Friday, July 3, 2020

The 1854 Thaddeus Hyatt House - 46 Morton Street

Thaddeus Hyatt erected the handsome row in 1857.  No. 46 is at the far left.

In 1854, at a time when the bulk of Manhattan rowhouses were being built with tall stone stoops, the architect of Thaddeus Hyatt's four of four upscale homes turned to the Anglo-Italianate style which precluded the necessity of navigating the steps.  Their entries were within a brownstone base.  The second, or parlor floors, boasted elegant French windows fronted by cast iron balconettes and classical stone pediments.  The openings of the upper floors wore bracketed cornices, while the sills sat upon unusual paired corbels.

Although the French windows have been replaced and, sadly, a veneer of brick applied over the brownstone base, the delightful cast iron balconettes survive.
Located at Nos. 46 through 52 Morton Street, they sat on land Hyatt had purchased from Trinity Church a year earlier.  He advertised his "first class basement Houses" for sale with $3,000 (about $94,200 today) down and "the balance on favorable terms."  His ads cleverly did not reveal what that balance was.

It does not appear that Hyatt intended to live in one of the houses, for all four were initially advertised.  Nevertheless, he moved his family into No. 46.  The lot it sat upon was made peculiar because of its location in the elbow of Morton Street's curve.  The 18-foot frontage fanned out to the rear to accommodate a 2,000-square-foot garden.

Hyatt had made his fortune through the bull's-eye vault light which he invented in 1845--an improvement of an earlier single-lens design.  Embedded in the sidewalk, the plates admitted light into areas below street level and were safe to walk on even if all the glass was broken.  One vault was even installed in the sidewalk directly in front of the Hyatts' house which survives.

Hyatt's vault plates diffused light under the street.  United States Patent letter August 27, 1867
In addition to the Thaddeus Hyatt & Co., he was a partner with his older brother, Theodore P. Hyatt in Hyatt Brothers.  Theodore was also an inventor and held several patents, like his "illuminating roofings," "fire-proof illuminating tiles," and "illuminating roof-plates."

Thaddeus Hyatt - from the collection of the Library of Congress
Thaddeus and his wife would eventually have two sons and four daughters.  They were fervent abolitionists and the New-York Tribune later said of Thaddeus "In the fifties he joined heart and soul in the movement to check the extension of slavery.  His house, in Morton-st., was the headquarters of the anti-slavery leaders in New-York.  John Brown when in the city always made his home with Mr. Hyatt."

Following the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which allowed the territory's voters to decide the slavery issue) in 1854, he poured money into the cause and traveled to Kansas for long stretches of time.

But trouble came when, following Brown's execution for the raid on Harper's Ferry, Thaddeus Hyatt refused to testify before the Senate.  His 23-page response maintained that the Senate had no power to compel his appearance.  He was imprisoned in Washington where he continued to be defiant by having "his cell comfortably fitted up, and [sending] out 'at home' cards to his many friends in Congress and in official position in Washington," according to the New-York Tribune.  "When not engaged in receiving callers Mr. Hyatt addresses anti-slavery communications to various papers and magazines."

In New York on May 11, 1860 the Cooper Union was "densely a most respectable audience," according to The New York Times, at a rally "sympathizing with Mr. Thaddeus Hyatt."

Three months into his sentence the Senate committee was dissolved and Hyatt was released.  He telegraphed home, "Have been kicked out.  Will be home to-morrow."

In the meantime, Theodore was losing patience.  Thaddeus was using company money to fund his causes.  During his imprisonment Theodore had sent a letter to W. F. M. Arny which said in part:

The fact is,...unless my poor demented, insane brother changes his course and husbands his resources, Heaven itself cannot safe him from destruction, for while he is wasting thousands of dollars on the infernal John Brown, Washington Jail humbug his property heavily mortgaged is eating him up with expense of interest, taxes & assessments amounting yearly to over five thousand dollars."

Apparently the financial pressures forced Hyatt to give up his home.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on October 7, 1871 offered "House 46 Morton Street For Sale--An elegant house, with very large lot and beautiful garden filled with shrubbery, flowers and vines."

Hyatt's home was saved by Theodore Hyatt and his wife, the former Mary N. Winans.  The title was put in Mary's name.  Thaddeus and his wife remained in the house with Theodore and Mary.

Thaddeus's interests were varied.  His early interest in aviation had led him to offer "a reward of $1,000 to any inventor able to produce an actual flying machine" in 1857.  In 1877 he published Concrete Beams in Building Structures and the following year patented the first reinforced concrete.

Theodore Hyatt was described by The New York Herald as an "inventive and mechanical genius."  He had continued to improve on his brother's invention and in 1878 held 40 patents on the vault lights alone.  It was most likely the Financial Panic of 1873 that caused a downturn in business for Hyatt Brothers, and by the end of 1878, according to The New York Herald, "business reverses are said to have set in."

His business troubles weighed heavily on Theodore.  The newspaper said that in addition to his depression, "for some time past he has been under medical treatment for a nervous complaint, which took the form of insomnia."

On January 8, 1879 Theodore Hyatt went to his office at No. 25 Waverly Place as usual.  The New York Herald reported that around noon, "Jacob Jacobs, while passing Mr. Hyatt's office on the second floor, heard what he describes as a 'gurgling noise.'"  The office door was locked, so Jacobs went to the office next door, climbed out the window onto a wide cornice, and made his way to Hyatt's window.   Theodore Hyatt sat at his desk "with a Smith & Wesson seven-barrelled revolver in his hand."  He had shot himself in the head.

Within months of the death Thaddeus and his wife moved to Brooklyn.  Mary N. Hyatt transferred title of No. 46 Morton Street to her son, Theodore Porter Hyatt on June 4, 1883.

The house remained in the family for decades to come.  Around 1901 Celeste W. Herrick, the granddaughter of Theodore P. Hyatt, moved in.  The unmarried Public Library assistant got into a heated battle with her next door neighbor, Professor William P. Montague in 1921.

Montague, who was a philosophy professor at Columbia University, purchased No. 48 in March of that year.  He and his wife, Dr. Helen Montague, immediately began to enlarge the house to the rear with a two-story extension, the second floor of which would be Montague's study.

Celeste Herrick was determined to stop the construction.  On July 6, 1921 she appeared in Supreme Court in an action, as described by The New York Herald, "to defend the privacy of her bedroom and bathroom."  The article explained "Miss Herrick alleged the extension not only cuts off light and air from the garden in her back yard and from a rear porch to her house but, worse still, there are windows in the extension only a few feet from the rear wall of her home, behind which are her bedroom and bathroom."

Montague told the court "both my wife and I feel very sorry that she is annoyed," but he maintained that the glass in the first floor was translucent and the plain glass of the second story did not look into the rooms next door.  Celeste argued that translucent glass made no difference, because the windows could be opened.   Nevertheless, "Justice Whitaker apparently decided to trust the professor, for he denied the application for an injunction."

In 1938 the executors of Celeste Herrick's estate sold the house to Anita M. Filmore.  On August 2 The New York Sun reported that architects Corbett & McMurray had filed plans "for converting the house into apartments at a cost of $38,000."  It was a significant remodeling, equal to about $689,000 today, which resulted in two apartments, a triplex and a duplex.

Following the remodeling the ground floor facade was still intact, although the window details had been shaved off.  photo via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Around 1975 Francis and Patricia Michaels Mason moved into an apartment.  Francis had already had an impressive career.  He had served as cultural ambassador to the Court of St. James in London, was appointed chief of East/West Exhibitions in 1965 which organized the exhibition of American art in the former U.S.S.R. and Communist-bloc countries.  Now, in 1975, he was made assistant director of the Pierpont Morgan Library.

He was perhaps best known as a critic and interpreter of dance.  He had close relationships with George Balanchine and Martha Graham.  (In his 2009 obituary Patricia Fieldsteel wrote "Some of Francis's happiest moments were spent alone with Martha at his house on Morton St., talking long into the night, while they drank and reminisced.")

The Masons' country home was in Rye and Fieldsteel noted "The magnificent gardens at the Morton St. house and home in Rye were featured on many tours, as well as in books and magazines."  Francis died in his sleep on September 24, 2009 at the age of 88.

A "horse-walk" between No. 44 and 46 provided access to the rear yards.
In January 2012 No. 46 was put on the market.  It sold ten days later to screenwriter and former actress Sofia Carmina Coppola and her husband musician Thomas Mars, who paid $9.85 million ($1 million more than the asking price).  The Wall Street Journal commented that "a single-family conversion would cost another $4 million or so."  Nevertheless, in September 2015 plans were filed to reconvert the former Hyatt house to a single family home.

photographs by the author


  1. I am pretty sure the double hung windows that were designed to look like casement windows/ french doors are original. The multi-pane french doors on the houses at the extreme right are the replacements.

    1. You may be right. The balconettes make little sense without French windows; but your observation about the double-hung design is persuasive.

  2. Fascinating article, as always. As a minor P.S., Francis S. Mason died at his country house on Manursing Island, Rye, and not at 46 Morton.