Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Archbishop's Mansion -- No. 218 Madison Avenue

The once-grand home of the head of the New York Roman Catholic Church is barely recognizable.

In 1850 the Diocese of New York City was made an Archbishopric.   Two years later the city’s first Archbishop, John Hughes, laid plans for a magnificent new cathedral on Fifth Avenue at 50th Street, far north of the existing St. Patrick’s.    The cornerstone was laid on August 15, 1858 and construction progressed steadily.  Then in 1861 the Civil War broke out.   As the conflict intensified, workmen laid down their chisels and trowels and marched off to war.  Eventually work on the Cathedral stopped completely.

Archbishop Hughes died in January 3, 1864 at his residence at No. 218 Madison Avenue, never to see his grand project completed.  The minutes of a special session of the City government three days later said “John Hughes, Archbishop of New-York, has been summoned before the Great Architect of the Universe, to account for the use made of the attributes of greatness conferred upon him by the Creator, which have so distinguished him among his fellow-men.”

The new Archbishop John McCloskey, D. D. left Albany on the night boat of August 6, 1864 with Father John Joseph Conroy and arrived in New York City the following morning.  He was met by his new secretary, Father Francis McNeirny, and the three men went directly to the archiepiscopal residence at No. 218 Madison Avenue.

McCloskey’s new home was in one of the most exclusive residential districts of the city.  Directly across the avenue were the mansions of copper magnates John Jay Phelps, Isaac N. Phelps and William E. Dodge.   The home of the archbishop was four stories high over an English basement.  Clad in red brick with brownstone trim, it was an understated and dignified Italianate residence accessed by a short stoop.   Attention was drawn to it not because of its architectural flair, but because of its size and location.

McCloskey’s introduction to Manhattan was a bit startling.  Around 9:30 that morning he celebrated Mass in the house.  According to his diary, when he came down stairs afterward, he was told that there was a woman in the hall “who said she was the mother of the new Archbishop of N.Y.  She had brought her trunk with her and proposed to stay.”

Except for servants, McCloskey was alone in the house so he intervened himself.  The woman reiterated that she was the mother of the new archbishop and proposed to stay with her son in the house.

“But I am the new archbishop and you are not my mother,” he answered.

“I know,” she said, “but you are not the new archbishop, you are the Bishop of Albany; is that not enough for you?”

The frustrated McCloskey sent a servant to fetch a policeman.

His diary continued the bizarre tale, speaking of himself in the third person.  “Meanwhile she locked herself in the reception room and refused to open the door.  When the policeman came he was obliged to enter the room through the balcony window of the reception room.  She was taken to the station-house, where the archbishop had to go to make a charge against her.  When he entered the place, the official in charge told him what the woman had stated, adding that she told a very straight story for a crazy person.”

Just as the McCloskey was turning to go the woman screamed at him “Are you going to leave me with these rascals?  They attempted to ruin me!”   He turned to the official and said shortly, “She tells a very straight story,” and left.

On August 27 McCloskey was installed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street with expected pomp and ritual. 

The following year the war drew to a close but progress on the grand marble cathedral uptown was slow in resuming.   The problem now was not manpower, but lack of funds.  On February 23, 1871 Archbishop McCloskey called a meeting of clergy and representative laics in the mansion.

The New York Times reported that “The object of the meeting was to adopt some plan to raise funds for the completion of the cathedral.  The collections in the different parishes for that purpose have lately dwindled down so much that they scarcely pay current expenses.”  Those who met with the Archbishop that night left understanding that an “energetic movement is now going to be made to raise the requisite funds to complete the edifice.” 

Whatever Archbishop McCloskey said, it worked.  A month later the meeting was reconvened.  The donations received since the first meeting amounted to $121,550—about $2 million in today’s dollars.  Newspapers said that “the general progress of the movement was reported to be of a very satisfactory character.”

John McCloskey was elevated to Cardinal while living in the Madison Avenue house -- photo NYPL Collection
Entertainments in the Archbishop’s mansion were, of course, seldom and low-keyed.   On March 10, 1874 the house was filled; although this was no glittering dinner party.  It was the 13th anniversary of the Archdiocese of New York and the pastor of every parish in the city was invited to No. 218 Madison Avenue, “the large parlors of which were filled,” according to The Times.

“At 8 o’clock the Vicar General introduced the Archbishop, who was attired in the purple robes of the Archiepiscopate.  He took his seat on the throne at the lower end of the front room.”  The clergymen then stood around McCloskey while lengthy addresses were read.

On March 16, 1875 a messenger knocked on the door of No. 218 Madison Avenue and handed the servant a dispatch from Rome.  The message read, “Archbishop McCloskey, New-York:  You were preconized Cardinal in the Consistory held this morning.  The Ablegate Monseigneur Roncetti and Count Marefoschi will leave soon.  The Archbishop of Baltimore will confer the red berretta.  Cardinal Fanchi.”

John McCloskey had been appointed a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church.

With the completion of the new Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and Archbishop’s Residence in 1879, the brownstone mansion at No. 218 Madison Avenue was sold by the Church.  As the fashionable residential areas moved northward, so did William Oothout and his family; leaving their lower Fifth Avenue home near Washington Square for No. 218 Madison Avenue.

A retired iron magnate, William was one of four brothers prominent in the financial and mercantile circles of the city.  He was a descendant of an old New York family of Dutch lineage.  William's grandfather had been President of the Bank of New York, founded in 1784 by Alexander Hamilton and a member of the Building Committee that formulated the plans in 1802 for City Hall.

William had married New Orleans belle Jane Elizabeth Morgan on October 26, 1855 and had three children, William, Pauline, and George.  Little George had died at the age of one in 1863.  Life in the mansion was quite different than it was while Archbishop McCloskey was in residence.  The Oothouts were socially prominent, attending the opera and entertaining in style.

The family was scandalized, however, when William Junior secretly married a divorcee.  On July 28, 1892 The Evening World ran a searing headline “Second Time A Bride—Edgar Sultus’s Divorced Wife Becomes Mrs. William Oothout.”

The newspaper wrote “Helen Read Saltus, divorced wife of Edgar Saltus, the novelist, has become a wife again.  This time she is Mrs. William Oothout, jr., and the couple have gone to Santa Barbara, Cal., where Mr. Oothout has made his home for two years…At the home of William Oothout, sr., 218 Madison avenue, it was stated that the family knew nothing of it.”

The Times chimed in saying “The announcement of the marriage of Mrs. Helen Reed Saltus to William Oothout, jr., at 3 o’clock on Wednesday was something of a surprise to most of those who know the parties.”

In the last years of the century William and Jane spent most of their time abroad.  On August 20, 1899 while traveling in Baden-Baden, 76-year old William Oothout died.   Jane returned to the house on Madison Avenue during the winters, and purchased a summer house in Lucerne.

On September 14, 1913 William Junior was with his mother at the Switzerland house when the 83-year old woman died.   Readers of The Sun were perhaps taken aback when they read on December 3 that Jane Elizabeth Oothout had generously left $10,000 (about $170,000 today) to her maid, Louise Schilling.  According to her will, she did so “in token of my appreciation of her faithful services.”

By the time World War I had ended, the neighborhood was quickly being overtaken by commerce.  On April 19, 1920 William Oothout leased the family mansion to the Vacation Association, Inc. as its headquarters and clubhouse.  Organized for “self-supporting women,” it soon provided rooms for sixty working women and a restaurant in the building “that provides daily for 600 employees of the shopping district.  It also conducts social activities such as dances, Sunday afternoon teas and lectures,” reported the New-York Tribune later.

The Vacation Association organized savings accounts for the girls, called “a thrift fund,” whereby over 95,000 young working women saved their extra earnings.  Among the first events in the former mansion was a speech by Mrs. Henry Moskowitz on June 3, 1920 on “Principles, Organization and Opportunities of the Democratic Party and the State.”

Within a year the Vacation Association was also being known as the American Women’s Association.  The New-York Tribune described it as a club for business and professional women.  "They are encouraged to indulge in all sorts of outdoor sports, such as week-end hikes, swimming, tennis and horseback riding.  For those who are interested in the domestic arts courses are provided in millinery, dressmaking, embroidery and cooking.”

But already the success of the club was taxing the former Archbishop’s mansion.  “Owing to the increasing number of applicants, the present building has become too small to meet requirements, and a new and much larger house is already planned for erection,” said the newspaper.

By April 24, 1922 the club announced plans for a 12-story building with dormitory accommodations for several hundred guests, gymnasium, pool, and hairdressing and manicure departments.  With the club gone, for several years the former house became headquarters of the National Student Federation of the United States of America.  The group had been founded in 1925 and was the first national student government association in the nation.  Two hundred campuses sent representatives to the Federation's first full conference in 1926.

In 1933 the house lost its stoop and was converted to a showroom and offices -- photo New York Times from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1933 the building lost its stoop and the parlor floor was converted to showrooms with expansive show windows.  A store was installed in the basement level , offices on the second and third floor, and apartments for two families on the top.  The magnificent interiors fit for a Prince of the Church-marble mantels, carved newel posts, ornate plaster ceilings and rich woodwork--were obliterated.

Beginning in the 1930s the building was headquarters for the American Review.   For the rest of the century a variety of small business, offices and stores came and went.  Today the mansion of the Archbishop of New York is unrecognizable; a much abused structure that successfully hides the amazing history that played out inside.

The commodious proportions of the former mansion are obvious when viewed from behind.
non-historic photographs taken by the author


  1. Another piece of history that is about to vanish. Thank you for this great article.

  2. You should post this story here: