Monday, April 18, 2016

The Lost August Belmont Mansion - No. 109 Fifth Avenue




When August Belmont combined the two houses in 1858 he retained the second entrance.  Behind the house is the sky-lit art gallery.  Early New York Houses, 1900 (copyright expired)

In 1821, when August Belmont was eight years old, his widowed father sent him to Frankfurt to live with his grandparents.  He was enrolled in a Jewish school; but when his father became so behind in tuition payments in 1828 he was removed.  Now his grandparents asked their friends, the Rothschilds, if they would help the 15-year old by giving him a job.

Starting as an errand boy who also swept floors, he earned the Rothschilds’ attention through his diligence and drive.  He studied French, English, composition and arithmetic in his free time. Little by little he rose in the ranks of the firm.

In 1837 the Rothschilds sent him to Havana to manage the family’s Cuban interests.  But when he arrived in New York City on the way, he saw the city in the midst of the devastating Financial Panic.  Banks were failing throughout the financial district.  Asking for direction from Germany would take months; so Belmont made the decision to remain in New York and take charge of the Rothschild interests.

He opened August Belmont & Company in a rented room at No. 78 Wall Street and began managing the tangled family's interests.  When word finally reached the home offices, his judgment was lauded.  The Rothschilds made his new firm their American agent; and he received the handsome salary of $100,000 (more than $2.5 million a year in 2016).

From an errand boy, August Belmont rose to be one of the wealthiest men in America.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Belmont quickly became a United States citizen.  His life would forever change on August 25, 1841.  He was at Grey’s Hill, in Maryland, that day when he overheard an “uncalled for remark” made by William Hayward of South Carolina about Caroline Perry who was among a group of ladies.  She was the daughter of Commodore Matthew Perry (who would become famous for opening Japan to the West in 1854) and the niece of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry; and deemed by a newspaper as “one of the reigning beauties” of the day.

Belmont did not know Caroline Slidell Perry, but he resented the insult.  He challenged Hayward to a duel.  The New York Times reported “Mr. Belmont fell at the first shot with a bullet in his thigh.”  The wealthy banker would forever suffer lameness from the injury.  The incident would also result in romance between the German-born banker and the young belle.  In 1849 the couple was married and moved into a mansion at No. 72 Fifth Avenue, at the northwest corner of 13th Street.

Fifth Avenue was still mostly undeveloped above 14th Street.  On March 15, 1851 Stephen Pott purchased the large vacant plot at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 18th Street—70 feet wide on the avenue and 125 feet deep—from Richard K. Haight.  He paid the sumptuous price of $22,000 for the land.  He then added another 25 feet on 18th Street to the rear for $500.

Pott erected two brick mansions on the site which would take two years to complete.   The corner house, No. 109, was substantially larger than its neighbor—three bays wide as compared to two.  A grassy yard belted the homes, enclosed by a low but substantial iron fence.

No. 109, on the corner, was sold on March 26, 1853 to John and Elizabeth Guion.  Guion was a highly-successful merchant and importer of linens, deemed by The New York Times to be “one of the wealthiest men in New-York.”   He paid Pott $119,500 for the mansion; a staggering sum that reflected his self-confidence and bravado.

Elizabeth Guion, of course, lived the life of a moneyed socialite.  A year later she was looking for a new cook.  Her advertisement in the New York Herald was clear in her expectations.  “Cook wanted—one who perfectly understands her business, and can bring good testimonials as to character.”

While the house was still under construction Guion had laid plans to make his massive fortune even greater.  They would prove to be his undoing.  The Times later recalled “He had become so wealthy that he took a notion into his head that he could carry the burdens of the Reading Railroad on his shoulders until such time as they might be unloaded on the public, and accordingly he organized a deal in the stock of that road.”

Four years after moving into his new showplace, Guion was forced to sell.   The sole owner of the failing railroad, “the deal collapsed upon him and swept away his fortune,” said The Times.  Ruined and humiliated Guion sold his mansion to August Belmont for $90,000, a substantial loss, on December 28, 1857.

But the Guion mansion was just the beginning of Belmont’s glorious plans.  The nearly-matching house next door was owned by Adelia L. Otis.  He gave her an offer she could not refuse--$130,000.   Belmont joined the two houses and created a mansion that earned the repeated adjectives “palatial” and “magnificent.”  He added a conservatory and created one of the first ballrooms in a private house in New York. 

Caroline Slidell Perry Belmont as she appeared around the time No. 109 Fifth Avenue was purchased.  portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On April 18, 1860 he spent another $9,561 for the lot directly behind the house, where he erected his private art gallery; reportedly the first to include skylights.  (Belmont’s knowledge and interest in art began in Italy while still working for the Rothschilds.)  The Times would later describe it as “one of the most famous private art galleries in the country.”

With renovations on the mansion completed, the Belmont house became the venue of numerous lavish entertainments.  Perhaps none was as noteworthy as the “matinee” given for the visiting Japanese Ambassadors on June 26, 1860.  Yet no entertainment in the Belmont mansion was a small affair.

Through his extensive world-wide travels Belmont had become one of America’s first real gourmets.  He imported a chef from Europe to make dinners in the house incomparable.  According to Charles D. Ellis and James R. Verlin in their Wall Street People, “Belmont typically seated up to 200 people at gold place settings.  Each guest had a personal footman to serve and remove plates.  He also used his private ballroom for lavish parties that lasted until dawn.”  Reportedly, the wine bill for the Belmont household was more than $20,000 a month.

The family dining room boasted hand-painted French wallpaper -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The credit, however, actually belonged to Caroline Belmont.  In the decades before names like Astor, Fish and Vanderbilt would reign over New York society, Caroline was its undisputed queen.  Later The New York Times would remember “From 1860 to 1875 Mrs. Belmont’s beauty, grace, and tactful hospitality rendered her society’s undisputed leader.  Her entertainments were regal and her drawing rooms formed a salon—in the social sense of the term—in which might be seen all the noted men and women of the day.”

When the Prince of Wales was entertained by the City with a majestic ball, Caroline Belmont stood out among the upscale throng.  On October 13, 1860 The Times reported on her brilliant jewels.  “One splendid riviere which recently astounded the city in the cases of Tiffany was most charmingly displayed upon the graceful beauty of Mrs. Belmont, and shone afar even over the glittering crowd, from her place on the right of the stage.”

August and Caroline had six children, Perry, August, Jean Pauline, Oliver Hazard Perry, Fredericka and Raymond Rodgers.  Not long after the visit of the Prince of Wales, the Fifth Avenue mansion was shuttered as the entire family went abroad.  On July 2, 1862 newspapers announced that they had returned after a year away.  “Mr. Belmont and family are at present stopping at the Fifth-avenue Hotel, where they will remain till their house is ready to receive them,” reported The Times.

The an oil lamp with an unusual fabric shade perched upon the staircase newel.  The hallway walls appear to be covered in velvet.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Like Elizabeth Guion before her, Caroline Belmont was in charge of the domestic staff; although August may have helped her in interviewing one candidate.   On April 24, 1863 an advertisement in the New York Herald sought a “second coachman and groom who drives and rides well, and can bring good recommendations;” and a year later an ad looked for “A first class butler in a private family; a man who understands his business thoroughly, and can bring undoubted references.”  The advertisement promised the butler “liberal wages.”

In the meantime, Belmont had purchased a 1,200 acre estate near Babylon, Long Island called Nursery Farm.   In addition to the 24-room house and self-sustaining farm was Belmont’s stables where he bred his nationally-known racehorses.

Belmont created shock waves when he opened his art gallery to the public in 1864.  The Metropolitan Fair opened on March 28 that year “for the relief of the sick and wounded of the National Army.”  In a patriotic gesture to his adopted country, Belmont offered his collection as a part of the Fair for a week, with all proceeds going to the cause.

On April 9 The Times warned citizens who had not yet seen the gallery to hurry.  “Mr. Belmont’s gallery closes to-day.  Those who have seen it will not need to be told that it contains the finest collection of European paintings to be found on this continent.  It is peculiarly rich in works of modern artists…We can hardly recall a private collection, even in Europe, where so many masterpieces are to be found within the easy range of the eye.” 

Visitors entered directly through the 18th Street door.  It was a sensible move, keeping the estimated 1,000 people from trampling through the mansion.  The Times cautioned “Not to see the Belmont Gallery is to miss the most brilliant treat of the season, so remember that to-day is the last opportunity.”

One of New York’s best remembered entertainments immediately following the war was the Christmas party Caroline hosted for the sons and daughters of Manhattan society.   “Domino” entertainments (masked balls) were the rage; and little children with impressive surnames filed into the Belmont ballroom in costume.  The New York Times reported “They were there by the hundreds, those very select and exclusive rose buds of the fashionable set, arrayed in all manner of quaint and gorgeous finery.”

Santa Claus, played by W. P. Talboys, sat in a “monster chariot” burdened with gifts.  Mrs. Belmont’s sway within the moneyed class was evidenced by four other millionaires who played somewhat humiliating roles.  “He was drawn, not by the traditional reindeers, but by four monster bears, beneath whose skins lurked G. G. Howland, Frank Cutting, Beverly Robinson, and William R. Travers.”

The newspaper pointed out that it was a “double bill” since the parents of these youngsters were also required to appear in costume.  “It is doubtful whether any children of royalty were ever attended by servitors so elegantly and richly robed.”

Caroline Belmont’s life of glittering balls ad lavish dinner parties would come to a tragic halt in 1875 when 19-year old Jane Pauline Belmont suddenly died.  Caroline withdrew from society.  Music would not be heard in the Belmont ballroom for several years.

An aging Caroline Belmont had resumed social involvement when she posed for this photograph at Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt's costume ball on March 26, 1883. photograph by Mora, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Pauline’s unexpected death would not be the only heartbreak in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  Raymond Rogers Belmont graduated from Harvard in 1886 and returned to the family home.  After studying law at Columbia University for a year, he intended to enter his father’s banking firm.  An avid horseman, he had organized the Harvard Polo Club.  Now he entered the life of a gentleman, joining the Knickerbocker Club, the Union Club, and the Tuxedo Park Association.

In January 1887 Caroline Belmont was in Washington DC visiting Perry Belmont, now serving as a congressman.  On the night of Sunday, January 30 Raymond had dinner at the Knickerbocker Club with a group of college friends.  Around midnight he left.  “He seemed perfectly sober,” said another guest.

Raymond rang the bell (the family never carried keys as there was always a servant to open the door) and Leonhard Baehr admitted him.  The 20-year old brushed by him without saying a word and went upstairs.  The Sun reported “Soon afterward, about five minutes, Baehr thinks, young Belmont rang his room bell, summoning Baehr.  Baehr found Mr. Belmont still dressed, with the exception of his ulster, which he had thrown off.”

Raymond asked about the whereabouts of a revolver he had given the servant about a week earlier.  When Baehr said it was in the pantry, the young man instructed him to retrieve it, “I am going down into the cellar to practice with it.”

Leonhard Baehr followed Belmont to the cellar.  He was then told to go back up the stairs to shut the door “so the noise will not arouse the house.”  Just as the servant neared the top step, he heard the revolver fire.  He shut the door and returned to the cellar to find Belmont on the floor.  The young man had fired a bullet into his head.

August Belmont was wakened.  He rushed to the cellar and was so overcome that he had to be taken back to his bedroom.  When he could gather his thoughts, he ordered that a telegraph be sent to Caroline’s servant.  “It told him what had occurred, but warned him on no account to let Mrs. Belmont know that her son was dead, but to inform her that he was seriously ill.”

The telegram reached Washington around 3:00 a.m.  Perry Belmont and his mother hastily packed trunks and headed to New York.  Around 4:00 that afternoon, their carriage from the train station arrived No. 109 Fifth Avenue.

“Mr. Belmont, the father, who had been greatly prostrated all day by the terrible blow met his wife in the hallway as she arrived.  She wished at once to know how her son was, and wanted to go immediately to his room before she had removed her travelling wraps.  Then Mr. Belmont told her the truth, and instead of to a sick room she was taken to her son’s coffin.”

No suspicion was directed at Baehr and the death was ruled “wholly accidental.”  Funeral services did not take place until four days later, on Thursday, in the Church of the Ascension.  In the meantime, The Sun reported on February 1, “The body now lies in an ice chest laden with flowers in the front room of the second story of the house.”

Three years later black crepe would again be hung on the door of No. 109 Fifth Avenue.  On November 24, 1890 the Colorado newspaper, the Aspen Evening Chronicle, reported “August Belmont, the great banker, an influential democrat, and a worthy citizen, is dead.  He passed away at 3 o’clock this morning quietly and serenely, surrounded by his sorrowing family at his house, 109 Fifth avenue.”

Belmont had caught a cold a few days earlier while judging a horse show at Madison Square Garden.  It developed into pneumonia which proved fatal.   His funeral was slightly delayed in hope that Fredericka, who was ill in her Livingston County home, would be able to attend.  In the meantime, according to The Evening World the following day, “The body of August Belmont now lies at the house…in a black velvet casket, lined and trimmed with corded silk.  Its handles are of solid silver.”

Fredericka’s health did not improve and the funeral was held on Saturday, November 29.  Among the dozen pallbearers were Grover Cleveland, J. Pierpont Morgan, Governor Hill, and William Jay.  Following the services, the casket was transported to Grand Central Station where it was placed in a private car for burial in Newport.

Belmont’s estate was estimated at over $10 million.  The will directed “that Mrs. Belmont shall hold for life the Belmont mansion at Fifth Avenue and Eighteenth Street, together with the stables, and also the country residence at Newport.”  Also, “All the household furniture, books, paintings, statuary, and other articles of use and ornament in the town house and in the Newport house, and all the carriages and horses, except the racing and breeding horses, are also to become the property of Mrs. Belmont.”

It seems that remaining in the house her husband had created for her was too great an emotional burden for Caroline Belmont.   Within a year she leased the three-story brownstone house of Mrs. Heywood Cutting.  She moved in on September 1, 1891 with many of her personal possessions from the family mansion.  A month later she barely escaped the rented home with her life.

On the night of October 8 fire broke out in one of the three first floor parlors at around 11:00.  The Times reported “Mrs. Belmont was in her boudoir, which was on the second floor in the rear…She was looking over some jewels when she smelled smoke.  She rushed to the stairway, but was met by flames that came furiously up from the floor below as if fanned by a good breeze.”

There were eight female servants in the house and Caroline screamed for help.  The newspaper said she tossed the valuable diamonds still in her hands “upon a dressing case” and called to the servants to save themselves.  The aging Caroline climbed out the bedroom window, onto the roof of an extension, and was taken into the second story window of the Pierrepont mansion at No. 103 Fifth Avenue.  All the servants escaped with only minor burns.

Caroline had left what was reported to be “several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of jewels behind her.”  She was taken back into the ruins by a detective.  “Mrs. Belmont produced a key and opened a secret drawer on the side of the safe where a casket full of diamonds was stored,” reported The Times.  “They were as bright as ever.”

Less fortunate was a large portrait of August Belmont.  “The canvas had been burned from the frame, which still hung from its wire cord.  Mrs. Belmont look at the ruin and burst into tears.”   Although the Belmont silver and much of the library collection was saved, Caroline estimated the loss in furniture to be about $125,000.  The Times noted “Mrs. Belmont and her children went last night to the old Belmont mansion, 109 Fifth Avenue.”

A year later, on November 14, 1892, the Aspen Evening Chronicle reported “Mrs. Belmont, widow of the late August Belmont and mother of August and Perry Belmont, is dying at her residence, 109 Fifth avenue.”  Caroline was still suffering from the effects of a severe case of influenza more than a year earlier.  “She never really recovered, and has been steadily failing during the past three weeks,” said the article.

Exactly one week later, on November 21, The New York Times reported “Mrs. August Belmont died yesterday afternoon at 4:30 o’clock…She passed away peacefully.”  Her children were all at her bedside.

By now the once exclusive residential Fifth Avenue neighborhood was filling with commercial buildings.  On March 4, 1893 The Times reported that the family had sold the mansion to Arnold, Constable & Co.  “It is understood that the new acquisition of the firm will be devoted to business purposes.”

In 1893, just prior to its demolition, the vacant mansion is degraded by political posters.  All around commercial buildings have already been erected.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Within a year the mansion—once the center of Manhattan social life—was gone, replaced by Arnold, Constable & Co.’s “manufacturing and workshop” building designed by the architectural firm William Schickel & Co.

photo Landmark Branding LLC

3 comments:

  1. What happened to the art gallery? Was it torn down with the mansion?--Amorette

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    Replies
    1. The art gallery building was demolished with the house. The collection ended up in various museums.

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  2. Upon Commodore Matthew Perry's return from Japan in 1854 the merchants of the city gifted a silver service of over 300 pieces to him. The bulk of it is now part of the collection of the New York City Historical Society. His Father's 1799 naval sword is also there.

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