Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The 1844 "Washington Irving" House -- No. 122 East 17th Street

photo by Alice Lum

The corner house at No. 122 East 17th Street was already more than two decades old when Elsie de Wolfe was born in 1865.  And already it had seen a progression of well-heeled owners.

The house was one of three identical, speculative homes built between 1843 and 1844 in the popular Greek Revival style.  The brick-faced houses with brownstone trim did nothing to command attention; rather they reflected the respectability and restraint of the developing neighborhood.

In 1844, just after the paint dried inside, Charles Jackson Martin moved in with his wife, Mary.  Martin was the secretary of the Globe Fire Insurance Company and would go on to be president of the Home Insurance Company and one of the New York State insurance commissioners.

Following the Martins, Thomas W. Phelps and his wife, Elizabeth, owned the house.  The couple moved into the residence in 1854 and would stay on until 1863.  It was not Phelps, who was a merchant/banker, who would be best known; but his wife.  The first in a tradition of strong-opinioned and activist women in the house, Elizabeth would go on to found the Women’s Bureau and donate the house at No. 49 East 23rd Street for its headquarters.  Working closely with Susan B. Anthony in the endeavor, she created a place where various “societies of women” could meet and operate.  These included the Workingwomen’s Association, and the Art Association.  “These societies find a place of meeting, with refined surroundings, free from the contact of public places,” promised The New York Times.

The feminist would become a member of Sorosis, the first professional women’s club in the U.S.; contribute money toward the publishing of Revolution, a suffragist magazine; and ardently participate in the New York, National and Union suffrage associations.

It was either just before the Phelps moved in, or during their stay that the house was nearly doubled in size with a three story addition to the rear.  The design of the extension sympathetically melded with the original structure.  It was most probably Phelps, however, who embellished the house with picturesque Italianate elements like the lighthearted hood over the cast iron balcony at the front of the house, the three-sided bay to the side, and the lacy porch at the side entrance.  With the enlargement of the house, the dining room moved back into the extension where a large, oriel window provided light.
It was almost assuredly Phelps who remodeled the house with exquisite cast iron and the charming bay -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1864 the house became home to the Charles A. Macy family.  A banker, Charles had been President of the New-York County Bank until 1856 and was now a principal with the Corlies, Macy & Co. banking house.  (His nephew would make the family name famous when he founded the dry goods store.)  Charles was married to Sarah, the daughter of his father-in-law, Benjamin Corlies.

Things went well for the Macys until the Financial Panic of 1873.  The New York Times later recalled that “The sudden panic of 1873, which caused the overthrow of many prominent banking houses, also dealt a fatal blow to [Corlies, Macy & Co.]” 

The shock of losing his bank greatly affected the health of the 69-year old man.  The Times would say it contributed “much toward the hastening of his death.”  Charles A. Macy died in the house on East 17th Street on Wednesday, June 16, 1875.
photo by Alice Lum

Sarah Macy lived on in the house until 1886 after which it became home to Dr. August G. Seibert.  The esteemed pediatrician operated his practice from the house as well and wrote several in-depth medical articles here. 

Not all of his opinions would hold up over the years.   In The Pacific Record of Medicine and Surgery he advised that the relief and prevention of pneumonia in children was “no medicine and plenty of fresh air.” 

While Dr. Seibert was living in the East 17th Street house, Elsie de Wolfe was making a name for herself.  Having traveled through Europe in her teens, she was well-known in New York social circles for her beautiful and creative dresses.

About the time that Dr. Siebert moved into the house, Elsie did something that no doubt raised eyebrows in New York society—she went on stage as an amateur actress.  It was the first step in the colorful life of a woman who dared to do what she wanted to do, despite tradition and expectations.

In 1887 she met Elisabeth Marbury, a theatrical agent who came from an old moneyed New York family.  For a quarter of a century the pair would be New York’s most visible lesbian couple.

Elsie and her three brothers were reared in a comfortable home.  Their father, Dr. Stephen de Wolfe, was, as described by The Times, “ranked high as an authority and successful practitioner in pulmonary diseases.”  Despite his expertise, however, Dr. de Wolfe died of heart problems on September 26, 1890.  His obituary mentioned that, along with his wife and sons, he left a “daughter, Miss Elsie De Wolfe, who has achieved an enviable reputation as an amateur actress.”

Elsie’s amateur status would change within the year.  The de Wolfe finances were not as far-reaching as most imagined.  Three months later The New York Times reported that “Miss Elsie de Wolfe has decided on adopting the stage as a profession, and next season she will be a member of Charles Frohman’s stock company…Miss de Wolfe is going on the stage because her circumstances make it necessary for her to make her own living.”

On February 10, 1891 the newspaper tactfully announced that she had to borrow money to study in Paris.  “She is now pursuing her studies in Paris through the kindness of New-York friends, who have advanced her the money required to prepare her for a professional career.’

Back in New York in 1892, briefly moved into Elisabeth’s home.  On August 22 a New York Times reporter visited her at the home of “her friend Miss Elisabeth Marbury.”  The journalist took note of her clothes, as everyone always did.  “As she entered the drawing room, gowned in a French something of old rose and white lace, there was about her the glamour of the peerless city on the Seine with the approving seal of its milliners.”

Elsie stressed that she wanted to be judged by her talent and not her social background.  “I want to stand on my merits as an actress, and not as a member of New-York society.”

Later that year she leased the house at No. 122 East 17th Street.  Her intentions, she later wrote, were to “devote all my leisure to making over this tiny old dwelling into a home which would fit into our plan for life.”

While de Wolfe and Marbury lived in the house the brick facade was painted.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Her devotions to “making over this tiny old dwelling” would shake the world of interior design.  Her years in Paris among airy rooms with pastel colors and sparse furniture had left a deep impression.  Her work in the theater added to her understanding of stage sets and their relationship to the actors moving through them.  She was adept at merging these ideas into a ground-breaking concept in domestic interior design.
Elsie de Wolfe is nearly swallowed up in the interior decor of her drawing room before she began redecorating -- photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Elsie purged the rooms of their heavy Victorian furniture, potted palms and ferns, and unnecessary bric-a-brac.  She replaced it all with a stripped down, clean décor—painting the dark woodwork a crisp white and added only the necessary pieces; mostly in the Louis XV and Louis XVI styles.

During the 1890s Elsie and Elisabeth spent months in France, staying in the little house Elsie purchased near Versaille.  On September 17, 1900 she described the house to reporters as “A wee little house about the size of a postage stamp, but with big gardens opening in the park.”

The dining room in No. 122 East 17th Street before and after Elsie's redecorating.  The heavy Victorian trappings (including a wallpapered ceiling) have been replaced with an airy decor.  photograph by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The French influence seeped into the 17th Street house as she painted furniture white and brought home antique pieces from abroad.  She explained “Miss Marbury and I have a perfect right to French things in our drawing-room, you see, for we are French residents half the year.  And besides this gracious old house welcomed a fine old Louis XIV sofa as serenely as you please.”

It was most likely Elsie de Wolfe who started the legend that Washington Irving had lived in the house.  It was decidedly not so; but it made for a wonderful tale.  An indignant neighbor wrote to the editor of The New York Times on March 24, 1901 in an attempt to put the unfounded rumor to rest.

“Some one is engaged in a persistent attempt to make it appear that the house on the southwest corner of Irving Place and East Seventeenth Street was formerly owned and occupied by Washington Irving.  I know the family who have owned the property for thirty years or more, and they tell me that Irving never had any residence there.  A relative of his assures me that he never lived in Irving Place and never owned the house in question.”

The writer did not stop there, but pursued the records.  “Finally, through the courtesy of the President of the Lawyers’ Title Insurance Company I had the claim of title examined, and found that Irving does not appear in it anywhere…The house is at present occupied by Miss Elsie De Wolfe as tenant of the owner.  What prompts this letter just now is the fact that I found a photographer at work yesterday taking a picture of this ‘historic mansion.’”

The neighbor’s well-laid argument against the Washington Irving legend landed on mostly deaf ears.

Elsie and Elisabeth initiated a tradition of Sunday receptions; the equivalent of French salons.  Here writers, poets, artists and thinkers would congregate in the house on East 17th.  On January 4, 1904 The Sun remarked that “Miss Elizabeth Marbury and Miss Elsie de Wolfe of 122 East Seventeenth street gave one of the most largely attended of yesterday afternoon’s receptions.”  A few years later The Times would note that “Teas at the home of Miss Marbury and Miss De Wolfe, in the old Washington Irving residence, at Seventeenth Street and Irving Place, are regular Sunday afternoon affairs of importance in the literary and dramatic world during the height of the season.”

Among the other things French in the home were Faustina and Fauvette, two French bulldogs.  The pets were woefully upset on January 27, 1904 when a fire broke out in the house.  The Sun reported that “A small fire caused a big fuss at the residence of Miss Elisabeth Marbury and Miss Elsie De Wolfe, 122 East Seventeenth street, yesterday morning.   The resultant pain was felt most by Miss De Wolfe’s two French bulldogs.”

While Elsie and Elisabeth were on the first floor, a fire started in a second floor bedroom fireplace.  It spread to the surrounding woodwork and through the ceiling before it was noticed.  The butler was sent out to sound the alarm and when he left, the bulldogs fled the scene.

The newspaper concluded “Fire and water did $1,000 damage to the house, besides causing great mental distress to the bulldogs, which were caught nearly a block away.”

A year later, in April 1905, another fire started in the house.  While the damage was again small, this time firemen were injured when the responding fire truck was struck by a street car.  The truck was nearly demolished and two firemen were taken to Bellevue Hospital.

Edwardian mores were not especially upset by the domestic arrangement of the two now-wealthy and influential women.  On March 22, 1908 the Sunday afternoon tea was given in honor of English novelist Mrs. Humphry Ward, an old friend of Elisabeth’s.  The Times noted that “Among the prominent people who were present were Prof. and Mrs. Fairfield Osborne, Mrs. Cooper Hewitt, Miss Hewitt, Mrs. J. Pierpont Morgan, Mrs. Frank Millet, Mrs. William Post, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Eliot Gregory, Henry Taft, Frank Munsey, Mrs. Paul Morton, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Whitridge—with whom Mrs. Ward is now staying in New York—Mr. and Mrs. John Corbin, and ex-Gov. Ide of the Philippines.”

On March 23, 1910 the first hints that Elsie and Elisabeth were preparing to leave East 17th Street came to light.  The New-York Tribune reported that alteration plans had been filed by Ogden Codman, Jr. for Elsie’s four-story brick dwelling at 131 East 71st Street.

By October of the following year a sign hung outside the door that announced “The Washington Irving Tea Room.”  The New York Times remarked “The well-worn tradition that Washington Irving once lived in the quaint little house on the southeast corner of Seventeenth Street still survives…Since Miss Elisabeth Marbury and Miss Elsie De Wolfe left the house for their uptown residence it has lost its spick-and-span outward appearance.”

In 1917, at the end of the Tea Room’s occupancy, Clarence H. White and his wife, Jane, moved in and established The Clarence H. White School of Photography here.  On the opening of the school’s winter session on October 29 that year, Wilson’s Photographic Magazine commented on the house.  “The new location is the old Washington Irving House, and is noted for its beautiful architecture, its spacious and well-lighted rooms carefully arranged and equipped to meet the demands of the school.”

Photo-Era Magazine said “No lover of the artistic and beautiful can look at the porch and doorway of the Clarence H. White School of photography, 122 East Seventeenth Street, New York City, without being convinced that the location of this well-known school could not be improved.”  The publication swallowed the old tale and passed it on.  “As a matter of fact, the building is the old Washington Irving house, which is noted for its beautiful architecture.”

The photograph school would remain in the house for only three years, moving on to No. 460 West 144th Street in 1920.

The house took on boarders for a while, and the following year one of them, Raymond Fisher, was arrested in Duquesne, Pennsylvania for check fraud.  Police felt “that the flood of worthless checks, aggregating thousands of dollars, in the Tri-State district and in Eastern Pennsylvania has been stopped.”

Bail for the 40-year old Fisher, who went under the alias of Frank Horak, was fixed at the staggering amount of $20,000.  The Pittsburgh Press ran a full-page headline “Alleged Forger Is Arrested in Duquesne—Smooth Scheme Uncovered.”

On September 9, 1927 another neighbor, once again, wrote to The New York Times in a frustrated attempt to squelch the Washington Irving story.  Emma M. Lewis wrote “I have lived all my life in that neighborhood and, as a girl, was in this house hundreds of times while it was owned by the Macys.

“In those days it was never even mooted that Washington Irving had ever lived in the house, but he was said to have boarded one Winter in a house at the southwest corner of Sixteenth Street and Irving Place.  His nephew, Pierre Irving, lived at 120 East Seventeenth Street.  His daughter, Mary, a very handsome girl, married the son of Huntington, the artist.  I knew her.

“After Elsie de Wolfe came to live at 122 East Seventeenth Street it was rumored that Washington Irving had lived in that house and that he used to sit in the second-story windows ‘to watch the boats in the East River.’  This was repeated in one way or another so many times that it was taken for truth.”

That same year the National Patriotic Builders of America bought the house with the intention of restoring it as a house museum—no doubt the impetus for Ms. Lewis’s letter to The Times.  The organization named the building “The Washington Irving House.”  The following year the Women’s Republican Association of the State of New York shared space in the house.

A tumult of contentious letters was triggered when the National Patriotic Builders initiated a fund-raising drive for its house museum project.  Eventually the group backed off from its venture; but the legend of Washington Irving was not gone yet.

On October 29, 1935 the over-sized bronze bust of Washington Irving that had been in a park was restored and moved across the street, in front of the Washington Irving High School.  The New York Times noted that Dr. John H. Finley, in rededicating the bust, mentioned the house across the street.  “Dr. Finley pointed out that at 49 Irving Place, directly opposite the school building, Washington Irving was said to have done much of his writing.”

Dr. Finley’s mistake could be, perhaps, forgiven; for a year earlier a bronze plaque had been affixed to the brick façade of No. 122 East 17th Street proclaiming it as the home of Washington Irving.
Flying in the face of historic accuracy, a bronze plaque was affixed to the facade in 1934 -- photo by Alice Lum

From the late 1950s into the 1960s the house was home to the Washington Irving Gallery which exhibited new artists, many of them American.  Today a sushi restaurant operates in the house while the upper floors have been converted to residential apartments.

The house is as charming as it was in the 1850s when the picturesque ornamentation was added.  The bronze plaque still hangs by the side entrance and the doggedly persistent—and untrue—legend that Washington Irving lived in the house continues.


  1. Hey, thanks so much for your great well-written columns and Alice's wonderful photos - you're so much better than the NYT thing. You have many readers -- not everyone likes to comment!

    1. Thanks a lot. I realize a lot of people read silently. Just glad they are enjoying the blog.