Monday, November 11, 2013

The Lost Cyrus W. Field Mansion -- Gramercy Park

A double staircase led to the entrances of the two mirror-image Field mansions.

Samuel Ruggles’ ambitious plan to transform part of the old Gramercy Farm into an elite residential enclave was well under way when Cyrus West Field and his attorney brother, David Dudley Field, purchased side-by-side lots at the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 21st Street.  A total of sixty building plots surrounded a large, central park enclosed by a high iron fence.  Ruggles had begun landscaping of Gramercy Square in 1844 and soon afterward imposing mansions began rising.

The exclusivity of the square was furthered by the locked gates to Gramercy Park, opened only for residents -- vintage postcard, copyright expired

Cyrus Field’s rise from an errand boy in A. T. Stewart’s dry goods emporium to one of the city’s wealthiest men was meteoric.  Years later the Daily Alta California would remind readers “His brother, David Dudley, was given a collegiate education; instead of a classical education Cyrus received $25 in cash and his father’s blessing.”

After working three years for $2 a week for Stewart’s, he took a job as a salesman for a paper manufacturer.  Before long he started his own business.  The California newspaper said “on the first day that he took possession of his new office he made the sanguine remark: ‘I shall make a fortune here in twenty years.’  Better than his word, he made his fortune in twelve years and retired, still in the prime of life, to enjoy the rest which he had never known since his boyhood.”  
The “prime of his life” was age 33 and Field left business with a comfortable fortune of $250,000—between $6 and $10 million today.

Cyrus and David built mirror-image mansions.  Cyrus took the more agreeable corner lot, affording windows on three sides.  The brownstone-clad houses featured a wide shared stoop that accessed the side-by-side entrance doors.  Cast iron balconies adorned the parlor levels where floor-to-ceiling arched windows could capture the park breezes; and another iron balcony ran the length of both homes along the second floor.

The New-York Tribune noted that “they were arranged so that they could be thrown into one.”  The main entertaining rooms—the dining rooms and ballrooms—could be opened up creating a single grand space.

If Field intended to relax; his intentions were short-lived.  He traveled with artist Frederick Church through Bogota, Guayaquil and Ecuador.  On this expedition Church painted some of his more memorable works, such as “The Heart of the Andes,” and not surprisingly several of the artist’s works ended up in the Field mansion on Gramercy Park.

Back in New York Field met Frederick Newton Gisborne in 1853.  A year earlier the Canadian inventor and electrician had successfully laid the first deep-sea cable in North American waters—connecting Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.   Gisborne laid out the possibility of an even grander project—a transatlantic cable between Britain and the United States.

Field reportedly mulled over the globe that stood in his library and finally came to the conclusion that laying the cable could be done.  In 1854 he called a group of his friends together in his library—Peter Cooper, Moses Taylor, Marshall O. Roberts, Chandler White and Wilson G. Hunt.  A newspaper later said he “preached the Atlantic cable to them until they were converted to his plans.”

Decades later, in 1895, Daniel Huntington would paint his account of the meeting around Field's globe.  The painting was presented to the New York City Chamber of Commerce.  The globe eventually landed in the Smithsonian Institution.  New-York Tribune (copyright expired)

It would not be an easy task.  Cyrus Field obsessed and labored on the project for twelve years and crossed the ocean 51 times.  The first cable failed.  The group tried again.  “The second cable spoke for three weeks, then parted and was dead as the first,” said a newspaper. 

On October 31, 1865 Field prepared to try again.  The Field mansion was the scene of a grand entertainment that evening, The New York Times reporting that “Mr. Cyrus W. Field invited many of our most prominent citizens to meet Sir Morton Peto and party…prior to their departure for Europe to-day.”  Field’s brother, Stephen Johnson Field, a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was among the distinguished guests including Chief Justice Chase, Senators Sherman and Morgan, two major generals, several judges, two university presidents and, of course, the original investors who had met in Field’s library eleven years earlier.

The third cable dropped slowly from the Great Eastern, reaching Europe in 1866.  It succeeded.  Not only was the laying of the transatlantic cable a monumental technological and engineering success; it was a colossal personal triumph for Cyrus West Field.  He was presented a gold medal by Congress; the Paris Exposition of 1867 awarded him the grand medal; and according to the Daily Alta California, “the Queen of England knighted his [British] associates, and he would have been Sir Cyrus had not his American birth and prejudices prevented.”

Across the park stood the mansion of Samuel J. Tilden, Governor of New York and 1876 presidential candidate to succeed Grant.  Tilden and Field were, for awhile, business associates; but would become outspoken adversaries.  Their combative rhetoric about issues like the elevated railroad would be fodder for the press for years.  The intense dislike between the pair was possibly sparked by David Dudley Field’s idea for the Electoral Commission in 1876 which resulted in Tilden’s losing the election.

It was not surprising, therefore, when Tilden was not present when many of the most esteemed names in the city assembled in the Field library on April 15, 1874.  The group, deemed by The New York Times as “the leading bankers, capitalists, and merchants of this City,” met to discuss what action should be taken “to represent the feelings of the business men of New-York to the President regarding the Senate bill for the expansion of the currency.”  Among those present were August Belmont, Theodore Roosevelt, Peter Cooper, and William E. Dodge, John Jacob Astor, W. H. Macy, A. A. Low and A. T. Stewart.

A rare glimpse inside the Cyrus Field mansion was offered when Count Ferdinand De Lesseps “and a select party of friends” were guests at a breakfast in the house on March 31, 1880.  The Times described “The breakfast-room and glass-covered veranda adjoining were aglow with flowers and tropical plants and the sideboard and tables were loaded down with vases of choice flowers…The walls of the room were decorated in fresco with paintings of Columbus, Washington, and Franklin, and the sideboard was the identical one purchased by Thomas Jefferson in London, and adorned the dining-room of the White House from 1801 to 1809.  After the repast the company inspected Mr. Field’s collection of paintings, embracing views of the Atlantic cables of 1865 and 1866, in the various processes of laying; the great Falls of Tiquandama, in New-Grenada, and the Volcano of Cotopaxi, in New-Granada.”

Cyrus West Field’s long run of triumphs and happiness in the Gramercy Park mansion came to an abrupt halt, beginning on in November 1891.  One year earlier, on December 2, the house was aglow with cheer as the Fields celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.  The Evening World remembered that “Mrs. Field was Mary Bryan Stone, daughter of a Guiford (Conn.) clergyman, when, on Dec. 2, 1840, she was led to the altar by Cyrus W. Field, then a poor boy of twenty-one years.”

The New-York Tribune reported “The venerable couple received their guests in the drawing-room, which was profusely decorated, and although the invitations had been limited to members of the family and intimate friends, more than a thousand persons came to offer their congratulations.  The object of interest, next to the central group, was the certificate of marriage of 1840, which was displayed on a table near the receiving party, and next to it the golden wedding certificate, signed by General W. T. Sherman, Benjamin H. Field, and a number of other well-known citizens.”

The couple had seven children in the house, now all grown; and despite never sharing in her husband’s spotlight, Mary was “companion and intelligent counsel, as well as wife and helpmate.”  When Mary died in their country home at Irvington-on-the-Hudson in November 1891, Cyrus Field was incapacitated with grief.

Mary Field as she appeared around 1860 -- photograph by Charles D. Fredericks & Co., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Only days later things would get worse when son Edward’s stock brokerage business, Field, Lindley, Wieehers & Co., failed.  The Sun reported on November 29 “nearly all of those who have spoken on behalf of the firm have attributed to the alleged mental derangement of Edward M. Field all the damaging irregularities in the firm’s business methods which have come to light.  The statement that Mr. Field is insane and has been for some time was reiterated yesterday with a great deal of circumstantiality and was denied also.”

To make matters even worse, Edward’s partner Daniel A. Lindley was married to one of the Field daughters, Grace.  The ugly and public state of affairs was affecting her severely.  The Sun reported on November 29 “Mrs. Daniel A. Lindley was removed from the Everett House shortly after noon yesterday in an ambulance to the house of her father, Cyrus W. Field.  She has been in New York for about three weeks, and her husband has been with her at the Everett House.  When she came here she was suffering from nervous prostration and a cold was followed by pleurisy and pneumonia.”

Her condition deteriorated to the point that doctors felt it best to take her to the Field residence.  “It was impossible to take her there in a carriage, and Mr. Lindley hired an ambulance from the New York Hospital.  The change was accomplished in a few minutes, and Mrs. Lindley felt no evil effects from it.”

The multiple blows were evident on Cyrus Field.  His grandson told reporters “The shock he received at my grandmother’s death was terrible.  He did not realize that she was dangerously ill at the time, and when she passed away, it shattered him completely.  He had not recovered at all from that when this second shock came, and he is now completely crushed.  And when a man gets to be 72 years old such things are likely to be very serious.”

A physician gave an even graver assessment.  “Mr. Cyrus W. Field’s health is much more serious than I fancy the members of his family imagine.  Just at the moment he is in a state of artificial excitement.  His nerves are all on end.  But a reaction is sure to follow.

“Just how long before it will come it is difficult to say; it may be to-morrow or considerably later.  But I have little hope that he can withstand it.”

A few days later, on December 3, Cyrus Field’s secretary, Philip H. Harris gave a more hopeful prognosis, telling newspapers “Mr. Field’s condition had improved very greatly and that now he believed he would rally and recover.  When asked if he thought that Mr. Field knew the whole story of his son’s misbehavior, Mr. Harris said that he believed that the whole story had been told to him gradually and that the old gentleman knew everything.”

On January 11 Grace Field Lindley died in the mansion.  For the second time in three months Cyrus W. Field attended the funeral of an immediate family member—this one in his Gramercy Park home.  Grace was just 51 years old and left five children and her husband.  The New York Times remarked “The death of his daughter, although not unexpected, was a great shock to Cyrus W. Field.”

As summer neared, Field went to his country estate in Irvington.  There at 9:45 in the morning on July 12 he died in the house where his beloved Mary had died a few months earlier.  The accounts of his life and death filled full pages of newspapers across the nation.  The Times said “The name of Cyrus W. Field will pass into history as that of the man whose grit and genius succeeded in connecting the continents of Europe and America by a submarine cable.”

Two years later, on April 14, 1894, David Dudley Field died.  The substantial accomplishments of the attorney who was responsible for the Field Code—the move away from common law pleading towards code pleading—and who represented New York as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives had always been overshadowed by the fame of his brother next door.  Nevertheless his funeral drew thousands of mourners.  Before the service, the David Field house was visited by the United States Supreme Court Justices and other eminent jurists, politicians and scholars.  The New York Times remarked that he was honored in death “in the presence of the largest assemblage of representative men and women Calvary Church…has ever held.”

David Field’s house was sold for $73,800; about $2 million today.  In the meantime, the Cyrus Field house had been stripped of the paintings, historic relics and furniture and turned into a boarding house.  David’s mansion was likewise converted.  The New-York Tribune said “The lofty and spacious rooms were cut up into small apartments, and with the exception of the ceiling decorations and the wall hangings there was nothing left in the Field houses…to remind the visitor of the days when they were a part of New-York’s fashionable centre.”

That was about to change.

On April 23, 1899 the Tribune reported that wealthy banker Henry W. Poor had purchased both mansions with the intention of razing them and erecting a single large mansion.  The newspaper noted that “some of the most brilliant receptions and other society functions in the history of the metropolis took place in the Field houses.”  Now, having bought the properties for $200,000, Poor announced plans to build “a more modern building.”

The New York Times announced that “Plans have been prepared by Architect Stanford White…The new house will be modeled after an old English homestead, and will be novel in many features of its design.”  White, incidentally, lived directly across the street, on the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 21st Street.

It could have been the fact that he lived on the park that drove the architect to convince Henry Poor to renovate the two houses rather than demolish them.  By essentially maintaining the exteriors of the old brownstone mansions the quaintness and historic continuity of the neighborhood would be preserved.  Instead of demolishing them, Stanford White did a massive renovation, combining the two Field mansions into one magnificent residence.

Stanford White's alterations would result in the entrance on Lexington Avenue -- photograph "Old Buildings of New York City" 1907 (copyright expired)

The transformation, costing Poor about $1 million, was completed in 1901.  The stoop and entrances on 21st Street were replaced by a shallow glass conservatory.  The entrance was moved to street level to the side—creating the new address No. 1 Lexington Avenue.  The New-York Tribune noted “Henry W. Poor two years ago purchased the twin mansions in Gramercy Park.  One of these belonged to the late Cyrus W. Field, and contained may wonderful oak carvings and other artistic features.  Under the advice of Stanford White, the architect, the two houses were thrown into one, and across the entire length has been arranged a splendid apartment, which is one of the largest ballrooms in the city.”

The entrance hall and staircase of the renovated mansion -- photograph McKim Mead & White, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
One of the first grand entertainments in the renovated mansion would be the debut of Edith Poor in January 1902.  The Tribune said “There will be a ball, and there is much curiosity concerning the house, as it is a veritable museum, of all of Europe having been ransacked for artistic furnishings.”

Indeed, White had scoured the continent for antique paneling, doorways, carved mantels and flooring.  On December 20, 1901 the Poors hosted the first of the string of entertainments for Edith.  The New York Times noted “It was the first large entertainment of the kind given there since the two Field houses were made into one.  The house is admirably adapted for entertaining, and is furnished with rare mural paintings, antique furniture, tapestries, statuary, etc., from abroad.” 

The guests entered into a large marble hall where they were awed by a large Roman fountain and statue.  Fifty young people were invited for the dinner.  A dais had been constructed in the hallway outside the dining room where The Hungarian Band played during dinner.  Another group, Schubert’s Band, arrived to play for the dancing in the drawing room overlooking Gramercy Park.  The Times remarked “This room has fine examples of mural painting on the ceiling, and is hung with tapestries, the general effect being dull, rather light green, and white, with touches of antique gold.”

White installed imported ceilings, antique mantels and carved doorways.  photograph McKim Mead & White, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Poors were not done impressing yet.  Following the dance in the drawing room, the ballroom was thrown open for a cotillion.  Another 200 guests filed in.  The Times reported that “After the cotillion supper was served at small tables placed in the large upper hall and dining room.  The squash court and conservatory were also open.”

It was the first of the lavish entertainments held in the Poor mansion.  In March 1902 the house was the scene of a musicale “one of the largest of the season,” according to The Times.  300 guests, some from Philadelphia and Boston, heard a full 60-member orchestra under the direction of Emil Paur.  Soprano Kate Huntington sang, and famed violinist Charles Gregorowitch performed as did Hamilton J. Orr who played a piano concerto with the orchestra.  After the program supper was served in the dining room, followed by “dancing of the young people, for which the Hungarian Band furnished the music.”

A charming breakfast room with intricate plaster ceiling opened onto the conservatory -- photograph McKim Mead & White, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Edith Poor continued her social successes when she married Capt. James K. Cochrane of the British Army on January 5, 1904.  The Times called it “one of the largest and most fashionable weddings of the season” and it was followed by reception in the Poor mansion.  “Capt. Cochrane and his bride received congratulations and felicitations in the large red and gold drawing room on the second floor, under a bell of ferns and smilax,” reported the newspaper.

It would be among the last grand fetes held in the Poor household.

On December 27, 1908, the shocking news was published on the other side of the continent.  The San Francisco Call ran the headline “Henry W. Poor, Banker, Fails For 5 Million.”  The newspaper seemed as surprised as its readers.  “Poor was looked upon not only as a very wealthy man, but his family has long held a high social position.  He has two magnificent homes, one the old Cyrus W. Field mansion at 10 Lexington Avenue [sic], and the other a stone chateau at Tuxedo, which have been gathering places of the fashionable for years.”

It was the end of the line for the Gramercy Park mansion as a gather place of the fashionable.  Less than a decade after Stanford White had plundered Europe’s castles and palaces for rare and costly architectural elements, the house was slated for dismantling.  On April 18, 1909 The New York Times reported on the upcoming exhibition of the furnishings, artwork and architectural elements to be auctioned off.

Potential buyers, and the curious, filed through the mansion.  “In the drawing room the picture panels of the ceiling are in a light, yet opulent scheme of silvery grays and rose, with occasional cooling touches of blue.  Another extremely rich ceiling taken from an old Umbrian palace contains twelve panels depicting the divinities of Olympus in a color scheme of violets and grays with deep notes of blue, dusky red, and orange, all subdued by the tone of time to a smothered splendor,” said the newspaper.

The imported mantels would all be sold.  The Times said “Some of them are comparatively simple, but the one in the main hall is highly elaborated in the style of Francia, first period, and with its ornament of mascarons and cherubs, birds, and fruits in high relief it gives opportunity for a delightful play of light and shadow over the mellowed surface of the marble.”

There were Spanish doors, Colonial wooden mantels in the bedrooms, carved door frames and wrought iron gates and stair railings going under the hammer.  The house was hung with medieval tapestries, including several French 15th century millefiori examples; a 15th century Gothic tapestry depicting Hercules and Theseus wrestling; and Italian and Flemish tapestries from the 16th century.  The furniture spanned several periods and styles—Chippendale, Louis XV, American Colonial, and Adams.

The Times tempered its sadness at the loss of a residential treasure with a positive note.  “The spectacle of the disintegration of a house in which the appointments have been assembled with such exacting taste cannot but be melancholy, but the opportunity for collectors is one to inspire enthusiasm.”

Despite Stanford White’s successful urging to preserve the Field mansions eight years earlier, Gramercy Park was changing.  In 1909 there were already two large apartment houses that had replaced old mansions.  Now in February 1910 it was announced that developer Charles W. Buek would raze the Poor house “and erect another towering apartment overlooking the park.”

Buek paid $200,000 for the property that had cost Poor $1.2 million less than a decade earlier.  He told reporters his apartment building would be “in the Italian Renaissance style, the façade being finished in Indiana limestone and buff brick.”

The corner as it appeared in 1929 with the new No. 1 Lexington Avenue building -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Before long a handsome new building, designed by Herbert Lucas, replaced the old brownstone homes.  No. 1 Lexington Avenue survives today; a dignified Italian Renaissance-inspired building with a plaque on its façade reminding passersby that once the home of the man responsible for the Transatlantic Cable lived here.

photograph taken by the author


  1. This is one of your best blog posts! I have been following your blog for several months now and I have to say I LOVE IT. I look forward to seeing what gem you will write about next. This account of the Cyrus Field house and his family is very interesting and I really enjoyed it. The last photo was like a surprise - I didn't expect the apartment house to still be there!

    1. So glad you're enjoying the blog. The Field houses were tragic historical and architectural losses; however if they had to go they were at least replaced by a quite handsome building. Thanks!