Monday, December 3, 2012

The Lost Mrs. Osborn Company Bldg -- No. 361 5th Avenue

Only one Fifth Avenue mansion (far right) still survived as a private house when Mrs. Osborn Company remodeled No. 361 -- photo collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Josefa Neilson was beautiful, intelligent and, as The New York Times put it, “well known in New York society.”  The daughter of Wlliam H. Neilson, president of the New York Stock Exchange, she was accustomed to the finer things; but unlike most of the society women of the 1880s and ‘90s, she was headstrong and determined.

In 1893 she married Robert Arthur Osborn, a successful wine merchant and stock broker.   The Times noted that “as his wife she became one of the most popular young matrons in the fashionable set.”  Two children were born and Josefa Neilson Osborn would most likely have gone about her glittering schedule of dinner parties, teas and balls had it not been for the Financial Panic that began in 1893 and lasted through 1897.  Robert Osborn was financially ruined.   The New York Dramatic Mirror on January 29, 1898 tactfully worded the situation “Mrs. Osborn’s husband recently met with reverses.”

Rather than wringing her hands, Josefa Osborn set out to make money.  The Mirror reported that “Having brilliant talents, she set about adding to her income.  Within two weeks after Mr. Osborn’s failure his wife was in possession of excellent revenues as a writer for the Illustrated American, the Herald, and other papers.”  Josefa was widely regarded as one of the most stylishly dressed women in Manhattan society “for the reason that she possesses rare taste and skills in designing,” said the Mirror.

Socialites had routinely sought her advice on fashion and so now she turned her expertise into income by writing fashion columns.   She would be a regular writer for The Delineator, a popular woman’s magazine.   Whether as a result of her columns, or because she aggressively sought out commissions is unclear, but that year she designed her first theatrical costumes.

She later told a reporter from The Theatre, “Clothes were always my passion.  I do not mean clothes merely as clothes, but artistic clothes made to suit the individual wearer.  I used to advise my friends about their gowns.  When a time came…when I found myself obliged to earn money, I began to advise professionally.  I designed the gowns worn by Miss Julie Opp in ‘The Tree of Knowledge.’  That achievement was my start.”

By January 1898 she was on the way.  “She intends to take commissions to design all the costumes for the productions of modern plays, believing that she will be able to effect artistic and ‘swell’ results in studying individual and ensemble requirements,” said The New York Dramatic Mirror.  “If Mrs. Osborn succeeds in supplanting the crude, inharmonious and flashy costumes now common on the stage of certain of our theatres whose managers show their blissful ignorance of good form, she will be doing good missionary work.”

But she had other ideas, too.  The wealthiest women of Fifth Avenue had always come to Josefa Neilson Osborn for fashion advice.  She saw no reason why she should not design for them as well.  “I think there is a field for this new work,” she told The Mirror, “and I mean to give it a thorough trial.  I shall not confine my designing to the stage, as many of my friends in private life are desirous to have my inventions, too.”

The New York Times reported that “she startled her fashionable friends by announcing that she intended launching forth into the dressmaking business for herself.”  Whether other society ladies felt that going into business was simply not something a refined woman should do, Josefa Neilson Osborn needed money and it was no longer coming from her husband.

The gargantuan Waldorf-Astoria Hotel had by now had replaced the brownstone mansions of the Astor Family on the west side of Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets.   The surrounding residences were quickly being converted to businesses as Manhattan’s millionaires fled northward away from encroaching commerce.  Josefa Osborn took a full partner, Julia Ward, and remodeled a mansion directly across from the exclusive hotel for her high-end dressmaking business, “Mrs. Osborn Company."   Expanses of multi-paned windows, topped by broad fanlights, replaced the brownstone fa├žade at the first and second stories.  Painted white, they gave a light and airy feel to the formerly dour residence.   The renovation smacked of the newly-popular “Colonial” trend.

Mrs. Osborn as a “modiste” was an instant success.  She not only dressed the foremost actresses of the day, like Ethel Barrymore, but socialites with names like Astor and Belmont.  The New York Times would later say “She immediately became successful, and her gowns were regarded as the most beautiful creations made in this country.” 

She continued her writing, as well, and The Pittsburgh Press said she “is the greatest individual fashion authority in this country.” 

The lucrative business was based on the high-quality workmanship and the stunning designs.  Josefa Osborn did not rely on Paris couture for her inspiration; she was a true designer.  It was Osborn who first created the shirtwaist—the single piece of apparel that best defined an entire generation of turn-of-the-century women.   Mrs. Osborn Company’s success is reflected in the salary it paid to John E. Sullivan, a fitter and tailor hired on November 24, 1902 for $65 a week; over $1,000 by today’s standards.

The above Mrs. Osborn Company gown, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was possibly worn by Caroline Astor --
That was the same year that Josefa Osborn got another idea, saying she needed “some recreation.”  She would open a theatre aimed at a wealthy audience (although she denied to the press that was her scheme).  “Rumors have it circulated that Mrs. Osborn intends her playhouse for the fashionable set only,” reported Theatre Magazine in October 1902, “These rumors Mrs. Osborn denies.”

Josefa Neilson Osborn works in her office at Mrs. Osborn's Theatre -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
“I am going to attempt to provide light and agreeable entertainment for the better class of theatergoers,” she said.  “The prices, except for subscribers’ nights, will be the same as at other first-rate playhouses.  The curtain will rise at nine o’clock—not because nine is a more fashionable hour than eight, but because few New Yorkers can get to the theatre in comfort before that time.”

The magazine anticipated trouble.  “It is a unique enterprise; consequently it will be called upon to bear the full blunt of criticism that originality invariably provokes.”  The magazine was right.

With financial backing from Norma L. Munro, daughter of wealthy publisher George Munro, she leased the old Berkeley Lyceum and renamed it Mrs. Osborn’s Playhouse.    The auditorium and lobby were completed renovated, including enlarging the stage, installing a new “electric light plant,” additional seating and boxes.

Among the cast of the opening play, a musical comedy by Rupert Hughes called “Tommy-rot,” was Evelyn Nesbit.  The married actress would achieve immortality through her affair with architect Stanford White that ended with his murder in Madison Square Garden.  Nesbit later remembered that “The rehearsals turned out to be little more than exaggerated tea parties, with Miss Munro and her friends sitting about eating marrons glaces and sipping highballs while the company tried to get things going smoothly.”

Perhaps Josefa should have dropped in on the rehearsals.   The play opened in October and the critics were quick to publish scathing reviews.  Munsey’s Magazine said “Mrs. Robert Osborn, dressmaker, has discovered that it takes more than ushers bearing silver salvers, together with a charge of two dollars and a half for seats, to make a playhouse the haunt of the fashionables.”  The critic charged “There were germs of a good idea in it, but from start to finish there was constant effort to drag the thing down to a lower level—supposed to be caviar to the society set.”

The cast of "Tommy-Rot."  Blanche Ring was the star and her rendition of the new song "Avenue A" was acclaimed; the only praise given to the new endeavor -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Life magazine was crueler.  “Mrs. Robert Osborn is a charming, modish and shrewd lady whose business ventures, which have made her a public character, rest upon her knowledge of that alleged smart set which Marse Henry Watterson has so vigorously described…Mrs. Osborn’s experiment is important only as showing that she and her experienced advisers consider the smart set a pretty brainless lot.  Every one else has known it for some time.”

Mrs. Osborn’s Theatre did not last long.  Philharmonic magazine smugly reported “Mrs. Osborn paid big salaries and a stiff rent.  Her expenses are said to have been over $3,000 a week…Miss Munroe could afford one experiment of this sort, for she has enough money for that, but one must be many times a millionaire, and that Miss Munroe is not one to see $3,000 a week slipping out of one’s hands for many weeks at a time.”

Despite the failure of the theater, Josefa Osborn was doing just fine.  She lived in a refined mansion on Rutherford Place and maintained a summer estate in Bellport Village, Long Island with a  guest cottage, “The Flower Box,” larger than most homes.  By 1904 she apparently had decided there was no need for a husband and on October 18 a New York Times headline read “Mrs. Osborn Wants Divorce.”

Josefa’s friendship with Norma Munro soured to the point that in February 1906 there were back-and-forth lawsuits.  Munro had invested about $15,000 into the playhouse; although Josefa “stepped in and gave $10,000 to settle the debts out of her own pocket and the goodness of her heart,” said The Sun. 

Munro sent a deputy sheriff to the Osborn home.  He seized jewelry which she claimed was her property.  Josefa sued, saying the articles were gifts and that Munro owed her $10,000 in apparel.  Things got uglier when The Sun intimated that it was all a matter of lesbian jealousy.

The newspaper said “Miss Munro became very friendly with Mrs. Leslie Carter and correspondingly cool to Mrs. Osborn…This fall Miss Munro appeared daily in Fifth avenue in the black and yellow motor of Mrs. Leslie Carter.  The actress occupied the apartment of Miss Munro until her road tour began, Miss Munro remaining at her country place.  When Mrs. Carter started on her travels she was accompanied by Miss Munro, who went with her from city to city…It seems that the great friendship of Miss Munro and Mrs. Osborn could not stand this strain.”

While the turmoil was going on the entire block where Mrs. Osborn Company’s shop sat was razed for the new white marble retail palace of B. Altman & Co.  Mrs. Osborn Company relocated to Nos. 24-26 East 46th Street where the familiar multi-paned windows and fan lights were recreated on a smaller scale.

In the meantime, Mrs. Osborn Company continued to design for and clothe New York’s wealthiest women.   On March 31, 1908 The Evening World published a list of the gowns and accessories Mrs. Howard Gould purchased from the shop in a period of nine months.   Her husband was annoyed at the bill, totaling $20,750, since the couple was living apart at the time.

Josefa, the girl who had grown up in a dizzying circle of dances and dinners now “rarely participated in fashionable functions,” said The New York Times.   Still well-known in society, she preferred to use her connections to make  money rather than to indulge in parties and fetes. 

Later that year, in October, Josefa was busy at work, “directing her many seamstresses and tailors who were completing the many gowns and wraps ordered for Horse Show week,” said The New York Times.  “There she was taken suddenly ill, and, upon being removed to her home, Drs. Nagle and Lillienthal decided that an operation for appendicitis was necessary.”

The operation seemed successful and the doctors assumed she would be fully recovered within a matter of weeks.  When that did not happen, she was operated upon again.  “Mrs. Osborn sank steadily from this operation until the end,” reported The Times.

Josefa Neilson Osborn died in her house at No. 2 Rutherford Place on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 11, 1908.   With her passing New York lost a remarkable woman—one who was unafraid to turn her back on accepted female proprieties in order to survive.  

On the block where Mrs. Osborn Company's converted brownstone stood the magnificent white marble B. Altman department store rose. (photo by the author)


  1. As a born and bred New Yorker, I am rarely stumped by local geography- but you got me on this one: Rutherford Place. A google search identified where it is. I think a visit might be in order. Have you come across any photos of Mrs. Osborn's house there? I assume that it is long gone

    1. Rutherford Place is just north of Stuyvesant Square Park. And the house is still there, although altered.

  2. Fascintaing story and remarkable for its time.

  3. Definitely a fascinating story. Absolutely love it!

  4. Thanks for the wonderful story. One of the characters in my new novel is a seamstress, and your article provides helpful research.

  5. P.S. I lived at Stuyvesant Town for many years and my favorite job of all was working as a "Saturday Extra" at B. Altman & Company during my high school and college years in the late 50s and early 60s.

  6. Such a lovely gown! Interesting story, thanks for sharing.

  7. Mrs. Osborn was grandmother to my stepfather, Osborn Elliott, editor-in-chief of Newsweek magazine during its glory years and later dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. Thanks for a fascinating article.

  8. I found your fascinating article when researching an actress ancestor Madlyn Summers whose biography mentions her'being engaged by Mrs. Robert Osborn to appear as one of the six little dancing girls in Tommy Rot which had quite a successful run at Mrs. Osborn's playhouse. I was so pleased to see the photo of the cast which you included. Janet Summers, UK.