|The imposing arched entrance faced 57th Street, away from busy 5th Avenue -- photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE6C420#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE6C420&PN=1
In the first years after the Civil War Richmond, Virginia struggled to get back on its feet. New York City railroad mogul Collis P. Huntington visited the city regularly; eventually purchasing what would become the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. Enormously wealthy, he was nevertheless uncouth, uneducated and according to newspapers “ruthless” and “scrupulously dishonest.”
While in Richmond the married millionaire noticed the 19-year old daughter of a boarding house operator, Arabella Yarrington. Encouraged by her mother, the two began a steamy affair. When Huntington’s business in the South was completed in 1869, he returned to New York City. Not far behind was the entire Yarrington family; including John Worsham who posed as Arabella’s husband.
The following year Arabella bore a son, Archer,—the paternity of whom was never quite decided—and not long afterward she was tragically widowed. (In actuality, John Worsham had returned home to his real wife in Richmond; but the story of his death was sufficient for newspaper accounts.)
Whether Elizabeth Huntington was aware of the scandalous affair or not; she quietly lived on in the Huntington mansion at Park Avenue and 38th Street. Her husband first established the Yarringtons in a house near Gramercy Park; then in 1877 bought Arabella the brownstone house at 4 West 54th Street.
Arabella Yarrington Worsham was now firmly ensconced in what was rapidly becoming the most exclusive residential neighborhood in Manhattan. The address alone, however, was not enough to get her access into the drawing rooms of her high-toned neighbors.
Collis and Arabella continued their illicit romance for years while Elizabeth Huntington battled cancer. Finally, in 1883, she succumbed. Her death frankly made things a bit easier for Arabella and Collis.
On Friday July 7, 1884 Huntington transferred the deed to his Park Avenue mansion to “Belle” and the following day they were married in the parlor of 4 West 54th Street. He was 64 years old and his bride was now 34. Before long Collis would adopt young Archer.
Arabella Yarrington Worsham Huntington sold the West 54th Street house to Ohio oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller and the newlyweds moved into the Park Avenue house. Despite her boorish husband and humble upbringing; Arabella was educated and polished. She spoke French fluently and had a sophisticated eye for art, a well-honed knowledge of history and books, and a refined understanding of decorative arts. In short, she had everything a wealthy woman of the 19th century could desire—other than social acceptance.
In 1889 the Huntingtons were ready to elbow their way into Vanderbilt territory on Fifth Avenue. One historian suggests Arabella “made” Collis build her a new mansion. At any rate, he purchased the enormous plot of land (five 25-foot lots) at the southeast corner of 57th Street--across the avenue from the massive chateau George B. Post had designed for Cornelius Vanderbilt II.
Like Vanderbilt (or perhaps because of him) Huntington called on Post to design his mansion. On November 2, 1889 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide announced that excavations for the foundation had commenced. Although Post was tight-lipped about the design, the Guide promised “The house is to be, of course, most expensive in character, and it has been hinted in a cable from Europe that it is to be occupied by the Prince and Princess Hatzfeldt.” (Princess Clara von Hatzfeldt was the foster daughter of Huntington and despite society’s hopes of having titled neighbors, the titled pair would go on living in Europe.)
|Workers install the massive carriage gates. American Architect and Building News, July 14, 1894 (copyright expired)
The mansion would take five years to complete, at a cost of $2.5 million. Huge blocks of rough-cut stone formed the façade, interrupted by Renaissance-inspired openings on the second and third floors, and a ribbon of stone balustrade that encircled the structure above the parlor level.
The entrance, on 57th Street, was deeply recessed within a gaping stone arch. To the side was a picturesque oval wing which, except for the lack of expanses of glass, the passerby might expect was the Huntington conservatory. Instead it contained the heated “plunge bath” or “swimming bath.” The remarkably modern complex included massage rooms, Turkish bath, dressing rooms, toilets, and a cozy fireplace nook with built-in seats.
Arabella’s hand was no doubt responsible for much of the interior decoration. Artist Elihu Vedder embellished the dining room with wall and ceiling frescoes representing the four seasons. The commission was hefty enough for him to turn down an invitation to do mural painting for the World’s Fair in Chicago. Later, in 1916, art historian Joseph Walker McSpadden would approve of the mural, describing “each of the four figures being treated in an original manner.”
As the house neared completion trouble came when union woodworkers realized that non-union carvers were at work inside. On May 3, 1893 The Evening World reported “Non-union carvers are employed on the new building of Railroad Magnate C. P. Huntington, Fifty-seventh street and Fifth avenue, and the Board of Walking Delegates is threatening to make trouble unless union men be employed at not more than eight hours per day.”
Apparently the dispute was settled and the house was completed within the year. The mansion was fully plumbed and there were 10 full bathrooms. The Engineering Record noted “In the second and third stories are six porcelain roll-rim decorated bathtubs on marble legs, and in other stories are three porcelain-lined roll-rim cast iron bathtubs. In the boudoir bathroom is a decorated porcelain roll-top sitz bathtub with silver-plated fittings.” The publication added that “the bathrooms are finished with white marble and ceramic tiles.”
|The bay window on the Fifth Avenue side would later be lost to the avenue's widening. At the opposite side the oval wing containing the swimming pool can be glimpsed. photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE6C420#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE6C420&PN=1
Running a massive Fifth Avenue mansion required substantial service areas. The Huntington house included a steward's room with two refrigerators, laundry room, laundry drying room, kitchen and scullery, butler’s pantry, and refrigerator room.
Now in their impressive home that rivaled any of the mansions that surrounded it, the Huntingtons focused on social acceptance. The surest route into Manhattan’s inner circle was through Ward McAllister, the self-appointed gatekeeper of established society. It was McAllister, along with Caroline Astor, who devised the list of “The Four Hundred;” those with the acceptable pedigree to be invited to Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.
Willing to buy his way into Manhattan society, Huntington negotiated a deal with McAllister. For a $9,000 fee McAllister would host a dinner party in their honor followed by an invitation to the exclusive Patriarchs’ Ball and a personal introduction to Caroline Astor.
Once Ward McAllister had fulfilled his promises, Collis Huntington saw no reason to part with his $9,000 (a substantial quarter of a million today). It was a socially-fatal miscalculation. McAllister not only rubbed shoulders with New York’s wealthiest citizens, but with the gossip columnists, too. The Huntington name was smeared in the newspapers and Arabella’s last grasp at social inclusion failed.
Even if her name was not included on the invitation lists of the grandest balls and receptions; Arabella Huntington’s life was not a harsh one. Among their other homes was an expansive lodge, “Pine Knot,” on Racquet Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. In August 1900 the Huntingtons were at Pine Knot with family and house guests that included Archer and his wife; Arabella’s sister and brother-in-law, Mansfield Hillhouse; Isaac E. Gates, Collis’s brother-in-law and advisor; William E. Coley; Arabella’s lifelong friend, Miss C. M. Campbell; and Huntington’s private secretary George E. Miles.
Just after going to bed on August 13 the 79-year old Collis suffered a coughing fit. The San Francisco Call reported “His wife and he occupied the same apartment, and when the coughing attack came on Mrs. Huntington gave him a glass of stimulant, as she had always done before. This seemed to relieve him for a moment.”
But the aged millionaire realized that this time it was worse than the earlier attacks. “I am very, very ill,” he said to Arabella. They were his last words. A few seconds later he lapsed into unconsciousness.
Arabella ran to the servants, directing someone to get a doctor. The guests, who had just finished playing whist, emerged from their bedrooms. “Dr. Taylor came with all speed, but when he reached the sick man’s bedside life was extinct,” said the newspaper.
A special train brought the body of Collis P. Huntington to Grand Central terminal on Wednesday August 15. The casket was placed in the library of the 57th Street mansion awaiting the private funeral that was held two days later.
In an incredible memorial to its deceased president, the Southern Pacific system ceased all operations for the few minutes that the casket was removed from the hearse to the grave site. The San Francisco Call said “The shops will cease their bustle, engines will pause upon the rails and ferries will rest quietly upon the water while the body of him who was once the head of all is borne to the grave.”
The assessment of Huntington’s gross personal New York State estate, released on November 28, 1903, was $35,594,586. His entire estate would reach nearly $45 million. There were two principal heirs—Arabella, obviously, and Collis’ nephew Henry Edwards Huntington. The New York Times mentioned that “Others who receive bequests are Mr. Huntington's adopted daughter, Clara Elizabeth Huntington, who is now Princess von Hatzfeldt; his adopted son, Archer Milton Huntington, and other relatives.”
Princess von Hatzfeldt was not pleased with the reading of the will. She received “an income of $1,000 for life.”
Included in her $22 million inheritance Arabella received the house, valued at $1.2 million, along with the artwork and valuable furnishings. The walls of the mansion were hung with masterpieces by artists including Reynolds, Romney, Van Dyck, Corot, Diaz, Murillo, Turner, Gainsborough, Hals, Rousseau, and Sir Thomas Lawrence. The library contained priceless rare volumes including the original manuscript of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.
Quickly Princess von Hatzfeldt began legal proceedings to set aside the will. “It is asserted that suit was begun in New York some months ago for a daughter’s share of the estate,” reported The New York Times on July 7, 1901. Arabella and Henry pooled $6 million as a settlement to Collis’s adopted daughter.
In the meantime, Arabella lived on in the mansion, traveling through Europe, and collecting antiques, rare books, and artwork. In 1907 she added to her art collection with Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer.
As the years passed, commerce inched closer to the house and in the summer of 1911 it would directly affect the Huntington house when the avenue was widened.
As the years passed, commerce inched closer to the house and in the summer of 1911 it would directly affect the Huntington house when the avenue was widened.
“The most important alteration made necessary by the new law that required the residences on Fifth avenue to move back their stoop lines seven and a half feet will take place in the residence of Mrs. C. P. Huntington, at the southeast corner of Fifty-seventh street and Fifth avenue,” said The Sun on June 28.
Although the Huntington entrance faced 57th Street; the reduced property lines encroached on the 5th Avenue façade. “It has been decided to remove the bay window which stands on the Fifth avenue façade of the house.”
The newspaper noted that the heavy construction of the home presented a problem. “The Huntington house, which was designed by George Post, is in the Italian style and is constructed of blocks of stone which make any changes in it extremely difficult.”
Within the year what was until recently unthinkable was happening—the grandest of the New York City mansions were falling under the wrecker’s ball to be replaced by business buildings. On April 7, 1912 The Sun wrote “With the building of the Vanderbilt houses on Fifth avenue at Fifty-first, Fifty-second, Fifty-fourth and Fifty-seventh streets; the Huntington residence at Fifty-seventh street, and the Flagler residence, now Harkness, at Fifty-fourth street it was thought a ‘Chinese wall’ had been constructed making the invasion of business north of Fiftieth street and the Cathedral impossible, but the barrier has given way and all the central residence property south of Fifty-nine street must follow the trend, the ‘homes of luxury’ becoming the ‘marts of trade.’”
Four months later, on August 25, 1912 The New York Times noted the near-completion of “an eight-story structure, on a 25 foot plot at 12 East Fifty-seventh Street, a few doors beyond the dignified Huntington residence.” And yet, unlike many of her neighbors, Arabella Huntington stayed on (along with her across-the-street neighbor, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt).
While Arabella collected and traveled, Henry E. Huntington increased his own wealth by developing the Los Angeles electric traction railroads and indulged himself in rare books. The other principal heir to Collis Huntington’s immense wealth, he had invested more than $5 million in art and books by 1913, including a $50,000 Gutenberg Bible. Their entwined business interests along with their similar tastes in art and rare editions—not to mention their combined inheritance—brought Arabella and Henry together. In July 1913 the nephew and aunt became husband and wife.
A newspaper report from Los Angeles on July 16 registered no shock among society. “The marriage of Henry E. Huntington to the widow of his uncle, the late Collis P. Huntington in Paris to-day caused no surprise here where the engagement often had been reported and often denied.”
At the time of the wedding Henry had just completed an enormous mansion at San Marino, California. The newlyweds, now both in their 60s, would come to divide their time between coasts—as well as on the 500-acre Chateau Beauregard estate near Versailles, France.
By July 19, 1915, when Huntington hired a full-time librarian, his collection of rare books had topped 40,000 volumes. Within another decade it would be 1,200,000.
Arabella closely watched changes in Fifth Avenue and social reform. When her step-daughter joined the 25,000 women who marched on Fifth Avenue for Women’s Suffrage on October 23, 1915, she showed her ardent support. The Sun reported “Many suffrage flags decorated shops and houses along the way. Collis P. Huntington’s home at Fifty-seventh street was decorated with yellow pennants and a group of faces watched from the windows.”
By the end of World War I the two great mansions opposite one another at Fifth Avenue and 57th Streets were among the last holdouts of an era already passed. “The houses of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt and Mrs. Collis P. Huntington at Fifty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue are doomed to be overshadowed by a thirty-story office, store, apartment and theatre building, to be erected on the southwest corner of Fifty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue, by George Backer at a cost of about $6,000,000,” reported The New York Times on December 21, 1919.
New York saw less and less of Arabella Huntington as the years passed, however. “It was her custom for years to reside during the Winter in the big gray stone house, often compared to a castle, at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, but recently she has spent more and more of her time in California,” The New York Times noted in 1924.
She came back that summer, in July, but was seriously ill. Her personal physician, Dr. William B. Coley, was in constant attendance. But finally on September 16, 1924 the remarkable and colorful Arabella Huntington died in the house at 2 East 57th Street at the age of 72. The New York Times diplomatically side-stepped her exclusion from society’s inner circle. “Mrs. Huntington had never been a conspicuous figure in New York’s social life, largely because of her absorption in more serious matters.”
In fact, she had given generously to a variety of causes—many of which reflected her forward-thinking social positions. “She did a great deal for the education of the negro in the South, mindful of conditions observed there in her youth,” The New York Times pointed out, “her benefactions including large gifts to Tuskegee Institute and to Hampton. The striking shirt waist workers of 1909 received help from her.”
She donated the ground on which the American Geographical Society Building was built on Broadway and 156th Street; and gave freely to the Huntington Laboratory of the Harvard Medical School.
Archer Huntington inherited life rights to the mansion. Upon his death, if he had no children, the property was to go to Yale. Archer viewed the hulking mansion that sat among tall office buildings as more of a white elephant than a prize.
|When this photograph was taken in June 1925, the mansion's days were numbered. from the collection of the New York Public Library.
Within the year he donated the extensive Huntington art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and on August 5, 1925 petitioned the courts for permission to sell the mansion. Archer had received an offer of $3.8 million, which would go to Yale. His eagerness to sell might have been encouraged by the substantial real estate taxes of just under $60,000 he was suddenly paying on the property.
Archer Huntington argued “the building now standing on the premises is unsuitable to any commercial or business uses, or for residential apartments.”
Four months later he got his wish. As wreckers poised to demolish the 31-year old mansion, he reminisced to reporters, calling it “probably the best built house in the world of our time.” Archer spoke of the 3 million bricks it took to construct the cellar alone. “My father liked to do things that way. He spent a great deal of time selecting the stone and going to the builders. He wanted to make it a monument to American architecture and art, but commerce does not see it that way.”
Before the wreckers could begin, the mansion was emptied. On February 25, 1926 the first of the auctions was held—this one of the massive library. It was followed in March by the astounding collection of furniture—Italian, French, English and American.
There was a chiming clock by Jown Ewer (Eyre) of London for which Arabella had paid $30,000; important American Colonial furniture, including mid-eighteenth century highboys; a pair of Philadelphia Chippendale chairs owned by George Washington (with documented provenance); a Duncan Phyfe sofa table; and Sheraton and Hepplewhite examples.
One group of furniture was removed from the auction list. Archer had an entire “French Room” dismantled and shipped to Yale University. Along with the salon he donated the “rare pieces of French furniture” that had decorated it.
Among the Louis XV pieces were a marqueterie chess and backgammon table said to have belonged to Madame de Pompadour, “a large Louis XV writing table which is represented in Tocque’s portrait of M. de Bossy,” a roll top desk, and other important pieces.
Next came the artwork. On April 11, 1926 The New York Times reported that “Paintings belonging to the late Mrs. Henry E. Huntington have been removed from 2 East Fifty-seventh Street to the Anderson Galleries.” There were works by Mary Cassatt, Filippo Lippi, approximately 30 old masters, 94 Italian paintings and “others of the Barbizon, modern French, early Flemish, Dutch and South German schools.”
In death Arabella got a sort of posthumous revenge when her jewelry, assessed at $1,274,904 was said by the appraiser to have “exceeded that owned by the late Mrs. William Astor.”
Three months after the last painting and tapestry were removed from Arabella Huntington’s granite castle it was gone. In June The New York Times mentioned that Park & Tilford had already leased the four-story building “the Schulte interests are erecting on the site of the old Huntington house.”
The new store would not last long. In September 1940 Tiffany & Co. opened its new home on the corner. The sleek, modern architecture and the firm’s famous name obliterated any memory of Collis Huntington's "monument to American architecture and art" that stood there for just three decades.
|photo by Alice Lum