Monday, August 5, 2013

The Lost McMurtry Mansion -- No. 812 Fifth Avenue

The McMurtry house, seen above in 1907, would originally have been very similar to No. 811 to the right.  Next door at No. 813 (left) is the ostentatious mansion of Francis Ahrend.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In December of 1887, while Mrs. F. Fisher was busy making plans for a reception and dance to be held in her mansion at No. 812 Fifth Avenue on the evening of the 21st, George Gibson McMurtry had other things on his mind. 

As a teen, the Irish-born orphan had been placed on a steamer by his uncle to make his way in America.  He worked in various trades, slowly advancing in the steel business.  He eventually established the Apollo Iron and Steel Company in 1885 in Apollo, Pennsylvania.  And he almost immediately ran into labor problems.

Management and labor were continually at odds and McMurtry blamed it all on alcohol.  “The Cyclopedia of American Biography” explained “Regarding intemperance as the cause of much misery among the working people, as well as of inefficiency in the work performed, he endeavored to eliminate this evil.”  He found, however, that foundry workers in the 1880s were loathe to give up their drink.

As a result the labor unions rebelled in full force. "Strikes and other forms of friction followed and caused endless trouble.”

To find a solution, McMurtry “made an extended tour of the great European industrial centers” and at the Krupp Works in Germany got the idea of a company town for the workers.  On his return, he completely reorganized the Apollo operation.  He built a new plant a few miles outside of town and built a 640-acre town that he named Vandergrift.

Intending to create a “model community,” he hired the architectural firm of Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot to design “school buildings, libraries, churches, water supply, sewer system, lighting plant, sanitation, well-paved streets.”  He did not relent on liquor, however.  “The Cyclopedia” noted “The liquor traffic was completely eliminated, and the people found that that was good.  Poverty disappeared before prosperity; content took the place of misery, and families who had known the bitterness of want found themselves gradually possessed of the luxuries of life.”

Vandergrift was completed in 1895.  Workers moved in and relations between them and McMurtry reversed.  The millionaire mill owner was now viewed as a friend and benefactor.

Back in New York Mrs. Fisher’s house on Fifth Avenue was leased to United States Rubber Company executive Richard Evans.  The lease appears to have begun on January 1, 1897 when deliveries of furniture first began.  Evans’s first month in the handsome residence would not go smoothly.

As Evans’s furnishings were unpacked, the crates and packing material—mostly excelsior—were taken to the cellar.  On the morning of January 19 the servants smelled smoke and the butler, Henry Johnson, opened the cellar door to find flames that “had gained some headway,” according to The Sun.

Johnson ran into the street and found Policeman Long who rang an alarm.  The highly flammable packing materials were blazing when firefighters arrived.  “The firemen chopped away part of the basement floor, and finally succeeded in subduing the flames with three streams of water after two hours’ work,” said the newspaper.  Richard Evans found himself dealing with what would amount to about $36,000 worth of damages to his new rental home.

In 1900 the American Sheet Steel Company was formed with McMurtry as president.  It soon merged into the American Sheet and Tin Plate Company, a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation.  Now in his 60s and extremely wealthy, “Mr. McMurtry felt justified in retiring and taking up his residence in New York City,” said “The Cyclopedia of American Biography.”

George and his wife, the former Clara Lothrop, had four children.  At least one of them, George, Jr., moved into the old Fisher mansion at No. 812 Fifth Avenue with his parents.   The brownstone-fronted mansion had started life out as a relatively mundane, if luxurious, rowhouse.  It was probably Mrs. Fisher who gave the house a late Victorian makeover.

Four stories tall it sat above a deep English basement.  While its stoop and portico were relatively unchanged, it now showed off with French Second Empire embellishments.  Handsome carved window framings and an eye-catching two-tier mansard roof set it apart from its neighbors.

McMurtry leased the house from Charles H. Sanford (although the title was in Sanford’s wife’s name).  Sanford seems to have been having financial problems, for his name was publicized in 1900 for being in arrears on his personal taxes.

Eventually George purchased the mansion, but transferred the title to Clara’s name.  As with the Sanfords, titles of personal real estate were often put in the wife’s name.  Clara’s ownership of the property would forego sticky problems in the event of her husband’s death. 

The New York Times noted on April 29, 1902 “The dwelling 812 Fifth Avenue, near Sixty-second Street, for some time the residence of George G. McMurtry, President of the American Sheet Steel Company, was conveyed yesterday to Clara L. McMurtry by Sarah F. Sandford for an expressed consideration of $270,000.”  In today’s dollars, Clara’s new house would have cost just under $6 million.

Later that year, in October, McMurtry was presented with a sterling silver Tiffany & Co. punch bowl by his former employees.  The solid-silver bowl weighed an astonishing 42 pounds and was gold lined.  Included in the rich ornamentation was a portrait of McMurtry below which was the inscription “A lovable character and possessor of many noble qualities, who, by his generous deeds, has proved himself a true friend of the workingman.”  The workers had obviously forgiven him for taking away their liquor.

The bowl was a wonder of silversmithing.   Beneath the four columns that supported the bowl was a “perfectly modeled miniature street mill, with the men in their natural position when putting a sheet of steel through the rolls,” reported The New York Times.  The newspaper said “The bowl is pronounced one of the distinctly notable products of the year in art silversmithing.”   Tiffany & Co. charged the workers $5,000 for the tribute.

Three months later the very eligible 26-year old George Junior’s engagement to Mabel Post was announced.  George’s fashionable bachelor dinner was held at Delmonico’s on December 12.  The wedding took place four days later at the home of the bride. 

By now an established broker, George and his new wife moved into the house at No. 812 Fifth Avenue with his parents.  He brought unwanted attention to the family on July 19, 1907 when he was arrested for racing on city streets.  George teamed up with two chauffeurs—Charles Aldridge, the chauffeur of stockbroker Henry Guy; and Louis Le Boulanger, Frederick Havemeyer’s driver—to outrace one another on Hoffman Boulevard in Far Rockaway.

Before long four motorcycle policemen were engaged in “a lively chase,” according to The Evening World.  “During the pursuit Policeman Shepard’s machine hit an obstruction and he was shot into the gutter alongside the road,” said the newspaper.  “He was cut and bruised, but not seriously hurt.  The other patrolmen in the chase, Grace, Ennis and Finch, captured the motorists after a run of three miles.”

Young George waived examination and was held at $1,000 for the Court of Special Sessions.

In May 1914 George Junior and Mabel moved out of the Fifth Avenue mansion.  George leased the Henry F. Osborn mansion at No. 22 East 70th Street. 

George Senior fell ill in 1915 while summering in Atlantic City.  Suddenly, on August 6, the multi-millionaire died.   The Times noted that “Mr. McMurtry was much averse to publicity, and was said to be one of the 500 New York millionaires whose name was never seen in print.”   With her children grown and married, Clara was now left in the Fifth Avenue mansion alone.

George Junior’s quiet life on East 70th Street, in the meantime, would soon be interrupted by the United States’ entrance into World War I.  George had already served in the military.  He fought with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War and participated in the Battle of San Juan Hill.  Now he returned to serve his country, rising to the rank of Captain with the U. S. Army’s 308th Infantry.

George’s unit would become known as the Lost Battalion.  Cut off and surrounded by the enemy in the forest of Argonne, France, in October 1918, the wounded McMurtry commanded his officers and men with optimism and cool that prevented panic and chaos.  With no food or means of communication and under heavy barrage, he directed the moving of the wounded to shelter before seeking shelter himself.  On October 6 he was wounded again, this time by a grenade, yet he continued to direct and command the troops, refusing medical aid or relief.  After assistance came, he personally led his men out of the position before allowing himself to be taken to the hospital on October 8.  The German attack was defeated “due largely to his efforts,” according to his later Medal of Honor citation.

The McMurtry boys continued to attract notice for heroic deeds.  George’s brother Alden served throughout the war on the United States Army General Staff.  Afterward, he started an automobile parts business, and invented auto parts. 

He also had become a Connecticut State Trooper.  On the frigid night of February 15, 1920 Mrs. C. W. Dreyer was startled by the sound of crashing glass next door to her home in Sound Beach, Connecticut.   Looking out her window, she saw a flashlight beam moving about in the summer home of New York City socialite Mrs. Eliza G. Morris.

She telephone police.  Trooper McMurtry was in a nearby firehouse and he and fireman Addison Bacon sped to the Morrison mansion.  They entered through the smashed window and “descending to the cellar they saw two figures silhouetted in the pitchy darkness against a window,” reported the New-York Tribune.

When McMurtry demanded that the men surrender, he was answered with a volley of gunshots.  In the dark cellar, the policeman, fireman and thugs exchanged gunfire and one-on-one fighting.   Just when McMurtry’s flashlight caught one of the criminals peering from behind a chimney, his battery died.

“McMurtry rushed in the direction of the chimney and luckily succeeded in grappling with his antagonist,” said the newspaper.  “They rolled about the floor, neither able to see the other.  McMurtry managed to grasp the burglar’s right arm and prevent him from shooting while he belabored him with his blackjack.  The burglar got hold of some heavy instrument on the floor and struck McMurtry in the stomach with it, nearly knocking him out.”

The stalwart trooper fought on, however until he “was finally able to bring his body into a position where he could fire.  He sent five bullets into the struggling bandit, who then cried quits.”  When it was finally over, fireman Bacon had bullets lodged in his left jaw and shoulder, McMurtry was wounded in the arm and both burglars were dead.

The year following her son’s brave action, the 78-year old Clara McMurtry died in the house on Fifth Avenue on May 17, 1921.  Two months later the house was sold for $225,000.  The New-York Tribune mentioned the mansion’s prestigious neighbors at the time.  “The property adjoins the residence of F. J. Arend, 813 Fifth Avenue…the north-corner of Sixty-second Steet and Fifth Avenue, which is on the same block, is owned by Mrs. Hamilton Fish, who also owns the adjoining property, 811 Fifth Avenue.  The Sixty-third Street corner contains the residence of Raymond Hoagland.”

No matter how prestigious the address, the house at No. 812 Fifth Avenue was decidedly out of fashion by 1921.  The Tribune noted that “The purchaser intends to occupy the house after making minor structural changes.”

The “minor structural changes” that the new owner, architect Charles T. Mathews, had in mind were not so minor.   The architect had earned attention for remodeling the Church of the Holy Trinity in 1891 and for remodeling the east end of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1893. 

Within the year the mansion’s brownstone face had been stripped off to be replaced by gleaming white limestone.  The rusticated facade was interrupted by two-story pilasters at the second and third floors and the exuberant Victorian mansard was toned down.  Mathews saved the expense of relocating the entrance to street level; but disguised the old mansion with a vaguely French Classic face.

Once the exterior reconstruction was completed, renovations of the interior commenced that would last for years.   In 1928 the work was nearing completion, but still it was occupied only by servants.  Mathews was living at the Metropolitan Club.  On February 28 that year the work turned to tragedy.

In 1923 work was still going on in the remodeled home.  The flanking mansions are unchanged.  photograph by Wurts Brothers, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Mathew’s sister, Florence, was supervising the workers around 1:30 in the afternoon.  One of the painters, J. Beck was at work in the second floor hall removing varnish from the woodwork.  The chemicals used were combustible and somehow, perhaps because of an electrical apparatus he was using, there was an explosion.  The flames spread along the woodwork of the second floor, racing up the stairs to the third floor.

Overtaken by the explosion, Beck inhaled flames and fell to the floor.  Another painter, James Harris, saw the blaze and shouted to the others in the house.  Painter Fred Leutaemeyer and Florence Mathews reached the basement level safely.  But behind them, a servant, Elizabeth White, rushed in the wrong direction and was trapped by flames.  She shut herself in a fourth floor room and screamed for help out the window.  The Times reported that “The flames were already racing up the corridors past the third floor to the fourth.  Her escape was cut off and the flames were threatening to break from the hallway into her room.”

The panic-ridden woman was finally carried down a ladder by a firefighter.

An estimated crowd of 5,000 gathered on Fifth Avenue watching the drama play out.  Inside, Lieutenant James Connolly and Fireman Elwood Grebe were heading up the staircase when the skylight above exploded and rained glass and metal down onto them.  Grebe suffered severe head injuries and Connolly a broken nose.

When the flames were finally extinguished, J. Beck was, tragically, dead.    Damages to the house that Mathews had been working on for nearly a decade and which were nearly completed were estimated to be about half of what he originally paid for it.

“The fire was contained almost entirely to the hallways,” reported The Times.  “Several tapestries were reported damaged.  Valuable oil paintings suffered to some extent from heat and smoke, although the flames did not make their way into the rooms where they were hung.  Several tapestries and other works of art were carried out by firemen.”

The house was repaired and the esteemed bachelor architect and author moved in with his unmarried sister Florence.  After his death in January 1934, the house along with the bulk of Mathews’s estate went to her.  With her brother gone, however, Florence preferred to live at the family estate, The Elms, in Norwalk.  Unaffected by the Great Depression, she maintained a staff of ten and continued her lavish lifestyle.

She did return to No. 812 when socially necessary, however.  In 1938 she hosted the wedding reception of her great niece, Patricia M. Martin, following her marriage to Dr. James Lawrence Pool.   Later that year, on August 16, she died at the age of 82 while sleeping in the Norwalk mansion.

In February 1939 the doors of No. 812 Fifth Avenue were opened to the public as Charles’s and Florence’s furnishings and artworks were auctioned off.  The New York Times reported that “The sale will contain a series of Louis XIV Felletin tapestries after Charles Lebrun depicting episodes in the life of Alexander.  Also in the sale will be furniture, crystal chandeliers, porcelain table lamps, fireplace furnishings, Continental paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and Oriental rugs.”

Perhaps to protect his house next door, Francis Arend purchased No. 812.  But in 1945 he had moved out of No. 813 and the former Mathews mansion was being leased to the Fashion Academy.  In April of that year he sold both  properties to Mrs. Ann Hartman.  The Times said that No. 812 was “said to be the last of the old ‘high-stoop’ residences on Fifth Avenue.”

The Fashion Academy, a school of design, styling and merchandising, remained in the former mansion for nearly two decades.  In 1961 the house with three incarnations was replaced, along with its two adjoining neighbors, by a modern apartment building designed by Robert Bien.

The new building replaced three old structures -- photo by Alice Lum

1 comment:

  1. Wow, so much history and drama from one address. Well done on researching and pulling this all together.