Monday, August 27, 2018

The Lost U. S. Grant House - 3 East 66th Street


When this photo was taken, only No. 3 survived of the original row.  It had lost its rooftop balustrade by now.  original source unknown

In 1881 developer C. W. Luyster completed a row of seven "magnificent brown stone residences," as described by the Real Estate Record & Guide, on the north side of 66th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.  Designed by James E. Ware, each was an ample 34-feet wide and rose four stories above an English basement.  The architect dipped into several styles to produce the row--wide Italianate stoops led to the entrance porticoes and delicately-carved neo-Classical panels decorated the space between the second and third floor openings.  The angular personalities of the homes drew from Renaissance Revival and neo-Grec.  Ware alternated the full-height commodious bays from left to right down the row, creating a rhythmic undulation.

Luyster placed a $120,000 price tag on each of the houses, nearly $3 million today.  The last to be sold was No. 3, the nearest to Fifth Avenue and Central Park.  On August 6, 1881 the Record & Guide reported "Ex-President U. S. Grant has clearly made up his mind to become a resident of New York.  Within the last few days he has purchased a residence in the finest quarter of the city.  It is situated [at] No. 3 East Sixty-sixth street."  In a separate article the journal noted "General Grant carefully examined the property before purchasing."

Luyster was generous to the former President and Civil War hero.  The Record & Guide noted "The price paid (90,000) was considered very low."  In fact, the mansion cost Grant nothing.  He paid for it from the $250,000 "which has been raised by the admirers of General Grant to make him comfortable during the rest of his life," explained the publication.

There would be no professional involved in the decorating.  D. Appleton & Co.'s Artistic Houses called it "spacious and well-appointed" and said it "is furnished in a style that speaks of comfort rather than of ostentation.  There has been no lavish outlay of money to produce mere effects."  In what seemed almost an apology for that, the writer said "General Grant seems to have said to himself...Many of my friends, to be sure, would put themselves in the midst of a much more costly and luxurious environment.  This is not my taste."

The Aesthetic Movement, with its importance on things Asian, was in full evidence in Julia Grant's decorating.  The book noted that the curtains in the parlor windows "are beautiful specimens of Japanese embroidery...and Mrs. Grant purchased in India the fine rug that adorns the floor."  An embroidered screen was a present from the citizens of Tokyo.  Two intricately carved teakwood cabinets, also from Japan, held the Grants' collection of porcelains collected during their travels through Asia.  Other gifts displayed in the parlor were a pair of carved elephant tusks from the Maharajah of Jehore and a silver cabinet in the form of a temple from the Maharajah of Decca.  Of that unique piece Artistic Houses said "Perhaps nothing like it has ever been displayed in a private house in this country."

The Grant parlor was filled with Asian artifacts.  To the left is a mother-of-pearl inlaid upright piano, the latest in fashion.  To the right can be seen Read's painting of Sheridan.  Artistic Houses, 1886 (copyright expired)
Two of the oil paintings in the parlor were of other Union generals.  Grant's favorite was Sheridan Twenty Miles Away, by Thomas Buchanan Read.  He liked it so much that he refused to give it to General Philip Sheridan, a good friend, when he asked for it.  The other was a full-length portrait of General Winfield Scott by George Fuller.  Also in the parlor was a family portrait by William Cogswell, painted around 1871 when the children were still young.  Also on the first floor were the drawing room and dining room.

The dining room was "simply and quite charmingly furnished in white-oak, with the general's monogram stamped on the backs of the chairs." 

Directly above the parlor was Grant's bedroom, connected to the library which overlooked 66th Street.  The library, of course, held Grant's substantial number of books, but valuable gifts presented to him over the years as well.  Of the large antique oak cabinet in the room Artistic Houses said "No piece of furniture in the United States of America contains a display of curiosities at once so flattering to the owner and so rich in historic interest."

There were more than a half-dozen gold-headed canes, one of which had been owned by the Marquis de Lafayette and had been presented by ladies of Baltimore.  There was also the handle of the cane Grant broke during the struggle "with a lunatic" in Washington.  Artistic Houses said "The general's use of that instrument as a weapon was exceedingly dexterous, and resulted in the speedy discomfiture of his assailant."

The City of London had given Grant a gold box decorated with a figure of Liberty, the United States coat-of-arms and the figure of Britannia.  One on side was the Capitol Building and on the other St. Jame's Palace.  A box from Dublin was fashioned from wood reputedly from a tree planted by Shakespeare; a silver casket was the gift of Edinburgh, and a silver repousse, gilded, was from the city of Glasgow.

There were also swords carried in battle during the Civil War and lavishly-decorated and jeweled presentation swords; and on one table stood a miniature gold reproduction of the table on which General Lee signed the articles of capitulation.

The library's fireplace, overmantel and bookcases were in the Eastlake style.  A dainty china spittoon sits next to the brass fender.  Artistic Houses, 1886 (copyright expired)
Having been a war hero and a United States President, Ulysses S. Grant now embarked on a new career.  He partnered with Ferdinand Ward to form the investment firm Grant & Ward.  In the meantime Julia slipped into the Manhattan social swirl.

On January 31, 1883 The New York Times reported that she had given "an afternoon tea" the day before.  While that may sound like an intimate gathering of half-a-dozen close women friends, there were, in fact, more than 30 guests.  Among those arriving at No. 3 East 66th Street that afternoon were Caroline Schermerhorn Astor and her daughter, Carrie; John Jacob Astor and his wife; Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt; Mrs. Paran Stevens; the William K. Vanderbilts; and Ward McAllister and his daughter.

But disaster was just around the corner.  Unknown to Grant, Ferdinand Ward was operating a pyramid scheme, earning him the modern sobriquet the "Bernie Madoff of the Gilded Age."  And as with all such cases, the house of cards came tumbling down.  On May 6, 1884 Grant left East 66th Street thinking himself a millionaire.  The New York Times remarked "When he arrived at his place of business in Wall Street, he found he was ruined.  As he entered the office he was met by his son, Ulysses Jr., who said: 'You had better go home, father, the bank has failed.'  A few minutes later the elder Grant got into his carriage and was driven home.  He never returned to Wall Street."

He and Julia counted their cash and discovered they had about $80.  The Grant sons, who also lived in the house, had already ordered a supply of cigars to last several months.  Those were immediately returned.  To make the situation worse, Grant had recently been diagnosed with throat cancer.

Newspapers were filled with the story of the firm's collapse and of the financial ruin of the former president.  Charles Wood, an upstate brush manufacturer read the accounts with concern.  And on May 10 sent a gift of $500 and a letter offering to loan him another $1,000.  Two days later Grant replied;

Dear Sir:  Your more than kind letter on Saturday, inclosing check for $500, and proposing to send the like amount on my note, payable in one year, without interest, is received.  The money at this time would be of exceeding use to me, having not enough to pay one months servant hire, or room, if I were to leave my house, and nothing coming in till the 1st of August.  I therefore accept the check just received, and this is my acknowledgment of a debt of one year from this date, on the terms of your letter.

The Grants' dire financial circumstances were again reflected in a letter to Wood after the $1,000 loan arrived.  Grant said in part:

You have conferred an obligation more than I can ever repay.  The money, of course, I do not doubt I can return.  But, being caught without $100 in my pocket, and nothing coming in until August, it became a serious question what to do.  You, in the generosity of your heart, have relieved that anxiety.

Julia owned property in Washington, including a house that sold for $6,500, giving them money to live on.  Samuel Clemens, a good friend, urged Grant to write his memoirs, which added to their income.

But the stress and humiliation of the situation took their toll on the proud statesman and military leader.  By the spring of 1885 Grant's doctor was practically living in the house and he routinely sent "bulletins" to the press on his patient's condition.  Crowds formed outside No. 3, staring up at the second floor in hopes of a glimpse of the president.

A feeble Grant was helped into his carriage outside the 66th Street house in one of his last public outings. Harper's Weekly April 11, 1885 (copyright expired) 
On March 19, 1885 The Sun reported "It is several days since Gen. Grant has been down stairs.  He is confined to his library and bedroom except when he walks for exercise in the hall."  The throat cancer was interfering with his ability to speak and swallow.

Crowds assembled below Grant's windows.  The other houses in the row can be seen in this view.  Harper's Weekly April 11, 1885 (copyright expired) 
On July 24, 1885 The Sun reported "With one last weary opening and closing of the eyes and a little gasp so faint that it was but a gentle sigh, Gen. Grant expired this morning as peacefully and painlessly as a tired child might fall asleep.  Death could hardly come to any man freer from terror than it came to him."

Twelve years later, on February 12, 1893, The New York Times mentioned "Mrs. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant is an active lady of about seventy years.  At present Mrs. Grant is in California visiting her son, but the greater part of the Winter was spent in town at the house 3 East Sixty-sixth Street, which was presented to Gen. Grant."  In fact, she would not return to 66th Street.

Two weeks later The Record & Guide announced she had sold the house to her neighbor, Henry O. Havemeyer, for $130,000 (about $3.65 million today).

The Henry O. Havemeyer house sat at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 66th Street.  The Grant house was directly behind. photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Havemeyer's interest in the house was most likely merely to ensure his new neighbors would be acceptable to him.  He quickly sold it to Phillips Phoenix and his wife, Eleanor.  Phoenix owned much real estate, including their country home in Tuxedo, New York.  In 1879 he had erected the Madison Square Theatre on West 24th Street.  His 31-foot ice yacht "to be used this Winter on Tuxedo Lake," as reported in The Times, had caused much comment in December 1886.

Eleonor Phoenix died in the mansion on March 4, 1902.  Phillips remarried within the next few years.  Despite his somewhat flamboyant past, the middle-aged millionaire and his new wife, the former Lillie G. Lewis, lived rather quietly in the stately, if architecturally outdated home.

Phillips died at No. 3 on April 11, 1921.  He left approximately half of his $2.7 million estate to Lillie, including the house.  Her inheritance would be more in the neighborhood of $18 million today.  By the time of Lillie's death in the house on October 13, 1924 No. 3 was the last of the 1881 row left standing.

Four months after her death, in February 1925, the house was thrown open for a public auction of "paintings and sculpture, together with the French furniture and household embellishments" from Lillie's estate.  The several-day sale brought in $33,252.50, or nearly half a million today.

What followed was a dizzying change of ownership and repeated promises to build an apartment building on the site.  The house was sold in 1926 to "be demolished and replaced by a twelve-story apartment house," according to The Times on October 5.  Instead the house sat empty for two years, sold in foreclosure in June 1928.

In 1926 the stoop had been removed and a For Sale sign hangs across a parlor window.  from the collection of the New York Public Library 
It was purchased by former Ambassador James W. Gerard, who resold it in February 1929.  Then, on August 5, 1930 it was sold to builder Michael E. Paterno who promised he "would soon demolish the house and improve the site with an apartment house to accommodate five families."

That did not happen and the former Grant mansion sat neglected, now with its stoop removed, for another three years when Paterno lost it in foreclosure on January 20, 1933.  Four months later a "For Sale" sign hung on the facade.  On April 4, 1933 The New York Times write "The old home is in a condition strongly suggesting 'haunted.'"  Vandals had gained access through the rear windows and defaced the interiors of the historic home.

When the Trans-Boro Realty Corporation purchased it in August that year, saying it planned "to improve the site," New Yorkers may have been skeptical.  But a month later architects Boak & Paris filed plans for a nine-story apartment house to cost $100,000.  Before long the historic home was a mere memory.

Boak & Paris's Art Moderne building survives.


many thanks to reader Peter Alsen for requesting this post

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