Monday, April 11, 2011

The Lost 1898 Del Drago Mansion -- 807 Fifth Avenue

Josephine Schmid's French chateau on Fifth Avenue in 1911 -- photo NYPL Collection

Josephine Schmid was intelligent, resourceful and she liked money. The wife of a beer brewer, she inherited an estate of about $1 million in 1889.  But she intended to have more.

Her husband, August Schmid had come to the United States at the age of twelve from his native Switzerland.  Having learned the fundamentals of the brewery business from his father, August had traveled to Munich to study the manufacture of beer.  Upon his return to New York he was made a foreman in the Lion Brewery of which his father was a partner.

In 1879 August was a full partner.  Ten years later he had amassed a fortune and established his family in a fine residence at 16 East 80th Street, just off Fifth Avenue.  In the summer of 1889 August took rooms at the Hotel Royal while his wife and two daughters were in Europe and, after a three day illness, died there of pneumonia.

Schmid’s will gave Josephine power to manage, sell or dispose of the estate as she felt best; however one third would go to each of the daughters upon their reaching legal age.

In February 1893, the eldest daughter, who was named after her mother, unexpectedly died not long after turning 21 years old.  A large crowd attended her funeral mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral followed by her burial in Greenlawn Cemetery.

Josephine remained actively involved in the brewery while shrewdly buying up valuable parcels of land along upper Fifth Avenue and other developing areas of the city.

On June 26, 1894, her second daughter Pauline reached 21 years of age.  Josephine convinced the young woman to sign a document allowing Josephine to purchase Pauline’s portion of the estate for $342,732.  It further stipulated that the money would remain in the possession of Josephine for 20 years as long as she paid her daughter 5 percent of the funds.

By 1897 Josephine’s fortune was increasing steadily.  In September that year she spent $92,599 on the plot of land at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 62nd Street, in Manhattan’s most fashionable and exclusive residential area.  A year later her new home was rising.  The brewer's wife had set her sights on becoming socially-accepted.

Josephine built a grand Loire Valley chateaux with an commanding conical tower at the corner.  A series of tall, narrow chimneys lined up around the roofline and spiky Gothic tracery capped the windows and crowned the roof.  To the rear was a walled garden.  While the entrance was centered on 62nd Street, Josephine retained the more impressive 807 Fifth Avenue address.

Inside, the mansion was furnished with the trappings expected in the home of a Fifth Avenue socialite.  The most expensive furniture, antiques and artwork, carved mantelpieces and imported woodwork were there – everything to help society forget she was not only nouveau riche, but a brewer’s wife.

In 1901 Josephine quarreled with Simon E. Bernheimer, her partner in the Lion Brewery.  She bought him out for $1.4 million, thereby obtaining 100 percent ownership.  She had increased the size of her husband’s estate to over $5 million and was paying herself an annual salary of $500,000 a year; not including the sizable income from her real estate dealings.

Seven years later the brewery was valued at an estimated $5 million and Josephine owned 35 parcels of valuable real estate as well as other securities; a personal fortune of about $10 million.  On January 10, 1908, Pauline (who was now the wife of stockbroker Hugh A. Murray), revolted.  Realizing she had been duped, she sued her mother for her rightful portion of the family fortune including all the interest that had accrued since she became 21 years old.  She further demanded that the papers she had been convinced to sign be declared void and all real estate purchased with her money be declared hers.

The trial, described by The New York Times as “a bitter fight between mother and daughter,” went on in court for three days before being halted.  Later it was announced that an undisclosed settlement had been reached.

If the court case had not supplied enough gossip for afternoon teas, Josephine went further the following year when she married Don Giovanni del Drago of Rome.  Del Drago came from an old, noble family related to European royalty.  Called Prince del Drago by the press, his family fortunes had been seriously depleted.

Both had something the other needed.  Josephine had around $10 million American dollars and del Drago had a long established title.  It was a perfect match.

The New York Times reported that the Del Drago family felt otherwise and, when they read about the marriage of the 27-year-old Giovanni to the 50-year-old widow of a brewer, they were irate.  The paper quickly ran a retraction correcting the groom's age while adding some unflattering facts.  "Del Drago is 47, not 27," it said, "he is divorced, he has a 20-year old son, and he is not a prince.  He is the fourth son of his father, the Prince, who still lives."

Two days after the wedding the New York Times ran another headline reading “Brewer’s Widow Not a Princess.”   The story detailed the Del Drago family tree and ended with “…there are nearly a dozen lives between Mrs. Schmid’s husband and a title.”  Nonetheless, Josephine insisted on being referred to as the Princess Del Drago from then on.  

To New York society she was still “the brewer’s wife.”

Josephine and Giovanni closed up 807 Fifth Avenue in 1909.  They toured Europe, then settled in Italy for an extended period.  In February 1912 the mansion was purchased by the Knickerbocker Club which was looking to move its clubhouse further uptown from 32nd Street.  The house, which The New York Times called “an artistic structure” and “one of the finest houses in the upper Fifth Avenue residential section,” was demolished exactly two years later–only 16 years after being built.


  1. architecturally, I bet the house was wonderful, but it looks a little creepy in this photo...
    interesting that Josephine seemed to have a head for business but her ego got in the way as well...

  2. I love your blog! I'm working on a funny story about a monkey name Prince Del Drago, who was invited to a posh dinner party at the home of Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish as a joke. Mrs. Fish told everyone the monkey was related to the Del Dragos of Rome, which is how I landed on your site. I'm so glad I discovered your blog -- and I'll let you know when I've posted my story.

    Peggy Gavan, The French Hatching Cat

  3. OK, but a man named Giovanni del Drago was 21 years old in the early 1950's ... and apprenticed to architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Any relation?