Monday, June 17, 2013

The Lost Henry H. Flagler Jr Mansion -- 32 Park Avenue

A servant conscientiously cleans the doorway of the mansion next door to the Flagler residence in 1905 -- photograph by Wurt Brothers from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By the 1880s, the Murray Hill neighborhood of Park Avenue south of 42nd Street was lined with imposing mansions, one of which belonged to railroad magnate William H. Osborn.   The former president of the Illinois Central Railroad and called by The New York Times, “one of the most prominent railroad men in this country or England,” Osborn retired in 1882 and devoted his time to philanthropy and art patronage.

The Osborns lived at 32 Park Avenue near 36th Street in a brick and brownstone mansion that boasted unusually ample gardens.  The millionaire filled the house with his “gallery of fine paintings,” according to The New York Times.  He was especially interested in the Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church and owned several of his paintings.

In the spring of 1892 the Osborns drew notice for their gardens.  The New York Times, on April 26, noted “The people who do not expect to leave town for the present are beginning their front-door gardening.  Especially is this true along Park Avenue from Thirty-fourth to Fortieth Street.  Mr. and Mrs. William H. Osborn of 32 Park Avenue have laid out their large front and side yards in beds of pansies and tulips, and on every front and side window sill is a box of growing pansies and ivy.”

Two years later Osborn died in the Park Avenue mansion, having being sick for several months.  The funeral was held in the parlor at 10:00 on the morning of March 5, 1894.   The social prominence of the millionaire was evidenced not only in those present—including Cornelius Vanderbilt, Stuyvesant Fish, George Bliss, John A. Stewart and General Daniel Butterfield—but in his honorary pall bearers who included former Mayor Hewitt, William D. Sloane, William E. Dodge, Samuel Sloane and William Walter Phelps.

Osborn’s patronage of Church had led to a close personal relationship; and when the artist’s invalid wife, Isabelle, died on May 13, 1899, the couple was living in the Osborn house.

In the meantime Henry Harkness Flagler, Jr. and his new bride, Anne, were leasing the house at 53 Park Avenue.   In March 1902 there was a massive cave-in of the subway being constructed below Park Avenue.  It resulted in the wrecking of three mansions, a burst water main, and general mayhem.  A sub-headline in The New York Times read, “Occupants of Falling Houses Flee in Panic.”   The house occupied by the Flaglers was amazingly unharmed and just two weeks later Flagler showed “his confidence in the safety of that thoroughfare for residential purposes” by purchasing the Osborn mansion.

Flagler paid Osborn’s son $167,000 for the now stylishly-outdated house.  Three years later he commissioned the  architectural firm of Little & O’Connor to remodel the house.  For at least a decade there had been a renewed interest in the Dutch Colonial roots of Manhattan, and Flemish Revival style structures dotted the city—especially on the Upper West Side.  Little & O’Connor would bring the old brick-and-brownstone residence into the 20th century.

On July 23, 1905, The Sun described the anticipated changes.  It reported that the façade would be extended to the sidewalk and “a new façade of ornamental brick erected, colonial in design, with a peaked roof of tile.  The interior is to be remodeled throughout.”  The Flagler make-over was expected to cost about $50,000, or just under $1 million in 2013.

The renovated mansion was striking indeed.  Steep stepped gables on three elevations--mimicked by the brick walls flanking the entrance--were pierced by terra cotta trimmed oculi.  The parlor floor windows, around eight feet tall, were composed of leaded and stained glass.  Ornamental elements of terra cotta, cast iron and carved stone added to the old Dutch motif.  Where the Osborn garden had been there was now a service alley, protected by a magnificent iron gate.

In the days before sophisticated security systems or even electric burglar alarms, the mansions of New York’s wealthy were vulnerable to thieves.   And in the summer months, with the bulk of the city’s millionaires away at Newport and country estates, the barely-staffed homes were prime targets.

On July 16, 1909 at around 9:00 in the evening, Policeman Frederick Lander noticed a group of men at the front door of the Flagler mansion.  As he approached, the men scattered and ran.  “The policeman drew his revolver and fired after them,” reported The New York Times.  “Two of the men got away, but the others stopped under the hail of the policeman’s bullets.”

After taking his prisoners to the station house, Lander returned to the residence.  The caretaker opened the door, unaware of the attempted break in.  The policeman “found marks of a burglar’s jimmy on the front door.”

The Flaglers were not so lucky on Saturday April 7, 1912.  While the family was having dinner, a thief removed at least $1,000 in jewelry and other valuables from the third floor rooms.  The Sun reported that “It was not determined whether some sneak thief had crept into the place or some person who was in the house had succumbed to temptation.’

Earlier, in 1897, Henry Flagler, Senior had committed his wife to an asylum, had her declared insane, and divorced her.  Ten days after the divorce he remarried.  It was the last in a series of events that infuriated Henry Junior, who refused to speak to his father thereafter.

As the Standard Oil tycoon lay dying in May 1913, Henry Junior visited him in Florida and made amends.  A few days later his father died, leaving the bulk of his estate—between $60 and $70 million—to the stepmother.  The three children, including Henry, each received just over $1 million.
photo NYPL Collection

Flagler returned to life as usual on Park Avenue.  The Sun mentioned in 1913 that “He is interested in music and art rather than in business.”  Those interests were reflected in the many entertainments held in 32 Park Avenue which often involved recitals and musicales, and Flagler was president of the Symphony Society of New York.

In June 1919, Flagler purchased the two adjoining houses at Nos. 34 and 36, apparently to maintain control of who would become his neighbors and to ensure the tone of the neighborhood.  Two months later he sold 34 Park Avenue to William Church Osborn a familiar name to the block.  Osborn already owned the corner property and the New-York Tribune noted that “these two men now control the northerly half of the block.”
In 1931 the Park Avenue neighborhood was still mainly one of mansions -- NYPL Collection

The decades of dinners, teas and receptions in the mansion came to an end when Anne Lamont Flagler died of a heart attack at their country estate, Edgewood, in Millbrook, New York.  Henry Flagler stayed on in the house until his death in 1952.

In 1953 the Flagler Estate began demolition of the mansion to make way for a 20-story apartment building.   As the old home was being demolished, 47-year-old electrician David McNulty was building his own cinder-block home in Shirley, Long Island from plans he bought at a model house display in Queens.

“When he started,” said The New York Times, “Mr. McNulty was prepared to use conventional materials, including commercial lumber for framing and sheathing, plasterboard walls and wallpaper.”  But then he saw the Harkness house being demolished.

The contractor gave him access and he purchased the irreplaceable paneling to use in his Long Island ranch home.  The New York Times reported on his progress on November 20, 1955.   “The teakwood interior that once graced the spacious library of the Flagler mansion at 32 Park Avenue, near Thirty-fifth Street, has been called into service as the décor…of David McNulty.”

McNulty’s house was described as “a white stucco rancher with a flat roof.  Its exterior walls are of cinder blocks.  A course of cinders marks the outline of the two-car garage which he is now adding to his home.

“The interior of the living room, kitchen and dining area consists almost entirely of teakwood paneling.  The kitchen cabinets were cut from the hard lumber, as were the trim around the stove and sink.”

Other than Henry Flagler’s exquisite teakwood library, which ended up carved into kitchen cabinets in a suburban cookie-cutter home, nothing, apparently, survived from the mansion.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. Incredibly sad how little was salvaged from the demolitions of many of the buildings, especially gilded age mansions, from this era. There was obviously little if any interest or secondary market for such elaborate interior fittings and as such they were viewed as worthless. Heartbreaking when you read about the demolition of John D Rockefeller senior's home on 54th St and many of the early 5th avenue mansions, including the vanderbilt homes, and how little was salvaged from those imposing structures. The landfills around NYC must be an archaeological treasure trove? RT

  2. I hope you'll pardon this useless bit of background info:

    William Henry Osborn and Frederick Church grew up together in Hartford CT and remained lifelong friends. In the 1880s, Osborn hired architect Jarvis Morgan Slade to design "Castle Rock" his country house at Garrison, NY, but Church was responsible for choosing the actual building site. Osborn's wife, Virginia Sturges, also came from a prominent Hartford family, and Virginia's sister, Amelia Sturges, was the first wife of J.P. Morgan (also from Hartford) but unfortunately died of consumption while still on her honeymoon. Morgan and his second wife, Fanny, lived at "Cragston," across the Hudson River from "Castle Rock," but the two former brothers in law remained friends throughout their lives as well. Samuel Sloan. Daniel Butterfield, and Stuyvesant Fish were all very close neighbors of the Osborns in the Hudson Highlands, and during the 1960s, Osborn's grandson, Frederick played a big part in making "Olana," Frederick Church's fantastic home near Hudson NY part of the New York State Parks system.

    And just for the heck of it, here's a current Wiki pic of "Castle Rock," at Garrison, NY:

    1. Christine I. Oaklander, Ph.D.January 5, 2014 at 9:25 AM

      For some reason, the story was started that Osborn and Church knew one another since childhood. There is no evidence for this; see my article in the Metropolitan Museum Journal on Jonathan Sturges, W. H. Osborn, and William Church Osborn, in which I discuss many of these topics. I have found no evidence that Church decided where Castle Rock was to go...there was certainly back and forth on choosing an architect, what trees and crops to plant, and what domestic animals to purchase. I plan to discuss all of this and more in a forthcoming book on the Sturges and Osborn families I did NOT know about the Flagler purchase, and find this fascinating and important. I always thought that William Church Osborn simply inherited 32 Park Avenue from his parents. For the record; there were two twins next to one another owned by the Sturges and Osborn families the architects were Richard Morris Hunt and H. H. Richardson. Christine I. Oaklander

    2. Thank you for sharing this info. I've read on many sites that Osborn and Church knew each other since childhood, but we all know how the internet can be misleading. One person states something, three million others repeat it, and the next thing you know it's called a fact:)

      One of the places that talked about Church helping Osborn select the site of Castle Rock (and there are many places that repeat this story as well) was the book
      "The Hudson Highlands" by Franny Dunwell. I know that the author got much of her info from speaking to the descendants of past residents like Osborn, Morgan, etc. so I assumed that story was probably true. She also prints parts of two earlier letters in which Church wrote to Osborn (from Rome) "Don't settle any plans about building a house until I return, I am conceited enough to wish to thrust my finger into that pie, and offer my opinions on domestic architecture." He later wrote "I should be almost as much interested in your house as my own, and I have scraped together some good ideas - I want you to have the benefit of them." Obviously there's no actual proof of his choosing a site there, but knowing Church was that interested in helping Osborn plan the house, it's not such a stretch, at least for me, to imagine he might have helped pick the site as well. I notice that a lot of people now say Osborn built "Castle Rock" in order to emulate Church's "Olana," but, personally, I don't really see that. Aside from the fact that they're both in unusually elevated positions, the two houses are not similar to my way of thinking. Calvert Vaux's plan for Olana is quite different from Jarvis Morgan Slades "Castle Rock." Not that they aren't both great homes, or anything like that, of course.

      Also, although it took me quite a while to find it, I just read your 2008 article, so thank you for that, too. It's kind of surprising and a little bit disappointing that Jonathan Sturges is largely forgotten today. I have one question for you, if you ever return to read the comments here. In the article there was a mention of Mr. Cozzens throwing a Twelth Night party which was atttended by Miss Leutze and Mr. Kensett, et al. Do you happen to know which Mr. Cozzens that was?

    3. The Cozzens was Abraham Cozzens, the businessman and art collector. He and J. Sturges were closely allied in business and in the NY art world through activity in the Century Association, and the American Art-Union. Sturges and Osborn bought art from the auction of his collection in 1868. I am in the beginning phases of writing a book on Sturges, Osborn, and their families. It should be fascinating work, building on prior research. I am well aware of the passages you mention in the Church letters and there is also a thumbnail sketch of Castle Rock in the Olana archive. Church helped Osborn buy some of his paintings by other American and a few European artists and Osborn helped Church sell his paintings as well as lending him large sums of money at various times and helping to arrange European tours for his monumental paintings. They were very close friends so I am sure there was interchange, but I have not as yet found any tangible proof that Church guided Osborn to buy the site at Garrison; in fact a # of other wealthy NY businessmen already had acquired property in that area, including those surely known to Osborn.

    4. Just coming back here after watching a DVD of Bill Moyers "America's First River," which was a two part PBS thing about the Hudson. While he was filming at Castle Rock with W.H. Osborn's great grandson Fred Osborn, he said "Church selected the site for this house," and I'm thinking I may have seen that when it first aired years ago, which probably added to my assuredness (right or wrong) about this particular story. Just for the record, I didn't mean to imply that I believed, or that anyone else stated, Church told Osborn to buy a particular piece of land. I never heard any rumors about the acquisition of the property itself. It was my understanding that Osborn owned a whole lot of land in Garrison by that time, and that, allegedly, Church only suggested building the new home at the edge of the hilltop where Castle Rock now sits. It was slightly unusual to build a significant house in that sort of elevated location at that time. Of course Olana was similarly sited during the previous decade, but it was also one of the few large homes to be sited so high up and far from, well, pretty much everything during that period of time.

      And thank you, I wondered if it was Abraham Cozzens being referred to in that piece. I remember reading about him; his life story and early success in the art world was interesting but, his end was rather tragic IIRC. I believe he was one of the sons of WIlliam Cozzens, the hotelier. I will certainly keep my eye out for your book. Thank You again!

  3. As far as I know W H Osborn met F E Church after he came to NYC in the early 1850s. It is likely that they met through his father-in-law, Jonathan Sturges, a prominent businessman and collector. In my 20 years of intermittent research and publications on the Sturges/Osborn families, I do not believe I have found tangible evidence that Church recommended the particular site for Castle Rock. It is a fact that FEC did make some recommendations to Osborn, as he had started Olana a # of years earlier. For more detail see my 2008 article for the Metropolitan Museum Journal on Sturges, Osborn, and William Church Osborn as art patrons. I plan to write a book on the Sturges and Osborn families and am embarking on additional research. Christine I. Oaklander

    1. Interesting. I have no idea where the story about Church and Osborn being friends at a young age started, but it's been included in many articles, mostly those having to do with Society and/or architecture in the Hudson Highlands. Did the families not socialize, and did the two attend none of the same schools? I believe you as I have no reason to doubt what you're saying, bit I suppose it always seemed somewhat likely, or at least possible, that the two were boyhood friends since they both came from Hartford and were both from wealthy and socially prominent families there, etc. I could have sworn the thing about Church suggesting the location of Castle Rock came from some member of the Osborn family, but, again, I don't recall who it might have been, or where it was first printed. When I last visited Olana, I asked the tour guide if he knew of any social connection between J. P. Morgan and Frederick Church, as both men came from prominent Hartford families, Church's father was part owner of the Aetna Fire Insurance Company as was Morgan's grandfather, plus Church was familiar with Morgan's wife, Fanny, from a trip they had taken to Mount Desert years earlier, but the tour guide said he'd seen no information about the two men knowing each other at all. And I cpuld never find any connection in books or googling either. I still find that hard to believe, personally. I mean, since Osborn and Morgan were brothers in law and Church was a close friend of Osborn's, wouldn't Morgan have been bound to have known the man? In any case, I look forward to reading your book. I'd be especially interested in the relationship between Church and Osborn, as they seem to have been quite close.

    2. Like I said, you can pull up the article I wrote On Jonathan Sturges, W. H. Osborn, and William Church Osborn for the Metropolitan Museum on line, and it is quite informative. Osborn was NOT from Hartford, he was from Billerica, MA, outside of Salem and grew up in a farming family...he did not have a formal education and shipped out to Manila when he was perhaps 17 or 18 not to come back for a # of years, so it is very unlikely he would have met Church as a boy. Plus Church was six years younger so even if they were going to school they would not be in the same grade or even close. Wow, such loads of misinformation out there, distressing. This is the problem with secondary scholarship, people just repeat what they read without checking the veracity of the info. One bit of misinformation is multiplied like Topsy.. As to Church and Morgan, you would do well to consult one of the Church books of which there are several. I can't speak to Church and Morgan as I have not yet explored that possible connection.
      Christine I. Oaklander

  4. I'm curious what happened to Henry Flagler Sr's house at 54th and 5th (I believe the address was 685 5th Ave.). These posts are great. Thanks!

    1. Actually, I wrote about that house almost a year ago. I just never published it because, believe it or not, I cannot find a photo of it!

  5. The Museum of the City of New York saved the contents of the music room. According to their website the objects were on display until 2012. I am curious if any info is available on the mansion to the left. It appears to have been demolished before the 1931 image, a few decades before the block was cleared in 1954. Sadly the city lost at the same time the last of the H.H. Richardson designed residences in Manhattan.