Monday, November 3, 2014

The Lost Jennings-McCullough Mansions -- 86-88 Park Ave

photograph Palatial Homes in the City of New York and the Dwellers Therein, 1910 (copyright expired)

Laura Hall Park and her sister, Eliza Hall Park, enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Bennington, Vermont.  Their grandfather, Hiland Hall, had been state governor and their father, Trenor W. Park, had made a fortune in railroads and banking.  The girls’ close relationship would eventually be manifested in the form of a magnificent mansion miles away in New York City.

In 1871 Eliza married John Griffith McCullough.  Born near Newark, Delaware, he had been orphaned at the age of eight; but managed to obtain a “common school” education, graduated from Delaware College at the head of his class and studied law in Philadelphia.  By the time McCullough met Eliza, he had served as California’s Attorney General and State Senator.  Like Trenor Park, he gave up law to go into the banking and railroad businesses.

John Beach McCullough -- The Interstate Journal & Adviser, May 1900 (copyright expired)

Nine years later, on July 27, 1880, Vermont-born Frederic Beach Jennings was back home to marry Laura.  The wedding took place in the Park mansion.  The New York Times mentioned that the impressive guest list included the U. S. Secretary of State, William M. Evarts, and “a number of New-York families who are Summering among the Green Mountains.”  Following the ceremony, a special train was waiting to take the newlyweds on their honeymoon in Canada.

By now McCullough was spending more and more time in New York City, where Jennings’s law practice was based.  Neither Laura nor Eliza would have have to give up Vermont totally.  They both maintained magnificent summer estates there.  But throughout the fall and winter seasons, the sisters would take on the roles of Manhattan socialites. 

In 1890 the McCulloughs and the Jennings spawned a plan to make their wives' daily interactions simpler.  A few years earlier William Vanderbilt had constructed three mansions—one for himself and his wife Louisa, and one each for his daughters Margaret and Emily—which successfully pretended to be one massive home.  John Jacob Astor would do the same, erecting a huge chateau on upper Fifth Avenue which was in realty two mansions—one for himself and one for his mother, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.  But before Astor’s plans would take shape, ground would be broken for the Jennings-McCullough residences.

Land was purchased on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 39th Street.  Architect J. Lawrence Aspinwall was commissioned to design an imposing double residence for the two families; one that would suggest a single palatial dwelling.  He designed an immense chateau in a toned-down version of the French Renaissance style.  The angles, oriels and bays required that Jennings submit a request to the Department of Parks in 1891 “to erect projections on his proposed house at the north-west corner of Park avenue and Thirty-ninth street.  Apparently the request was approved, for the 39th Street entrance crept beyond the property line.

The Engineering Record published a sketch of the mansions in November 1893 (copyright expired)

Laura and Frederic would take the southern half, at No. 86 Park Avenue (although the entrance was clearly on 39th Street) and the McCulloughs would move in to No. 88, with its sweeping entrance staircase.  What the Jennings lost in a Park Avenue entrance, they gained in additional light into the rooms.

The mansions were completed just in time for Elizabeth McCullough’s coming-out and the paint was barely dry before the sisters began entertaining.  On January 4, 1893 Eliza hosted a tea for Elizabeth from 4:00 to 7:00 in No. 88; and on January 20, 1893 Laura gave a debutante dinner for her in No. 86.  Socially important young men and women with names like Rockefeller, Lambert, and Brewster chatted in the dining room that evening.

On April 26 that year Laura gave what The New York Times called “a large dinner party.”  The word “large” by society columnists in describing dinners in 1893 was not tossed about lightly.  The newspaper added “The table was handsomely decorated by Thorley with Elric [sic] Brunner roses.”

The immense size of the mansions was evidenced on March 30, 1895 when Eliza McCullough hosted a charity “international tea” to benefit the Daisy Fields Hospital and Home for Crippled Children in Englewood, New Jersey.  Booths were set up representing America, France, Africa, Holland, Spain, Ireland and Germany, from which “pretty girls in costumes sold articles peculiar to each country,” reported The Times the following day.

“In the café chantant there was a continuous performance during the afternoon and evening.  In the booth were waitresses dressed as French shepherdesses, ready to serve the hungry and little cripples from the Daisy Fields Home sold flowers.”

Eliza seems to have been more interested in entertaining than her sister; repeatedly appearing in society columns as the hostess of receptions, dinners and teas.  On February 21, 1897 The Times noted “Besides her tea on Thursday, Mrs. J. G. McCullough of 88 Park Avenue gave dinners on Wednesday and Friday of last week to parties of twenty each.  Her last reception will be held on next Thursday.”

Perhaps the reason that Eliza’s “last reception” was so early in the season that year was because of John’s increasing political aspirations.  Within the year he would be elected to the Vermont State Senate and by 1900 was eying the Governor’s mansion.  But despite John’s increasing focus on Vermont, on March 29, 1901, when Hall Park McCullough’s engagement was announced, the Yale graduate’s address was still listed as No. 88 Park Avenue.  The young man whose father had started out as a penniless orphan was a member of the University, Union League and Metropolitan Clubs.

It was not just Laura and Eliza who had a close relationship.  Frederic and John worked closely together as well.  Such was the case in 1901 when they returned to the firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Owan to design their 12-story hotel at Nos. 12-14 West 44th Street.  (Frederic Jennings would commission the firm once again in 1904; this time to design a new country house in North Bennington, Vermont.)

By now John McCullough had served his two years as Governor of Vermont and returned to New York.  He held the positions of either president or director in the First National Bank of North Bennington, the Bank of New York, the Fidelity & Casualty Co., no fewer than three railroads and the Lackawanna Steel Company.

In 1906 it was the Jennings’s daughter, also named Elizabeth, who was feted with debutante entertainments; followed by her cousin, Esther Morgan McCullough, two years later.

The Interstate Journal & Adviser, May 1900 (copyright expired)
A near-tragedy came in 1913 when Frederic B. Jennings, Jr. was traveling on the Boston Express near Stamford, Connecticut.  At 5:03 on the afternoon of June 12 the train smashed into another that was stopped waiting to be coupled to an electric locomotive.  Five passengers were killed instantly and dozens were severely injured.  Among them was young Frederic.  A Stanford reporter listed his injuries as “probably fatal.”  Much to the relief of both families, Frederic survived.

On May 29, 1915 John G. McCullough died.  His children received generous if unequal inheritances; $100,000 went to Ella, Esther inherited $150,000, Hall Park McCullough received the North Bennington home and $75,000, and his sister, Mrs. Thornton F. Turner, received “a similar amount.”  Eliza received the bulk of the immense estate, including the Park Avenue mansion.

Eliza stayed in the house next door to her sister.  By now the Jennings boys were growing up and entering the world.  Frederic Jr. had graduated from Yale in 1914 and on August 16, 1919 his engagement to Elizabeth Holt was announced.

A few months later Frederic’s father fell ill.  After just a brief illness Frederic Beach Jennings died in the Park Avenue mansion on May 26, 1920.  Similarly to his brother-in-law, in addition to his legal practice he had been director of many corporations, and was vice-president of the First National Bank of North Bennington and a trustee of Williams and Barnard colleges, the Provident Loan Society and the New York Trust Company.

Somewhat surprisingly, just four months after her husband’s death and during what should have been her deepest period of mourning; Laura announced the engagement of son Edward to Margaret Huntington Trumbull. 

With their children gone, the widowed sisters decided to abandon their hulking mansions.  On April 2, 1921 The New York Times reported that the Princeton Club was in negotiations with the two women for the structures.  Within two weeks a deal had been struck.

On April 23 it was announced that the club had purchased both mansions, as well as the brownstone house directly behind on39th Street, also owned by the sisters.  “It was proposed that the two houses on the corner be utilized as the main clubhouse, with as few alterations as possible, and the brownstone dwelling in the rear be torn down and a fireproof building erected, connecting with the main clubhouse” reported The Times.

It was projected that the new annex would contain “billiard rooms, dressing rooms, shower baths, four squash courts, a gymnasium and four or five floors of additional bedrooms, so that the club would have available about seventy bedrooms.”

By August renovations were well under way and the club had purchased, in addition, the Cleveland H. Dodge house next door at No. 90 Park Avenue.  Architect Aymar Embury II was commissioned to remodel Nos. 86 and 88.  “There will be little change in the exterior, for the houses are well built, of attractive architecture and command attention among the best homes in that section,” reported The Times on August 21.

Plans were announced for the 10-story annex at No. 39 East 39th Street in May 1922, which would cost the club $150,000.  The alterations to the Jennings and McCullough mansions were expected to cost $40,000—in the neighborhood of $525,000 today.  Once completed, the two houses would be joined internally and include a café and library in the basement; dining room, card room and another library on the first floor; and bedrooms on the upper floors.

Only three years later, on May 26, 1925, The New York Times noted the drastic changes taking place in the once residential neighborhood.  “Park Avenue north of Fortieth Street is occupied almost entirely by office and loft buildings and other commercial structures, many of which exceed fifteen stories in height.”  But despite the demolition of the elegant mansions that lined Park Avenue throughout the ensuing decades, the Princeton Club hung on for nearly 40 more years.

The end of J. Lawrence Aspinwall’s magnificent double mansion finally came in 1963 when it was demolished to make way for the 41-story building known as 90 Park Avenue.

photograph by the author


  1. Wow forget space travel, give me a time machine when I could return to late nineteenth century and early twentieth century New York to just walk the streets and see all that has been lost.

  2. Clarke Gallery has a portrait of Elizabeth Laura McCullough by Lydia Field Emmet