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

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