Friday, November 28, 2014

The Samuel Shaw Mansion -- No. 280 West End Avenue

In 1887 developer William J. Merritt began an ambitious project on the developing Upper West Side just east of Riverside Drive.  Like many other real estate moguls who bought up long rows of property for speculative homes, he planned 18 high-end houses lining both sides of West 73rd Street between West End Avenue and Broadway.  Merritt’s completed residences were intended for well-to-do merchant class families—except for the mammoth mansion anchoring the northeast corner of West End Avenue and 73rd Street.

Designed by Charles T. Mott, the house took two years to build.  The somewhat somber looking Romanesque Revival mansion featured rounded, tower-like oriels at the corners which were connected by a long iron balcony at the third floor (no doubt a great temptation for Victorian children).  A matching, smaller balcony sprouted one floor above.  Merritt placed the three upper stories of brown brick on a sandstone base.  While the centered entrance was at No. 277 West 73rd Street, most future owners would prefer to use the address of No. 280 West End Avenue.

Merritt could not have hoped for a more prestigious buyer of the newly-completed mansion.  In 1889 the Harvard College Class of 1874 Fifth Report of the Class Secretary reported that Ulysses Simpson Grant and his family was “latterly” living at No. 277 West Seventy-Third Street.  Despite the General’s short-lived residency (the family had moved on within the year), the house would wear his name for decades.

Following Grant in the house was the electrical pioneer and inventor, Frank J. Sprague.  Among his important advancements was the invention of the trolley system.  He held the positions of Vice-President with the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company, and consulting engineer of the Edison General Electric Company. 

Following a meeting of the Electrical Club on February 26, 1891, during which he spoke, The Evening World wrote “Mr. Sprague is an alert-looking man, with a clear gray eye, and knows as much about electricity as any one hereabouts.  Electricity is a mine not yet half explored, and, if I mistake not, Mr. Sprague is a miner who will bring from it great things.”

Gruesome boars watch over the entrance.  Two bottle-glass windows survive above.
Sprague’s wife, Mary, had strong opinions about electricity as well—as least concerning the poles which supported electric wires.  The title to the mansion was in Mary’s name and she had no intention of having a falling telephone pole damage her property.

During a major winter storm in January 1891, most of the poles of the Metropolitan Telephone and Telegraph Company on 73rd Street between The Boulevard (later renamed Broadway) and West End Avenue crashed to the ground.  The poles were 70 feet high and 20 inches in diameter with 17 cross arms each, carrying ten wires.  When the heavy poles fell, one damaged the residence of D. S. Lamont and another crashed onto the stoop of W. L. Trenholm.

The Sun reported on January 28 “The poles which remain are being propped up and the company proposes to use them again.  Mrs. Sprague objects, contending that the wires should be put under ground.”  Mary sued the telephone company and won an injunction restraining the firm from erecting or maintaining poles or wires on the block.

Frank chimed in on the problem of telephone poles in the high-class neighborhood.  The Sun said that he felt “These are a serious obstruction to light and air, and one of them stands in front of his wife’s house on the corner of West End avenue and Seventy-third street.  He is afraid it will fall, as it was cracked and warped by the recent store, which leveled to the ground all of the poles on the street from the Boulevard to West End avenue.”

The house became home to Eli Perkins, a former Southerner who ranted in The Tariff Review in 1894 “Dog-on your Yankee patriotism!  We have Southern patriotism and brains, and now enough of you Yankees have voted with us to put us in power.  We are the nation, too, and you Yankees are out.”

By the turn of the century Perkins was gone and the socially-visible James G. Marshall and his wife had moved in.  The Scottish-born merchant and broker was a member of McIntyre & Wardwell.  Within only a couple years of Marshall’s purchase of the house, the firm would become McIntyre & Marshall.  The wealthy couple owned a country estate in New Jersey and was noted for their many thoroughbred racing and show horses.

While the Marshalls enjoyed a clear view of the New Jersey palisades from their western windows when they purchased the house; it would be short-lived.  In 1901 millionaire Charles M. Schwab purchased the entire block from Riverside Drive to West End Avenue, from 73rd to 74th Streets.  The Marshalls’ view would become one of a rising block-encompassing chateau.

In the meantime, the couple carried on with the activities expected of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens.  Tally-ho parties, or coaching parties, were a favorite pastime of the upper-class and on May 13, 1903 James G. Marshall took the reins of a four-in-hand coach.  In the coach were his wife, Mrs. Helen Wood of Pittsburgh, Mrs. Theodore Hostetter, real estate dealer R. Lawrence Smith and two grooms.

The party was headed to Van Cortlandt Park and things were going merrily until the coach reached the top of the hill at 181st Street and Amsterdam Avenue around 3:30.  A street car came rapidly over the hill and smashed into the rear of the coach.  Mrs. Wood was thrown from the coach and severely injured.  One of the grooms, John Witherton, was tossed out in front of the street car.  Caught by a fender, he was dragged about 60 feet and was also seriously hurt.

Marshall told police that he was driving the coach at about no more than six miles an hour; but that the trolley was speeding along at as much as 12 miles per hour.  “The motorman, as I see it, must have willfully disobeyed orders,” he said.

Mrs. Wood had been at the top of the coach, directly behind Marshall.  As she was thrown to the ground, she briefly caught hold of a railing, which helped to break her fall.  Nevertheless, she struck the wheel and her face hit the ground first. 

The groom suffered worse injuries.  The New York Times said “Witherton was pushed along roughly by the fender, being mashed all the time against the cobblestones.  At last he was thrown off the track unconscious.”

In the meantime the female passengers of the trolley car “became frightened and many of the women screamed.”  The havoc was increased by the terrified horses which threatened to bolt away.  Police controlled the frightened animals and the injured were removed to the hospital.

Marshall decided not to press charges against the motorman.  He took the coach back to the stables, then took Mrs. Witherton to the hospital to see her husband.  “Mr. Marshall gave orders that the groom should be taken to his home, at 280 West End Avenue,” said the newspaper.

The Marshalls were summering at Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts in 1905 when the mansion was burglarized.  The New York Times ran a headline on September 2, 1905 “Thief in Old Grant House.”

The mansions of New York were fertile ground for burglars in the summer.  Many were totally closed and those that we not had only one or two servants as caretakers.  Twenty-seven year old Emil Edwards was a struggling sculptor and, armed with a glass cutter, candle and revolver, he headed for 280 West End Avenue on the night of September 1.

Entering through a third story window, he helped himself to a gold bracelet, two gold chains and two gold fobs, three pairs of opera glasses, a gold-and-silver vase, and other expensive items.  He almost got away with his hefty haul.

As he sneaked out of the house, he saw Policeman Leehane standing at the corner of West End Avenue and 73rd Street.  He ducked into the mansion’s sidewalk moat. A man approached the officer saying “Did you hear something drop?”

“Yes, it sounded like a bolt,” replied the officer.

He investigated and, looking down over the five foot wall, saw Edwards crouching in the shadows.  He ordered the burglar to “come out of there” and received the response “Guess I might as well; you’ve got the drop on me.”

At the 63rd Street Station House, Edwards admitted his guilt, saying “I was down and out; I’ve been hungry for three days.”

By April 29, 1909 when Marshall sold the mansion, Charles Schwab had stolen the limelight from Ulysses S. Grant.  In reporting the sale the New-York Tribune’s headline read “Deal Near C. M. Schwab’s Home” and noted that the $100,000 property “faces the home of Charles M. Schwab.” 

Marshall had sold the house to Samuel T. Shaw, the proprietor of the Grand Union Hotel.  He was nationally-noted for his art collecting and the walls of the Grand Union were hung with American art.  Among the artists he patronized were William M. Chase, Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson, Charles W. Eaton and Emil Carlsen.  By World War I it would reportedly be the largest collection of American art in the nation.

Shaw’s deep involvement in the art world was reflected in his memberships in the Society of American Artsts, the National Academy of Design, the National Art and the Salmagundi Clubs.  A year after moving into the 73rd Street house, Shaw purchased another mansion at No. 41 West 74th Street.  This would become the clubhouse of the Fakirs’ Club which he founded.  “The object of the club, which has been in existence for two years, is to encourage the embryo artist after he leaves school and before he enters the commercial world,” said the New-York Tribune on December 23, 1910, the day after the clubhouse’s house-warming.

While Shaw collected art and ran his hotel, his wife, the former Joan Baird, entertained in the house.  Receptions and afternoon teas were regularly reported in society pages until 1914 when Joan unexpectedly died.

Two years later, on October 4, 1916, The New York Times wrote “The many friends of Samuel T. Shaw, the patron of art and former hotel proprietor…will be interested to learn that he is to remarry.”  Now retired, he had proposed to the Italian-born widow Madame Amalia Dalumi Luzzatto.

“It will mark the culmination of a romance which began when Mr. Shaw took up the study of foreign languages, not so very long ago, principally of Italian.  Mme. Luzzatto, who gives private instruction in that language, was his teacher.”

As automobiles replaced horses on the streets of New York, the under-regulated and under-trained motorists caused havoc on the crowded streets.  On August 18, 1919 alone police reported that no fewer than 50 pedestrians had been struck and one killed by automobiles.  Among the injured was 25-year old Frank Festero, one of the Shaw’s household staff, who was “run down at Broadway and Seventy-second Street,” according to The Times.

In May 1920 Amalia Shaw embarked on a project to redecorate the Victorian interiors.  She commissioned architect Fred R. Hirsh to renovate the mansion.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on May 29 that the alterations would include “remove staircases, stairs, partitions, new cellar, stairs, addition, entrance hall, coal room, servants’ room, toilet rooms, reinforce ceiling.”  The ambitious project was estimated to cost the Shaws $20,000—about a quarter of a million dollars today.

The Grand Union Hotel had been closed in 1914 and in 1926 the American Art Galleries auctioned off the bulk of Samuel T. Shaw’s collection.  Some of the best examples of American art in the country, however, remained on the walls of No. 280 West End Avenue.

When Amalia Dalumi Shaw died in the house on April 1, 1940, Palmina Sestero and Amalia Sestero were living here as well.  The two women received generous bequeaths, leading to the assumption that they were relatives.  The Sesteros were still sharing the house in 1944 when The Times reported that “Mr. and Mrs. A. Ernest Sestero announce the engagement of their daughter Amalla Faustina to Allan John Melvin.”

Early in 1945 Samuel Shaw became ill.  On February 10 the 84-year old art collector died in the house on West 73rd Street.  The estate soon sold the mansion to Henry Goelet, who quickly resold it on January 6, 1946.  It was sold again in October to the 280 West End Avenue Corporation.  That sale brought the mansion's long life as a private home to an end.

Within the year it had been converted to two spacious apartments per floor.  While most mid-century conversions were unsympathetic to the interiors, this was not brutal.  Much of the architectural detailing was preserved.

Leaded and stained glass, Corinthian pilasters and an Italian Renaissance fountain survive --
The exterior of the mansion remains remarkably intact.  The light moat where a burglar once tried to hide from a policeman has been filled in and its five-foot wall lost; and other expected changes like replacement windows have been made.  Yet the Shaw mansion is a vivid reminder of a time when the imposing homes of wealthy New Yorkers lined the avenues of the Upper West Side.

non-credited photographs by the author


  1. I've always like this house, and I never noticed till now that the front facade is completely symmetrical.

  2. Hey, thanks for the great article. I live in the building and most of the interior detail is still in place. One key correction. The house is the residence of President Grant's widow, Julia, and his second son Ulysses jr. They move in after the death of president Grant and leave when Ulysses jr. Is posted to Vienna as ambassador. It is likely that Mark Twain visited as he worked with Julia on a never published biography.

    1. That's an interesting anecdote. I am having problems finding documentation for Julia Dent Grant's living at this address. Can you help?

  3. Ulysses S Grant died in 1885. This seems to support that it was Julia Dent Grant who lived here, if the development dates you cite are correct.