Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The 1891 Wylie Mansion -- No. 28 West 40th St.

Above the street level, original brownstone and Roman brick details survive -- photo by Alice Lum
When the gargantuan Egyptian Revival-style Croton Reservoir was completed in 1842, the Murray Hill neighborhood surrounding Fifth Avenue was only sparsely developed.   Eleven years later the magnificent Crystal Palace was erected directly behind the reservoir for New York’s International Exposition.  The two monumental structures now filled the area from Fifth to Sixth Avenue, and from 40th Street to 42nd.

Rapidly the avenue and its side streets filled with the homes of New York’s wealthy; although the West 40th Street block was slow to follow--possibly because of the restricted view of the great granite walls or, perhaps, the noisy throngs of visitors to the exhibition hall.    The Crystal Palace was consumed by fire in 1858 and within the next decade residential development along the block would pick up.

In 1861 The Art Journal noted that “Up to this point the Fifth Avenue—the street of magnificent palatial residences—is completed, scarcely a vacant lot remaining upon its borders.”  And by the mid 1880s the same would be true of the West 40th Street block.

In the meantime Walker Gill Wylie had been a busy man.   Born in Chester, South Carolina in 1849, he had an unusual and wide-reaching thirst for knowledge.  After serving in the Confederate army, he graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1868, having taken every course offered and earning a civil engineering degree.

With the war over, he traveled to New York where he received a medical degree from Bellevue Medical College in 1871.  A gynecologist, he began his practice at Bellevue, taking time off to travel to England and Europe to study modern hospital operations.  Upon his return he helped establish the Bellevue’s Training School for Nurses, the first in the United States, and actively recruited women into the nursing field.

Dr. Wylie wrote the ground-breaking essay “Hospitals, Their Organization and Construction” that would become the standard for management and design of hospitals throughout the country for decades.  In 1876 he received Harvard University’s Boylston prize for that work.

A year later  he was assisting Dr. J. Marion Sims in the field of abdominal surgery; a position that afforded him the income to comfortably marry—a particularly sensitive issue with Wylie--and he wed Henrietta Frances (Fanny) Damon.  In 1882 he was made visiting gynecologist at Bellevue Hospital and he helped organize the New York Polyclinic where he was named professor of gynecology.

The Wylies already had a daughter in 1891 when they chose one of the last available building plots on West 40th between Fifth and Sixth Avenues for their new home.  The doctor commissioned the well-established architect R. H. Robertson to design the house.   Robertson was best known for his own take on the Romanesque Revival style, using chunky blocks of rough-cut stone blended with brick and terra cotta.   But for the Wylie mansion he stepped away from arches and gargoyles and created a distinguished Renaissance-inspired structure with a projecting two-story bay.  The Roman brick and brownstone played off one another to create vertical bands and visual interest.

The diversely-talented Dr. Walker Gill Wylie
The street was populated with respectable residents like the Wylies; next door at No. 26 was Dr. Herman Knapp, the founder of the New York Ophthamalic and Aural Institute.

Before long four more children would arrive, all born in the West 40th Street house:  Julia Agnes, Lucilla Damon, Sims S. Gill, Edward Alexander Gill and Walker Gill, Jr.  Because the sons were all given the name Gill, like their father, newspapers would sometimes later become confused, reporting their surnames as “Gill-Wylie.”

Wylie’s prominent reputation as a doctor and surgeon resulted in his patronage by the wealthiest of families.  When Adeline Townsend, wife of the millionaire R. H. L. Townsend, returned from Mexico to their Madison Avenue mansion, she was seriously ill.  The Sun reported on March 29, 1893 that “Her husband, who went down to bring her home, noticed on the way up that she did not seem to be in her usual good health.”  

Dr. Wylie was called in.  He diagnosed the problem as typhus, the disease that had killed the son of Franklin Pierce in 1843 and caused epidemics in Baltimore, Memphis and Washington DC between 1865 and 1873.  Dr. Wylie had the uncomfortable position of treating one of the hospital’s major contributors while at the same time easing the fears of the community.  

“Dr. Wylie…knew that Mrs. Townsend, although sick with typhus, could remain in her own house if the rules of the Board of Health in such a case were complied with,” reported the newspaper.  Wylie committed her to an isolated room with two trained nurses.  “Felt was stuffed in around the connecting doors and heavy paper was pasted over the door cracks.”

photo NYPL Collection
All the while, as his children were born, socialites were contracting diseases, and hospitals were being planned, Wylie turned his engineering interests to good purposes.  He became interested in the theory of hydroelectric power at a time when turning water into electricity was generally scoffed at.  In 1896, having convinced tobacco mogul James Buchanan Duke that his concept of hydroelectric dams was plausible, he and his brother Robert built the hydroelectric power plant at Portman Shoals in South Carolina.  Using Duke’s financial backing, they established what would become the Duke Power Company.  The power plant was put in operation in May 1895 and the resulting power lit all of Anderson, South Carolina—earning the little town the nickname of the “Electric City.”

Somehow Walker and Fanny Wylie managed to maintain their social responsibilities as well.  On the afternoon of December 17, 1898 they gave a “largely attended tea” to present Julia and Lucilla to society.  The Sun reported that “A dinner of twenty-six covers followed the tea, and a number of young people came in for the dance afterward.”

The doctor’s advice and opinions were not restricted to medicine and engineering.  In 1900 he made his thoughts known about the treatment of girls in schools.  “Dr. W. Gill Gylie thinks that our schoolgirls are overworked, and that at an age when a great part of their strength is needed for healthy physical development they are subjected to a ruinous strain through intense application to studies in competition with boys,” reported the New-York Tribune on December 29.  He said that “the American horse receives on the average better treatment than the young women of America from the time of early girlhood until the age of development has passed.”  He was against, however, changing the curriculum or watering down the course work for the girls.

In the meantime, son Sims Gill Wylie showed little interest in education at all.   Unlike his father, Sims was uninspired by the acquisition of knowledge.  He dropped out of Harvard at the beginning of his junior year and, much to his father’s frustration, was unable to decide on a career.  He became romantically interested in Louise Sayre Woodruff of Staten Island and expressed his intentions of marrying her.

Dr. Wylie refused to consent.  He later told a reporter “I told him that I was opposed to his taking a wife until he was able to support her in comfort.  Mr. Woodruff, naturally, wouldn't give his consent until I did.”  

On September 22, 1905 the Wylies and the Woodruffs agreed to allow their children to announce their engagement.  The wedding would be put off until young Sims, now 23, could obtain a job and an income.   Rather than enter the medical or engineer professions, Sims found employment in the automobile business.

Both families were shocked a few months later when the young couple eloped.  On April 16, 1906 Sims and Louise were married at St. George’s Church with four friends as witnesses.  “Mr. Woodruff said yesterday that the bride’s parents didn't know about the wedding until after they had a son-in-law in the family,” reported a newspaper.

Dr. Wylie, obviously, did not know either and his disapproval was thinly veiled.  “The boy is 24 years old, and is accordingly his own master.  Now that he is married I see no reason why I shouldn't be satisfied if he is.”

One by one the Wylie children left the house on West 40th Street as they married in a more socially-expected manner.   When Edward married Emily Nelson McLean on June 8, 1911 at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, his sister Lucilla was a bridesmaid and his brothers were among the ushers.

By now the millionaires along Fifth Avenue were slowly moving northward; their mansions taken over by commercial concerns or razed for businesses.  The houses along the 40th Street block, too, began disappearing.  In 1901 the Beaux Arts Studio building replaced homes at the corner of Sixth Avenue and the Republican Club rose in place of the house at No. 54.   The Engineers Club was built in 1905, just two doors away at No. 32.  And in 1919 Dr. Knapp's house next door was remodeled as the Knickerbocker Whist Club.

The Wylie Mansion stubbornly holds out while surrounded by office buildings and clubhouses in the 1920s -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

But Dr. Wylie stayed on.   In 1923 the handsome house where he had lived for 35 years and reared his family was an anomaly—the last holdout of a previous era, squashed between two soaring clubhouses.

That year, on March 13, Dr. Walker Gill Wylie died in his house at the age of 74.  His obituary in The New York Times cataloged his long list of achievements without even touching upon his engineering accomplishments.

Although the ground floor has been brutalized beyond recognition, much of the structure is intact -- photo by Alice Lum
Surprisingly, the Robertson-designed house survived as Manhattan’s skyscrapers engulfed the neighborhood.  The ground floor was obliterated for retail space and in 1957 the upper floors were converted to apartments.  Today co-op owners look out their windows at Bryant Park and the Library  building; a view not much different that than Dr. Wylie enjoyed a century ago.

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