|The Edwin D. Morgan Sr. mansion fills the 37th Street corner. The smaller house next door, with an added story by the time of this photograph, was the home of Edwin Morgan Jr. --from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Around 1850 the northern fringe of the Fifth Avenue residential district reached the William and John Jacob Astor mansions at 34th Street, built a few years earlier; then inched past them. One of the earliest of these brownstone pioneers was No. 411 Fifth Avenue, which rose at the northeast corner of 37th Street.
Decades before the mansions of Manhattan’s millionaires would compete with one another with gilded opulence; the stern stone pre-Civil War houses relied on size and restrained ornament to advertise their grandeur. Like the Astor mansions, Nos. 411 and 413, built simultaneously, offered little outward ostentation. Brownstone stoops rose to the parlor floors and a three-sided bay on No. 411’s 37th Street side provided the sole architectural impact.
But there could be no mistaking that these were the homes of two of the city’s richest citizens. The 40-foot wide corner house, No. 411, engulfed six building lots including the property that stretched 210 feet along 37th Street. The expansive rear plot was used for the carriage house and the extensive private gardens.
The houses were built for Edwin D. Morgan and his grown son, Edwin D. Morgan, Jr. The banker Edwin Denison Morgan, Jr. was the only one of the five Morgan children to survive past early childhood.
The corner house was home to Edwin D. Morgan, Sr. who had made a meteoric rise from a Connecticut farm to commercial and political distinction. Born in 1811, he and his brothers were “reared as farmer’s boys,” according to Nathaniel H. Morgan in his 1869 “Morgan Genealogy.” Morgan married Eliza Matilda Waterman on August 19, 1833 and three years later, at the age of 25 the couple moved to New York City. Here, with “eminent success devoted to commercial pursuits,” he accumulated what his biographer called “a princely fortune.”
|Edwin D. Morgan, Sr. -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
1849 was a banner year for Edwin Morgan politically. He was elected Alderman of the city, and then State Senator the same year. Morgan was already living in the Fifth Avenue mansion when the tensions that would become civil war were intensifiying. In 1858 he was elected Governor of the State of New York and his popularity was such that he was reelected in 1860—the first reelection for that office in two decades.
Morgan’s influence and power increased with the war. He would forever be termed the “war-Governor” and in 1861 was appointed by President Lincoln to command the military volunteers of the state; a position for which he refused any pay. He became State Senator again in 1863 and served until 1869.
The house at No. 411 Fifth Avenue reflected Morgan’s power and wealth and was the scene of highly visible entertainments. The New York Times would later describe it as “magnificently furnished” and wrote of the “magnificent stairway and the old-fashioned chandeliers and black walnut sideboards.” The house was filled with the collection of statuary, oil paintings and bric-a-brac obligatory to a Victorian millionaire’s residence. Morgan wrote of the mansion “We find our Parlors, Rooms, Halls & Bed rooms so full that we have no room for more.”
|A marble Rebecca graced the Morgans' conservatory or garden -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
While down the street Caroline Astor’s drawing room played host to the cream of New York society; the Morgan house opened its doors to the nation’s most powerful leaders. Five months after the end of the Civil War, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was a guest of the Morgans on September 21, 1865. The following day The New York Times made a passing mention of the event. “Secretary Stanton was entertained at the residence of Senator Morgan, No. 411 Fifth-avenue, last evening. The entertainment was of an entirely private character.”
Two months later another high-powered figure walked into the Morgan parlors. On November 15 General Ulysses S. Grant, Mrs. Grant, and the general’s aides “paid a visit to Senator E. D. Morgan, at his residence, No. 411 Fifth-avenue, remaining there some time,” reported The Times the following day.
Little by little commercial interests followed the residential tide up Fifth Avenue. In 1875 Charles Delmonico, the restaurateur to society, eyed the two Morgan houses as the site for an uptown branch of his famous Delmonico’s Restaurant. He offered $400,000 for the property--$125,000 for the corner house (a comfortable $2.5 million today); $100,000 for Edwin Junior’s house; and $25,000 for the remaining six lots along 37th Street.
The Morgans declined the offer. But it was a sign of things to come for the exclusive neighborhood.
Perhaps the most stellar entertainment held in the Morgan house was on the night of May 15, 1877 when a reception was held for President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes. In the days when United States Presidents came and went with little security, Edwin and Eliza Morgan invited a host of important guests to meet the first couple. Once again, unlike an Astor affair, the guest list was filled with military, political and academic names; rather than the more socially-elite. Among them were Theodore Roosevelt, Peter Cooper, John Jay and several other judges, the Italian Minister the Postmaster, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and three Generals.
Eliza Morgan had decorated appropriately for a Presidential visit. “The parlors, in addition to their ordinary adornment of rare pictures, costly bronzes, and choice statuary, were beautifully decorated with flowers and shrubs,” said The Times. “The chandeliers and pendants were wreathed with smilax, while beds of choice flowers almost hid the mantels, windows, and alcoves.”
Guests waiting for the President and Mrs. Hayes were supplied with wine and refreshments “in abundance in the supper room” and Bernstein’s band played. Carriages began arriving around 9:00 and among the first to arrive were European nobility—the Grand Dukes Alexis and Constantine, and Baron Schilling.
Unfortunately, Edwin and Eliza Morgan seem to have underestimated the number of guests who would accept the invitations. “The parlors, corridors, and even staircases were crowded to overflowing, and so great was the pressure that many sought breathing-room in the upper apartments. Outside, a string of carriages extended along Fifth-avenue, and through Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth streets, and it required the services of a strong force of Police to prevent confusion,” reported The Times.
The Presidential party did not arrive until around 10:30; by which time the Grand Dukes had given up and left “overpowered by the heat and crush.” President and Mrs. Hayes took up their places with the Morgans in receiving the guests and “for over an hour a continuous shaking of hands and giving and receiving of congratulations followed.”
The crowd became insufferable and a procedure was devised whereby one doorway was used as an entrance and another as an exit in an effort to control traffic. The Times said “it took fully 20 minutes to make a forward movement of 12 feet.” Nevertheless, the President and his wife endured the crush with good humor, as did the throng of guests.
“The ladies in particular bore the destruction of their trains with unprecedented indifference, so eager were they to be introduced to the President and Mrs. Hayes.” The newspaper said of Lucy Hayes, “She endured the tiresome ordeal with lady-like pleasantry, and created a highly favorable impression among the visitors.”
The temptation of re-entering political life arose for Edwin D. Morgan in 1881 when President Chester A. Arthur nominated him for Treasury Secretary. Although he received Senatorial approval; Morgan declined the honor.
That same year In October, the last of the Morgan children, Edwin D. Morgan, Jr., died in the house next door.
On February 11, 1883 the 72-year old Morgan attended services at the Brick Church directly across Fifth Avenue as he always did. Later that evening he suffered excruciating pains in his chest. His personal physician, Dr. W. H. Draper, was called, who brought along Dr. Cornelius R. Agnew as a consultant. Despite their care, Morgan suffered horrible pain for two days; spending much of his time walking about his rooms trying to relieve the agony.
By Tuesday, February 13, the former Governor realized that he was nearing death and gave directions to his private secretary, his wife and his grandson “as calmly as though he were going on a brief pleasure trip into the country,” said a newspaper.
That night the doctors, now numbering four in attendance, informed the family that there was no chance for recovery. Family, business partners, and intimate friends gathered in the brownstone mansion as, upstairs, Morgan continued to walk about his room trying to relieve his pain. Around 6:30 in the morning on Wednesday, February 14, he returned to his bed for the last time.
Thirty minutes later he fell into unconsciousness and his breathing became labored. Dr. Vanderpool informed the family that “the death struggle had begun.” Morgan died in his sleep within the hour. A telegram from Washington arrived at the house later in the morning stating that President Chester A. Arthur was leaving the capitol to attend the funeral.
At 2:00 in the afternoon of February 17 a crowd of more than a thousand people crushed onto Fifth Avenue between the Morgan mansion and the Brick Church where the funeral was to take place. When the doors to the church were opened, the public was allowed in only after the invited guests had taken their pews. When there was no more standing room, the doors to the church were closed.
“About 1,000 men and women were obliged to remain standing in the vestibule of the church and in the drizzling rain in the street, while within about 2,000 persons were congregated,” said The Times.
Meanwhile, across the street in the mansion, Edwin D. Morgan’s cloth-draped casket rested in the hallway in preparation to be carried to the church. Along with the family were the ten pallbearers and the honorary pallbearers—a list of names astonishing in their influence and celebrity: President Arthur, General U. S. Grant, John Jacob Astor, J. Pierpont Morgan, Hamilton Fish, Robert Lenox Kennedy, and Cornelius R. Agnew among them.
Among his remarks the Rev. Dr. Roswell D. Hitchcock said “No person ever came in contact with Governor Morgan on a grave occasion without getting an idea of his tremendous personality. The massive frame enclosed a massive brain. He instinctively saw things as they were, and knew how to take advantage of them.”
Later that year, on December 11, the St. John’s newspaper The Newfoundlander remarked on the aging Eliza. Calling her “among others of the more notable of the lady magnates,” the article said she “lives in elegant style at No. 411 Fifth avenue.”
Despite that “elegant style,” like her husband Eliza was not involved in the whirl-wind of society balls, teas and receptions. She was well-respected for her involvement with charitable causes and The New York Times noted that “one great motive of her life during late years [has] been the successful administration of these charitable enterprises.” She was especially involved with the works of the Brick Church and headed up its charitable programs. She was also active in the Association for the Relief of Aged and Indigent Females, and the New York Exchange for Women’s Work.
In January 1885 the 75-year old Eliza Morgan went out walking and took a serious fall. She never recovered from the trauma and the injuries and rapidly declined. At 1:00 on the afternoon of March 26, 1885, she died in the brownstone house where she had lived for over 30 years.
Before George Lewis, Jr. purchased the Morgan mansion two months later for $400,000 a sale of 152 works of art from the Morgan collection was held. Before long the house next door at No. 413 would continue the tradition of family ownership when Percy Pyne Lewis moved in with his family.
Mrs. George Lewis, Jr. lived on in the house after her husband’s death. The two houses were the scenes of social entertainments and debutante receptions. In 1905, when The Times announced a debutante entertainment here, it noted that “The Lewis houses are among the few private residences remaining in a section of Fifth Avenue between Thirty-fourth and Forty-second Streets, where a few years ago there were hardly any shops.”
Two years later the two residential hold-outs would be threatened. On June 23, 1907 The Times mentioned “With Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Baylies leaving their Thirty-sixth Street residence, there will gradually be abandoned to business a once most popular fashionable neighborhood. On Thirty-seventh Street there is building a tall business structure. The recent death of Mrs. Lewis may put in the market the old Morgan residence at the corner of Thirty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue, once the home of the late Gov. Morgan.”
|In 1908 commercial structures were rising around the old Morgan houses. To the far right a portion of the white marble Tiffany & Co. building can be seen -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The two Morgan houses would survive another three years. Then on March 3, 1910 The Times reported on the inevitable. “The rapid transformation of Fifth Avenue from a residential to a business thoroughfare has recently made necessary the demolition of the fine brownstone house at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-seventh Street, formerly owned and occupied by Edwin D. Morgan, war Governor of New York during the four years’ conflict which resulted in the abolition of slavery in the Union.” The article added that “In addition to this house, the adjoining one at No 413 is also being torn down.”
It would be another four years before the mansions were replaced by an architecturally-unique business building. With the loss of the truly historic Morgan mansion, the last remnant of the once-elegant neighborhood was erased.
|photo by Alice Lum|