Monday, January 16, 2017

The Lost Woolworth Mansion -- 990 Fifth Avenue

Architecture Magazine, 1901 (copyright expired)
At the turn of the 20th century Frank Winfield Woolworth had come a long way from his family's farm in Rodman, New York.   He told a reporter "We were so poor that I never knew what it was to have an overcoat in that terribly cold climate.  One pair of cowhide boots lasted a year, or rather six moths, for the other six months I went barefoot."

Woolworth left home at the age of 21, venturing to Watertown, New York, where he convinced the owner of the dry goods store Augsbury & Moore to allow him to work free for three months.  After that he received $3.50 a week--the exact amount he was paying for his room at a boarding house.   By 1878 the 26-year old was earning $10 a week.

It was that year that the store where he was working installed a revolutionary marketing concept:  a five-cent counter.  Woolworth took the idea farther.  A year later he opened his first store in Utica, New York with $350 worth of goods purchased on a note endorsed by his father.  The store failed, but Woolworth was undaunted.

By the time of the interview there were several hundred Woolworth stores--all selling items prices at five or ten cents--and F. W. Woolworth was a wealthy man.  In 1886 he had relocated his headquarters to New York City and in 1890 moved his family into a brownstone house at No. 209 Jefferson Avenue in Brooklyn.

Woolworth had married Jennie Creighton on June 11, 1876.  They had three daughters, Helena, Jessie and Edna.  It may have been the girls' rapidly approaching the ages when they would be introduced to society--and potential husbands--that prompted the Woolworths' move to Manhattan.

Whether that was the impetus or not, in December 1898 Woolworth paid Louis Stern $175,000 for the north corner of Fifth Avenue and 80th Street, a plot 27 feet wide on the avenue, stretching 110 feet down 80th Street.  The price of the site alone would amount to more than $5 million today.

Woolworth commissioned architect Charles Pierrepont Henry Gilbert (known professionally as C. P. H. Gilbert) to design his opulent new home.  The millionaire may have been inspired by the mansion of Isaac D. Fletcher one block to the south, designed by Gilbert and completed that same year.  The two French Gothic chateaux would bear striking similarities.

In June 1899 construction was well underway and a comment in the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide that month gave a hint of the luxury the family would enjoy.  The Ellithorpe Safety Air-Cushion Co., reported the article, would be installing its air cushions at the bottom of the elevator shafts in the mansion.

Construction on the five-story residence took two years.  The family made the move from Brooklyn to Fifth Avenue in 1901.  Opening onto 80th Street, their new home was adorned with stone balconies (the heavy brackets of which at the fourth floor took the shape of gruesome winged gargoyles), delicate carvings around and above the openings, and curved bays.  The top floor detonated with elaborate dormers, gables, iron cresting and chimneys.  Spiky finials rose nearly the full story's height, ornate urns perched upon pedestals and even the chimneys wore spiny Gothic-style crowns.

The often-acerbic architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler was pleased with the finished product.  Included in his praise he said "On the long front, too, the wall is of a grateful restfulness and solidity, while the design and distribution of the dormers and chimneys animate the sky line and prevent the quietness from becoming monotonous."

photo by Wurts Bros.  Architecture magazine, 1901 (copyright expired)

Inside. the marble clad ground floor was little-used by the family.  Other than the Billiard Room (which looked onto Central Park) and the Smoking Room, it was given over to more utilitarian purposes--the kitchen, pantries and Servants' Sitting Room, for instance.  Also on this level was the "Serving Room," connected to the Butler's Pantry and Dining Room above by a back staircase.

Also on the second floor were the conservatory, or "Palm Garden," the Drawing Room, and the large Music Room where Frank Woolworth would play the Aeolian organ himself.  

The Music Room was decidedly French in style.  Woolworth was unusual among millionaires in that he played the organ himself.  photo by Wurts Bros. Architecture magazine 1901 (copyright expired)

The third floor housed the master bedroom, a guest bedroom, the library and the "Den."  The girls' bedrooms were located one floor above; and the servants' quarters in the top level.

Just three years after the family moved in, Helena was married to former Assistant District Attorney Charles E. F. McCann.  It was most likely the groom's education at St. Francis Xavier College that resulted in the wedding being held not in a fashionable Fifth Avenue church; but in St. Francis Xavier's Church on West 16th Street.  Nevertheless, according to The Tammany Times on April 23, 1904, "more than a thousand guests were present" in the church.

Helena's sisters were among the wedding party, Edna serving as maid of honor and Jessie as a bridesmaid.  Afterwards more than 500 guests filed into the Fifth Avenue mansion for the reception.

Like other forward-thinking millionaires at the time, Frank W. Woolworth was upgrading from horse-drawn carriages to motorcars.  And also like many of them, the transition caused him problems.

In October 1904 chauffeur John Ballard was driving the two Woolworth daughters along Riverside Drive when a bicycle policeman stopped him for speeding.  The speed limit was eight miles per hour; Officer McLoughlin estimated Ballard's speed at 20 mph.

When the chauffeur appeared before the judge on October 18, he did not hold back his contempt of the law; asserting that Jennie Woolworth's car was too powerful to maintain the speed limit.

"Every driver of a big automobile in the city violates the law every time he uses his machine," he complained.  "He can't help it, for the machines are not built to run as slowly as eight miles an hour; at least mine isn't."

The judge was not moved and held Ballard for trial.
A year and a half later Ballard would be stopped again, this time driving Woolworth himself.   The chauffeur was arrested and locked up.  When he appeared before Magistrate Crane on March 12, 1906, Woolworth was in the courtroom.

When the judge told the policeman that "he should have arrested the owner, instead of the chauffeur," Woolworth chimed in, saying he did not think the automobile was going as fast as the officer contended.

"Of course you don't," snapped Crane, "You automobilists never do know how fast you are going.  You go as fast as you please, and toot your horn, and if any one escapes you by the skin of his teeth you give him the laugh.  Nothing would please you automobilists so much as a machine that would go so fast that you could go by a policeman or any one else and not be seen by them."

No doubt unaccustomed to being publicly berated, the dime store mogul paid Ballard's $300 bail and left.

The Woolworth mansion would be the scene of another wedding reception on April 24, 1907.  Edna was married to Franklyn Laws Hutton in the Church of the Heavenly Rest that afternoon.   The wealthy groom was a partner in the banking firm of E. F. Hutton & Co.

Now 21-year old Jessie was the last daughter in the house.  The following March, with her parents out of town, she suffered a fright.  She was awakened from a sound sleep early on the morning of Saturday, March 21, 1907.  The Sun reported "At 1:45 o'clock, Miss Woolworth awoke and heard Margaret Burns, the cook, yelling for the police, the firemen, and the saints in her room below Miss Woolworth's one flight down.  The cook, it seemed, had been awakened by a noise and had turned on the light to find a man's two legs advancing through her window."

When Margaret screamed, the would-be burglar retreated.  The hysterical cook rushed to the window to see "a man was running away through the back area trailing a rope with a hook on the end."

The more composed Jessie telephoned police who investigated the scene, finding a dirty glove the crook had left on Margaret's window sill.  The thief, it turned out, had nerves of steel.  Even as the detectives were searching the Woolworth house, a report came in that he had been scared off from No. 1045 Fifth Avenue.  Before daybreak he had broken into four other nearby mansions.

On February 1, 1912 Jessie's wedding to James Paul Donahue took place in the Woolworth residence.  The New York Times noted that after the reception, "Mr. and Mrs. Donahue left on a two months' bridal trip, which will extend through Canada to California.  Upon their return they will reside in this city."

Not only would they reside in the city, they would be neighbors of Jessie's parents and sisters.  In 1911 F. W. Woolworth embarked on an ambitious and generous building project for his three daughters.  C. P. H. Gilbert was hired once again to design three lavish homes for the women and their husbands at Nos. 2 through 6 East 80th Street.  The last would be completed in 1915.

The following year Gilbert designed Woolworth's palatial summer estate, Winfield Hall, in Glen Cove, Long Island.  

Frank Winfield Woolworth -- photo via Associated Press
The lavish lifestyle within the Manhattan and Long Island homes was evidenced in 1916 when 21-year old Joseph Dowden, the "second butler," was arrested for attempted grand larceny of the Fifth Avenue mansion.  Despite his young age, Dowden came to the Woolworths with impressive credentials.  He had worked for, among others, Mrs. Ogden Goelet, William K Vanderbilt, and William Rockefeller.
Nevertheless, other servants reported that Dowden was seen trying to open the safes, one of which contained Jennie Woolworth's gold table service.  It had been purchased in France for $30,000.  The silverware in the same safe was valued at $10,000.  (The total value would equal about $891,000 today.)

Joseph Dowden was remarkably well dressed when he was arrested on Sunday, November 12.  The New York Times reported that he "wore a silk shirt, silk tie, and a brown velour hat."  Astonishingly, all the items he had on were identified as belonging to Woolworth.

Massive wealth could not prevent tragedy and heartache.  On May 2, 1917 Edna, only 33 years old, died when an ear infection lead to a fatal heart attack.  And Woolworth's wife, Jennie, was suffering early dementia.

The following year, on June 7, Frank Woolworth petitioned the Supreme Court to declare Jennie incompetent.  The petition said that it was "to his very great regret and sadness" that the proceedings were necessary.  Although Jennie was just 65-years old, her physician of 12 years, Dr. George W. Jarman, said she had been incompetent for the past two years.  She was not insane, he explained, "but has lost her mentality, due to a pre-senile condition."

The New-York Tribune reported "She has been unable to recognize [Woolworth] or her daughters.  Her condition, according to the physician, is such as is common in people ninety years old.  There is no hope for her recovery."

Towards the end of 1918 Frank Woolworth's health began to fail.  When he had not improved by Friday, April 4, 1919, his doctors decided to move him to Winfield Hall where the fresh spring air might help.  Jennie, unable to understand what was going on, was kept at home at No. 990 Fifth Avenue.

The following week The Potter & Glass Salesman reported "The famous merchant failed to respond to medical treatment and members of his family were called."  On Monday night he slipped into unconsciousness and died at 1:50 Tuesday morning, April 8, five days before his 67th birthday.  The boy who had spent six months of the year shoeless died the head of a $65 million corporation and the owner of the tallest building in the world, the Woolworth Building (which he personally paid for).

Of his more than $27 million estate Jennie inherited more than $6 million in Woolworth stocks, the Fifth Avenue mansion and Winfield Hall, along with other items.   Because of her mental condition, her holdings were placed into trust for her care, managed by Woolworth Company president Hubert T. Parsons.

On January 15, 1920 an exhibition prior to the sale of the mansion's furnishings and artwork was held at the Silo Galleries.  The New York Times mentioned "The house was a big one, 990 Fifth Avenue, corner of Eightieth Street, and the contents are notable chiefly, in this age of devotion to antiques, because they are modern."  Among the few items which did not fall into that category was the 17th century Beauvais tapestry, "The Fruit of the Fields."

Banker Jules S. Bache had paid a $20,000 deposit against the $460,000 selling price of the Woolworth mansion on January 9, 1920.  Two months later he took Hubert T. Parsons to court in an attempt to get his binder back.  His suit said that the house encroached past the property lines both on Fifth Avenue and 80th Street, making the title "unmarketable."
Two years later the issue had not been resolve and Parsons counter-sued, "seeking to compel the banker to carry out a contract for the purchase," as explained by the Record & Guide on March 4, 1922.  The Supreme Court dismissed the action.

The mansion remained unsold when Jennie Creighton Woolworth died in Winfield Hall at the age of 71 on May 21, 1924.   The following year, on June 9, it was sold a public auction to a two-person syndicate of Elias A. Cohen and Sewart W. Ehrich, who bid $385,000.  Interestingly, The Times noted "It was sold subject to the approval of the Supreme Court of the State of New York as to the rights of an infant co-owner, Barbara Hutton, a granddaughter of the late F. W. Woolworth."
The same month that the mansion was sold, this photograph was taken.  While the block was still lined with mansions, that was all about to change.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library.
The newspaper added "The new owners plan to demolish the present building and to improve the plot with a fifteen-story high-class apartment house with one eight-room suite on each floor."  The auctioneer noted that the purchase by the developers "is an added indication that the day when Fifth Avenue was a private residential district is forever gone.  The lack of individual bidders clearly demonstrates this."

photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On the site of the Woolworth mansion rose the apartment building named 990 Fifth Avenue; co-designed by Rosario Candela and Warren & Wetmore.  It survives today with still merely six apartments in the building.


  1. Definite similarities to the Fletcher mansion by the same architect, however who designed and lived in the French styled/gothic mansion on the same block, at the 81st Street corner?

    1. No. 995 Fifth Avenue at the southern corner of 81st Street was the home of banker John S. Kennedy designed by R. H. Robertson.

  2. I wonder if the salvaged anything from all those mansions they tore down? All that beautiful stuff gone with the wind.