On May 17, 1897 the wedding of Bertha Adelaide Fahys to Reginald George Barclay took place in the Fahy mansion on 52nd Street, just off Fifth Avenue. Most likely because the groom's father, George Carey Barclay, was seriously ill, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted, "Only relatives were present."
That year Isaac Dudley Fletcher would begin construction on his massive mansion at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, on what was known as the Cook Block. Henry Cook owned the entire block, "selling property to those who agreed to build high class dwelling houses on their lots," as later explained by the New-York Tribune.
Fletcher's architect was C. P. H. Gilbert, and while the Fletcher mansion was the first, it was certainly not the last mansion Gilbert would design on the Cook Blook. In 1899 he designed the Edmund Converse house at 3 East 78th Street and in 1902 started work on a mansion next door for Reginald and Bertha Barclay.
On July 12 Barclay had purchased the 25-foot-wide lot at 5 East 78th Street from the J. C. Lyons Building and Operating Co. It is now surprising, therefore, that Jeremiah C. Lyons was responsible for the mansion's construction. C. P. H. Gilbert's plans estimated the cost of construction at $50,000--or about $1.5 million in today's money.
Strikingly different from the French Gothic Fletcher and Converse residences, the Barclay mansion, completed in 1904, was designed in the Beaux Arts style. Faced in limestone, it rose five stories. Its double-doored entrance above a short stoop was crowned by an elegant arched pediment. A two-story bowed bay provided a stone-balustraded balcony to the fourth floor. The fifth floor was dominated by two powerful arched dormers embellished with cartouches and elaborately carved brackets.
The Barclays would rear three children in their 78th Street house--George Carey (named after his grandfather who died shortly after Bertha and Reginald's wedding), Bertha Riley, and Josephine.
The family's summer estate was in Lakewood, New Jersey. They were, nevertheless, seen at other fashionable resorts. On September 19, 1914, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. Paterson are entertaining Mr. and Mrs. Reginald G. Barclay and George H. Barclay at Blantyre [in Lenox, Massachusetts]."
Reginald had been a partner with his brother, William, in the soap and perfume making firm of Barclay & Co. which they inherited from their father. William O. Barclay died in 1901 and, per a written agreement, "the family of the brother first dying was to receive 27-1/2 percent of the profits of the concern." Reginald dutifully paid his sister-in-law, Clara S. Barclay, her annual share until he reorganized the company in 1914. He gave himself all of the stock except $500.
With her share of the profits cut off, Clara took Reginald to court in the spring of 1915. She pleaded with the court that her husband had intended the income "for the benefit of her and her children." Reginald, somewhat coldly, asserted, "the agreement with his brother [gave] him the right to quit making these payments, when he saw fit to do so."
It did not turn out well for Barclay. On August 2 the judge ruled that "it is evident" that the reorganization of the firm was "a clumsily devised scheme to enable him to defraud the widow and children of his deceased brother of their property right and to appropriate it to himself." He increased Clara Barclay's annual income to 33-1/2 percent.
With the ugly matter behind them, the family went on with their social lives. The year that George graduated from Harvard Law School, 1919, was Bertha's debutante season. It started with a reception in the 78th Street house on November 29 and culminated with a dinner and ball on December 22.
The New York Times reported, "The dinner was at her residence, 5 East Seventy-eighth Street, for twenty-two young people and the ball, attended by nearly 500 people, was in the ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton and was followed by a seated supper in the large dining room."
Bertha's engagement to Wells Littlefield Riley was announced in August 1924. The wedding took place in the Central Presbyterian Church on Madison Avenue on March 6, 1925. Reginald Barclay's seriously poor health put a cloud over the otherwise joyous day. It is unclear whether he was even able to attend the wedding, and Josephine was her sister's only attendant. The New York Times reported, "The bride was escorted by her brother, George C. Barclay." The reception was held at the home of Bertha's aunt, Mrs. Robert Paterson, rather than in the 78th Street residence.
Less than three months later, on June 2, Reginald Barclay died in the mansion at the age of 65. His funeral was held in the same church where Bertha had so recently been married.
Josephine, who never married, remained in the 78th Street house with her mother, as did George.
At the time of his father's death, George was in serious legal trouble. On May 17, 1925 his automobile struck 36-year old Marie Andrews. Two weeks later, on the day before his father's death, George was charged with homicide.
His trial was held on June 12. The charges against him were discharged "when the evidence was shown to be insufficient," as reported by the Daily News. George quietly married Elizabeth Weed Moore and on September 10 The Sun reported that he and Elizabeth had boarded the ocean liner Ebre, saying simply that they "will go to Peru."
Within the month Bertha Fahys Barclay sold 5 East 78th Street to Stephen and Cornelia Haven Peabody. On November 25, 1925 The New York Times reported that Bertha and Josephine "will be for the Winter at Mayfair House, 610 Park Avenue. On Dec. 21 Mr. and Mrs. George G. Barclay, who have been in South America since their marriage last spring, will arrive at Mayfair House."
Living with Stephen and Cornelia (known as Nina) were their son George, and their divorced daughter Emma Ransom. Another daughter, Cornelia, was married to Thomas White King. The Peabody summer estate, Four Acres, was in Southampton, Long Island.
Tragically, on February 16, 1926, only three months after purchasing 5 East 78th Street, Cornelia Peabody died. Stephen almost immediately retired from his posts as president of the Railway Electric Company and vice president of the American Coal Products Company, and stepped down from his many directorships.
Rather surprisingly, considering the family was in mourning, on August 15 Stephen announced Emma's engagement to Sheldon Abbett from the Southampton home. The New York Sun commented, "Mrs. Ransom, who is well known to the summer colony, is passing the summer with her father at his home on Main street." The newlyweds moved into the East 78th Street house.
The following year the population of the mansion increased by two. Sheldon Abbett, Jr. was born in October 1927, around the same time that Nina Haven King moved in to her grandfather's home. Her mother, Cornelia Peabody King Romilly, had died on September 10.
George married Ruth Maud Bailey on September 23, 1928 and they, too, now lived in the Peabody mansion.
Nina King's marriage to Gilbert Colgate, Jr. on November 25, 1929 caused excitement throughout New York high society. The Daily News said it "united two fine old Manhattan families" and noted the bride "was given in marriage by her grandfather, who bears the distinguished name of Stephen Peabody. She counts among her forebears the historic Rufus King, who was American minister to Great Britain under the administrations of George Washington and John Adams." The article added, "Following the ceremony, the guests went to the Peabody mansion, 5 East 78th st., for a reception."
Less flattering press came on January 26, 1929 when "the dashing George Peabody of Yale, the A. E. F. and the Social Register," as described by the Daily News, was arrested. Florence Matthews, "a demure Brooklyn miss," sued him for $250,000, claiming he promised to marry her.
She told reporters that in October 1925 he had "established a home for her and made allowances," promising marriage. Each time the wedding date was set, she claimed, he made excuses "for dodging the trip to the altar." Finally, when she phoned Four Acres in September 1928 a maid told her George "was honeymooning in New England."
George was irate. He told a reporter from the Daily News, "this is not her first attempt to get money. I'll blow the lid off this whole thing in a few days. She tried this game before on my parents, but they wouldn't fall for it." He threatened, "I'll let the public judge the charges she makes after I reveal her history."
Florence Matthews's suit seems to have fizzled. A year later on January 25 The New York Sun was reporting on less scandalous news. "Mr. and Mrs. George Peabody gave a dinner least evening at their home, 5 East Seventy-eighth street, and later took their guests to a theater."
On January 7, 1945 Stephen Peabody died at George and Ruth's country home in Westport, Connecticut at the age of 88. The 78th Street mansion was converted to sumptuous apartments of three to nine rooms in 1948 by the family of Adele Simpson, a fashion designer.
Among the residents over the next decades was Belgian artist Joseph E. V. Michotte, who signed his artworks Jo Michotte, and his wife, the former Line Jonet. A New York Times review of an exhibition in 1958 said his paintings "presented truth unadorned."
In the early years of the 21st century the Brazilian consul general lived in one of the apartments. The exterior was used as the apartment house of character Jordan Roark in the 2001 film My Sassy Girl.
The family of Adele Simpson, who had died in 1995 at the age of 91, sold the mansion in 2009 for the "staggeringly inexpensive" price, according to the agent, of $18.5 million.
photographs by the author
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