Friday, May 28, 2010

The House that a Necklace Bought -- The Morton Plant Mansion

At the turn of the last century Fifth Avenue in midtown was known as "Millionaires' Row."  Block after block of mansions, each attempting to outdo the other, lined the avenue from the 30's north to Cornelius Vanderbilt's massive chateau at 57th Street.  In 1902, following the demolition of the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, William K. Vanderbilt offered the corner lot at 52nd Street and 5th Avenue for sale. 

Morton F. Plant, the son of railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant, purchased the land, agreeing to Vanderbilt's stipulation that it could not be used for commercial purposes for 25 years.

Plant commissioned English-born architect Robert W. Gibson to design his residence.  Construction would take three years to complete; but the results were dazzling.  Gibson produced a marble and granite Italian Renaissance mansion; one of the most tasteful and elegant on the avenue.

photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

With its entrance on 52nd Street, Plant's house turned its shoulder to the many Vanderbilt family houses that clustered around it.  Over the doorway a stone balcony projected under a classic pediment.  A substantial stone balustrade surmounted the cornice, under which an ornate frieze was pierced by four-paned windows.  The Plants established themselves as major players in the Fifth Avenue neighborhood.

In the meantime, things were changing downtown.  The brownstone mansions of John Jacob and William Astor at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street had been replaced by the combined Waldorf and Astoria hotels.  Commerce was creeping up the avenue.  By the time Morton and Nellie Plant moved into their new home, wealthy residents in the 30's were already beginning to abandon their homes and flee northward.

Morton was a yachtsman and owner of baseball teams in his spare time.  He and his wife hosted elegant dinner parties and social events in the mansion until 1913.  On August 8 of that year Nellie Plant, Morton's wife of 26 years, died.  Shortly thereafter the 61-year old Plant met the 31-year old Mae Caldwell Manwaring -- wife of Selden B. Manwaring.

In May of 1914, not ten months after the death of his wife, Plant announced his engagement to Mae who had obtained a divorce the previous month.  A month later the couple was married at Plant's immense Groton, Connecticut estate.  Mae was, reportedly, pleased with her wedding gift of $8 million.

By 1916, with the country having entered World War I, Morton and Mae (she preferred to be called Maisie) became concerned about the stores and hotels that were inching closer and closer.  Despite the restrictions in his contract with Vanderbilt, Plant began construction on a Italian Renaissance palace at Fifth Avenue and 86th Street, designed by Guy Lowell. 

In the meantime Maisie Plant was window shopping.  Pierre Cartier had opened a New York branch of his Paris jewelry store, and there she fell in love with a double-stranded Oriental pearl necklace with a $1 million price tag (equal to about $16 million today).

Before the advent of cultured pearls, flawless pearls were more valuable than diamonds.  In Edwardian society a woman's social status was often measured by the length of her pearl ropes.  Plant called on the jeweler and, in agreement with Vanderbilt, sold his Italian palazzo to Cartier for $100 and the necklace.

The New York Times reported "Morton F. Plant, who is building his new city residence on upper Fifth Avenue...has sold his former home.  It is one of the finest and newest of the expensive residences in what was, up to a few years ago, the choice Fifth Avenue residential locality, being opposite the Vanderbilt twin houses...Mr. Plant purchased his uptown plot at Eighty-sixth Street last year, as he felt that the business invasion had made too great an inroad in the old district below Fifth-ninth Street..."

Cartier contracted William Welles Bosworth to convert the mansion as his new store.  Bosworth's sympathetic transformation created a Fifth Avenue entrance, and show windows were seamlessly integrated into the facade.  Much of the interior detailing and paneling, including the entire second floor music room with its magnificent coffered ceiling were preserved.
Boswell's alterations can be seen in this Wurtz Bros. photograph.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

A year later, Morton Plant died.  In 1919 Maisie married Colonel William Hayward.  She married again in 1954, this time to the wealthy John E. Rovensky.  Mae Caldwell Manwaring Plant Hayward Rovensky died in 1956 in the 86th Street mansion Morton Plant had built for her.  Her double strand of Cartier pearls, once valued at over $1 million, was auctioned off for $150,000.

In 1970 the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Plant Mansion a landmark.


  1. I would like to exchange links with your site
    Is this possible?

  2. I would like to post this on my fan page on FB - when i link it - i get nada? Great story - would love to share - am doing a Pearl story ...thanks

  3. Thanks for the compliment. I'm surprised you're having problems.

    When I link my postings to Facebook, I open Facebook in another window, then hit the SHARE thing at the top of the blog post. Facebook comes up and automatically sends it over. Try that. I think that would work.

    Thanks again.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. I just stubbled upon your post while searching for a few dates associated with the Plant family. I am publishing a series of novels called "The Spirits of the Belleview Biltmore", the setting of which is the Belleview Biltmore in Belleair, FL, built by Henry Plant in 1896. Morton Plant added one wing to the Belleview Hotel in 1901 and when he died, John Bowman bought it, built another wing, and added the 'Biltmore' name. The hotel was closed 2 years ago for a planned total renovation, but then the real estate market tanked and the property was sold in lieu of foreclosure. Now those of us who love the hotel and the Plant stories are trying to save it from demolition. I'm hoping the first novel in my series, which will be released within the next 1-2 months, will help find a buyer, willing to continue the renovation. Anyway, I really enjoyed the article & was glad to find someone else who is interested in these old buildings. Thanks for posting!

    1. It is so sad that last night's meeting of Dec. 9, 2014, it was decided by the officials of the Town of Belleair, FL and they have made their final decision on what will happen to the once beautiful Belleview Biltmore, in spite of Peabody Hotel notifying them that they were willing to buy her and "restore her to her once grandeur". The decision was made that 95% of the historic hotel will be torn down and replaced with MORE condos! Greedy Miami developers have won again!!!

  6. CPH Gilbert did not design this house. It was designed by English architect Robert Gibson. The neighboring Holbrook house, at 2-4 E.52nd St., now conjoined with the Plant house, is the building designed by Gilbert. Several guidebooks, not clearly written, have compounded this misunderstanding with unclear language.

  7. Absolutely correct. Thanks for catching that...correction made!

  8. I have linked your post to one I have written about a portrait Mrs Rovensky owned:

    Clearly the pearl necklace wasn't a wise investment, but I don't suppose it really mattered in the long run. You may be interested in the interior shots of her last house in NYC - 1051 Fifth Avenue. I refer to it as a house, because I presume it was.

  9. As a previous employee of Morton Plant hospital in Clearwater, Florida I was intrigued by a framed poster located in one of the stair wells with a picture of his 31 year old wife. It stated Plant met her while she married and had a child. It stated Plant paid her husband an amount in the millions for him and the child to leave the marriage. He then married her.