Samuel P. Townsend mansion on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street surpassed all others in cost and magnificence upon its completion in 1855. So New Yorkers were startled when Alexander Turney Stewart announced plans to demolish and replace it with a new house in 1866. But they had no idea of what was to come.
Stewart opened his first dry goods store in 1823, selling Irish lace and linens. A consummate retailer, by 1848 he was known as the "Merchant Prince of America " and ran the largest emporium in the world, with branches in 12 countries, and before long was among the richest men in America.
He had married Cornelia M. Clinch, a daughter of successful ship chandler Jacob Clinch, on October 16, 1823. Theirs was a somber marriage. Stewart reputedly showed his wife little overt affection or warmth. Their attempts to have a family ended in tragedy. John Turney Stewart was born in 1834 and died a few weeks later; and May was stillborn in 1838.
|Alexander Turney Stewart - Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 22, 1876 (copyright expired)|
Kellum had earlier designed Stewart's department store on Broadway and 10th Street. It was the beginning of a long professional relationship between the Stewarts and the architect. For the Fifth Avenue mansion, he would stun Manhattan society by dismissing the expected brownstone or red brick and turning to gleaming white Tuckahoe marble. And he designed the residence in the new French Second Empire style, recently introduced from Paris--a stark contrast to the stuffier Italianate houses still being erected.
The lavish home took several years and $2 million to complete. Four stories tall above the rusticated basement level, the grandeur of the palace was such that it could turn its shoulder to Fifth Avenue and face 35th Street. Not that it mattered; the Stewarts did not use an address--the house spoke for itself.
Paired Corinthian pilasters separated each bay of the first floor where delicate balconies clung to each opening. A majestic marble staircase (it could hardly be called a "stoop") led to the entrance--a columned portico that upheld a matching balcony. The configuration was copied as projecting columned balconies on the Fifth Avenue side.
The full-height mansard featured French-styled dormers and was crowned by delicate cast iron cresting. A marble wall surrounded the property, about six feet high along the front. Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly wrote "Mr. Stewart's marble palace, built on the site of the large structure formerly the residence of Dr. Townsend, is perhaps the handsomest and most costly private residence in the country."
|Well-dressed pedestrians pass the newly-completed structure on a still residential Fifth Avenue Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, July 1876 (copyright expired)|
The first and second floors were clad in Carrara marble. Artistic Houses described "The grand stairway and railing are entirely of white marble. Every ceiling is eighteen feet nine inches high." The vast entrance hall, lined with life-size statuary, led to the "grand picture-gallery." To the left of the hall was the dining room, to the right were the reception room, the music room and the drawing room, accessed by a marble hallway.
|The entrance hall had a museum-like quality. Fluted marble columns uphold the giled ceiling. To the rear is the doorway to the Picture Gallery above which the sweeping marble staircase can be glimpsed. Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired)|
The ceilings and frescoed panels of the breakfast room, picture gallery and dining room were executed by Italian artist Mario Brigaldi who had earlier decorated Emperor Dom Pedro's imperial palace in Brazil. The cost to Stewart was $5,000 for each room--about $97,000 today. Brigaldi reportedly spent a full year in the house, decorating at least a portion of every room.
The drawing room extended the full width of the Fifth Avenue side. "Furniture of gilded whitewood, covered with pale yellow satin, is disposed methodically," according to Artistic Houses.
|The Reception Room (top) and the Music Room. Works of art were distributed throughout rooms like these. Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired)|
|The Picture Gallery. There were more than 165 oil paintings in the collection--obviously more than wall space allowed for. Paintings are propped up against the walls and life-sized sculptures. Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired)|
|Stewart's Library was sumptuously decorated--including marble door and window frames, walnut woodwork and gilt bronze chandeliers. Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired)|
|Cornelia Stewart's bedroom was the height of post Civil War period fashion. Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired)|
On June 21, 1869, for instance, The New York Times noted that on the previous afternoon President Ulysses S. Grant "dined with Mr. A. T. Stewart, on Fifth-avenue." And when the President and his wife were back in town following the White House wedding of their daughter Nellie to Algermon Charles Frederick Sartoris in May 1874, they were received by the Stewarts. The New York Herald reported on May 23, "The entire party, consisting of the President and Mrs. Grant, Mr. and Mrs. Sartoris and their friends from Washington, took dinner at the residence of Alexander T. Stewart, after which all returned to their hotel."
The Stewarts would be hosts to another head of state seven months later. On December 29 King Kalakaua of Hawaii, Royal Governor John Kapena and Hawaiian Chief Justice Elisha Hunt Allen were lunch guests here.
|Artist Mario Brigaldi's work can be seen in the ceiling and wall panels of the Drawing Room. Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired)|
Around the first of April 1876, Stewart contracted a cold which progressed to what the The New York Herald indiscreetly described as an "inflammation of the bowels." On April 10 the newspaper reported that "the great merchant millionaire" was critically ill in his mansion. Stewart had ordered his doctors not to report any information on his condition. "If it were stated that his illness was of a very grave nature the announcement would doubtless draw to the house troops of inquiring friends, which is not at present desirable." That same day the tycoon died.
|Crowds massed around the mansion following news of the millionaire's death. Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, July 1876 (copyright expired)|
Inside "The maganificent halls were occupied by knots of gentlemen who discussed in undertones the great merchant's death...while round about them were the accumulations of masterpieces of art and the costly wonders of decorative beauty."
Stewart's body was laid in the Lace Room on the second floor. The New York Herald reported on a rather macabre side-note. "The body of Mr. Stewart lies in one of those new-fashioned preservers which have supplanted the ordinary ice coffin...Without coming in contact with any part of the body the ice is so arranged as to create and sustain around it a uniformly cold temperature, which is so free of moisture that the garments of the dead are perfectly dry."
The New York Times reported that the Lace Room was already filled with floral tributes and the funeral would be even more so. The casket was to sit on "an oblong pyramid of flowers seven feet in length by three in width, composed of almost every description of floral treasures...At the head of the casket is to be placed a floral cross 6 feet high by 4 wide and 8 inches in diameter...A wreath of violets two fee in diameter will be attached to this piece."
At the foot of the casket a broken column, five feet in height was anticipated to be "of rare beauty." An altar composed of camellias, lilies, roses and hyacinths would be at one side of the casket, and a four-foot tall harp of flowers would occupy the opposite side. The Stewart store employees presented two floral "monuments" nine feet tall.
Stewart was temporarily buried in St. Mark's graveyard. Cornelia called upon John Kellum once again to design a lasting memorial--the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, Long Island. It would include a mausoleum for her husband and herself.
Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography now considered Cornelia Stewart "the wealthiest woman in the world." She had inherited an estate estimated at between $30 and $40 million--as much as $950 million today (another estimated $10 million went to employees, Cornelia's relatives, and charities). Tragically for her, with great fortune came fortune hunters,
Not long after the funeral Cornelia began receiving ghoulish letters from all parts of the United States, purportedly from her dead husband. On June 1, 1876 The New York Herald said the letters, signed by Alexander T. Stewart, were "of a nature to shock the most indifferent readers." They said in part, for instance:
I see the fatal mistake I made while on earth; I placed my confidence in persons unworthy of it and I caution you beware."
...from the spirit land I see things clearly and you had better place the management of your affairs in the hands of whose parties who are named herein.
The letters were all delivered by messenger, not by mail. The Herald noted "Hundreds of scheming and dishonest men and women have deliberately gone to work for the purpose of influencing Mrs. Stewart to regard all her dearest friends as treacherous, as people unworthy of the slightest confidence."
|Immeasurable wealth did not buy Cornelia Stewart happiness. from the collection of the Garden City Archives|
The New York Herald opined that of the thousands present at Stewart's burial, none could imagine that his remains would "be ruthlessly disturbed by the demoniac hope entering the brain of some foul fiend of making money out of a traffic with the body."
Despite the best detective work, the grave robbers could not be found. Six years later, on April 7, 1884 The New York Times printed hope when the notorious robber Lewis C. Sweigels promised to return the body in return for his pardon. Working on behalf of Cornelia, Judge Henry Hilton paid the $25,000 ransom. Whether or not the corpse was actually Stewart's remained a mystery.
The Stewarts had spent their summers in fashionable Saratoga Springs. Cornelia left there on September 1, 1886 to return to her marble mansion. On Saturday evening, October 23 her dressmaker arrived and had Cornelia try on several nearly-finished dresses. Afterwards, Cornelia took a warm bath and went to bed.
By the following morning she had caught cold. When it worsened, her doctor, J. C. Minor was summoned. He diagnosed pneumonia. She declined rapidly and around 9:30 on Monday morning she died.
Newspapers, of course, recounted her many philanthropies and her fabulous fortune--still estimated at $30 to $40 million--and her nearly incomparable art collection. The New York Times noted "Since her husband's death, Mrs. Stewart has lived very quietly in the mansion at Fifth-avenue and Thirty-fourth-street, and her name has not appeared frequently in public prints of late years. She always dreaded publicity or display."
As she had directed, Cornelia's funeral was much more reserved than her husband's. She was buried in the crypt in the Cathedral of the Incarnation; The Times reporting that she now lay "beside the grave wherein Mrs. Stewart had always supposed that the remains of her husband reposed." It was a slightly-veiled reference to the questionable corpse.
The Stewart mansion sat vacant for more than two years while The Manhattan Club negotiated with the estate. Then, on December 13, 1889, The Evening World ran the headline "Palace For A Club" and reported that the Manhattan Club would soon "enjoy the finest club home in America." The had club signed a 21-year lease with an annual rental of $35,000.
The exclusive men's club would not live out its lease, however. On January 8, 1898 The Sun reported that it was "already heavily burdened by debt and the great cost of conducting its clubhouse." The following year it moved out. What would become of the magnificent structure was on the mind of nearly every New Yorker.
On February 2, 1901 the New-York Tribune announced an outlandish scheme. It said that negotiations were underway for the purchase of the mansion as a gift for a charitable institution. If successful, the unnamed benefactor would "remove the structure at his own expense and have it erected, in its present form, somewhere in Westchester." Not surprisingly, the scheme never came to pass.
Instead, demolition began two months later. Policemen were to be stationed at the site to stop pilferers. The New York Times reported on March 6 "Hundreds of workmen are daily demolishing into a reminiscence what was once the grandest residence in New York, and collectors of curios from the old house have been busy for the past week."
|The windows have been removed and billboards sully the marble wall as demolition gets underway in 1901. from the collection of the New-York Historical Society|
|The corner today.|