Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The 1901 Seligman Mansion -- No. 30 West 56th St.

photo by Alice Lum

As the 19th century drew to a close, the sullen brownstone mansions of Fifth Avenue gave way to limestone and marble palazzos and chateaux.   The blocks between 51st and 57th Street were lined with the grandest of Manhattan’s homes—earning the nicknames Vanderbilt Row and Millionaires’ Row.  Imposing residences, many equal to their Fifth Avenue counterparts, spilled onto the side streets.

Although the area was still the most exclusive residential neighborhood, imposing mansions were already being constructed further up the avenue along Central Park—advancing the constant northward tide of society.  In 1899, C. P. H. Gilbert’s fantastic French chateau was being completed twenty blocks north at 79th Street for Isaac D. Fletcher. 

That same year, on March 11, Henry Seligman married Adelaide Walter.  A partner in the investment banking firm of J. & W. Seligman & Company, the wealthy banker was a member of the family sometimes called “the American Rothschilds.”  Content with the established enclave south of 57th Street, Seligman demolished the two brownstone rowhouses at 30 and 32 West 56th Street and contracted Gilbert to design a double-wide house on the site 

Construction began in December and would continue for nearly two years.  Gilbert provided the Seligmans with a reserved and dignified French Renaissance town home clad in limestone.   An elaborately-carved stone balcony perched on two heavy brackets above the entrance in the rusticated base.  A smaller version graced the fourth floor.   The mansion was capped by a steep mansard roof, pierced by three lushly-carved dormers.

An extremely complex cornice introduced the mansard roof -- photo by Alice Lum

The newlyweds moved into the house in the autumn of 1901.  Three children, Gladys, Rhoda and Walter, would be born in the house, catered to by an extensive staff.  While Henry expanded his business interests—he was a director in the William Cramp & Sons Ship and Engine Building Company, the Helena & Livingston Smelting Company, and several power companies, among several others—Addie involved herself in political and social causes.

A determined woman, she not only dedicated herself to organizing the St. Cecilia Club and the Mount Sinai Training School for Nurses, she threw herself into socio-political causes.   The was a formidable presence in the fight for prohibition reform and an ardent anti-Suffragist.   The Seligman ballroom was not only the scene of glittering dances and musicales, it rang with the oratory of outraged anti-feminists.

One such meeting was held here on April 2, 1914.  Two hundred members and friends of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage  “filled the ballroom and streamed out into the halls at either end,” reported The New York Times.   Mrs. John Martin spoke, causing the newspaper to say that “Feminism and the woman’s movement last night received such a drubbing as only a sister woman could give…Mrs. Martin’s attack upon the larger feminism stripped language of almost every epigram.”

During her speech she said “When the best young men in labor make good, they marry and rear families.  In every high salary paid to men society is the gainer.  But with women in business it is the reverse—every raise in salary makes her less likely to marry and raise a better race.  High salaries bribe women to sterility.  You couldn’t run a chicken ranch on the principle.”

Mrs. Martin was equally against women voting as working.  “If women get the vote men are likely to say mentally what the Irishman said when the horse he was riding got his hoof in the stirrup: ‘Well, if you’re going to get on, I’m going to get off.’”

Bearded male faces within the scrolled brackets grimace under the weight of the balcony -- photo by Alice Lum

The Seligman family summered at Shorelands, their estate in Elberon, New Jersey which was also designed by Gilbert.  The complex included the mansion, gardener’s cottage, stables and bath houses.  Additionally, by the 1920s they had purchased a villa in the newly-fashionable Palm Beach community, Casa Mia.

Female counterparts of the balcony brackets adorn the fourth floor -- photo by Alice Lum

The Seligmans’ opening of their winter home each season was warmly anticipated by the Palm Beach crowd.  As they prepared to close the 56th Street home for the winter in 1926, they gave a dinner party on December 15, reflective of the Seligman entertainments.  Following dinner was a musical program with violinist Ernesto Vallejo, “a protégé of the Philippine Government,” and contralto Madame Antoinette Huested.

Among the impressive list of dinner guests were Rear Admiral and Mrs. Charles P. Plunkett, Prince and Princess Georges Matchabelli, Baron Moeller, Count Tarnowski, and Colonel Thomas H. Birch, former American Minister to Portugal, and his wife.

By now the Seligmans were essentially the last of the millionaire families to cling on to their private home in a neighborhood now overtaken by office buildings and stores.  The other mansions along the West 56th Street block had been converted to businesses or razed after their owners had surrendered and moved northward.

The winters in Palm Beach would come to an end in 1933.  On November 18, Addie suffered a stroke which confined her to bed.   The Palm Beach Post noted that “it had been hoped that Mr. and Mrs. Seligman might be able to open their home here as usual, but Mrs. Seligman’s condition precluded this possibility.”

A little over a month later, at 1:30 in the morning on December 23, 1933, the 76-year-old Henry Seligman died of a heart attack.  The unexpected death shocked New York and Palm Beach society.   Only a month later, on January 31, Addie Seligman died in her bed here, never having sufficiently recovered to learn of her husband’s passing.

In April the house and its contents were sold at auction.   Included were “decorative and table glass…decorative and table porcelains and silver, Japanese and European ivory carvings, bibelots, jades, enamels, bronze sculptures, paintings and other objects," according to the announcement.

On February 20, 1935, The New York Times reported on the sale of the house to Joseph L. Buttenweiser “in an all-cash transaction.”   At the time of the sale, the property was appraised at $215,000, of which $155,000 represented the land value.   In today’s dollars, the mansion itself was deemed worth about $785,000.  The article noted that “The Beethoven Association has a comparatively short lease on the property.”

The association, as the name suggested, focused on the music of Ludwig von Beethoven and provided concert series and what The New York Times called “beneficent activities.”   The Seligman house was used as the association’s club house, with apartments on the upper floors leased to musicians.  It was opened to subscribers for a reception on May 18 during which “an impromptu program” was given by members.
The apartments still retained the elegant Seligman interiors and among the tenants were renowned flutist Georges Barrere and, in the apartment directly below him, Arthur Lora and his wife.

By the 1940s, the transformation of West 56th Street was complete.  In 1941 Arthur D. Kunze purchased the former Seligman mansion and converted it to apartments with a commercial space on the street level.  It was here that Peggy Guggenheim opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

The building was sold again in January 1946 to David S. Meister.  The first two floors were converted to a restaurant and private dining room.   A variety of restaurants would call No. 30 West 56th Street home over the next decades—Camillo Restaurant, Blaire House, and Romeo Salta among them.

photo by Alice Lum

The apartments gave way to offices space in 1974 and in 1997 the first floor restaurant was converted to the lobby for the offices on the floors above.  While C. P. H. Gilbert’s sumptuous interiors where contraltos sang and anti-feminists ranted are long gone, his elegant limestone façade, miraculously survives nearly untouched, if somewhat soiled.


  1. Beautiful building! Tnx for the post.

  2. How did this large gilded age mansion avoid demolition located in the busy mid-50's in Manhattan?

  3. The son, Walter Seligman, lived for a time in Farmingdale, Long Island. He was married to a Canadian woman named Marie and they had two children - Louise and Walter. Where are the children now?