Monday, February 2, 2015

The Lost Wm. Butler Duncan House -- No. 1 Fifth Avenue

photograph from "Collins' Both Sides of Fifth Avenue" 1910 (copyright expired)

In the first years of the 1830s New York City’s three most prestigious residential neighborhoods were the Bond Street area, on the East Side; elegant St. John’s Park, to the south; and more recently Washington Square.  North of the Square was the unpaved and undeveloped Fifth Avenue.

Henry Brevoort Jr. changed that when he erected his impressive mansion at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street.  The magnificent home was the first step in the establishment of Fifth Avenue as Manhattan’s premier address.  It was a fortuitous trend for the trustees of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor in the City of New York.  The group owned the entire block of property on the east side of Fifth Avenue from 8th Street to Washington Square.

Within a decade handsome mansions were constructed; and on November 1, 1834 James Boorman signed an 18-year lease on Nos. 1 and 3 Fifth Avenue.  Boorman improved the lot with a handsome double-wide mansion, separated by a carriage lane from the private stables of Washington Square.   Later court papers described the Boorman structure as “built by him to be used…for a boarding-school for young ladies.”

Four stories tall, it was faced in red brick.  The unassuming Federal-style entrance was left of center and sat above a shallow porch.   The small size of the windows at the first floor level announced that it was the second story that housed the reception and entertainment rooms.  Here cast iron balconies embraced two sets of floor-to-ceiling openings.  As was the case even with the more elaborate Federal-style mansions around the corner on Washington Square, a simple wooden cornice completed the design.

The paneled entrance featured paned sidelights and transom.  The entrance door is a late 19th century update.  Note the doorbell pull to the right.  photographer unknown.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Boorman had recognized the need for a respectable school for the daughters of the affluent new residents of Fifth Avenue.  According Helen W. Henderson in her 1915 A Loiterer in New York, he opened "a select school for young ladies, presided over at first by Mr. Boorman's only sister, Miss Esther Smith."

An 18-year old teacher named Green came from Worchester, Massachusetts and, after a few years, she and her sister took over the operation.  Lucy M. and Mary Green ran The Misses Green’s School for years and decades later the Fifth Avenue Bank of New York’s book Fifth Avenue would remember that it “was, for years before and after the Civil War, one of the most fashionable and select schools of its day…Here were educated the daughters of the commercial and social leaders of New York.”

Along with academic courses, young ladies were taught proper demeanor.  Among the students were the daughters of Leonard Jerome, Fanny and Jennie (Jennie would become Lady Randolph Churchill and mother of Winston Churchill).  Instructors included John Bigelow who taught botany “and charmed the young ladies of Washington Square because he was ‘so handsome,’” according to Fifth Avenue’s authors; and Elihu Root, later Secretary of State and Senator from New York.  Root was so young when he began teaching that his presence among the young women concerned Lucy Green.  Calling her “a martinet for social proprieties,” Fifth Avenue said she thought it best that she “frequent his classes.”

Lucy and Mary Green’s brother was Andrew H. Green, who would later be known as “the father of Greater New York.”  He shared, according to Henderson, "in the direction of the establishment, and in 1844, taught a class in American history."

Green’s political career began as School Commissioner in 1860.  He was appointed a Central Park Commissioner in 1864; Central Park Comptroller in 1869; and in 1871 rose to the position of City Controller.  The New York Times could not have been more pleased.

The newspaper was perhaps the staunchest adversary of the corrupt Tammany Hall.  On September 21, 1871 it wrote “The long contest with the Tammany gang is now, we have every reason to believe, very near its end.  Mayor Hall’s doublings and twisting cannot save him and his confederates.  We positively assured our readers on Sunday morning, that the appointment of Mr. Andrew H. Green would infallibly bring to light all the dark secrets of the great robberies which have been committed.”

The Times’ editor predicted that under Green’s reforms, the Tweed Ring, “the infamous thieves,” would be overturned.  Both The New York Times and Andrew Green underestimated the power of Boss Tweed and his political machine.

By now the Misses Graham had taken over and moved the elite girls' school.  Andrew H. Green subsequently made the mansion his home.   On August 30, 1872, a year after Green took office and began “carefully overhauling the roll of employes,” as described by The Times, he was named as defendant in “The People of the State of New-York ex rel. J. W. McGowan vs. Andrew H. Green, Controller of the City of New-York” for a purported  missing $500.  Unperturbed by the political move, Green ignored the demands of the Tammany leaders.

Finally, at around 6:00 on the evening of July 2, 1873, Green and his lawyer, James C. Carter, approached his Fifth Avenue home.  As the pair turned into the gate, Judson Jarvis, Clerk of Arrests, stopped them.  The man said simply, “Mr. Green I arrest you on an order of close commitment from the Supreme Court” and produced the order of arrest.

The attorney was shocked at the effrontery of the action.  The New York Times reported “Mr. Carter said that surely Mr. Jarvis did not propose taking the Controller to jail.”  The clerk responded that he had no option unless Green produced the $500. 

Andrew Green pulled $350 from his vest pocket (an astonishingly large amount to be carrying around; in the neighborhood of $6,890 today) and “subsequently obtained the balance from another source.”

When he was released from custody, Green asked the Sheriff if he would be getting a receipt.  Jarvis interrupted saying, “Your receipt is the body of Andrew H. Green.”

At the time William Butler Duncan had his wife, the former Jane Percy Sargent, were well-established in New York society.  Butler was born in Scotland and educated at Edinburgh Academy and University.  When his father, Alexander Duncan,  emigrated to Providence, Rhode Island, William’s education was continued at Brown University.  He became partner in the New York branch of the London banking firm Duncan, Sherman. 

The high point of New York’s winter social season was the Patriarchs’ Ball.  Generations later the New-York Tribune would recall that they “were probably the most famous subscription affairs New York has ever known, and were organized  by Ward McAllister.  The subscribing members, or Patriarchs, numbered twenty-five, and each man had the privilege of asking four women and five men, including himself and family, to the dances.”  Among the exclusive list of 25—including of course the Astors, Van Rensselaers, Livingstons, Schermerhorns and Phelps families—was William Butler Duncan.

William and Jane had three children—Alexander, Jessie, and Mary.  Butler had a passion for books and, subsequently, an immense and valuable library.  Prompted by financial problems in his firm, an auction was held on December 16 and 17, 1875 of around 1,000 volumes.   The auctioneer advertised the library as “consisting of the best editions of English and American books, for the most part superbly bound.”

By 1877 the Duncan family had moved from No. 12 Washington Square into No. 1 Fifth Avenue, directly around the corner.  That year William Butler Duncan took his next door neighbor, Nathan P. Beers to court.  Both Beers and  Duncan leased their homes from the Sailors’ Snug Harbor.  When Boorman had erected No. 1 Fifth Avenue, he also held the lease on No. 3; so he saw no problem in putting windows on the north side of the mansion now occupied by Duncan—since he had no intention of building on the lot.

Duncan’s suit argued that the 20 windows on his northern wall overlooked “the open, vacant, and rear portion of said lot No. 3, and received necessarily their only light, air, and ventilation therefrom.”  Now Beers “was erecting a building against the plaintiff’s said northerly wall, and inserting beams of the new building in the plaintiff’s walls, and closing up many of the windows.” 

Duncan sought to stop construction to preserve his windows.  Despite his wealth and station, the courts saw it differently.  The building went up.

The feud over windows was long forgotten by 1884 when daughter Mary was married to 32-year old Paul Dana, son of The Sun editor, Charles A. Dana.  Following the fashionable Grace Church wedding on November 11 “a limited number of intimate friends” gathered at the Fifth Avenue mansion.  Jane Duncan had hired the society caterer Pinard, who served socially- and politically important guests like Congressman Dorsheimer, Assistant U.S. Treasurer Thomas C. Acton and Mr. and Mrs. George Rives.
The Duncan family remodeled not long after moving in; replacing the Federal interiors with the newly-popular Colonial Revival style -- photographer unknown.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Mary and Paul would move into the house with her parents.  The Times later recalled Dana's well-intentioned gesture that backfired; nearly ruining his reputation.  The newspaper said that one of his “great journalistic feats was an assault on the memory of Gen. Grant.  His famous insult to the family of the dead ex-President in offering to pay and actually paying the disputed undertaker’s bill is well remembered.” 

The comings and goings of William and Jane were, of course, closely followed by the press.  On May 13, 1899 The New York Times mentioned “Mr. and Mrs. Butler Duncan are still in Paris, and may not return until the yachting season opens.” 

On November 22, 1903 William and Jane celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.   The aging couple preferred an understated family dinner.   Nonetheless, the event did not go unnoticed by society and telegrams and letters arrived all day.  Among the “tokens of esteem” received by the couple was “a handsome silver loving cup” from the St. Andrew’s Society engraved with the names of the givers, including Andrew Carnegie, John Sloan, J. Kennedy Tod, John Reid and John S. Kennedy.

The updated interiors featured electric sconces, built in cabinetry, centralized heating (note the cast iron grill), and a closet.  photographer unknown.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Two years later, on December 11, 1905, Jane Percy Butler Duncan died in the house.  William, now 75 years old, lived on here with Mary and Paul.   His health would eventually be an issue and on February 20, 1908 The Times reported that he had been ill at his home for several days.  “It was learned last night that there had been some misgivings earlier in the week regarding his recovery, but that his condition had materially improved in the last day or so, and that his recovery is considered simply a matter of time.”

Two years later there was excitement in the house as Lord Kitchener headed to New York from London.   Plans had been set for the earl to be the guest of Duncan; but on April 7, 1910, just two days before the Kitchener’s steamer docked, new arrangements had to be made.

“Until midnight on Thursday it had been arranged that Lord Kitchener should be the guest of William Butler Duncan, President of the Pilgrims, at his home, 1 Fifth Avenue, during his stay in this city, but owing to his host having contracted a severe attack of pneumonia, arrangements were made for him at the Plaza instead.”

Duncan’s disappointment may have been somewhat softened two years later.   On January 22, 1912 The Times recalled that in 1868 William Butler Duncan had entertained the 18-year old Prince Arthur of England.  Now the Duke of Connaught, he was headed back to New York and the newspaper said “It was learned yesterday that among the first to welcome the Duke will be W. Butler Duncan of 1 Fifth Avenue, who is now in his eighty-second year.”

In reporting the upcoming visit, The Times mentioned “the old family mansion at 1 Fifth Avenue.”  The house, it said, “is filled with many remembrances of the by-gone days.” 

The following year men with names like Astor, Vanderbilt and Belmont were perhaps taken aback when The Metropolitan Magazine wrote “Since the death of John Bigelow, at the ripe old age of ninety-four, there has been a certain amount of discussion as to the rights of succession to the title of New York’s premier citizen.”  The magazine offered a few candidates for the position, including John Choate, former ambassador to Great Britain.

“But there are still more, including Mr. Choate himself, who insist on ascribing the honor to William Butler Duncan, the senior of the former ambassador to England, by several years, who for half a century has most appropriately made his home at 1 Fifth Avenue—a house renowned through several generations here and abroad, for its kindly hospitality, and where well nigh every distinguished foreigner who has visited New York since ‘befo de wah’ has had the opportunity of stretching his legs beneath that wonderful mahogany table which is one of the features of the establishment.“

The article spoke of a photograph of Queen Alexandra and King Edward sent by the Queen to Duncan.  “The picture occupies the place of honor on Mr. Butler’s writing table in his library at 1 Fifth Avenue, where among other souvenirs, are signed photographs of the Duke of Connaught, of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, of Lawrence Oliphant, Lord Rosebery and many other well-known people, living and dead.”

Only one month after the article ran, on June 20, 1912, William Butler Duncan died suddenly in the house of pneumonia.  The Sun reminisced while reporting his death “He was at one time president of the New York Whist club and loved to tell of the games that he and Gen. Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican war, played together.

“The library of the Fifth avenue home, filled with rare editions and autographed copies, was perhaps the most interesting of all the rooms in the big house to those visitors whom Mr. Duncan was always fond of entertaining.  Here King Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales, spent many hours during his visit at the Duncan home and here Mr. Duncan received his friends who came in after business was over to talk of the development of the city…Mr. Duncan had the distinction of being the only American member of the Travellers Club of London, one of the most exclusive of clubs.”

In June the following year William Butler Duncan’s $1.25 million estate was publicized.    Along with the furniture, paintings, stocks and other assets (including his pew in Grace Church, valued at $2,500) was the leasehold on No. 1 Fifth Avenue—still owned by the Sailors’ Snug Harbor—assessed at $15,000.  The leasehold was divided equally between his son, Alexander Butler Duncan, and daughter, Mary Butler Dana.

The New York Times noted that “In his will Mr. Duncan directed that all his servants should receive one-twelfth of the entire wages they had received while in his employ.  In the case of two servants this meant about $2,000.”

Mary and Paul Dana lived on in the house to see their own children marry—Janet Percy Dana in 1915, William Butler Duncan Dana in 1916, and Anderson Dana the following year.   On February 16, 1922 Mary Butler Dana died in the house in which she had grown up.   A month later The Times reported that “The will, dated July 6th last, leaves her residence, 1 Fifth Avenue, including all of its contents to her husband, Paul Dana.”

Within a few months the many mementos and relics of William Butler Duncan were moved out.  The house was leased to Mr. and Mrs. R. Thornton Wilson.  The Wilsons started a new family in the house when their son was born in May the following year.  They lived in the august mansion until the inevitable happened in 1926.

On May 30 The New York Times announced “Four venerable houses in lower Fifth Avenue, within half a block of the Washington Arch entrance to Washington Square, are being town down to make way for another towering apartment hotel.  They are the brownstone residences at 1, 3, 5, and 7, Fifth Avenue, occupying the short block frontage on the east side of that thoroughfare between Washington Mews and Eighth Street.”

The article mentioned the history of No. 1, saying it “is listed in the 1851 city director as ‘Lucy Green’s School’…At one time 1 Fifth Avenue house was the home of Andrew H. Green.  W. Butler Duncan also lived there many years, dying there in 1912.  More recently the house was the home of Paul Dana, who left the locality for the upper east side a few years ago.”


The massive Art Deco skyscraper apartment building that replaced it still stands, dwarfing the Washington Square mansions half a block away that escaped progress.


  1. While I enjoy Art Deco architecture immensely, this looks like a lovely house. I adore built-ins!

  2. What a treat to see the interior photos!


  3. James Boorman (later named Boardman) was an iron merchant and partner of John Johnston, whose granddaughter, Emily DeForest Johnston wrote about this corner of paradise.
    Mrs. Esther Smith is referenced throughout the 'Diary of Elizabeth Dixon' published in White House History, Issue 33, by White House Historical Association.

  4. What a delightful post! One of my favorites, learned so much and was inspired to do additional research on the Green & Graham schools and the Paul Dana controversy. I would like to ask about the statement “By 1877 the Butler family had moved”. Shouldn’t it read Duncan family? Other confusing references to Mr. Butler but a great post and I am enjoying following the residential development along 5th Ave through your blog. Again, thank you for your work!

    1. Leave it to Phyllis Winchester to find that goof! Thanks so much! All fixed. So glad you liked this one. Always love hearing your comments!

  5. One Fifth Avenue. Still a beautiful building. My great uncle - William B. Clarke lived at One Fifth Avenue from 1933 until his death in 1969. I can remember visiting him there as a youngster and being so impressed with the building. I think his apartment was on the 10th floor. Fond memories of times long gone by. Jeffrey Ralli - Chester, NJ

    1. We had a relative Dr. Beeckman Delator who also lived in that building. He also lived part time in Paris.

  6. My girlfriend lived there in the late 70's as it was a dorm for NYU Law School. The 1/5 bar and restaurant in the corner of 8th and 5th Ave, was very swanky with a nautical twist. It used artifacts from the USS Coronia