|photograph by the author|
By 1855 what had been Manhattan’s most exclusive residential areas—St. John’s Park and the Bond Street section—were being abandoned for new upscale neighborhoods. Wealthy residents erected fine mansions around Washington Square, lower Fifth Avenue and Murray Hill. Upscale businesses followed the migration.
One of these was Madame Bergier’s Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies. The daughters of the city’s social aristocracy were instructed in private schools. Successful entry into society would require a command of French, knowledge of music and literature; and, equally important, a thorough education in deportment, etiquette, and poise. The schools were run in a domestic rather than school-house setting. The women who ran them—most often martinets with no patience for giggling and nonsense—frequently purchased or leased large mansions for the purpose.
Madame Bergier’s was located at No. 300 Second Avenue in 1855. But following the close of that year’s term she moved to No. 132 Madison Avenue—one block east of Fifth Avenue and near the lavish Madison Avenue mansions of millionaires with names like Phelps, Dodge, and Havemeyer.
The impressive Italianate style mansion featured elliptical arched openings and wide stone stoop. A rusticated brownstone English basement provided a base for the brick-faced residence. It was the type of home over which Madame Bergier’s young pupils would one day hold sway.
Classes opened on Monday May 5, 1856. Young ladies were not expected to be inconvenienced, and the school owned its own coach for their transportation. “A stage is attached to the institution for pupils at a distance,” mentioned an advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on May 3.
The girls enrolled here could receive instruction in French, English and Spanish. Madame Bergier realized that parents would be wary and on September 16, 1857 let prospective clients know “Madame Bergier will be at home to receive Parents and Guardians who may wish to confer with her, on and after Aug. 20.”
Young women who had already been introduced to society were also welcome here for a sort of brush-up. For $15 per quarter there was a “French Class for grown-up Young Ladies” that met from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. That fee would translate to a rather reasonable $450 today.
By the time the first shots were fired in the Civil War, Madame Bergier’s Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies was gone. The large mansion seems to have been operated as a high-class boarding house in August 1863 when resident R. S. Walter was drafted into the Union Army.
Residents moving into No. 132 may have paid more than those in average boarding houses; but an advertisement in 1888 reflects the luxurious accommodations they received. “Suite of apartments, with excellent table, in a handsomely furnished house.”
Among these was Cuban-born Aurelio Arango who lived here with his wife and son by 1892. The New York Times said he was “well known in business circles, particularly by those engaged in Cuban and Spanish-American enterprises.” When the Edison Spanish Colonial Light Company was organized around 1887, Arango was appointed Treasurer and general manager.
On the morning of December 22 he “left his home at the usual hour and apparently in his usual good health, and rode down town on the elevated railroad en route to the office of the company in the Edison Building, 44 Broad Street,” reported The Times the following day. As the train reached the station at Rector and Church Streets, Arango was suddenly taken ill and lost consciousness.
The 60-year old Navarro would never return to No. 132 Madison Avenue. “He was carried into the waiting room at the station, an ambulance was summoned, and the suffering man was taken to the Chambers Street Hospital,” said the newspaper. “He died soon after reaching there.”
Also living in the house at the time were Dr. Gideon E. Moore and his wife, Marie, and James T. Kilbreth. Kilbreth was well-known in New York as a judge in the Court of Special Sessions who had “introduced immediate and radical reforms” upon his appointment. He retired from the court in January 1893.
In July that year, Marie L. Moore endured insufferable public humiliation. The doctor’s wife, described by The New York Times as “a woman of medium height and slender build,” left No. 132 Madison Avenue on Tuesday, July 18, 1893. It was her first time out of the house following an illness of nine weeks that had kept her in bed. Along with Marie came her little 21-ounce Dandy Dinmont terrier.
Before the day was out, both Mrs. Moore and the dog would be in trouble.
Having finished her errands, Marie Moore boarded the Madison Avenue street car. When the conductor, John Hodgkins, noticed the pet, things quickly got out of control.
“I was bringing home this tiny dog in my pompadour bag,” Marie later recounted. “It was concealed until the conductor came to get my fare. Then it pushed its nose out and the conductor saw it. ‘Get off this car,’ he said in a gruff, brutal way. ‘You and your dog get out of here.’
“I remonstrated with him, and being excited, I declined to go. He had no more right to interfere with the dog in the bag than he had to open my purse and see what was in it, and I told him so.”
According to Mrs. Moore, Hodgkins he “savagely” grabbed her dress and began to drag her to the door. She said passengers protested, but he ignored them. Once he had her off the streetcar, Hodgkins turned her over to a nearby policeman.
“This man was even worse than the conductor,” exclaimed Moore. “He seized my arm and dragged me a black and a half. I was crying and almost hysterical.”
According to her version of the story, when she asked the policeman to allow her to get a cab, he responded “No, you can’t have a cab; you’re no better than anybody else, you and your dog. You’ve got to walk, so none of your nonsense.” Her melodramatic rendition continued. “My right arm is black and blue and terribly sore, and my body is racked with pain from the terrible ill-treatment he gave me. I fell to the ground, and still the policeman refused to let me get a cab, and grabbing me around the waist hurried me along.”
The conductor and the police officer had a different version of things. “Conductor Hodgkins says that Mrs. Moore struck him on the head with an umbrella and used violent language when he ordered her to leave his car Tuesday afternoon,” reported The Times. The policeman told the judge that he witnessed the assault and that Moore called the conductor “a brute and used violent language.”
The judge was no less harsh on Marie Moore. When she complained that she had been roughly-handled, the judge responded “You didn’t expect to be handled with gloves, did you, you and your dog? You had no right to carry a dog in a street car.”
She was scheduled to appear in the Yorkville Police Court on charges of disorderly conduct on July 19, 1893; but was too shaken to show up. A reporter from The New York Times went to the Madison Avenue house and “found her in great pain, and distress of mind bordering on hysteria.”
Marie L. Moore pleaded “I want to see if there is any justice in this city to protect a poor, weak woman from the savagery of such men as these.”
Ten days later Judge James T. Kilbreth was reportedly greatly surprised when President Grover Cleveland appointed him Collector of the Port of New York. The appointment was not well received by Kilbreth’s former Tammany adversaries.
“Some of the politicians were not too well pleased,” noted The Times, “but they all admitted the excellence of the appointment, and none of them questioned Mr. Kilbreth’s ability to administer the important office.”
Kilberth and his wife endured some public humiliation of their own in August 1894 when the Collector’s 18-year old niece, Caroline McLean, arrived in the city from Cincinnati. The Evening World reported that “the young woman is stopping in this city at the home of her uncle, Collector Kilbreth.”
There would be little reason for newspapers to be interested in a niece visiting her uncle normally; but Caroline McLean had announced to the world that she intended to be an actress. The Evening World said she was “beautiful and the possessor of a rare and highly trained voice. It is added that she became fascinated with the stage and had secured the promise of an engagement with Seabrooke’s company.”
James Kilbreth had no intention of being associated with an actress.
“Mr. Kilbreth lives at 132 Madison avenue, and the French servant who answered the door at ‘The Evening World reporter’s call this morning had evidently been instructed to know nothing.”
The dogged reporter tracked Kilbreth down at his office. The exasperated Collector made his thoughts perfectly clear. “I know little about this girl and care nothing about her venture. She may go on the stage if she wants to for all I care. I did not meet her at the train; she is not at my house, and I do not know where she is.”
While well-to-do residents like the Moores and Kilbreths remained for years, vacancies prompted advertisements for the “handsomely furnished” rooms (with or without board) in the “splendid location.”
As they did every year, in 1897 James Kilbreth and his wife left Madison Avenue to summer at their country home in Southampton, Long Island. Around the middle of June Kilbreth contracted pneumonia. “To this was added stomach and liver trouble,” said The New York Times.
On June 22 he “passed a poor night,” but seemed to rally in the morning. The Times reported “He then began to sink again, and at 6 o’clock hope was abandoned.” James T. Gilbreth, called “one of the ablest judges on the bench,” died thirty minutes later.
Although at the turn of the century the grand old mansion was still being operated as an upscale boarding house (a 1901 advertisement offered “handsomely furnished, sunny front and hall rooms, every convenience, superior table); that would all come to an end very soon.
Mrs. Russell Sage, the wife of millionaire financier and railroad tycoon, was frustrated with “the servant girl question.” The problem of finding good domestic help in the first years of the 20th century was coupled with the rising cost of staff. “The wages of servants are steadily rising, while the efficiency of service, if not actually declining on the whole, is at least not advancing at the same rate with the pay,” noted The Times on October 11, 1903. The newspaper felt that a novice chamber or kitchen maid could make a comfortable living.
A “’greenhorn,’ at the prevailing rate of wages, should find no difficulty in dressing herself even handsomely and yet putting by at the rate of $100 a year.” The annual salary which the newspaper found so generous would amount to about $2,730 today.
So in 1903 Mrs. Sage helped found the Women’s Domestic Guild. The organization, which was part employment agency and part occupational training center, moved into rented space at No. 27 East 21st Street. The Guild provided staff to households, while instructing potential hires in the “raw material” of general housekeeping. A clever method of helping assure clients that the servants would stay on was the Guild’s offering them a $1 reward each year they remained in a position.
The Guild provided meeting places for servants on their nights off. “No provision is now made for such a meeting place,” said The Times, “and to friendless girls the evening off must be a period of acute boredom.” The newspaper felt that “The aims of the institution it will be seen, are entirely laudable” and “Its manager will have the sympathy of all housekeepers in their endeavors.”
By May 1904 the Guild had secured positions for over 5,000 servants and severely outgrown its space. It announced that “The crowded condition of the Guild Rooms…has interfered with the comfort of patrons and at times made their transaction of business difficult and unsatisfactory. Now there will be ample space for all who wish to secure employment and for those who require help.”
The special improvements were due to the Guild’s move to 22 rooms in No. 132 Madison Avenue. Here “cooks, waitresses, chambermaids, laundresses, parlor maids, and kitchen maids” were interviewed and trained. Later that year, in September, the Women’s Domestic Guild found itself sorely short of a particular kind of help. An advertisement in The Sun on September 11, 1904 read “Fifty French Servants wanted at once in the Department of French Service.”
Within only a few years the former mansion became a hub of firms involved in the architectural business. Architect Aymar Embury moved into the building in March 1912 and would stay for years. He would be joined by architects Oscar C. Hering and Douglass Fitch, and Alfred Busselle. Related companies like general contractors J. H. L’Hommedieu’s Sons Co. and the Lighting Studios Co. also took space in the pre-World War I years.
By the 1920s the millinery and garment districts had moved northward, engulfing the area. On March 26, 1921 The New York Times announced that J. W. Bell, the building’s owner, had commissioned architect A. A. Hopkins to convert No. 132 Madison Avenue into “four-story offices.” The $5,000 renovation corresponded with the city’s widening of Madison Avenue that same year. The result was the removal of the grand stoop (the arched entranceway was converted to a window), and the lowering of the doorway to ground level. A vast show window was installed on the former parlor floor. On the 31st Street elevation, shallow Corinthian pilasters that once most likely supported a long cast iron balcony were allowed to remain.
For over a decade, before the garment district moved north of 34th Street, No. 132 Madison Avenue was home to children’s wear, lingerie companies, and manufacturers of dresses and women’s suits. Then, in 1959, the house where wealthy girls read French poetry and swept up the mahogany staircase in antebellum skirts, was converted to a restaurant. Department Buildings documents noted that the kitchen and one dining room were in the basement; the dining room, bar rooms, coat check room and office were on the first floor, and that all the upper floors were “to remain permanently vacant.”
Only three years later another conversation resulted in offices throughout. Today Madame Bergier’s Boarding and Day School retains its sober countenance despite its many uses and several alterations. Yet few passing can imagine the history of the venerable old mansion.