Saturday, September 14, 2013

The 1896 James Goodwin Houses -- Nos. 9-11 West 54th Street

photo by Alice Lum
St. Luke’s Hospital had encompassed the Fifth Avenue block from 54th to 55th Streets for four decades when a new facility was erected in 1896 further uptown.  Now building plots were suddenly available in the residential neighborhood populated by Vanderbilts and Rockefellers.

It did not take long for impressive buildings to begin rising on the newly-cleared land.  That same year that the University Club began rising at the northwest corner of West 54th Street and Fifth Avenue and James Junius Goodwin started construction on his mansion that straddled Nos. 9 and 11 West 54th.

The esteemed architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White were responsible for the design of both structures.  For Goodwin, the firm produced two separate residences deftly designed to appear as a single unit.   The final years of the 19th century saw increased interest in things Colonial.  Goodwin himself was highly interested in the early history of the country.  The Goodwin family had arrived in Connecticut in the 17th century and James was a life member of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, a member and vice-president of the Connecticut Historical Society, and the Society of Colonial Wars.   It is little wonder that for his new home the architects turned to Colonial American architecture.  They drew their inspiration from Charles Bulfinch’s 1806 Harrison Gray Otis house in Boston.

Bulfinch's 1806 Harrison Gray Otis House provided inspiration fo the Goodwin mansion -- photograph by Daderot
The completed Goodwin mansion at No. 11 was three bays wide—one third larger than the house at No. 9 intended as rental income.  By positioning the portico to the far right of No. 11 and downplaying the entrance of No. 9, the doorway of No. 11 became centered within the mass of the structures.  Balance was achieved and only a close inspection revealed the separate homes.

McKim, Mead & White drew on traditional 18th century elements—small iron balconies, splayed lintels and paneled keystones.  The interesting window enframements of the second story were particularly similar to those found in the Otis house.

Two years after the house was completed work was still being done on the street -- photo for McKim, Mead & White, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,
Goodwin had just retired a year earlier.  For a decade he had been the business partner of his cousin, J. Pierpont Morgan.   Retirement did not significantly slow down his business involvement, however.  He maintained interests in the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company, the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, the Collins Company, the Connecticut Trust and Safe Deposit Company, the Holyoke Water Power Company and the New York, Lake Erie and Western Railroad.

Twenty-three years earlier Goodwin had married Josephine Sarah Lippincott who, like her husband, was descended from early New England settlers.   The couple had three sons—Walter Lippincott, James Lippincott and Philip Lippincott.  A fourth son died in infancy.

Pollution has eroded the white marble detailing of the portico capitals -- photo by Alice Lum
The Goodwins maintained a Connecticut home on Asylum Avenue in Hartford and spent a great deal of time in that state.  In 1910 he was mentioned as a Republican candidate for Governor of Connecticut.  Nevertheless, the Goodwins spent enough time on West 54th Street that James established himself in the city’s most exclusive men’s clubs—including the Union, Century and Metropolitan.

The block filled with financiers and physicians and in 1915 the Goodwins were leasing No. 9 to Dr. William S. Bryant.   That same year a three year legal battle was coming to an end for ex-Police Lieutenant Charles Becker.  The former cop had been head of the NYPD Vice Squad and added to his income by accepting bribes from illegal gambling clubs.  When the owner of a Broadway gambling house, gangster Herman Rosenthal, known as “the Black Ace,” got in Becker's way, the cop had him murdered.

Now, at 3:45 in the morning on July 30, 1915 Dr. Bryant stepped from a car onto the grounds of Sing Sing Prison.  He and two other official witnesses, Dr. Joseph C. Stammers and Milton Schnaer, a sanitary engineer, were here to view the electrocution of Becker.

A month earlier, on June 23, James Junius Goodwin had died in the Hartford home at the age of 80.  His $25 million fortune was divided among his sons and Josephine.  “Mrs. Josephine Goodwin, of 11 West Fifty-fourth Street, widow of Mr. Goodwin, was left all her husband’s wearing apparel, jewelry, personal effects and silverware as well as his library, paintings, horses, automobiles, conservatories and greenhouses,” reported the New-York Tribune on July 4, 1915.

Museums, hospitals and orphanages who had been waiting hopefully for the reading of the will were disappointed.  “Rumors soon after the death of Mr. Goodwin that a large share of the estate would go to charities were unfounded.”

Josephine continued to use the 54th Street house.  By 1928 she was leasing No. 9 to wealthy real estate developer Francis de Ruyter Wissman and his wife.  Mrs. Wissman was marginally socially connected in that her brother, Sidney Jones Colford, Jr. had been married to the former Mrs. Reginald C. Vanderbilt prior to her death in June 1927.  The couple was still here two years later when they set sail on the Aquitania to summer in Europe.

By now most of the Midtown mansions had been razed or converted for business purposes.  Yet, although the south side of the block had been obliterated for the Museum of Modern Art, the north side retained many of its private residences.  Included were Josephine Goodwin’s dignified brick residence.

In 1903 the Goodwins had the shades pulled to protect upholstery and other fabrics from the damaging rays of the sun -- photo by Wurts Bros.from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,,-general-exterior.-2F3XC5LRHP.html
Josephine Sarah Lippincott Goodwin died in 1931.  In 1940 the mansion become the Inter-America House, deemed by the American Import and Export Bulletin “one of the outstanding centers of International Trade at the 1940 New York World’s Fair.”  The house was used for a variety of events intended to foster good will between the United States and South American countries.

In 1941 The New York Times reported that “Many miles from home, fourteen Girl Guides from American republics and twenty-nine visiting Venezuelan Boy Scouts met yesterday at Inter-American House at 11 West Fifty-fourth Street.  They were outnumbered by the hundred New York Boy and Girl Scouts who were their hosts, but they lost no time in turning a quiet afternoon into a gay fete with authentic South American flavor.”

The same year a reception was held in honor of seven Latin American “Coffee Queens” who were on a good-will tour; and 60 women from eighteen Latin-American countries offered their services as volunteer seamstresses to the Red Cross three days after the U.S. entered World War II.

photo by Alice Lum
In 1943 No. 9 was owned by the Museum of the Modern Art, called the “Annex.”  It was converted hat year to the museum’s new photography center.
A banner announces the Rhodes School on June 6, 1945, seen from the roof of the Museum of Modern Art across the street -- photograph by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The following year the Goodwin house was sold to the Parsonage Point Realty Co., which leased the building to the Rhodes Preparatory School in 1946.  The private facility taught students from 7th grade through 12th, drawing privileged pupils from the world over.  The school would remain in the house until 1979 when the United State Trust Company purchased the building.

The bank’s embracing of the historic and handsome building was an unusually early example of purposeful recycling of vintage architecture.  Ada Louise Huxtable remarked “After investigating prestigious new buildings at prime avenue locations, with virtually no restrictions on price of choice the bank chose the 54th Street houses specifically for their architectural and landmark qualities.  The decision was made with equal recognition of the unique ambiance they would provide, the gesture to the street and the city that their use and preservation would make.”

Miraculously, a row of six mansions survives virtually unchanged along W. 54th Street -- photo by Alice Lum
In November 2009, the property was purchased by J. D. Carlisle Development for $29 million.  It sits among a row of rare, essentially untouched mansions built in the last years of the 19th century when bankers and doctors rushed to build on the newly-available St. Luke’s Hospital grounds.


  1. Besides being an interesting history in itself, this provides some background on son Philip Lippincott Goodwin. Thank You!

  2. Sometimes I come across a picture of a building that looks eerily familiar and then bam! An American architect ripped it off. Honestly Americans reinterpreted European vernacular very well but originality took a back seat for the exteriors.

    1. A few architects at the time, McKim, Mead & White and Horace Trumbauer as examples, notoriously designed near-copies of existing buildings. Louis Sullivan was instrumental in putting an end to the trend.

  3. I attended Rhodes School from 1968 to 1974. While we knew some of the history of the building that housed our school, this blog fills in a number of the blanks. Thanks for writing this - it will be shared with a number of former "Rhodesters".