Monday, January 27, 2014

The Lost James B. Clews Mansion -- 1039 Fifth Avenue

The Real Estate Record & Guide, November 28, 1908 (copyright expired)
In 1886, just as the first of the great residences began elbowing their way north of the Fifth Avenue mansion district below 57th Street, Robert McBride and his wife Josephine lived in the comfortable brownstone-fronted rowhouse at No. 1039 Fifth Avenue.  Sitting at the corner of 85th Street, across from Central Park, it and its neighbors had been built with financially-comfortable homeowners in mind.  Within a generation the townhouses would be razed to be replaced by the lavish palaces of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens.

In 1908 the land on which the McBride home sat was owned by the New York and Harlem Railroad Company.   The railroad was liquidating its real estate in the area, including the large, now-vacant plot further down the block where the old Madison Avenue car stables had stood.  On April 23 that year The New York Times reported that “James B. Clews, nephew of Henry Clews” had purchased the corner lot at Fifth Avenue and 85th Street.

Although James Blanchard Clews had millions of his own—serving as a director in several corporations and as the Chairman of the Board of the Standard Cordage Company--newspapers consistently followed his name with “nephew of Henry Clews.”  James had, by now, worked for several years in his uncle’s banking firm.

With the 44-year old bachelor’s wedding to Mrs. Meta Nicholas Livingston, the widow of Oscar Livingston, scheduled to take place on November 18, Clews set to work preparing a fitting home for his bride.  A month before the wedding, on October 18, 1908, The New York Times reported on the planned mansion.  Already the old McBride house had been demolished.

“What will undoubtedly be one of the handsomest of upper fifth Avenue’s many mansions is that to be built for James B. Clews…from plans by Horace Trumbauer of Philadelphia, who also designed the I. Townsend Burden residence at Fifth Avenue and Ninety-second Street and George Gould’s new house at Sixty-seventh Street.”

Clews had paid $100,000 for the land and Trumbauer projected the cost of the residence to be double that—an investment of over $7 million today.  The Real Estate Record and Guide noted one particularly interesting aspect of the design.

“In its planning, the edifice will show at least one departure from the ideas heretofore carried out in corner residences on upper 5th av. in that it will have the entrance on the avenue front instead of on the street.”   Rather than center the entrance on the 100-foot long 85th Street elevation; Trumbauer placed it in the 25-foot wide Fifth Avenue side.

The Record and Guide noted “The style of architecture will be the French Renaissance, with the exterior both on the avenue and street of Indiana limestone.”   The New-York Tribune disagreed on the architectural style.   “It will be of the modern Italian design, having a mansard and many windows, finished with decorative railings and large plaques, with a stone set below the sills.”

Trumbauer arranged the interiors to best make use of the long, deep floor plan.  “At each side of the main entrance on the first floor will be a small reception-room,” said the Real Estate Record and Guide.  A grand main hall stretched 34 feet from the foyer to the dining room at the rear.  “This hall will be of imposing proportions and will be elaborately finished in Caen stone and marble.”

The New York Times noted that the same materials “will be used lavishly throughout the interior of the house.”  A marble staircase in the center of the great hall rose to another spacious hall.  At the Fifth Avenue end of the second floor would be the Library and at the opposite end, “the salon.”

The third floor was reserved for the Clews living apartments; the fourth floor contained guest rooms (there were eight bedrooms in all within the house); and the entire fifth floor contained accommodations for the staff of 12.

Meta Nicholas Livingston was the daughter of Washington Romaine Nicols and a great-granddaughter of General  Benjamin Romaine, second Controller of New York City.   Her husband, Oscar Livingston,  had been dead for only about four years and her mother was recently deceased.  The wedding, therefore was quiet and understated.

It took place on November 18 at Cozy Nook, the Bernardsville, New Jersey summer estate of Meta’s brother.  Four days later The Sun reported that “Mr. and Mrs. James B. Clews will pass their honeymoon in Cuba.  On their return they will reside in a house which Mr. Clews is building on the northeast corner of Fifth avenue and Eighty-fifth street.”

In actuality, it would be quite some time before the newlyweds would reside in the house.  Construction of the massive mansion would take years.  The couple moved into the Plaza Hotel and spent the summer seasons, expectedly, out of town.

Living in a suite of rooms at the Plaza did not stifle Meta Clews’ entertaining.  Despite being four months pregnant, on February 25 she gave a dinner for Miss Catherine Hamersley followed by a jaunt to the Herald Square Theatre to see “The Yankee Girl.”  Among the Clews’ socially-prominent guests that night were Vincent Astor and John Jacob Astor. 

On July 29, 1910 while spending the summer at the Elberon, New Jersey cottage of Meta’s sister, a baby daughter was born. 

The newly-completed house shared the Fifth Avenue block with still-surviving brownstone rowhouses of a generation earlier.  photo by from the collection of the New York Public Library
The house was completed the following year and James, Meta and Little Leta moved in.  The family continued to lease or borrow country estates—in 1913 they rented the summer home of W. Crittenden Adams and the following season occupied Ellencourt, the country home “in the Red Spring colony at Glen Cove, Long Island,” owned by Mrs. Spencer A. Jennings.

It was not a lack of money that prevented the Clews from purchasing their own country estate during those first few years.  Before long they would own what the New-York Tribune deemed an “English country estate at Brookville, Long Island,” which sprawled over 127 acres.  It included a “stone dwelling and numerous other buildings and cottages.”  The Tribune added “The residence consists of a collection of Eighteenth century English and Irish furniture.”

In the meantime, the Fifth Avenue mansion continued to be the scene of glittering entertainments; including the luncheon for Governor and Mrs. Whitman on the afternoon of January 14, 1917.  But Meta Clews’ days of staging social functions, dinners and receptions were coming to an end.

While the family was at the Long Island estate in August 1919, Meta Clews died.  James and his nine-year old daughter returned to the Fifth Avenue mansion alone.

In 1923 James Blanchard Clews succeeded his deceased uncle as head of the brokerage firm of Henry Clews & Co.  Three years later, on September 26, 1926, a headline in The New York Times announced “Betrothal of Mary Ann Payne to James B. Clews Is of Wide Interest.”   The newspaper said the engagement “is of interest to society in Europe as well as here.”

Mary Ann Payne came from what The Times called “distinguished ancestry.  Her family dates back several centuries to the noble houses of Pagnel and Hambie, whose members settled in Devonshire, England, at the time of William the Conqueror.”  The newspaper added, “Miss Payne is a direct descendant of Sir Robert Payne, one of the first settlers in Virginia.”  And, as always, it reminded its readers “Mr. Clews is a nephew of the late Henry Clews, of this city and Newport who founded the banking house of Henry Clews & Co.”

The nearly-private wedding was held in the White and Gold room of the Plaza Hotel the following month.  The New York Times reported that “After a motor trip, Mr. Clews and his bride will return to his home at 1,039 Fifth Avenue.” The bridegroom was now 62 years old.

The Clews would not stay much longer in the Fifth Avenue mansion, however.  In 1929 they moved to No. 1 East 62nd Street.  By now the golden age of the grand private mansions was essentially over.  Wealthy New Yorkers now mostly preferred the convenience of lavish, modern apartment suites.

The James Blanchard Clews mansion was demolished; replaced in 1930 by the 17-story structure designed by eminent apartment building architect Rosario Candela.  The new building also took down the mansion of architect Whitney Warren.

Although Candela’s handsome apartment building is well regarded among architects today; the short-lived palace by Horace Trumbauer that it replaced is a significant loss.


  1. Mary Payne Clews was a woman of some interest. In 1935 after the death of Mr. Payne she (aged 77) married widowed international financier (and president of the Metropolitan museum of Art) George Blumenthal. After his death in 1941 she took over his seat as president of the Met. She eventually married a retired major general (whos name escapes my mind)

  2. Side note about 1040 Fifth Avenue which replaced the Clews house: 1040 was conceived as a cooperative venture, but hit the market smack in the middle of the Depression. The builders therefore offered the huge suites for rent as well as purchase. As an example of prices, a 15 room duplex apartment with four working fireplaces could be leased for $900 per month.

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  4. Hi Tom. Great post! I was wondering if you knew why there seems to be a discrepancy between the illustration listed first, showing the entrance on Fifth Ave, with the photo posted later not showing an entrance on Fifth Ave. A beautiful mansion that lasted such a brief amount of time.


    1. nice catch. I didn't even notice that. Appears that Trumbauer changed his design after the initial plans and moved the entrance to 85th Street.