Monday, December 15, 2014

The Lost Teixeira Mansion -- No. 918 West End Avenue

Although the entrance was centered on the 105th Street side, the mansion took the more impressive West End Avenue address.  Palatial Homes in the City of New York and The Dwellers Therein, 1910 (copyright expired)

In 1896 Dom Eugenie Faria Ganzales de Teixeira, Marquis of Aguila Branca arrived in New York City with his children and mother.   Nothing made Manhattan society giddier than a foreign title and the colorful Brazilian would take the city by storm.

A year earlier builder-architects Horgan & Slattery had paid J. Hamilton Hunt about $80,000 for the property at the southeast corner of West End Avenue and 105th Street “for immediate improvement,” as reported by the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide on March 10.   Lavish mansions rivaling those on Fifth Avenue were inching up Riverside Drive, one block to the west, and the speculative developers intended to ride the coattails.

The Marquis had studied art and architecture in Brazil.  He moved into Horgan & Slattery’s unfinished mansion, announcing “that he would furnish the house at 918 West End Avenue just like his palace in Brazil, except for the atmosphere left by the personages of Dom Pedro’s other worthy descendants,” according to The New York Times a few years later.  “He painted his own frescoes, designed his own windows, and even made models of the great iron dragons that lent dignity to his front door.  He told of how his home would be the centre of Brazilian art and music and culture.”   The Marquis installed a chapel in an upper room.

A coat of arms hangs above the double entrance doors, guarded by stone lions.  Two dragons, copied from the Brazilian home of the Marquis, dangle lanterns from their beaks.  The stained glass windows are possibly part of the chapel.  American Architect, April 12, 1902 (copyright expired)

One visitor described: “The house, the interior of which the Marquis designed, is a unique example of the art of the different periods, alternately whimsical and fanciful.  No counterpart of it exists in New York.”  Some art and architecture critics would later agree that that was probably a good thing.

A contemporary account called the Marquis a “poet, linguist, artist, architect, and scientist, with whose breezy career New Yorkers are familiar.”  He worked on completing the house for months.  Newspapers gossiped about his fortune, estimating it at between $50 and $100 million.  What was certain was that he had spent $50,000 on the West End mansion before furnishing it – about $1.5 million today.

The Marquis added to the financial mystique through his boasts and self-applauding accounts of his lavish lifestyle in Brazil and of his being closely related to former Emperor Dom Pedro II.   But Teixeira soon discovered that publicly announcing vast wealth attracted problems. 

While work continued on the mansion, he met Carmen Domingo whom The Times called “a Spanish woman of beauty, who listened to his story of fabulous wealth, and told the story of her young life, in which she said that she was engaged to a Mexican she did not love, and prayed the handsome young Brazilian…to save her from unhappiness.”   The 33-year old Marquis did just that.  On January 14, 1897 the couple was married.  But before the year was up he recognized that it was not his poetry, scientific knowledge nor sparkling personality that had lured the senorita.  It was money.

In December 1897 a newspaper noted “There seems to be no doubt that he is an extremely rich man, and that he had trouble at home, apparently of a domestic character.”  Within a month, on January 4, 1898 and almost a year to the day after the marriage, it was over.  The New York Times reported “a North Dakota court, after Teixeira had complained of a conspiracy to get his wealth, divorced him from the beautiful Carmen, who in the meanwhile had gone back to her native Barcelona.”  Along with his wife, jewels and money disappeared from the West End Avenue mansion.  It prompted The Times to somewhat flippantly remark later “a man stole his wife and $70,000 of his money and got away with both.”

Meanwhile, the Marquis was dealing with other problems.  On December 5, 1897 two “respectable-looking, well-dressed men,” according to The Times, were arraigned on blackmail charges.  A month earlier Teixeira had received a letter which read in part “I have information which concerns you most vitally, and delay might make it too late to save you much annoyance and disgrace.”

After a series of letters and undercover interviews, the men were arrested.  But the undoing of the Marquis was underway.  He continued to recklessly spend as if his funds were unlimited.  Following the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, he announced he would erect a church to the memory of the lost sailors.  The Sacramento Daily Union announced his intentions on April 18, 1898, adding “He is a painter who has won distinction with his brush, an advocate of recognized ability, a writer on many subjects, a multi-millionaire, the possessor of one of the handsomest residences in the metropolis—which qualities and possessions serve to give him rank in many circles.”

Rumors of Teixeira’s wealth continued to grow.  The newspaper said “According to the reports of friends, the Marquis is the richest man in the world.  They say that he has $200,000,000 worth of personal property, besides undeveloped gold mines, which, according to the same authorities, are of exhaustless wealth, and boundless landed estates…His present residence is at 918 West End Avenue, but he is building another home of still greater magnificence on the same avenue.”

But while the gossip increased, the bankroll of the Marquis dwindled.  “The Marquis has been a mark for all kinds of people,” said The Times.  Real estate operators manipulated him into purchasing six large apartment buildings among other deals.  Because he did not speak English, he was easily duped.   In June 1899 the newspaper said “No farmer was ever led up against a bunko game to ‘produce’ more kindly or copiously than the Marquis.”

“All this time he believed he was making money fast, and he lived accordingly,” said the newspaper.  “He had bought the West End Avenue house for $50,000 and spent $40,000 fitting it up in Oriental style and as much more in alterations.  The coat-of-arms of his family is distributed all over it, and his servants were dressed in Eastern costumes to match the furniture.  He gave many brilliant entertainments, and at some of them appeared in robes like those worn by the Sultan of Turkey.  The real estate men with whom he was dealing were appropriately submissive and unobtrusive, but they continued to do business.”

Naïve in business matters, the tenants of Teixeira’s apartment buildings were thrilled when he failed to ask for rent.  Without that income, he was required to pay the interest and payments on the real estate from his pocket.   The Times headline summed it all up in four words.  “De Teixeira’s Money Gone.”

“The Marquis accepts the situation with stoicism befitting his costume as Sultan,” said the newspaper.  “He says he likes America and supposed all real estate operators to be honest.”

Teixeira and his children managed to stay on in the West End Avenue mansion until 1903.  Then, on March 11 “at 10:30 A. M. sharp,” the public auction began.   The New York Times was not especially impressed with the talents of the amateur architect and decorator, saying the house “bears on its four corners and in other places evidences of his fantastic tastes in the shape of hanging beacons with electric globes shining through colored glass…In the second floor and floors above the [Turkish and Music] rooms, while evidently rather garish in taste in their original decorations, are more like the abodes of civilization, except for amateurish carvings of coats of arms complicated with heraldic devices.”

After the mansion was stripped of its Chinese vases, European oil paintings and bronze and marble sculptures, the house itself was auctioned.  It was purchased by “Mr. Graham” for $67,500.   Within a short time he resold it to William C. Foster, who turned it over again in December 1904 to “a Mr. Cunningham.”  The Times reported that it “is said to have sold for about $60,000.”

Finally the house found a long-term owner.  By 1910 the family of William Bentley Quaintance called No. 918 West End Avenue home.   Quaintance was an importer of “madras and muslin piece goods and fancy nets” and spent a reported $20,000 on the interiors.    The family would remain in the mansion for years; yet by 1914 when William Quaintance bought his new Cadillac motorcar, things were changing on West End Avenue.    Grand mansions were giving way to upscale apartment houses.   The family would stay on at No. 918 throughout the World War I years; but the end of the road for the opulent house was on the horizon.

William’s sons entered the military.  In 1920 25-year old Charles Linsey Quaintance was a Second Lieutenant in the Aviation Section of the Signal Reserves Corps; and his younger brother, Richard Edgecombe Quaintance, was a First Lieutenant in the Field Artillery Section.  On November 27 that year the Record & Guide reported that their father had sold the West End Avenue house to Joseph S. Ward.

Once again the mansion saw a rapid-fire series of sales.  Within two months Ward sold it to Gustav Sandblom, who resold it a month later, in February 1921.  By July it had been divided into apartment suites; but its days were numbered.

By 1925 the quirky mansion with the colorful past had been razed and in its place stood a 15-floor apartment building designed by George Fred Pelham.  

1 comment:

  1. You learn something new everyday and today I learned about this opulent townhouse a complete surprise to me. Very interesting and what a great entrance that had to be once you walked past the front doors.