Henry Osborne Havemeyer was the eighth of nine children born to Frederick Christian Havemeyer Jr. and Sarah Louise Henderson Havemeyer. Feisty and strong-willed, his formal education came to an abrupt end at the age of 8 after he fought with the principal of Mr. Betts’ School in Stamford, Connecticut. Henry’s lack of classroom instruction would not interfere with his business success—nor would his fiery nature.
The Havemeyer family business had evolved from a sugar bakery to a sugar refinery. Henry’s brother, Theodore, partnered with his son-in-law, J. Lawrence Elder, in 1863 to form Havermeyers & Elder. Henry joined the firm at the age of 15. By 1876 Henry, known as H. O. Havemeyer, had become the principal in the mercantile side of the business.
In 1870 Henry married J. Lawrence Elder’s sister, Mary Louise (who went by her middle name). It was a short, unhappy union that ended in divorce in 1882. A year later he remarried--this time to his former wife’s niece, Louisine Waldron Elder, maintaining the family and business connection. Henry and Louisine would have three children, Adaline, Horace and Electra. In 1889, the year after Electra’s birth, the Havemeyers laid plans for a new home.
|Henry Osborne Havemeyer, The Successful American, 1899 (copyright expired)
H. O. Havemeyer purchased the property at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 66th Street where lavish mansions had already begun rising. Charles Coolidge Haight was commissioned to design the home which would be like none other on the avenue. Construction began in the spring of 1889 and on June 8 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide described Haight’s plans.
“It is to be three stories and attic in height and will have a frontage of 50.2 feet on the avenue and 115.2 on the street. The elevation, as seen in the office of the architect, Chas. C. Haight, shows that it will be a very handsome and stately piece of domestic architecture in the modern French style.”
Haight chose Jonesboro granite for the façade rather than the more expected brownstone or limestone. The structure was anchored by a massive corner turreted bay. At a time when Manhattan’s millionaires were erecting fluffy Beaux Arts concoctions dripping with ornamentation; the Havemeyer chateau would be formal and stately—bordering on austere.
The first floor contained seven rooms, one running into the next “and capable of being thrown open en suite for reception purposes,” noted the Guide. The foyer spanned a grand 26 by 30 feet, leading to the majestic staircase based on one in the Venetian Doge’s Palace. Upstairs, on the second floor, were eight rooms and two bathrooms, and on the third were the picture gallery and studio (as well as “a number of rooms”). Haight estimated the cost at $200,000—about $5.25 million today.
The picture gallery was not merely de rigueur in the design of 1890s mansions; it was a necessity for the Havemeyers. Louisine had studied in Paris and was a close friend of Mary Cassatt. Her taste in art matched her husband’s and they collected not only Old Masters, but modern paintings like those of Claude Monet. Together they would assemble what some considered to be the finest private art collection in the United States—rivaling if not exceeding those of Henry Clay Frick and Isabella Stewart Gardner. The library, for instance, became known as the Rembrandt Room in reference to its display of Old Masters.
If Haight’s exterior was meant to impress, the interiors were meant to astound. Louis Comfort Tiffany partnered with Samuel Colman to decorate the rooms. More than a century later the brochure “Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Metropolitan Museum” would say the pair was “given almost free reign and a seemingly unlimited budget.” While Astors, Belmonts and Kahns were importing paneling, floors and ceilings from European palaces, the Havemeyers preferred to set Tiffany’s modern creativity loose. According to the brochure, “Tiffany, drawing on his experience with church interiors, adapted mosaics to a domestic setting in [the] extraordinary commission.”
|Tiffany designed electric chandeliers for the Music Room meant to mimick Queen Anne's Lace. Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Metropolitan Museum brochure, 1998
Included in Tiffany’s and Colman’s interiors were iridescent glass-mosaic walls, Eastern-inspired lighting fixtures, and intricate filigree woodwork and balustrades. Published for a Tiffany exhibition, the museum’s brochure said “The entrance-hall walls were completely sheathed in Tiffany’s glass mosaic in soft tones of gold, white, and pale green; the frieze of golden and iridescent blue scrolls was of Islamic derivation. A pair of facing peacocks of shimmering mosaic surmounted the fireplace, and a metal filigree fire screen, encrusted with glass jewels, masked the opening.”
|The Library, called the Rembrandt Room, had a silk-covered ceiling. Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Metropolitan Museum brochure, 1998
The Music Room was decorated in Oriental style, with the walls covered in Japanese silks. Here the Havemeyers’ collection of Asian art was displayed. While the Library was decidedly masculine with Viking-like furnishings; the ceiling was covered in imported silk—a stark departure from the ornately carved or frescoed ceilings of neighboring mansions.
To the north of No. 1 East 66th Street, Haight designed a 25-foot wide mansion “similar in every respect to the corner house from an architectural standpoint,” as described by The New York Times. This house, No. 852 Fifth Avenue, was designed to appear as one more massive turret. It became home to Oliver Payne.
As the neighborhood developed, millionaires were acutely sensitive about preserving its high-end residential nature. They had witnessed the relentless northern invasion of commerce into the mansion district of Fifth Avenue below 59th Street and were resolute to prevent it here. In February 1893 Havemeyer purchased the adjoining house on 66th Street, owned by Mrs. U. S. Grant. “It is understood that Mr. Havemeyer made the purchase in order to protect his own property from undesirable neighbors,” remarked The New York Times on February 25. “He will let the Grant House, but the tenant will be some one of whom he thoroughly approves, and it will not be possible for anyone else to occupy the house.”
Although Henry O. Havemeyer had a gruff reputation (the New-York Tribune would describe him as “a rotund, explosive man, whose big fists were fond of banging the table at board meetings and who never tired of relating his grievances against the government”); friends and even newspaper reporters knew that beneath the bluster was a sensitive, family-loving man with a superb sense of humor.
He was fond of telling the story of the day he and a colleague ate at an exclusive lunch club. When he received poor service from a new waiter, Havemeyer said “If that’s your regular manner of serving, I don’t want you to wait on me. Send another waiter.”
The waiter apologized and promised to improve. Two courses later the Sugar King was less than impressed. Soup had been slopped over the edge of the plate and the entre was “served in a jumble.”
The luncheon club prohibited tipping its staff; however Havemeyer withdrew a dollar bill, folded it, and placed it under his water glass where the waiter could not help seeing it. Immediately the waiter’s attention to detail improved and his service was faultless. After coffee was served Havemeyer said to the waiter, “You didn’t size me up for a tip, did you?”
“Expecting a tip, you are a better waiter,” continued Havemeyer. “It is not so?”
“I would probably have been more careful, sir. I’ll see that you’re treated right the next time.”
The millionaire replied, “I hope you will, because if you don’t I’ll have you discharged at once.” And then he pulled the dollar bill from under the glass and put it in his pocket.
Another story H. O. Havemeyer repeated reflected both his sense of humor and his thoughts about ingenuous religious practices. The New-York Tribune wrote “He told of a young girl who a week or so after Christmas complained bitterly to her mother:
‘Mamma, I doubt if I shall be happy with George. I fear he is of a deceptive nature.’
’Why, darling, what do you mean?’ the mother asked.
‘Well, mamma,’ said the young girl earnestly, ‘ you know that collar pin he gave me for Christmas? He swore to me that he paid $25 for it, but to-day I saw its exact counterpart priced at $5 at a jeweller’s.’
‘Ah, but, my child,’ said the mother, ‘you must remember how very religious George is. Undoubtedly he bought the pin at a church fair.’”
The Havemeyer mansion’s location directly across from Central Park made for convenient walks or rides in the summer, and sleighing in the winter. One excursion that Henry and Louisine took in 1894 nearly ended in tragedy.
Around 4 p.m. on February 17, 1894, according to The New York Times, “Mr. Havemeyer had his handsome cutter brought to his door at 1 East Sixty-sixth Street, and ten minutes later he and Mrs. Havemeyer were scudding up through Central Park.”
The horse-drawn sleigh left Central Park at 110th Street and continued northward. Just before they reached 128th Street and Lenox Avenue, a group of boys engaged in a snowball fight spooked the horse tethered to Frank Powers’s empty sleigh. The panicked horse bolted west, pulling the sleigh on a collision course with the Havemeyer cutter.
“The runaway was tearing across town at a terrific rate, and when the collision came buffalo robes, cushions, and splinters of wood flew in all directions. Mrs. Havemeyer was thrown heavily to the frozen ground, and sustained an ugly scalp wound, as well as some bruises about the body.”
Henry was also thrown from the vehicle; but he escaped unharmed. The newspaper said “He retained a firm hold on the reins of his horse, and stopped him after being dragged along the street for half a block.”
Frank Powers had been on his way down the steps of his house when his horse bolted. He arrived at the scene of the collision and called a cab to take the Havemeyers home. Once there Louisine improved; but news of the accident spread quickly among society and the press alike.
“Mrs. Havemeyer had suffered a nervous shock, but had entirely recovered when a reporter for The New-York Times called at the house yesterday afternoon. Many friends of the family called yesterday to inquire after Mrs. Havemeyer.”
|photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYWOGF7R6&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894
Neither Henry nor Louisine was especially active in society; preferring to live more quietly at home. But two growing daughters demanded proper entertainments. On New Year’s Day 1900 they hosted a dinner and theater party for teen-aged Adaline and her young friends. Following dinner at the mansion, the group went to the Knickerbocker Theatre to see “The Cowboy and the Lady.” Five years later Adaline turned 21 years old and her debut prompted the expected entertainments. On Christmas Eve that year Louisine gave a large dance in the house.
One can only imagine the reception Adaline received from her father five months later after her arrest for speeding. On May 7, 1906 she and a friend were in an automobile driven by chauffeur Achille Jaciard in Harrison, New York. Policeman Campion timed the machine traveling at “the rate of sixteen miles per hour.”
It was often the owner of the car, and not the driver, who was held responsible for a speeding automobile and Adaline was brought before Justice Branegan. The New York Times reported that the judge said “that because of the many machines tearing through the streets at dangerous speed he would impose a fine of $20.” The hefty penalty would be in the neighborhood of $535 today.
“Oh, what shall I do?” exclaimed the recent debutante. “I have not $20 with me.” The Times reported that as she began to remove a ring from her finger for security, a man standing near paid the $20. “The young woman thanked him and promised to repay the amount as soon as she reached home.”
The following year was Electra’s turn to be introduced to society and on January 18, 1907 Louisine gave a coming-out ball. The Sun made a passing comment about the tardiness of the event. “Miss Havemeyer is one of the few debutantes who has as yet only had a coming out tea.”
With Electra’s debut, the year started out with joyous entertaining. The Times called the ball “one of the largest fashionable functions of the season. Two hundred guests arrived for dinner and another 100 came later for the cotillion.
Directly below The New York Times recap of the ball was an article concerning Louisine’s series of Sunday afternoon musicales (from 75 to 100 invitations would be going out for each one), and below that was an article on Adaline’s upcoming wedding set for February 7 in St. Thomas Church. The year 1907, however, would end not in joy but in grief.
The Havemeyers maintained a residence in Connecticut and a 300-acre country estate on Long Island. On Wednesday November 27 they traveled to Merrivale Stock Farm, at Northport, Long Island for Thanksgiving . The New-York Tribune said it “was a favorite retreat of his when in need of rest and seclusion…The house on the place is a small stone lodge, unpretentious on the outside, but handsomely furnished. It was always kept ready for his visits.”
After dinner that night Henry and his son, Horace, went for a walk. Henry complained of not feeling will and later Dr. William H. Ross of Brentwood, Long Island was called in for what was believed to be acute indigestion. When his condition worsened. Three doctors from Manhattan rushed to his bedside.
On December 3 the New-York Tribune reported that “Henry O. Havemeyer is in critical condition at his country home…suffering from acute indigestion. At his house late last night it was said that he was very ill. Members of the family, who have been summoned, reached Northport early last evening.” One of the doctors told a reporter that, because of the millionaire’s age, “he feared he would not recover.”
Indeed, two days later the newspaper announced “Death came to Henry O. Havemeyer this afternoon at Merrivale Stock Farm, his country home.”
On Saturday morning, December 7, 1907 funeral services for Havemeyer were held in the 66th Street mansion. The Sugar King’s estate was estimated, according to the Inter Ocean of Chicago “at from $15,000,000 to $25,000,000.” Despite his generous donations throughout his lifetime, there were no bequests to any institutions or charities; the estate was divided among the family.
Louisine received the Long Island home, the 66th Street mansion “with the notable art collection it contains,” and an annuity of $50,000. The house (deemed by The New York Times to be “a small art museum”) was valued upon settlement of the estate at $937,500.
Louisine, Electra and Horace continued to live at No. 1 66th Street. Then, on December 12, 1909 Louisine announced Electra’s engagement to James Watson Webb. It was, socially, a particularly notable match. Web’s sterling lineage was laid out by The New York Times in the announcement:
“Mr. Webb’s mother was Miss Lila Osgood Vanderbilt, a daughter of the late William H. Vanderbilt. He is a nephew of Mrs. H. McK. Twombly and Mrs. William Douglas Sloane, and a cousin of W. K. Vanderbilt, Jr., and of Alfred, Cornelius, and Reginald Vanderbilt; also of Mrs. James Henry Hammond, Mrs. James A. Burden, and Mrs. W. B. Osgood Field, and of Mrs. Williams A. Burden and Miss Twombly. Mrs. Ralph Pulitzer is his sister and W. S. Webb, Jr., and Vanderbilt Webb are his brothers.”
At the time of the Fifth Avenue wedding New York was plagued with social unrest by Socialists, and anarchist groups like The Black Hand terrorized wealthy citizens and businesses with assassinations and bombings—real or threatened. Two months after Electra's engagement, the terror would visit Louisine Havemeyer.
During the second week of February 1910 a letter was dropped off at the mansion, addressed to Mrs. Havemeyer. The letter read in part:
During the second week of February 1910 a letter was dropped off at the mansion, addressed to Mrs. Havemeyer. The letter read in part:
“We demand $2,500 as a Black Hand organization. If not paid will blow up your house and all your family. We have 488 members scattered all over the world. You cannot escape us. Don’t let the police know of this, or any one else, for we will not let up on you if you offer us $100,000. Rich people pay our demands, and they have no more bother, and we protect them. Do as we ask or we will blow up your house and destroy every one in it with revolver or dagger, or send them poisoned food.”
The letter instructed Louisine to deposit 25 $100 bills in a tin box and place it behind the stone wall of Central Park, directly across from the Havemeyer house. Despite the warnings, she immediately called Police Headquarters and read the letter over the telephone.
Detectives instructed Louisine to place a single dollar bill in a tin box and place it under dry leaves, as the letter instructed. “There will be several detectives watching you at all times, and not from the instant you leave your house till you return to it will you be in danger,” she was assured by Detective Boyle.
Just before 9:00 on the night of February 24, 1910 the plucky socialite stepped from her granite mansion, crossed Fifth Avenue, and entered the Park. Three plain clothed detectives watched as she covered the box with leaves, then returned to her home. “It was some minutes after 9 o’clock before they were rewarded by seeing two boys walk down Fifth Avenue and poke beneath the leaves,” reported The New York Times the following day. “Finally the larger boy came upon the box and together the youngsters started off up Fifth Avenue.”
George Stahl, 13 years old, and Samuel Williams, only 9, had tried to pull a scam on one of Manhattan’s wealthiest women. Despite their youth, the boys were arrested and spent the night in the Children’s Society. “To-day Mrs. Havemeyer herself will appear against them in the Children’s Court, for although the affair proved to have been the mischievous work of youngsters, the receipt of the letter gave Mrs. Havemeyer many uneasy moments.”
The following year Horace married Doris A. Dick, leaving Louisine alone in the cavernous stone mansion. She soon turned her attention to women’s social issues; becoming one of America’s staunchest feminist activists. In 1913 she founded the National Woman’s Party and the mansion became the regular venue for its meetings. When the “Blanket Bill of Rights” failed to pass the Legislature in 1922, Louisine Havemeyer called another meeting.
“The New York City branch of the National Woman’s Party…met yesterday afternoon at the home of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1 East Sixty-Sixth Street, to plan the new campaign. The women will devote the summer and fall to campaigning and will introduce their bill again in the next session of the Legislature,” reported the New-York Tribune on March 21. The newspaper added “In accordance with their demand for full equality of men and women, the Woman’s Party members took exception to the alleged inequality of treatment accorded employees of many Federal departments.”
Reportedly, Louisine’s three children were somewhat appalled at their mother’s public activism. She marched on Fifth Avenue, addressed an audience at Carnegie Hall, picketed the White House and was present at the National Suffrage Parade which erupted into a riot on the night before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Jailed for obstructing traffic, she went on a hunger strike. The high visibility of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer’s name linked with such ardent protests was highly responsible for the pressure felt by the Congress and Wilson’s administration. Following her release from prison she and 25 other suffragists who had also been arrested toured the country on a train called “The Prison Special.”
|The Suffragist published the above photograph on March 22, 1919. Its caption read "Policeman in Syracuse welcoming Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer and Miss Vida Milholland on arrival of Prison Special" (copyright expired)
In a situation eerily similar to Henry O. Havemeyer’s demise, Louisine began feeling ill on Thanksgiving Day 1928. The condition of the 66-year old failed steadily until her death of heart disease on January 6, 1929.
In reporting on her death, The New York Times mentioned just a few of the artworks that hung within the mansion. “Mrs. Havemeyer’s collection of paintings includes eight Rembrandts, three of them magnificent examples, the famous portrait of Herman Doormer, known as ‘The Gilder,’ and two portraits, a man and a woman, known together as ‘The Berestyn Family.’ Also in the Havemeyer gallery are about a dozen Manets, including ‘The Young Man as a Torero,’ ‘The Matador,’ and ‘The Spanish Woman,’ and works of the Impressionist school and of Italian masters.”
Within the year The New York Times ran an article that spoke of the loss of so many of Fifth Avenue’s grand palaces. But the article, entitled “Fifth Avenue’s Private Home Row Giving Way to More Apartments,” was not lamenting; it praised the development of high-class apartment buildings at the cost of old-fashioned mansions. “The high character of the improvements completed and projected on Fifth Avenue assures its continuance as the finest residential street in the world.”
Seven months later, on July 30, 1930, the newspaper announced that the Havemeyer mansion, “where the famous Havemeyer art collection was housed before it was presented by the family to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has been leased, it was learned yesterday, and the residence will soon be torn down.”
Along with No. 1 East 66th Street the deal included the matching mansion, No. 852 Fifth Avenue, where Electra and her family now lived; and No. 853 Fifth Avenue next door, the home of Horace’s family.
The massive apartment building that replaced the houses forewent the tantalizing Fifth Avenue address; preferring to use No. 1 East 66th Street; long synonymous with art, culture, wealth and position.