Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Humphreys Mansion -- No. 41 Riverside Drive

Clarence Fagan True started his own architectural practice in 1884.  But it was not until 1890 that his career took off.  Real estate developer Charles G. Judson's office was in the same building as True's, and that year he hired the fledgling architect.  At the time the Upper West Side was emerging as Manhattan newest residential frontier as rows of eccentric townhouses sprouted on the streets and hefty mansions appeared on the avenues.  Clarence True threw himself headlong into the frenzy and by the turn of the century would be among the most prolific of its architects; prompting some to deem him The Face of the Upper West Side.
By the mid-1890s True often worked as both architect and developer.  Such was the case when he designed three upscale residences at No. 337 West 76th Street, and Nos. 40 and 41 Riverside Drive in 1896.  Construction would take two years to complete; but well before then True sold No. 41 in the fall of 1897 to real estate operator Robert A. Cheesebrough.  The Sun reported on September 9 that he had sold the five-story house for $60,000—about $1.75 million in 2016.

Clarence True was noted for his grab bag of historic architectural styles.  No. 41 reflected his take on Elizabethan Revival.   He carefully chose the placement of ornamentation—relieving the otherwise nearly Spartan limestone façade with bursts of decoration.  An unusual and delightful deep porch protected the entrance and supported a balcony with lusciously-carved stone panels.  A similar wall defined the balcony created by the three-story angled bay.  The fourth floor was distinguished by carved pilasters between the openings; and a show-stopping stone dormer dominated the clay-tiled mansard.   The servants’ entrance discreetly faced away from the main entrance.

Note True's creative treatment of the center column.
Robert Cheesebrough preferred to describe the house as “French Renaissance style.”  Upon its completion he described it to potential buyers in an advertisement on April 30, 1899.  “The house is one of the handsomest residences on the Riverside.  It contains 14 large rooms, besides 3 bathrooms of the most model type, the second-story bathroom being fitted up in the most elaborate style, with needle and shower baths.  All the improvements known to the art and science of dwelling building have been introduced into this house.”

The advertisement pointed out the hardwood finishes, parquet floors and five servants’ rooms.  And the 30-foot wide mansion was “wired throughout for electric light.”
Cheesebrough's advertisement featured this photo.  New-York Tribune, April 30, 1899 (copyright expired)
Cheesebrough quickly found a buyer in Dr. Frederick H. Humphreys, a patron of the arts and president of the Humphreys Homoeopathic Medical Co., founded by his father.  Interestingly, it does not appear that the doctor and his wife ever lived in the house; instead it became home to his sister-in-law, Fannie, and her Thomas St. John Gaffney.

Fannie Brush had been married to Frederick’s brother, Alvah Jay Sperry Humphreys.  They had lived in an apartment at 52nd Street and Broadway and maintained a summer house in Summit, New Jersey.  The couple had two children, Frederick and Jayta.  Their apparently contented lives together came to a shocking end when the 32-year old Humphreys was murdered in November 1883 at Cliff House, a road house off Eighth Avenue at 146th Street.

In 1893 Fannie remarried the 31-year old Irish immigrant attorney Thomas St. John Gaffney; although her father-in-law, Dr. Frederick Humphreys, “did not approve of the marriage,” according to the New-York Tribune later.  Nevertheless, when the wealthy doctor died in 1894 he “made provision for her from his estate” and set aside a trust fund of $120,000 for her two children.

Thomas St. John Gaffney was “one of the rising young lawyers of New-York,” according to the New-York Tribune in 1894; and a major force in Irish politics in the city.  His father was a judge and Senior Alderman in Limerick, Ireland; and Thomas was a personal friend of  Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell.

Fannie, too, was active in political issues and like her husband was a writer.  At the time they moved into the Riverside Drive mansion, she represented the United States in the International Congress of Women in London, and was President of the National Council of Women.  Entertainments at No. 41, while lavish, most often involved political or social issues.

Among the Gaffneys' first house guests, for instance, was the Countess of Aberdeen who arrived in town on November 3, 1899.  The New York Times reported that she and her companion were “met at the Grand Central Station by T. St. John Gaffney and escorted to his home, 41 Riverside Drive, where a dinner was given in their honor.”  The article noted that Fannie “has been one of the most efficient lieutenants of the Countess” in her efforts to promote Irish industry in America.

And the following week Fannie hosted a reception for the George Washington Memorial Association.  The goal of the group was to “carry out the wish of George Washington” that a national university be established in D. C.   The “social” was financially successful when sales of Martha Washington china reaped $800 for the fund.

Fannie was the object of a friendly jab on October 27, 1900 when she addressed the Woman’s Press Club of New-York City in Carnegie Hall.  She read her paper, “The Attitude and Responsibility of Woman Toward Fixing the Standard of Light Literature.”  She was followed by Mark Twain.

He started his speech saying, “I am sorry that Mrs. Gaffney has condemned the books which cater to the prevailing public taste, for I was intending to contribute just such literature.”

The Gaffneys’ wide-spread political interests continued to be reflected in their entertainments.  On January 30, 1900 the walls “of the banquet hall” of the Riverside Driver house were decorated with American, South African Republic, and the Orange Free State flags as the Gaffneys hosted a dinner for the Transvaal Consul General.  The following afternoon Fannie hosted the monthly meeting of the Demorest Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.  She was Treasurer of the National Boer Relief Fund Association and in April she was busy selling tickets for the Boer Relief Concert at the Metropolitan Opera House.  

Yet the issues in which Fannie Gaffney involved herself were not always so political.  On December 1, 1902 she hosted a meeting of the Car Passengers’ Rights Association.  The group, composed entirely of women, was fighting against the “absolute insult” of women passengers being crushed into crowded public transportation cars.  “At least they could supply separate cars for men and women if such crowding is to continue,” Fannie said.

In the meantime, Thomas continued to reap international notice.  In 1902 he was awarded the Cross Legion d’Honneur by French President Loubet and that same year he visited Russia.  In May the following year he not only met with two prominent Cardinals in Rome; but was granted a private interview with the Pope.

By 1904 the Humphrey children were growing up.  Frederick was now 21, had attended the Pennsylvania Military College and had won appointment to West Point.  Jayta was enrolled in the women’s law classes at New York University.  She took a break from classes to join Fannie and Thomas in Rome that spring.  The trip included a tragic accident.

On April 10 Jayta took the wheel of an automobile.  She was driving through “the most populous quarter of the city,” according to a telegram received by The New York Times.  In the car with her were Thomas Gaffney, a “Miss Tupiganac” of New York, and the Marquis Paolucci.  Although the report said she was “going at a slow rate of speed,” she hit and ran over two children.

One of the victims was seriously injured and the residents of the neighborhood were enraged.  “A crowd surrounded the automobile, threatening its occupants,” reported the telegram.  Fortunately the police intervened and took the party to the police station.

The following year, in March 1905, Gaffney was appointed United States Consul to Germany.  In reporting on the appointment The Intermountain Catholic of Salt Lake, Utah mentioned “His home, 41 Riverside drive, is noted for its hospitality and few foreigners of distinction pass through New York without being entertained there.”  The article added “For many years Mr. Gaffney has enjoyed close personal relations with President Roosevelt.”

Frederick remained in the States, a senior at West Point, while the family moved to Dresden.  It was in Germany that Jayta met her husband, Baron Hans Heinrich von Wolf.   

Frederick graduated 8th in a class of 78 West Point cadets in 1906.  Assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, he spent time in Fort Riley, Kansas in bridge construction and in Cuba during the Pacification Expedition.  In 1909 he studied flight under Wilbur Wright and became the first solo Army aviator.

In 1910 Frederick left the military to return to New York City, presumably moving into the Riverside Drive mansion at the time.  He took over the Humphreys Homeopathic Medicine Company from his aging uncle and married Myrtle Lee Fears.

And before long, tensions between Frederick and his mother became brutally evident.

In 1908 he and Jayta had agreed to provide Fannie with $2,000 a year each from their substantial $500,000 inheritance from Dr. Humphreys.  But in 1912 Frederick had second thoughts.  He sued to overturn the agreement and on October 30 The Sun ran the headline “Medicine Man’s Grandson Stops Mother’s Stipend.”  Jayta, who “lives in a castle built by her husband in German South-West Africa,” continued her part of the allowance.

Following the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 political conditions in Europe rapidly disintegrated and war became inevitable.  Thomas St. John Gaffney was outspoken in his support of Germany.  The Evening World remarked “Despite repeated warnings from the State Department, Gaffney has indicated his strong German sympathies on numerous occasions.”

In one letter he insisted that 600 American residents of Munich “were happy and contented” and said “In England, strikes and riots and attacks on unfortunate civilians are a daily occurrence, while in Italy and Russia the rule of the mob in the streets overawes the Government.”

By the end of September, 1915 Washington had had enough.  Gaffney was instructed that if he refused to resign his post, he would be dismissed.

Thomas St. John Gaffney -- The Evening World, September 29, 1915 (copyright expired)

Thomas and Fannie returned to the States, but not to Riverside Drive.  They moved into their country estate, Orchard Lodge, in Summit, New Jersey.  Fannie had appealed the decision of courts denying her allowance from Frederick; but on August 1, 1915 it was upheld.

Earlier that year, in June, Frederick had joined the New York National Guard’s 22nd Engineers Regiment.  He served at the Mexican border following the 1916 raids of Pancho Villa, then instructed pilots at the School of Military Aeronautics.

When the United States entered the war, Fannie’s income was even more reduced.  In 1918 the Alien Enemy Custodian, A. Mitchell Palmer, confiscated the estates of American women married to German or Austrian subjects.  The 29 women included members of some of America’s most prominent families.  Countess Szachenyl of Budapest, for example, was Gladys, the daughter of Cornelius and Alice G. Vanderbilt.  Others had maiden names like Astor, Roosevelt and Berwind.  Among them was Baroness von Wolf, the former Jayta Humphreys.

Frederick returned to New York following the war with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.  Included in the domestic staff at No. 41 Riverside Drive in 1921 were a Japanese cook and a Japanese butler.  The cost of maintaining an upscale household was evidenced by the butler’s salary, the equivalent of $62,500 in 2016.   

Frederick and Myrtle had a baby boy, Lancelot Jay, that year.  Tragedy came on Saturday, July 2 when the infant died in its crib in the Riverside Drive mansion.

Eight years later there would be more trouble.  It  came when when Myrtle hired private investigators to follow her husband.  After several weeks of surveillance, they notified Westport, Connecticut police who, armed with an arrest warrant signed by Myrtle, raided the cottage of illustrator and activist Ethel Plummer in the early morning hours of August 15, 1929.

Frederick was charged with “unfaithfulness to his marriage vows” and the scandal was printed in newspapers across the country.  Ethel protested “The whole thing is ridiculous…We were both dressed when the officers came to the door and demanded entrance.”

Ridiculous or not, Myrtle was granted a divorce in 1931, a monthly alimony of $7,700 and title to No. 41 Riverside Drive.

Yet five years later the couple reconciled.  On December 19, 1936 The New York Times reported that they had “sent out announcements telling of their remarriage on December 7 at the Humphreys residence.”

On July 11, 1939 Frederick retired from the National Guard because of poor health.  He was by now a Brigadier General.  Early in January 1941 he contracted pneumonia and he and Myrtle traveled to Miami Beach to aid his convalescence.  There, on January 20 he died at the age of 57 of a heart attack.

Myrtle stayed on in the Riverside Drive mansion.  Her brother, William E. Fears, moved in as well.   After being in the Humphreys family for 64 years, the house was sold by Myrtle in 1963.  The 75-year old would live to the age of 92.

Unlike so many of the grand mansions of Riverside Drive, No. 41 remains a single family home.  It’s astonishing preservation is due to the one amazing family who owned it for so many decades.

photographs by the author


  1. So interesting. I started out reading this post and then spent another 3 hours reading about this family on the internet. Your blog is addictive.

  2. To add to my previous comment, was the butler really paid $62,500? That seems awfully high for that period.

    1. He made $90 a week in 1921; equivalent to $62,500 per year in 2016. (You are right, the sentence misleading and I clarified the it.) Thanks!