Monday, September 19, 2016

The Lost Angie Booth Mansion -- No. 4 Riverside Drive

photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Construction of Riverside Drive and its accompanying park began in 1872.  Within a decade wealthy homeowners and developers would eye the site with its vistas and cooling river breezes as a new mansion district.

John S. Sutphen owned the entire block front between 72nd and 73rd Streets when, in 1896, he sold the first building plot, No. 3 Riverside Drive, to Philip Kleeberg.  Sutphen had written the deeds to the sites to ensure an upscale neighborhood; restricting construction to “a first-class building, adapted for and which shall be used only as a private residence and for one family.”

Kleeberg’s lavish mansion stood alone for several years.  Finally in September 1901 the two lots to the south (Nos. 1 and 2) were sold.  But it would be another five years before the site at No. 4 was purchased by wealthy marble merchant Carl D. Jackson.  On April 14, 1906 the Record and Guide reported his intentions to erect a five-story, $50,000 residence. 

The commission would be a bit of a geographical departure for architects Trowbridge & Livingston, who had done little work on the West Side.  And, in fact, the marble-faced residence, completed in 1908, could have fit comfortably into the Upper Fifth Avenue mansion district.  Refined and dignified, its symmetrical fa├žade was 31 feet wide.  The entrance above a shallow stoop matched the arched openings of the first floor.  The bronze of the double door grills continued into the sumptuous fan light above.  The second floor, or piano nobile, with its tall windows with triangular Renaissance pediments, featured a full-width stone balcony, the design of which reappeared above the cornice.   

Steps away from the Jackson mansion and engulfing the entire block between 73rd and 74th Streets, was the newly-completed, $3 million palace of Charles M. Schwab.  The gargantuan residence assured the exclusivity of the neighboring properties and Carl D. Jackson took advantage of the situation.  After he filled his mansion with art and antiques, he sold it.

On June 22, 1909 the New-York Tribune reported “An unusual sale for the time of the year was made yesterday when Mrs. Henry Booth bought from Carl D. Jackson the property at No. 4 Riverside Drive, facing Riverside Park, and just south of the home of Charles M. Schwab.  Mr. Jackson finished the house last year for his own occupancy.”

Later that year, in October, The Record & Guide would explain Jackson’s motive.  He had purchased the empty plot next door, at No. 5, and “intends erecting a house for his own occupancy.” 
The newly-widowed Angie M. Booth paid $300,000 for the house, $100,000 of which covered the “tapestries and other furnishings.”  Her husband, Henry Prosper Booth, had died six months earlier, on January 16.  The shipping magnate had been president of the Ward Line of steamships, and director in the American Mall Steamship Company, the Brunswick Dock and City Improvement Company, the International Express Company, the New York and Cuba Mail Steamship Company, and several other large corporations.  With his death Angie inherited millions.

Annie Booth outfitted the windows with custom-made, drop out canvas awnings to deflect heat and sunlight.  photo by Wurts Brothers from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Born Angie M. Rowan, she had married Henry in 1867.  She had two sisters, Adelaide and Mary.  While Mary had remained single, Adelaide married the well-to-do real estate operator and hotelier Walter Lawrence, who owned the Sherman Square Hotel on Broadway.  Interestingly enough, Lawrence’s partner in real estate deals was Robert E. Dowling, who owned the undeveloped corner plot at No. 6 Riverside Drive.

It may have been Walter Lawrence’s shaky health which prompted Angie to invite the couple to share the Riverside Drive mansion.  Also moving in was Mary, who had little money of her own and no real means of support.  When Walter died in the house on April 3, 1910 at the age of 64, the women continued on, outwardly sharing it and Angie’s 80-acre summer estate, Broadlawn, on Long Island as equals. 

Angie purchased the house at No. 3 the following month as a rental investment and, most likely, a way to guarantee her approval of her next door neighbor.  

Angie Booth's summer estate included a greenhouse, "flower packing house," superintendent's cottage, ice house, dairy, and stables.  American Trust Company, 1922 (copyright expired)

Her strong, commanding personality may have led to tragedy the following summer.  The sisters went to the Great Neck estate, leaving only the housekeeper Lizzle French, to mind the Riverside Drive house.  Late in July Angie and Mary got into what a family member called “a trivial quarrel.”  But for Mary, who depended on her sisters for financial support, the argument was by no means trivial.

According to The Evening World later, “Then the sisters in the country missed Miss Rowan.”  Oddly enough, Angie and Adelaide do not appear to have launched much of a search for their missing sister--at least not initially.

On Thursday, July 27 Mary appeared unexpectedly at the Riverside Drive house.  She told Lizzie French that she had come home to retrieve some dresses and things she needed for the country.  But she kept repeating the word “trouble.”  The housekeeper later told investigators Mary told her she was “troubled, troubled, troubled.”

Mary went to her room upstairs and Lizzie thought no more of it; assuming the 45-year old woman had left without saying good-bye.   She happened to mention it to William S. Hill, Angie’s son-in-law, who came by the house a few days later.  Hill handled her affairs and therefore often checked in on the city and summer properties.  When he visited the Long Island estate, he told Angie Mary had been at the city house.  “Then they began their search,” reported The Evening World.

On August 7 “Mrs. Booth came in from Great Neck in her touring car and directed that every part of the big house be searched for her missing sister.  The house was gone over, with the exception of the bathroom on the top floor, which was locked.”

The next day Lizzie sent for William S. Hill and, according to The Sun, “told him he ought to look in the bathroom.  Hill sent for a policeman and the door was broken in.”

There they found Mary Rowan, hanging from a water pipe.  She had been dead for about 10 days.  Mary had ensured that Lizzie would not hear her by stuffing her own mouth with a towel.  She tied another towel around her neck, tightly attached the other end to the water pipe, then kicked a chair out from beneath her feet.

Mary had carefully laid out five suicide letters.  One, addressed to the Coroner, explained “Only family troubles make me do this.  I am not crazy; I am only heart-broken.”  Another, addressed to the housekeeper, read “Lizzie: I thank you for your kindness to me.  Enclosed find $50 to make your sick sister happy.”  Lizzie French’s sister was an invalid.

The other letters, the contents of which were undisclosed, were addressed to Adelaide and Mary’s cousins, Mr. and Mrs. J. V. Fartonte.  There was no letter for Angie Booth.

The Sun hinted at a reason for the suicide.  “Miss Rowan had no income of her own and fretted because she was dependent on her sisters.  Some trivial quarrel with Mrs. Booth is said to have caused her to kill herself.”

In the meantime, Carl Jackson had never realized his plans for another mansion next door and No. 4 enjoyed what was essentially a side garden.  That situation was ensured when Angie Booth purchased the empty lots at No. 5 and 6, and then also purchased the mansion at No. 2.  She now owned nearly the entire blockfront.

Angie Booth's house and gardens are at the lower right.  Charles Schwab's palatial home engulfs the entire block to the north.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress

Angie sold No. 3 in 1915 to William Guggenheim, who to her shock and disapproval, first operated it as an upscale boarding house and then rented it to Dr. William H. Wellington Knipe as a “twilight sleep sanitarium.”  Twilight Sleep was a procedure used on women going into labor intended to reduce the pain of childbirth.

Angie Booth sued the doctor, using the Sutphen covenants against anything but a private residence on the property as reason to shut down the sanitarium.  Eventually William Guggenheim moved in, restoring the mansion to a single family home.

For years Angie’s trusted physician had been Dr. George H. Dowsey.  The wealthy doctor owned a summer house, Bonnie Manse, at Kensington, Great Neck, Long Island near the Booth estate.  In 1916 he told Angie that her heart condition was such that he should “attend to her at Great Neck or New York at least once a week.”  The New York Herald explained “For this he was to get $12,000 a year, payable $1,000 at the beginning of each month.”  The doctor’s monthly fee would translate to more than $22,000 today.

He also convinced her to allow him, rather than William Hill, to manage her finances and properties.  The doctor charged her another $20,000 a year for that service.

By 1920 Angie suspected she was being duped and instructed Dowsey to discontinue the weekly medical visits.  Her last payment was in September that year.  Then on October 13 she fired him as her attorney in fact.  An unhappy Dowsey sued her in January 1922 for breaking both agreements.  And the feisty 72-year old dowager fought back.  She counter-sued, demanding an accounting of how he had spent her money.

Neither party would see an end to the litigation.  Angie M. Booth died on the morning of June 19, 1922 in the Riverside Drive mansion.  Her $12 million estate was left almost entirely to Adelaide, who was now 75 years old, including the Riverside Drive and Great Neck properties, “and five automobiles.”  But Angie’s death did not put an end to drama.

Relatives quickly appeared to contest the will.  A grandniece, Marie A. Landolt, first began proceedings against Adelaide.  She was soon joined by Harry Allison, a grandnephew.  With the estate held up in court, Adelaide requested a $15,000 per month allowance to maintain the properties pending the decision.  The extended family fought that as well. 

Adelaide paid William Stanley Hill to administer her financial affairs.  He did not help her case when he annoyed the judge, Surrogate Foley, in December who said “his testimony before me was evasive and untruthful.”  On December 13, Foley ruled that Adelaide could live on in at No. 4 Riverside Drive, but until a final decision on the will was made, she was not permitted to enter the Great Neck estate.  He also reduced her $15,000 a month allowance to $2,000.

The Riverside Drive properties were eventually returned to the Booth Estate and managed by the Bank of Manhattan Trust Company.  The country estate was sold and the elderly Adelaide Lawrence, who had lived in the house for years, was evicted.

No. 4 was leased to Russian dancer and balletmaster Michel Fokina.  On October 8, 1923 The New York Times reported that he had returned to America from London and would be moving into the “six-story marble building and home of the late Mrs. Anna [sic] Booth [which] has been newly decorated by Vera Fokina, the dancer’s wife.”

Born in Saint Petersburg into a prosperous merchant family, Fokine was a prodigy.  Not only an accomplished ballet dancer, he created full-length ballets, was an talented artist, and was ground-breaking in his modern dance techniques.  Among his students at the Imperial Ballet School was the international sensation Bronislava Nijinska.

Now he announced that he would open his “ballet dancing studios” in the mansion.  The Times added “Mr. Fokine announced that he had also leased the large corner plot adjoining the home and facing the Schwab mansion, which he plans to turn into a Summer garden, patterned after the open-air theatre in the rear of Paul Poiret’s Paris establishment, for his pupils.”

Years later The Times explained the conversion.  “The ground floor of the building contains the servants’ quarters; the first and second, living quarters of the Fokines, and the third, dancing studios.  The fourth consist of guest rooms.  The house is furnished with many costly paintings.”

A 1933 directory listed Michel and Vera Fokine offering classes in “ballet, character, esthetic, Greek, etc.” in the house.

The household staff had the day off on Sunday, June 16, 1935.  Around 4:00 that afternoon 20-year old Vitale Fokine went out for the evening, followed shortly after by his parents.  Vitale was the first to arrive back home, at around 10:00.  He immediately saw that the glass in one of the main entrance doors had been broken.  He unlocked the door to find the mansion looted.

By the time Michel and Vera returned the police were there.  The Times reported “The burglars ransacked the house, strewing clothing and silverware and turning furnishings upside down.”  The wall safe in Vera’s bedroom had been broken into.  Among the jewelry items taken was a $10,000 brooch, “several diamond-studded pendants, a lavaliere and earrings.”  Vera also lost two mink coats and a mink cape, valued at $6,000.

Apparently the robbers were frightened off in the midst of the caper.   Part of the silver service was found on the dining room floor waiting to be carried off.  Nevertheless, they made off with about $25,000 in loot—a major haul during the Depression years.

By the time of the robbery the Booth Estate had already been fighting to have the house demolished so it and the undeveloped side plots could be improved with a modern apartment building.  But the old Sutphen covenants—restricting the properties to high-end single family houses—were in the way.

In January 1931 the Estate went to court to have the covenants overturned.  It argued “No one today would improve the property in accordance with this covenant, and the only purchaser would be one who would hold it until the covenants are canceled.” 

But it would be another five years before the courts would be swayed.  The mansion which had been the scene of much drama since its completion in 1908 was razed.  In place of it and the garden lots at Nos. 5 and 6 a 19-story apartment building designed by Boak & Paris was completed in 1937.

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