The two houses were masterfully disguised as one. Magazine of American History, January 1889 (copyright expired)
Before leaving Holland, Kiliean van Rensselaer was a wealthy pearl and diamond merchant in Amsterdam, and a founder and director of the Dutch West India Company. His estate near today's Albany was named Crailo, a reference to his estate in Hulzen, Holland. Van Rensselaer died in 1643, and his descendants would be among the wealthiest and most powerful figures in American history.
Perhaps not so powerful, but certainly wealthy, was Maunsell Van Rensselaer. Born in Albany, New York on April 15, 1819, he was the son of Judge John S. Van Rensselaer. He graduated from Union College in 1838, and from the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in 1841, becoming a deacon in the prestigious St. Paul's Chapel. Over the succeeding years he would hold the positions of president of De Veaux College, New York, president of Hobart College in Geneva, New York, and, in 1886, the chaplain of the House of the Holy Comforter. Van Rensselaer and his wife, the former Sarah Ann Taylor, had four children: Caroline Matilda, Maunsell Jr., James Taylor, and Bernard Sanders.
Rev. Maunsell van Rensselaer, from the collection of De Veaux College
In the second half of the 19th century, the district of northern Manhattan which would become known as Sugar Hill was expected by many to be the city's next exclusive residential neighborhood. Both freestanding residences and rowhouses rose throughout the 1880's which would house well-to-do families. Maunsell Van Rensselaer had inherited a large swatch of land, originally acquired by his famous great-grandfather, John Watkins. In his 1888 Annals of the Van Rensselaers, Maunsell recounted that Watkins:
...bought land on Harlem Heights, overlooking the Hudson and Harlem river, where he established his family in a dwelling which stood on the Kingsbridge road at what is now the corner of Avenue St. Nicholas and 152d street, which was destroyed by fire only a few years ago. This was the ground on which was fought September 16, 1776, the battle of Harlem Heights, in which Washington was successful.
Were it not for the fire that destroyed it, Van Rensselaer may very well have moved his family into his ancestral country home. In 1885 he began construction of a 100-foot-wide "double-residence" at 22 and 24 St. Nicholas Place, a block from the former Watkins house site. Completed the following year, the exuberant Queen Anne style structure exploded in turrets, gables, and balconies. Understated porches on either side disguised the fact that this was not a single mansion, but two. The expansive rear yards extended to Edgecombe Avenue. Rev. Van Rensselaer, Sarah and their unmarried children, Caroline and James, moved into 24 St. Nicholas Place (Bernard Sanders Van Rensselaer had died in 1870), while Maunsell Jr. and his wife, the former Isabella Mason, took the southern house.
The northern house, seen from his angle, was home to Rev. Van Rensselaer and his family. (original source unknown)
The younger Maunsell Van Rensselaer was president of the Munich Co., and a member of the Volunteer Seventh Regiment. (The Seventh Regiment was known popularly as "The Silk Stocking Regiment" or "The Dandy Seventh" because it was the favorite of the sons of the upper class.) The year after he moved into his new home, on March 31, 1887, the Albany Express reported that he had been promoted to the rank of captain.
It may have been the Rev. Dr. Maunsell Van Rensselaer's failing health the prompted the families to dispose of the St. Nicholas Place houses. They were auctioned on April 4, 1899 and Rev. Van Rensselaer and Sarah moved to Lakewood, New Jersey. It was there that Van Rensselaer died on February 17, 1900 at the age of 80.
The St. Nicholas Place property had been purchased by Mabel Suydam, who quickly resold it to Mary F. Lawrie in December 1900. She operated The Audubon School from the houses, described in an advertisement as a "Boarding and Day School for Girls."
The venture does not seem to have gone well, however. On January 6, 1903 the New-York Tribune reported that "Nos. 22 and 24 St. Nicholas Place, two dwelling houses," had been sold, adding, "The buyer is a realty company." Despite the still-upscale neighborhood, the double structure languished. They were sitting vacant when Anna G. Mullen purchased them on July 1, 1904. She quickly resold them to James Murray and Robert Hill. Having only stood twenty years, the partners demolished the Van Rensselaer houses and hired architect Joseph C. Cocker to design two identical neo-Classical apartment buildings on the site, which survive.