|photo by Alice Lum
It took spunk to stand up to William Backhouse Astor and even more nerve to defy his wife, the indomitable Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. But their eldest daughter, Emily, would prove to have both.
Emily became enamored with the wealthy James J. Van Alen and the couple openly courted. Her father was vehemently against it. Reportedly he exclaimed “Damned if I want my family mixed in with the Van Alens.”
With a resolve unlikely in a wealthy 23-year old girl of the period, Emily Astor took things into her own hands and married Van Alen in 1876. Quite expectedly, the relations between the two families were strained.
The only son of General James H. Van Alen, Emily’s new husband loved England as much, or more, than his native land. He leased a 15th century manor house, Rushton Hall, in England and the couple spent their time there as well as in New York and Newport. But their lives together came to a tragic end in 1881 when Emily, just 28 years old, died in the birth of their third child.
James Van Alen turned the rearing and education of his children to tutors and relatives in England. In 1883 he was taken by an Elizabethan manor house where he briefly stayed, Wakehurst Place in Sussex, and based his new Newport cottage on it. Construction began on the Newport version of Wakehurst in 1894. It would not be the only time that Van Alen would copy an English mansion on American soil.
The same year that construction began on Wakehurst, Van Alen's brother-in-law John Jacob Astor was planning an enormous private stable at the corner of 65th Street and Madison Avenue. The carriage house was to accomodate the monumental double mansion he was building for his mother and himself on Fifth Avenue at 65th Street. Among the wealthy residents of the area who were displeased was Miss E. T. Chisholm who lived at No. 15 East 65th Street. She ran Miss Chisholm’s School for exceptionally wealthy girls.
Miss Chisholm signed her name to a letter written during an “indignation meeting” in which area millionaires condemned Astor’s “great discourtesy” and accused him of “offending the sentiments of the community and injuring the neighbors and their property.”
By the early years of the 20th century Van Alen’s children were grown and James Van Alen made a reputation for himself as a womanizer. Even the Omaha Bee printed stories of his philandering. On October 1, 1911 it wrote “There have been many widows in Mr. Van Alen’s life. Of all kinds, there have been a baker’s dozen. All have been pretty.
“Mr. Van Alen, son-in-law of the late Mrs. Astor and oldest brother-in-law of Colonel Jack Astor, is a most desirable parti. He has houses and lands, stocks and bonds. He owns a gray stone mansion in Newport, a palace in New York and a castle in England. He is so rich—he can wear a monocle and an old Panama hat! He keeps a flock of sheep to crop his Newport lawns, and he could pave his driveway with diamonds if he wanted to.
“The widows who have interested him have known all this. It looked good to them.”
Embarrassment for the Astors because of the Van Alen connection did not come solely from James. On September 24, 1913 daughter May married Griswold A. Thompson, a stock and bond broker and vice president of the Commonwealth Water Company of New York in London. A month later she would provide one more reason for the Astors to shrink from the Van Alens.
As May Van Alen Thompson arrived in Boston on October 18, customs officials found that she was trying to smuggle in a pearl necklace “valued at thousands of dollars,” according to the New-York Tribune. May had concealed the necklace in a small chamois bag “concealed in her bosom.”
The search of May’s bosom was inspired when her maid, named Connors, was found to have thousands of dollars in diamonds and other precious gems in her stockings. May insisted that she was a British subject, and was not compelled to be searched. The inspectors insisted she was an American and forced her to declare her baggage. The newspapers made clear note of the fact that she was the granddaughter of Mrs. Astor and a cousin of Jack Astor.
Perhaps to escape continued American newspaper publicity or, as The Washington Times reported, to recuperate “from the fatigues of his past social successes and preparing for new ones,” Van Alen traveled to the soothing waters of Baden Baden, Germany in 1914. It was a poor choice.
He was caught in Germany as World War I erupted. “For several weeks his relatives and business representatives were unable to communicate with him and felt exceedingly worried about his fate,” reported The Washington Times. “Finally Mr. Van Alen escaped from the maelstrom of war and hastened straight back to America.”
Unable to travel abroad, Van Alen set about constructing a new Manhattan mansion. On April 26, 1916 The New York Times reported that he had purchased the four-story residence at 15 East Sixty-fifth Street.” It was the very same house from which Miss E. T. Chisholm had fumed about Jack Astor’s stables. James Van Alen had somewhat ironically purchased property right in the very nest of Astors. John Jacob Astor’s double mansion was just around the corner on Fifth Avenue and his sister, Caroline Astor Wilson’s home was a block away at No. 3 East 64th Street.
Van Alen had the outdated house demolished and commissioned Harry Allan Jacobs to design his new mansion. Jacobs was well known for his fashionable homes designed in historic styles; but for this house he was given clear direction. It was to be a near-copy of a Regency-period mansion on St. James Square in London.
|The mansion in 1925. One old brownstone still hangs on, to the right. --photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Completed in 1917, it was London on the Upper East Side. The three-story limestone house oozed British respectability. Three identical arched openings pierced the rusticated base—the double-doored entrance, a grilled window and the access to the American basement below sidewalk level.
The second story grabbed the spotlight. A Palladian window was framed by Corinthian pilasters and columns supporting a distinguished pediment. Recessed, carved plaques ornamented the spaces above the flanking windows. Despite the Van Alen reputation of philandering and even jewel smuggling, the house spoke refinement.
Van Alen had barely moved into the new mansion when rumors of Prohibition buzzed through the paneled rooms of Manhattan’s exclusive mens’ clubs. James Van Alen was willing to abide the chiding of the American press; but he was unwilling to live in a country without liquor.
Congress passed the Volstead Act on October 28, 1919 enforcing the prohibition of the “manufacture, sale or transportation” of liquor. Van Alen responded by selling his house and moving to England.
On December 13, 1919 The New York Times reported that “Carrying out his determination to dispose of his New York home if prohibition went into effect, J. J. Van Alen of New York and Newport has sold his four-story house at 15 East Sixty-fifth Street, to Rufus L. Patterson, Vice President of the American Tobacco Company.”
Patterson paid Van Alen $275,000 for the mansion—nearly $3 million today.
“I know of lots of people that will leave the United States and make their home in countries where the laws are not so strict,” Van Alen told reporters. He apparently had a well-stocked cellar in Newport, however; for The Times noted “It is said that he will make his home hereafter in England, but will return to summer at Newport.”
The Pattersons divided their time between the 65th Street home and their summer estate in Southampton, “Lenoir.” Mrs. Patterson, the former Margaret Morehead, entertained often in the mansion throughout their more than two decades here.
Rufus L. Patterson died in April 1943. Two years later Margaret put the mansion on the market. The Kusciuczko Foundation had been founded in 1925 to promote closer ties between the United States and Poland through scientific, cultural and educational exchanges. The organization dearly wanted the mansion as its headquarters, but did not have the funds.
Margaret Patterson lowered her asking price of $250,000 to $85,000 for the foundation. The Kosciuszko Foundation purchased the house in 1945 and over the next few years Margaret donated another $16,000 to help the organization pay off the mortgage.
|In 1945 when the Foundation moved in, the old brownstone next door had most definitely disappeared. Little else had changed -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The dignified mansion of a man who bucked the New York and Newport social system for decades is virtually unchanged since its completion nearly a century ago. It is a remarkable structure built by an equally remarkable character in New York social history.