Saturday, February 13, 2016

The George G. Haven Mansion -- Nos. 24-26 E. 39th Street

On November 29, 1886 Lizzie Hochstetter, described by The New York Times as “a bright appearing girl of 15,” hobbled into the Essex Market Police Court aided by “a very primitive crutch” and a neighbor, Mrs. Riley.  The brave girl made a complaint against her mother for domestic abuse. 

The crippled girl earned about 80 cents a day working in a shop that made furniture trimmings, like tassels and braids.  But she complained that her mother not only took all her wages, but did not give her sufficient food or decent clothing, and that she beat her.  The tipping point had come the previous Sunday when her mother threw her down the stairs.

Lizzie’s tenement flat had nothing in common with the high end, brownstone fronted residences of East 39th Street between Park and Madison Avenues.  There, at the corner, sat the imposing mansion of William B. Ogden; and just around the corner, at No. 24 East 39th Street, lived Mariana Ogden’s sister, Fanny and her husband George Griswold Haven.  George Haven was described by The Evening World as a “millionaire banker and broker and well-known horseman.”

News of the crippled girl’s plight reached East 39th Street, however, and a few weeks later the records of the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society noted a gift:  “George G. Haven, 24 East Thirty-ninth street, one artificial limb for Lizzie Hochstetter.”

George Griswold Haven could trace his American roots to Richard Haven, who arrived in Massachusetts in 1645.  A Columbia College graduate in 1857, he had founded the banking firm George G. Haven & Co. with offices on Wall Street.  A director in several banks and other institutions, he was a member of prominent social clubs and was highly responsible for the founding of the Metropolitan Opera House.

Six years earlier, in 1880, Haven married Fanny Arnot Palmer.  It was the second marriage for both.   Fanny was the daughter of Elmira, New York millionaire John Arnot, and the widow of Dr. Richard Suydam Palmer.  Haven’s first wife, Emma Martin, died in 1872.  The combined families (Fanny had two sons, and George had two sons and two daughters) moved into the brick and brownstone home at No. 24 East 39th Street.  Before long there would be another child, Marian.

Tragedy visited the Haven house one year before the Lizzie Hochstetter incident.  On Thursday, November 5, 1885 Fanny’s 18-year old son, John Arnot Palmer, collapsed in the house with a cerebral hemorrhage.  He died almost instantly.  The funeral was held in the parlor three days later at 1:00.

The Havens were prominent in high society and maintained a cottage in Newport and a magnificent estate, Sunnycroft, in Lenox.  George was a member of the New York Yacht Club—yachts being a near requirement for Newport residents.  He had retired by November 19, 1890 when Mayor Hugh J. Grant appointed him Park Commissioner in place of Haven’s nearby neighbor, J. Hampton Robb, who had recently resigned. 

But he reserved his greatest focus for the Metropolitan Opera House.  The New York Times would say of him “He has probably done more for grand opera in New York than any other one man.

Although Fanny’s son, Richard Suydam Palmer, had inherited the “large estate” of his grandfather, Courtlandt Palmer, he continued to live in the 39th Street house.  Like his stepfather, he graduated from Columbia, in 1889.  And, also like his stepfather, he was passionate about yachting.  He spent much of his summers on his yacht Marguerite; before purchasing the outstanding Yampa. 

So impressive was the Yampa that when Palmer moored her at Kiel, Germany, in 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm asked to buy it.   When Richard returned to New York, he sent the yacht back to the Emperor.

The yacht Yampa, which the German Emperor could not resist. photo by J. S. Johnston
That same year the Spanish-American War broke out.  Richard enlisted as a seaman on the St. Louis, and was quickly promoted to ensign.  He was in command of a cutter at Santiago and while there, was “forced to sleep in wet clothes” for about a month, according to The Sun.  When he developed appendicitis, he was brought back to the States and operated on successfully in New York.  But because of complications arising from his time in Cuba, he was sent to Colorado Springs to recover.  Fanny and Marian went with him.  He died there on Tuesday, February 28, 1899.

Deemed by The Sun “one of the wealthiest young men in New York,” his funeral was held in St. Bartholomew’s Church on March 6.   The flags of the Metropolitan, Union, Knickerbocker and University Clubs were flown at half-staff.   Among the “large assemblage” at the church were Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Sloane sisters, Mr. and Mrs. Bayard Cutting, August Belmont, Lewis Cass Ledyard, and James Brown Lord.  The bulk of Richard’s sizable estate went to his mother.

A scare occurred on May 12, 1903 that reached the Chicago newspapers.  George Haven, Jr. was taking a brand new coach for a ride with his half-sister, Marian.  The pleasant drive turned nearly disastrous when the coach was hit at 92nd Street by a Columbus Avenue streetcar.  Although there were two coachmen, “both in livery,” on the coach, George was handling the reins.  He was “violently thrown” from the vehicle, as were the other two men. 

Marian “had a thrilling ride tonight behind a pair of runaway bays,” according to the Chicago Tribune.  “These horses, gathering themselves after the impact, dashed through Ninety-second street toward Central park west, in the wake of the leaders, which had broken away from the coach, and one of which later leaped to death in Central park.”  The newspaper said that Marian, “clinging to the seat rail,” calmly appealed to passersbys.  The terrifying ride ended when another streetcar crashed into the coach, jamming it against a tree.

“Pale but self-possessed, Miss Haven stepped from the partially overturned coach and looked approvingly at the motorman of the car, who, badly frightened, was attempting to make explanations and apologies,” reported the Chicago newspaper.

“You arrived just in time,” Marian told him.

Later that year, on September 28, Fanny’s widowed sister, Mariana A. Ogden, died at her Lenox summer home.  She left the bulk of her $20 million estate to Fanny, including the mansion at Madison Avenue and 39th Street, and her estates in Newport and Lenox.  Of the Haven children, she named only two—Marian and John Arnot Haven, George Jr.’s son.

Mrs. Ogden’s will apologized for giving Marian only $100,000 (in the neighborhood of $2.8 million today), saying “I do not give her a larger sum, as I think it best she should receive through her mother’s will what her mother may deem may be for her best interest.”

She made young John work for his inheritance. “ A grandnephew, John Arnot Haven, is to have $5,000 provided he abstains from beer, liquor, wine and tobacco until he is 20 years old, and another $5,000 should he remain abstemious for five years more.”

It may have been Fanny’s massive inheritance that prompted a renovation and enlargement of the 39th Street house.  Around 1901 Fanny had purchased the former Frederic Jesup Stimson house next door at No. 26 and since that time her stepson J. Woodward Haven and his wife had been living there.  They would have to temporarily move while Fanny made changes.  On May 21, 1904 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that she and George had hired mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert to create a single 50-foot wide mansion from the two properties.  “No, 26 will be entirely demolished and No. 24 partially so.  The new structure will have a façade of light stone (Nova Scotia) and brick.” 

Before the renovation the Haven house (right) looked much like the other brownstones on the row.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
 The following day the New-York Tribune expanded on the details.  “A rear extension is to be erected, a new elevator installed and new staircases built and the interior remodeled throughout.”  Gilbert estimated that the project would cost the Havens $35,000, or just under $1 million in 2016.

Gilbert’s completed design was rather surprising.  The Haven’s immense fortune certainly did not require any scrimping; yet the high stoop—out of fashion for several years—was retained.  And it does not appear that the old Stimson residence was demolished—merely updated.  Gilbert made no attempt to hide the fact that this was a marriage of two earlier structures.  The treatments of the openings of the two buildings, for instance, have nothing in common with one another.

On March 7, 1908 George Griswold Haven was operated on for gallstones in the renovated house.  On March 19 The New York Times reported “All seemed to go well until Saturday, when he suffered a relapse.  From then until the hour of his death his five children were constantly at his beside or within call.  He gradually grew worse, and yesterday was kept alive by oxygen until 6 o’clock, when he died.”

Haven’s will provided $5,000 to be divided among his servants and gave Fanny “the privilege of occupying his country house at Lenox during her lifetime, on the condition that she will pay all expanses of maintaining the place during her occupancy.”  The will was written shortly after Fanny had inherited her sister’s $20 million estate and The Times noted “Mr. Haven says he would have made more ample provision for his wife but for the fact that she already has sufficient private estate.”

J. Woodward Haven apparently used part of his inheritance to leave the 39th Street house.  Within three months of his father’s death American Architect and Architecture reported on July 1 that J. Woodward had purchased property on 79th Street west of Madison Avenue “for the erection of a large and handsome new residence, to cost about $500,000.”

Fanny, however, remained in the double house at No. 24.    A troubling headline appeared in the New-York Tribune on September 17, 1919 that read “Mrs. George G. Haven Will Be Brought to Her Town House After Severe Illness.”  The article explained that Fanny had been ill at Sunnycroft and would “be moved” to the 39th Street townhouse that week.  Unfortunately, that would not come to pass.  A special dispatch from Lenox to The Sun on September 20 announced “Mrs. George Griswold Haven died to-day at Sunnycroft, her country place here, at the age of 84.”

While her daughter Marion, now Mrs. Forsyth Wickes, inherited the bulk of the estate; Fanny was extremely generous to the household staff.    She left $10,000 to her secretary, Martin Eiche; $9,000 to a maid, Margaret Fisher; $6,000 to coachman John Harry; and $8,000 and $5,000 to servants Bessie McGahan and Caroline Samuelson, respectively.  Other than Martin Eiche, the servants all lived in the 39th Street house with Fanny.   A Sunnycroft servant, Robert A. Schmid, received $5,000 and all the other services in her employ for five years of more received $1,000, the others receiving $500 or $200 depending on length of service.

Marian and Forsyth Wickes lived on in the 39th Street house for a few years.  Then on June 24, 1924 the Williams Club of New York announced its plans to move from No. 291 Madison Avenue, a block to the north, into the former Haven mansion.  The club’s directors had paid $240,000 for the house.

University clubs—like the Yale, Harvard and Princeton Clubs--had been highly popular since the second half of the 19th century.  They were not only a place to socialize; but provided lodging for out-of-town members. 

The Williams Club was founded in 1913 by alumni of Williams College.   The handsome rooms of the Haven mansion provided the appropriate setting for a college club.

The upstanding reputation of the club was nearly shattered in 1929 when the wife of one member sent an anonymous letter of complaint to the police department.  At a time when speakeasies and private clubs clandestinely broke Prohibition laws, the letter drew immediate attention.  On October 17, 1929 The Times reported “It is understood that the complaint in the letter had said that one of the club servants was maintaining a private bar on the premises.”

George B. Brooks, Vice President of the Williams Club, insisted that “There is nothing in that at all.  We have no bar and we have no servants keeping a bar.  I am familiar with all that goes on here and I know.”

Nevertheless, when Patrolman Isner visited the Club one afternoon around October 10, he found no bar; but arrested assistant steward John Fatseas for possessing two bottles of gin.

The clubhouse facilities were sometimes leased for special occasions, like the luncheon of the Rockefeller Foundation on June 2, 1932.  Dr. George E. Vincent addressed the group that day, speaking on the nation’s crime.  He blamed problems like the Lindberg kidnapping on the lack of “wholesome, spontaneous activities” for underprivileged youth and pressed for additional organizations like the Boys’ Club.

In 1953 the Williams Club completed a renovation that resulted in three dining rooms on the first story, along with a Ladies’ Lounge—a progressive step for college clubs.  The second floor housed the card room, library, conference room, office and four bedrooms.  The two upper floors were reserved for sleeping rooms.

But by the beginning years of the 21st century, staid social clubs were falling from fashion.  On May 13, 2010 The Wall Street Journal announced that the Williams Club was closing.  “William’s closure is just the latest of the vanishing pool of private clubs that keep leather-bound books and deer antlers on their oak-paneled walls…The demise of the university clubs comes not from economic recession or a dwindling population of grads, but a change in leisure interests.  Younger generations of men and women, for good or ill, seem to prefer boutique hotels to the gilded clubhouse.”

Ironically, it would be one of those boutique hotels that replaced the Williams Club.  In 2014 The William opened for business, offering 33 suites by design firm In Situ Design.  The sleek, modern and brilliantly-colored interiors leave little hint of the Edwardian glitz enjoyed by George and Fanny Haven.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the story. What would New York have become without the rich?
    I was fortunate enough to have attended a little high school gathering at the Williams Club around 1985. We had dinner in an upstairs room, and I remember that though worn (with a lot of yellows and browns), there was a nice atmosphere.