In 1859 the Fifth Avenue Hotel was among the most fashionable in the city. Its rooms and restaurants saw the comings and goings of foreign heads of state, U.S. Presidents, famous writers, artists and actors. The wealthiest and most powerful New Yorkers met here to draft deals, nominate candidates for office and—in today’s terms--network. Merchants fortunate enough to lease space in the upscale hotel were assured a most lucrative business.
That year Philip and John Rose Caswell opened their pharmacy in the hotel; the same year that John built his magnificent mansion at No. 370 Fifth Avenue. The house sat in the most prestigious residential neighborhood of Manhattan; a block north of the brownstone residences of John Jacob and William Astor. The New York Times described it as “of brick, with brownstone facings, four stories high, and a piazza at the rear.”
The southern half of the block was developed in 1870 when the magnificent Alexander Turney Stewart house was completed. The white marble palace, the showplace of Fifth Avenue at the time, gleamed among the brownstone mansions around it. The two houses were separated by thirty-three feet of lush lawns and gardens owned by Caswell.
The Caswell brothers’ highly successful drugstore would stay in the Fifth Avenue Hotel until 1876, when the partnership was dissolved. Within three years John teamed with William R. Massey to take over the apothecary business started by Scottish doctor William Hunter in Newport in 1752, a New York branch of which had already been established in 1833. The pair agreed that Caswell would oversee the Newport store while Massey ran the New York branch.
The new operation, Caswell-Massey, flourished and the already-wealthy druggists became even more so. With John Caswell now living in Newport, the Fifth Avenue mansion was superfluous. The pharmacist struck a deal with the exclusive University Club to convert his residence into its newest clubhouse.
The University Club had been organized in 1861 when a group of wealthy college alumni sought to form a social club that would keep old school friends intact. Now, in April 1879, it listed 325 members on its rolls and fully expected to expand that number to 400 before moving into the Caswell mansion a month later.
The club would be the first incursion of a non-private residence into the area. But the upscale organization and its pedigreed members posed little threat to its surrounding neighbors. The New York Times made note of the mansion’s excellent adaptability to its new function. It “is considered a admirable location as a rendezvous for the gentlemen composing the club,” it said on April 11, 1879. The newspaper mentioned that the piazza in the rear “affords space for a promenade and an after-dinner smoke. The grounds are in good order, and allow sufficient room for croquet, tennis, or, as one of the members suggested yesterday, a game of ‘I spy.’”
Club officials told reporters that very few alterations would need to be made. “There are stairways at the front and rear, extending from the first floor to the attic. The halls are wide and roomy, and a good wine-cellar occupies part of the basement. The heating apparatus is in a good condition, and the kitchen, while being well-adapted for culinary purposes, affords room for an additional range.”
The club would stay on in the house for less than a decade. The Caswell family more than doubled the rent in 1886, causing no small amount of ill-will and a search for a new location. The following year the club moved on to the old Union League clubhouse on Madison Square.
While the Caswell family and the University Club were bickering, fire swept through another prestigious clubhouse—the New York Club at West 25th Street and Fifth Avenue. Chartered in 1845, it was the oldest men’s club in the city. The club had moved several times in its three decades of existence, the last time only a year earlier to its present location. A day after the fire, on April 3, 1876, The Times said “The building burned last night was one of the most prominent in the City. It is a brown-stone five-story edifice filling the delta formed by the junction of Broadway and Fifth avenue. In former years it was known as the Worth House, a first-class family hotel, and a favorite resort for Southerners, and the private residence of Edward S. Stokes.”
The blaze had started below ground in the kitchen “by the overboiling of some fat on the range,” reported newspapers. The Times reported that “As in the case of the Fifth Avenue Hotel fire, the mischief was done by a dumb-waiter or elevator running from the kitchen to the top of the house. Up this wooden shaft the fire sped with startling rapidity, and seized upon the servants’ quarters in the attic of the building.”
The frescoed ceilings, the fine furnishings and paintings, everything on the upper floors were all destroyed. A day after the fire damages were estimated at $30,000—a hefty $600,000 by today’s standards.
The New York Club, perhaps not wanting to fall victim to suddenly-ballooning rents as had the University Club, negotiated the purchase of the old mansion. A price of $242,000 was arrived at; but the cagey Caswells did not include the surrounding L-shaped gardens—only the building was included in the sale.
Before moving in, the club extensively updated the old pre-Civil War mansion. The renovations would nearly double the cost of the property. "King’s Handbook of New York City" wrote of the resultant transformation. “The club-house is the Caswell house, the former home of the University Club, remodeled into a graceful building of the Queen Anne style.” Red brick and white limestone were used to create an entertaining façade with a balcony above clustered windows on the Fifth Avenue side, and a split entrance staircase at the new main entrance on 35th Street. Inside detailing was updated with the latest in Eastlake and Queen Anne influences.
|The interiors were outfitted in the latest taste. Show above is the main staircase--Harper's Weekly, March 15, 1890, NYPL Collection|
The sale on behalf of the club was handled by attorney and club member Edward Gebhard. But trouble soon arose. In the fall of 1886 Gebhard submitted his bill of $1,022.50 covering his legal services; an amount he asserted was “about one-third what he would have charged any other client,” as reported in The Sun.
Just prior to this, Nathaniel Whitman was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Board of Directors. Whitman and Gebhard had long been personal enemies because Gebhard “had detected and exposed him (Whitman) for cheating at cards,” reported The Sun. Whitman retaliated by inducing the board to turn down a gentleman whom Gebhard had proposed for membership.
Enraged, Edward Gebhard tendered his resignation from the club on October 26, shortly after his invoice had been paid. The lawyer was infuriated when six months later he received a letter demanding that he return the $1,022.50 “paid by this Board under a misapprehension.” The ugly matter resulted in a public court battle and much unwanted press.
As the old mansion was being renovated, Fifth Avenue homeowners were concerned that the Caswell family might have unfriendly plans for the garden plot between the club and the Stewart mansion--ample space for commercial structure. On May 17, 1887 Charles S. Smith, the executor of the Caswell estate, was questions regarding the report that a business building might be erected on the lot.
“The report is not without foundation,” he replied smugly. “My wife, who is a Caswell, and myself think of putting up a building that will be a credit to the location. Our plans have not yet materialized. When they do it will give me pleasure to make public the details. We have obtained a permit to erect a building, and in all probability will carry out the idea some day.”
The idea of a commercial building in the midst of their respectable mansions did not sit well with the likes of Caroline Astor and other millionaires on the avenue. But The New York Times said flatly “Fifth-avenue residents in the vicinity look with intense disfavor upon the idea of the Caswell heirs, but however disagreeable a business building in that neighborhood would be to them they have no power to prevent its erection except by purchasing the plot.” The plot was not purchased and, indeed, before long the L-shaped garden was filled with a small, tasteful commercial building that housed an upscale art gallery.
The club finally occupied the house in May 1888 and by November the clubhouse was ready for public inspection. On November 10 a day-long reception was held and “hundreds” of guests filed through the newly-refurbished halls. “The result, judging from the exclamations of admiration and congratulation which escaped from the visitors after an inspection of the various apartments, must have been highly satisfactory to the promoters of the reception and an ample reward for all their trouble and pains,” reported The New York Times. It was a rare opportunity for New York’s female population to see inside the male-only domain.
“Probably more than 1,000 people, a large number of whom were ladies, were the club’s guests between 3 o’clock in the afternoon and 10 o’clock at night. By far the larger number attended in the evening, when ladies in full costume and gentlemen in evening dress presented a brilliant sight as they promenaded to the enlivening music of Lander over softly carpeted floors, through spacious rooms made doubly beautiful by rich hangings and profuse floral decorations.”
The first floor contained the main sitting room paneled in cherry wainscoting. The furniture here was cherry to match and the “curtains in this room are very beautiful, being of silk grand Italian tapestry, having a rich copper hue.” Also on the first floor were the office, a small reception room “richly furnished,” and a billiard room.
The second floor dining room offered “delicacies of a most tempting nature prepared solely by the club chef.” The room was paneled in dark oak and featured a large fireplace opposite the entrance doors. The costly interior decoration included Axminister carpets and Italian draperies. Also on this floor was a card room and a library, both paneled in antique oak, and a private drawing room. The upper floors were relegated to sleeping rooms for members.
|By the turn of the century, the Astor mansions had been replaced with the hulking Waldorf-Astoria Hotel--commerce was creeping up Fifth Avenue.-- photo NYPL Collection|
New members paid an entrance fee of $300 and yearly dues of $75 for the privilege of using the clubhouse and claiming its prestige. Out-of-towners, called “non resident members,” enjoyed fees and dues of exactly one-half that amount.
One of the “non-resident members” in 1901 was millionaire Bostonian Frederick A. Gilbert. Gilbert was the President and General Manager of the Boston Electric Light Company. He often traveled to New York on business, and was well-known at the Waldorf-Astoria where he always stayed (that hotel by now occupied the former site of the Astor mansions between 33rd and 34th Streets).
In January that year Gilbert arrived in New York to attempt to consolidate the Edison Company, New York City’s major electric concern, with his own. On the 18th of January he spent most of the day in the Wall Street area then returned to the hotel before going to the New York Club where he was to dine with friends.
The 54-year old Gilbert, whom The New York Times described as “very corpulent,” was seated at his table in the main dining room around 8:45. The newspaper said “The room was well filled. Mr. Gilbert was quite jovial and was telling a story to his companions when he suddenly paled and, clutching his throat and his breast at the same time, exclaimed, ‘I am ill!’”
Staff ran to summon doctors, but before they had even left the room, Gilbert lurched forward “and in a few moments life was extinct,” said The Times. Polite dinner conversation was over among the other members in the room. “The incident created much excitement, and the diners gathered about the table at which Mr. Gilbert had been eating.”
The newspaper somewhat bluntly ran the headline “Dropped Dead At A Club.”
Later that year the glorious marble A. T. Stewart mansion was razed. The New York Club was little-by-little being engulfed by commerce. In February 1905 club members were embroiled in heated discussions; not about whether to leave the clubhouse, but where to go. In January the club had sold the old mansion to Boehm & Coon for $1,100,000. The developers simultaneously bought the L-shaped Caswell property that embraced it. There was little doubt now that the end of the road for the venerable Caswell mansion was near.
In March 1907 the New York Club moved into its new nine-story home on West 40th Street. The New York Times called it “a bachelor’s heaven.” Within months the Caswell mansion was demolished and in its place was rising the eleven-story commercial building designed by Clinton & Russell, with George A. Boehm as associate architect. The building survives today.
|The view down 5th Avenue today is unrecognizable from the days when the Caswell, Stewart and Astor mansions lined up along its western side. photograph taken by the author|
The passing of New York Club building was indeed the end of an era--the last vestige of the elite residential neighborhood in this section of Fifth Avenue.