Friday, September 9, 2016

The William Templeton Johnson House -- No. 23 Gramercy Park So.

In 1844 Charles Ruggles began the landscaping of his Gramercy Square.  His ambitious project of creating an exclusive residential enclave similar to Washington Square and St. John’s Park was now more than a decade in the making.  Quickly elegant brick-faced homes began rising on the 66 plots surrounding the park.  Among the first was that of William Templeton Johnson, completed in 1847.

Johnson’s Greek Revival residence, at No. 23, rose four stories above a brownstone English basement.  The red brick was trimmed in brownstone.  The unpretentious elements—a simple wooden cornice with plain fascia board and a reserved entrance with eared surrounds and classical pediment—belied the elegance of the interiors.

A successful lawyer, the 33-year old William Templeton Johnson was the son of William Johnson, reporter of the Supreme Court of New York and of the Court of Chancery.  The Johnson family’s impressive American pedigree extended back to John and Margery Johnson who arrived in America with Governor John Winthrop.  (Their son, Isaac Johnson, was “killed by the Indians” in 1675.)

Johnson had graduated from Columbia College in 1832, walking away with numerous honors including the Gold Medal for the best “general standing” in the class; the Bronze Medal “in the evidences of Christianity;” and the Silver Medal for achievement in Greek and Roman Literature.

His decision to build his new house was most likely prompted by his marriage to Laura Winthrop in 1846.  The year after the Gramercy Park house was completed, William’s father died.  His mother, Maria Templeton Johnson, moved in with the family.

William and Laura would have three children, but by the time their only son, Oliver Templeton Johnson, was born in June 29, 1851, the family had moved to Staten Island.

The Gramercy Park became home to inventor Norman Wiard.  In 1859 he tackled the problem of transporting passengers across frozen rivers and lakes.  His solution was the “steam ice boat.”  In October that year the Polytechnic Association of the American Institute announced that Wiard had “consented to bring up a small working model of his invention for the examination of the members.”

Perhaps no place could use such an invention more than the bitterly-cold town of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.  On December 1, 1859 John Jay Chase excitedly wrote to the editor of the Prairie du Chien Courier “Norman Wiard, Es., the inventor of the Ice Boat, is now constructing in New York City, an ice boat with a capacity for carrying twenty passengers, and will be here with it about the twentieth of December.  He has proved to the satisfaction of some of the most scientific men of New York that his invention is a success.”

Wiard’s attention would soon turn to weaponry as the War of the Rebellion erupted in the South.  On October 1, 1862 he received a letter from Major General F. Siegel of the Army of the Potomac requesting “a battery of your (Wiard’s) 12-pound steel rifled guns.”  Siegel ended his correspondence saying “In my judgment the Wiard guns and equipments are superior to any field artillery I have ever seen in service.”

Norman Wiard provided equipment to the Union Army throughout the war.  On May 22, 1863, as production ramped up, he wrote to Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, advising “My drawings, patterns, flask, pit, and furnaces are now completed, ready to cast the first 15-inch gun under the contract awarded to me on the 10th day of April, ultimo.  I have a testing furnace constructed for the purpose of making experiments with metals.”

Wiard left left No. 23 at the war’s end.  It was purchased by Jonas Winchester, the owner of a drug company, and his wife Margaret.  Margaret E. Winchester was not the typical Gramercy Park socialite content with afternoon teas and evening dinner parties.  Beginning in 1866 she served on the executive committee of the Equal Rights Association, a position she would hold until 1870.  The American Equal Rights Association was formed on May 10, 1866 to “secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of Suffrage, irrespective of race, color, or sex.”

Margaret’s aggressive political and social ideals may have contributed to domestic problems. Although they did not divorce, Jonas Winchester moved out of the Gramercy Park house in 1869.  Margaret added to her finances by renting an attic room.  On February 13, 1870 an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald offering “A very handsome fourth story front Room, for gentlemen only.”

Margaret hosted an important meeting in the house on May 14, 1870 during which the American Equal Rights Association merged with the Union Woman’s Suffrage Society, forming the National Woman’s Suffrage Association.   The New York Times reported “Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was in the chair.”

In 1872 Margaret E. Winchester seems to have been experiencing financial difficulties, for that year she began operating the house as a full-fledged boarding house.  Among her first boarders was Mary Katherine Keemie Field, known professionally as Kate Field.   Her seemingly endless talents resulted in her many accomplishments as a journalist, lecturer, actress and “woman thinker.”

Kate Field -- from the collection of the Library of Congress

On November 12, 1872 she wrote to a friend saying “I’ve moved.  I went up so many stairs that I nearly died of them.  Now I’ve a parlor floor in a nice house well kept and my aunt is to have the floor above, which will be nice as I don’t like to be away from her.”

Six days later she sent a proposed article to Whitelaw Reid, editor of the New-York Tribune.  With unveiled sarcasm she said “If you reject [the enclosed], my address is 23 Gramercy Park (as I appear to be hated in The Tribune).  Please return [the enclosed] tomorrow morning.”  Despite the seemingly sharp comment, she ended by inviting Reid to have dinner “in my cosy parlor.”

In fact, Reid had offered to put her on the staff of the Tribune two years earlier.  She declined, telling him “I can’t be salaried [because] I won’t write what I don’t believe.”  Nevertheless her income from free-lance writing alone amounted to $5,000 a year when she moved into No. 23 Gramercy Park.  That would translate to a satisfying $100,000 in 2016 and does not include her income from lecturing.

Margaret E. Winchester still owned No. 23 in 1877 when she was listed as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Women.   Among her boarders that year were Benjamin Y. Pippey, a merchant whose office was at No. 128 Church Street; and David C. Sturges, an appraiser at No. 402 Washington Street.

The house continued to be operated as a boarding house through the rest of the century.  In 1887 physician George Henry Donahue was here.  He would remain at least through 1890.  On September 26, 1889 an advertisement offered “Handsomely furnished second floor front room, with private bath, hot and cold water; also other rooms; gentlemen only.”

The arrangement was perfect for professionals like attorney Charles Arthur Reed whose permanent address was in Somerville, New Jersey.  A room in a respectable boarding house provided him the ability to stay in the city when necessary.

The high-end status of the boarders was evidenced by Marshal McLean’s inclusion in the Social Register in 1901.  Other residents that year were Theo McKay and Albert L. Dodge, who was described by The Sun as “formerly a broker, but now cashier in a broker’s office.”

In May that year Dodge was pulled into a scandalous affair involving his son and daughter-in-law.  John C. Dodge and his wife, Adaline, were married on May 23, 1888.  After living on West 22nd Street, they purchased a home in Rutherford, New Jersey, described as “a very beautiful house.”

Living in the suburbs demanded that Dodge, like Chester Arthur Reed, often had to stay overnight in the city.  His absence provided Adaline with the opportunity for dalliance.

Rumors spread and a suspicious John Dodge laid a trap.  In May 1901 he told his wife he had to go on a business trip; then assembled a raiding party.  Around midnight on May 23 they arrived at the Rutherford house.  Dodge climbed to the roof of the veranda and entered the bedroom window.  His accomplices heard a struggle and Dodge’s calls for help.

Neighbor Charles J. Wilson later testified that another neighbor, Mr. Boniface, heard the commotion “and ran across in his shirt sleeves.  This neighbor lit the gas in the halls.”  The men rushed to the bedroom where Dodge “opened the door and [Adaline] came out in dishabille.  We found part of a man’s clothes lying around the room, and the room was in a very disorderly state, but the gentleman could not be found there at that time.  He had evidently made a hasty exit.”

Adaline Dodge was caught.  The scandal was made worse when two other couples were discovered in compromised situations in the house.  It was Albert Dodge who filed the complaint against her for his son.  The scurrilous details of the divorce trial were reported in lurid detail in the newspapers.

Rather astonishingly, the divorce was never finalized.  Nevertheless, John C. Dodge moved in with his father.  His problems worsened in May 1904 when he lost his job as a clerk for the New York Telephone Company.  On June 7, 1904 he wrote a note to his father, and then committed suicide in the Gramercy Park house by drinking carbolic acid.  The Sun noted “He was married, but was not living with his wife.”

Two weeks later, on June 20, the Dodges’ landlord, Frederick S. Tallmadge died at the age of 80.  The president of the New York Society of the Sons of the Revolution, he had amassed a superb collection of historic memorabilia.  Included was a library of between 1,500 and 2,000 volumes, a gold repeating watch presented by Napoleon to Francois-Joseph Talma, the original death mask of Cromwell, a portrait of George Washington by Sharples, and General George Clinton’s sword.

Tallmadge bequeathed the house to the Society of the Sons of the Revolution “to be used as a museum” which would include his impressive collection.  The New York Times reported “He directs in his will that this building be made as nearly fireproof as possible and that it be the depository for Revolutionary War relics, and for such other purposes as the Sons of the Revolution may deem proper for the perpetuation of the spirit of patriotism.”

The Society, however, was already involved in a museum project.  The organization owned the historic Fraunces Tavern which it planned to restore.   The Board voted against using the house as a museum, agreeing to sell it instead.

No. 23 became a private home again when it was sold in December 1905 to George Zabriskie.  The Times noted “The proceeds of the sale are to be turned over to the Sons of the Revolution to be used in restoring and putting in condition the famous old Fraunces Tavern.”  Zabriskie paid $55,000 for the house; about $1.5 million in 2016 dollars.

A prominent lawyer and Chancelor of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of New York, Zabriskie had married Sarah F. Gray in 1888.  The couple had three children.  Their two sons would follow their father’s lead.  George Gray Zabriskie would graduate from Harvard Law School, and Rev. Alexander C. Zabriskie would join the faculty of the Theological Seminary at Alexandria, Virginia.

George Zabriskie was the senior member of the law firm Zabriskie, Sage, Gray & Todd at No. 49 Wall Street, and a director in several companies.  The family’s summer estate was at St. James, Long Island where Sarah bred Airedales.

In 1930 George began showing symptoms of arteriosclerosis.  His condition became such that he could no longer go to his office by April 1931.  Then, on October 4 he died in the St. James residence a week before his 79th birthday. 

Sarah Forrest Zabriskie remained in the Gramercy Park house and her daughter, Mrs. Philip B. Stockton, moved in.  Sarah died in the house on September 30, 1933.  The family retained possession of the house until 1940. 

On September 28 that year the furnishings were removed “to be sold at auction” and on October 11 The New York Times reported that George Gray Zabriskie had sold the 20-room residence to Max and Marion R. Ascoli.  The newspaper advised “Mr. Ascoli is a professor at the New School for Social Research and will modernize the house for occupancy” and said “An oak-paneled library and hand-propelled elevator are among the features of the house.”

Marion was the daughter of Julius Rosenwald, part-owner of Sears, Roebuck & Company and founder of the Rosenwald Fund, which donated millions toward the education of black children in the rural South.  Max Ascoli was an antifascist refugee from Italy.  He would become dean of the New School for Social Research and, in beginning in 1949, the publisher-editor of The Reporter.

On October 16, 1947 the house was the scene of the wedding of Adele Stern to David Rome.  Adele was the daughter of Marion and her first husband, Alfred K. Stern.  Max Ascoli gave the bride away.

The Ascolis would remain at No. 23 for decades, continuing their efforts at social and political reform.  The New York Times described The Reporter later saying “In early years, it published bold critical studies of the China Lobby, of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s war on the State Department, of the effects of wiretapping and the misuse of lie detectors.”  By the late 1950s Marion was the President of the Northside Center for Child Development.

Ironically, it was not political or social issues that brought controversy to No. 23 Gramercy Park.  Following the death of Marion’s sister, Adele Rosenwald Levy, her family agreed to contribute to a fund for the redevelopment of Riverside Park, between 102nd and 106th Streets in her memory.  Their $500,000 gift included a structure designed by architect Louis Kahn and sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

Supporters of the plan said it would provide “an imaginative, beautiful and different recreational facility” in the underutilized park.  But it was attacked by others who called it a “giveaway” of public land for an unsuitable “family memorial.”  On October 5, 1963 protestors picketed outside No. 23 Gramercy Park South.

By the time of Max Ascoli’s death on New Year’s Day 1978, the couple had left the Gramercy Park house.

By the first decade of the 21st century the house was home to telecommunications and real estate mogul Michael Hirtenstein.  He put it on the market in 2008 for $20 million.  A listing said “The mansion…boasts original moldings in pristine condition, marble mantelpieces, mahogany doors and an elevator.It sold two years later for $18.5 million to Colombian heir Andrews Santo Domingo and his wife Lauren Santo Domingo, contributor to Vogue magazine.

The couple immediately planned extensive renovations including excavating the cellar floor to create an additional story.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission approved most of the alterations; but stopped short of the excavation, citing unnecessary risk to the structure.  

At some point in the 20th century the parlor windows were grouped and a cornice installed.

The interior elements which the 2008 real estate listing deemed “pristine” would not last much longer.  The Domingos’ plans (out of the control of the LPC) included “demolition and construction of interior partitions.”

The renovated house perhaps looks a little too perfect, with its polished marble doorway.  Its survival and its rich history, however, contribute significantly to the historic Gramercy Park.

photographs by the author


  1. Never understood the desire to purchase a unique property that is historic and whose interiors have survived intact for a century if not two, only to envision demolishing the original interior elements that make it so historic. Vanity and the piles of money that enables you to do whatever you want and then move on when you grow bored of your sterile stripped down interiors.

  2. I so enjoyed reading this piece. I'm doing research on William Templeton Johnson's wife, Laura Winthrop Johnson. I haven't been able to find much about William Templeton Johnson beyond vital statistics. If you would share your sources with me, I'd be so grateful.