Monday, March 2, 2015

The Lost McCreery Mansion -- No. 930 5th Avenue

A carriage passes the mansion on the still-unpaved 5th Avenue around the turn of the last century as a coach approaches from the north.  In the background is the Temple Beth El at 76th Street  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1883 the New-York Life Insurance Company issued a $36,600 mortgage on the property at No. 1 East 74th Street.  Construction started on a residence in what would quickly become Manhattan’s most fashionable neighborhood.  But the builder’s dreams were larger than his bank account and before the house was completed, the firm foreclosed.

The New York Times reported that “the structure, a small affair 40 feet by 27, passed into the hands of the company.  Another $10,000 was expended in the completion of the building, making the total cost to the company $46,600.”  The amount that New-York Life Insurance had spent building the house would equate to about $1.2 million today.

Later, in an article complaining about the mismanagement of New-York Life Insurance, the newspaper grumbled “It proved to be another white elephant on the company’s hands.  Years passed without renting it, and it was finally sold for $28,000.”

The buyer of the bargain house was wealthy dry goods merchant James McCreery.  He apparently had no intention of living in a “small structure” and set to work replacing the never-lived-in home with a more impressive mansion.  McCreery acquired the adjoining 60-foot plot on East 74th Street, demolished the existing house, and began construction on his new home.

As McCreery’s mansion rose, work was underway on another being built for banker J. H. Schiff, abutting the house to the north.  The McCreery residence would face 74th Street, taking advantage of the 100-foot plot rather than the 27-foot Fifth Avenue exposure.   The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted that these homes, along with “the new houses that are in construction, make this neighborhood on the avenue a remarkably handsome one.”

By January 29, 1887 the wide and somewhat skinny mansion was nearly completed.  The Record and Guide said “On the northeast corner of Fifth avenue and Seventy-fourth street, opposite Mr. Pickhardt’s home on the cross street, is a handsome three-story and attic brick house with brown stone trimmings, nearly finished, belonging to James McCreery, the dry-goods merchant.  There is a peaked tower on the street side, and the design has a good deal of the original and striking character that suits the fashions of the day, while it is perfectly restrained within the limits of good taste.”

The McCreery family would not stay long in the new home.   By 1891 it appears they were leasing it to the Keyes family; and on September 12 that year, just four years after the mansion was completed, James McCreery sold the house to Dr. Edward Loughborough Keyes for $170,000.  The title to the property, as was common at the time, was put in Sarah I. Keyes’s name.  While the McCreerys had been content with using the address of No. 1 East 74th Street; Sarah would slowly change over to the more impressive No. 930 Fifth Avenue address. 

Dr. Keyes was a highly regarded urologist and surgeon.  He served as President of the American Association of Genito-Urinary Surgeons and routinely published papers in medical journals.  Immediately after taking ownership of the 74th Street mansion, his father, who had distinguished himself in the Civil War, arrived for an extended visit.

The Epoch, in August 1891, noted “Mrs. Edward L. Keyes of 1 East Seventy-fourth street, has cards out for Monday afternoons in January.  A special feature of these receptions will be the presence of Major Gen. Keyes, her father-in-law, who is spending the Winter with his son, Dr. Keyes.  The gallant soldier represents the best type of courtier and is as admired and sought after in the drawing-room as he was dreaded and feared on the battle-field.”

While her husband combated and studied urinary diseases, Sarah Keyes entertained.  Society pages routinely mentioned her musicales and afternoon receptions.  The location of the mansion and the doctor’s wealth and status resulted in the Keyes rubbing shoulders with Manhattan’s social aristocracy.

Among them was William K. Vanderbilt.  On August 25, 1893 he sailed into New York Harbor with his Glasgow-built yacht, the Valiant, described as “the largest and handsomest steam yacht in the world.”  The New York Times, the following day, said “The simple-minded Staten Islanders gazed at her in amazement, wondering at her being a steam yacht.  She looked more like an ocean steamship, and no small one at that.”

Sarah Keyes may have been a bit jealous of her husband when three months later Vanderbilt invited him on a 10-month cruise on the Valiant.  On November 23, 1893 the all-male party, with the exception of Mrs. Vanderbilt, boarded the yacht.  Included in the small, elite group with Dr. Keyes was Oliver H. P. Belmont, J. Louis Webb, Winthrop Rutherford, and F. O. Beach.  The party was heavily outnumbered by the crew, which numbered 62.

The nearly year-long trip was to take the wealthy passengers to Gibraltar, Alexandria, up the Nile, then to India, and Ceylon.  “It is thought that the Valiant will return to the South of France in time for the Spring season there,” reported The Times.

Dr. Keyes and the other guests could anticipate a luxurious ten months at sea.  The day after the vessel left Manhattan The New York Times noted “The interior decorations are very elaborate, and the staterooms and saloons are fitted up with luxurious taste.  The yacht is lighted by electricity throughout, is heated by steam, and can be cooled by iced air, there being an ice-manufacturing outfit on board.”

But no matter how luxurious the surroundings, and how close the friendly relationships were; it appears that living for too long in relatively cramped quarters may have taken a toll.  Or, as at least one newspaper hinted, it was a young American woman, Nellie Neustretter, “who is said to be the cause of the family troubles of William K. Vanderbilt.”

In either case, just four months into the trip, in March, it “was curtailed by the breaking up of the Vanderbilt party at Nice,” reported The Evening World.  Marooned in France, the millionaire guests were left to their own devices in finding their way back to New York.   The first to arrive home was Dr. Edward L. Keyes.

Reporters descended upon him on April 14, but he was diplomatically coy.  “Not a thing occurred from the first day to the last to mar our serenity and pleasure.  The party broke up at Nice just a month ago, and I think all can say that the cruise could have had no feature added to make it more enjoyable.”

The matter was not so quickly put to rest, however.  On August 29 a reporter from The Evening World went to Keyes’s office.  By now the doctor’s patience had grown thin.

“Well, well, what is it?  Talk quick.  Something about that Vanderbilt matter, I suppose.  What is it?” he snapped.

The reporter asked if he were correctly quoted regarding his initial statement that nothing occurred on the Valiant to mar the guests’ pleasure.

“Anything that I said about that trip is correct,” he answered.

Then the reporter pressed further, saying “But will you kindly tell me if you were correctly quoted in that interview,” Dr. Keyes exploded, firing a profanity at the reporter that shocked the female patients in the waiting room.

The Evening World quoted him. “’None of your----business!’ shouted the doctor, in a voice which could be heard all over the house.  He would say nothing more about the Vanderbilts.”

In the meantime, Edward L. Keyes, Jr. had graduated from Georgetown University in 1892 and in 1895 received his medical degree from Columbia University.  A urologist like his father, he would eventually be as well-known and influential.   On November 17, 1898 he married Emma Willard Schudder in a fashionable St. Patrick’s Cathedral wedding.

Edward and Sarah Keyes would remain in the Fifth Avenue mansion for another eight years.  In November 1906 Keyes purchased the four-story mansion a block away at No. 28 East 75th Street.  He hired architect C. W. Romeyn to do “extensive alterations.”  In January 1907 he sold No. 930 Fifth Avenue to Simeon Brooks Chapin and his wife, the former Elizabeth Mattocks.

Chapin was a successful stock broker and real estate investor.   He had formed the trading house S. B. Chapin and Co. in 1901 in Chicago and the year before purchasing the Keyes mansion he moved its operations to New York City.  Simeon and Elizabeth had four children, Marietta, Elizabeth, Simeon Jr., and Virginia.

Like Sarah Keyes, Elizabeth busied herself with entertainments.  In March 1911 she hosted an afternoon recital by George Barrere, for instance; and on February 29, 1914 she “opened her house, 930 Fifth Avenue, yesterday for the afternoon meeting of the Thursday Musical Club,” as reported in The Times.

In December 1915 Marietta’s engagement to Harold Hartshome was announced.  The wedding took place on Wednesday afternoon, February 28, 1916, in the socially important Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas on Fifth Avenue.

While other Fifth Avenue millionaires spent their summers in Bar Harbor, Newport and other East Coast resorts, the Chapins held on to their Midwestern roots.  Their country estate was located in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

The Chapins's conservative, Protestant beliefs were in evidence when they sent out more than 800 invitations for an address by evangelist Billy Sunday in May 1917.   The ballroom of the Plaza Hotel was reserved for the event where the preacher discussed “changing fashions in woman’s garb, craze for money, and ambition to hold public office.”

By the end of World War I the Schiff mansion next door had been altered and enlarged, overpowering No. 930 -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
At the time, socialites turned their attention to war relief.  Elizabeth Chapin kept up the work even after the conflict had ended.  With France devastated, she and her daughter Virginia, worked to help rebuild; and they turned to an unlikely source.  On January 27, 1922 The New York Times reported that “A children’s auxiliary of the New York Branch of the American McAll Association was organized yesterday at the home of Mrs. Simeon B. Chapin, 930 Fifth Avenue.  With her youngest daughter, Miss Virginia Chapin, as hostess, there were seventy-five little girls and boys from the leading private schools of the city in attendance.”  The children voted to “undertake the support of a number of war orphans in France.”

Elizabeth kept up the work providing aid to France at least into 1924, when she entertained workers for the “Fresh Air work in France.”

In December that year a 36-inch water main burst at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 75th Street.  The resulting flood poured into the basements of some of Manhattan’s grandest mansions.  “Valuable antiques, tapestries, rugs and furniture worth thousands of dollars were ruined by the flow of water into the entrance halls and basements of homes in the section,” reported The Times.

As well as the Chapin house, the newspaper numbered among the mansions affected those of Mortimer Schiff, Edwin Gould, Edward Harkness, Clarence H. Mackay and John Wanamaker among many others.  “Nearly a foot of water poured into the basement of the Simeon Brooks Chapin home, 930 Fifth Avenue, causing considerable damage,” reported the newspaper.

In 1926 the Chapin children were growing up and leaving the mansion.  Virginia was among the debutantes that season and in August the engagement of Simeon Jr. to Elisa M. Bartholomay was announced.  Within two years Chapin conceived of  better use for the valuable property and the out-of-style house.

When this photograph was taken in 1929 one large apartment house had already been constructed to the north on the site of Temple Beth El.  The Chapin house and the two abutting mansions on 5th Avenue were on borrowed time.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library.
On March 9, 1928 The New York Times announced that he had bought Robertson Trowbridge’s house next door at No. 3 East 74th Street.  “He intends to improve the plot with an apartment house from plans by Electus D. Litchfield, architect.” 

The modern co-op building would contain duplex apartments of “sixteen rooms and eights,” one of which Chapin had reserved for himself and Elizabeth.  But it was most likely the Great Depression that stalled Chapin’s plans.  The house survived until 1940 when it, along with the Schiff and Rentschler mansions, was replaced by Emery Roth’s 19-story apartment building.


  1. love the replacement ,too bad its neighbors were demolished...but what a weird little mansion

  2. Would have preferred that the Schiff mansion had survived, looks very impressive. Also never saw an image of this 5th Ave neighborhood without the presence of the Astor mansion. Strange seeing the temple complete sitting amid an endless row of mansions

  3. This is a very interesting and well researched article, but there is one correction I wold like to make. The Simeon B. Chapin house on the north shore of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin - built in 1898 by Chapin and designed by the renowned Chicago architect Benjamin Marshall (who was also the architect of Chicago's Drake, Blackstone and Edgewater Beach hotels) - never went by the name "Black Point". It was, and still is, named Flowerside Inn, and remains a private residence. Black Point, a Queen Anne style estate on the south shore of Lake Geneva, was built in 1888 by beer magnate Conrad Seipp. Today it is a highly regarded museum, open to the public.