Monday, December 23, 2013

The Lost Wm. Watts Sherman Mansion -- 838 5th Avenue

The projecting bay windows of the Sherman mansion would result in a court battle with neighbors -- photo by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,
William Watts Sherman was born in 1842 in Newport, Rhode Island and his New England roots were deeply planted.   Philip Shearman, on his father’s side, arrived in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1633; and his mother’s first ancestor arrived in the new world around the same time.  Both of Sherman’s wives would have colonial pedigrees.

When Sherman was 9 years old the family moved to New York to a mansion on Fifth Avenue at the corner of 22nd Street.  One of eight children, William Watts Sherman left the family home in 1871 when he married the much older Annie Derby Rogers Wetmore in Newport.   Her English ancestors had arrived in New England in 1635.

The newlyweds built a mansion at No. 24 East 55th Street; but it was their Newport estate that would stand out.  In 1875 Sherman commissioned noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson to design the house which was completed a year later.  The result was a magnificent conglomeration of American colonial, English Renaissance and medieval European elements melded together to form what is considered to be one of Richardson’s masterpieces and the prototype for the Shingle Style movement in American architecture.
The Shermans' Newport "cottage" was an architectural masterwork -- photograph from the collection of the Cornell University Library
The exuberant, ground-breaking and masterful design of the Newport house would later be starkly contrasted in Sherman’s new Fifth Avenue mansion. 

William Watts Sherman poses for a studio portrait with silk hat and cane -- photo from the collection of the Salve Regina University
Sherman and Annie had two daughters, Georgette and Sybil.  In 1884 the 66-year old Annie died of pneumonia and a year later Sherman remarried.  Sophia Augusta Brown was the daughter of the immensely wealthy John Carter Brown.  She was descended from Chat Brown, one of the original proprietors of Rhode Island and the pastor of the First Baptist Church in 1642.  Her family’s financial support of Brown University resulted in the school's name.

William and Sophia would have two additional daughters—Irene and Mildred.  While he was listed as a “banker,” Sherman was mostly interested in social involvement and philanthropy.  Among his numerous club memberships were the Metropolitan, Knickerbocker, Century, City, Colony, Calument, Coaching, Riding, Racquet and Tennis and St. Nicholas Society.  His deep interest in the family’s colonial history led to his active involvement in the Sons of the Revolution, and Colonial Wars of New York.

In 1892 the Shermans began construction of their new mansion at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 65th Street.  Unlike most Fifth Avenue mansions which were built with the husband’s money then deeded to the wife; this house was all Sophia’s.  According to The New York Times, “The house which Mr. and Mrs. Sherman are to occupy is being built by John Nicholas Brown, Harold Brown, and G. W. R. Matteson as trustees for Mrs. Sherman under a marriage settlement.”

The hulking, double-wide structure would rise five stories.  Generally Italianate in design, its two-story base stretched deeply back along 65th Street.  The prominent features of the Fifth Avenue elevation were two aggressive bays which projected beyond the property line.  If New Yorkers were expecting a masterwork like the Newport mansion; they instead got a hip-roofed brownstone cube with the rather ungainly bay windows that successfully diminished the entrance.

Next door to the south was the mansarded mansion of Simon and Isidor Wormser at No. 836 Fifth Avenue.  Directly behind the Sherman property, at No. 2 65th Street, was the home of another Wormser—Louis.

For several years the various Wormsers had enjoyed the air and sunlight afforded by the vacant lot where now the Sherman mansion was rising.  To make tensions worse, Louis Wormser had intended to make “some alterations” to his 65th Street home which now could not be accomplished.

The last straw came in the form of the two bulky bay windows of the Sherman house.  The New York Times commented on December 20, 1892 “Simon and Isidor Wormser used to have poetical thoughts as they gazed from the windows of their Fifth Avenue residence up the avenue and toward the upper end of Central Park.  But their view and their poetical thoughts were interfered with by the building of bay windows on the new house of Mr. and Mrs. William Watts Sherman.”

Simon, Isidor and Louis Wormser went to the Park Commissioners and protested that the bay windows extended onto public property and should be removed.  When the Commissioners decided in favor of the windows, the Wormsers went to court.

As the case was being heard by Judge Lawrence, the Shermans’ lawyers Strong & Cadwalader brought in big guns to testify.  Stanford White, who had done renovations to the Newport mansion in 1881, testified that “the bay windows are essential to the appearance of the Sherman residence, and that they are less objectionable than the Wormser porch."  (What the Wormsers neglected to note in their complaint was that their own stoop projected beyond the Shermans’ bay windows—making them worse violators than their new neighbors).   Architect James Renwick stated “that the windows are made necessary by the plan of the house.”

If the Wormsers’ attorneys, Vedder Van Dyck and Edgar M. Johnson, chose to overlook their clients’ offending porch, the Sherman lawyers did not.  They argued that “there is a porch to the Wormsers’ Fifth Avenue house which projects beyond the street line and is fully as much of an obstruction to light and air as the Sherman bay windows.”

The Shermans won the case and the Wormsers’ poetic thoughts from their own windows were forever quashed.

The Sherman family moved into the new mansion and a flurry of entertainments began that would continue for decades.  The women of the house were a bit eccentric; a matter which was mostly overlooked in light of their millions of dollars.  Although Irene and Mildred were born a year apart, they insisted on being treated as twins.

In 1906 they were given a double debutante ball “in their beautiful New York house on Fifth Avenue,” as reported by The Scrap Book.  The publication noted that “Miss Irene is a year older than her sister, but the resemblance between them is so marked that they are generally spoken of as the Sherman ‘twins.’  As they always dress alike, it is not difficult to believe this, despite the slight disparity in their ages.”

The girls wore “pink, lavender, and blue…to the exclusion of all other shades.”  The Scrap Book made note of the girls’ impending wealth.  Saying that their mother was “the heiress to a large portion of the Brown fortune, of Providence,” it went on to note “There is a saying in New England that the Browns and the Goddards own all of Providence and a good part of Rhode Island.  The Misses Sherman, being the only children, will inherit all of their mother’s fortune, which should go far toward making them rank with the great heiresses of America.”

The same year that the girls came out in society, Sophia exhibited a bit of her own eccentric behavior.  The Evening World wrote that “Society sat up and took notice when Mrs. Sherman and her daughters led the ‘sterilization cult’ in 1906, and this came about through the discovery of a live fly in the household.”

When Sophia found a fly buzzing around the mansion she went into a panic.  According to the newspaper, the fly was “slain forthwith” and “a regime so strict as to defy even the tiniest microbe began.”

Sophia insisted that all the water in the house be distilled.  She and her daughters wore gloves indoors and out; only removing them to bathe.  They carried “dainty tongs” with them with which to pick up small objects so their hands would not come in contact with germs.  Sophia had vacuum machines brought into the mansion to clear away any hint of dust.  The World added that “cats were as much tabooed as mice, and kissing was abolished.  Even cheeks could not be permitted to bear the imprint of the most highly sanitary lips and telephone receivers were cleansed antiseptically twice a day.”

Sophia Sherman had been ill for a considerable time prior to her obsessive behavior; and she considered the “robust health” of the entire family ever since as proof of her wisdom.

In February 1909 Sophia’s mother died, leaving society to wonder what would become of the $30 million estate.  The Evening World suggested that “it now turns out [the estate] will go in large part to Mrs. William Watts Sherman, one of the most beautiful women in Newport.”  The newspaper’s prediction was a bit premature—the final disposition of the Brown fortune would drag on for years.

In the meantime the Shermans were major players in New York and Newport social life.  On March 3, 1909 The Evening World commented that “Mrs. William Watts Sherman has been a brilliant figure in New York and Newport society…and the entertainments by the family both here [in Newport] and New York have been brilliant.”

In January 1911, after a long bout of “stomach trouble,” William Watts Sherman underwent an operation.  On February 2 The New York Times noted that he “was reported as resting comfortably last night.”  No one suspected that it was the first development leading to the millionaire’s death.

Sophia, deemed one of the most beautiful woman in Newport, is dressed for a ball.  photograph from the Library of Congress
Earlier that winter, society had taken notice when 27-year old Ralph Francis Julian Stonor, Lord Camoys of England arrived to act as usher at the wedding of Vivien Gould and Lord Decies.  “For several months after the Decies-Gould wedding he remained in New York and was entertained a great deal,” said The Sun.

Early on in his visit the charismatic Lord Camoys confessed that he found New York society girls attractive.  “I’m going to be here until May and the greatest difficulty will be not to become engaged,” he told reporters.  “Your girls here are so charming.”

The ears of wealthy socialites perked up when, shortly before he sailed home to England, he stood on the New York pier watching the departure of the Mauretania and remarked that “the most beautiful girl in America was sailing on that boat.”  Society columnists scurried to pour over the passenger lists.  “There were three prominent New York society girls aboard her,” reported The Sun.  They were Olga Wiborg, Catherine Hamersley and Mildred Sherman.

Two months later rumors still raged and a report from Newport on July 15 regarding the supposed engagement of Mildred and Lord Camoys provided no answers.  “Mrs. Sherman was not approachable to-day, but Mr. Sherman said that he had no information upon the subject to give out.  The reported engagement formed one of the chief topics of conversation in social circles here to-day.”

In Edwardian New York, marrying one’s daughter to a fortune was less important than marrying her to a title.  Sophia Sherman’s greatest social coup came when, on August 13, 1911, she and her husband formally announced the engagement.

The wedding was scheduled to take place in the Sherman mansion on December 2, 1911.  It would be one of the most talked-about and lavish mansion weddings Fifth Avenue had seen in some time.  Four hundred invitations were sent out and preparations were begun months in advance.  But as the date neared, William Watts Sherman’s health continued to decline.

Hints of the gravity of the situation first arose in November when Lord Camoys canceled his bachelor dinner.  That was followed on November 24 when Mildred’s brother-in-law, Lawrence L. Gillespie, recalled the invitations to a dinner for that night at the Union Club in the groom’s honor.  Mildred canceled a dinner for the same night which she had planned for some of her friends.

The Times noted on November 24 that “It was reported yesterday that the wedding would take place to-morrow, and that all of the invitations to the reception, about 400 in number, would be recalled.”  The newspaper added “In this case there will be no reception, and only the close relatives of Miss Sherman and Lord Camoys will witness the ceremony.”

Sherman’s condition did not improve and on November 25 the wedding was held in his bedroom suite in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  The 69-year old was propped up in a chair to witness the ceremony.  What was anticipated to be one of the most lavish weddings of the season was, instead, a subdued, bittersweet affair of only a few family and guests.

Newspapers closely followed Sherman’s condition.  On December 9 The Evening World said he “is reported in critical condition at his home;” on January 22, 1912, The Sun reported “His condition took a change for the worse on Saturday and while he was conscious yesterday it was feared that he might not live through the night;” and, finally, the following day, the papers announced his death.

William Watts Sherman’s body was taken to his beloved Newport for his funeral and burial.

At the time of William W. Sherman's death, the block was lined with grand mansions -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Sophia continued to live on alone with her staff in the Fifth Avenue and Newport mansions.  In 1914 the immense Brown estate was finally settled, adding approximately $15 million to Sophia Augusta Brown Sherman’s already substantial fortune.  The windfall would amount to about $250 million today.

Sophia Sherman’s millions were a comfortable buffer against the Great Depression and when Louis Wormser’s house on 65th Street became available in January 1930, Sophia bought it.  Wormser’s widow, Anna, who was living in Hamburg, Germany had offered the property for sale.  Sophia’s purchase was most likely prompted to protect her property.  Already the grand mansions of the neighborhood were being razed for modern apartment buildings.  Such a building would not only increase traffic, but would block light to the rear of her mansion.

By 1938 Sophia Sherman's hulking mansion was the last private home on the block -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Seventeen years later both Sophia Sherman and her home were relics of a bygone time.  In 1947 motorcars buzzed along the avenue she remembered as being trafficked with smart broughams and liveried coachmen.  She had entertained pearl-draped socialites wearing diamond tiaras both in Newport and New York.  She had seen two world wars and the invention of the telephone and the airplane.  Her house at No. 838 Fifth Avenue was a time capsule of a gilded age long forgotten.

On June 28, 1947 Sophia Augusta Brown Sherman died in her magnificent Newport mansion.  Within months the Fifth Avenue house was no more.  On February 21, 1950 architect Harry M. Prince filed plans for the new national center for Reform Judaism on the site.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. Terrific story. I would love to see some interior photos. Have a wonderful Christmas!

  2. I love what replaced these mansions even though it was one of the most varied blocks and very new homes.