|photo by Alice Lum|
In the spring of 1890 Charles L. Colby was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in New York City. A close friend of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., he oversaw his family’s extensive railroad interests and sat on the board of directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad among others.
Colby set out that year to erect a new, impressive mansion—a reflection of his status in the social and industrial world. On May 24, 1890 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide announced that “Mrs. Robert L. Stuart has sold to Charles L. Colby the lot… on the south side of 69th Street, 175 feet east of 5th Avenue, for $40,000. Mr. Colby has also purchased from Waldemar Caspary the lot, 30x100, adjoining the above, on private terms. Mr. Colby will erect a 55-foot front house on these lots.”
To design his exceptionally wide residence Colby commissioned the Boston architectural firm of Peabody & Stearns. Completed in 1893 the limestone-clad mansion relied on restrained decoration—quoins, a rusticated parlor floor, subtle carvings around windows and band courses, and a handsome carved balustrade protecting the English basement—to produce a dignified presence.
It is unclear whether the adjoining lot purchased by Colby was to the rear or to the side; however on May 13, 1894 John J. Emery acquired the two lots directly behind the Colby house. Peabody & Stearns designed a nearly mirror image mansion for the real estate tycoon—a social and architectural surprise in the gilded age when competition ran high.
|Photo by Alice Lum|
Sloane promised the couple a new mansion, built on Carnegie land along East 91st Street. But in the meantime they needed an appropriate place to live.
By 1897 the Colbys had moved across the street to No. 3 East 69th Street and the following year the Burdens were in No. 8. Their residency would be a short one, and on November 15, 1901 The New York Times reported that “The residence of J. A. Burden, Jr., 8 East Sixty-ninth Street, a four-story stone-front dwelling , has been sold…The house is one of the finest in the upper Fifth Avenue section.” The agent “would not make public yesterday the price paid for the property or the name of the buyer.”
The beans were soon spilled when The Lafayette Weekly reported that James A. Gayley “purchased for his family residence the handsome house occupied by J. A. Burden, Jr.” Gayley had just been named vice-president of the United States Steel Corporation.
Gayley had started out in the iron industry as a chemical engineer and inventor. When he joined the Carnegie Steel Company as a manager, he became known as one of “Carnegie’s boys.” The fortunes of the members of that inner circle, according to The New York Times, “were multiplied manyfold when that company became the nucleus of the United States Steel Corporation.”
1907 would be a triumphant social year for the Gayley family—or at least it would seem so to New York society. In February the house was the scene of a brilliant cotillion for debutante daughter Agnes Malcolm Gayley. “The Gayley home, 8 East Sixty-ninth Street,” reported The Times, “is so arranged that the ground floor can be thrown practically into one room. This was done last night. After taking off their wraps, the guests descended the main stairway to the large foyer hall, where they were received by Mrs. Gayley and her daughter.” The glittering party was attended by the society’s most elite, including names like Fish, Schuyler, Schiffelin, de Peyster, Fairfax and Roosevelt.
The same year, at noon on November 16, the house was the setting for the marriage of Agnes’s older sister, Mary, to Count Giulio Senni, son of the Count and Countess Vincenzo Senni of Rome. A breakfast and reception followed the ceremony. It would seem that the Gayleys’ lives had reached perfection.
But behind the veil of cotillions and receptions things were not going smoothly in the Gayley household. A year later, in November 1908, things came to a head. Julia Gayley left the mansion on East 69th Street and moved into the Colony Club where she was a member. Soon afterwards she took a suite of rooms in an apartment house at No. 20 Fifth Avenue. At the same time, James Gayley moved into the Hotel Savoy. The cavernous residence that had been the scene, as The Times put it “on many occasions, of brilliant functions,” was now occupied only by servants.
In, perhaps, a move to avoid scandal, James Gayley announced his retirement from the United States Steel Corporation that same month. President W. E. Corey explained that “the sole reason for the resignation was Mr. Gayley’s desire to retire from business.”
In January 19, 1909 The Sun reported that Patrick A. Valentine had purchased the Gayley house. Seven months later, on August 10, Gayley remitted to the press that the separation “is likely to result in divorce proceedings.”
Patrick Valentine had been the long time partner and closest friend of Philip D. Armour, Jr. in the Chicago-based firm Armour & Company. The fabulously wealthy Armour had married Mary Lester on November 7, 1889 and three years later he unexpectedly died. Left alone with two young boys and $8 million, Mary turned to Patrick Valentine—now President of Armour & Co.--for financial advice. A Chicago newspaper soon reported “Their business relations brought them frequently together and eventually she announced their engagement.”
The couple moved to New York, were married in the Hotel Netherland, and after a tour of Europe began life at No. 8 East 69th Street. The house cost Valentine $550,000; nearly $10 million today.
In addition to the city house the Valentines maintained two summer estates, a lodge in Oconomawoc, Wisconsin and a sprawling home in Southampton, Long Island. Only seven years later, however, Patrick contracted Bright’s disease. After an illness of five months, the 55-year old died on August 21, 1916. Although his 13-year old son, Patrick Anderson Valentine, inherited two-thirds of the substantial estate, Mary had her own fortune to fall back on.
Mary Lester Armour Valentine remained in the 69th Street mansion and was notable in social functions and charities. In 1919 her youngest son, Lester, married Leola Stanton. Philip was already living in Chicago, running the family business; so Mary lived on in the cavernous residence alone with her servants.
The house was the scene of the marriage of Mary’s brother, Charles, on Valentine’s Day 1920. The New-York Tribune noted that “A. P. D. De Coster played the organ which is built in the house.”
Mary also hosted a series of talks on the theater here. One, given by Emma Mills in January 1922, was on “Unusual Productions in the Theater” and included the Moscow Bat Theater and the Theater Guild production, “He the One Who Gets Slapped.”
The indomitable Mary Armour Valentine lived on until the age of 95, dying in 1965. Her home for decades was purchased by the Swedish Government in 1954. The New York Times announced plans on June 5 to alter the house “for a Swedish cultural center.” A year later Swedish Ambassador to the United States, Erik Boheman officially opened “The Swedish Building.”
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