Monday, March 28, 2016

The Lost Wm. V. Lawrence Mansion -- No. 969 Fifth Avenue

The entrance to the Lawrence mansion was on 78th Street above the stone stoop.  To the right is the elegant Jacob H. Schiff residence.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

William Van Duzer Lawrence had an impressive list of ancestors.  Sir Robert Lawrence had accompanied Richard the Lion-Hearted on the Crusades; William Lawrence was a friend of John Milton, and his three sons traveled to America in the 17th century, helping to found Flushing, New York, in 1645; Lt. Nathaniel Lawrence distinguished himself in the Revolution; and Captain James Lawrence commanded the Chesapeake in the War of 1812.  William Van Duzer Lawrence’s accolades would come not from battles but from medicine and real estate.

Although born in Elmira, New York on February 12, 1842, his parents had a pioneering spirit and went West to Michigan where he grew up.  But at the age of 19 he returned to New York City, where he worked in a drug store for five years. Having saved money, he traveled to Canada and became involved with a wholesale drug company, Perry Davis & Son, best known for its blatantly-named Pain-Killer.  (Incidentally, Pain-Killer played a noticeable part in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when Tom feeds a spoonful to his cat which then spreads “chaos and destruction in his path.”)

In 1888, now a partner in the renamed Davis & Lawrence Company, Lawrence returned with his family to New York City.   He set out to ensconce the Lawrence family in the expected trappings of Manhattan society.  Millionaires were already constructing lavish mansions 30 blocks north of the venerable Vanderbilt Row on Fifth Avenue in the 50s.   Lawrence acquired the building plot on the southeast corner of 78th Street and Fifth Avenue and commissioned esteemed architect Richard Morris Hunt to design his home.

Hunt was a favorite among Chicago and Manhattan millionaires.  He had designed the mansions of Marshall Field and William Borden in Chicago, the Fifth Avenue residences of Ogden Mills and William K. Vanderbilt, and had just finished plans for the Newport palaces Marble House, for William Kissam Vanderbilt, and Ochre Court for Ogden Goelet.

For Lawrence he produced a French Renaissance fantasy of beige brick with brownstone trim rising five stories above Fifth Avenue like a gingerbread confection.  Hunt took advantage of the corner location by anchoring the mansion with a massive tower which exploded in ornamented dormers.  The conical cap was topped with a story-high decorative finial.  Although the entrance, accessed by a formidable stone dog-legged stoop, was squarely on 78th Street, the mansion took the more impressive address of No. 969 Fifth Avenue.

William Van Duzer Lawrence -- photo by Wm. Notman & Son, The Successful American, January 1903 (copyright expired)
Lawrence and his wife, the former Sarah Bates, had four children—Louise, Hanna, Dudley and Arthur.  The family settled into the lives of wealthy New Yorkers.  Daughter Louise soon went off to Vassar and the family spent their summers in their country estate, Kelp Rock, in Newcastle, New Hampshire—formerly the home of poet Edmund Clarence Stedman. The Successful American described it in florid Victorian prose as “on a point of land with serrated outline into the sea, and in the surroundings of which all Summer life is present: the sea, the upland clothed with clover bloom, the fragrant pines, enchanting scenery; in short, all of out-of-door possibilities and indoor privileges linked in unusual combination.”

Back in New York, Sarah became highly involved in the New York Exchange for Woman’s Work.  It was a charitable institution which provided a retail outlet for the handiwork of indigent women.  The New York Tribune called it “one of the most practically helpful institutions in the city.”

Two years after erecting his Fifth Avenue mansion, Lawrence purchased the 86-acre Prescott Farm in what would become Bronxville, New York.  His idea was to create a totally new village of charming homes; and he commissioned architect William A. Bates to design several speculative cottages.  Completed in 1891, the first of these were mixture of quaint styles—Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival and Queen Anne Shingle-style, for example.

Once the first homes were sold, Lawrence had Bates renovate the original mansion on the property to an inn, Manor House.  The community, named Lawrence Park, developed quickly and by 1896 had become known as “an exclusive literary and artistic development” as artists like William Henry Howe and Herman T. Schladermundt relocated here.

Back home in Manhattan, the Lawrence children one-by-one left the Fifth Avenue chateau.  On June 29, 1902 the engagement of Arthur to L. Virginia Heppe of Philadelphia was announced; and on June 1, 1905 Dudley Bates Lawrence was married to Katherine Clitherall Birch in Birmingham, Alabama.  In the meantime, Sarah and William went on about their socially-visible routines.

In 1908 they accompanied Mrs. George B. Custer (widow of the General of Little Big Horn fame) on a three-month automobile trip through France, Italy, Germany and Austria.  Upon their return on August 19 on the steamship Oceanic, The Evening World mentioned that Mrs. Custer had accepted William C. Potters design for a statue of the General, to be erected in Monroe, Michigan.

In 1911 William Lawrence improved the Fifth Avenue mansion by commissioning artist Lawrence Park resident Will H. Lowe to decorate the dining room ceiling.  His circular "Golden Autumn" painting was documented nation-wide in art journals.

By now the Lawrences had given up their New Hampshire estate and summered in Bronxville; staying in the lavish Hotel Gramatan William Lawrence had built there.  The first hint that the couple would abandon Fifth Avenue for good appeared in The Sun on August 20, 1916.    

“Work is under way on one of the most pretentious residences at Bronxville, which, when completed, will be occupied by William V. Lawrence of the Lawrence Park Realty Company,” reported the newspaper.  It described the $80,000 Tudor-style mansion, designed by Bates & How, as having “five main rooms on the first floor as well as the service wing, kitchen and service dining room.  A large loggia will front to the north on the first floor and a plaza on the west end.  One the second floor will be four guests’ rooms and baths, three masters’ rooms and baths and five servants’ bedrooms.  On the third floor will be four guests’ rooms and baths.”

Bates & How released a sketch of the mansion to newspapers.  The Sun, August 20, 1916 (copyright expired
The eight-acres of landscaped grounds included a stone gardener’s house, a “large garage,” and a greenhouse.  According to a family member years later, Lawrence was prompted to move out of No. 969 Fifth Avenue because of the property taxes which had grown to $36,000 a year.

The Bronxville mansion, Westlands, was completed in 1918.  Lawrence sold No. 969 Fifth Avenue in December that year in a deal which The Sun said involved $1.5 million.  Plans were quickly laid to demolish it.  On May 4, 1919 The Sun reported “The apartment hotel which is shortly to be erected at No. 969 Fifth Avenue…in the sacred precincts of Millionaires Row, is to be one of the most luxurious structures of its kind ever built in this or any other city.”

Deemed "the apogee of luxury," Blum & Blum's apartment building would never be built.  The Sun, May 4, 1919 (copyright expired)

Luxurious or not, the proposed building, designed by George and Edward Blum, faced vehement opposition.  The Sun noted various organizations claimed “that the invasion of upper Fifth avenue by apartment houses will destroy the beauty of the one remaining section which has not been marred by tall buildings.  They assert that Fifth avenue is a source of national price and that its appearance should be a matter of interest to every New Yorker.”

The organizations, the most active of which was the Fifth Avenue Association, temporarily got their way and the project never went forward.  The Lawrence mansion, however, was not destined to be a private home ever again.  It went through a series of owners in rapid-fire succession (including William Van Duzen Lawrence who bought it back in foreclosure for $200,000 in 1921); before David Tischman purchased it for a mere $210,000 in January 1923.

The house sat vacant for two years until Alfred Mauck, Inc. bought it in March 1925.  Architect Joseph L. Raimist designed the 16-story apartment building (with only 13 apartments) that replaced the mansion that year.

photo Douglas Elliman Real Estate
The following year, on May 9, 1926, Sarah Lawrence died.  In her memory William formed the Sarah Lawrence College on his Bronxville estate.

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