Monday, August 24, 2015

The Lost Harriet Douglas Cruger Mansion -- No. 128 West 14th Street

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art moved into the Cruger mansion, the carriage drive at left still led to the stable behind; and the wall garden to the right survived.  A History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1913

Harriet Douglas was a wealthy spinster in the 1820s, living with her widowed mother in the family mansion at No. 55 Broadway.  Her unmarried status had everything to do with her strong will and determination to maintain control of the immense fortune that would befall her.

In 1823 a Southern lawyer, Henry Cruger, courted Harriet, who was significantly older than he.  When he proposed marriage, she presented him with a list of prenuptial agreements which would be seen as remarkable today and were astounding in the 1820s.  According to Hendrik Hartog in his Man and Wife in America, “In order to become her husband, a man had to agree that she would retain full control over all of the money she had inherited.  This she demanded ‘in obedience to, and conformity with the opinions and precepts of her parents.'  Furthermore, he had to change his name to Douglas.  He had to give up his profession so that he could devote his full attention to her and her family’s properties.  He had to be willing to live where she wished them to live.  Implicitly, she required that her husband become her wife.”

Henry refused; but three years later he was back.  But when he refused to give up his “present independence” Harriet rebuffed him again.  She sailed off to Europe where she lived six years and repeatedly received offers of marriage.  In 1829 Henry Cruger arrived in London, pledging his love once again and begging Harriet to marry him.  Finally in 1830 the pair came to a compromise.  Harriet retained control of her money; but Henry would not have to change his name.  Nevertheless, Harriet insisted that she would be known as “Mrs. Douglas Cruger,” rather than Mrs. Henry Cruger.  They were married in June 1833.  The bride was 44 years old.

Eventually, Henry Cruger would rue the day he married the headstrong woman.   Years later, in 1876, John Proffatt would write of Harriett “Belonging to a family of wealth and standing, possessed of a large private fortune, and endowed by education and training with rare personal and mental accomplishments, she married…and met with disappointment and misfortune; for it was soon followed by a separation.”  She controlled Henry’s money, complained about his expenses, and the two lived apart as much as together.  But without any income other than that provided by his wife, Cruger was trapped.

An example of Cruger’s frustration was expressed in his letter to Harriet on July 29, 1836 which said in part “God in his mercy forgive you for the agony and humiliation it is inflicting on one, whose bosom was fraught with the kindliest thoughts and purposes towards you.  Not for three times your whole fortune, dedicated to the best and wisest of uses, would I have made even a stranger suffer so much as I am now undergoing.”

James Monroe, the nephew and adopted son of the former President, was the husband of Harriet’s sister, Elizabeth.  He and Henry became friends and James repeatedly used his influence to attempt to create peace between the Crugers.  At one point he wrote Harriet a letter gently pressuring her to relieve Henry “from a state of dependence” and telling her that her husband was living in “an unnatural state.”  Betsy Monroe tried to step in, as well, telling her sister that people would attribute her actions to “the love of accumulation.”

Harriet’s mother died on June 29, 1840; but Harriet she kept the Broadway house intact as it had been when her mother died.  A staff was maintained for decades to preserve it exactly as when Margaret was there.

The last straw in the shaky marriage came in 1843 when Henry attempted to regain his dignity (and partial control of Harriet’s money).  He sued his wife and won.   Enraged, Harriet appealed and 18 months later Henry received a settlement of $20,000 “to be paid immediately.”  It was the last time the couple would ever set eyes on one another.  Reportedly, Harriet enjoyed playing the organ for guests and would repeatedly play—in reference to her estranged husband—the tune “For Love of Gold He Has Left Me.”
The family owned a plot of land on West 14th Street, 90 by 70 feet, stretching through to 13th Street, between what is now Sixth and Seventh Avenues.  In 1844 Harriet laid plans for her uptown home. According to Ewing Galloway decades later, it was "originally built as a reproduction of Boscobel House, the Douglas family seat in Scotland."

Harriett Douglas Cruger's free-standing brownstone residence at No. 128 West 14th Street was apparently designed by architect James Renwick, Jr.  George Templeton Strong spoke of it in his diary saying:

It is a most stately house, the finest I've ever seen, with its grand hall and staircase and ample suite of rooms. Amplitude and absence of ginger bread made it imposing though I dare say (being built by Jemmy Renwick) it is bad enough in many particulars.

Brentano’s 1907 Old Buildings of New York described it.  “The house, having a frontage of seventy-five feet, stood in the middle of a courtyard extending on either side about one hundred feet, separated from the street by a high wall.”  A villa, it was accessed by an elegant split staircase that rose to a deep-set entrance behind Corinthian columns.   Inside, the entrance hall was 25-feet wide and extended 85 feet through the house.  Harriet’s conservatory, a necessity in upscale Victorian homes, extended the entire rear width of the residence.  A grand staircase was centered toward the rear of the entrance hall.  It split at the landing, allowing sunlight to pour in from vast windows.

Although Harriet shared her parents’ fortune with her four siblings, her personal worth was immense.  In 1855 her fortune was estimated in the millions.  She spent her summers at Henderson House.  She had constructed the 22-room mansion in 1832 on her 20,000-acre estate near Richfield Springs, New York.  It was built to resemble the Scottish Gelston Castle.

In New York Harriet entertained the cream of society.  When Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth arrived in New York in 1851, he stayed in the 14th Street mansion.

Harriet’s household accounts of 1869 reflect life at No. 128 West 14th Street.  On October 9 Peter Wilson was paid $35.75 for “shaking carpets at Fourteenth Street” (apparently a sizable job, that amount equaling about $650 today).  The disparity in servants wages, depending on status, is also evident.  Among the staff was house cleaner Fannie Quinn who earned $27.13 in November; Harriet's butler Leonard Romaine was paid $46.96; and Reuben, “Mrs. Cruger’s negro servant,” earned $5.00.

Following James Monroe’s death in 1870, after a distinguished military and political career, his funeral was held in the 14th Street house on September 10.  It would be one of the last gatherings in the 14th Street house, for by now Harriet was descending into dementia.

Harriet had fallen in 1866 at the age of 77.   John Proffatt, ten years later, wrote that the injury “affected her mind, and then, at times, [she] was undoubtedly a raving, excited lunatic.”  Harriet became convinced that the devil was “bodily present” under her bed.  The New York Times later reported “she conceived that there was a fire burning beneath her bed, and that the devil himself was lying in wait there for her soul.  This delusion filled her with terror.”

Her pastor, the Rev. Dr. Paxton, and her physician, Dr Parker, tried their best to allay her fears.  She decided the only way to save her soul was to rewrite her will, bequeathing her immense fortune to religious institutions and charitable societies of the church.  Rev. Paxton insisted that she could not buy her way into heaven and tried to dissuade her from writing the new will.  As anyone could have told him, Harriet was not one to be contradicted and in the fall of 1867 the will was prepared.

Harriet Douglas Cruger died at the age of 83 in 1872.  Immediately her siblings contested the will, “on account of the insane condition of mind.”  The case dragged on for three years.  Finally on July 2, 1875 Judge Robert C. Hutchings announced his decision.  It was, as explained by The New York Times, a “peculiarly delicate” matter.  If he decided for the complainants, he was deeming “Mrs. Cruger, a lady of wealth, and distinguished for many years in New-York society,” insane.

But that was the decision and Harriet Douglas Cruger’s will was rejected and she was legally deemed to have died intestate.

In the meantime, the 14th Street house did not sit vacant.  The same year that Harriet died the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened at No. 681 Fifth Avenue.  The Museum’s minutes of 1893 noted “We transferred it in 1873 to the more spacious accommodation at 128 West Fourteenth Street.”  The Museum trustees described the house in 1873 as “a large and elegant building surrounded by spacious grounds, upon which grounds new galleries may be built, should they be required.”

The Museum leased the house from the estate on April 25, 1873 for five years at an annual rent of $8,000.  The New York Times reported on October 2, 1873 that “a small fee of twenty-five cents will be charged.”  The newspaper noted “The present location of the Museum is certainly far preferable to its former one, though the accommodations appear to be somewhat restricted, and should additions be made to the present collection it is difficult to see how they could be disposed of.”

On May 1, 1875 the museum offered free days—Mondays and Thursdays.  The Annual Report of 1875 recorded “The public has signified its appreciation of the additional privileges by a constant, large, and ever crowded attendance on those days.  The average daily attendance on free days has been 577.”

In 1876 New York as it Was and As it Is noted “A Collection of interesting Works of Art, presented and belonging to the Museum, of the aggregate value of $350,000, are now on exhibition at the Douglas Mansion, 128 West Fourteenth Street.”  At the time of that writing, the museum's permanent home in Central Park was rising. 

Artist Frank Waller depicted the entrance hall of the Cruger Home after the Metropolitan Museum moved in.

After the Museum moved to its permanent home in 1878 the Cruger mansion saw several uses, including The Armory Café by 1899.  Named for the massive 9th Regiment Armory directly across the street, it drew the attention of the New York Society for the Enforcement of the Criminal Law in April that year.   Society agents went undercover and what they discovered going on in her former home would have shocked and enraged Harriet Douglas Cruger.  Their report told of a gambling parlor in the “Armory Café, rear of billiard room.  This room was formerly a bowling alley, and is located on the ground floor; $1 bets.”

The Armory Café was raided on February 16, 1903.  The following day The Sun reported “Two fights which were scheduled to take place before an audience of sporting men in the Armory Café at 128 West Fourteenth street last night, were rudely interrupted by the police of the Charles street station, who appeared on the scene just as the first pair of fighters, stripped to the waist, were about to enter the ring and battle to a finish with five-ounce gloves.”

The patrons flew into panic.  “One hundred and fifty spectators, each of whom paid 50 cents to see the scrapes, were thrown into wild confusion by the sudden appearance of the police, and made desperate efforts to escape by rear doors and windows.  But they found policemen with drawn clubs at every exit, and finally submitted meekly to arrest.”  All 150 men were arrested.

The newspaper commented “The Armory Café is a notorious dive, the various proprietors of which have been in trouble with the police from time to time for many years.”

By 1914 the barroom and gambling hall had been replaced by the Salvation Army.  As America entered World War I, the old mansion was converted to the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Club for Service Men.  On February 27, 1919 the New-York Tribune reported on its opening.  “It was announced that the new club will be open officially until 11 p.m. every day, but the doors will not be closed as long as there is a wandering doughboy or gob in search of a cup of hot coffee.”

A far cry from the “notorious dive” it replaced, the Red Shield Club offered a reading room, cafeteria, offices and a “special room for women visitors.”  Downstairs were an employment office and the supply department “which furnished incoming transports with chocolate and cigarettes.”

When the 27th Regiment returned to New York on March 25, 1919, the Salvation Army workers were busy in the 14th Street house.  The New-York Tribune reported on “a small army” of workers who had been wrapping doughnuts in oiled paper to be distributed among the soldiers.  “Last night doughnuts stood in boxes, in barrels, in tubs, in baskets, in every receptacle that could be requisitioned, waiting to be loaded on trucks for today’s distribution.”

With the war’s end, the focus of the Salvation Army was closer to home.  On October 24, 1921 Major Edward Underwood reported on the organization’s work among the homeless, saying it had given out 10,000 discarded suits of clothes, 10,000 old pairs of shoes, 10,000 suits of underclothes and 10,000 overcoats.

Sadly abused, by 1918 the mansion is hemmed in.  It has lost its elegant split staircase, former balconies have become show windows, and fire escapes trail down from the topmost windows  -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

In summing up the history of the Cruger mansion, Ewing Galloway around 1928 said that after being used by the museum, "then it became a saloon, and finally ended its days as the Salvation Army training college, like a tired old man turning to religion at the end of a colorful life."

In 1928 the top floor and some of the windows have been removed.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1928 the Salvation Army contracted architects Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker to replace the old Cruger mansion with an impressive, up-to-date headquarters.  Ralph Walker, whose reputation for creating visually distinctive designs with unusual materials was already firmly established, was put in charge of the project.  The Salvation Army Centennial Memorial Temple replaced the Cruger mansion in 1930.  The Art Deco—sometimes called Ziggurat Moderne--building survives as one of Manhattan’s unique architectural designs.

photo by Edmund V. Gillon, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 

many thanks to historian Jay Cantor for supplying the George Templeton Strong information.


  1. The Salvation Army Bldg pictured is on the south side of 14th St so, if the lots are the same, her property would've extended back from 14th to 13th St.

  2. I love the first incarnation of the building at the top. The more the city is built up around it, the sadder it looks.