Monday, February 1, 2016

The Lost Peter Cooper House -- No. 401 Park Avenue So.

In 1904 Charles Frederick William Mielatz created a charming watercolor of the former house for the Society of Iconophiles from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1800 Peter Cooper was nine years old and working as a carriage marker’s apprentice.  He had already learned the basics of several trades – beer brewing, hat making, and carpentry. What he had not learned was correct spelling and formal arithmetic. The son of a working man, he had only one year of schooling.   He would, nevertheless, go on to greatness as an industrialist, inventor, philanthropist and Presidential candidate.

A few years later he personally helped construct a handsome frame house for himself at the corner of 8th Street and Fourth Avenue.  Graphite magazine wrote a century later, in January 1909, that the house was “built largely by the personal labor of the famous Peter Cooper, carpenters at the time being scarce.  It was erected without nails, since these were too expensive, being put together with wooden pegs.”

Two stories tall, the Cooper house presented an imposing presence.  A hip roof with a central gable gave the home a refined air.  But the house would not remain long in its original location.

In his 1896 Nooks & Corners of Old New York historian Charles Hemstreet recalled “Peter Cooper himself superintended the removal of the house in 1820, and directed its establishment on the new site so that it should be reconstructed in a manner that should absolutely preserve its original form.”  (Later, in 1854, Cooper would begin construction of his famous Cooper Union on the original site of the house.)

The “new site” was on the corner of the Boston Post Road and the Albany Turnpike in the Kips Bay area.  These dirt roads would later become Fourth Avenue and 28th Street.  Graphite magazine remembered “At that time it was surrounded by a peach orchard, and was about two miles from the nearest school, which was located on the Bowery.”  Cooper’s purpose in relocating his home to the undeveloped spot was obvious within the year. 

Not far away near the East River were slaughterhouses.  Cooper had purchased the rights to a glue-making process which he improved with his own invention.  In 1821 he purchased a glue factory from “Mr. Vreeland” on Sunfish Pond for $2,000—in the neighborhood of $42,000 today, an indication of his growing fortune.  Sunfish Pond was in Kips Bay, fed by Sunfish Creek that flowed along what would become 32nd Street.  The proximity to the slaughterhouses provided him with the necessary bones, tissues and fats needed for his glue.  Before long he had a virtual monopoly on the American glue business.

Sunfish Pond still existed in 1865 when Viele's water map was published.
By 1847 Cooper’s inventions, political involvements, and various businesses had made him a well-known and extremely wealthy figure in New York.  That year, according to Valentine’s Manual of Old New York, he became “the first to appreciate the advantages which the Park offered as a place of residence.”  “The Park” was the newly completed Gramercy Park.  Cooper purchased lots at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 22nd Street and completed his mansion at No. 9 Lexington Avenue in 1848; leaving his beloved wooden house behind.

In 1888 Ewing Galloway photographed the corner (probably to document the ongoing brick paving of Fourth Avenue).  Wooden crosswalks protect the hems of ladies' dresses from mud.  A. Stern operates his dry goods store here, while next door is a fish and oyster market.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

By now the Kips Bay neighborhood was fully developed.  Within a decade or so following Cooper’s leaving the house, it was converted for commercial purposes.  The first floor walls were removed to accommodate broad Victorian show windows and shop fronts.  Over the next half century it would house various businesses—at one point a coal and wood dealer shared the space with dry goods dealer A. Stern, who placed a prominent advertisement for R & G Corsets on the façade.  By the last years of the century a restaurant and candy store had taken over the entire ground floor.

Graphite magazine published an old photograph following the building's removal. (January 1910, copyright expired)
Peter Cooper died in 1883 and the old house became the property of his son-in-law and former Mayor, Abram Stevens Hewitt.  Abram and Sarah Amelia Hewitt maintained a sprawling summer estate in Ringwood, New Jersey, near Tuxedo.  When Hewitt considered improving the valuable Avenue property in 1894, Sarah stepped in.  Following in her father’s footsteps, she proposed moving her childhood home to the Ringwood Manor grounds.

On July 12, 1894 the Sacramento Daily Union reported “The house at Fourth avenue and Twenty-eighth street, New York, in which Peter Cooper lived once, is to be carefully taken down, removed and re-built on the property of Abram S. Hewitt, at Ringwood, N.J.”

A large horseshoe sign hangs above the restaurant around the turn of the century.  The fish market still operates next door.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The tenants in all the buildings on the eastern block front of Fourth Avenue (later Park Avenue South) between 27th and 28th Streets were given notice and by October 1894 all the buildings were vacant.  Hewitt had agreed with the American Lithographic Company to put up a $550,000 building for the firm, which in turn would pay $75,000 a year rent.  Then, with no reason given, it was announced on October 10 that the deal “has fallen through.”

The reprieve of the old “Cooper mansion” would last little more than a decade.  On June 6, 1909 The Sun reported on the proposed construction of “modern fireproof buildings of handsome type, including the two twelve-story ‘twin’ buildings to be erected for the Cooper-Hewitt heirs on the old Peter Cooper holding on Fourth avenue from Twenty-seventh to Twenty-eighth street.”

Now widowed, Sarah Amelia Cooper and her daughters took up the cause of preserving the century-old house.  The Los Angeles Herald, on May 22, 1909, reported that the “old homestead” had “been purchased by the Misses Hewitt, granddaughters of Mr. Cooper, and will be moved to the Cooper estate, Ringwood Manor, near Tuxedo, where it will be restored to the condition it was in when occupied by Mr. Cooper and his bride.”  The newspaper added, “It has been one of the sights for visitors to New York.”

photograph by Wall Street Journal
The massive office building that replaced the old structures on the block gives no hint today that once the wooden home of one of Manhattan’s greatest figures was dismantled and reconstructed here, in what was then virtually farmland.


  1. Does the house still exist?

    1. I doubt it- the Ringwood Manor estate still stands and is open to the public, but there is no mention of this structure on their site.