Monday, October 24, 2011

The Lost 1859 Leonard Jerome Mansion -- Madison Avenue at 26th Street

photo Library of Congress
The feisty and flamboyant Leonard Walter Jerome was born on a farm near Syracuse, New York in 1817; a drastically different environment from the one he would later become accustomed to. After practicing law in Rochester for a period, he moved to New York City where he speculated in stocks.

Jerome earned the title “The King of Wall Street” after making and losing fortunes in the market. He increased his fortune by investing in several railroad companies and newspapers and by the age of 40 was among the wealthiest men in New York.

In 1859 Madison Square Park was lined with elegant mansions of the well-to-do. Jerome commissioned the British-born architect Thomas R. Jackson to design the largest and most opulent residence in the city. Situated at the corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street, it would be like nothing New York society had ever seen.

The Paris Exposition opened seven years earlier, sparking a craze for the French Second Empire style of architecture. Jackson drew on the new style, putting the Jerome mansion on the cutting edge of architectural fashion. While the millionaires of Fifth Avenue were building staid brownstone residences, the Jerome mansion erupted with flair.

Six stories tall and costing $200,000, it featured a high slate-shingled mansard roof above two stories of brick and contrasting stone. The first and second floors were composed of rusticated limestone. A stone portico supported by four columns formed a balcony with a carved stone balustrade at the second floor. Two elegant balconies on the Madison Avenue side extended the width of the faƧade.

The stables, separated from the house by a small lot, were built to match the mansion, including stained glass windows—extremely ritzy accommodations for Jerome’s horses. In a somewhat unusual arrangement, the ballroom was originally installed in the second floor of the stables. Late in 1866 or early 1867 Jerome had a private theater built in the space between the mansion and stables.

Jerome and his wife Clara entertained lavishly in the house. The breakfast room could accommodate 70 guests and the white-and-gold ballroom boasted two fountains—one spouting champagne and the other cologne. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper noted “The stairways are of oak…The balustrades are massive in proportions, and are capped with a handrail of black walnut.”

Leonard and Clara had three daughters, Jennie, Clarita and Leonie. All three would later marry British suitors; but it was Jennie who would become Lady Randolph Churchill, the mother of Winston Churchill.

In 1867 the family relocated to Brooklyn and Jerome leased the mansion to The Union League Club for $18,000 per year. The New York Times reported on April 1, 1868 of the renovations. “Important alterations have been made to adapt this building to its present purposes,” it said. Although the article stressed that the exterior was unchanged, “within, no expense has been spared in furniture and appropriate ornamentation.”

The first floor was dedicated to reception areas, a reading room, art gallery, billiard room, a bar and “the ten-pin alleys.” The second floor had a lecture and meeting room and private dining rooms. The main parlor was on the third floor with paintings of important Americans and Cropsey’s painting of “The Field of Gettysburg.” Here too was the library and trophy room.

Upstairs were sleeping rooms, “elegantly furnished, intended for the occasional accommodation of members and for the purposes of hospitality.”

The Club spent $50,000 in renovating the mansion.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper commented on the opening festivities on May 9, 1868. “The entire building, including the theatre, was thrown open to the guests, a band of music was in attendance, and every step was taken that would add success to the occasion. The ladies, as usual, lent a very attractive air to the reception, and exhibited the most costly and superb toilets.”

The Club commissioned architect J. Morgan Slade in 1875 to remove the mansard roof and add a seventh floor. The Department of Buildings approved the plans, which called for a flat tin roof with galvanized iron cornices and gutters; however the changes were never implemented.

When the Union League Club moved out, the house was leased to the University Club in 1883 which began its own alterations. The theater was renovated into the “New Dining Room” by Charles C. Haight and in 1889 McKim, Mead & White did some interior renovations.

On the floor by each table in the Cafe of the Manhattan Club was a brass spittoon in 1901.  The room was highly decorated for a patriotic event.  -- photo Library of Congress
In 1899 the University Club moved into its new Italian palazzo on Fifth Avenue. The Manhattan Club, which had been using the A. T. Stewart mansion on Fifth Avenue as its clubhouse, took over the Jerome Mansion. Over the decades political fortunes were made and lost in the Squirrel Room on the sixth floor. Among the politicians who gathered here were Grover Cleveland, Franklin D. Roosevelt, James Walker, Robert F. Wagner, Sr. and Alfred E. Smith. It was in the bar of the Manhattan Club that the cocktail bearing the club’s name was invented.

The Madison Avenue corner in 1924, showing the elaborate cast iron fencing and the balconies -- photo NYPL Collection
On September 21, 1965, a year after the Club purchased the mansion from the Jerome estate, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated it a landmark, despite the Club’s opposition. The designation noted that, aside from being a “distinguished and attractive example” of its architectural style, “the Jerome Mansion is a priceless link for New York City to one of the great men of this century and that the building should be preserved so that New Yorkers will always have this physical reminder of Winston Churchill.”

The following year, with membership declining and the organization running at a $10-20,000 deficit, the Manhattan Club put the building on the market for $600,000.  There were no buyers for the mansion and the Manhattan Club filed suit, maintaining it was deprived of the right to dispose of its property. The Club’s definition of “dispose of,” in this case, was “demolish.”

In 1967 demolition had started.  The cast iron fencing is partially gone as are the balconies and scaffolding is being erected.  -- Library of Congress
Two years after the Landmarks Preservation Commission termed the Jerome Mansion “priceless” it was bulldozed to the ground.  In its place a glass and steel 42-floor skyscraper, the New York Merchandise Mart, was completed in 1974.


  1. This is an incredible article! I am doing research on Leonard Jerome's life in New York City, and was dismayed to see how his fabulous mansion home has been lost to history. I think it would have made a wonderful museum--perhaps dedicated to Leonard's famous grandson, Winston Churchill?

  2. So happy to read this article, Leonard's sister, Sarah, was my 3rd grgrandmother. She married Pulaski Scoville and only lived to about 27 yrs. old and is buried on the Bortgelt farm, Mason co,IL beside one of her daughters, Anna Eliza Scoville Paul.I certainly wish that fabulous architecture could have been saved for posterity. Isaac Jerome and Aurora Murray, the parents of 11 children were my 4th grgrandparents. I was so surprised to learn that Leonard was known as the "King of Wall Street"!

    1. Mary Lou, do you have information about Leonard's brothers children? Particularly Leonard's nieces? Thank you, Debbie

  3. Saddened to read the Leonard Mansion was destroyed.Leonard Jeromes daughter Clara is my great grandmotheršŸ’•