Friday, November 29, 2013

The Josefa Osborn House -- No. 2 Rutherford Place

photo by Alice Lum
For nearly a decade the brownstone St. George’s Episcopal Church steadily rose on Stuyvesant Square; originally part of the Stuyvesant farm, or “bouwerie.”   Three years into its construction, in 1849, builder and real estate developer James Foster purchased a string of lots from Gerard Stuyvesant along 17th Street, wrapping around Rutherford Place. 

Within the next few years he constructed a row of houses along the 17th Street property; but he died before he could address the four Rutherford Place plots.  They were purchased from his estate in 1854 by developers Thomas Morton and David Morehead who began construction on four identical brownstone-clad homes in 1855.  Completed a year later the Italianate homes were typical of the high-stooped residences built for financially-comfortable families at the time.

No. 2 Rutherford Place immediately became home to the Rev. Mr. Darling—most likely associated with St. George’s.   Not long after he moved in the minister was the victim of a burglary.  A few days later the thief was captured after bringing attention to himself by carrying a quantity of high-end overcoats along the street.  On December 20, 1856 The New York Times reported that “A colored man giving his name as George  Green, was arrested on Tuesday evening while passing through Sixteenth-street, by officers Culhane and Conan of the Eighteenth Ward, as a suspicious character.  Four new and costly coats were found upon him, two of which were yesterday recognized by Rev. Mr. Darling…as having been stolen from him a few evenings since.”

The newspaper parenthetically noted “Green had on when arrested a beautiful sack overcoat, lined with silk, which is also believed to have been stolen.”

The family of William D. Drake was in the house by 1864 when son W. G. A. Drake was attending Columbia Collage.   The days surrounding Independence Day the following year was significant in the New York.  Not only had the Union had won the "War of Rebellion" three months earlier; of great importance to many Northerners, President Andrew Johnson had signed an executive order permitting the execution of four persons involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on July 5.

Residents and business owners decorated their buildings in bunting and American flags to exhibit their patriotism and support.  When the Metropolitan Police released its list of highly-decorated homes in its “report of illuminations” on July 5, the home of William Drake was among them.

By 1881 the house was owned by Francis (Frank) B. Austin.  The Austin family shared the commodious house with Rev. Daniel C. Weston and his wife.  Both Mrs. Weston and Mrs. Austin were members of the Colonial Dames of America and often worked together for the group.

On March 2, 1892 Mrs. Austin nabbed top billing in the society pages when she entertained “the Russian Evening Circle.”  The Times reported that “The parlors were decorated with palms and cut flowers.”  Along with United States Navy Commander Chadwick and his wife, the guest list included some of the most elite names in New York society:  Seward, Delafield, Haight, Van Rensselaer, Minton, Lawrence, Choate, and Chandler among them.

Frank Austin sold the house on May 13, 1894 for $22,000—about $500,000 today.  Reverend Westin and his wife Mary moved on, the Austin family went to their summer cottage on Long Island for the season, and the Jacob Stout family moved in.

Stout, an alumnus of Rutgers College and President of the Stock Exchange, and was married to Hannah, the widow of William H. Neilson.  The Neilson family had owned a house almost directly opposite No. 2 Rutherford place, and it was in that house that Josefa Neilson was born and grew up.  Now 26 years old, the beautiful Josefa had married stock broker Robert A. Osborn the year before.  Before too many years she would come back to Stuyvesant Square—the house in which her mother now lived, to be precise.

Apparently the Stout family was close friends with either the Gillette or the Olney family (or both).  When Amy Gano Gillette and George Harwood Olney were married on February 6, 1902 in a fashionable Grace Church ceremony, a reception “for relatives and intimate friends” was held in the house.

The residence was briefly shared with the Pierce family—Henry Clay Pierce; his wife the former Minnie Charles Finlay; their son Theron Finlay Pierce and his wife.  Another son, Roy Ensworth Pierce was living in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts.

Although the sons were born a year apart—in 1883 and 1884—both received their Harvard degrees in 1906.  Theron was a refiner and distributor of crude oils with an office at No. 25 Broad Street.

It was about this time that the colorful Mrs. Josefa Neilson Osborn moved into No. 2 Rutherford Place.  The headstrong socialite had “startled” society when her wealthy husband was financially ruined in 1898 and she went into business for herself.

Under the firm name The Mrs. Osborn Company, Josefa established herself as one of the foremost gown designers in the nation.  She augmented her income by writing fashion columns and designing theatrical costumes.  Her attractive shop on Fifth Avenue, across from the fashionable Waldorf-Astoria Hotel drew the cream of New York society.

Then in 1902 she got backing from Norma Leslie Munroe, the daughter of the wealthy publisher George Munro, and opened Mrs. Osborn’s Playhouse.  Although her theater failed, she continued to thrive and maintained a summer estate on Long Island.  By 1904 she decided her husband was no longer needed and filed for divorce.

Her name was simultaneously appearing in court records as she and her former partner Norma Munro hurled back-and-forth lawsuits at one another.  Munro had invested about $15,000 into the playhouse; although Josefa “stepped in and gave $10,000 to settle the debts out of her own pocket and the goodness of her heart,” said The Sun in 1906.

On February 6 that year Josefa was preparing to sail to Paris.  Her plans would abruptly change. The Sun reported the following morning that “Deputy Sheriff Andrew L. McGivney, accompanied by an expert on opening safes, entered the home of Mrs. Josefa Neilson Osborn, at 2 Rutherford place, yesterday afternoon and seized jewelry and furniture valued at $10,000.  The jewelry, consisting principally of diamonds, was all in the safe, which the officers opened.”

Josefa Osborn was infuriated.   She insisted that Norma Munro owed her $13,000 for gowns.  “Of this sum $10,000 was money of the firm of the Mrs. Osborn Company, for which I am responsible.  The remaining $3,000 was a personal loan.”   Now she was poised to fight it out in court.

“Some time ago the Directors of the Mrs. Osborn Company wanted me to sue to recover the money, but I would not agree to it,” she told a reporter.  “Now I do agree and the suit will proceed at once.”

The ugly legal brawl did not restrict Josefa’s creative impulses, however.  She continued to design for and clothe New York’s wealthiest women.  After her stepfather, Jacob Stout, died in 1907 she decided to bring the outdated house into the 20th century.  She hired architect M. W. Holmes to revamp the lower two floors. 

On July 24 The Sun reported that her improvements “are to cost $7,000.”  When Holmes was done, he had removed the stoop, added an extension to the property line, and swept the parlor level with tall casements behind stone balustrades.  The windows were connected by a shallow arched filled with delightful sculptures of garlands and naked cherubs.   The new extension created a capacious balcony with a stone railing at the third floor.

The handsome 1855 facade and Josefa Osborn's eye-catching alteration cooperate with one another surprisingly well-- photo by Alice Lum
Josefa Osborn would not live to enjoy her remodeled home for long.  In October 1908 she was operated upon for appendicitis.  A second emergency operation was performed on November 9; but she did not recover. 

She died in the Rutherford Place house on November 11 at the age of 40.  The Sun, in reporting her death, added a succinct sub-headline that read “Known Too for Her Unsuccessful Efforts to Run a Playhouse and for Her Friendship and Her Lawsuits With Norma Munro—Left a Fortune.”

The fortune that Josefa Neilson Osborn left was estimated to be around half a million dollars—a hefty $9 million by today’s standards.   The entire estate went to her 14-year old daughter, Audrey.

The house would see the comings and goings of a succession of owners.  In 1922 Charles R. Sommer sold the home to Salvatore Sitaler.  In the early 1930s it was home to Frederick J. Powell whose funeral was held here on May 18, 1935. 

In 1939 the house was leased to Dr. Leon Adler and it may have been at this time that a separate entrance and doctor’s office was installed at street level.  By mid century it was home to the Finkel family.  Morris L. Finkel retired in 1948 after 40 years in the advertising department of The Jewish Morning Journal.  The family was still in the house in the early 1950s.

Josefa Neilson Osborn’s entrancing make-over of a Victorian dowager is thankfully intact—a delightful curiosity in a neighborhood steeped in history and architecture.


  1. Marvelously interesting history ...

  2. What a fantastic history. My relative Tom Sharkey, a prizefighter, lived next door at 3 Rutherford in the 1905 time frame. Josefa must have been an interesting neighbor.