Monday, August 17, 2015

The Lost Furniss Mansion -- Riverside Dr and 100th Street

At the turn of the last century the Furniss mansion was still in excellent repair.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

Between 1762 and 1763 the royalist Charles Ward Apthorp acquired an enormous tract of land far north of New York City in the area known as Bloomingdale.  The New York Times would later say he did so “with the intention of founding a manorial home in the plan of the great English estates.”  Apthorp would certainly not be the first to do so.  Upper Manhattan island was dotted with sprawling summer estates of wealthy merchants and British officers.

Apthorp died in 1797, leaving his more than 200-acre estate to his ten children, who quickly began dividing it up.   A handsome columned mansion was soon erected on one substantial swatch—the grounds of the house itself sitting at what would become 99th to 100th street, from the river’s edge to about West End Avenue.  Who the builder was is unclear.  Chroniclers repeatedly attributed the estate to Humphrey Jones or William Rogers; but that similar mansion sat nearby on former Apthorp land, around Broadway and 101st Street.

The spacious wooden house faced the river where cooling breezes were captured by the deep veranda.  The New York Times would later call it “a substantial and roomy mansion overlooking the Hudson at Bloomingdale…with stately pillared portico on its western front that commands a wide sweep of the river to Castle Point.”

No expense was spared on the outfitting of the interiors.  The Sun described the dining room as “immense in length and breadth” and wainscoted in black walnut; “cupboards of the same with plate glass doors curved into the wall at the four corners.”

In the meantime William Ponsonby Furniss was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on July 16, 1790.  A self-made man, Furniss had sailed to St. Thomas at the age of 21 “taking with him little capital other than native Yankee pluck and perseverance,” according to The Sun decades later.

Furniss eventually amassed a fleet of clipper ships that operated between the West Indies and Portsmouth.   By at least 1833 Wm. P. Furniss & Co. had received a government contract, as well.  The Naval Magazine on January 2, 1837 noted that the firm was listed on the Naval Register as “temporary navy agents” based in St. Thomas.   By 1843 it was noted as permanent agents.

That same year William Furniss relocated his family from St. Thomas to New York City.   He and his wife, the former Sophia B. Huber (called by The Sun “a Philadelphia lady”), had six children—William, Sophia, Gardner, Margaret, Robert, Clementina and Leon.  Now wealthy, he purchased a impressive home on fashionable Bond Street, as well as the large estate in Bloomingdale.  More than half a century later The New York Times would remember “Every Spring the family moved from their town house up to the great white house…In those days the lawn sloped to the water’s edge, for it was before the building of the Hudson River Railroad.  Instead of steam whistles and the puffings of engines and the snorts of automobiles here were heard the merry shouts of romping children, who loved the house as their birthplace and played in the lush grass and blossoming groves with the freedom of country life, or bathed or floated, feeling a sense of proprietorship of the river that then was only dotted with occasional sails and formed a gentle boundary to their parental domain.”

The Sun noted that here Furniss “entertained about all the notable people that visited this country.” 

Tragically, two of the Furniss sons, William and Robert Livingston Patterson Furniss, died in 1862.  Nine years later their father would die in the Bloomingdale mansion.   By now Furniss had moved his fortune from the shipping industry into real estate and had greatly augmented his land holdings around the Bloomingdale estate.  Upon his death on October 29, 1871 his estate was valued at about $1 million—nearly 20 times that much in today’s dollars.  In his will he stipulated that the estate “should never be sold for public buildings or anything but a private residence.”

The last of the Furniss sons, Leon, died in 1877.   A year later, in May, Sophia Furniss died in the pillared mansion as her husband had.  Her funeral took place in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church on Broadway and 99th Street on May 5.  “Besides a large number of the friends of the family, there were present many of the residents of the neighborhood, where Mrs. Furniss was well known and beloved.”

By now serious development had begun on the Upper West Side.  But the Furniss mansion, mostly due to William Furniss’s dying wishes, survived.   But the Furniss siblings had lost interest in spending their summers here.    Shortly after their mother’s death the mansion was leased to the family of Russell Clarke.  But before the Clarkes were given the key, the Furnisses put double locks on a small room upstairs.  The lease stipulated, according to The Sun, “that this little room—the smallest in the house—must never be touched or meddled with.”

The Clarkes spent at least 20 summers in the home, caring for it and the Furniss furnishings as though they were their own.  And by all accounts, the little room on the top floor was never entered.

The three Furniss sisters were brilliant administrators of their father’s estate.  It was apparently Sophia who handled most of the dealings.  By the turn of the century the women had increased their $1 million inheritance to a staggering fortune of $40 million—equal to those of America’s greatest industrial or banking titans.  They maintained individual cottages in Newport and shared ownership of a Lenox, Massachusetts estate and a mansion at No. 461 Fifth Avenue.

By now the Clarke family had given up their lease on the Bloomingdale mansion and Sophia rented it to Alma Walker.   In Alma’s lease was the same mysterious clause regarding the bolted door on the topmost floor.

The mansion became a sort of artist colony under Alma Walker.  The Sun noted in 1903 “Mrs. Walker wants it understood that she doesn’t run a boarding house; she rents rooms to artists and serves meals to them.”   Among those who came and went were writers, Paul Wilstach, Paul Kester and his brother Vaughan Kester, and Gertrude Stein. 

In 1913 Paul Kester, in his The Hand of the Mighty; And Other Stories noted “Vaughan was about twenty-three when we went to New York, settling ourselves on Riverside Drive in The Big White House, as the place came to be called by our friends.  Here my brother and I wrote a two-act play together—The Cousin of the King—which was published in The Looker-On, and afterward played by Walker Whiteside.”  Paul Kester left, according to The Bookman, around 1900; but not before writing a railway story entitled The Manager of the B. and A., published by Harpers.

On January 16, 1904 the artists were sitting down to dinner when Policeman Carroll was patroling along Riverside Drive. The officer noticed fire in a second floor window.  After calling in a fire alarm, he rushed into the mansion and the dining room.

The Sun reported the following day “All the artists at dinner, including Mr. Vanderbeek, Miss Rumboldt, Miss Clark, and Miss Schulpatis, ran upstairs with the policeman. Then somebody suggested a bucket brigade and it was formed.”

The fearless group attacked the fire, “which was really dangerous at the start,” with buckets of water passed up the staircase.  The newspaper reported “The city firemen had little to do.  Dora, the maid, put the last bucket of water on the flame.”

The blaze had started in “Mrs. Reade’s room” where “There were several old pictures and some antique furniture in the room.”  The old paintings and furniture were still there from the days when the Furniss family spent its summers here.

A vintage postcard captures the encroaching apartment buildings built on land liquidated by the Furniss sisters.
As early as 1898 the Furniss sisters had begun selling off some of their real estate around the mansion.  On October 22 that year Sophia responded to questions about the future disposition of the “homestead block.”  She responded “In selling our property we have always restricted it…and as we have a special feeling about the old homestead block, we…will particularly hold to having only first-class private dwellings erected thereon.”

On October 31, 1909 The New York Times noted “Several months ago the Furnisses sold fourteen lots, including the West End Avenue frontage of the ‘old homestead.’”  Little by little the women were reducing the estate around their old family mansion.  In the meantime, Alma Walker was keeping up the maintenance as well as she could.

On December 5, 1909 The Sun said that the old Furniss furnishings “were pretty near to falling apart when the last tenant took possession, but she had them repaired and reupholstered.  The tenant of the ‘White House’ always did the repairing—and the repairs became pretty nearly a continuous performance.”  The newspaper added “Latterly it was occupied only by a selected few artists or literary people who valued it for what it was, a commodious, restful old retreat that was run in the spirit of camaraderie.  It was not a spot to which to invite the worldly or the fashionable.  It was hospitable to the last and lent a helping hand to more than one straggler in the race.”

But by now the three Furniss sisters were elderly—Sophia was 85, Margaret 80 and Clementina 74 years old.  After being in Furniss possession for 66 years, the women decided to sell the uptown estate.   On October 31, 1909 The New York Times wrote “The sale of the old Furniss mansion with its surrounding plot of twenty-three lots, not only marked the passing of what was perhaps the best known of the historic ‘country places,’ established in upper Manhattan fifty to seventy-five years ago, but it also emphasized the recent rapid development of the whole Riverside Drive district.”

In a poor quality photograph of 1909, the curious stop to pose before the old mansion is destroyed.  The Sun, December 5, 1909 (copyright expired)

Three weeks later The Sun reported that the syndicate which purchased the real estate sold “the old Furniss mansion, an uptown landmark, to a firm of house wreckers who have paid $500 for the privilege of converting the antiquated structure into second hand lumber and carting it away for resale.”

The demolition of the house meant the removal of furnishings, carpets and paintings that had been in the house for decades.  And it meant the opening of the little room on the top floor.  The Sun, on December 5, 1909, reported on what was behind the double-locked door.

“It contained what might be classified as family relics.  There was a cradle in which all the last generation of Furnisses were rocked; there were some curious sea shells from foreign shores; there was a small section of a quassia tree with inverted cuplike center, from which all the youngsters had been compelled to quaff a morning draught in the days when a quassia cup was regarded as an aid to health; there were six or seven cases of old wine of different vintages, most of it dating from 1830.”

Neighbors were aghast at the loss of the house and its lush gardens.  “To think that we shall never see that splendid old garden with all the lilies and lilacs and roses” a neighbor pined to The Sun.  “Isn’t it awful.”

The newspaper agreed. “The yield from the old flower garden even in its decline was immense.  During the last six or seven years its last tenant after liberally supplying friends and acquaintances used to send each spring several bushel baskets full of lilacs and roses to the patients in New York hospitals.  No wonder that the prospective array of ten or a dozen new apartment houses covering the grounds of the White House, as it was locally known, fails to appease the regret of the dwellers in the neighborhood.”
The Furniss mansion was pulled down to be replaced by the 12-story Wendolyn Apartment, built by Jacob Axwelred, which survives today.

1 comment:

  1. St Martin's Chapel at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was given by Clementina Furniss.