Monday, June 30, 2014

The Lost R. T. Wilson Mansion -- No. 15 East 57th Street

The formal English architecture contrasted dramatically with the once-matching end houses -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
When Mary Mason Jones erected her series of white marble mansions on Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Street in 1869, there was essentially nothing else around.  The avenue remained unpaved above the Croton Reservoir at 42nd Street and St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 50th Street would not be completed for years.

Mary Mason Jones and her architect, Robert Mook, presented New York with a string of mansions pretending to be massive palace; and like nothing else in the city.  Unlike the drab brownstone or brick residences further south on Fifth Avenue, these were opulently French.  A newspaper noted that the mansions were “built from plans of her own, made by an architect from ideas she derived from Fontainebleau.”

She moved into the corner mansion at No. 1 East 57th Street and would not wait long before the first neighbor arrived.  Mary Mason Jones had inherited the land from Fifth Avenue to Park Avenue, 57th to 58th Street, from her father, John Mason.  She sold the building lots at Nos. 13 through 17 East 57th Street to Sidney W. Hopkins, a highly successful iron dealer.  It is tempting to suspect that Mary was influential in Hopkins’ construction project that followed.

Architect Arthur Gilman designed three lavish homes which, like Jones’ marble row, were disguised as a single upscale French residence.  And as she had done, Sidney Hopkins would retain the prime mansion, No. 15, as his own. 

Gilman used red brick trimmed in carved stone to produce the charming ensemble of houses.  Three stories tall with high mansard roofs, they featured all the latest architectural bells and whistles.  If, as The New York Times, remarked decades later, “Mrs. Jones…introduced French tendencies in the architecture” of New York City, Sidney W. Hopkins was right behind.

At 43-feet wide, Hopkins’ central mansion was double the normal width of a New York home.  The luxurious scale was accomplished in part by scrimping on the width of the flanking residences which were a mere 16 feet wide.  Hopkins sold No. 17 to another iron merchant, William Atwater, who was most likely an acquaintance.  No. 13 was purchased by a Brooklyn flour dealer, George Hollister.

The original parlor of No. 15 boasted cut-glass chandeliers, pier mirrors and an exuberance of Victorian bric-a-brac -- photographer unknown from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Sidney W. Hopkins would not enjoy his new mansion for long.  Although the real estate project was costly; it was his involvement with the railroads that soon got him into serious financial troubles.  In addition to being a member of Sidney & Hopkins & Co., he was Treasurer of the Chicago and Lake Huron Railroad Company.  In 1872 an effort was made to force the firm into bankruptcy; but Hopkins managed to persevere for six more years.  He retired from the iron business and focused on the troubled railroad.  “Since then,” said The New York Times on June 4, 1878, “Mr. Hopkins has been devoting himself to the affairs of the railroad company, and although he lived in excellent style, he had no credit at Bradstreet’s.”

The newspaper announced that he was forced into involuntary bankruptcy.  Hopkins was obliged to sell his home. 

By the first years of the 20th century, when John B. Calvert and his family were living in No. 15, the area had drastically changed.  While the carriages of Hopkins and Jones had bounced along a dusty Fifth Avenue and they looked out their windows at rocky fields; the avenue and offshooting streets were now lined with the homes of New York’s wealthiest citizens.

Calvert sold the house in 1905 and it was quickly resold to Richard T. Wilson that April.  The millionaire banker lost little time in laying plans to update the outdated Victorian.  At a time when vintage houses were being stripped of their facades and reinvented as modern Edwardian dwellings; Wilson hired the firm of Hopkin, Koen & Huntington to “rebuild” the mansion.

On August 19, 1905 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide announced that the architects had awarded the contract “for enlarging and remodeling of the city home of Richard T. Wilson, Jr.”  The periodical set the cost of the project at $40,000 (a significant $1 million today).  “It is to be made over into a 5-sty building, with a frontage of 42x82.6 feet, and will contain a façade of granite, brick and terra cotta, with a balcony on the second story, and four Corinthian pilasters supporting a cornice on the fourth story.  There will be a spacious entrance hall, library and saloon on the second floor, with a dining room on the ground floor.”

The following day the New-York Tribune reported that the “enlargement and remodeling” would be in “the Colonial design.”  “Colonial” was a stretch.  The completed do-over was a haughty English 18th century townhouse in limestone.  Imperial and dignified, the mansion nevertheless was somewhat comically flanked by what were now-cartoonish Victorian bookends.

The Stephen O. Lockwood house next door at No. 17 suddenly look squeezed and caricature-like --photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Wilson and his family would not occupy the remodeled structure long.  It was leased to Henry Clay Pierce, president of the Waters-Pierce Oil Company.  The oil man was strict and opinionated and would not tolerate disobedience from his children—even if they were now grown.  Trouble came to the household in 1907 when daughter Violet was courted by James Deering, the son of wealthy attorney James A. Deering.  Pierce was adamantly against the romance.  The New York Times later explained “The oil man’s reasons for not approving of the marriage…was understood to be partly because the Deerings were Roman Catholics and partly for social reasons.”

At the same time Pierce was distracted with legal problems.  He had sworn to the State Secretary that the Waters-Pierce Oil Company was neither owned nor controlled by the Standard Oil Company.  Now, in March 1908, he fought extradition proceedings brought against him by the State of Texas on a perjury charge.  Violet and James grabbed the opportunity to secretly marry on March 18, 1908 at St. Agnes’s Chapel.

Henry Clay Pierce was infuriated and his reaction caused similar outrage on the part of an insulted James A. Deering, Sr.   The situation was soon aggravated when Violet’s brother, Theron F. Pierce, showed a romantic interest in May Deering, his new sister-in-law.

James Deering was not eager to admit another Pierce into his family.  “It is understood that the elder Deering, feeling piqued at the attitude of the elder Pierce as to the first marriage between the two families, was reluctant to countenance a second,” said The New York Times on July 29. 

And so just four months after the first wedding, Theron and May were married “without the formality of the consent of their relatives.”  Newspapers found the gossip delightful; however Henry Clay Pierce was less amused.  “At Mr. Pierce’s offices, 25 Broad Street, his secretary said that he was in town, but was not likely to express a publishable opinion as to his son’s wedding,” reported The Times.

The oil magnate and his wife refused even to see friends.  “At the Plaza, where the Pierce family have been staying since they closed the R. T. Wilson, Jr., house at 15 East Fifty-seventh Street for the Summer, cards were silently refused.”

Unfortunately for Pierce and his wife, it would not be the last of their children’s secret marriages.  On November 14, 1910 son Roy was married to divorcee Elizabeth Faulkner Chapman.  The couple kept the marriage from Roy’s parents for nearly a month.  The groom put his wife up in an apartment on Riverside Drive and he continued to live with the family on East 57th Street.  Then in December Elizabeth convinced Roy to tell his father.  It was the last the woman would see of her new husband.

Pierce’s anger at the marriage was not because Elizabeth was uncultured.  Oil and Gas said of her “Young Pierce’s wife is known to society in Boston, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and the Riviera.  Her beauty has been placed on canvas by noted painters.”  The problem came after her divorce from T. Irvin Chapman:  she turned to the stage.

Henry Clay Pierce, according to Oil and Gas in April 1911, “made only one comment.  He told his son he thought he was crazy.  Young Pierce never returned to his wife after that interview.”

When Roy did not return, Elizabeth went to the East 57th Street mansion looking for him.  “Mrs. Pierce was refused admittance to her father-in-law’s home when she made inquiries, and was told that it was useless to try to see her husband, as he was too ill to be interviewed,” reported The New York Times.

Pierce’s layers would only admit to Elizabeth that Roy Pierce was “detained in a sanitarium.”  When the situation became public, Henry Clay Pierce refused to speak to reporters, saying only “It’s all too horrible to talk about.” 

Pierce began actions to have the marriage annulled “on the grounds that the youth was insane from high living on Broadway when he married her.”  Elizabeth Chapman Pierce fought the annulment and on April 27, 1911 appeared in court for what The New York Times called “the lively legal war precipitated at the instance of Henry Clay Pierce.”

Elizabeth was certain that Henry Pierce had abducted and imprisoned his own son.  “Why doesn’t my husband write to me?  Why, simply because they have him locked up where he can’t.  They have given him—a big, manly fellow, 28 years old—a guardian, and no doubt are very careful to see that he has no chance to write letters.”

The beautiful actress told reporters that Pierce had offered her $100,000 to consent to a divorce from his son.  But she was unmoved.

Oil and Gas quoted her saying, “Perhaps he thinks I am not the social equal of his boy.  Well, we will see.  I will fight the Pierce millions to the bitter end.  I don’t want money.  What I want, and what I am going to have is my husband.  Money is nothing when you have sufficient to get along with, but love—that is everything.”

In 1920 the scandal-plagued Pierces were still leasing No. 15.  But on December 18 that year the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that Richard T. Wilson had leased the house to William Randolph Hearst “with an option of purchase” for a term of 21 years.  In reporting the deal, the periodical said “It is one of the specimens of architecture in the pure Adam style by Hopkin, Koen & Huntington.  The present tenant is Henry Clay Pierce, president of the Pierce Oil Co.”

The deal with Hearst fell through, however; at least for the moment.  Five months later on May 12, 1921, the New-York Tribune reported “Mrs. Richard T. Wilson will take possession of her house, 15 East Fifty-seventh Street, to-day, which for a number of years has been leased to Mr. and Mrs. Henry Clay Pierce.  She will give a house-warming in honor of the event this afternoon.”  Two weeks later the Wilsons closed the house when they left for Newport for the summer.

But Hearst was not out of the picture for long.  The lease was signed and the mansion which had never really been home to the Wilsons was converted to lavish apartments.  Even before they left for Newport the New-York Tribune reported that Henry C. Tierte had leased “an apartment of eighteen rooms and five baths” in the house “formerly occupied by R. T. Wilson.”

The upscale apartments would not survive long.  In 1923 Hearst demolished the former mansion and constructed a new building.  That building, too, would not last.  In 1996 it was replaced by the 17-story tower that houses Chanel.
photo by the author

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Lost Vanderbilt Triple Palace, 5th Ave and 51st Street

William H. Vanderbilt's mansion (left) shared an entrance vestibule with the home of daughter Margaret Fitch.  Emily Vanderbilt Sloane's home was entered on 52nd Street (right) photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1878 the Vanderbilt family was busy changing the face of Fifth Avenue.  Cornelius Vanderbilt II began construction of his massive brick and limestone palace at the southwest corner of 57th Street, plans were underway for three mansions for the William Henry Vanderbilt family between 51st and 52nd Streets, and the following year William Kissam Vanderbilt’s wife, Alva, would engage Richard Morris Hunt to start work on the “Petite Chateau” on the northwest corner of 52nd Street.  By the turn of the century this section of Fifth Avenue would be familiarly known as “Vanderbilt Row” or, with a touch of sarcasm, “Vanderbilt Alley.”

William Henry Vanderbilt’s idea was an interesting one.  He would erect three near-matching homes, one for himself and wife Maria Louisa Kissam, and two for his daughters, Margaret and Emily.  (Margaret had married Elliott Fitch and Emily was now Mrs. William Douglass Sloane.)  John Butler Snook is routinely credited with the design of the harmonious mansions, since his name appeared on the plans filed with the Department of Buildings.  He may be getting more credit than is deserved, however.

According to author Wayne Craven in his Gilded Mansions: Grand Architecture and High Society, an executive of Herter Brothers complained to the editors of an architectural journal on April 11, 1886 “It is a matter of record…that Herter Brothers were the architects of [Mr. Vanderbilt’s house]…and are the only persons responsible for the designs, both of the exterior and the interior…We might add that of the two gentlemen named by you, Mr. Atwood was employed by our firm at the time as a draughtsman and Mr. Snook by Mr. Vanderbilt as general superintendent.”

That argument may never be settled; however two years after construction began, the Triple Palace at Nos. 640 and 642 Fifth Avenue, and No. 2 West 52nd Street, was completed.  Vanderbilt had originally envisioned the grand Italian Renaissance palazzos clad in gleaming white marble.  In the end, the less glamorous brownstone was used instead.  Some historians feel that an aging Vanderbilt changed his mind when he realized that he may not have that many years left to enjoy his house.  Using the easily obtainable brownstone would significantly speed the construction process.

Art and architecture critic Helen W. Henderson had another opinion.  In 1917 she offered that he “stipulated that the material should be white marble, then greatly in vogue; but Vanderbilt owned a quarry of brownstone and the native produce was employed.”

More than 600 construction workers and 60 European sculptors and craftsmen had labored on the triple mansion.  William’s and Margaret’s homes were entered via a common centered courtyard.  Emily’s entrance faced 52nd Street.  The daughters’ homes, sharing a plot the same size as their father’s, were necessarily about half the size of their parents’ 58-room house.  For occasions of elaborate entertaining, their adjoining mansions were constructed so the drawing rooms could be opened into a single, enormous ballroom.

William K. Vanderbilt's "Petite Chateau" can be seen across 52nd Street to the north (right).  photo by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Unlike William Kissam’s and Cornelius’s chateaus with their towers and turrets and ornamented gables; the houses of the Triple Palace were restrained and dignified in comparison--which is not to say they did not abound with ostentatious decoration.

As the mansions neared completion in 1881 Vanderbilt addressed a potential problem.  He would have no stumbling of dainty feet on the paving stones as high-class visitors moved from their carriages to the entrance.  On August 6 The New York Times reported that “What is claimed to be the largest pavement stone ever quarried in the United States, is now resting upon blocks in front of the main entrance of William H. Vanderbilt’s new house.”  The 25 foot, 2 inch long stone was 15 feet wide and 8 inches thick.  It weighed over 22 tons.  With no seams between his paving stones, Vanderbilt did not have to worry about embarrassing and dangerous tripping.

Tucked away on the 51st Street side was Wm. Henry's glass and metal conservatory.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

The families moved into the homes in January 1881; although they would not be totally finished until 1883.  Work on furnishing the mansions and completing the ornamental details would go on around the Vanderbilts’ home life.  By March 1882 Henry and Louisa felt the mansion was guest-worthy and a housewarming party was held.  Two thousand invitations were sent out by liveried messengers.

The guests that night entered through the covered double vestibule with its mosaic-encrusted walls and stained glass ceiling.  They turned left into William’s doorway and entered interiors intended to astound.  Carved woodwork was inlaid with mother-of-pearl ornamentation; the painted ceiling of the 45-foot long dining room was done in Paris by E. V. Luminais; and the Japanese Room was designed by John La Farge.  Herter Brothers, the preeminent furniture and decorating firm of the day, was responsible for the interior design throughout, including the custom furniture and built-in cabinetry.
photo American Architect & Building News, July 5, 1886 (copyright expired)

In December 1883 the art gallery was ready for showing off.  Vanderbilt sent out 3,000 invitations to “an art reception” and on December 21 The Times reported that “More than 2,500 gentlemen promenaded the parlors of William H. Vanderbilt’s house.”  Considering the large number of visitors and the high value of the bric-a-brac in the mansion, Vanderbilt had a crew of 11 detectives roaming the crowd.  It was a good move on the millionaire’s part.

“They recognized one man in the crowd whom they knew came without invitation, and he was shown to the door.  Early in the evening a few ladies made an attempt to join the company.  They were politely ushered out," reported The Times.

An orchestra played while the guests rifled through the Vanderbilt treasures, and in the dining room Delmonico “served up a collation.”  The Times was a bit astonished at the presumptuous free-wheeling of some art students.  “They took down the books from the shelves of the elegant library, poked the blazing logs on the andirons in the private parlors and wandered at will into the richly furnished bed-chambers.  They handled rare and costly specimens of china and bric-a-brac with reckless audacity, looked inquisitively over the photographs and visiting cards, and commented on the collection of family relics in the sealed glass case.”

Vanderbilt had a printed catalog “bound in old gold” prepared for the event and he personally pointed out to guests whom he personally knew the “gems of art in his picture gallery.”  
Vanderbilt's massive fortune of $200 million would amount to about $5 billion today photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

At the time of the entertainment, Vanderbilt’s health had already begun to fail and was under the care of a physician.  “He had no definite conception of what trouble he was suffering from, though his greatest annoyance came from indigestion,” said The New York Times later.  On December 8, 1885 Vanderbilt rose as usual, at 7:00.  He went about his usual business, including a visit to the studio of sculptor J. Q. A. Ward to sit for a bronze bust.  The day continued as normal with Vanderbilt in the best of spirits and seemingly the best of health.

At 2:20 that afternoon he said in his private study chatting with Robert Garrett, President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company.  “Mr. Vanderbilt was speaking, when suddenly Mr. Garrett perceived indistinctness in his speech.  The next instant the muscles around his mouth began to twitch slightly.  Then they were violently convulsed.  I another moment the great millionaire’s arms bent under his body, he toppled forward, and pitched headlong toward the floor,” related The Times the following day.

“In a moment bells were ringing and feet were flying in every part of the house.  The butler, the footman, and the other servants were hastening breathless from the basement.  Mrs. Vanderbilt and George W. Vanderbilt, her youngest son, were hurrying, pale with terror, from above.  In a minute all were in the study, where Mr. Garrett was bending over his host’s body.  The ruddy firelight did not light up the pallid features now.  The ghastliness of death was upon them.”

Within five minutes of the massive stroke, William Henry Vanderbilt lay dead on his study floor.

Cornelius and Frederick sat overnight in Vanderbilt’s bedroom where the “body of William H. Vanderbilt, the richest man in the world…rested all Tuesday night in an ice box in his bedroom, which is the second story front room of the Fifth avenue mansion.”  Earlier that day undertaker W. H. Billier fastened rosettes of crepe bearing black silk streamers to the electric bells of the Fifth Avenue and 51st Street entrances.  “The white curtains of all the windows were pulled down, forming a striking contrast to the rain-soaked brownstone walls,” commented The Sun the following morning.

Among the few admitted to the death chamber other than family members was John Quincy Adams Ward.  The sculptor took a cast of Vanderbilt’s face.  “He said it was a very successful one, and that with its aid, and with photographs he would be able to complete the bust without difficulty,” said the newspaper.

As with all up-to-date mansions of the 1880s, there was an Asian-themed room.  In the Vanderbilt house a reeded ceiling and upper walls, Japanese fans and Oriental bric-a-brac created the ambiance.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress.

On the morning of December 10, while the pall bearers and close friends of Vanderbilt gathered in the parlors, the family assembled in millionaire’s bedroom for a last look and a brief prayer.  Afterward Louisa was assisted to her own suite, too overcome with grief to attend the funeral service at St. Bartholomew’s Church.  The streets had been cleared of traffic and after the coffin was closed and placed in the hearse, “the carriages began to fall in line before the door.”

The order of the 15 carriages that pulled away from the Vanderbilt mansions was directed by social protocol.  “In the carriage first following the hearse were Cornelius Vanderbilt and wife, with George Vanderbilt.  In the second carriage rode William K. Vanderbilt and wife.  The third vehicle contained J. S. Webb and wife, the fourth Mr. and Mrs W. D. Sloane, and the fifth Mr. and Mrs. Twombly.”  And so on.  A detachment of 180 policemen kept the crowds around the church at bay.

Vanderbilt’s will was read two days later.  He had earlier told his family “The care of $200,000,000 is too great a load for any brain or back to bear.  It is enough to kill a man.  I have no son whom I am willing to afflict with the terrible burden…So when I lay down this heavy responsibility, I want my sons to divide it, and share the worry which it will cost to keep it.”  And indeed the will divided Vanderbilt’s massive estate nearly equally among his children.

As for Louisa, she got a life interest in the Fifth Avenue mansion and an annuity of $200,000 and $500,000 “for disposal by will.”  She remained in the house and “At her death the residence and works of art are to go to George W. Vanderbilt, and at his death to his eldest son, or, should he not have a son, to William H.; or Cornelius, sons of Cornelius, according to their survival.”  Vanderbilt was determined that his mansion and its artworks should remain a Vanderbilt house, “it being the purpose of the testator to convey them to a male descendant of the name of Vanderbilt.”  As for the other two mansions, “His daughters are given the houses in which they live,” said The New York Times on December 13.

In 1894 Munsey's Magazine published a charming illustration of the Vanderbilt homes -- copyright expired.

De facto Manhattan royalty, Margaret and Emily entertained lavishly in their abutting mansions.  On March 19, 1892 The Times commented on a dinner party hosted by Emily.  “One of the most elaborate of the Lenten dinners yet given took place last evening in the oaken dining room of Mrs. Eliott F. Shepard, 2 West Fifty-second Street…In the centre of one [table] was a mound of Madame Cuicine roses, and the embroider of the cloth and the tints of the china and the table settings were pink to match the color of the flowers.  A second table was all in yellow, the flowers being daffodils relieved with some lilies of the valley.  The third table was decorated in deep red, and the flowers used were the rich red meteor roses.  The flowers were from Hodgsons’s conservatories.”

As the marriage of William and Alva’s daughter Consuelo to the Duke of Marlborough in November 1895 neared, the Vanderbilt mansions were thrown open to society.  On November 6 The Times said “Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt’s residence at 640 Fifth Avenue was opened yesterday afternoon, as were also the houses of Mr. and Mrs. William Douglass Sloane and Mrs. Elliott F. Shepard in the adjoining building.”

The newspaper noted “Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt, the grandmother of the future Duchess of Marlborough, has always made a great pet of Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt, who has also been a favorite with her uncles, aunts, and cousins.  All her relatives desire to make her wedding day as bright as possible.”

It would be among the last great events that Louisa Vanderbilt would see.  Exactly a year later, on November 9, 1896, the Vanderbilt mansion was hung with black crepe.  “The residence of Mrs. Vanderbilt, at the corner of Fifty-first Street and Fifth Avenue, where the body lay, was besieged all day yesterday by friends and acquaintances of Mrs. Vanderbilt, but her sons denied themselves to all except close friends,” said The Times that day.

As intended by his father, George W. Vanderbilt took over the massive mansion.  In the meantime, Margaret shut the doors of No. 642 Fifth Avenue for a long mourning period.  It was not until Valentine’s Day 1898 that she began entertaining again.  It was a cotillion for the Sloane’s second daughter, Lila.  “Mrs. Sloane has only just come out of mourning for the death of her mother, Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt,” remarked The New York Times, “and her function of last night was the first to which she has bidden society for a long time.  It was a dinner dance, and the most notable affair of the kind this season.”

Eighty “well-known and fashionable people” filed into the mosaic-paved inner court.  To ensure that they did not mistakenly turn to George’s mansion, Margaret stationed “a retinue of liveried servants…in the Sloane side of this court.”  The Times said they “formed a human path through whose rows of dark plush breeches the prospective revelers might find their way.”  Emily’s and Margaret’s drawing rooms were thrown open “and a better ballroom was thus secured than the Sloane picture gallery would have made,” said the newspaper.

In 1905 George negotiated a 10-year lease on No. 640 with Henry Frick.  According to The New York Times later, Frick “spent thousands of dollars in alterations, eliminating the garden in front and adding a massive entrance.”  The steel man paid $100,000 in rent, “making this Vanderbilt house the most costly private residence under lease in the city,” said The Times.  Frick could afford the rent.  In 1910 he hung Frans Hals’s “Portrait of a Woman” on the wall here.  He paid art dealers Knodler & Co. more than $140,000 for it—about $3.3 million by today’s standards. 

Among Frick's "improvements" was the closing of the open courtyard.  By 1923 when this photograph was taken, soaring business buildings were closing in.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By now the grand mansions of this section of Fifth Avenue were being converted for business or simply being razed.  When Henry Frick moved into his new white marble mansion further up the avenue, Cornelius III took over No. 640.  By 1927, when his father’s massive chateau at 57th Street was demolished, there were no Vanderbilt mansions left on Fifth Avenue other than 640.

But Cornelius III and his wife, Grace, stubbornly stayed put.  Cornelius, a brigadier general, was highly interested in military matters while Grace focused on entertaining and charity events.  Eventually surrounded by business buildings, the couple spurned all offers from developers.  And in the meantime, they entertained not only the highest ranks of military and society, but royalty.   

Cornelius "Neily" Vanderbilt was not only a military officer, but an inventor, yachtsman, inventor and engineer.  photo from the Library of Congress

In 1919 the house was crowded with European titles and wealthy socialites as Grace gave a reception with music for the Queen of the Belgians.  In 1927 it was Prince William of Sweden who was the guest of honor at a reception on January 9.  And in 1927 1,000 guests and a “fleet of officers” were entertained in honor of Rear Admiral Charles F. Hughes.

Cornelius Vanderbilt III died on March 1, 1942.  Although he had sold the Fifth Avenue mansion to William Waldorf Astor estate in 1940, he and Grace remained living there until his death.  Now Grace was forced out.  She moved into the William Starr Miller house at No. 1048 Fifth Avenue. 

On November 22, 1945 The New York Times said the mansion “is fast being demolished by wrecking crews preparing for the erection of a commercial building on the site.”  Three weeks earlier the house had been opened for a public auction of the rooms and interior decorations.  Since then buyers had been removing mirrors, paneled walls, chandeliers, inlaid floors, and mantels.

“Paramount Pictures, Inc., paid $3,500 for the carved panels, mirrors and other fixtures of the ballroom, $975 for those of the dining room and $1,250 for those of the study,” reported the newspaper.  Within days the last of the great Vanderbilt houses on Vanderbilt Row was gone.
photo by the author

The 1898 James A. Burden Carriage House -- No. 75 E. 77th Street

On May 21, 1897 The New York Times reported on the sale of six building lots stretching westward from the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 77th Street.  Henry Hilton had sold the property to brothers William W. and Thomas M. Hall.  As the Upper East Side rapidly developed, the two speculators were among the busiest—responsible for dozens of structures in the neighborhood.

The Halls purchased the real estate on the north side of East 77th Street for a purely pragmatic project.  As Manhattan’s millionaires threw up grandiose mansions along Fifth Avenue they would require private stables.  A wealthy bank or lawyer would own several expensive vehicles, six or more horses, and a small staff of grooms or coachmen.  The location—two blocks from the avenue—was perfect:  close enough for a quick response when a carriage was called for; yet far enough away that the noises and odors could not waft into refined sitting rooms.

The brothers put their architect of choice, Alexander M. Welch of Welch, Smith & Provot, to work on the string of upscale stables.  Their long-standing collaborations would produce a variety of structures more glamorous than homes for horses.  Two years later, for instance, they would team up to produce the lavish mansion purchased by Benjamin Duke at No. 1009 Fifth Avenue.

Private carriage houses reflected the wealth and status of their owners.  Welch, therefore, treated each structure differently while maintaining a harmonious architectural flow.  Each one three stories tall, they shared the same overall layout and proportions.  And each one boasted the extra architectural attention necessary to attract moneyed buyers.

Centered along the row, completed in 1898, was No. 75.  Welch treated the red Roman brick almost as modeling clay.  The long, thin bricks were laid with precise craftsmanship and many were customized for their place in the structure.  Bullnose bricks formed rounded edges to the openings and long bricks that tapered to a wedge-shape created the first floor arches.

The Romanesque Revival façade was relieved with limestone trim—three carved eyebrows above the arches connected by foliate ornaments, bandcourses, plain pilasters between the paired windows above, and two exquisitely carved discs set into the brick.

Inside, the stalls and cabinetry were fashioned of oak.  Six horses could be housed in the rear while the vehicles would be stored closer to the front.  Perhaps because of the unpleasant but necessary manure pit in the back lot, upstairs quarters for the coachmen and their families faced the street.  The rear of the second floor contained a hayloft.

The carriage house was especially convenient for James Abercrombie Burden, Jr. who lived at No. 2 East 77th Street, just off Fifth Avenue.  Burden had married Florence Adele Sloane three years earlier in Lenox, Massachusetts.  Florence was the great-granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and daughter of the fabulously wealthy William D. Sloane.  Burden’s family’s fortune was made in the iron works founded by his grandfather in Troy, New York.  At the time of the wedding, the young groom had an annual income of more than $1 million.

James A. Burden purchased No. 75 upon its completion.  The convenience of its location would be short lived, however.  Apart from the $700,000 worth of gifts the Burdens had received on their wedding day was the promise of a new home from Florence’s father, William D. Sloane.  In 1901 he commissioned architects Warren & Wetmore to produce a magnificent residence further up Fifth Avenue at No. 7 East 91st Street.

The mansion was completed in 1905 and the Burdens moved north from East 77th Street.  Nevertheless they retained the carriage house for several more years; possibly leasing it to another well-heeled family.

In 1907 the family using the stable cut back on staff expenses as they planned an extended European trip.  Living upstairs at No. 77 East 75th Street were at least two employees; one with his family.  In April that year one coachman got his walking papers.  He placed an advertisement in the New-York Tribune on April 21 looking for employment.  “Coachman—First class recommendations; married, one child; will be disengaged May 1, present employer going abroad.”

Two months later a groom received notice.  On June 25, 1907 he too placed an ad in the New-York Tribune.  “Thoroughly competent in the care of fine horses and carriages; highest written and personal recommendations; will be found willing and obliging.”

Finally on December 31, 1909 The New York Times announced that the Burden “family private stable” had been sold.  By now automobiles were nudging out horse-drawn vehicles as the preferred mode of transportation and throughout the city carriage houses were being converted to garages.  The high-tone neighborhood in which the Burden stable sat no doubt prevented its being reduced to a commercial garage.  As the decades wore on, most of the surviving Upper East Side carriages with their handsome facades were converted, instead, to private dwellings.

And so it would be for No. 75.  In 1930 Robert Nagel leased the building and converted it to a one-family home with private 5-car garage at street level.  The residence was updated in 1971 when a partial fourth floor was constructed at the front of the building and an open air atrium was constructed inside.
The facade is a masterpiece of brickwork.  A set of shallow stone steps creates the illusion that this was meant as a home for people--not for horses.
Another ambitious renovation occurred in 2005 which, like the former changes, carefully left Welch’s striking façade with its wonderful brickwork intact.  Other than the regrettable barracks-like rooftop addition of 1971 the James Burden carriage house survives charmingly unspoiled.

photographs by the author

Friday, June 27, 2014

The 1826 House at No. 250 W 10th Street

Unlike its near mirror image neighbor at No. 246, it appears that No. 250 always had a full attic floor, rather than the more expected Federal dormers.

In 1826 Isaac A. Hatfield began construction of a string of brick-faced homes on West 10th Street, just east of Hudson Street.  His brothers, Jonathan and Charles were, like him, carpenter-builders and the three men had purchased the building plots that ran from No. 246 West 10th around the corner to No. 510 Hudson Street.

Nos. 246 and 250 were the first to be built.  The gap in their addresses was due to the small building erected in the yard behind, No. 248, and accessed by a “horse walk” between the two homes.  Because No. 250 enjoyed what were essentially air rights over the horse walk, it stretched four bays wide on the upper stories.  The two houses shared matching Federal-style doorways and mirror-image sideways stoops; but along with being wider that its next door neighbor it appears that No. 250 was always a full floor higher than No. 246 as well.  Careful inspection of the Flemish bond brickwork reveals no interruption in the façade one would expect if the floor was heightened subsequently; and the handsome paneled lintels at the top level suggest they are original.
No. 250 retains its original doorway.  The once-opened horsewalk now has a doorway.  The basement entrance is below the stoop. 
The little house and its residents brought little undue attention to themselves over the decades.  It would not be for a century and a half that the focus of New York, and the nation in general, turned to No. 250 West 10th Street.

Until then Mrs. Tamar Reynolds would be the most interesting resident.  The aging widow moved in with her daughter and son-in-law, Christopher Shuart.  Shuart was in the boot and shoe business and was highly active in politics.  The New York Times later remembered that he “was one of the earliest Sachems of Tammany.”  Tammany Hall not only took its name from Chief Tammany, or Tammamend, but named its district halls after Native American tribes—such as the Pequod and Nameoki Clubs.  District leaders were Sachems, or chiefs.

Mrs. Reynolds was born in Sing Sing, New York in 1789 and her family moved to Manhattan when she was eight years old.  The Times said “In 1804 she was living with her parents at Richmond Hill, and among her favorite recitals of the past was her story of how, in that year, her residence was opposite that of Aaron  Burr, whom she remembered well, and how, on the morning of the day upon which he slew Alexander Hamilton, she opened the gate for him as he rode out from home to the fatal meeting.”

Tamar Reynolds delighted in sitting in her daughter’s parlor and retelling stories of the past and the modern technology she had seen come to pass.  She told of the time she was riding in a sloop on the Hudson River when a newfangled steamboat chugged its way up stream.  No one on the sloop had seen such a contraption and she described “with zest” the terror of the passengers and crew as the steamboat drew nearer.

By the 1880s Christopher Shuart had died and the two women lived alone in the 10th Street house.  Her mind still sharp and her memory vivid, Tamar Reynolds would reminisce to visitors, telling them of the Greenwich Village she remember as a child, a country place “with villas, gardens and orchards, which one by one disappeared as the years of her life rolled by,” said The New York Times.

On Friday December 3, 1886, the 97-year old woman went about her normal routine, going up and down the stairs and performing her day-to-day tasks.  As evening approached, she complained that she felt weak and within the hour she was dead.

In florid Victorian prose, The Times reported “In the front room of the old brick residence No. 250 West Tenth-street lay yesterday the body of Mrs. Tamar Reynolds…On a chair beside the wasted body hung a dress of Italian silk, a fabric of rare delicacy and of a fresh and glossy black, that would seem to question the statement that it was made 40 years ago did not the unfamiliar tucks and gathers in its skirt and the pieces of whalebone sewed into the body—the forerunners of the modern corset—sustain its claims to antiquity.”

At the time of the funeral, held in the house on the evening of December 6, Mrs. Shuart was 73-years old and a grandmother herself. 

By the end of World War I William C. Anoes lived in the house.  Concerned about the rampant unemployment as troops returned from war and tried to reenter the workplace, Anoes pushed to have the United States Employment Service made a permanent bureau of the Department of Labor.

Over the next half century Greenwich Village and West 10th Street would see drastic change.  In 1946 the old house was converted to “furnished rooms.”  The Village was, by now, the epicenter of New York City’s artistic community as artists, musicians, writers and poets were drawn to its winding streets and cheap rents.

In the second half of the century Greenwich Village was also the center of the Gay community.  It was nearby at the Stonewall Inn that, on June 28, 1969, the first stand in the Gay Rights Movement was taken.  At the time the West 10th Street house where Tamar Reynolds had entertained lady friends had become a gay rooming house with the tongue-in-cheek nickname “Boystown.”

Here in December 1971 Vietnam veteran John Stanley Wojtowicz “married” Liz Eden.  In fact, Liz was Ernest Aron, a pre-operation transsexual.  Among the witnesses to the mock Roman Catholic ceremony were the groom’s mother.

The main problem in the couple’s relationship was their lack of money for the highly-expensive operation that Ernest so desperately wanted.  On August 20, 1970 he attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, reportedly no longer psychologically able to live his life as a man.

In a not-so-well-planned act of desperation, the 27-year old Wojtowicz attempted to get the money they needed by robbing a bank.  He would later explain to The New York Times “I did what a man has to do in order to save the life of someone I loved a great deal.”

At 3:00 on the afternoon of August 22 he and two accomplices entered a Chase Manhattan Bank branch in Gravesend, Brooklyn.  The heist fell apart nearly before the doors closed behind them.  Speaking on the telephone to a WCBS reporter from inside the bank he explained “Well, we’re holding up a bank and we were on our way out when a stupid cop car pulled up.”  One of Wojtowicz’s accomplices had bolted at the appearance of police.

Calling him a “young mop-haired gunman” The New York Times later explained “It was a crime of passion for Mr. Wojtowicz, who intended to use the stolen money to pay for a $3,000 sex-change operation for the man he called his wife.

“Mr. Wojtowicz was separated from his wife, Carmen, with whom he had two children, Sean and Dawn, but was involved with a tall, wispy man named Ernest Aron, whom he had married in a lavish ceremony with several bridesmaids.”

Wojtowicz offered to trade a hostage for a chance to see Ernest.  He “was brought to the scene wearing a robe from Kings County Hospital, where he had been admitted after a failed suicide attempt,” said The Times.

The day-long siege, the motivation of which was heart-breaking, was featured in a human interest photospread by Life magazine a month later titled “The Boys in the Bank.”  It became the basis for the 1975 Al Pacino film Dog Day Afternoon directed by Sidney Lumet.

The judge and jury were less moved than Life readers and Wojtowicz received a 20-year sentence.  Of the $7500 he received for the movie rights, most went to his legal costs.  The other $2500 he gave to Ernest for the operation.

Two decades after the failed bank robbery that dragged No. 250 West 10th Street into the headlines, the house was converted to three luxury apartments.  Then, in 2009, it was restored as a single family home by interior designer Steven Gambrel. 
Neither Tamar Reynolds nor John Wojtowicz would recognize the interiors today.    photo

photographs by the author

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The 1882 Harvey S. Ladew Mansion -- No. 813 Madison Ave.

Born in Ladew’s Corners, New York, in 1826, Harvey Smith Ladew learned the art of tanning in his father’s business.  In 1849 he married Rebecca Krom and the pair had two sons, Edward H. and Joseph Harvey, and a daughter Louise.  The year following the end of the Civil War, in 1866, the family moved to New York City. 

After serving as a principal in J. B. Hoyt & Co., Ladew struck out with Daniel S. Fayerweather, forming the partnership of Fayerweather & Ladew.  According to the 1897 Prominent Families of New York, the firm “attained the position of the most important firm in the ‘Swamp’ district of New York, and which controlled a large portion of the leather product of the entire United States, and had important interests in all parts of the country.”

While Ladew’s successful leather company was expanding, the Upper East Side was seeing an explosion of development and construction.  Speculative developer and architect Charles Buek was busy at work on Madison Avenue in 1881.  The head of the firm Charles Buek & Co., that year he began construction on six high-end rowhouses on the east side of the block between 68th and 69th Street, and two others on the north side, at Nos. 813 and 815.

Before construction was completed Harvey S. Ladew had purchased the hulking corner mansion at No. 813.  Clad in red brick and trimmed in brownstone, the four-story neo-Grec mansion sat on a brownstone basement.  The composition reflected the acute angles and incised carved decoration typical of the 1880s.  By the time the family moved in, in 1882, the children were young adults and son Joseph Harvey Ladew was attending Columbia College.

Prominent Families of New York remembered Harvey S. Ladew as “a merchant of the old school [who] wielded great influence in mercantile circles.”  Ladew’s great influence would soon draw to a close, however.  During the late winter of 1888 he became ill, and on Friday evening, March 9 the 63-year old died in the house.  Four days later at 10:30 a.m. his funeral was held in the parlor.

Edward and Joseph continued in the family business.  A year after their father’s death, Joseph took his brother in as a partner in Fayerweather & Ladew.  Both men earned substantial fortunes in addition to their inheritances.  Edward would go on to help found the United States Leather company, one of the largest enterprises in the United States at the time.

Joseph Harvey Ladew became well-known among the club set and held memberships in the Union League, New York Yacht Club, Larchmont Yacht Club and many others.  The New York Times referred to him as “the wealthy and well-known yachtsman.”  His love for yachting prompted him to commission the $200,000 yacht Columbia from the Crescent Shipyards in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1893.  Joseph’s man-toy cost him about $5 million in today’s dollars.

The craft would have an eventful life.  Five years after it was launched from Philadelphia, Joseph Ladew turned the Columbia over to the United States Navy for use in the Spanish American War.  The luxurious ship was renamed the USS Wasp and was used as part of the U.S. blockade of Cuba.  Following the war it was returned to Ladew and rechristened.  Then, in December 1901 the yacht underwent several weeks of refurbishing for a special voyage.

In November that year Joseph Ladew disappeared from the posh clubs he frequented.  “For several weeks Mr. Ladew had been missed by his friends from his usual haunts,” reported The New York Times on December 26.  The reason for his sudden absence was both surprising and shocking.  The newspaper explained “A Christmas surprise was sprung on the friends of J. Harvey Ladew…when it was published yesterday that on Nov. 27 Mr. Ladew had been married to Miss Jennie Bennett House of Rochester, N. Y.”  The Times said “Only the immediate members of his family knew of the secret.”

Joseph and Jennie had known each other for years; however she was married to Henry Hawkins.  When they accidentally ran into one another while traveling in the South—she accompanied by an aunt—Jennie had just obtained a divorce and resumed her maiden name.  “Shortly after the meeting of the two, an immediate marriage was decided upon,” said the newspaper.

Joseph quickly ordered that the Columbia be fitted out “for a protracted cruise.”  After a month’s preparation of the ship, the newlyweds sailed to the Mediterranean for their winter honeymoon.  The New York Times noted “Mr. and Mrs. Ladew will make their home in New York, at 813 Madison Avenue.”

In the meantime Edward Ladew had married Louise B. Wall in 1886, and Louise Ladew married John Townsend Williams.  Louise and John lived next door at No. 815 Madison Avenue.  By the time of Joseph’s wedding Louise’s daughter, also (and confusingly) named Louise, had been introduced to society.  In 1904 the debutante would become a bride in “The first big wedding of the season,” as described by The Sun on October 30.  Following the fashionable ceremony in St. Bartholomew’s Church, Rebecca Ladew hosted the reception for her granddaughter in the Madison Avenue mansion.

The wedding reception would be among the last entertainments Rebecca Krom Ladew would see in the house.  Six months later, on Wednesday, April 26, she died of pneumonia in Asheville, North Carolina.  “The entire family was summoned to the South,” said The Times on April 27.  Rebecca’s body was returned to New York and on Saturday, April 29 at 11 a.m. her funeral was held in the parlor where Harvey’s funeral had been conducted 17 years earlier.

Joseph and Jennie continued to live in the family mansion.  In February 1906 the couple had a scare as they rode in their stylish brougham.  An automobile frightened the team of horses and they panicked.  Coachman Thomas Burton tried to control the animals; but was thrown from the carriage when they veered sharply onto 92nd Street at full gallop.  Still in the driverless vehicle, the Ladews were taken on a terrorizing ride that came to an abrupt end.

“Then they turned north at full speed and dashed toward a crowd of passengers just landed from an Astoria ferryboat at Ninety-third street,” reported The Sun on February 23.  “A policeman and several men darted from the crowd in an effort to head off the frightened animals.  The horses swerved toward the ferry house and crashed into it, one of them falling and the other barely missing a fall into the river.”

One of the horses was so badly injured that an S.P.C.A. agent who happened to be at the location advised shooting it.  Ladew consented.  The Sun advised “Mr. Ladew was not injured, but Mrs. Ladew was prostrated by the shock and badly bruised.”  The couple returned home to Madison Avenue in a cab.

In 1913 the family took the Columbia to Asia.  Included in the party were Joseph, Jennie, and their two sons, Joseph and Oliver; Edward’s daughter Elsie and son Harvey; and guests Hilda Holmes, Annie Wall and Juan M. Ceballos, Jr. the son of a Cuban banker.  Trouble came on June 11 when the crew steered the craft into the Wakayama port for repairs.  “Wakayama is not an open port because of its proximity to Japanese fortifications,” explained The Evening Independent of St. Petersburg, Florida.  Japanese officials were not pleased with the incursion and seized the vessel.

Joseph Harvey and Jennie Ladew with sons J. Harvey, Jr. and Oliver at the time of the Columbia's seizure.  photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress
The Los Angeles Times reported “The American Yacht Columbia, with its owner, J. Harvey Ladew of New York, and his party aboard, was seized today by the Japanese authorities at Wakayama.”  The Evening Independent was more concerned with the debutante on board.  Under a headline reading “Miss Ladew Was Aboard Yacht Seized by Japan”, the newspaper reported “Miss Elsie Ladew, one of New York’s most beautiful and popular society girls, is a member of the party on board the Ladew steam yacht, Columbia, which was seized by the Japanese government.”

Eight days after the yacht was “sensationally seized,” as described by The San Francisco Call, the newspaper reported that the Columbia had been released and was on its way to China.  The release had been negotiated by the Secretary of State after the seizure became an international incident.

In 1917 the Ladews added a penthouse to the roof of the mansion.  Designed by architect James W. O’Connor, it cost the family $5,000.  The following year, on April 27, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that O’Connor had finished plans for additional “alterations and addition” to the house, costing $3,000.

But as World War I drew to a close Madison Avenue was becoming increasingly commercial.  By the spring of 1921 the family had decided to move on.  On May 19 that year the New-York Tribune reported that Jennie Ladew had leased “for twenty-one years her four-story and basement residence…to the 33 East Sixty-eighth Street Corporation, composed of several well-known physicians, which will alter the property into a doctor’s office building.”  The $300,000 21-year lease grossed the Ladews the equivalent of $175,000 a year by today’s standards.  To accommodate the medical offices, a storefront was added and the penthouse and rear extension enlarged. 

Joseph Harvey Ladew died on February 16, 1940.  Five years later, on September 24, The New York Times reported that “In its first change of ownership since 1880, the property at 813 Madison Avenue…was sold by the City Bank Farmers Trust Company, as trustee for the Ladew Estate, to the Tishman Realty and Construction Company.”  The newspaper noted that the former mansion “contains a store leased to Womrath Book Shops and upper floors are occupied by doctors.  The assessed valuation is $180,000.”

A 1946 photograph by Wurts Brothers reveals that the decorative brownstone elements had been shaved off to modernize the building.  -- from the collection of the New York Public Library.
Madison Avenue retained its high-end tone throughout the 20th century.  For years, beginning in the 1960s, the retail space was home to the showroom of designer Veneziano.  In 1971 the building received a new two-level storefront as high-end designer Halston opened his new salon.  Rebecca Ladew would no longer have recognized her drawing room or parlor.

New York Magazine described “ivory walls and cushions, carpet the color of wet sand, and mirrored walls, screens and plant tubs everywhere…Up the jazzy modern staircase, inherited along with slanting two-story windows from the previous tenant, are the more expansive cashmere sweaters and trousers which are the uniform of the Halston woman by day, and the sexy, wrappy jersey dresses she wears at night.  There is a studio for Halston and a mirrored room for private clients who don’t like to riffle through the racks.”

When Halson died in 1990 his boutique store was still at No. 813 Madison Avenue.  But within three years the building was purchased for $6.9 million by MaxMara, an upscale Italian women’s fashion company.  The new owners set architect Frederic Zonsius to work renovating the structure.

On January 2, 1994 The New York Times said “An old six-story building on the Upper East Side is getting a facelift.”  The newspaper deemed “Most notable will be the new limestone shop-front on the first two floors.”  Zonsius’s renovations would cost between $500,000 and $1 million.  The architect told The Times “We took old historical photographs and blew them up and tried to copy what we believed was there.” 

In a nearly unheard of restoration by a commercial firm, the decorative brownstone elements, shaved flat in a mid-century modernization, were recreated.  Considering such intricate research and care, the new storefront is somewhat surprising.  While not unattractive, the limestone storefront of engaged columns and pilasters under a frieze of blank discs has nothing in common with the house either in materials nor style.  Nevertheless, an enormous amount of the original Ladew mansion still survives—looking as much like a late Victorian apartment house as a massive single home.

non-historic photographs taken by the author