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 The brownstone mansions of John Jacob and William Astor at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street had been replaced by the combined Waldorf and Astoria hotels.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.