Monday, October 29, 2012

The Lost 1869 Gould Mansion -- 579 Fifth Avenue

By the time of this photo businesses had encroached on the residence and Helen Gould had removed the portico.  photo Library of Congress
A time-honored tradition in New York City was the placement of two lampposts outside the residence of the Mayor upon his election.    “The lamps are placed on the two pillars of the steps and never on the sidewalk,” explained The New York Herald on Sunday, January 10, 1892.   The gas lamps were provided and maintained at the City’s expense.   They remained throughout the Mayor’s lifetime after he left office or afterward if his family desired.  Therefore, there could be numerous pairs of lamps throughout the city before the time of an established mayoral mansion.   At the time of the Herald article there were thirteen such pairs—among them the lamps in front of 592 Fifth Avenue.

George Opdyke started out in the dry goods business, amassing millions of dollars prior to the Civil War.  Always politically active, he contributed a staggering $20,000 to the campaign of Abraham Lincoln.  Elected mayor in 1862, he was living at 79 Fifth Avenue, near 15th Street, when the Draft Riots broke out in 1863.   The mob headed for the Opdyke house with the intention of pillaging and torching it.  The twin mayoral lampposts would make the residence easy to recognize.  Only the intervention of Judge George G. Barnard who mounted the steps and dissuaded the crowd saved the mansion.

Following the war, in 1869, the former mayor built a fine new brownstone residence further up Fifth Avenue at the northeast corner of 47th Street.    The elegant and refined house rose three stories to a steep mansard roof—the latest in architectural fashion recently imported from Paris—that was crested with lacy ironwork and interrupted by deep hooded dormers.  A pillared portico sheltered the doorway and, following tradition, the entrance steps were flanked by two tall mayoral lamps.

Opdyke's mayoral lamps remained after Gould purchased the home -- The New York Herald, January 10, 1892, (copyright expired)

Opdyke moved into the new mansion with his wife and six children—four sons and two daughters.  In 1892 Murat Halstead described it as “a square brownstone house, about double the width of the average house, with an extension in the rear.  It is three stories in height, with a mansard roof, which gives another story.  The main entrance is in the middle of the Fifth Avenue front, under a portico into a deep vestibule with handsomely-carved oaken doors and mosaic floor.  The hall is fifty feet long.  On the left of the hall is a small reception-room, with one window facing Fifth Avenue.  On the other side of the hall are the great drawing-rooms.  The library and the dining-room are in the rear.”

Although a year earlier he had left the dry goods business to establish the banking firm of George Opdyke & Co. with his sons, Opdyke remained a leading force in New York’s political scene.  On March 15, 1874, during the great Financial Panic, for instance, he held a meeting in the house to arrange a mass assembly in the Cooper Institute to “give public expression to pinions on national finances.”  Among the heavy-hitters present were Peter Cooper, Ethan Allen, Isaac Sherman and Elliot C. Cowdin.

The neighborhood by now was the most exclusive in the city and directly across the avenue at 578 lived the industrialist and railroad tycoon, Jay Gould and his family.  Apparently Gould coveted the Opdyke residence, for shortly after the former mayor’s death on June 12, 1880, Gould bought the mansion.

It would take a full year to complete the redecoration of the house before the family move in.  The preeminent decorating and furniture making firm at the time was Herter Brothers.  Although in 1881 they were already busy decorating the new Fifth Avenue mansions of William Henry Vanderbilt and Darius Ogden Mills, they added the Gould house to their list of projects.

Gould’s wife, the former Helen Miller, was reserved and conservative, unlike her husband.  The decorations of the house were a comfortable mix of their two personalities.  Biographer Maury Klein said “The furnishings reflected Helen’s taste for muted elegance leavened by Jay’s fondness for fine paintings, a well-stocked library and conservatory.”

Murat Halstead called it “everywhere a model of comfort, unostentatious elegance, and good taste.  It is filled with the most exquisite tapestries and finest paintings.”  Gould collected masterworks by Diaz, Rousseau, Daubigny, Bonheur, Bougeureau and other artists.  “Attached to the house is a conservatory,” said Halstead, “which is kept constantly filled with the finest plants from the hot-houses at the country house at Irvington.”

That country house was the magnificent Gothic Revival Lyndhurst--the sprawling estate Gould had spent $250,000 for a year before buying 579 Fifth Avenue.   Gould was never one to over-spend, despite his vast fortune, and Lyndhurst would be his most extravagant purchase.  It was where he found refuge from the pressures of the city.

Life in the brownstone mansion was quiet as compared with the glittering entertainments of other Fifth Avenue millionaires.  Halstead noted that Helen Gould “never took park in social pleasures.  Her trouble was a nervous one, and she could not endure excitement.  Thus the house was never given over to festivities to any extent.”  Instead, it was a place of pampered family life for the Goulds and their six children, George, Edwin, Howard, Frank, Anna and Helen.  Among the staff who maintained the comfortable household was Margaret Terry, the housekeeper hired by Helen Gould in 1876.  Margaret would eventually be considered nearly a member of the family.

Despite Gould’s well-earned reputation as a cut-throat businessman, he sought to teach his children compassion and charity.  Every morning after breakfast the “begging letters” were brought into the dining room and piled onto the table.  Wealthy 19th century businessmen could expect a bag of mail every day asking for handouts.

Each member of the family chose as many letters from the pile as desired until none were left.  If someone felt that his letter reflected real need, it was replaced in the center of the table.  The others were burned in the fireplace.

Gould would then send personal detectives to investigate each case.  If a letter proved true, financial aid was given commensurate with the needs of the particular case.  But Gould demanded that his identity as the donor never be disclosed.

While the trend in Fifth Avenue architecture became more and more palatial, the Gould family remained contentedly in their brownstone.  “Sumptuous as it was,” said Halstead, “it did not compare in size or display with that of other men whose fortunes rivaled Mr. Gould’s, or, in fact, with the homes of many whose wealth was not a tenth of his.  All looked at the place with interest, however, when it was pointed out as the retreat of the remarkable man whose public life was so dramatic, and whose home life was so quiet and so peaceful.”

Gould’s disdain for extravagance and show would be reflected when his wife, Helen, died on Sunday, January 13, 1889.  The funeral was held in the parlor at 9:30 Wednesday morning and The New York Times reported “Friends have been requested not to bring flowers and the services will be quite free from any display.”

Among those named in Helen Gould’s will was her beloved housekeeper, Margaret Terry, who “received a large sum of money,” according to the New-York Tribune.

Gould’s eldest daughter, 21-year-old Helen Miller Gould, was now in charge of the house and her younger sister.   The remarkable Helen followed in her father’s financial footsteps and attended the New York University School of Law, graduating in 1895, and earned a reputation as for her business acumen.  She also inherited her father’s love of an unostentatious existence.

Throughout his life Jay Gould had battled a series of lung ailments and in middle age contracted tuberculosis.  In late February, 1892, he became so ill that he was bedridden in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  As his health declined, he issued instructions from his bed for the management of his extensive estate “so as to avert a potential stock market panic following his death,” according to the Ludington Daily News.

Gould lingered on for months.  Towards the end of November his physician Dr. John Munn was constantly present at his bedside.  On the night of December 1, 1892, the hemorrhaging of his lungs worsened and at 9:15 the following morning, Jay Gould died.

On the morning of December 5 Gould’s unpretentious coffin sat in the parlor between two windows looking onto 5th Avenue.  “the shaded rooms were lit by incandescent globes, which threw a rich and generous glow upon the magnificent furniture, the tapestries, the walls clothed in silk and velvet, and blossoming with paintings from great masters, the somber silver mounted casket  buried in a magnificent mass of flowers from which looked forth a strong and peaceful face,” wrote Henry Davenport Northrop.

As quiet and reverent as the parlor was, Fifth Avenue outside was the opposite.  Northrop complained “But what a drama it was which was being enacted on the stage without the house!  No seemliness here, and no decorum!  No solemnity nor hush.  The worst elements of our poor human nature seemed to have concentrated on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-seventh street, and it required an actual show of force to keep the crowd in bounds.”

Crowds of curious onlookers swarm 5th Avenue on the day of Jay Gould's funeral.  The original stoop and portico can be seen.  -- The Life and Achievements of Jay Gould, 1892 (copyright expired)

The offended writer said “Like bees about a sugar barrel the horde of the unwashed buzzed around this palace of the rich man dead.”  Northrop noted one man whom he thought looked like an anarchist.  “He was unwashed, unshaved and as scurvy a looking fellow as you could find in Fifth street or Avenue A.  He scowled upon the big house [and] broke out into a string of shocking language and retreated up the avenue snarling like a dog of evil temper.”

When the arriving carriage carrying John Jacob Astor and his young wife nearly struck him, “He turned and cursed them, too, but he would have cursed them a thousand times more bitterly if he had known that it was the wheels of the Astors which so narrowly missed him,” presumed Northrop.

Of the approximately 2,000 mourners who sought entrance to the Gould house about 150 were admitted.  Among these were the foremost leaders of industry and finance in the nation—both friends and foes of Gould during his lifetime.

from The Life and Achievements of Jay Gould, 1892 (copyright expired)

The following Tuesday evening, the family assembled in the mansion as Judge Dillon read Jay Gould’s Last Will and Testament.   The $72 million estate was divided among the six children.   Helen received the Fifth Avenue house.  She also received a $6,000 per month income (about $135,000 today) with the expectation that she would continue to provide a home for the minor children, Anna and Frank, as well as Howard.

A peculiar restriction in the will was that none of the Gould heirs was permitted to marry without the unanimous approval of the other siblings.

Now one of the richest women in the world, Helen Miller Gould quietly dispensed charity from her Fifth Avenue home, almost as if trying to eradicate her father’s reputation as a cold-hearted and unscrupulous businessman.    She outfitted an office on the second floor and hired three secretaries.  “The room is plainly furnished,” noted a reporter from The New York Times in 1902.  “There is a telephone and two or three typewriters.  The chairs are straight-backed and upholstered in black leather; nothing inviting for lounging purposes.”

A “Miss Altman” was Helen’s chief secretary and “all the correspondence, including literally hundreds of begging letters, go to her.  Miss Gould never sees them, although she insists on daily memoranda of requests for aid from established charities.  She seldom sees callers.”  Margaret Terry, hired decades earlier as housekeeper, now helped Helen Gould dispense charity and acted as her companion.

And while Helen Miller Gould carried on her charitable works, New York society was gradually moving further and further up Fifth Avenue.  By 1906, the house was surrounded by businesses and The New York Times predicted that Helen would soon sell.  “The immediate neighborhood has been steadily invaded by  business within the last five or six years,” the newspaper said on June 22, 1906, and it hinted that “Miss Helen Gould has decided to abandon her residence.”

As it turned out, the strong-willed Helen Gould would stay put in the house in which she had grown up, changing little.  Her only peer was the equally-stubborn Robert Goelet whose magnificent old mansion still stood at 591 5th Avenue, one block to the north.

As 1907 drew to a close the 88-year-old Margaret Terry contracted what the New-York Tribune called “an attack of grip.”  After 31 years of serving the Gould family, she died in the mansion on January 5, 1908 with Helen Gould and the other servants at her bedside.

Now somewhat isolated in a sea of commerce, Helen had an electric burglar alarm installed in the house.  On the evening of April 12, 1908 the alarm bells went off and, without calling her servants, Helen telephoned Police Headquarters.  She then accompanied the three responding officers around the mansion.  It was discovered that a servant had accidentally disconnected the wires.  The New York Times reported that when they had completed the investigation, Helen had supper prepared for the policemen.

The wealthy woman who lived alone in her brownstone time capsule perhaps shocked New Yorkers when it was announced in August 1910 that she had contracted architects Carrere & Hastings to make “extensive alterations” to the mansion.  “The plans call for removing the area balustrade and stoop, building a new entrance of ornamental grilled ironwork with a small balcony overhead, a new window opening on the street side, vault lights over the present area on Fifth Avenue, and replacing the old-fashioned flagstones with granolithic sidewalk as required by law.”  The changes, which included the removal of George Opdyke’s mayoral lampposts after four decades, would cost Helen $13,000.

A wedding gift of an oil landscape is delivered to No. 579 5th Avenue -- Library of Congress

If Helen’s changes to the appearance of her family home were surprising, her announcement in 1912 would be more so.  In accordance with her father’s will, she had received the approval of all her siblings to marry Finley J. Shepard.    Now middle-aged, Time Magazine said of her “she was plain, plump, not much concerned with ‘Society’—she dedicated herself to good works while her brothers and sister went out in the world.”

Real estate speculators were delighted.  The New York Tribune said “Miss Gould might not really need a New York house, and therefore might be induced to let business get possession of the property.”  Miss Gould had other thoughts, however.

The 44-year old heiress, "plain" and "plump," shocked the world with her marriage -- Library of Congress

A representative told reporters “I am sure Miss Gould will continue to occupy her Fifth avenue house after the wedding.”  The New-York Tribune concluded “It is now thought that Miss Gould consequently will be about the last person to desert the central Fifth avenue section for a home in the northerly regions of the city.”  That was nearly accurate, for Robert Goelet, like Helen Gould, was still contently ensconced in his mansion two blocks away.

Inside Helen’s mansion things remained as they always had been.  Her father’s artwork hung on the walls and the family furniture sat where it had for decades.  But in 1914 she allowed one more change.  She had an Aeolian organ installed in the house.  

The new organ would be the last alteration to the venerable Gould mansion.  On December 21, 1938, Helen Gould Shepard died of an apoplectic stroke at her summer home in Roxbury, New York.  Upon her death The New York Times called her “the best loved woman in the country.”   In her lifetime she had given away nearly half of her extensive fortune.

Helen Gould Shepard's beloved home, by now an anachronism in stone, would not survive long after this photograph -

The final gasp of breath for the two last private mansions would quickly follow.  On May 2, 1941, Robert Walton Goelet died in his brownstone mansion and a year later Finley J. Shepard died after a long illness.  The house at 579 Fifth Avenue, long coveted by commercial developers, now sat dark and lifeless with a fortune of artwork, silver and antique furniture and tapestries inside.

The Gould mansion was briefly used by Gimbel Brothers Art Auction Department as an annex gallery.  And the first auction to be held here was that of the Gould furnishings.   Among Jay Gould’s collection of Barbizon school paintings were Millet’s Washerwomen, Courbet’s Among the Mountains, and two Daubigny landscapes.   The gallery described the furnishings as representing “the luxurious taste of the period.”

The extensive library, the rugs, silverware, English services of china and glassware, and Helen’s pipe organ were all sold.  A 17th century green jade bowl set with rubies brought $2,100 and a white jade bowl of the same period sold for $1,200.

On December 16, 1952 The New York Times reported that “The Gould mansion at the northeast corner of Forty-seventh Street and the Goelet mansion at the southeast corner of Forty-eighth Street will be razed shortly after the first of the year.  Plans have been filed for the new buildings.”

And so in 1953 the last remnants of Fifth Avenue’s gilded midtown past were erased.

A Mid-Century Modern office building replaced Helen Gould's reserved brownstone mansion.  photo by Alice Lum


  1. I remember reading somewhere that in the first decade or so of the last century, New York City either widened the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue or decided to enforce existing zoning on the projection of structures onto the sidewalk (I can't remember which). This obliged many owners of stoop fronted houses to remove the projecting stoops and, in most cases, to redesign the entrance fronts. I wonder if this was the reason for the 1910 Carrere and Hastings alterations?

    1. The 5th Avenue widening was done in 1908 ... so Helen's removal of the stoop was a couple years later. It is possible it all was related, however.

  2. I remember seeing on TV about 1953 a news film showing the demolition by wrecking ball,I wonder if the film still exists?