|The newly-completed mansion would be the scene of innumerable Suffragist Movement events -- photo 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=24UAYWBH1QLC&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=3
Although a Southern girl, Alva Erskine Smith grew up spending summers in Newport and traveling through Europe. Her family had moved to New York city in 1857 when she was four years old and she later attended a private boarding school in Paris. She met fabulously wealthy William Kissam Vanderbilt at a party thrown for Consuelo Yznaga, who was one of her best friends. Vanderbilt most likely did not realize he had met a woman unlike nearly any other in New York society.
The couple was married on April 20, 1875 in Calvary Church and would go on to have three children. Opinionated, self-confident and determined, Alva reared daughter Consuelo in a strict, perhaps domineering manner, with the singular goal of an advantageous marriage. But among her greatest passions was building.
A friend famously said “she loved nothing better than to be knee deep in mortar,” and shortly after marrying Vanderbilt she hired Richard Morris Hunt to design the massive French Renaissance mansion, the “Petite Chateau,” at No. 660 Fifth Avenue. Hunt worked closely with his new patron during the four-year project and they would become good friends. Subsequently he designed the Queen Anne-style summer estate on Long Island, “Idle Hour,” and the palatial $11 million “Marble House,” in Newport.
In 1895, three years after Marble House was completed, Alva did the unthinkable among Manhattan society. She filed for divorce. Charging William with infidelity, she walked away with a settlement in excess of $10 million and several estates—including, of course, Marble House which was already in her name.
Divorce, while scandalous, was not entirely unheard of in the highest ranks of society. In 1882 an even greater scandal had fed gossip along Fifth Avenue when the 24-year old son of August Belmont married Sara Swan Whiting. Sara, it seems, was pregnant. Before the year was out Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont and the new mother were divorced.
Belmont and William Vanderbilt had been close friends. Belmont’s Newport cottage, Belcourt Castle (also designed by Hunt), was not far from Marble House. Both men were avid horse breeders and racers and Belmont accompanied the Vanderbilts on at least two extended voyages on the Vanderbilt yacht, the Alva. There are some who think that he and Alva were already making eyes at one another before the divorce.
Social eyebrows were raised once again when, on January 11, 1896—not a year after her divorce—Alva and Oliver were married. It appears that if Alva’s first marriage was at least in part socially-motivated; this time she married for love.
A few years later, in July 1905, The Era Magazine would comment about the delicacies of social protocol for divorced couples. “Mr. William K. Vanderbilt, Sr. and his divorced wife, Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont, have met quite frequently ever since their divorce, and both attended their son’s wedding to Miss Fair. They greet each other in a conventional fashion, and neither is at all moved by the encounter. At one time both were under the same roof in London as guests of their daughter, the Duchess of Marlborough, while Mr. Belmont put up at a hotel not far distant.”
|Alva Belmont as she appeared in 1905. The Era Magazine, July 1905 (copyright expired)
On the corner of Madison Avenue and 51st Street sat the mansion of John H. Guion, son of S. B. Guion, the founder of the Guion steamship line. Guion died in the house at the age of 28 after a short illness. In May 1902 Oliver Belmont purchased the house, along with addition land along 51st Street.
Belmont would not live to see the mansion on what The New York Times called his “residential site” completed. On June 10, 1908 The Evening World reported “Oliver H. P. Belmont died at 6:34 A. M. to-day at his villa near Hempstead.”
A week earlier, Belmont had undergone an appendicitis operation. The following day peritonitis set in and within days his death was expected. “Mrs. Belmont and her children and daughter-in-law were called to his bedside at 5 o’clock and were with him until the last,” said the newspaper. Belmont left an estate estimated at around $5 million.
The Madison Avenue mansion was quickly rising at the time. Richard Morris Hunt had died in 1895 and Alva had turned to his sons, Hunt & Hunt, to design the three-story neo-classical residence. Clad in limestone, its imperious façade featured a rusticated base, two story pilasters capped with ornate Corinthian capitals at the second and third floors, and a handsome stone balustrade above the cornice.
Just as the house neared completion, a grieving Alva made a change. On May 7, 1909 Hunt & Hunt filed plans “for enlarging the new four-story house for Mrs. Alva B. Belmont, at Madison Avenue and Fifty-first Street.” The New York Times reported that “a four-story annex [is] to be added to the east in Fifty-first Street.
Alva’s extension was a soaring neo-Gothic hall, called The Armory, 85 feet long by 24 feet wide. It was a copy of the Gothic Room in Belcourt Castle where Oliver Belmont had displayed his extensive collection of Medieval armor and artifacts. This hall, however, was intended for the use of Alva’s new passion: the Suffrage Movement.
“Since the house has been started,” she told a reporter, “I have become an ardent suffragist, and it seemed to me that I could serve the cause in no better way than by providing a large hall in which prominent suffragists might lecture during the Winter. So I asked my architect to arrange for this armory, which will be decorated with the armor which hangs in a similar hall in Mr. Belmont’s old Newport home, Belcourt. I shall, of course, use the room for other purposes, but my incentive in building it was to devote it to the cause of woman’s suffrage.”
Typically, the headstrong Alva Vanderbilt Belmont did not go into her new mission with trepidation. She told the reporter “I am convinced that more militant methods must be adopted in this country if we hope to succeed.”
She already had plans for the Madison Avenue mansion’s role in the movement. “Just so soon as the lectures which we have planned for Marble House are out of the way we shall start in to work on plans for the Fall campaign.”
“This Winter we hope to have a lecture very nearly every day. Some prominent speaker will be heard in some part of New York at least six days in the week, and the subject will always be ‘Votes for Women.’ The Armory in my new home will be opened for the purpose as often as it is needed.”
Symbolically, the great stained glass window on the marble stairway to the Armory, 23 feet by 18 feet, depicted Joan of Arc. “Two Gothic windows in the armory, with battle scenes, are at one end, and in the east wall there is an immense fireplace, eight feet wide, adorned with carved medieval figures,” reported The Times. “The floor is of marble and the vaulted stone ceiling eliminates the need of pillars. The iron chandeliers were brought from Belcourt.”
The rest of the house was done in the Adams “and Grinley Gibbons” styles. The dining room was paneled in white marble, off the marble entrance hall. “The relief is in green marble, the doors and window muntins are of dark green bronze, and the fireplace, with columns and pediment, is massive Of more interest to New Yorkers is the ceiling.”
|A room in the mansion seems to be set up for a meeting. Collier's Magazine, October 28, 1916 (copyright expired)
When the old Fifth Avenue Hotel was demolished, Hunt & Hunt had salvaged the ceiling frescoes. “One of these, by Robert Reid, was a symbolical Manhattan, a goddess figure sitting on a dais. This was obtained by Mr. Hunt and installed in the Belmont dining room. The allegorical Manhattan was put immediately above the fireplace, and more by change than deign her throne in the painting is a twin piece in design to the columned fireplace.”
The architects placed secret doors throughout the mansion. One of them allowed servants to enter the dining room unseen; another connected two libraries. “A small library is opposite the dining room from the entrance foyer, and as there is a hidden door to the pantry from the dining room, so there is a spring-opened door in a section of shelving leading from the little library to a larger library. From that room a door leads to the stairs that wind to the armory above.”
The flurry of lectures began in The Armory in the Fall on 1909 and later, in December, Alva (who by now was exclusively referred to as Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont) heard of the plight of four young shirtwaist workers who had been arrested while picketing.
The girls were being held on $100 bail each, with an additional $400 surety. Alva arranged with her lawyer to provide bond as she hurried to Night Court to view the proceedings. On December 20, 1909 The New York Times reported that “Mrs. Belmont’s lawyer, who had been in court all night, had with him deeds that he was to use as bail bonds. But when the four girls came to trial the lawyer could not be found.”
Alva Belmont approached the magistrate. “Very well, if he is not here I can give my home at 477 Madison Avenue as bond for these girls to appear on Monday night.”
Magistrate Butts did not know who the woman standing before him was and asked her if she was positive that her house was worth the $800.
Alva thought so. “I think it is. It is valued at $400,000. There may be a mortgage on it for $100,000.”
The Times reported “the girls were freed on this bail.”
As the summer of 1912 began, Alva had another idea. She had already purchased two houses at Nos. 13 and 15 East 41st Street and had them converted to a clubhouse, the Political Equality Association, for suffrage purposes. She had spent $320,000 on that project, not including the furnishings. Now she envisioned a hotel for visiting suffragists.
On July 14, 1912 The Sun asked readers, “What will Mrs. Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont do next? She has already been active in farming, club work, a number of unusual philanthropies, entertaining on a large scale and all sorts of endeavors in behalf of woman suffrage, from waiting on tables to marching and public speaking and the expenditure of a great deal of money for the good of the cause, and not just in the last week it has been announced that she is to run a miniature hotel.”
“Mrs. Belmont feels sure that the enterprise will be a success because of the number of suffragists from out of town who make a point of visiting her club’s headquarters when in New York. Many of these have said that they wished the club had sleeping rooms where they could stay over night or longer if need be.”
Not everyone was pleased with Alva Belmont’s ardent suffragist activities. Early in April 1912 she received an envelope in the mail which she ignored for a day or two. “Then she opened it,” reported The New York Times on April 6, “and a small white envelope dropped out. This bore a warning to the servants not to open it, and was marked private and personal.”
Inside was an arcane message which made little sense, at the bottom of which was drawn a dagger and cross. Alva reported the matter to authories and before long exaggerated stories spread that the neighborhood was shut down by police. According to The Times, “There was no excitement in the neighborhood of Mrs. Belmont’s white marble home at 477 Madison Avenue when a reporter called there yesterday afternoon. Stories had appeared in the afternoon to the effect that policemen and Secret Service men were on guard there, and that Mrs. Belmont was afraid to go out and the police wouldn’t let anybody go in.”
There may have been a shadow of truth to Alva’s reported fright—or at least caution. When a Times reporter rang the bell of No. 477 Madison Avenue, “A dark-skinned servitor, clad in a gaudy turban, opened the door wide and smiled benignly. He said that Mrs. Belmont had moved to her country home on Long Island where she would spend the Summer.”
An editorial that appeared in London’s Forum in June 1913 used scathing satire to discredit Alva’s near-militant suffragist stands. “If Mrs. Belmont, however, really craves an opportunity of proving her personal courage by conducting a hunger strike, no difficulties will be placed in her way…The most convenient place for a hunger strike is obviously at home, where the sufferer can have every attention.
“If Mrs. Belmont’s plans include arson, a similar principle may be applied, and much inconvenience avoided. The militant suffragettes in England burnt down the house of Lady White—an old lady entirely unconnected with the movement, either for or against. This was regarded as a masterpiece of strategy. But if the object in view be merely destruction, and the consequent advertisement, it is surely unnecessary to select the house of an inoffensive and innocent lady when one has an excellent and perfectly suitable house of one’s own.”
The stalwart Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont was unmoved. In April 1914 she traveled to Washington DC to complete the final arrangements for the suffrage ball of which she was chairman. Later, as the summer season drew to a close, she decided to remain in Newport into the fall to keep the momentum of the Marble House lectures going.
“Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont will not open her country place in Hempstead, L. I., this fall, but will remain instead at Marble House until late in the season,” reported the National Courier. “there will be many suffrage conferences held in the Chinese tea house between now and the time when Marble House is closed for the winter.”
|In 1915 Alva had begun showing her age. photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress
Around six months later, on March 31, 1915 “one of the most important suffrage meetings held in New York in a long time,” according to The New York Times, was held in the Madison Avenue mansion. Representatives from 24 states arrived as part of the Advisory Council of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. Its importance lay in the fact that this was a newly-organized national organization. Alva Belmont was seeing progress in her dedicated fight for women’s equality.
On December 28 that year Alva opened her mansion doors for the reading of a suffragist opera, Melinda and Her Sisters, composed by Elsie Maxwell. Actress Marie Dressler was there to read the part of Ma Pepper.
Among the lyrics intended to fire suffragist passion were:
So girls, girls, put away your curls.
Come put away your petticoats and frills,
Step right into line; cease now to repine;
Show them that we, too, know how to drill.
Left! Right! We’ll stand the pace,
Attention! Right about face!
We’ve done with teas and balls;
We’ve forgotten how to dance.
We’ll show what we can do when we’ve the chance.
Alva Belmont’s fight for women’s right to vote would continue until August 1920 when the battle was won. But by now the Madison Avenue house had been shuttered for two years. The aging socialite, philanthropist, author and activist left the city, working and living in her several other estates.
After five years of sitting dark, Alva sold the house on August 7, 1923 to editor Arthur Brisbane for about $500,000. In reporting the sale, The New York Times remembered “during Mrs. Belmont’s occupancy it was the scene of many brilliant functions, notably the reception Mrs. Belmont gave in honor of Consuelo, her daughter, shortly after she became Duchess of Marlborough.”
The newspaper noted “Its interior has often been reproduced in architectural journals for its Caen stone staircase, which leads to a gallery where much of her entertaining was done. The gallery formerly contained a collection of rare armor, which was presented to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A large pipe organ and carved mantelpieces are other elaborate features.”
Although Brisbane was busying himself with demolishing and replacing many nearby properties, he preserved the Belmont mansion. It became home to the Catholic Charities of the New York Archdiocese. The organization would operate from the lavish structure for nearly three decades until the Archbishopric of New York sold the building in 1951 to developers Simon Brothers.
Although the firm planned for a 23-story office building on the site, on July 3, 1951 The New York Times announced that “The new office building will be constructed as soon as materials are available, it was explained, but in the meantime the land will be used for parking in an effort to help relieve the traffic situation in the neighborhood.”
Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont’s grand mansion, which had played so important role in the battle for women’s equality, had been reduced to a parking lot.
A year later the 23-story structure designed by Kahn & Jacobs began rising. In October 1953 the Ford Foundation signed a lease for eight floors in the building that would be known by its address, 477 Madison Avenue.