Thursday, March 4, 2010

The A. T. Stewart Mansion

Alexander Turney Stewart arrived to New York in 1823 from Lisburn, Ireland.  Shortly thereafter he returned to Ireland, purchased lace and linens with inherited money and returned to New York to establish a store.  By 1848 he had the largest emporium in the world, branches world-wide, and before long was among the richest men in New York after the Vanderbilts and Astors.

Stewart set off to impress with his 5th Avenue mansion, completed around 1870 at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street (a block north of the current Empire State Building), across the street from the imposing brownstone residence of the equally imposing Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.  It took trepidation to attempt to out-do Mrs. Astor, but Stewart's palace managed to do just that.

While the rest of New York society was buildling in brownstone, Stewart's residence was faced in white marble.  A French Second Empire confection, it had three upper floors of storage that included huge tanks that supplied running fresh water.  Inside, the place was an explosion of bric-a-brac, statuary, furniture and art. 

Stewart was earning an estimated $1 million a year during the Civil War years and no expenses were spared in outfitting his Fifth Avenue showplace.  It was hailed as a fireproof building with all modern conveniences.

Six years after the house was completed, in 1876, Stewart died, leaving his widow $40 million and setting off a seige of litigation over the fortune that lasted for years with previously unknown relatives appearing almost daily.  Adding to Mrs. Stewart's stress, her husband's body was stolen from the graveyard of St Mark's Church in the Bowery three weeks after his burial and held for ransom.

The ransom was paid however the remains that were returned were never verified to be his.

The stress took it's toll and Cornelia Mitchell Stewart lost her mind.  She began dressing in her best finery night after night, moving through the marble halls of her mansion and, according to servants, greeting and chatting with non-existent guests.  Every lamp in the house burned brightly each night as Mrs. Stewart repeated her grand entertainments to socialites who were not there.

She died suddenly in 1886 of pneumonia and by the close of 1901, not three decades after being built, the A. T. Stewart mansion was razed -- the end of one of most bizarre stories in New York social history.

Historic photos above from the NYPL Collection


  1. I love the New York History stuff you're writing. Keep it up!

  2. I Love the History of a City, Buildings, & People thank you, your work is appreciated.

  3. thanks! glad you enjoy the posts!

  4. I recently learned that T.J. Stewart is one of my Ancestors. Thank you for this information, I really enjoyed the visuals also. :)