Monday, August 10, 2015

The Lost Lily Langtry House -- Nos. 361-363 West 23rd Street

  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Exactly who built the handsome French Second Empire mansion that engulfed the building lots at Nos. 361 and 363 West 23rd Street is unclear.  Sitting on land that was formerly part of Clement Clarke Moore’s family estate, Chelsea, it was like no other house in the area.

The style had been introduced at the Paris Exposition in 1852 and within a decade had reached New York.   The 50-foot wide 23rd Street house epitomized the style with its high mansard roof, slightly-projecting central pavilion, and a lacy cast iron porch.  No doubt it originally was adorned with cast iron cresting along the roofline.

Whoever constructed the house preferred to live in a villa rather than a rowhouse.  The New York Times would, decades later, note “All the other houses in that block…are of the familiar high-stoop variety.”  The spacious plot provided for a 14-foot deep garden in the front and a carriage house to the rear (the property stretched through the block to 24th Street).  Two wide carriage gates flanked the 7-foot tall iron fence, allowing carriages dropping off guests at the door to easily enter one gate and exit the other.

Most likely the original owner of the 20-room mansion was Edward Fox.  He was probably the same Edward Fox whose high-end merchant-tailoring shop was at No. 216 Broadway.  At the age of 58, Edward Fox died of a heart attack in the house on Thursday night, June 22, 1865.  His funeral was held here the following Monday morning, prior to a solemn Requiem Mass downtown at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street.

At least by 1872 William Libbey and his family had moved in.  Libbey was a partner in the dry goods business of A. T. Stewart & Co.  Along with his wife, the former Elizabeth Marsh, their son William Libbey, Jr. was living here at least from 1872 to 1874 while he studied at Princeton.  He graduated in 1877.

The wealth and importance of the Libbey family was evidenced at the wedding of William Libbey, Jr. to Mary Elizabeth Green on December 7, 1880 in Princeton.  A special train of Pullman “palace cars” took wedding guests to Princeton where they were accommodated at the “elegant University Hotel.”

The New York Times, which deemed the ceremony “one of the largest and most brilliant weddings ever attended in Princeton,” reported that between the hotel and the bride’s home, where the wedding took place, “a continuous line of carriages was kept busy all the afternoon.”  The names of the families arriving at the Green mansion that afternoon included millionaires William E. Dodge, Anson Phelps Stokes, and Henry M. Alexander.

At the time of the wedding, a Philadelphia railroad magnate, Thomas Alexander Scott, was at work with Jay Gould in building a new railway line to the Pacific.  Scott was not only president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, but of the Texas and Pacific Railroad Company.   In 1879 he partnered with Gould and other investors to extend the railway from its terminus in Fort Worth to California.

It was possibly this connection with his New York business partners that prompted Scott to purchase No. 363 West 23rd Street.  William Libbey had decided to leave the city for his massive Woodcliff Castle on the cliffs of the Hudson River.  Within a month of their son’s marriage, William and Elizabeth sold the Chelsea house to Scott for $50,000—the equivalent of about $1.2 million today.

If Thomas Scott intended to leave his Rittenhouse Square mansion in Philadelphia in favor of the 23rd Street house in New York; it never came to pass.   Within a few months of the purchase, he suffered a stroke.  It was followed by two more, the last being on May 4.  He died on May 21, 1881.

The house passed to Scott’s nephew, David Beach Grant, a wealthy manufacturer of engines and machinery.   After living here for five years, the Grant family sought to lease it.  The problem was, according to a local resident later in a letter to The Sun “the neighborhood was no longer a favorite one among the wealthier people of the town, and no one who had not ample means could well afford the upkeep of so handsome a place.”

But someone who could afford the upkeep of so handsome a place appeared in the form of Frederick Gebhard.   He had inherited about $5 million and lived in a mansion at No. 100 Fifth Avenue.  Known as a clubman and horse owner, he rubbed shoulders with the wealthiest of Manhattan society.  But his interests moved from sports and clubs to Lily Langtry in 1882.

The entertainer, known as the Jersey Lily (for the British island, not New Jersey), was famous not only for her performances on stage; but for her beauty, charm and notorious affair with the Prince of Wales.  During one of her initial New York appearances, in 1882, she met Gebhard who was immediately smitten.  Although she was still married, the two began a long-standing affair.

Gebhard became Lily’s manager, financing her tours and traveling with her, despite disapproval from his club members.  Rumors that the couple would marry persisted while Lily attempted to obtain a divorce; but her obstinate husband, Edward, resolutely refused.

The 23rd Street house was perfectly located for the actress.  New York’s entertainment district was by now centered on 23rd Street—the Grand Opera House was just a block away.  As Lily sailed to New York in 1886, Gebhard leased No. 363 for $3,000 a year.  The house was ready for her when she stepped off the Alaska on September 26, 1886.

The New York Times was there, describing her as “attired in a black silk dress, with a white Fedora front and a huge Gainsborough.”  She disembarked with four maids, her dog Miss Tottles, and a Chinese servant.  The newspaper reported that she was driven “at once” to No. 363 West 23rd Street.

“The house is finely furnished and Mrs. Langtry was delighted with it.  With Wong Mo, her Chinese servant, at her right hand, and Miss Tootles, who is a dog, on her lap, she gazed around her with placid satisfaction.”

Wagging tongues, of course, were ready to find fault with the actress who was carrying on yet another extramarital affair.   Just a week after her arrival The Times reported “Considerable amusement in society has been excited by the elaborate accounts of the Chinese decorations made by Mrs. Langtry in the house she has taken in Twenty-third street.”  The newspaper took the gossipers to task when it added “As a matter of fact, these were made by Mrs. Beach Grant, the mother of Miss Adele Grant and the owner of the house last year, and were very much admired by society people at that time.”

Lily Langtry appeared as Lena Despard in the 1887 play As In A Looking-Glass while living in the 23rd Street house.

On March 14, 1887 a servant prepared the Music Room while Lily was entertaining friends at dinner.  Near one of the gas fixtures was an arrangement of dried leaves and long grasses.  As the servant lit the jet, “the vase became a bush of fire,” according to The Times the following day.

The flames quickly spread to the silk-covered wall and the draperies.  Servants rushed into the room and spent ten minutes beating the fire out with rugs pulled from the hallway.  “A skin of a monster tiger on the floor was charred, the tail of a cinnamon bear was eaten away, and the polished wood floor was blackened.”  Also damaged were autographed pictures of Gladstone, the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the King of Denmark.

The newspaper noted that Lily “was much disturbed at the confusion and the loss.”  It would not be Lily Langtry’s last bout with fire in the 23rd Street mansion.

Another annoyance came in January 1888 when Inspector McGinness of the Bureau of Encumbrances announced that Lily’s fence intruded on the public sidewalk.  When the actress heard that her fence would have to be moved, she was incensed.  Her attorney wrote a letter of complaint, saying “it would be unjust discrimination to take away the [fence] piers.”

Newspapers closely followed the drama of the Langtry fence.  On February 5, 1888 The Sun reported “The four formidable brick piers in front of Mrs. Langtry’s house…were still standing yesterday afternoon.”

But in Lily’s absence while on a Western tour, the Bureau of Encumbrances demolished the fence.  Masons were quickly set to work rebuilding the fence six inches within the property line, using the old materials.  The demolition and rebuilding of the fence was an object of interest.  “A crowd of persons watched them from the time they began till they drove the last spike,” said a disapproving neighbor. “That fence is the biggest curiosity we have around here.”

The fence with its brick piers caused much uproar in 1888.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Sun hinted that the presence of an actress in the neighborhood was as much an unwanted distraction as the fence hoop-la.  “The rebuilding of the fence has not increased Mrs. Langtry’s popularity in the neighborhood, where it is regarded as a sign of her approaching return.”

Sometime around noon on April 11, 1889 Lily left the house for a walk around the neighborhood.  A trunk of expensive costumes which she intended to wear in a new play she was to produce in Chicago had recently arrived from Paris.   They were taken to the third floor “wardrobe and sewing room” and not long after Lily went on her stroll, the servant who was ironing the costumes took a break.

When Lily got back to the house she found fireman at work.  The Times reported “A gas stove, used for heating irons, which had been left burning near a window, set fire to the window curtain.”  The fire fighters had to remove some of the slate shingles from the mansard to effectively fight the blaze.

“The firemen, knowing the value of the contents of the house, were very sparing in the use of water, and in this way a heavy loss was avoided.  The damage to the building, which is owned by Suydam Grant, can be repaired for $600.”  The often temperamental actress was less so in this case.  The Times said she “expressed her admiration at the prompt and judicious work of the firemen.  Her loss will not exceed $200.”

When Lily Lantry left West 23rd Street in 1890, the house was leased to Richard de Logerot.  Also known as Marquis de Croisic, he was the manager and proprietor of the Hotel de Logerot at Nos. 124-128 Fifth Avenue; the Croisic on Fifth Avenue at 26th Street; and the Hotel de Logerot in Newport.  On September 1, 1893 The Times noted that he had “recently refitted” the former Lantry residence.

By the turn of the century de Logerot had moved on and Suydam Grant was once again offering it for lease.  An advertisement on August 26, 1901 boasted “over twenty rooms in thoroughly good order, ready for immediate occupancy.”

The handsome house, now an anachronism on the much-changed 23rd Street, became home to the Pasteur Institute and home to its head, Dr. George Gibier-Rambaud.  The tradition of theater would continue in the house when Dr. Gibier-Rambaud married Jeanne Gerville-Reache in 1910.  She was for many years a leading contralto at the Metropolitan Opera House.

One of the chief focuses of the Institute was the problem of rabies and the inoculation of citizens against the disease.  The doctors and scientists at the Institute were often the bearers of unwanted news.  In May 1908 a 57-year old Brooklyn man took care of a wounded bull terrier that had wandered into his shop.  When the dog began acting strangely later, a veterinarian was called in who diagnosed the dog with rabies.  The dog was killed.

Soon afterward, William H. Marsh began having trouble swallowing.  His doctor suggested that he visit the Pasteur Instutite.  The tragic story reached as far away as the Midwest.  On May 20 The Chicago Tribune reported “Dr. William L. Wheeler, one of the resident physicians at the institute, made the examination and diagnosis.”

“Tell me the worst,” said Marsh.  “I want to know what I have to meet.”

“In all probability,” answered Dr. Wheeler, “you must die.”

“How long do you give me to live?”

“Not long,” replied the physician, “probably not more than four days.  There is nothing we can do for you here.”

Dr. Wheeler injects the rabies serum into a patient.  New-York Tribune, May 31, 1908 (copyright expired)
That same month the New-York Tribune wrote “New York is confronted once more with its summer plague of dogs, a nuisance and detriment to health whose extent can scarcely be calculated.”

In 1914 the Institute was the victim of what The Sun called “a dastardly nocturnal robbery with abduction.”  The newspaper said “eight rabbits and fourteen guinea pigs, involuntary candidates for Pasteur inoculations, were carried off.”

In 1918 Dr. Gibier-Rambaud was commissioned a Major in the United States Medical Corps and a few months later the Institute closed.   On April 18 The Sun reported that the house had been purchased by The Ancient and Mystical Order of Rosae Crucis.”  The organization would not have a serene occupancy.

The Grand Imperator, H. Spencer Lewis, was arrested “in a spectacular raid on the headquarters of his organization in the old Lily Langtry house,” reported The Sun on June 19.  “The allegations against Lewis are that he has disposed of several thousand dollars worth of bonds upon the representation that his organization was a recognized branch of a worldwide institution devoted to studies of the occult.”

The organization filed for incorporation stating that its objects were to encourage an “analysis of all ancient, medieval and modern religions, philosophy and moral codes.”  The State denied the petition.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1927 H. Leon Sharshik offered the property for sale, to be developed into a modern apartment building.   An outraged local, Robert Earl Outman, set out to save the house.  In his zeal to preserve it, he got its history seriously wrong.  Calling it the former home of Jenny Lind, he pleaded for people to donate to save “the old Jenny Lind home.”

Sharshik’s project came to an abrupt end when the Grant family as the Thomas A. Scott estate made the significant point that the real estate operator did not own the property.  Sharski was charged “with having forged the trust company’s signature.”  Sharshik fled the city, but was later arrested and sentenced to six months to three years in the penitentiary. 

Nevertheless, the end of the line had come for the old Chelsea landmark.  On February 4, 1927 The New York Times reported “The complainants had announced that they intended to tear down the historic house…and that architects had already drawn plans for a fifteen-story apartment house.”

Outman’s preservation thrust was obviously well underway, for the newspaper added “Plans were made to repurchase the property and put it under a Jenny Lind Memorial Association to keep the mansion as a shrine for music lovers and the public.”

Now squeezed in by modern buildings and the fence replaced, the old house awaits its fate in 1928.  photo from the collection of the New York Historical Society

Plans for demolition dragged on for two years.  On February 12, 1929 Lily Langtry died in Monaco.  Ironically, less than a week later the sale and coming demolition of the Chelsea house was announced.  Within the year it had disappeared and the apartment building designed by Arthur Paul Hess was under construction.  That structure was demolished in the 1950s for the massive housing project for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union known as Penn South.

1 comment:

  1. The 1978 BBC miniseries, "Lily," was a magnificently produced biopic that featured a spellbinding performance by Francesca Annis as Lilly Langtry. The series detailed the whole Gebhard /Langtry affair - some of the scenes may have taken place in this house ( I would have to watch the series over again to be certain of this). The fire that destroyed the costumes is portrayed in the series, although the fire appears to come from the direction of the theater and not the house. The only other inaccuracy I remember in the film is that Freddy Gebhard - along with Pierre Lorillard and other New Yorkers - are shown speaking with middle class, Midwestern English. The Brits, I'm afraid, have a problem when they cast the roles of Americans - they don't understand our historic regional and social class diction. The New York upper class accent of that era was close to that of the British aristocracy (think Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt). The Brits rarely get it right. Other than the diction quirk,"Lily"was a truly outstanding series.

    Titanic Bill