Monday, January 29, 2018

The Lost Benjamin H. Field House - 21 East 26th Street



On May 27, 1920, when Arthur Hosking photographed the house, it was the last remnant of the elegant 1840s on the block.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

When Madison Square Park formally opened on May 10, 1847, the family of Benjamin Hazard Field had lived in their comfortable brownstone home on its northern edge for several years.  One of the first of the handsome mansions that would eventually encircle the park, it was four stories tall above an English basement.  Its Italianate style was the latest word in domestic architecture.  Molded architrave frames surrounded the openings, floor-to-ceiling French windows at the parlor level opened to a balustraded stone balcony, and a cast cornice, upheld by two sets of paired brackets at either end, completed the design.

Field could trace his American roots to Robert Feild who, according to historian Charles Morris in his 1894 Makers of New York: An Historical Work, accompanied his "intimate friend" Sir Richard Saltonstall to Massachusetts in 1645.  Morris pointed out "The name was eventually modified to Field."

The son of Hazard Field, Benjamin had been born in Yorktown, New York on May 2, 1814.  He came to New York following his schooling to enter the mercantile business of his uncle, Hickson W. Field.  In 1832, at the age of 18, he was made a partner.  Following his uncle's retirement in 1838, "Mr. Field, still but twenty-four years of age, had placed in his single hands the control of the whole great business of the house."  John Thomas Scharf noted in 1886, "Commencing a business career under the most favorable circumstances, he rapidly gained both fortune and fame."

That same year he married Catherine M. Van Cortlandt de Peyster, whose name alone suggested her sterling pedigree.  Her extended family included the Beekmans, Livingstons, Van Cortlandts, Van Rensselaers and de Peysters.  The couple would have two children, son Cortlandt de Peyster, born December 28, 1839, and daughter Florence, born March 30, 1851.

The family was in their East 26th Street home at least by 1846, when the roster of the New York Historical Society listed Field here.   A founder of the Society in 1844, he would serve as is treasurer for two decades, vice-president, and, in 1885, its president.

Benjamin Hazard Field, from History of Westchester County: New York, by John Thomas Scharf, 1886 (copyright expired)
Both Benjamin and Catherine were intensely interested in the plight of the poor.  Scharf said of Field, "But to him the earning of a fortune was simply a means to enable him to accomplish his ends--to show by a bright example the good that can be done by men possessed of wealth and actuated by the spirit that seeks the welfare of their race." 

In 1863 he became a vice-president of the New-York Eye and Ear Infirmary (later, in 1884, he became its president); he was involved with the New York Dispensary, the Sheltering Arms of the Children's Field, and the Roosevelt Hospital.  He was also a director in the New York Institute for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, and was connected with the Home for Incurables which he helped found.  He became its president in 1866.

Fields's club memberships reflected his scholarly interests.  Rather than seeking out prestigious social clubs, he became a member of the St. Nicolas Society, the Century Club, the American Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History.

His elevated position within the social and business community was evidenced in 1869.  When General Ulysses S. Grant assumed the presidency that year, General William Tecumseh Sherman took over as Commanding General of the Army.   Field was one of several wealthy New Yorkers who decided that to show their gratitude they would purchase Grant's former home for Sherman.   At around 11:00 on the morning of March 3, Field entered Grant's office with Alexander T. Stewart, Hamilton Fish, William H. Aspinwall and William Scott.  They were accompanied by four others, including Sherman's nephew, Alfred M. Hoyt and Civil War General Daniel Butterfield,

The Philadelphia newspaper The Evening Telegraph reported that the group handed Grant a bank check for $65,000 for "the purchase of the residence and furniture on I street for the purpose of presenting the same to General Sherman."  It was a magnanimous gesture, indeed, equaling more than $1.1 million today.


By now Field had been retired from active business for four years.  Cortlandt had graduated from Columbia College in 1859 and had taken over his father's business in 1861, at which time it was renamed Cortlandt de P. Field & Co.   He married Virginia Hamersly, the daughter John W. Hamersly, whom John Thomas Scharf called "a lady in whose veins runs the blood of some of the oldest families of this State."

When Benjamin Field commissioned Daniel Huntington to paint this charming portrait, Florence was still unmarried.  L-R, Catherine, Florence, Benjamin, Virginia and Cortlandt.  The family's cultural interests are reflected in Catherine's and Florence's thumbing through a book of prints, and Benjamin's holding an oil portrait.   from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

By now the 26th Street block facing Madison Square had filled with some of Manhattan's wealthiest families.  At the end of the block, on the opposite side of Madison Avenue, was the massive mansion of Leonard Jerome.  Next door to the Fields, at No. 23 was the Adrian Iselin family, "whose long connection with New York society has made them well know," as described by Morris Benjamin in his A Historical Sketch of Madison Square.   Other prominent families along the block were the Schieffelins, the James Burden family, bankers William and John O'Brien, and Mary Jane Morgan, the wealthy widow of Charles Morgan, at No. 7.

Like her brother, Florence married well.  In 1869 she was wed to David Wolfe Bishop who was related to the massively wealthy Catharine Lorillard Wolfe.  The spinstress had a fortune of about $12 million in 1872.  Her mansion, too, faced Madison Square Park and upon her death in 1887 it became the home of Florence and David.  The couple and their two sons, however, "very seldom live in their New York house," according to The New York Times a few years later, "but have remained almost entirely at their country home at Lenox."

The year before Florence and her husband inherited the Madison Avenue mansion, Catherine died in the 26th Street house.  She had been a founder of the Free Circulating Library of New York, and in her memory Cortlandt donated the Field Library to the village of Peekskill.  On April 27, 1887, The New York Times reported that Cortland had given the town $10,000 "as a memorial to his mother," and "also presented the library with a suitable building and lot in which to establish the new institution, and has supplemented the latter gift with a donation of 6,000 volumes."  The total cost of the gift was $20,000, more than $475,000 today.

Cortland and Virginia continued to live with Benjamin in the old family house.  Decades earlier when Cortland was still young and impetuous, Benjamin had entered into an agreement with him.  Now, despite his own substantial fortune, Cortland still held his father to it in a good-natured father-son bond.   Field explained to a reporter in August 1891, "When my boy was at college I agreed to pay for all of the cigars he might smoke, provided he would not chew tobacco.  He entered into the agreement, and although that was several years ago he still holds me to the contract."


In February 1893 Field attended a dinner at the Press Club.  A few days later he caught cold and his condition quickly deteriorated.  He died in the house on the afternoon of March 17.  Newspaper reports of his death overflowed with praise for his many philanthropies.

The New York Times said, "For many years his name has been chiefly associated with the multifarious charities which, since his retirement from business, occupied his entire attention."  The long list of institutions which had profited from his generosity was published across the country.

Benjamin Field's funeral was held in Grace Church on March 21.  Although the understated service had no pall bearers, the list of mourners in the church read like a Who's Who of powerful business and society names.

Although Madison Square had seen encroaching businesses for years, the 26th Street block was still intact at the time.  Joseph Frederick Kernochan lived at No. 11, and next door at No. 13 was Frank Work, a well-known banker and "horse fancier."   In 1896 historian Morris Benjamin said Work "has not missed his daily ride to Central Park for more than a quarter of a century."

At the turn of the century Stanford White's towering Madison Square Garden sat at the northeast corner of the park.  The Field house is to the left, and the Jerome mansion can be seen just left of the large tree.  photo by Edward Bartlett Lee, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

But in the first decade of the 20th century only three houses remained.  In 1911 Frank Work died and the following year, on April 2, his and the Kernochan house were sold "to make way for a new commercial structure," according to The Times.  The newspaper noted “Only one of the old-time residences will remain in the block when the Kernochan and Work houses are torn down—the old Field dwelling at 21 East Twenty-sixth Street.”   It added, “When Mr. Work took up his residence there Madison Square was the centre of fashionable residences, and he lived long enough to see the majority of them give way to towering commercial structures.”

Nevertheless, Cortlandt and Virginia remained in the house and continued to summer at their estate at Peekskill-on-Hudson.  It was there, in August 1918, that the 79-year old Cortlandt de Peyster Field died.  His body was returned to No. 21 East 26th Street and his funeral, like that of his father, was held in Grace Church.

As soaring commercial buildings continued to rise around Madison Square, the wealthy widow Virginia Hamersly Field contentedly stayed on in the last vestige of the park's elegant beginnings.   Developers had been eyeing the property for years when she died in the house on the night of June 20, 1922.

Virginia's estate included extensive real estate holdings, much of it "part of a grant to our family from Queen Anne," according to her will.  Those properties were around the towns of Pawling and Beekman, New York.  A large portion of her millions went to charity.  The will directed that "all the rest of the personal and real income from the will and estate of her late father-in-law, Benjamin H. Field, be given and used for the upkeep of the Field Home, at Yorktown, a sort of private home for the aged and infirm."

A specific detail in the will ordered the executors "to burn and destroy, unread, all diaries and journals of my father, my mother, my aunt, Mary Hooker, my sisters and my own diaries and journals."

The venerable Field mansion was demolished and replaced by the showroom and headquarters of a fabric importer, completed in 1924.   Designed by Treanor & Fatio, the neo-Classical structure survives, now as upscale condominiums known as The Whitman.

photo by Craig Warga, New York Daily News

4 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. Either the first, black & white, photograph or the last, color is reversed. The buildings on either side are flipped between the two.

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    1. Good eye. The vintage photo got its negative reversed in processing, apparently.

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  3. tom Miller, would you please remove the first comment as unnecessarily mean-spirited? Thank you.

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