Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The 1835 Edwin Forrest Mansion -- No. 436 West 22nd St

On April 23, 1934 photographer E. P. MacFarland photographed the house which had little changed in a century -- photograph Library of Congress

By 1835 when James Coggill erected his impressive mansion—just one inch short of 33 feet wide--at No. 436 West 22nd Street, Edwin Forrest had already established his reputation on the stage.  Two years earlier William Mooney, writing in Hazard’s Register of Pennsylvania, called him “A star whose genius and patriotism will render his name a standard reference in the annals of the American drama.”  The paths of the actor and Coggill would cross at No. 436 West 22nd Street.

Sitting on land purchased from Clement Clarke Moore on what had a generation earlier been the Moore country estate, Chelsea, Coggill’s residence pulled out all the stops in the newly-popular Greek Revival style.  Although the exterior was relatively restrained with an off-center entrance with a Doric portico and little other embellishment; the interior was extravagant and “pure Greek.”

The Illustrated American would later comment “The builder may have been an Englishman, and perhaps he had a certain style of the London house, such as may be found in old Kensington, London, in mind when he planned it.”

Throughout the house fluted columns and pilasters, ceiling decorations and mantels carried on the Greek motif.  The expensive hardwoods, marble flooring in the 12-foot square entrance hall and gilded capitals would have been perhaps more expected in the exclusive Bond Street or St. John’s Park neighborhoods.

A century after construction the intricate Greek-inspired ceiling was astoundingly intact-- photograph by E. P. MacFarland, from the collection of the Library of Congress

On June 23, 1837 Edwin Forrest married Catharine N. Sinclair in London.  Forrest brought his bride to New York and soon thereafter he embarked on a road tour.  According to biographer Richard Mooney, when he returned he found his in-laws living in his house and his housekeeper complained that “the place had been filled with scenes of revelry and disorder during his absence.”

Catharine Sinclair Forrest’s later version of events is quite different; but both agree that in 1838 a friend named Lawson found and obtained the Coggill mansion for Forrest.  On August 31, 1839 the actor took title to the property as well as four others in the neighborhood.  The wealthy Forrest now owned property on 22nd Street, 21st Street, and “Fonthill,” his sprawling 74-acre estate in Yonkers.

Mooney declared that the 22nd Street house was purchased so that Forrest could distance himself from his overbearing relatives.  Catharine came along; however the union was not a pleasant one.  When Catharine would visit her sister in the Reade Street house which her husband abandoned; he would accuse her of loving her sister more than him.  Violent arguments erupted in the Grecian halls, overheard by the servants.  Although Catharine was forbidden to enter the library; servants later reported that as soon as Forrest left the house she would spend hours pouring over his personal papers there.

Some Victorian periodicals and books would later gloss over the domestic disquiet in the mansion.  The Illustrated American on October 25, 1890 focused on happier events.  “Willis and his brother, the musician were frequent visitors at the house.  Bryant and others distinguished in literature and art were often there in the evening.”  The magazine did mention, however, that “The house, according to the testimony of the servants, finally became the theatre of domestic tragedy in which the master played a stormy role.”

In fact Catharine Forrest’s “musical parties” while her husband was traveling were later fodder for scandalous gossip and newspaper reports when the gatherings were rumored to involve more than music. 

In 1849 things came to a head when according to Catharine Forrest her husband “caused her to live separate and apart from him, and placed her in a dwelling [on 16th Street]."  On September 11, 1850 she had Forrest arrested and held on $10,000 bail “to keep the peace so far as Mrs. F. is concerned, she being fearful of an assault from him,” reported the New-York Daily Tribune.

Caroline filed suit for divorce on the grounds that “Edwin Forrest has been guilty of infidelity, and conducted improperly” from 1837 to 1850.  She was granted an injunction to restrain Forrest from selling any of his property “and leave her without provision.”

The divorce was messy and public.  Newspapers carried day-by-day accounts of the testimonies of servants and friends and Victorian readers relished the scandalous details.  On December 22, 1851 Irish immigrant Anna Flower took the stand.  The chambermaid no doubt caused an audible gasp in the courtroom when she spoke of entering one of the front bedrooms in the middle of the night to investigate a noise.

“What did you see?” asked Forrest’s lawyer.

“I see Mrs. Forrest and Capt. Howard; they were in the same bed.”

The sordid case went back and forth.  Catharine’s witnesses told of Forrest’s violent and erratic behavior and his adultery with a list of women.  Forrest’s side told of debauchery and wickedness on the part of his wife and painted him as the blameless victim.

It was all over, finally, on February 8, 1852 when the couple received their divorce.  A lien was put on Forrest’s properties to ensure that he paid Catharine $3,000 a year for life (a comfortable $87,500 today).

Four years later, on March 1, 1856, Edwin Forrest left 22nd Street for good; selling the house to Philippe Pistor.  The buyer’s father-in-law, Don Alonzo Cushman, was a leading force in the real estate development of the Chelsea area, the President of the Greenwich Savings Bank, and a leading member of the nearby St. Peter’s Church.

Pistor, his wife and their 10 children lived in the house for years; then in 1871 leased it to the principal of Herter Brothers interior decorating company.  Christian Herter had bought out his brother Gustav’s interest in the firm the year before.  His company not only decorated the nation’s mansions and hotels, it designed top quality furniture.  It was an enormous influence in American tastes in Eastlake designs.  Christian Herter was nearly synonymous with the best Japanese-inspired furnishings with ebonized cherry cases inset with exotic wildflowers, birds and insects.

Christian Herter left the 22nd Street residence in 1876 and three years later the Pistors sold it to James F. Drummond.   Born in Boston in 1824, Drummond had come to New York with his wife, the former Sarah Wyman, in 1856 and joined the firm of Raynolds, Devoe & Pratt.  By now he was one of the principals of the company that manufactured “paints, artists’ materials and varnishes.”  The Drummonds reared two sons and a daughter in the house.

The new owners recognized the architectural excellence of the house and filled it with important antiques—upholstered furniture from the castle of Fontainebleau, Louis XVI inlaid tables, and other French pieces.

On May 16, 1897 The New York Times published a lengthy article about the Drummond house, describing in detail many of the rooms.  “Nearly half a century has elapsed since Catharine Sinclair Forrest passed out through the portals of a wide-fronted brick mansion in West Twenty-second Street,” it said, “and the brief married life of one of the greatest actors to whom America has given birth was ended…In this mansion, where in fancy on may conjure up the shadows of men and women crowned with literary and artistic recognition fifty years ago, resides today Mr. James F. Drummond, a successful merchant, who possesses a collection of rare curios and art treasures that make his home one of the finest private museums in America.”

The entrance hall featured a cut-crystal chandelier and marble tiled floors -- photograph by E. P. MacFarland, from the collection of the Library of Congress
The journalist noted that after passing through the entry hall “to midway of the building, one enters the drawing room, which covers the entire width of the house and half its depth.  Three long French windows open upon a glass-inclosed piazza, forming a Winter garden.”

Drummond was, foremost, a collector of ivory and jade and The Times said “The large cabinets against the eastern wall contain beautiful, quaint, and grotesque creations of the carver’s art.”  Among the paintings in the double-width drawing room the newspaper pointed out two in particular.  “Two portraits in this room cannot fail to attract the visitor’s attention.  These, in oval frames, are photographs from daguerreotypes of Edwin Forrest and his wife, taken when this dwelling was their home.  The face of the great actor is lighted with a pleasant smile, and the countenance is amiable and genial, differing from the moody, somber look which appeared his normal expression in familiar likenesses.”

The Times took advantage of the opportunity to air its thoughts on the scandalous divorce trial.  “The portrait of Mrs. Forrest has an effect of austerity.  The type of face, the dressing of the hair, the Quakerlike simplicity of the garb, all unite in making it difficult to conceive the original capable of committing an indiscretion or yielding to a frivolous impulse.”

The portraits of Catharine and Edwin Forrest hung in the Drummond drawing room -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWDIHUS9&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

The dining room was to the right of the entrance hall where a stained glass window had been installed, possibly during Herter’s stay.  On special occasions the mahogany table was set with a Sevres dining service decorated with the royal crest of France once used, according to the family, “by Louis Philippe at the Tuilieries.”

The Drummond Dining Room -- photograph by Arnold Moses, from the collection of the Library of Congress
On the second floor were the library and family bedrooms.  “Throughout these apartments, as well as upon the staircase wall, ascending to the upper story, is the same profusion of tapestries, armor and paintings.”  On the third floor Drummond reserved a room in memory of Edwin Forrest which included even one of the actor’s costumes from Julius Caesar.  “Some old bronzes rest upon an inlaid cabinet, and a table is burdened with biographies of Edwin Forrest, old engravings, and volumes of favorite authors.

“As the visitor sits enchanted by the beauty and rarity of the treasures that are stored even here beneath the eaves, the owner draws aside an old tapestry that conceals a former clothespress, and takes down a dark velvet garment, with gold embroidery, resisting bravely the tarnishing effects of time.  This once enveloped in its ample folds the ‘noblest Roman of them all.’  Strange destiny that, ‘after life’s fitful fever,’ the mantle of Edwin Forrest, a gift of Daniel Doughterty, should come to hang again upon an accustomed peg.”

The graceful winding staircase featured an unusual iron handrail -- photograph by Arnold Moses, from the collection of the Library of Congress
While Drummond collected and added to his fortune, Sarah busied herself with philanthropies and worthy causes.  In 1892 she was vice-president of the Working Girls’ Vocation Society of New York City.  The group’s purpose was “To give vacations to such respectable working girls, as may need them for their health; for unmarried working women, recommended by some responsible person, and having a doctor’s certificate, who are worn out, sick or convalescent.”  In 1891 the organization had provided vacations for 864 young women.

Around the turn of the last century the Drummond family gathered for a charming photograph on the back porch of the house -- photographer unknown from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWDIHUS9&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
On Wednesday, June 6, Sarah Wyman Drummond died.  The funeral was held in the opulent drawing room the following Saturday at 11:00.  The shock was, perhaps, too much for James F. Drummond and a month later almost to the day, on July 7, he, too, died in the house.

The couple’s son, Isaac Wyman Drummond stayed on in the 22nd Street mansion.  A chemist with his father’s company, he was unmarried and devoted his spare time to the development of young artists.  He was treasurer of the National Sculpture Society, edited the section of the Century Dictionary on colors and dyes, and would become vice president of the New York School of Applied Design for Women.

While the Drummond family lived here, the house was lovingly maintained --photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWDIHUS9&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
A member of the Century Club, he, like all wealthy New Yorkers, closed his city home and traveled to the fashionable resorts for the summer season.  In 1921 the shuttered house attracted the attention of two would-be burglars.  On August 20 Policeman Thomas Reidy was patrolling along West 22nd Street when an excited woman rushed up saying she believed thieves were inside the Drummond house.

Reidy tested both the front and rear doors and windows and checked the back garden.  The New York Times reported “He found nothing wrong.  Mr. Drummond, away for the Summer, had closed and boarded up the house.  Apparently everything was in proper order.”

The policeman, however, was unsatisfied.  He walked to the fifth house down the block and asked to be allowed onto the roof.  He took off his shoes and crept along the rooftops until he came to the Drummond house where he found the ventilation scuttle opened.

With the shutters closed, the interior of the house was pitch dark yet Reidy crept down the stairs in his stocking feet.  Dresser drawers were rifled and items were strewn on the bedroom floor.  When he reached the first floor he heard noises and saw the glimmer of a small flashlight.

“Sidling up to the door,” reported The Times, “he peered into the room.  He saw two men.  They were kneeling before a chest of silver, working at it with jimmies.  On top of the chest lay an automatic pistol and an eight-inch stiletto.”

The policeman crept into the room, feeling for the light switch.  He fired a shot into the floor near the burglars and simultaneously flipped on the lights.  The panicked thieves jumped, fell over the silver chest, and sprawled on the floor with the muzzle of the cop’s gun pointed at them.

Drummond rushed back to New York with praise for the brave policeman.  The two 18-year old prisoners, Edward Shore and John Slattery, were both on parole for burglary.

The double drawing room was perhaps the most impressive room of the house.  Cabinets of carved jade and ivory line the walls -- photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWDIHUS9&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

The following year, in 1922, Isaac Drummond rose to Chairman of the Board of Devoe & Raynolds Company; only to retire in 1928.  Drummond carried on his father’s passion for collecting ivory and jade.  In a letter to Dr. Berthold Laufer, the curator of Asian Anthropology of Chicago’s Field Museum, concerning a jade carving, he hinted at his declining health.  Dated February 20, 1930, it began “I send you my best regards and hope you are very well—I am sorry to say that my health this winter has not been very good.”

On April 15, 1933 Isaac Wyman Drummond died at the age of 77 in the house on West 22nd Street among the priceless antiques and artworks.  The entire estate, including the mansion, was left to his sister, Katherine W. D. Herbert who lived next door at No. 434 West 22nd Street.  Wyman’s will instructed her to donate the entire jade and ivory collection to the American Museum of Natural History.

Four decades earlier, on October 4, 1890, The Illustrated American had said of the house “It looks as though it might be destined for a much longer time.  But there can be no chance for the extended existence of a house in New York until localities have become finished and commerce has reached its boundaries of limitation.”  The magazine was sadly correct.

Recognizing the Drummond house as a rare and fragile treasure, The Historic American Buildings Survey photographed the house, with great attention to the interiors, in 1934 and again in 1936.  The grand spaces filled with elegant furnishings were captured on film, some of which are seen here.

And then it was all gone.  In 1946 the former mansion was converted to apartments, two per floor.  The handsome portico was ripped off and the entrance moved to the basement level.  Today a scar of mismatched brick surrounds the window that replaced the entrance.  Amazingly, the iron grills that protected the top floor windows survive.  Otherwise, there is no hint of the opulent mansion that housed one of America’s greatest actors.
Today the altered facade gives no hint of the mansion's former glory.  In what is almost a cruel joke, the entrance is framed in a mid-century version of the Greek style.  photo by the author

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