Monday, October 17, 2016

The Lost Frederick Billings Mansion - No. 279 Madison Ave

While hulking business buildings loom in the background on August 3, 1924, the block around the Billings mansion retained its 19th century residential appearance.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In the first years following the end of the Civil War the Murray Hill neighborhood was firmly established as a high-end residential district.  The extended Bliss family would be long-term Murray Hill residents over the decades.  Among the first to settle here was Justin A. Bliss, who erected his lavish brownstone mansion at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 40th Street.

Born in Ashleyville, Massachusetts on March 6, 1816, Bliss had come to New York as a young man.  He established himself in the dry goods business and later joined the textile jobbing house of Lee, Case & Co.  The house at No. 279 Madison Avenue reflected the vast fortune he had garnered.

The brownstone and brick residence was an ample 35 feet wide on Madison Avenue and stretched back along 40th Street 175 feet, including the private carriage house directly behind.  It boasted all the bells and whistles of the latest architectural trend, French Second Empire.  Fussy decorations included carved panels and window surrounds, the steep mansard roof obligatory to the style, and ornate iron cresting atop the cornice.  The columned portico above the dog-legged stoop supported a jutting bay--most likely fronting a bedroom.   The deep light moat surrounding the English basement was protected by a handsome balustraded brownstone wall.

In the mansion with his wife and two daughters was Bliss's widowed mother-in-law, Elvira G. Platt.  Her funeral was held here on Sunday, April 4, 1869 following her sudden death in the house the Friday before.

A member of the exclusive Union League and Riding Clubs, Bliss retired at the age of 54 in 1870.  Shortly thereafter he and his wife moved one block northward, to No. 301 Madison Avenue, at the corner of 41st Street.  No. 279 became home to fellow Union League Club member, Benjamin G. Arnold.  The millionaire was the principal in B. G. Arnold & Co., described as "the largest coffee firm in the country."

Arnold's firm started in business in 1820 as Reed & Lea.  It had changed names several times before becoming Sturgis, Bennett & Co. when Arnold arrived in New York from Providence in 1840.  He obtained a position with the firm as bookkeeper; and just four years later became a partner.

In 1872, following the admission of Francis B. Arnold as a partner and the retirement of the others, the company became B. G. Arnold & Co.  Around 1873 Arnold controlled the market for Java coffee in the United States.  The New York Times reported that his personal wealth was estimated, at that time, to be about $2.7 million--a considerable $55 million in 2016.

Arnold's incredible success was due to American taste changing from tea to coffee.  The Times noted in 1880 "The consumption of coffee has been increasing so rapidly since the war that the production has barely kept pace with it."

Unfortunately, B. G. Arnold & Co. got greedy.  In 1879 it stopped buying from coffee jobbers and began purchasing directly from the growers in an attempt to monopolize the market.  Overestimating the demand, the firm excessively "over-imported coffee," according to one newspaper.  The result was disastrous.

On December 8, 1880 The New York Times ran the headline "Ruined By Speculation."  B. G. Arnold & Co. was forced to close with liabilities of about $1 million.  Benjamin G. Arnold, a few years earlier one of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens, was now destitute.

No. 279 Madison Avenue became home to the Frederick Billings family.  Billings had become President of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1879.  Seventeen years earlier, on March 31, 1862, he had married Julia Parmly.  The couple had six children.

The family maintained a 1,000-acre summer estate in Woodstock, Vermont which, according to The Sun, contained "a mansion" and had "six miles of drives on it."  While Julia focused on New York City charities during the winter season, Frederick bestowed towns and institutions with gifts.

He purchased the 12,000-volume library of George P. Marsh, former U.S. Minister to Italy, for $15,000 and donated it to the University of Vermont.  To house the collection, he built a $200,000 library for the school designed by Henry Hobson Richardson.  In the late 1880s he erected a Congregational church in Billings, Montana (a town named for him).

Life in the Billings mansion was not without sorrow.  Parmly Billings graduated from Amherst College in 1884.  Following his untimely death four years later Frederick endowed $50,000 for a "chair of hygiene" at the school.   Sixteen-year old Ehrich Billings died on October 7, 1889 of heart disease.  He had been attending the Moody School for Boys in Mount Hermon.  His father endowed that school with $50,000 in his memory.

Two months later, on Christmas Eve, Frederick Billings suffered a massive stroke which left him paralyzed.  The Sun later reported "in May [he] was taken to Woodstock, where he calmly made every preparation for the end."  Billings died there at 10:00 on the night of September 30, 1890.

Still living with Julia in the Madison Avenue mansion were daughters Mary, Elizabeth and Laura, and son Frederick.

Following her mourning period, Julia picked up her philanthropic work.  On Monday, November 30, 1896 she hosted a reading by Sarah Cowell Le Moyne here.  The stage actress was famous for her readings of Robert Browning's poetry; and The New York Times noted "Mrs. Le Moyne has volunteered her services for a most deserving charitable purpose."  The event was not free, of course, and those wishing to purchase tickets could do so from some of Julia's wealthy neighbors, including Mrs. George F. Baker, who lived at No. 258 Madison Avenue; and Mrs. Frederick F. Thompson, at No, 283.

Sarah Cowell Le Moyne read for charity in the Billings mansion.  photo from the collection of  the University of Louisville's Ekstrom Library

In 1901 the house was the setting of the wedding of Laura Billings to Professor Frederick W. Lee of Columbia University.  The June 5 marriage was widely anticipated in the newspapers; however the following morning The Times noted it was "quietly celebrated yesterday noon."  The understated ceremony had no attendants and only "a few relatives and intimate friends were present."

Exactly two weeks later The Times reported that Julia "has closed her town house, and is at Woodstock" for the summer.

As the years passed, Julia continued entertaining in the Madison Avenue mansion for charitable causes.  On February 6, 1908 she hosted the annual meeting of the Preparatory Trade School for Boys and Girls, for instance.

Mary Montagu Billings, now a Presbyterian minister, married John French on Saturday, June 1, 1907; and on March 9, 1912 the engagement of Frederick to Jessie S. Nichols was announced.  Following that wedding only Julia and Elizabeth were left in the commodious brownstone house.

Julia received a scare on April 3, 1913 when a policeman banged on the front door and announced that her house was on fire.  The New York Times reported "He had seen the flames and smoke rising from the roof."  The Billings women and their staff rushed to the street while firemen traced the blaze to one of the large chimneys.  Fortunately, according to the newspaper the next day "this was extinguished without any damage."

On Tuesday night, February 17, 1914, Julia Parmly Billings suffered a fatal heart attack in the Madison Avenue mansion.  The house passed to Elizabeth who stubbornly stayed on despite the increasing commercialization of the neighborhood.

Early in 1920 Mary C. Thompson was amassing a large block of properties on the block.  She owned the entire blockfront with the exception of the Billings mansion and No. 295.  And she finally convinced Elizabeth to sell that year.  The New-York Tribune reported on February 25 that Thompson had taken out a $450,000 mortgage on the Billings house.  It added that she was negotiating for No. 295 in preparation for "an important commercial improvement."

In the meantime, Elizabeth was temporarily permitted to stay in the old family home.  In January the following year the New York Herald mentioned that "Miss Elizabeth Billings, who is at her home, 279 Madison avenue, will go to Aiken S. C., early next month."

But she had moved out by October.  Mary Clark Thompson was apparently having problems finalizing her control of the block.  That month the Herald reported that she had leased "the Billings mansion" to Mrs. Maude Ames, "who will remodel for bachelor apartments and a tea room."

On May 10, 1923 The Battle Creek Enquirer announced "The Forum and Vocal Press Club has been established on Madison Avenue where one may talk over affairs of the day."  Lectures and discussions here covered current topics like Prohibition.  A month earlier, on April 13, Dudley Field Malone gave a speech in which he "expressed disapproval of the League of Nations," according to The Times.

The club's tenure here would be short lived.  In 1925 the mansion was demolished to be replaced by the 25-story Murray Hill Building designed by Rouse & Goldstone which survives today.

The newly completed building was photographed by Wurts Bros. in 1926.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

1 comment:

  1. The library in Billings, Montana is the Parmley Billings Library. The old Victorian mansion built for it still stands and is used as a community center while the library itself moved to a new modern building recently.

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