Monday, March 9, 2015

The Lost Webb and Twombly Houses -- Nos. 680 and 684 5th Ave.

The Twombly house sat on the corner.  Next door is the Webb mansion, then St. Thomas's Church.  To the extreme right a sliver of the John D. Rockefeller house can be seen.  "L'Architecture Americaine" 1885 (copyright expired)

The 1885 petition for probate of William Henry Vanderbilt’s will gave outsiders an idea of why New Yorkers called a long stretch of Fifth Avenue “Vanderbilt Row;” or, with no small amount of sarcasm, “Vanderbilt Alley.”  Listed in order of age, the "heirs-at-law and next of kin" were "Marie Louise Vanderbilt, the widow, living at No. 640 Fifth Avenue; Cornelius Vanderbilt, a son, living at No. 1 West Fifty-seventh Street; Margaret Louise Shepard, a daughter, living at No. 2 West Fifty-second Street; William Kissam Vanderbilt, a son, living at No. 660 Fifth Avenue; Emily Thorn Sloane, a daughter, living at No. 642 Fifth Avenue; Florence Adele Twombly, a daughter, living at No. 684 Fifth Avenue; Frederick W. Vanderbilt, a son, living at No. 459 Fifth Avenue; Eliza O. Webb, a daughter, living at No. 680 Fifth Avenue; and George W. Vanderbilt, a son, living at No. 640 Fifth Avenue.”

Although Cornelius Vanderbilt and his sister Margaret Shepard had West 57th and West 52nd Street addresses; their mansions were no less located squarely on Fifth Avenue than those of their siblings.

William H. Vanderbilt’s daughter Florence Adele was married in a lavish ceremony in St. Bartholomew’s Church on November 21st, 1877.  Legends persist that the millionaire’s wedding gift to the couple was a new Fifth Avenue mansion.   But construction on the house did not begin until 1883 and Vanderbilt threw in a near-matching mansion next door for Eliza, Florence’s sister—two factors that suggest the houses were instead simply a token of fatherly love.

Designed by John B. Snook—more widely known for his cast iron-fronted commercial buildings downtown--Nos. 680 and 684 Fifth Avenue rose in stark contrast to their father’s formal triple-mansion complex completed five years earlier.   Eccentric piles of brick and stone, they were a delightful and confusing jumble of historical styles.  Stepped Flemish gables shared roof space with French Renaissance towers; Florence’s house at No. 684 featured an Italian Renaissance-inspired bay, while around the corner was a minaret-type engaged tower topped by a dome.  The frenzy of angles and curves, spires and bays, resulted in a Victorian architectural free-for-all.

Although individual, the Webb house (above) and the Twombly house were designed as a pair.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Eliza and her husband, Dr. William Seward Webb, moved into No. 680 in the middle of the block, abutting St. Thomas’ Church.  Next door at No. 684 were Florence and Hamilton McKown Twombly.   Not long after the Twombly marriage Hamilton became a member of the boards of several railroads.  He would become one of his father-in-law’s most trusted advisers and a manager of the New York Central.

Like Hamilton Twombly, William Seward Webb's marriage to a Vanderbilt would result in professional “advice” from the family.  The groom was persuaded to give up his medical practice and to take up finance.  He established the Wall Street firm of W. S. Webb & Co. in 1883.  That same year William Vanderbilt asked him to take control of the Wagner Palace Car Company, a manufacturer of railroad cars of which Vanderbilt owned the controlling interest.   Suddenly, like his brother-in-law next door, Webb was in the railway business.  Later the Wagner Palace Car Company merged with the Pullman Company, and Webb eventually headed at least four railroads.

Marriage to a Vanderbilt meant the end of Webb's medical practice -- Prominent and Progressive Americans (copyright expired)

Eliza "Lila" Vanderbilt Webb --
Living next door to one another and sharing exulted stations on the social register meant that Adele and Eliza had to carefully choreograph their entertaining schedules.   Conflicting dinners or dances could be highly embarrassing and put guests in the awkward position of choosing which to attend.

The solution was, sometimes, joint entertainments such as the leap year dance in 1892 at the Webb house.  “It was preceded by dinners at Dr. and Mrs. Webb’s and at the adjoining residence of Mr. and Mrs. H. McK. Twombly, at which a large number of the guests bidden to the dance were entertained,” reported The New York Times on January 24.  “The party, however, was not a large one, only about one hundred invitations having been sent out….The cotillion was danced in the reception room and hall and was led by Mrs. Ogden Mills.  A number of dainty and appropriate trifles were distributed as favors.”

Eliza (popularly known as Lila) seems to have entertained more frequently than her sister.  In reporting on her January 21, 1895 cotillion for about 130 persons in the house, The Times added “The favors were very pretty.  Dr. and Mrs. Webb expect to give another cotillion within two weeks.”

Florence and Hamilton Twombly maintained an 800-acre country estate, Florham, near Morristown, New Jersey with a massive mansion designed by McKim, Mead & White.  In 1896, they purchased Catharine Lorillard Wolfe’s Newport cottage, Vinland. 

The lavish mansions of 19th century millionaires were often shuttered more than they were open as their owners moved from house to house and, of course, traveled abroad.  On October 2, 1895 The New York Times announced Mrs. Hamilton McK. Twombly and Miss Alice Twombly of 684 Fifth Avenue, who have been spending part of the Summer at their beautiful country place between Morristown and Madison, N. J., will spend the Fall and early Winter in Europe.”

As the wedding of William and Alva Vanderbilt’s daughter, Consuelo, to the Duke of Marlborough approached in November 1895, all of Vanderbilt Row was “thrown open to society.”  The New York Times noted on November 6 “Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt, the grandmother of the future Duchess of Marlborough, has always made a great pet of Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt, who has also been a favorite with her uncles, aunts, and cousins.  All her relatives desire to make her wedding day as bright as possible.”

There may have been one exception to that. 

In listing the Vanderbilt mansions receiving visitors on the afternoon of November 5, it included the “town house of Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton McK. Twombley [sic], at 684 Fifth Avenue.”   The newspaper added “it is said upon good authority that, with the exception of Dr. and Mrs. W. Seward Webb, all the family connections will be present in St. Thomas’s Protestant Episcopal Church to-day.”

Florence's portrait was painted by John Singer Sargent.
The wedding, the social event of the season, would be the last grand affair witnessed by 16-year old Alice Twombly, Florence and Hamilton’s eldest daughter.  About a month later she contracted pneumonia.  On the afternoon of New Year’s Day, 1896, with her parents at her bedside, the teen-aged heiress died.  Her funeral was held in the mansion on Saturday, January 4.

A Vanderbilt death caused upheaval in the social calendar of New York society.  The New York Times reported “In consequence of the death of Miss Twombly, Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt were obliged to give up their children’s dance, which was arranged for last night.  The invitations for their musicale on Jan. 7 will be recalled, and for their dance on Jan. 27.  The dance of Mrs. William D. Sloane, on Jan. 13, and Mrs. Twombly, on Jan. 23, will also be called off.”

In 1900, the same year that Alice would have been introduced to society, her cousin Frederica Vanderbilt Webb was feted.   Eliza issued invitations for a debutante dinner for Wednesday, January 9 and The Times surmised it “will probably be followed by dancing.”

By the time of Ruth Twombly’s debutante cotillion on February 5, 1904, the Fifth Avenue neighborhood was beginning to change.   John Jacob Astor was erecting the elegant but obtrusive St. Regis Hotel almost directly opposite the Twombly mansion; prompting panicked millionaires to flee northward.  But the Webb and Twombly families held firm.  At least for now.

Three months after Ruth’s debut, her sister Florence stole back the spotlight by marrying the staggeringly wealthy William A. M. Burden in St. Thomas’s Church.  On April 13 The New York Times pronounced “Society turned out in full force yesterday to witness the wedding of Miss Florence Vanderbilt Twombly…and William A. M. Burden.”  The newspaper said “Fifth Avenue was crowded with handsomely appointed equipages, many of which were open landaus and victorias, filled with beautifully gowned women.  A Vanderbilt wedding is always a notable event, and an alliance between two such prominent families in New York society as the Twomblys and the Townsend Burdens made it an unusually interesting occasion.”

Police controlled the gawking spectators on the street.  Afterward the guests, whom The Times deemed “a world of fashion,” gathered at the Twombly mansion.  “The house reception was a very large one, and the wide entrance steps to the house were jammed with coming and going guests.  The floral decorations of the house came largely from the Twombly conservatories at Florham.”

Shortly after 6:00 on the morning of August 8, 1905 fire was discovered in St. Thomas’ Church where Florence had been married.  Within two hours the magnificent building, designed by Richard Upjohn with interiors by John LaFarge and Augustus St. Gaudens, was a smoldering ruin.   But as the fire raged, fire fighters were concerned for the adjoining Webb and Twombly mansions—especially as the 100-foot belfry tower threatened to crush them.

“Chief Croker knew that if it fell there would be death as well as damage.  If it went to the north it must destroy the houses of Dr. W. Seward Webb and H. McK. Twombly, at 680 and 684 Fifth avenue, and probably the house of John D. Rockefeller, at the southwest corner of Fifty-fourth street and the avenue,” explained The Sun.  Thankfully for the families, the tower did not collapse.

On July 4, 1906 the Twomblys closed Florham to head for Newport.  Hamilton, Florence and daughter Ruth arrived at Vinland late that evening, expecting to spend July, August and September here, as they did each year.  In the meantime, young Hamilton Jr. was off on his own at Big Squam Lake in New Hampshire with a camping party from the Groton School.

The teen expected to enter Harvard in the fall and was, according to the New-York Tribune, “very popular with the younger social set at Newport.”   The day after his parents and sister arrived in at Vinland, he went swimming in the lake.

Later that night a telegraph arrived at the offices off the New-York Tribune from Newport.  “News of the drowning of Hamilton McK. Twombly, jr., cast a gloom over the cottage colony here to-night…The news was not received here until late in the evening, and Mr. and Mrs. Twombly immediately made arrangements to leave Newport.  They will start from here on a special train for the scene of the drowning, at about 4 a.m. to-morrow, on the arrival of a special train from New York, which place it has already left.”

The following day The Times wrote “His death will have a depressing effect upon the Newport season, as several members of the Vanderbilt family, of which Mrs. Twombly is a member, are to spend the Summer here, and were expected to entertain very extensively.”

The boy’s funeral was held in the rebuilt St. Thomas’s Church on July 9, 1906.   Among the extended family, his father was reportedly the most devastated.

The deep light well between the mansions caused great excitement on 5th Avenue in 1907 when, in the absence of both families, a Central Park squirrel fell in and was trapped.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

On January 11, 1910 Hamilton McKown Twombly died in the Florham Park mansion from tuberculosis of the larynx.  In reporting his death, the New-York Tribune noted that he “never recovered from the grief of his son’s death, and to that in part is attributed the breaking down of his health.”

On the stormy morning of January 15 Twombly’s coffin was removed from the Fifth Avenue mansion and taken to St. Thomas’s Church where his son’s funeral had been held four years earlier.  The church was filled with the extended Vanderbilt family, including Burdens, Shepards, Whitneys, Schieffelins, Sloanes and Webbs.

Only a few weeks later, Twombly’s nephew, James Watson Webb, was married to Electra Havemeyer in St. Bartholomew’s Church on Madison Avenue.  On the day of the wedding, February 9, a deputy marshal knocked on the door of 680 Fifth Avenue to serve a subpoena to Dr. Webb.  He was to be a witness in the trial of the alleged wrecking of the South Shore Railway Company in Canada.

“The subpoena server was not welcome,” reported the Tribune.  “He could not get at the master of the house, and going to a telephone booth on Fourth avenue he told counsel of his plight.”  He was given directions to return to the house where he told the butler “that if he would not accept service then he would be served at the wedding.”

When Dr. Webb was told of the threat he “went at once to the door and accepted the paper.”

A year later W. Seward Webb, Jr. married Gertrude Gaynor in secret in Wilmington, Delaware.  The very unsocial action was forgiven and the newlyweds moved into the 680 Fifth Avenue mansion.  Here, on January 24, 1912, a baby boy was born.

The already-wealthy infant would not grow up here, however.  Eliza and William Webb gave up on the neighborhood the following year.  On January 31, 1913 The New York Times reported that the mansion was offered for a “long-term lease” and the Webbs “will take an apartment in this city.”

Dr. Webb said that the family spent so much time at their Shelbourne, Vermont farm that a city house was unnecessary.  “Another reason which it is said influenced him to lease his Fifth Avenue house was that across the street, upon the site of the former home of Levi P. Morton, a twelve-story store and loft building had been erected.”

John D. Rockefeller stepped in before the house could be leased.  He purchased it a month later for, reportedly, $1.25 million.  “It was stated by the brokers that Mr. Rockefeller is contemplating replacing the Webb home by a six-story business structure.”

The Webb mansion was, indeed, destroyed for a modern building; but it did not occur until October 1917 when 680 Fifth Avenue was declared “Ready for Occupancy” in advertisements.   Florence Twombly’s Victorian pile was suddenly an glaring anachronism dwarfed by modern structures.

In 1925 the entrance to Florence Twombly's mansion is boarded up as its fate nears.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

She nevertheless stayed on for another eight years.   Then in 1925 John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased No. 684 Fifth Avenue.   Before long the old mansion was gone, replaced by a seamlessly-matching extension of the structure that replaced the Webb house.  The French-inspired store and office building was called the Rockefeller Building.

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

That handsome structure survived until 1956 when it was replaced by the massive Buchmann Tower.



  1. everything got a wonderful replacement, even the award winning design of the church.

    1. I have a friend who works for Google and one of the projects they have looked at for possible development is an AR (Augmented Reality) program similar to Google Street view with the additional advantage of being able to see images or information on what other structures or things of interest have also occupied that space throughout history. The logistics and data required were a major obstacle but they say it may soon be possible maybe not with the near total coverage of Google Street view, but as a beta version covering. Aces where the data already exists. Personally I would pay an equivalent price to my annual expensive vacation for that sort of experience.

  2. I still find it remarkable to see the outstanding residential quality of Fifth Avenue at this time period. Looking up or down or gazing across such wide streets as 57th, all one saw was a massive parade of chimneys, turrets, towers, dormers, pinnacles, iron cresting, etc. which had to be a feast for the eyes and unknowingly lasted but for a moment before it was all gone. NY

  3. I have just lucked upon your Daytonia blog today and it's fantastic. I love the history of seeing what a specific geographic location has held over the centuries, and your posts are so well written with the photographs illustrating not only what was, but showing what replaced the grand palaces of the past and what soulless glass monoliths stand there today. I know how much research that requires having done the same for my own home in downtown Toronto on Bay St, is covered it was initially a small Anglican Church, St Luke's, which was replaced with a larger stone & brick church, then demolished and replaced with a DeSoto Car dealership with a multilevel indoor showroom, till finally the current glass tower where I reside today. Who knows what will replace this structure look forward to. Binge reading your entire series. Well done