Monday, June 26, 2017

The Lost C. A. Postley Mansion - 817 Fifth Avenue

Postley's addition is seen just beyond the stoop at the side.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
By the mid 1880s wealthy New Yorkers were abandoning "Millionaires' Row" below 59th Street and erecting fine residences on Fifth Avenue along Central Park.   Speculative developers, too, joined the trend and in 1885 Charles T. Barney completed a mansion on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 63rd Street.

Barney had commissioned Robert H. Robertson, with whom he already had a working relationship, to design the residence.  The Philadelphia-born architect was known for his personal take on the popular Romanesque Revival style.  For the Barney project he married that style with the emerging Queen Anne.

Clad in red brick and stone, the completed house was a visual feast of angles and shapes.  While the entrance above a dog-legged stoop was on 63rd Street, the residence took the more impressive Fifth Avenue address, No. 817.  Robertson's signature Romanesque Revival style--appearing only at the second floor--took back stage to Queen Anne.   By simply chamfering the corner above the second floor, Robertson gave the impression of a two-story setback.  A profusion of stained glass transoms, a riot of angles and shapes, and a delightful mountainscape of dormers and peaks at the attic level were all typical Queen Anne elements.

In May 1885 Barney sold the newly-completed residence to Clarence Ashley Postley for $100,000.  But the new owner had even grander ideas in mind for the house.  He immediately brought Robertson back to enlarge it by creating a seamless extension on the plot at No. 2 West 63rd Street.  The $10,500 project brought the total cost of the mansion to what would today amount to about $2.8 million.

Three years after the Postley mansion (right) was completed, the Progress Club opened on the opposite corner.   photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Postley came from a long line of military men.  His great-grandfather was an officer in the Revolutionary War; his grandfather, Charles Postley, was an officer in the War of 1812; and his father was General Brooke Postley, "commander during the Rebellion of the famous Hussar Brigade," as described by historian William Van Rensselaer Miller in his 1894 Select Organizations in the United States.  Miller added that the Postley family traced its New York roots "to its earliest history."

Clarence, too, started out in the military.  He graduated from West Point in 1870 and served in the Third U. S. Artillery, and was an instructor of mathematics at West Point for five years.

In 1874 he married Margaret Vincent Sterling.  The couple would have two children, Elise (known popularly as Elsie) and Sterling.  In 1883, two years before buying the Fifth Avenue mansion, Clarence retired.  He turned his attention to what he most enjoyed, club life, horses and yachting.  His club memberships included (but were not limited to) the University, Union League, Players', New York Athletic, Hamilton Park, New York Jockey, Coney Island Jockey, New York Yacht, American Yacht, Corinthian Yacht, Larchmont Yacht, and Seawanhaka Yacht Clubs.


The family (including Postley's parents) had barely moved into its new home before Clarence addressed a neighborhood problem: the Menagerie in Central Park at 64th Street.  He signed a protest to the Board of Estimate in November 1885 which complained, in part, "The noise and confusion that naturally attends upon public exhibitions of this kind, tends materially to disturb the peace and comfort of those who reside in its immediate vicinity."  (Interestingly, enough, within a few years Clarence would be a supporting member of the New York Zoological Society.)  Other signatures on the petition gave a hint of the Postleys' exclusive neighborhood, among them William Rockefeller, Ogden Mills, James Sinclair, John J. Sloane, Henry Marquand, and Richard M. Hoe. 

Later Harry Brown, in his The History of American Yachts and Yachtsmen, noted "Commodore Postley occupies one of the most palatial residences on Fifth avenue, where his system, order, taste and geniality have established one of Greater New York's ideal houses of the rich, from when flow commerce and prosperity, while his popularity is universal."

Margaret and Clarence appeared regularly in the society columns.  On February 5, 1892, for instance, The Epoch reported "A very handsome luncheon given by a very handsome hostess in an equally handsome house was that last Tuesday of Mrs. Clarence Postley of 817 Fifth avenue...The floral decorations were very beautiful and the favors for each lady consisted of dainty baskets filled with lilies of the valley while to the basket's handle was attached an exquisite spoon with a bowl of rare enamel."

The couple threw themselves into a newly-popular activity in 1895--indoor bicycling.  They joined the "number of prominent society people riding at the Bidwell-Tindham Academy" on 59th Street.  The New York Times reported "Both are delighted with it, and Mr. Postley has become so enthusiastic that he proposes to form a small private club and engage a hall for riding purposes at once."

Clarence Postley in 1900 -- The History of American Yachts and Yachtsmen (copyright expired)

In the meantime Sterling was eyeing prospective brides.  On January 5, 1896 The Times reported that "Stirling [sic] Postley...gave a theatre party last night at Daly's Theatre for Miss Elsie Norton of Albany."  Following the performance, "a supper and informal dance followed at Mr. Postley's house, 817 Fifth Avenue."

Two years later Sterling had made his selection.  On November 13, 1898 the San Francisco Call announced the engagement of Miss Ethel Cook, daughter of Mrs. Horace Nelson Cook, to Sterling.  The New York Times called her a "reigning belle of San Francisco."  Ethel had earlier made headlines when Grand Duke Boris of Russia drank champagne from one of her slippers at a banquet, declaring her "the most beautiful American woman" he had ever seen."

Like his father, Sterling was more interested in clubs and yachting than business.  But his sporting life was almost cut short by a serious attack of typhoid fever in 1900.  He and Ethel lived in his parents' Fifth Avenue mansion, where he convalesced.  On August 24 The Times reported on his slow recovery, saying his condition "has kept Capt. and Mrs. Postley and the patient's sister and wife in town all Summer."  But the newspaper was optimistic.  "When his recovery is complete Mr. Postley, with his wife and mother, will probably go abroad for a few months."

Sterling, of course, did recover.  His father, in the meantime, focused on his yachts.  Earlier that year he had the Colonia refurbished for the second time.  In 1897 he had had it altered to a schooner rig, receiving a bill for $20,000.   Now, on July 8, 1900 the New-York Tribune reported he "has received his new steam yacht Colonia from the hands of those who altered her interior."   And then in August that same year he purchased the steam yacht AlbertaOuting, a monthly sports and travel magazine, commented "Mr. Postley has won so many cups and other trophies that he now stores them in a burglar-proof safe."

On the morning of January 4, 1901 General Brook Postley left the mansion around 10:30 headed for the Eighth Avenue streetcar.   The conductor noticed the 86-year old man in the crowded car and found him a seat.  He later noted "he appeared to have a chill, as he trembled and pulled his coat collar close about his throat."

Postley suffered a heart attack on the car and died before an ambulance could arrive.  Clarence identified his father's body at the police station, and also explained the two guns in his coat.  "The presence of two revolvers, found in the dead man's pockets, was explained by his son, who said that his father was very fond of going to the theatre, and for that reason had obtained a permit to carry a revolver, as he was often out late.  He supposed that his father had put the second revolver in his pocket, forgetting that he already had one."

The general's funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue house on January 7.  Despite his distinguished military history, there was no fanfare.  The services were private with only a few intimate friends invited.

The expected mourning period was slightly abbreviated for Elsie's debutante entertainments, which began with a reception in the house on December 7.   They continued through the winter season, terminating on March 31, 1902 when Margaret gave a dance.  The New-York Tribune noted "it took place in the small ballroom."

Rather than going to their summer estate in Belle Haven, Connecticut that year, Margaret and Clarence went on an automobile tour abroad.  On October 11 Automobile Topics reported they "recently left Paris for England, taking with them a brand new 16-hp. Panhard-Levassor.  Having exhausted the automobile resources of the environments of Paris, they will try the suburbs of London."

On October 16, 1904 the Postleys announced Elsie's engagement to Ross Ambler Curran.  The wedding took place in the Church of the Heavenly Rest on November 1, followed by a reception in the Fifth Avenue mansion.

The extended family spent the winter season of 1905-06 in Paris.   During Christmas week Margaret and Clarence gained two grandchildren.  Elise had a son, followed a few days later by Sterling's and Ethel's baby boy.

No. 817 Fifth Avenue remained closed for another two years.  Finally, on May 2, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported "Mr. and Mrs. Clarence A. Postley, who have been abroad for nearly three years, are booked to sail from Paris for New York to-day."  The couple had only just returned to the house when tragedy struck.

On May 28 Clarence suffered a fatal heart attack in mansion.  Margaret retained ownership of the house, which was valued at $370,000 (in the neighborhood of $9.3 million today).  But she would no longer live there.  Only a week later the New-York Tribune reported that she, along with Elsie and Ross, had taken rooms in the Plaza "where they will remain until they sail for Europe next month."

Three years later both Sterling and Elsie would make headlines for bizarre marital entanglements.  In January 1911 Elsie divorced Ross Ambler Curran in Paris.  Two months later, on March 12, The San Francisco Call reported that Ethel had divorced Sterling, also in Paris.  The article noted "The reason Ethel Cook got a divorce was because Sterling Postley 'was always hanging about the house.'"

That was not quite the case.  Shortly afterward, Ethel married Ross Curran, her former brother-in-law.  And then things got even more complicated.  In May 1911 Ross Curran's brother, Guernsey, married Elise.  Now Elise and Ethel were once again sisters-in-law.  Newspapers world-wide reveled in the gossipy story.  One headline read "Love Gone Amuck Among Millions" and another proclaimed "The Romances of the Idle Rich Currans."

In the meantime, Margaret leased No. 817 Fifth Avenue to Raymond Hoagland and his family.  The Hoaglands had lived at No. 23 West 52nd Street until selling it in 1909.  The Times called that residence "the largest house on the block with the exception of the Vanderbilt mansions."

Hoagland's father, Joseph C. Hoagland, had founded the Royal Baking Powder Company and garnered an immense fortune.  Joseph Hoagland's massive Newport summer estate, Auldwood, encompassed 175 acres.   In the late 1890s Raymond erected his own cottage, Kristofelt, on Bellevue Avenue just north of Auldwood.  The family also maintained a summer home in Seabright, New Jersey.

While Clarence Postley had been known for his yachts, Hoagland was known for his horses and he was a regular exhibitor in the society horse shows.   He was married to the former Rosa Porter.  Their son, Joseph, graduated from Cornell in 1911 and the following year his engagement to Eleanor Sheldon Prentice was announced.

At the time, the end for No. 817 Fifth Avenue was drawing near.  After several years living abroad, Margaret Postley returned to New York in October 1914, taking apartments at the Ritz-Carlton.  She died there on November 7, 1915, leaving an estate of more than $3.7 million (nearly $74 million in today's dollars) which was divided between Sterling and Elise.

Within months No. 817 and the mansion next door, the former Robert L. Gerry residence at 816, were demolished; replaced by George B. Post & Sons' Italian Renaissance apartment building known simply as 817 Fifth Avenue.

photo via streeteasy.com

2 comments:

  1. I'm from an old San Francisco family so I'm always intrigued when a familiar name pops up in unexpected places. Ethel Cook was an interesting woman in her own right, but it's the connection she has to a recent event that's unbelievable. About a year ago an intact coffin of a young girl was found buried under a house in San Francisco. Originally, she was reburied under the name Miranda Eve, as it was unlikely anyone would ever find her real name. Well, some sleuths did exactly that. Turns out that the little girl was Ethel Cook's older sister, Edith Howard Cook. They managed to match the DNA of the dead child to a descendant of the Cook family. Here's a link to the story if you hadn't heard about it: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Mystery-girl-SF-coffin-Edith-Howard-Cook-11136549.php#item-39786

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    1. Thanks for this fascinating side story. I had heard about the coffin but not the Cook connection. Amazing.

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