Friday, December 27, 2013

The Wm. F. Havemeyer House -- No. 29 West 19th Street

In the years just after the Civil War, the blocks along Fifth Avenue north of 14th Street filled with impressive homes of the well-to-do.  Among them was No. 29 West 19th Street, a four-story Italianate rowhouse that distinguished itself from its neighbors with an especially handsome classical portico above a tall stone stoop.  The complex entranceway consisted of a triangular bracketed pediment above engaged columns on paneled bases.  The recessed, arched doorway featured carved spandrels, keystone and pilasters. 

In 1887 the dignified house was shared by two successful bachelors—Joseph L. Colton and James O. Proudfit.  Both men were brokers and, as such, required extensive wardrobes.   Colton was a Governor of the Union Club and a prominent member of the Fencers’ Club.  Proudfit, whose office was at No. 30 Broad Street, filled his leisure time yachting.

That year they engaged a valet named Jones; and while it seems that Jones was willing to work for his living his son, Josiah, was less inclined.

In July Proudfit was away on a cruise with the New York Yacht Club.  In the meantime, Joseph Colton noticed that he was missing some articles of clothing.  A lot of them.  Investigating further, he found that Proudfit had been nearly cleaned out as well.  He notified the 13th Street Police Station and Detective Price put two and two together.  He had been watching the pawn shops and was particularly interested in a young man who repeatedly pawned high-end men’s clothing.

He asked Colton about the valet.  “He has got a son, hasn’t he?  That’s right.  He took the clothes.  He has been pawning a good deal of stuff lately and I have been watching him to see where he worked.”

Josiah Jones, whom The Sun described as “a dudish colored youth of 19 years,” was arrested.  In his pockets were 56 pawn tickets for men’s clothing.  Colton went with the detective, accompanied by Proudfit’s business partner Frederick E. Parsons, to the pawnshops to identify the goods.

Probably because he was away and unable to notice the theft, Proudfit had suffered the larger loss.  While Colton was able to recover $400 in his own clothes; The Sun said “They also identified about $1,000 worth of the property as belonging to Mr. Proudfit…About thirty suits of his clothing were among the stolen property.”  Included in the theft were “a lot of scarf pins and small jewelry.”

Proudfit’s high-end wardrobe would have cost, in today’s dollars, about $22,000 to replace.  His friends told a reporter “if these robberies had not been discovered he would have had to wrap a sheet around him for a change of clothing on his return.”

An enraged James Proudfit appeared in the Jefferson Market Court on August 18 as complainant.  The sins of the son, in this case, were transferred to the father as the headline in The Sun the following day read “A Dishonest Valet.”

The grand house would become home to the William F. Havemeyer family as the century drew to a close.  Havemeyer was the son of the former Mayor William F. Havemeyer and, with his brothers, had entered the family's sugar refining industry under the name of Havemeyer Brothers.  In 1889 he retired at the age of 39.

Havemeyer and his wife, the former Josephine L. Harmon, filled the house with a notable collection of American paintings.  He was also an ardent collector of historical documents and possessed the most extensive collection of Washingtoniana in the country.

Although Havemeyer had retired from the sugar industry, he continued on in banking.  He would hold directorships in the Corn Exchange Bank and the North River Savings Bank; as well as the Title Insurance Company of New York, the New York Mortgage and Security Company, the Century Realty Company, the New York Bond and Mortgage Company, the Chelsea Realty Company, and the Colorado Eastern Railway Company.  Later he would become President of the National Bank of North America; of which his father was a founder and its first president.

He held memberships in the exclusive clubs expected of a Manhattan millionaire-- the Metropolitan, Union League, Century, Downtown—and for years was the president of the Grolier Club.

New York society was concerned when Josephine Havemeyer was forced to drop out of social scene during the winter season of 1893-94 due to illness.  Afternoon “calls” at the time were a social obligation whereby Victorian socialites would visit one another for tea and gossip at socially-correct hours.  To prevent the awkward situation of arriving at someone’s home when she was otherwise engaged or not at home at all; “at homes” were announced in the newspapers.

Readers of the society pages were no doubt relieved when the New York Times reported on January 4, 1894 that “Mrs. William F. Havemeyer of 29 West Nineteenth Street, who has entirely recovered from her serious illness, will give ‘At Homes’ on Feb. 10 and 17.”

Living with them in the house was Mrs. Havemeyer’s aging father, Alexander G. Harmon.  Like the Havemeyers, the Harmon family had amassed a large fortune.  Early in December 1894 Harmon died in the house on West 19th Street.

Josephine Havemeyer died in 1899 and two years later William, now 51 years old, left the house on West 19th Street to move into his son’s mansion at 11 East 54th Street.   He sold the 19th Street house to fellow Grolier Club member and founder, Robert Hoe.

The once-proud home would never be used as a private dwelling again.  By the turn of the century most of the wealthy residents of the neighborhood had moved northward, leaving their homes to be converted for business or razed.  The Havemeyer house received a stark renovation.
Originally the stoop rose to parlor level, where the paneled blocks upholding the entrance columns stand.  The double entrance doors would have reached to the point where the "29" is now.
The tall stone stoop was lowered to nearly sidewalk level and the doorway altered.  The parlor floor windows were replaced by an expansive showroom window under a projecting cornice which, somewhat ironically, nearly mimicked the bracketed portion of the entrance pediment.  Another commercial front was installed at the English basement level with double doors and its own shop window.

Among the tenants was the American Institute of Mining Engineers which would be in the building for years. 

Robert Hoe died in 1909 and his estate sold the house, now described as a “loft building” in September 1919 to Charles Springer.

With the American Institute of Mining Engineers in the former mansion was the American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers.  The scientific flavor of the residents continued in 1932 when The Stillwell Laboratories, Inc. moved in.  The firm did business as “analytical and consulting chemists.”

The upper floors of the Havemeyer house are virtually unchanged.

In 2006 the house where smart landaus once dropped off well-dressed women for tea with Mrs. Havemeyer was converted to five residential apartments.  One other altered rowhouse survives on the block among the soaring loft and retail buildings of the early 20th century.  But it takes little imagine to envision No. 29 in its prime; when this block off Fifth Avenue was among the most exclusive residential addresses in the city.

photographs taken by the author

1 comment:

  1. too bad you dont have a photo of the home in its prime. If one takes a random walk on many of the side streets off fifth ave, in the 30's and 40's you can still see a few brownstone survivors on almost every block, battered, poorly renovated or remarkably intact except for the modified parlor floor and mising stoops, but you get a sense of what these streets must have looked like lined with hundreds and hundreds of brownstone townhouses. NYarch