On December 12, 1882 sugar refining magnate Robert L. Stuart died in his brownstone residence at No. 154 Fifth Avenue. He left his widow an estate valued at between $5 and $6 million and the unfinished hulking stone mansion 48 blocks to the north. Upon his death The New York Times remarked that “The new residence which Mr. Stuart was building at Sixty-eighth street and Fifth-avenue was to cost $350,000, and the owner expected to occupy it next Spring. It is very nearly completed, and will prove one of the most notable ornaments of the avenue. It has a frontage on Fifth-avenue of 55 feet, and on Sixty-eighth-street of 136 feet, and the general style of the architecture is the Renaissance.”
Stuart ensured that the sidewalk fronting his mansion would be flawless. The Times said “The flagstone in front of the main entrance is the largest ever quarried and laid in one piece, being 26 feet 6 inches long, 15 feet 6 inches wide, and 9 inches think, and weighing 430 tons.”
Stuart had commissioned architect William Schickel to design the mansion he would never occupy. Schickel combined elements of the French Second Empire and Renaissance Revival styles to create a bulky confection of oriels, balconies, dormers and cast iron cresting. The widowed Mary McCrea Stuart had the mansion completed at a final cost of $640,000 not including the land. She moved into the new Fifth Avenue mansion, entertaining in the three large parlors, impressive dining room and ballroom.
Eventually the aging Mary’s health showed signs of decline. In 1887 she slipped while going to her carriage and broke a leg. For months she was confined to bed in the house. In February 1889 she showed symptoms of pneumonia and traveled to Thomasville, Georgia with her companion, Miss Stratton and several servants. When her condition continued to decline, her doctor was summoned from New York. The New York Times reported that “Upon his arrival a consultation took place concerning Mrs. Stuart’s wish that she should be removed to her home in Sixty-eighth-street. The physicians did not fancy this, believing that such a course would be fatal to the patient, but her will was not to be withstood.”
A special train was chartered to transport Mary Stuart home, “under the contract to make Jersey City within a day.” She 75-year old widow paid $1000 for the special train which traveled at the then-astounding average speed of 41 miles per hour. Within the contracted 24 hours she was back in her bed at No. 871 Fifth Avenue. She survived the pneumonia and the trip, but would die here at the age of 81 on December 30, 1891.
After Mary’s charitable bequeaths were fulfilled and the valuable collection of artwork and books were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an auction of her residual property was held in March 1893. “The sale, by Mr. Peter F. Meyer,” said The New York Times “was a remarkably successful one in all respects save one. This exception was the mansion on Fifth Avenue.”
Offers were made on the spacious mansion for over a year, none of which satisfied the executors of the estate. Finally on December 10, 1894 Amzi L. Barber of the Barber and Trinidad Asphalt Companies purchased it for $675,000.
Barber had renovations done; and by 1895 he and his wife were entertaining in the updated mansion. Society pages reported on dinners and musicales, like the one for Mrs. Anna Randall Diehl in the residence that year.
But Barber would be here for only about two years. The mansion became the home of Levi P. Morton, former Vice President of the United States under Benjamin Harrison, and Governor of New York. Morton’s governorship had ended in 1896 and he leased the house from its new owner, former Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney.
While Morton was in the house, Whitney and his wife were living at the southwest corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. Whitney had purchased that brownstone mansion from the Duchess de Dino thirteen years earlier. Now, Whitney’s son, Harry Payne Whitney, was on his honeymoon with his new bride, Gertrude Vanderbilt, and the 57th Street house was his father’s wedding present to the newlyweds. “Mr. Whitney will continue to occupy the house he is in now until his son returns,” reported The Sun on November 25, 1896. The newspaper added, “What he paid for the Stuart house is not made known.”
In the meantime Governor Morton made full use of the 68th Street mansion. On Christmas Eve 1896 he hosted a dinner in honor of the Governor-elect, Frank S. Black. Around the dining room table that evening were Mayor Strong, Mayor Wurster of Brooklyn, Mayor Gleason of Long Island City, General Benjamin F. Tracy, former Mayor Thomas F. Gilrov, Seth Low, Justice John F. Dillon, General Stewart L. Woodford, Senator Clarence Lexow, Lieutenant Governor Thomothy L. Woodruff and a host of other political luminaries.
William and Edith Whitney had been married in 1895, two years after William’s first wife Flora had died. They were pleased with the location of the former Stuart mansion, but not its style. The 14-year old house was already out of fashion and the couple commissioned Stanford White to remodel it into a modern showplace. The renovation would take six years and--just as Robert L. Stuart had not lived to see his completed mansion--Edith Sibyl Randolph Whitney died during construction.
By March 1902 the mansion was nearing completion and a United States Circuit Court judge was required to make a decision regarding three ceilings. The ceilings were removed from the Barberini Palace in Florence and, according to The Sun on March 14, “are exquisitely painted in oils, on wood, and date back to the fourteenth century. The artists who painted them are unknown but the work is said to be worthy of the masters.” Although the Museum of Art of Berlin was eager to acquire one of the ceilings, “Mr. Whitney bought all three at a price that was higher than any museum could afford,” said The Sun.
Now that they had arrived in New York, there was a question on how duty should be charged. “When the Board of Appraisers was called upon to assess the duties, the question arose: whether the ceilings should be classed as manufactures of wood or as paintings by foreign artists.” The Board classified them in the first, more expensive duty category, like Vienna chairs or umbrella handles. William Whitney filed a protest and won.
“Judge Coxe, in his decision, points out that the value of the wood in the ceilings is infinitesimal, as compared with their value as paintings” reported the newspaper.
Among other imported architectural features was the music room, 60 feet long by 30 feet high, which was originally in the castle of Phoebus d’Albert, Baron of Tours during the time of Louis XIV. The room was moved to Paris in the reign of Louis Philippe, and then to New York by Whitney. The elaborately wrought iron and bronze entrance gates came from the Doria Palace in Italy. The main hall contained 16th century stained glass windows.
|photo McKim, Mead & White, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GW6DINF&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894|
Finally the house was completed and there was little trace of the Stuart mansion remaining. The entrance was now centered on 68th Street (although the more impressive Fifth Avenue address was retained). White retained some elements—the slightly projecting central section on 68th Street, the row of arched openings along the third floor, the cornice and remnants of the mansard roof—but transformed the bulk of the house into a stylish, modern residence.
The New York Times said that Stanford White “entirely remodeled it. Mr. Whitney refitted it with art treasures, which he had selected during various trips to Europe. Panelings from European palaces, wrought iron work from Florence, marbles from Roman temples, and carvings from cathedrals are all included in the decorative scheme.”
On December 18, 1903 Whitney gave the first grand entertainment in the house. “William C. Whitney gave the first notably brilliant ball of the season last night at his home, 871 Fifth avenue,” said The Sun. “It was a coming out festivity for Mr. Whitney’s niece, Miss Katherine Barney.”
The widowed millionaire’s mansion was gaily decorated for the occasion. “The walls and ceiling of the wide lower hall were trellised with vines in which were myriads of electric bulbs,” said The Sun. “Red velvet carpets were thrown on the marble floor, and the stairways were filled in with plants and made into a big picturesque cosey corner.”
On February 1, 1904 The Evening World reported that Whitney was seriously ill. He had been operated on for appendicitis a few days earlier and complications set in. “Mr. Whitney’s chances are not of the best,” said a doctor “He is in very critical condition and anything may happen at any moment…The operation on Mr. Whitney was a success as an operation, but Mr. Whitney did not recover from the shock and has steadily lost strength since.”
|The Evening World published a disturbing headline and photo of the mansion as Whitney faded (copyright expired)|
The following day, at 4:00 in the afternoon, Whitney died in the 68th Street house. He left an estate valued at over $21 million including the mansion which was assessed at $1.4 million in which he had lived only two years.
A little-known, bachelor stockbroker purchased the mansion, its furnishings and artwork as a package. James Henry “Silent” Smith not only had his own fortune, but had inherited several million dollars from his uncle, George Smith. Like its previous owners, Smith would not live long in the mansion at No. 871 Fifth Avenue. Although the broker had been termed “mousy” prior to moving in to the house, he now hobnobbed with the upper echelon of society, including Mamie Fish. He became fast friends with Annie and William Rhinelander Stewart, sharing his opera box with them and going on extended yacht trips.
Annie Stewart and James Smith became such good friends, in fact, that in August 1906 she divorced William and a month later married Smith. The couple boarded a steamer for Japan for their honeymoon. Smith would not return to New York alive.
He arrived in Kyoto seriously ill and died there in March 1907. Smith’s body was sent home in a coffin that weighed a ton and took eight men to carry. The new Mrs. Smith, her sister the Duchess of Manchester, and her daughter, Anita Stewart “were all in deep mourning” when the coffin arrived at Grand Central Depot on May 5, 1907, according to The Sun. “They went to the Smith home at 871 Fifth Avenue.” It was the first time that Annie Stewart Smith had entered the house as an occupant.
For the second time in three years the body of the mansion’s owner lay in one of the parlors. Annie’s son, William Rhinelander Stewart, Jr., told reporters “We will probably not keep the house, but I suppose that is provided for in the will.” The Sun said “He intimated that the house might be sold back to the Whitney family.” (Indeed, when Smith’s will was read “he instructed his executors to give the first refusal to buy the premises No. 871 Fifth avenue to Harry Payne Whitney,” said the New-York Tribune later.)
Instead, Annie lived here for a few years, before putting the house on the market for $2.5 million in 1908. On January 3, 1909 the New-York Tribune reported that a buyer had been found. That buyer was Harry Payne Whitney who purchased the house complete with his father’s furniture, artwork and antiques, just as Smith had done. “Included in the list of paintings are works by Van Dyck, Costa, Cranach, Murillo, Gainsborough, Diaz, and John La Farge,” said The Times.
On February 7, 1910 Mrs. Whitney gave a reception for about 200 guests. Nahan Franko’s orchestra played and Anna Pavlowa and Michael Mordkine of the Imperial Opera House of St. Petersburg and Moscow made their American debut. “Last night’s was the first large entertainment given by Mrs. Whitney since the former home of William C. Whitney was bought by Mr. Whitney from the estate of the late J. Henry Smith,” noted The Times.
In 1915 the Whitneys had a large overmantel decoration installed. The New York Times described it as “a remarkable bas relief cast from solid tin, which is said to be the largest work of art of that material ever made in this country. The relief bears the portraits of their children, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and Miss Flora Whitney. The original work was modeled in 1907 by James Earle Fraser, the sculptor.”
The piece was six feet long and five feet high, weighing more than 900 pounds. “The material is so treated as to have the appearance of old silver,” said The Times. “The boy and girl are shown mounted on ponies, and there is in the work the spirit of the out-of-doors life. Both are bareheaded.”
As World War I erupted, the Whitneys turned their attention to war relief. On May 17, 1918 an auction was held in the ballroom for the benefit of the Italian Red Cross. Socialites bid on diamond horseshoe boxes at the Metropolitan Opera House and publisher Frank Crowninshield urged the women to donate generously. “Come, ladies,” he said, “now’s the time to take your diamond tiaras out of moth balls.”
The auction raised approximately $10,475 for the cause.
Flora and Barbara Whitney would prove to be models of social decorum--unlike their brother. On April 19, 1920 Flora was married to Roderick Tower in St. Bartholomew’s Church. “Not only was New York’s ‘Four Hundred’ represented, but Philadelphia’s as well,” reported the New-York Tribune. The church was decorated with 15,000 lilies.
The reception was held in at No. 871 which “like the church, was decorated with lilies and roses. These flowers, with bay trees, were used throughout the reception rooms and great hall, as well as the ballroom, and likewise in the dining room, where the buffet was served.”
The following year was Barbara’s coming out and the ballroom was the scene of a grand ball on January 5, 1921.
|The Fifth Avenue neighborhood around the Whitney house in the 1920s was still one of private homes -- photo NYPL Collection|
Cornelius Whitney vehemently denied the allegations and eventually succeeding in having the case dismissed. In 1923 he married the debutante Marie Norton; who later filed for divorce in July 1929.
In October 1930 Harry Payne Whitney contracted a slight cold, but went about his business as usual. When the malady worsened, Dr. John A. Hartwell and several other physicians were called in and although pneumonia had developed, it was not believed to be severe. Within a few days Whitney died in his bed at No. 871 Fifth Avenue. He left an estate of over $61 million.
Two years later the house would be in the headlines as a bitter custody battle ensued over little Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. Gloria’s mother, Gloria Morgan, was the sister-in-law of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. On a Friday afternoon Gloria allowed little Gloria to be taken to “feed the pigeons in Central Park.” Instead she was whisked off to No. 871 Fifth Avenue.
Court battles lasted for over two years in which Gertrude Whitney, little Gloria’s nurse and doctors, and others testified that Gloria Morgan was an unfit mother. The Times reported that “Mrs. Whitney said that while the child has been living with her for more than two years past, ‘her mother has rarely seen her,’ and to Mrs. Whitney’s best recollection ‘her mother has had her overnight on only one occasion since the visit commencing Sept. 18, 1934.”
In 1939 Gertrude Whitney purchased the four-story Eila Haggin McKee house at No. 874 Fifth Avenue, possibly to protect her own mansion from demolition. “With the property at 871 Fifth Avenue,” said The Times, “Mrs. Whitney now controls a plot 100 by 200 feet on the northeast corner of Sixty-eighth Street.”
But by 1942 Gertrude Whitney was spending less and less time in the Fifth Avenue mansion. Finally, on April 10 that year, The New York Times reported on its scheduled demolition. The newspaper said “it has been a center of social life in a neighborhood formerly made up of private residences of the wealthy. One by one these have given way in late years to apartment houses.”
The article described some of the rare interiors. “The main hall is of imposing size, with a floor of marbles inlaid with 10,000 pieces of brass. The Renaissance ceiling formerly was in the Bardini collection in Florence. The fireplace, of carved white stone in the style of Henri II, formerly in the chateau of the Sieur Franc de Conseil at Aigues-Mortes, France, has a depth of five feet. The walls and the stairway, with its elaborately carved balustrade, are of Istrian marble. French seventeenth-century stained glass, rare old hangings and paintings complete the decoration of the hall.
“Opening off this spacious passage are two large rooms facing on Fifth Avenue, one the drawing room, with ceiling from a Roman palace and wall coverings of damask, the other the library, with fifteenth century Italian white marble fireplace, Italian antique ceiling, and elaborately carved old walnut bookcases built in.”
A massive mid-century apartment house of stone and brick stands on the site of the Whitney mansion. It was sometimes called the most palatial house in New York; but then others claimed that title as well. It was nevertheless a remarkable and irreplaceable example of architecture and art.