As Manhattan’s millionaires continued the northward migration along Central Park in the first years of the 20th century their mansions vied with one another for attention. Many of them replaced rowhouses constructed in the 1870s; like the brownstone residence of D. B. Freeman at No. 1053 Fifth Avenue between 86th and 87th Streets.
In 1902 wealthy coffee merchant Philip S. Henry purchased the vintage house and commissioned the architectural firm of Herts & Tallant to drastically remodel it. Henry B. Herts and Hugh Tallant had met while studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and formed a partnership in 1897. The same year that they took on the Henry project, they began designing the New Amsterdam Theatre with its lavish Art Nouveau interiors. Its cutting-edge design would find its residential counterpart in the Henry mansion.
Philip S. Henry’s wife, Florine, was the daughter of millionaire banker Henry Lewisohn. They had married in the Lewisohn mansion in April 1900. As construction began on their new home, the couple leased No. 54 East 54th Street; squarely within the mansion district of Rockefellers and Vanderbilts now being engulfed by commerce. They had an infant daughter, Leonore Gladys, and a toddler, Rosalie Violet, who was two years old.
Around 6:00 on the frigid morning of January 11, 1903 Florine Henry was awakened by what she thought was the noise of “crackling tissue paper.” When she investigated, she found the hallway on fire. The flames had already engulfed the first floor had had traveled up the stairway to the second.
She roused her husband, who rushed to the third floor where the children and servants slept. He ran into the nurse, Minnie Ruidge, who already had both girls in her arms. Philip grabbed Rosalie and ordered Minnie to follow him with the baby. Once they got them safely to the street, he rushed back into the burning building.
By now the flames and smoke were too great and he was grabbed on the staircase by Policeman Frank Buesser who pulled him back to the street. Two other servants, Margaret Mayer and Mary Quinn had made it out and joined the children and nurse.
Philip repeatedly tried to break away from the officers, crying “My God, my wife’s inside!”
Also inside were Elberta Erickson, a maid who had just come to America from Sweden, and the cook, Ida Shaeffer. The women desperately sought an escape route from the burning mansion.
Ida Schaeffer opened a window and climbed out onto the top of the bay window. She tried to crawl along the ledge; but eventually could go no further. With policemen calling to her, urging her not to jump, she clung to the ledge.
Suddenly Elberta Erickson was seen at an open fourth floor window. She screamed for help as she climbed out, with the flames closing in behind her. She hung by her fingers from the window sill.
Fire trucks arrived about 6:15 and immediately began raising ladders to the two trapped servants. But before they could reach the Swedish girl, she “fell, head foremost, and turning over several times, pitched onto the sidewalk dying,” reported The New York Times.
The cook was much more fortunate. Ida Schaeffer was carried down a ladder by fire fighters. She rushed over to her employer, half assuring him of Florine’s safety. Unconvinced, Henry repeated cried “What will become of me, what will become of me?”
The Times said “Shut off from entrance, he rushed from person to person in the crowd, imploring them to help him rescue his wife, crying and wringing his hands.”
Philip Henry, along with his children and servants, were taken to the house of Alfred Lewisohn, a block away. In the meantime, firefighters searched for Florine in the still-burning mansion. The 24-year old woman was found around 6:30, just half an hour after she had first heard the flames.
The men “entered the library in front, from the bay window of which Ida Schaeffer had been rescued. There on the floor with arms outstretched and not more than three feet from the window, access to which would have meant life, was the body of Mrs. Henry, clad in a night robe. The position was such as to indicate that she had been creeping along the floor on her hands and knees trying to reach the window.”
Devastated, Philip S. Henry would never move into the mansion he was building for his family.
The house was completed in 1904. Architects' and Builders' Magazine called it "a masterpiece of the American Craftsman" and American Architect and Architecture wrote “the whole structure is unconventional.” And indeed it was—especially on the east side of Central Park.
There would be nothing like the Henry mansion on Fifth Avenue, nor in all of Manhattan. The exterior was a nearly-confusing mélange of styles—Flemish Renaissance, Arts and Crafts, and Gothic Revival. Faced in variegated brick and trimmed in limestone, Gothic openings with diamond-paned windows co-existed with bronze Arts and Crafts railings. The brick dog-legged stoop featured a stunning wrought iron inset railing of full-figured sunflowers; an important motif of the Aesthetic Movement. The attic floor, distinguished by diamond-pattern brick diapering, rose to a stepped Dutch gable. Other details of the American Craftsman style were present in custom tiles,
|The porch railing consisted of full-figure iron sunflowers. American Architect and Architecture, September 10, 1913 (copyright expired)|
Inside, however, there was no compromise in styles. Herts & Tallants had brought the American Craftsman, or Arts and Crafts, style to Fifth Avenue. The style rebelled against the overblown ornamentation of the Victorian era and embraced natural forms and handicraft.
|The balusters of the entrance staircase exemplified the Arts and Crafts movement. Architectural Record June 1904 (copyright expired)|
Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine found the interiors refreshing. “The rooms all differ in motive of decoration but still blend and harmonize perfectly The grandiose is everywhere absent and simplicity is the keynote, with the result that an air of comfort and homeliness pervades the whole residence.”
|Abundant use of wood expressed the natural features of the style. Architectural Record June 1904 (copyright expired)|
The critic hoped the Henry house signaled a trend. “That such charming results can be produced in a house as yet unoccupied and only partly furnished, leads us to hope for better things and that the old attempt at Louis XIV salons in a city residence may be things of the past, superseded by the vigorous, original and constantly varying designs of the American art craftsman.”
|The rooms were photographed without furniture because Philip Henry did not move in. Architectural Record June 1904 (copyright expired)|
In August 1906 Frederick Lewisohn sold the house for his brother-in-law to J. Mitchell Clark for $125,000. The Clarks, whose Newport cottage “Gray Craig Point” was formerly owned by Oliver H. P. Belmont, would not stay long. They resold the house at a tidy profit in 1908 to George Leary. He paid $150,000 for the mansion; about $4 million in 2016 dollars. In reporting the sale, The New York Times noted “the house has many unusual features.”
|When George Leary purchased the house in 1908 the lots to the south were still vacant. New-York Tribune November 29, 1908 (copyright expired)|
Among his other ventures, Leary was the head of the Columbia Light, Heat & Power Company. He and his wife, the former Julia May Crofton, had two sons, George, Jr. and James D. Leary. Their entertainments in the Fifth Avenue mansion were often and varied—the Secretary of War, Lindley Miller Garrison and his wife were often guests of honor here, the Thomas A. Edisons were frequent guests, and Julia’s devout Catholicism resulted in receptions and dinners for high-ranking church officials. It was perhaps the demands of lavish entertaining that prompted George to hire architect James E. Brooks to add a $3,500 extension to the rear of the first floor in 1909.
|The Library (above) and "Den" --Architects' and Builders' Magazine, September 1904 (copyright expired)|
In February 1916 Lindley Garrison resigned as Secretary of War when his view of “preparedness” for war clashed with Wilson’s initial isolationist stance. He and his wife were house guests of the Learys as they reorganized their personal lives. On February 11, just one day after entering private life, journalists interviewed Garrison in the hall of the Fifth Avenue house.
When asked if he intended to fight the President’s policies, “he became serious,” according to The Sun the following day. “Under no conceivable set of circumstances will I campaign against Mr. Wilson either on preparedness or any other issue. I have written and spoken my views on preparedness and those views can be found in a thousand difference places. I shall not continue to make them vocal.”
Julia Leary’s devotion to the Catholic Church was evidenced the following year when a reproduction of the Nestorian Stone was displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The original, erected in 781 A.D. in Shenshi, China, recorded 150 years of early Christianity in China. Julia purchased the two-ton monolith from its owners and had it shipped to Pope Benedict XV. The Pope, in 1919, conferred the title of Papal Countess on the benefactress.
And when the Learys hosted an afternoon tea on March 4, 1919, among the exulted guests were the Papal Envoy, Archbishop Cerretti; Apostolic Delegate to the United States, Archbishop Giovanni Bonzano; and New York Archbishop Patrick Joseph Hayes. (Both Bonzano and Hayes would later be elevated to Cardinal.)
|A narrow conservatory was located at the rear of the mansion -- Architects' and Builders' Magazine, September 1904 (copyright expired)|
By now the Leary sons were grown. James D. Leary had been serving in Belgium in the consular service at the time, and in August 1919 he was offered a post in Russian consulate office. Julia and George lived in the Fifth Avenue house surrounded by servants.
Things continued smoothly for the couple—as least for now. On May 30, 1920 the New York Herald reported on the upcoming social season in fashionable Southhampton, Long Island. “Among the new homes to be opened this year the most prominent and attractive architecturally will be the residence now nearing completion for Mr. and Mrs. George D. Leary of 1053 Fifth avenue,” it noted.
Entertaining, like the luncheon for 14 on April 20, 1922, continued on in the Fifth Avenue mansion; and newspapers reported later that year that Mr. and Mrs. Leary “passed the Christmas holidays in Cannes, France.” But the idyllic domestic life for George and Julia was drawing to an end.
|In 1911 the area was still partly undeveloped. The Leary mansion is at far right, while the magnificent Phipps house occupies the corner of 87th Street. photo by Wells & Co. from the collection of the New York Public Libary|
The couple attended the theater in 1923 where, coincidentally, the beautiful actress was named Gilda Leary. Later George sent her a letter, asking if they might be relatives, since both their surnames were missing the customary “O’” in O’Leary. Gilda replied saying she thought perhaps they were, and later they discovered they had the same coat of arms.
George began visiting Gilda at her apartment. He later denied “that he had ever had anything but proper relations with the actress.” He would have to admit, however, that he had never mentioned the visits nor introduced her to his wife.
The relationship, whether innocent or not, was discovered by Julia and behind the doors of No. 1053 Fifth Avenue tempers flared. New Yorkers may have gotten their first hint of trouble when, on April 20, 1927, The New York Times reported “Another costly residence on the east side changed hands yesterday.” George Leary had sold the mansion for $200,000.
The dirty laundry was aired in June when the couple began a very public fight over the art and furniture in the Fifth Avenue house. When George tried to empty the mansion, Julia’s lawyers stepped in. “Mr. Leary was informed that he would have to give $40,000 bond for indemnity before he could take the goods away,” reported The Times on June 9.
Deputy Sheriffs had the contents of the house removed to a storage house until the matter could be resolved. “Since then,” said The Times, “Mrs. Leary sought to remove the furniture without success.” Julia insisted that the furniture and $20,000 in artwork belonged to her. George disagreed.
The fight played out in court on November 23, 1927, during which the scandal merely intensified. Julia blamed Gilda Leary for her domestic problems and intimated an improper affair. George testified that Julia had threatened him with a gun.
“Did you ever pull a gun on your husband?” she was asked.
“That report is absolutely untrue. I loved him too well,” she answered.
In the meantime, the remarkable house continued as a single family mansion through mid-century. Next door, No. 1051 on the corner, had been erected in 1916 for Morton Plant and his young bride, Mae Caldwell Manwaring. Now the Leary house became home to their son, Philip Plant and his wife, motion picture star Constance Bennett.
After the couple divorced in 1929, Philip remained in the house until his death in 1941. Like a page from Great Expectations, Mae Plant locked the door on her son’s home and it sat boarded up for the next 16 years, until her death in 1956.
On January 16, 1957 Meyer Berger, writing in The New York Times, said “Dust lies on the rich furnishings to one-inch depth. The stained-glass windows at the back have broken with time and weather.
“Pigeons have used the upper floors for years for nocturnal nesting. The top floors are littered with dusky feathers that stir in the winds that come through the dusty panes. Torn pictures of Miss Bennett lie on the floors and on the piano.”
Not long after, Irving Brodsky purchased the architecturally unique No. 1053 and the Plant mansion, along with the 19th century rowhouses at Nos. 1 and 3 East 86th Street. Within the year the 19-floor apartment building designed by Wechsler & Schimenti was completed; ending the remarkable history of this corner of Fifth Avenue.