Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Henry G. Stebbins Mansion - No. 2 West 16th Street

Most likely an iron balcony once graced the parlor windows.  The clumsy studio additions on the roof were added around 1944.

Around 1852 dentist John Lovejoy erected a sumptuous brownstone-fronted mansion at No. 2 West 16th Street, just feet from Fifth Avenue.  By now the avenue was firmly established as the city’s preeminent residential thoroughfare and the mansions of Manhattan’s millionaires had passed 14th Street in their northward progression.

While Lovejoy’s Italianate-style house faced 16th Street, it was as opulent as its Fifth Avenue neighbors.  Its 35-foot width made it nearly double the size of a normal residence.  Three stories high above an English basement, it featured extras like handsomely-carved pilaster panels flanking the entrance, an elaborate hood on foliate brackets above the arched doorway, and tall floor-to-ceiling windows at the parlor level.  Heavy Italianate railings led down the stoop to beefy newels with cannonball-like finials.

Behind the residence was a private carriage house, accessed by an alley from West 15th Street. 

Lovejoy’s project was, apparently, speculative.  He sold the completed house to Lorenzo and Mary A. Jove.  Jove was a wealthy commissioner merchant, a partner with Joseph S. De Agreda in the firm S. De Agreda, Jove & Co.

With Jove and De Agreda in the firm was Jove’s son-in-law, Aaron A. De Grauw.  The firm, which described itself as “shipping and commission business generally,” maintained a branch office in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela.   Jove was in charge of that office and seems to have spent the majority of his time there.

It was no doubt this arrangement which prompted the Joves to lease No. 2 West 16th Street to Henry G. Stebbins as early as 1857.  Born in 1811, Stebbins’s success story was inspiring.

While a student he received a head injury that forced his parents to remove him from his private school.  (One biographer said he received an “accidental” hit on the head with a hard ruler.)  The New York Times later recounted that he “was prostrated for some time from the effects of the blow.  When he recovered his physicians insisted that he must give up his studies.”

His disappointed father, an executive in the North River Bank, arranged a position as errand boy for him there.  He learned quickly and left the bank at age 20 to establish his own note brokerage; although, as noted by The Times, “his capital consisted of almost nothing—what little he had managed to save from his salary.”

The 27-year old Stebbins was painted by Henry Inman in 1838.  from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Stebbins married Sarah Augusta Weston on October 8, 1831.  They would have five children, Henry Gerald (who died in infancy in 1832), Fanny Juliet, Mary Emma, Cora, and Charles Henry.  His far-flung responsibilities included his becoming a member of the New York Stock Exchange in 1833 (he would eventually be its President four times), being appointed Colonel of the 12th Infantry in 1848 (which was involved in putting down the 1855 Astor Place Riots), and his appointment as Park Commissioner in 1850.  That same year he formed the banking and brokerage firm of Henry G. Stebbins & Co.  He also made time to be a Director of the New York Academy of Music.

In 1857 Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won the design contest for the ambitious Central Park project far to the north.  The men would confer repeatedly with Stebbins throughout the development of the park.  It would have, most likely, been the focus of Stebbins’s attentions were it not for the outbreak of war in 1861.

Two years later Stebbins was elected to the House of Representatives.  Deemed by Civil War historian Richard F. Miller “a staunch War Democrat,” Stebbins’s aggressive views went against those of his constituents.  On October 26, 1864 The New York Times published his defiant letter of resignation.  It said in part “That you may have the opportunity to put in my place one who will more truly carry out your views, I have resigned my seat.”  He added that in private life he would continue to support “such men and such measures as I shall consider best calculated to sustain the honor of my country, to develop its unparalleled resources, and to perpetuate our beneficial institutions.”

Famed photographer Matthew Brady took this photograph much later in Stebbins's life.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.
That same year Stebbins purchased No. 2 West 16th Street from Lorenzo Jove.   Charles Henry Stebbins was still living here on March 15, 1865 when he was drafted into the Union Army.   The house was the scene of Mary Emma’s funeral later that year, on Sunday, November 19.    Now married to C. Alfred Grymes, the 28-year old had died on Thursday morning, November 16.

Like his term in Congress, Stebbins’s role as Park Commissioner came with controversy.  The 1858 Greensward Plan for Central Park included an open air “reception hall,” or Water Terrace, designed as the centerpiece of the park.  Later known as Bethesda Terrace, it was to feature a magnificent fountain.

Henry G. Stebbins was instrumental in awarding the commission of the fountain's statue in 1861.  It was the first major art commission in New York City awarded to a female artist.  Newspapers, however, were outspokenly critical of that fact that the sculptress was Emma Stebbins—Henry’s sister.  Despite the criticism and strong hints at nepotism, Emma Stebbins's Angel of the Waters statue at Bethesda Fountain was a masterwork and is today the symbol of Central Park.

Stebbins’s contributions to the Park and the city were widespread.  He started the drive to acquire an ancient Egyptian obelisk for the Park, resulting in the importation and erection of Cleopatra’s Needle in 1880; was an important member in the 1871 movement to oust the Tweed Ring; and was Vice-President of the United States International Commission of the proposed World’s Fair of 1883.

In the meantime, he made time for a social life.  He was Commodore of the New York Yacht Club from 1863 to 1870 (he owned the yachts Phantom and Sylvia and won several regattas with the Phantom), was one of the few men to have membership in both the Union and the Union League Clubs, and was additionally a member of the New York Club, the Manhattan Club and was at one time the President of the Arcadian Club.

Although the New York Times said of Stebbins’s work for the 1883 World’s Fair, “His whole heart was in this scheme, and he labored hard to push it to a successful issue,” he would not live to see it come to pass.   In 1878 he suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered.  On Friday, December 11, 1881 he seemed “comparatively well,” according to a newspaper.  Then at around 5:00 that evening while he was sitting in the parlor alone, he suffered another stroke.  The New York Times reported that Sarah found him “prostrate.”  Partially conscious, Stebbins was taken to his bedroom.  He recognized the friends who gathered around and was able to respond.  According to The Times, “at no time did he seem to realize that death was so near.”

Just before midnight he “peacefully breathed his last.”  In its obituary The New York Times called him “one of the best known and most highly respected of the old citizens of the Metropolis.”

Sadly distressed, the elaborate carving of the entrance hints at the home's former elegance.
No. 2 West 16th Street was sold to J. Joseph Alexandre.  The title, as was customary at the time, was put in the name of his wife, Nathalie Alexandre.  The couple maintained a country estate, Clifton Towers, on Staten Island.  Alexandre was a well-known clubman and held memberships in the New York Racquet, New York Yacht, Metropolitan and Riding Clubs. 

Included among the Alexandres’ domestic staff was Theresa McNabb.  She made a startling discovery late on the night of June 3, 1887.  Within the grassy areaway of the house someone had left a basket which held a baby boy, about two years old.  The New York Times reported “It is a remarkably handsome child and wore a beautifully embroidered dress and a silk cap.”  The Alexandres felt it best to send the “little stranger” to Police Headquarters.

Early in 1894 the Government purchased Clifton Towers “to make room for new fortifications” on Staten Island.   On February 7 The Times social column reported that the Alexandres “have recently purchased a country seat near Riverside, Connecticut.”

Shockingly, six months later, on August 8, the 51-year old J. Joseph Alexandre died at the Connecticut estate.   The funeral party arrived at Grand Central Station around 10:00 on the morning of August 11.  The members were immediately driven by carriage to St. Leo’s Church on West 28th Street.  Like Henry G. Stebbins had been, Alexandre was buried in fashionable Greenwood Cemetery.

Nathalie Alexandre retained possession of No. 2 West 16th Street until December 1897, when she sold it to wealthy banker, coal merchant, and Director of the Union Pacific Railroad, James W. Ellsworth.  In reporting the sale, The Times noted that the property included “a stable at the rear and the right of way to Fifteenth Street.”

Ellsworth was married to the former Julia M. Clarke.  It was her second marriage and her sons, Benjamin C. and William M. Fincke, moved into the house as well.

James W. Ellsworth was a native Chicagoan and was a Chicago Park Commissioner.  His purchase of the Manhattan mansion signaled his increased business activities in New York; and eventually triggered disdain at home.  On March 2, 1900 a special report to The New York Times from Chicago revealed that “Commissioner James W. Ellsworth is regarded as having virtually become a resident of New York” and “It is asserted that unless Mr. Ellsworth’s resignation is submitted…the interests of the South Park system will suffer.”  The headline of the article made Midwestern sentiments clear: “Want Park Commissioner Out.”

Nine days later James W. Ellsworth sent a telegram “of considerable length” to Chicago, informing his friend, Judge A. N. Waterman, that “in view of the criticisms that had been made regarding his holding office as Park Commissioner when so much of his time was spent in New York, he deemed it best to tender his resignation.”

An important entertainment was held on West 16th Street on Saturday evening, March 9, 1901.  Benjamin Fricke’s engagement to Julia Post Brown, the daughter of Waldron Post Brown, had been announced in January.   The Ellsworths entertained the entire bridal party at dinner that evening.

The socially-important wedding took place in the Church of the Incarnation on November 12, 1901.  Among the guests were prominent socialites like Mrs. I. Townsend Burden and the entire Henry A. Barclay family.  Benjamin’s best man was his brother, William.

Julia Ellsworth had little time to relax.  Five days later William Fincke’s engagement to Helen Hamlin was announced.

By now the once-exclusive neighborhood had drastically changed.  Former mansions were being razed or converted for business purposes.  In the first months of 1903 James Ellsworth purchased a newly-built residence at No. 18 East 53rd Street and in March sold No. 2 West 16th Street to real estate operator John Bradley.

Bradley immediately made interior alterations and in July leased the house to Madame Reno “for a term of years.”   The high-end dressmaker would cater to Manhattan’s carriage trade here until 1906, when the Grolier Society, named after the famed Grolier Club, took over the first floor for its “office and salesroom.”   The publishing company specialized in the printing of quality editions of classic literature and rare books.

In May 1906 Bradley sold the carriage house property and the following year, in June, sold the former mansion.  The buyer, Hudson Realty Company, had already bought up the adjoining corner property on Fifth Avenue.  The firm announced plans to erect at 12-story building on the combined plots.

Somehow No. 2 escaped that fate and instead it was converted to rented rooms.  Its occupants were far different from the Stebbins, Alexandre or Ellsworth families.  One of them, William Sherwood appeared in court on October 11, 1911 on charges of assaulting his stepfather, George Gallagher.  His accuser dropped the charges; but Sherwood’s problems were not over.

The Sun reported “As he left the court room, Headquarters Dectectives Slevin and Campbell took him into custody on the charge that he was the man who attempted to hold up and rob Louis T. Rosenbaum.” 

On the night of July 24 the 23-year old Sherwood had entered Rosenbaum’s shoe store at No. 241 Bleecker Street, pretending to buy shoes.  After being fitted and selecting a pair of shoes, Sherwood produced a revolver and ordered Rosenbaum to “throw up your hands!  Give the keys to your safe.”

A passerby scared Sherwood off before he could open the safe.  He rushed from the store still clutching the safe keys, fired two shots backwards to prevent being chased, and disappeared in a taxicab.

Now William Sherwood’s wife rushed to Police Headquarters.  When the woman who had interrupted his robbery and Louis P. Rosenbaum were brought in, Mrs. Sherwood pleaded with them “not to make an identification,” according to The Evening World the following day.  The witnesses were unmoved and both positively identified the crook.  Detectives told reporters “The attempt on Rosenbaum greatly resembled the robbery two nights previous by the ‘taxicab gang’ of Jacob Jacoby’s jewelry store at Sixth avenue and Thirteenth street when Louis Stern, a relative of the owner, was shot dead.”

A much more respectable tenant came in the form of newly-married poet and lawyer Edgar Lee Masters.  The 57-year old author of the Spoon River Anthology, Children of the Market Place and other books of verse and prose was married in the Municipal Building to 27-year old Ellen F. Coyne on November 5, 1926.

For about a month Masters had lived in a two-room apartment here, and listed his “law offices” at the address.  In reporting on their civil service ceremony, The New York Times noted that the poet had left No. 2 “a short time ago, coming back yesterday afternoon to get his mail and many telegrams of congratulation.”  Ellen Masters fondly remembered to New York Magazine in November 1979 that “the front apartment at No. 2 West 16th Street was our first home in New York City.

In 1931 the house was converted to a New York University fraternity house, with two “sleeping rooms” on each floor and a reading room.  It was converted once again, in 1944, to apartments with an artist studio on the top floor.

In 1949 Ellen Street opened her boutique bakery, the Ellen Street Studio, in the building.  She created custom cakes “on order only” here at least through 1965.  She was followed in the early 1980s by the New York Wine Tasting School.  Through it all, the alley from 15th Street to the old stable property survived.

A stubborn hold out from an elegant age, the Stebbins mansion has suffered substantial abuse and neglect.  The window enframements and tiny sill brackets are weathered away and endure clumsy attempts at reparation.  One of the hefty newel balls is missing and a stucco-like coating on the brownstone is flaking.  Despite it all the grace of the disgraced dowager shines through.

photographs by the author

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