Monday, April 1, 2013

The Lost 1847 Winfield Scott Mansion -- 93rd and Park Avenue

By 1882 the once-rural countryside was filling with homes.  But the Scott mansion still retained its gardens including the gazebo and other out buildings -- photo from the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Although the time when Manhattan’s gentry built sprawling country estates around and north of Greenwich Village was mostly gone by the 1840s; the city had not reached much farther than 40th Street.  The land that sat fifty blocks further north was still verdant and rural.

On June 8, 1845 General Winfield Scott was at West Point supervising an examination.  Word came to him that General Andrew Jackson had died at his home, the Hermitage, far to the south near Nashville.  Of the nation’s military officers, Jackson was among the most respected by Scott.

General Scott dismissed the cadets saying “I suspend the further labors of this examination till-morrow, in honor of an event interesting to all Americans.  A great man has fallen among us.  Andrew Jackson, after filling the world with his fame, and crowning his country with glory, departed this life on the 8th instant.”

General Winfield Scott had been the Commanding General of the United States Army since 1841.  A hero of the War of 1812, he began work on his own country seat not long after Jackson’s death.   That event, perhaps, still haunted him for the mansion would be strikingly similar to the former President’s.  And it would be called The Hermitage.

Located at what would become the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 93rd Street, the Greek Revival house was defined by the two-story veranda supported by great square brick columns.  A classic temple pediment stretched the width of the structure, recalling the great plantation homes of the South.  Expansive gardens wrapped the property, affording relief from hot New York summers.

As the mansion was being built the Mexican American War broke out and Scott, known as Old Fuss and Feathers to his troops because of his insistence on military discipline and appearance, was called away.  It was the first event in a series that would prevent the general and his wife from ever using their new country estate.

The Hermitage was completed in 1847 and was, apparently, leased out for several years.  After the war  Scott was so popular that the Whig Party snubbed its own incumbent, Millard Filmore, and nominated the general as its presidential candidate.   He was soundly defeated by Democrat Franklin Pierce and returned to New York in 1853—but not to his grand mansion at 93rd Street.

The intensely popular general’s name would be forever linked to the house, however.   Only occasionally was the name “The Hermitage” attached to it; instead it was generally known as the General Scott Mansion. 

As the turn of the century approached, the once-rural neighborhood was filling with high-end dwellings as Manhattan’s millionaires forged ahead of the commercial district.  In 1899 J. G. Feldmann owned the mansion that was home to both his family and that of Edward W. C. Saling.  On February 1 of that year 12-year old Martha Saling woke to the smell of smoke.  She wakened her parents who discovered that the rear of the house was on fire.

An overheated furnace had caused the blaze which was nearly out of control.  “The flames had gained considerable headway, and the occupants of the house were forced to retreat to the roof of the piazza, the stairways being ablaze,” reported The New York Times.   Down the block at No. 71 East 93rd Street lived wealthy banker Henry Seligman who rushed up the street with a ladder.  With his help the Feldmann family reached the street from the roof.

By the time firemen extinguished the fire, damages to the house which The Times called “one of the landmarks of the upper east side,” amounted to $2,000—nearly $50,000 today. 

In the meantime, the Ursuline Community of St. Teresa had been incorporated in 1881 on Henry Street.  The Ursuline nuns had been invited to St. Teresa’s parish by Rev. James Boyce in 1873 to open a girls’ academy.  Before the end of the year in 1899 the nuns would take possession of Feldmann’s fire-damaged house.   Along with its new location, in 1900 the school’s name changed.  St. Teresa’s Ursuline Academy New-York became the Ursuline Academy.
Even the lives of nuns are sometimes touched by crime and sin and so it was on February 15, 1906.  The previous evening the Academy hosted a fair which grossed about $800 in cash and checks.  Mother Superior Ursula took the receipts to her room where she placed the money in an iron box.

Around 11:00 the next morning a workman appeared who said he had to repair the skylights on the top floor where the sisters lived.  He entered Mother Ursula’s room and, according to The Evening World the following week, “broke open the box and took the $240, together with checks to the value of about $700.  The checks he threw under the bed.”

The Mother Superior suspected an inside job.  “There is something mysterious about the robbery,” she told reporters.  “Some one in the house must have co-operated with the thief.  I believe he was concealed in my room when I placed the money in the iron box on Thursday morning.”  She explained that “I invariably carry large sums of money when I receive them, in my dress.  I used the iron box for the first time on Thursday.”

The Evening World ran the headline “Nuns Robbed by Aid of a Spy.”

The neighborhood continued to develop, causing Charles H. Schnelle to reminisce in the souvenir book he wrote in 1909 for the House and Real Estate Owners’ Association.  “At 93d street and Park avenue is still standing the General Winfield Scott mansion, erected in 1847.  Here and there are still to be seen remnants of summer homes and farms, reminding us of the days when Yorkville was merely a suburb, persons from the lower section of the city coming here to picnic in parks and to spend a day in the country.”

In 1911, now home of the Ursuline Academy, the mansion was diminished by modern buildings closing in.  photo NYPL Collection
The days of the old mansion were numbered, however.  Two years later on August 4 The New York Times reported that “The Ursuline Sisters of St. Teresa have received an offer for their property at the northwest corner of Ninety-third Street and Park Avenue, which will probably be accepted, as the sisters are preparing to remove the school to the Ursuline Provinculate at Grand Boulevard and 165th Street.”

Indeed the nuns accepted the offer and six months later in February 1912 The Times noted that “Robert Shaw Minturn has joined the uptown Park Avenue residential colony by purchasing…from the Ursuline Sisters of St. Theresa a large plot on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and Ninety-third Street, which he intends to improve with two handsome dwellings.”

The Times casually mentioned that “The Park Avenue structure is an old wooden house ornamented with tall columns in the Colonial style, and is one of the oldest structures in the locality.  It is one of the few remaining wooden houses on the avenue south of the Harlem section.”  There was not a word of protest regarding the loss of the historic structure; rather the newspaper went on to describe the planned mansions to replace it.

“The location is admirably situated for residential purposes, being at the highest point of Park Avenue…Plans are now being prepared by Howells & Stokes for improving the Ninety-third Street plot, with two residences, one for Mr. Minturn and the other for his mother, Mrs. Robert B. Minturn.”

The Hermitage was demolished with no public outcry nor published regret.  While Robert Shaw Minturn did erect his own mansion on 93rd Street, his mother’s Park Avenue house was never realized.  Instead, Francis F. Palmer purchased the lot and in 1917 began construction of his handsome neo-Federal home designed by Delano & Aldrich.

Palmer's white marble and red brick Federal-style mansion pretended to be antique; ironically replacing one that was.  photo by Alice Lum

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