Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Benj. Guggenheim Mansion -- No. 15 East 72nd Street

As the end of the 19th century neared, the brownstone rowhouses on East 72nd Street off Fifth Avenue fell to be replaced by some of Manhattan’s most lavish mansions.   In 1894 Henry T. Sloane began construction of his magnificent limestone palace encompassing three building lots at Nos. 9 through 11; followed four years later by the flanking mansions of Oliver Gould Jennings at No. 7 and Benjamin Guggenheim at No. 15.

Guggenheim was one of eleven children born to Meyer and Barbara Guggenheim.  Meyer arrived in New York from Switzerland in 1847 and built an immense fortune in the mining business.   In 1885, when Benjamin was 20 years old, Meyer sent him to Colorado to take charge of mining operations there.  According to The Evening World later, “He quickly recognized the possibilities of the smelting business and induced the family to enter that line.”   By the turn of the century the Guggenheims controlled much of the American smelting and refining industry.

On October 24, 1894 the wealthy young man married Florette Seligman in Delmonico’s, deemed by The New York Times as “one of the handsomest weddings of the season.”  Florette was the youngest daughter of James Seligman, head of the banking firm J. & W. Seligman & Co.  The newspaper called her “a strikingly-handsome brunette” and added “The bridegroom is a Director in many prominent companies, and is known as the ‘Silver Prince,’ owing to his interest in several silver mines and silver smelting works.”

In reporting on the wedding and the dinner (at which 1,000 guests sat at “many small tables”), The Times remarked “The many gifts received by the bride included several checks, each representing a good-sized fortune.  Rarely have such handsome jewels, of all kinds, and in every conceivable setting, been received as gifts by one person.”

The brownstone house that Guggenheimer demolished four years later was 20-feet wide--the normal width of a Manhattan townhouse.  The architect of the new mansion would have quite the challenge in competing with the magnificent Sloane residence next door, three times the width. 
The Guggenheim house, to the right, did not attempt to compete with the lavish Jennings and Sloane mansions.

Architectural historians generally agree that it was most likely John H. Duncan who designed the Guggenheim house; although records have been lost.   Whoever it was, he opted not to compete with the Sloane mansion; but instead to set the Guggenheim house apart by its contrasting simplicity.  Dignified and elegant, it matched its neighbor in height; but relied almost solely on two floors of quiet rustication and a stone-balustraded second floor balcony for ornamentation.  While the Sloane mansion shouted display; the Guggenheim house murmured refinement.

When Benjamin and Florette moved in, their daughter Benita was three years old.  Peggy (later internationally renowned for her art collection) was born that same year; and in 1903 Barbara Hazel Guggenheim was born in the mansion.  With baby Barbara on the way, John Duncan was commissioned to construct a three-story addition to the rear of the house in 1902 at a cost of $2,000.

While most of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens escaped the summer heat in resorts like Newport, Bar Harbor and Tuxedo; its affluent Jewish population often gathered in New Jersey.  The Guggenheims spent their summers in Long Branch, along with other Guggenheims and families like the Rothschilds.

One would expect that the curb outside would have been routinely lined with the carriages of millionaires coming and going to glittering entertainments.  But things were more subdued.  Since 1901 the Sloane mansion had been occupied by bachelor banker James Stillman (the Sloanes had a messy divorce in 1899) and the Guggenheims preferred family affairs to grand social events.

Benjamin Guggenheim in a rare posed photograph -- photograph wikipedia.org

When Florette’s father turned 80 on April 14, 1904, however, the birthday celebration was a large affair.  Even this, however, was mostly a family event.  The New York Times said that “about 100 descendants, relatives, and friends of James Seligman” attended the celebration.   And after the toasts and speeches the family opted not to have the expected opera singers or dancers as a diversion.  “Mr. Seligman returned his thanks and an entertainment proceeded, in which his children and grandchildren took part,” reported The Times.

While Florette stayed home with the young girls, Benjamin routinely traveled to Europe investigating business opportunities.  On June 2, 1908 The Evening World reported that he had just returned on the Cunard liner Mauretania.  “There is much money now going begging which is awaiting a good chance for investment, and American securities are most apt to get it,” he told reporters.

The original opening at the second floor was decidedly more French than today.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/East-72nd-Street-next-to-5th-Avenue.-Jennings-and-Sloane-Residence.-2F3XC5QGAI.html

In the spring of 1912 Guggenheim had completed another business trip to Europe and on April 10 he boarded the luxury steamship RMS Titanic to come home to his wife and daughters.    Five days later word reached New York that the unsinkable liner was lost.   Panicked family members crowded the White Star offices at Bowling Green seeking news of passengers.

On April 16 the New-York Tribune reported “Early this morning Samuel and Robert Guggenheim, Lewis Rothschild and Benjamin Daniels appeared at the offices, asking for news from Benjamin Guggenheim.  In the party there were also three women, who declined to give their names.  They learned nothing beyond the information given all the others during the evening—that the Carpathia way on her way here, and that neither the Virginian nor the Parisian had been heard from.”

The following day a frantic Florette Guggenheim personally made her way downtown.  “Mrs. Benjamin Guggenheim was scarcely able to stand when she entered the White Star offices this morning supported by De Witt Seligman and a maid.  She was hysterical and incoherent and again burst out into an arraignment of the line for not providing sufficient lifeboats and not sending one of its fleet to the succor of the Titanic’s passengers.”

Florette was taken to the office of Vice-President Franklin of the International Mercantile Marine, who was unable to give her any information other than hope that Guggenheim was on the Carpathia.  The Evening World said “she was barely able to totter from the place on the arm of Mr. Seligman.”

At 9:25 p.m. on April 18 the Carpathia pulled into New York harbor.  Benjamin Guggenheim was not among the survivors who filed down its gangway.  The New-York Tribune reported “A steward of the Titanic, who steered one of the boats, told of seeing Mr. Guggenheim stepping into a boat with two other men at a moment when there were no women waiting to embark.  He had not seated himself when three women came up to the boat deck.  Mr. Guggenheim arose, touched the two men on the shoulder, and motioning toward the women, calmly stepped back to the deck.  The men followed him, the women took the places, and the mining magnate took up his position beside the rail without a word.”

Apparently the grief-stricken Florette Guggenheim could not imagine living on in the mansion her husband had built for her.  Within the month she had taken the girls to live in the St. Regis Hotel.  Benjamin’s sister, Cora, who had married Louis Frank Rothschild, moved into the East 72nd Street mansion.

Following her period of mourning, Florette turned to the social obligations of introducing 18-year old Benita to society.  On Christmas Eve 1913 she gave a debutante dance for her daughter at the St. Regis.

In the meantime, Cora Guggenheim Rothschild carried on the charitable work expected of wealthy women.  In January 1915 Andre Tridon of the French Red Cross addressed a group of socialites here regarding the organization’s war work.

Florette Guggenheim was still living at the St. Regis in August 1915 when word arrived at her attorney’s office, Seligman & Seligman.   From apparently nowhere appeared Amy Lurati of San Remo, Italy, who filed a claim against Benjamin Guggenheim’s estate for an annuity of $7,500—a substantial $180,000 a year today.

Madame Lurati, whose maiden name was the less impressive Amy Goldsmith, gave no basis for her claim other than “Mr. Guggenheim promised her the yearly allowance in a written agreement made on May 4, 1907,” reported the New-York Tribune on August 10.  Florette’s attorneys told the courts they “knew nothing about the woman in Italy or her claim.”  Among the bequeaths of more than $450,000 to charities and persons other than Florette and his daughters, Guggenheim’s will did not mention Lurati.

When the will was settled five months later, The New York Times noted “there is no mention in the report of Mme. Amy Lurati of San Remo, Italy.’

While her lawyers dealt with estate issues, Florette Guggenheim dealt with raising over privileged girls as a single mother.  In June 1915 she took them to the Gedney Farm Hotel in White Plains, New York.  Hazel was now 12 years old—the age when little girls sometimes start flexing their independence.

On the morning of June 23 Hazel had a disagreement with her mother.  “Very well,” she said, and strode out of the hotel.  Lunch time came and went and Hazel did not appear.  The New-York Tribune reported the following day “while Hazel, by her father’s will, enjoys so large an income she can say ‘very well’ to practically everybody, her mother knew she didn’t have enough with her to purchase luncheon.”

Wealthy 12-year old girls who stormed off in a huff alone were a concern for authorities.  The Sheriff was notified and a posse of 15 men began a search.  By 2:00 more than 100 persons were combing the area.

“About 5 o’clock Deputy Sheriff Moore was apprised by a chauffeur that he had seen a young girl in the woods.”  The lawman searched the area and found the headstrong Hazel.

“I don’t like it there and I just won’t go back,” she told the sheriff, stamping her foot on the ground.

Moore used “soothing phrases” for the next five minutes before finally convincing the “pouting little rich girl” to return.  It is doubtful that the New-York Tribune convinced many of its readers when it wrote “The reconciliation between Mrs. Guggenheim and Hazel was so effusive as almost to make worth while the girl’s display of willfulness.”

On June 7, 1919 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that Florette had sold No. 15 East 72st Street.  “The house was held at about $170,000,” it said.  The purchaser was Florette’s sister-in-law and current leaser, Cora Rothschild and her family.

The Rothschilds would stay on for years seeing their daughter Muriel married to William Donald Scott on July 28, 1928.  The couple’s only other child, Louis, had died in 1902 at the age of 2.  They would live in the mansion through the 1940s, but had moved to No. 680 Madison Avenue by the time of Cora’s death at the age of 83 on December 13, 1956.  She was the last of Meyer Guggenheimer’s children.

The 72nd Street house was now home to attorney and prosecutor John Thomas Cahill.  The son of an Irish immigrant New York City police office, Cahill rose to the position of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1939.  He sold the mansion in 1957 to Ruth Goodney.

Throughout the rest of the century the limestone mansion built by American’s tragic and heroic “Silver Prince” remained a single-family home.  Today it is owned by the Kingdom of Morraco and forms, with the Jennings and Sloane mansions, a remarkable glimpse of Manhattan’s opulent 1890s off Central Park.

photographs by the author


  1. When the Tiffany mansion went up, the Victorian row of the original 6 houses was very nice but when all 6 houses were replaced with refined limestone houses and the awesome Mott B. Schmidt apartment house, the row finally became complete.

  2. 15 E72nd St is owned now by the Moroccan king Mohamed VI