Monday, April 8, 2013

The Lost 1866 Havemeyer House -- 244 Madison Ave

A handsome brougham passes by the imposing Havemeyer house in 1898 -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In the mid 18th century, wealthy Quaker merchant Robert Murray erected a country manor house north of the established city.   His estate, running roughly from what would become 33rd Street to 39th Street, and from Lexington to Fifth Avenue, was the highest point in Manhattan.  It took the name Murray Hill.

By the 1840s there was no trace of the Murray estate.  Avenues and streets dissected the land, which was now divided into building plots.  On April 2, 1846 the Murray heirs conveyed the large southwest corner lot at Madison Avenue and 38th Street to William H. Harrison.  A year later the family would place restrictions on the unsold remainder of the Murray estate—forbidding all but residential construction. 

Harrison’s purchase a year before the restrictions would prove crucial 70 years later.

The undeveloped land changed hands a few times—in 1851 Harrison sold it to the Zion Episcopal Church; the church sold it four years later to the St. Nicholas Bank; and the bank sold it to Theodore A. Havemeyer in 1866.

The 27-year old Havemeyer was a partner, with his brother, in their father’s sugar refining company Havemeyer & Elder.  He traveled abroad, studying advances in the industry and returned to construct one of the most up-to-date refineries in the world.  By now he had amassed an incredible fortune and earned himself the moniker “The Sugar Refining King.”
Theodore A. Havemeyer -- Hampton's Magazine, 1909 (copyright expired)
The 38th Street corner sat amid what was rapidly becoming one of the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in the city.  In 1852 the Phelps and Dodge families had purchased the eastern blockfront between 36th and 37th Street where they erected three impressive brownstone mansions with shared gardens.

Theodore Havemeyer had married Emily de Loosey, daughter of the Austrian Consul to New York, in 1862 and he set about erecting a mansion of his own.   It would be the most imposing house in Murray Hill at the time.
Emily de Loosey Havemeyer -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

A decade earlier a new architectural style had taken Paris by storm.  Called Napoleon III style, or Second Empire, it defined the new Champs-Elysees.   When Louis Visconti and Hector Lefuel created additions to the Louvre Palais in the style beginning in 1852, followed by Joseph-Eugene Lacroix’s renovations to the Elysee Palace a year later, Second Empire became all the fashion.

The Havemeyer residence would be among the first Second Empire homes in New York.  Four stories tall, including the stylish mansard roof, the brownstone mansion was accessed from a paved carriage court to the side.  A ten-foot fence, a masterwork of iron craftsmanship, wrapped the corner.   Elaborate twin carriage gates—twice the height of the fence at their tallest points—allowed for a smooth stream of coming and going vehicles that dropped guests of the house.
A toddler catches up to her nurse and sister before the beautiful double carriage gates -- photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
A handsome and harmonious carriage house and servants’ quarters building filled half of the double lot that stretched from No. 242 to 244 Madison.

Theodore and Emily had nine children—four sons and five daughters—in the house.   The family summered in their Bellevue Avenue mansion in Newport, as well as a 2,300-acre estate in New Jersey known as Mountain Side Farm.

In addition to running the sugar business, upon his father-in-law’s death Havemeyer was appointed Consul General for the Austrian Empire.   The Evening Bulletin noted that “At that time sugar affairs were pressing the Havemeyers, but the emperor was so importunate that Havemeyer consented to accept the office.  In agreeing to take the title conferred upon him with his decoration—the title of an Austrian baron—Havemeyer gave up whatever political ambition he may have entertained so far as this country is concerned.”

The emperor decorated Havemeyer with the Order of Leopold and The Evening Bulletin assessed that “Although an American, Havemeyer was really more of a foreigner than a Yankee.”
The intricate paneling and ceiling of the dining room were lost among the Havemeyer's decorations -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Theodore Havemeyer was the first President of the United States Golf Association when the game was in its infancy in the United States.  Meetings of the executive committee of the association were regularly held in the mansion.
The Havemeyer picture gallery in 1893 -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In addition to his extensive art collection, Havemeyer had a fondness for rare musical instruments.  He filled the mansion with an extensive collection and around 1885 added a well-documented Stradivarius violin and an “equally well-authenticated Joseph Guarnerius” instrument, according to The Times.

Unlike some millionaires, Havemeyer maintained a pleasant public image.  The New York Times would later remember him as “a man much in the public eye, and his tall, athletic form, smiling countenance, and snowy white whiskers were familiar to New York citizens.”

Christmases in the Havemeyer household were a family affair.  In 1895 The New York Times reported on the annual Christmas party.  “As usual, it was a family gathering of the Havemeyers, with only a few intimate friends as guests.  In the centre of the ballroom on the south side of the house was an immense Christmas tree reaching nearly to the ceiling.  It was beautifully lighted, and contained gifts for the children as well as for the older folks.  The centre of the supper table had a miniature Christmas tree bearing American Beauty roses.  Here and there on the branches were vivid scarlet ribbons in many loops, like loose rosettes.”

The following year the newspaper again reported on the holiday festivities in the mansion, calling the dinner a “jolly Christmas Eve gathering.”  The article said “It has been the custom for many years of the hospitable host and hostess to have a dinner for the old and young of the relatives and a Christmas tree for the young people, followed by a dance and late supper for the older members.”

It would be the last Christmas Theodore A. Havemeyer enjoyed in the house.

Early in April 1897, just after returning from a trip to St. Augustine, Aiken and Old Point Comfort, he became ill with “stomach troubles.”   On a Sunday night, after two weeks of illness, he asked his doctors about his hope for recovery.  “His attending physicians informed him…that his end was very near,” said The Times.

The dying mogul, until now not a religious man, had a change of heart.  At 11:30 that night he called for Father Michael C. O’Farrell of the Church of the Holy Innocents.  The priest arrived, baptized Havemeyer and converted him to the Catholic faith.  Before losing consciousness Havemeyer requested to be buried from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

At 3:00 in the morning on April 26, with most of his family gathered around his bedside, Theodore Havemeyer died in what his New York Times obituary called “one of the most beautiful houses in New York.”  The Evening Bulletin of Maysville, Kentucky was more pointed.  “He lived in a palace on Madison avenue,” it said.

Three days later Havemeyer’s body was removed from the house and taken to St. Patrick’s just before 10:00 in the morning.  “The hearse was followed by several carriages containing relatives and friends.  The large central doors of the church were opened to admit the funeral procession, which moved up the main aisle, while the great organ pealed the Austrian national hymn,” reported The Times.

The solemn requiem mass for the newly-converted Catholic was conducted by Archbishop Corrigan before over 3,000 mourners.  Among the prominent names in the crowded cathedral were Abram S. Hewitt, William R. Grace, Mr. and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, I. Townsend Burden, Elbridge T. Gerry, and Samuel D. Babcock.
Late Victorian decor--several rugs over a carpet, tapestries, and a draping on the grand piano--created a lush and suffocating room -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Because the family entered the expected year of mourning, daughter Dora forewent her debut.  It was a great disappointment to army Lieutenant Winslow.   Twenty-five years older than the girl, he had given her her first tennis and golf lessons when she was still in braids.  The Evening Telegram would later print “The Lieutenant’s love dates back from that period.  Her’s awoke much later.”  The newspaper noted “As Miss Dora grew into maidenhood and then womanhood the official’s hopes grew apace.” 

Winslow had hoped to propose marriage to the wealthy young girl after her debut; now that was impossible.   A year later another tragedy would stall his hopes further.

Early in May 1898 Charles f. Havemeyer, the eldest son of the family, was found in his Roslyn, Long Island estate, Old Brick Farm, with a gunshot to the head.  Charles had been to the Madison Avenue house that afternoon, visiting his mother, and seemed in good spirits when he returned.  Ten minutes after playing with his son, Theodore, affectionately called Teddy, and drawing pictures for him, he went to his room to dress for supper.

His wife heard a gunshot and ran to his room where he was unconscious in a chair with a pistol on the floor.   The family issued a statement which read in part “There had been nothing in his manner that day or previously, nor had he ever made a remark, that would give rise to the suspicion that this act was premeditated or intentional.”  The coroner “stated his personal belief that the shooting was accidental, but was reticent in regard to details.”

Lieutenant Winslow would now have to wait another year.  And in the meantime then the battleship Maine was fired upon, pulling the United States into the Spanish-American War.   Winslow left New York for war, returning “known as the hero of the battle of Cienfuegos” and “one of the most heroic figures of the war,” according to The Evening Telegram.

Finally in July 1899 “The engagement was announced at a reception given by Mrs. Havemeyer at the big town house—one of the show places of Greater New York—at No. 244 Madison avenue, last week.  It was the culmination of one of the prettiest romances that have sprung out of the Spanish-American war,” said the Telegram.

The newspaper glowed in describing the girl, young enough to be her fiancé’s daughter.  “She is handsome in the same dark, dashing style as her mother, Mrs. Theodore Havemeyer, who is one of the lovely De Losey girls.  She is an accomplished linguist and musician.  She is a fine, womanly athlete.  She has a loveable, ingenuous nature and she has not been spoiled by society, for she has not yet formally ‘come out.’

The wedding took place before yet another family tragedy, quite similar to the last one.   Dora’s oldest sister, Natalie, was at Mountain Side Farm on Friday July 13, 1900.   Her husband, John Mayer and their oldest daughter, Emily, were in Newport attending the wedding of H. O. Havemeyer, Jr.

A physician, Dr. Zabriskie, was called to the house.  He later stated “Upon coming up to Mrs. Mayer’s bedroom with Commander Winslow, I found her lying on the floor.”  Natalie had a bullet hole through her body, below the heart.   She lingered 24 hours, dying on Saturday afternoon.

For the second time in two years a Havemeyer family member died of a gunshot, ruled “accidental” by the coroner.

An aging Emily Havemeyer leased the family home to Clarence Mackay around 1905.   The third child of the millionaire and his wife, Katherine Duer Mackay, was born in the house on January 28, 1907.   With Katherine as mistress the grand mansion glittered with entertainments, very often involving singers from the Manhattan Opera House.

Katherine’s guest lists were sometimes surprisingly democratic.  On January 10, 1909 she gave a dinner party and musicale in honor of Beatrice Mills and her fiancé, Lord Grandard.   Sitting alongside some of New York’s most distinguished names at the dinner table—Mr. and Mrs. Robert Goelet, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, August Belmont, and Mr. and Mrs. Philip M. Lydig—was actress Ethel Barrymore.

The Mackays leased the house with all its furnishings -- like the exotic items in the Chinese Room.  photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Katherine was an aggressive promoter of civil rights and on December 22, 1908 she organized the Equal Franchise Society in the house.  The object of the organization was “to secure the national, State, and local electoral franchise for women.”  The Madison Avenue mansion was the regular meeting place for the new suffragist group.

Katherine Mackay’s independent nature would result, indirectly, in the end of the grand mansion.  In 1910 she left the house, abandoning her three children and husband, and ran off with Clarence’s personal physician, Joseph Blake.  In 1914, the same year that Emily Havemeyer died, the Mackay’s were divorced in Paris.
In November of that year a week-long auction was held in the mansion.   Everything that Theodore and Emily Havemeyer had collected and lived with—“The Artistic Furnishings and Embellishments of the Havemeyer Residence"—were sold.

Emily’s estate attempted to lease the mansion; but the neighborhood had changed.  The New York Times reported in 1915 that “The inability to rent the big Havemeyer house at anything like a reasonable rate shows very clearly the reluctance of tenants who are able to maintain a house of that size to move into the old Murray Hill zone.”  The newspaper noted that above 38th Street, several tall business buildings had already been built.

On July 25, 1915 the New-York Tribune reported that the 244 Madison Avenue Company had purchased the house and “will build, it is said, on the site a sixteen story mercantile apartment house.”

Wealthy neighbors revolted.  The Murray Hill Association, “composed of the influential residents of that former select home centre, will endeavor, through the courts, to prevent commercial encroachment of such magnitude,” said The Times.  They pulled out the 68-year old building restrictions on the land.

A title search revealed that the property had been “sold a short time before the restrictive clause was enacted; thereby taking it out of the area prohibited to business.”  The Havemeyer house sat just a few feet above the restriction zone.

Although The New York Times called it a “magnificent home, which is still one of the show places of Murray Hill;" within months it was gone and the 16-story office building designed by Jardine, Hill and Murdock for August Heckscher began rising.  

photo by Alice Lum


  1. Great story! Thanks for researching and writing this up.

  2. Wonderful article. It's such a shame to see history taken away. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Great article. By the way that carriage is a brougham not a hansom cab. Hansom's have the driver behind and above the compartment.