Monday, August 12, 2013

The Lost James Lenox Mansion -- 53 5th Avenue

To the left is the home of Henrietta Lenox, a smaller version of her brother's commodious corner mansion.   photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Born in 1759 in Kirkcubright, Scotland, Robert Lenox arrived in New York City at the end of the Revolutionary War.  In 1783 he married Rachel Carmer and the couple had six children—only one of whom was a son.  Lenox amassed a comfortable fortune in the East India trade and in 1818 paid $6,920 for thirty acres of land far to the north of the city where wealthy New Yorkers still maintained large summer estates.  Called the Lenox Farm throughout the 19th century, it would eventually be known as the Lenox Hill neighborhood of the Upper East Side.
The nearly $7,000 that Lenox paid was a staggering amount and Lenox knew he had overpaid for the land.  But he also predicted the eventual value of the property as the growing city spread northward.  In his will dated May 23, 1829, he cautioned his James to hold on to the potentially profitable land.

I give, device, and bequeath to my son, my only son, James Lenox, ‘My Farm at the Five-Mile Stone,’ purchased in part from the Corporation of the City of New York, and containing about thirty acres, with all its improvements, stock of horses, cattle, and farming utensils, for and during the term of his life, and after his death to his heirs forever.  My motive for so leaving this property is a firm persuasion that it may at no distant day be the site of a village, and as it cost me more than its present worth, from circumstances known to my family, I like to cherish the belief it may be realized to them.  At all events, I want the experiment made by keeping the property from being sold.

Upon his father’s death in 1839, James Lenox became one of the wealthiest men in the city.  At 39 years old, he took over the family business for six years, then retired in 1845 to concentrate on his true love—collecting and studying.
Almost immediately following his father’s death, Lenox began construction of a pair of impressive mansions at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street.   Development of Fifth Avenue had begun only a few years earlier when Henry Brevoort completed his handsome brownstone mansion in 1834.  The Lenox mansions would diminish the Brevoort house.
The paired homes stretched 131 feet up the avenue—the width of at least four normal-sized building lots—and 150 feet along 12th Street.   James would live in the massive corner house, his sister Henrietta in the noticeably smaller—albeit expansive—adjoining mansion.   The brownstone structures were designed in the currently-popular Gothic Revival style, taking the motif to the point of romantic crenellation along the roofline.  Ornate Gothic-style iron fencing enclosed the surrounding yards.  Inside 53 Fifth Avenue, with its nearly twenty rooms, would be old Italian marble fireplaces, a spacious entry hall and staircase, and frescoed ceilings.  
Lenox’s influence led to the immediate Fifth Avenue neighborhood's becoming a family enclave.  The blocks around Henrietta’s and James’ mansions filled with the lavish homes of the Maitlands, Kennedys, and Banks families—all related by marriage to the Lenoxes.
Before his mansion was completed Lenox had already begun his collecting.  He traveled throughout Europe amassing a broad variety of books, artwork and artifacts.  But he became increasingly private, filling his house with his collection and neurotically guarding his treasures against the outside world.  In 1845 he began a long-lasting relationship with Englishman Henry Stevens who would act as Lenox’s book purchasing agent.  It was not until 1847 that the two would meet and Stevens remembered that visit well.
In his 1886 Recollections of Mr. James Lenox of New York, Stevens told of arriving in New York and sending a message to Lenox that he “would be glad to see him at any time and place most convenient to himself.”  A boy returned with a one-line reply “To-morrow morning at nine o’clock at my house.”
Stevens’ acquaintances were excited that someone was being given access to the mansion.  “Now we shall hear and know something of Mr. Lenox, his library, and new house,” they told him. 
The next morning, on the stroke of nine, I mounted the broad stone steps and rang the bell.  A maiden servant opened the door on the chain six or eight inches, and asked, ‘Are you Mr. Stevens?’ ‘Yes.’ 'Mr. Lenox is in his office below; you can enter by the door under the steps.’  Down I went and again rang a bell, when Mr. Lenox himself unlocked a door and an iron gate and gave me a warm welcome.
Stevens was shown the magnificent two-story Gothic library, the gallery, “and a room or two besides the hall, and many closed doors.”   Stevens said “I came to the conclusion that the treasures of his mind, as a matter of habit, like his front door, always ‘had the chain up.’”
The entrance hall of the Lenox mansion -- photo by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.
Even after the pair had established a close relationship, Lenox remained detached.  On November 25, 1868 he wrote to Stevens offering a 15-minute window in which to meet.
My Dear Sir,  I have received your letter of the 24th from Ithaca.  I will be at home on Friday morning from ¼ past to ½ past 9.  Should the holiday of tomorrow prevent you getting this note in time, I will be at home at the same time on Saturday, and if you are not here by ½ past 9 on Friday, I will expect you on Saturday.  Yrs. very truly,  J. Lenox
Henry Stevens was one of the few outsiders to glimpse James Lenox’s growing collection.  Scholars and bibliophiles attempted to, but were almost always rebuffed.  A distinguished clergyman from Brooklyn had a strong desire to see the library.  He arrived at the Lenox mansion and passed his card through the cracked door.  The Sun reported, “He was left standing outside the door until the aged servant had gone with great deliberation for an answer, which was in effect: ‘Mr. Lenox don’t know you, has never heard of you, and you can’t see his library.’”
In another instance, Chief Justice Daly wished to see a particular book, of which there was only one copy in the country—in Lenox’s library.  He sent a note to Lenox and, as recorded by The Sun, “The book was sent, but a servant was sent with it, with orders to wait until the Judge got through with the book, and then to bring it back.”
Lenox’s collection went far beyond his library, which contained the first copy of a Guttenberg Bible in America, all the known editions of Milton’s Areopagitica and Paradise Lost, and first editions of Shakespeare’s plays.  His walls were hung with uncounted numbers of oil paintings, sketches and etchings.  In 1848, Lenox outbid the Congress Library for George Washington’s Farewell Address.  He paid $2,200 for the manuscript (about $50,000 today) and considered it one of his greatest treasures.

James Lenox -- from the collection of the New York Public Library 

In the meantime, while Henry Stevens was scouring the world for rare books and Lenox was amassing an enormous art collection, the millionaire spent freely on philanthropic causes.  A pious Presbyterian, he was famous for his devout morality and willingness to spread his wealth among worthwhile causes.  While he held on to most of the Lenox Farm as his father wished, he donated parts of it for the establishment of the Presbyterian Hospital and the Presbyterian Home for Aged Women.  
His charity included the not-so-grand, as well.  On June 19, 1865, he sent a letter to Colonel Vincent Colyer that read, “Dear Sir:  I enclose a check to your order for $250, which you will please apply to the purchase of ice, fruit, etc., for the returning soldiers.  Yours very truly, J. Lenox”
Family members urged him to name the hospital for which he paid "The Lenox Hospital," but he steadfastly refused.  He eschewed notoriety as passionately as some millionaires sought it.  And, although he gained the reputation of a recluse, he was social among his small circle of intimate friends, most of whom were relatives.
On January 24, 1870 the New-York Tribune wrote, 
For many years past, scholars have known of the existence in this city of a private library and gallery of marvelous value, comprising collections of unequaled importance in several departments of literature, and containing treasures of art whose worth could not be computed by dollars, or compared with any that existed elsewhere in the country…As [Lenox] possessed the habits of a recluse with the tastes of a scholar, there were but few even of his more intimate acquaintances in scholarship who ever had had anything like a full comprehension of the value of his collections, and it is doubtful whether anybody but himself could make a catalogue of his library, or give a statement of his treasures…During the long period of their collection, the owner has guarded them with a jealousy and rigor which have effectually discouraged all attempts of outsiders to enter the sacred precincts.
But now, the newspaper announced, James Lenox had decided to make a “gift to the people of this city.”  The collection had successfully overwhelmed the Fifth Avenue mansion and Lenox felt now was the time to make it public.  He donated Lenox Farm land--the blockfront on Fifth Avenue from 70th to 71st Street--for a library, along with $300,000.  Two-thirds of the funds were to be spent on erecting the building and the remainder to defray the expense of maintaining and operating the library.
The Lenox Library, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, was as much museum as library, housing Assyrian antiquities and paintings by Constable, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Turner, and Raeburn alongside American works by Frederick Church, Cole, Morse, Copley and Inman.
On February 17, 1880, James Lenox died in the brownstone mansion on Fifth Avenue.  The Sun reported, "He was in excellent health up to the last two months of his life.  From that time he began to succumb to the infirmities of age.  His death was peaceful and painless.”
The private man in life remained private in death.  “He shrank so much from notoriety that he left rigid instructions to his relatives and friends to withhold all information of his life from publication," reported The Sun.  "This wish was thoroughly respected, so that applications made last evening to his relatives, his pastor, Dr. Paxton; his physician, Dr. W. H. Draper; his former associate, Royal Phelps, and others who knew him intimately, elicited the universal reply, ‘Mr. Lenox shunned publicity, and he has sealed our lips.’”
Old Buildings of New York City, 1907 (copyright expired)

The funeral took place in the mansion at noon on February 21 during a raging snowstorm.  The New York Times reported, “The last request of the late James Lenox—that his funeral should be strictly private, attended only by his relatives and most intimate friends—was so carefully respected that less than a score and a half of persons were gathered in the plain, old-fashioned brown-stone dwelling at Fifth-avenue and Twelfth-street.”  Only two of the mourners, his doctor and his pastor, were not relatives.
There were no flowers in the house and the simple mahogany casket was ornamented only with a silver plate inscribed, “James Lenox. Born 19 August, 1800.  Died 17 February, 1880.”
The funeral party followed the coffin from the house at 1:00.  The New-York Tribune noted “The funeral procession, in which there were only eight carriages, attracted little notice as it slowly moved in a blinding snow-storm through Twelfth-st. to Second-ave. and thence to the Marble Cemetery, in Second-st., where the remains were placed in the family vault, No. 124, the tablet of which is inscribed with the name of Robert Lenox.  The storm still raged as the little party of twelve gentlemen and five ladies stood gathered around the vault when Dr. Paxton pronounced the benediction.”
The bachelor millionaire left nearly his entire estate to his unmarried sister Henrietta.  By the time of his death he had donated over $3 million to charitable causes.  His brownstone mansion would sit vacant until Henrietta’s death six years later on July 6, 1886.  Her immense estate, valued at around $10 million, was divided among the many relatives.
The Lenox mansion became the property of the Presbyterian Church and became known as the Presbyterian House.  It was here in December 1888 that a conference between Northern and Southern Presbyterians was held in an attempt to bring “about co-operation and possibly an organic union.”
Before long the house was used for the church’s missionary offices.  Now called Mission House, various committees and groups used its rooms.  In July 1892, scores of visiting members of the Presbyterian Christian Endeavorers visited the facilities.  The New York Times reported, “they filled the sidewalk on the east side of Fifth Avenue from Madison Square to Twelfth Street…The representatives of the two boards took charge of the visitors and showed them the building and all that it contained.  There was the library, with all its curios, maps, and attractive objects picked up by observant Presbyterian missionaries in all parts of the world, and here placed to make a really valuable museum.”
In 1894, after receiving a large bequest from a wealthy church member, the Presbyterian Church erected the large Presbyterian Building at 156 Fifth Avenue.  With the lower Fifth Avenue neighborhood increasingly overtaken by commerce, the former Lenox mansion was now somewhat of a white elephant.  After three years of arguing, the General Assembly decided to sell the house in 1897.
“When the Lenox mansion, at 53 Fifth Avenue, was sold there were fears that this fine type of the spacious old-time New York residence would be torn down to make way for a modern structure,” said The New York Times.  But it was purchased by nearby Fifth Avenue resident Thomas Fortune Ryan for the expressed purpose of preserving the neighborhood. 
By 1905 when the newly-formed Institute of Musical Art moved in, the mansion was in a serious state of neglect.   The school spent $11,000 in repairs.
The new organization (which would eventually become the Julliard School) attracted promising musicians from around the nation.  Thirty-two-year-old John G. McFadden came here in November 1906 from Oberlin, Ohio, where he had worked his way through college, focusing on vocal music.  He entered a class taught by Prof. W. Klamroth and showed great talent, but suddenly developed a catarrhal infection that threatened his prospects of becoming a singer.
Klamroth sent him to Dr. Percy E. D. Malcolm, who saw the young man once a month.  McFadden refused to become a charity case so he scrimped on food in order to save money for his doctor bills.  “He had grown thinner and thinner, his hair had turned to a grizzly gray, and Dr. Malcolm warned him more than once that he was not nurturing his body properly,” reported The New York Times.
The doctor found the singer “on the verge of collapse in a chair in his office” in April 1907 and sent him to the New York Hospital where he died.  The New York Times ran the headline, “Young Musician Starves” and wrote, “The poorly nurtured body could not stand the strain and early yesterday he succumbed.  He had been eating, it is said, in the cheapest restaurants, with great infrequency, and depending on the scanty meals that he had in his cold hall bedroom.”
The Institute rented space to other organizations, the U.S. Aeronautical Reserve and the Washington Square Association among them.  Then, in 1910 it laid the cornerstone for a new, modern facility uptown.
With the school gone Thomas Ryan gave up.  “Mr. Ryan paid about $385,000 for the property,” said The New York Times on April 2, 1911, “and he bought other property in the neighborhood in an effort to prevent the encroachments of business.  A little over a year ago Mr. Ryan felt that lower Fifth Avenue was doomed to become a commercial section, and he bought his new Fifth Avenue house, adjoining George Gould’s home at Sixty-seventh Street.
“On the site of the old Lenox mansion will be erected an eighteen-story business structure costing more than $1,500,000.”
photograph taken by the author

The modern office building, designed by Maynicke & Franke, survives and its footprint reveals the massive scale of the Lenox mansions that dominated the corner.


  1. Maybe a tiny typo here?

    “James Lenox. Born 19 August, 1880. Died 17 February, 1880.”

    Surely his birth year was 1800? Unless he was a time traveler...

  2. Good to learn more about Lenox. Until now all I knew of him was based on this anecdote (from Stephen Birmingham's Our Crowd):
    August Belmont's art gallery was the first in the city to be lighted from a
    skylight in the roof, and the collection of art it housed was remarkable,
    including works by Madrazo, Rosa Bonheur, Meissonier, Vibert, and-truly
    scandalous-an assortment of voluptuous and oversize nudes by Bouguereau.
    Most scandalized by the last was an Old Guard New Yorker named James
    Lenox, who lived directly across the street from the Belmonts. Leaning of
    Mr. Lenox's objections to the Bouguereaus, Belmont defiantly hung the
    largest and most explicit of the nudes just inside his front door so that
    it would be in full view of the Lenox front windows every time the Belmont
    front door was opened, which, in light of the amount of entertaining
    Belmont did, was often. Mr. Lenox would become almost apoplectic at the
    mention of the Belmont name, and according to Lucius Beebe, when Lenox was
    told that Belmont spent twenty thousand dollars a month on wines alone,
    Lenox collapsed of a heart attack and died.