became home to wealthy commission merchant Nathaniel T. Hubbard whose office was at No. 27 Front Street.   Well educated, he would be best remembered for his Autobiography of N. T. Hubbard, With Personal Reminiscences of New York City From 1789 to 1875.  Hubbard was a great lover of the opera and became close friends with several singers.   In his memoirs he mentioned “the musical entertainments I so often gave at my own house on Washington Square.”

When the celebrated Caradori Allan arrived in New York with her husband, they were introduced to Hubbard.  He wrote of them “Her husband was a Scotchman by birth, and very much of a gentleman, and very fond of money, it was said.  She was no actress, but made up for that defect in the beauty and splendor of her voice…I gave a musical entertainment at my house on Washington Square in her honor.  During the evening she sang three or four of her English songs.”

Among Hubbard’s close friends was the prominent Boston banker and merchant, Colonel William Parsons Winchester.  When Winchester died in 1850, Hubbard boarded a train to attend his funeral.   He had scarcely left New York when his son suffered a tragic accident.

On the afternoon of August 7, the young man attempted to board a moving Hudson River Railroad car at the corner of Canal and Greenwich Streets.  The New-York Daily Tribune reported the following day that he “accidentally fell under the wheel and had his leg crushed to pieces, so that amputation was necessary.”

Within a few years of the accident Hubbard would update his home.  He replaced the Greek Revival ironwork, including the balcony, with more contemporary Italianate style examples.  It was possibly at this time that the striking arched doorway was installed.

On November 9th, 1861, the mansion was the scene of the Hubbards’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration.  The couple was surrounded by “all my children and a large number of grand-children,” as Nathaniel Hubbard later remembered.  But that year would also be the beginning of problems.

According to Hubbard’s autobiography, his “fortunes began to wane.”  He managed to stay on in the Washington Square house until 1866 where he had “resided twenty-nine years—twenty-five years in great prosperity.”

By the 1870s the family of John Jay moved into the house.  A grandson of John Jay, President of the First Congress and first Chief Justice; Jay had been appointed Minister to Austria in 1869.  An ardent and early abolitionist, he had became a manager of the New-York Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society in 1834, two years before graduating from Columbia College in 1836.  He argued several slavery cases and during the Civil War frequently advised Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet.

On April 13, 1869 the New-York Tribune said of him “Apart from his professional and public career, Mr. Jay has succeeded in earning for himself a far-famed renown, and has nobly maintained the traditional reputation of his distinguished family, by the publication of numerous literary productions, which have more particularly been devoted to the discussion of questions of public interest.”

John Jay II -- Massachusetts Historical Society Photo Archives.
On February 28, 1878 Jay’s wife hosted the first meeting of the Thursday Evening Club.  Its first president, she intended the social club to “maintain its standard, and to make it increasingly a centre of intellectual intercourse and recreation, by resisting every tendency to ostentation or extravagance in its entertainments and by welcoming to its fellowship those whose credentials are to be found in cultivated tastes and literary or artistic accomplishments.”

The dues were set a $2 and membership limited to 160.  Meetings were to be held on the first and third Thursday of each month; beginning in December and ending in April “with no meetings during the Lenton season.”

Mrs. Jay and her co-founders were specific in how the meetings would run.  They would start “precisely 8:30 o’clock.”  All addresses and entertainments were to “begin punctually at 9 o’clock and last no more than forty-five minutes.”  The hostess at whose home the meeting was held was responsible for providing the entertainment.   “Refreshments at the meetings of the club are to be very simple, and the wines limited to claret, hock, sherry, and punch.  The light refreshments may be placed on a buffet or passed around on waiters, but no regular supper tables shall be set and no champagne shall be allowed.”

For the first meeting, Mrs. Jay arranged for Bishop Potter to address the women.  He chose “Clubs” as his topic.  Mrs. John Jay had succeeded in forming one of the first women’s clubs in New York and admittance to the exclusive Thursday Evening Club was highly coveted.

Mrs. Jay took an afternoon drive up Fifth Avenue each day. As The Times later pointed out, such an outing was then “a part of the day’s fashionable program.”  The newspaper said “A commanding figure always, her bonnet and coiffure strictly Victorian, she sat erect in her somewhat outmoded high C-spring barouche, drawn by high-stepping horses, with coachman and footman in cockaded liveries.”

John Jay’s public celebrity and his wife’s social status notwithstanding, the Washington Square house would be just as socially important in the 1880s when Mrs. John W. Minturn, the former Louisa Aspinwall, moved in.   When Louisa altered the house, she expectedly turned to architects Renwick & Aspinwall to handle the project.

Fabulously wealthy, Louisa Minturn’s dances and receptions were glittering affairs.  The Evening World mentioned on December 19, 1887 that Mrs. Minturn’s dance that evening “will start the festivities of the week’s gaieties.”

The newspaper was prompted to print an apology to Louisa Minturn a few days later after it seems the dowager had filed her displeasure.  “The dance given on Monday evening by Mrs. John W. Minturn, of 22 Washington Square, was not in honor of her daughter, as has been announced, but for her n niece, Miss Appleton.”

Among the happiest events in the house was the wedding reception on April 14, 1894 following the marriage of Katherine M. Minturn to Edward A. Le Roy, Jr. in the nearby Church of the Ascension.  The New York Times noted that the ceremony was “attended by a large number of fashionable people.”

The following year Louisa turned her attention to an admirable cause—the erection of a new hospital for contagious diseases.  She donated $25,000 to start the building fund and, according to The Sun on May 2, 1895, “is devoting all her energies toward the completion of her scheme.”  The project would result in the construction of The Louisa Minturn Hospital.

Louisa was, of course, a member of the Thursday Evening Club and on January 16, 1896 she scored a coup when adventurer Lieutenant Robert Peary spoke to the group on his recent trip to the Arctic.  The New-York Tribune reported that “The lecture was illustrated with a number of stereopticon views.”  If the club had started out as a women-only group, Peary’s presence ended that.  A number of the socialites were accompanied by their husbands that night.

Louisa Minturn summered in Tuxedo.   Summer homes required a staff as large, and sometimes more so, than city mansions.  On October 31, 1900 she advertised in the New-York Tribune for “BUTLER—First class butler wanted for Tuxedo.  Apply, bringing references, Wednesday at 10:30.”

The Minturn Hospital continued, understandably, to be Louisa’s pet charity. She repeatedly opened her Washington Square home to bolster funding, such as the Christmas sale she held in December 1901.

On December 23, 1904 the 60-year old socialite attended a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria.   At 10:45 she climbed into her electric hansom and instructed her chauffeur, John Riley, to take her home.  As Riley drove down Fifth Avenue “at a moderate rate of speed” towards 31st Street, an electric cab was coming the opposite direction.  “In the north-bound hansom was a very pretty and fashionably gowned young woman,” reported The New York Times the following day.
Suddenly the cab swerved diagonally across the avenue “with no lessening of speed,” according to The Times.  “The two cabs came together with a crash.”

Louisa Minturn was thrown through the windshield and onto the running board of the other vehicle.  The cab drive, Charles C. King, “was jolted forward and fell into the wreckage.”  His passenger received cuts to her face.  When an ambulance arrived, both Louisa Minturn and the cabbie were unconscious.

“Dr. Lanthrop, who responded, found that Mrs. Minturn’s head, face, and shoulders were lacerated, and, possibly, that her nose was fracture.

“King’s injuries were more serious.  His left leg was crushed and the bones were broken in several places.  The heel of his left foot was nearly torn off.”  He was arrested, charged with reckless driving.

Each of the owners of the Washington Square mansion had renewed the leasehold on the land below it.  So far, it had not been an issue.   Before long that would all change.

On June 7, 1919 the New-York Tribune reported that “Sir Edgar Speyer has purchased the dwelling and Hamersley estate leasehold at 22 Washington Square North.”  Speyer paid $22,000 for the property, about $300,000 in today’s dollars.

The former London banker had given up his title as a British Baron, resigned as a member of the British Privy Council, and moved to New York in 1915.  This followed the British Home Secretary’s charge that he “has shown himself by act and speech to be disaffected and disloyal to his majesty, and had, during the war in which his majesty was engaged, unlawfully communicated with the subjects of an enemy state and associated with a business which was to his knowledge carried on in such a manner as to assist the enemy in such war.”

A member of one of the oldest families in Germany, Speyer had been reared there, although he was born in New York City.  He lived in England for 30 years and the baronetcy was conferred on him in 1906 by King Edward for his services as the Chairman of the underground railroad system in London.  His wife, Leonora, was the daughter of Count Ferdinand von Stosch.  An accomplished violinist and poet, she would go on to win the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her “Fiddler’s Farewell.”

Two months later after moving into the Washington Square mansion, the Speyers announced the engagement of Leonora’s daughter from a previous marriage, Enid Virginia Howland, to J. Robert Hewitt.  “Miss Howland attended school in Europe and has been in this country five years,” reported The Sun.  “She is now with her mother in their country place at Lake George, N.Y.”   

Newspapers at the time referred to the Speyers and “Sir Edgar and Lady Speyer.”  But by the time Enid’s sister, Pamela, married Count Hugo Charles Moy in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1926, The New York Times noted “The bride’s father is Sir Edgar Speyer, although he prefers to call himself Mr. Edgar Speyer.”

Edgar and Leonora Speyer in 1921.  Illustrated London News, 24 December 1921 (copyright expired)

On December 11, 1922 Leonora Speyer arrived at Pennsylvania Station.  She discovered that one of her suitcases was missing.   It came at a time when police were puzzled by the robberies of “several fashionable women in Pullman trains and in prominent hotels by removing suitcases packed with jewelry and wearing apparel,” as reported in The Evening World.

Police staked out pawn shops and Detective Gunita’s suspicions were raised when Emily Armstrong pawned a pearl necklace for $20 in a shop at the corner of Third Avenue and 34th Street.  “She was shadowed by Detective Gunita…to two department stores, where he said he saw her steal several articles.  Then he followed her to her furnished rooms, where he arrested her.”

The Evening World described the “ladylike thief” as “about thirty-five years old and of evident refinement.”  The necklace she had pawned for $20 belonged to Leonora Speyer and was valued at $4,000—more in the neighborhood of $55,600 today.

Armstrong confessed, admitting that “she stood around the Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal until she spied a fashionable woman with a traveling bag, and then she would follow her to her Pullman compartment and await her chance to walk off with the bag.”  The Evening World said “Those at the Speyer home refused today to discuss the case.”

The wedding of another daughter, Vivien Claire Speyer, took place in St. Mark’s in the Bowery on April 8, 1927.  Afterward, guests arrived at the Washington Square mansion for a wedding breakfast.  Vivien married Herbert Goldschmidt-Hergenhahn who was related to the Rothschilds and Merton families of Germany.  That evening the newlyweds set sail on the Homeric, headed for their new home in Hamburg.

Finally, in 1929, the last of the Speyer daughters, Leonora married; she, too, to a German, Dr. G. Von Wolff a Berlin surgeon.

In January 1932 Edgar Speyer traveled to Berlin for a nasal operation.  Doctors said he was “apparently fit.”  But his condition deteriorated and on February 16 he died of a hemorrhage at the age of 69.   For a few years Leonora stayed in the house which she and her husband had filled with antiques and art; but then in 1935 she entered negotiations with sculptor Robert Aiken to remodel the house for the use “solely for his studio and private dwelling.”   The architectural firm of Lenygon & Morant provided a proposal for $20,000 in significant alterations to the interiors and “possible remodeling of the front.”

But Leonora soon ran up against a legal wall—the leasehold.   A letter from her attorneys, Guggenheimer & Untermyer, on April 3, 1935 noted in part “Under the terms of Mrs. Speyer’s lease she cannot assign same without the consent of Mr. Hamersley.  Further, since the present lease expires in 1938, Mr. Aitken is not willing to purchase unless he can come to some satisfactory arrangement with Mr. Hamersley with respect to the terms of the renewal.”

Leonra Speyer finally gave up.   In 1939 the mansion was acquired by New York University to house a new Faculty Club.  The school commissioned architect William S. Gregory to design the interior alterations.   

In 2008 Morris Adjmi Architects began restoration and conversion efforts to serve the needs of NYU’s School of Law.  Although, as explained in the firm’s website, “the north and south facades were meticulously restored;” the grand interior spaces were less fortunate.


non-credited photographs taken by the author

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