Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Henry Siegel Mansion - 26 East 82nd Street

With a little imagination, one can envision the mansion in 1901 without stores sprouting from its ground level.

In 1867 Henry Siegel found work in a Chicago clothing store earning $3.50 a week (about $58.50 in today's money).   The hard-working young man saved his money and learned the trade.  In 1887, a year after his wife, Julia Rosenbaum, died, he established his own department store with partners Frank Cooper and Isaac Keim.

Siegel's grand plans did not stop there.  In 1895 he and Cooper embarked on a plan to open the largest department store in the world in New York City.  Two years later the colossal Siegel-Cooper Department Store was completed on Sixth Avenue.  The New York Times compared it to "the grandeur of ancient Rome."

The Siegel-Cooper store engulfed nearly an entire city block.

The following year Marie Vaughn Wilde arrived in New York with her two children.  Born in Virginia, she was the widow of George N. Wilde.  She found a job with the New York Press as a fashion reporter and shortly after was sent to the Siegel-Cooper store to cover an innovative display.   She met Henry Siegel, who was already being described by newspapers nationwide as "the merchant prince."

Later the Monroe, North Carolina newspaper The Monroe Journal explained "Shortly after a position was offered her in the store, and she accepted it at considerable more pay than she received as a newspaper writer."  Marie Wilde was nothing if not socially ambitious.  On April 24, 1898 Henry and Marie were married.  Siegel's 11-year old daughter, Julia, attended her new stepmother.

The Sun, June 22, 1915 (copyright expired)

The Superior Wisconsin's The Superior Times noted that the newlyweds and their daughters would live "for present at the Savoy.  They will go to Europe in June for an extended tour."

At the time developer Robert McCafferty and architect Richard W. Buckley were producing upscale speculative residences in the blocks near Central Park.  They had formalized their partnership in 1880 as McCafferty & Buckley.  The New York Times later remarked "McCafferty & Buckley produced many of the handsomest private dwellings in the east side of the city."

In 1900 they began construction on five adjoining mansions at Nos. 18 through 26 East 82nd Street.   While four of the homes were designed in the popular, frothy Beaux Arts style, No. 26 at the southwest corner of Madison Avenue was more subdued.  Its gray brick facade was trimmed in pinkish-hued stone.  Like its neighbors, it was designed in the American Basement plan--foregoing the high stone stoops of a generation earlier.  The mansion was a generous 35 feet wide on 82nd Street and more than 100 feet long on Madison Avenue.

The houses were completed in 1901 and the third to be sold was No. 26--purchased in November by Henry Siegel for just under $250,000--in the neighborhood of $7.25 million today.  It was just the first of a string of residences.

Marie was deemed by the Chicago periodical The Day Book to be "perhaps America's most lavish social climber."  The following year Siegel commissioned James L. Burley to design a summer estate, Driftwood, in Mamaroneck on Long Island.  Marie convinced her husband to buy yet another residence, a town house in Park Lane, London; followed by a Paris apartment.

The Siegels filled their homes with costly antiques and artwork.  In 1902 The Onlooker wrote "At 'Driftwood,' the Mamaroneck home of Mr. Henry Siegel, are two Sevres vases presented by the Emperor Napoleon to his brother Jerome...Mr. Siegel, who owns to a craze for Napoleon, is a tireless collector of all things historic, in which fancy he is so aided and abetted by his clever spouse that, in their course of their travelings, they have picked up enough attractive odds and ends of lamps and cabinets, pictures and bric-a-brac to stock a museum; and all of the genuine stamp."

Julia Siegel was little seen at any of the residences.  She was sent to a convent school in upstate New York before heading to Dresden, Germany to attend a finishing school.

In the meantime, Marie spent much of her time abroad, without Henry.  In 1903 she made what The Day Book called "her first big social coup when she was a guest of Sir Thomas Lipton on his yacht, the Erin."  That same year she entertained Lady Swettenham, wife of the British governor of Jamaica at Driftwood.  The Day Book commented.  "Thus she 'arrived.'"

Manhattan millionaires had grand townhouses and summer estates equal to the palaces of European nobility.  But they did not have titles.  The greatest success of an American socialite was to marry her daughter to a noble.  British aristocracy disparagingly called those brides "penny princesses."

In 1906 Marie saw her daughter, Georgine, married to Count Carlo Dentice de Frazzo.  Now she went to work on matching Julia.  It was through her stepmother's British social contacts that Julia met Tyrell William Cavendish "of Craigmarsh Hall, Straffordshire, England," as described by The New York Times.    Five days later they were engaged and on December 26, 1906 they were married in the 82nd Street mansion.  Considering that Cavendish was marginally noble (he was a relative of the Duke of Devonshire), the ceremony was shockingly understated.  There were only about 20 people present, mostly relatives and there was no reception.

By now Marie rarely was seen in New York; but she returned in 1908 for the debutante entertainments for her younger daughter, Dorothy.  The Chicago Day Book described Dorothy's debut as "one of the most costly functions New York ever saw."  Immediately afterward, Marie returned to her London townhouse and Paris apartment and would not be back for two years.

In the meantime, Julia and Tyrell lived in Battlies House in Suffolk initially, eventually moving to Little Onn Hall in Staffordshire.  Julia returned to New York every year to visit her father, however in 1912 Tyrell accompanied her.  Leaving their two-year old toddler at home with his nurse, they booked passage on the new luxury liner the RMS Titanic.

On the night of April 14 Cavendish woke his wife.  She told investigators later "I hurriedly put on a wrapper and one of my husband's overcoats and we both rushed to the upper deck...I was in the second boat.  My husband kissed me and bade me to remain in the boat, declaring he was all right."

Julia arrived in New York on the Carpathia.  She never saw her husband again.

Marie was, not unexpectedly, in Paris when Julia arrived.  Other than the tragic loss of her stepson-in-law, The Monroe Journal pointed out "The year 1912 was a banner year for Mrs. Siegel in a social way.  First she entertained the Infanta Eulalia of Spain at her elaborate apartment in the Avenue Malakoff, Paris.  Then came as her guest the Countess Esterhazy of Austria and Princess Hohenlohe of Germany."

Henry scrambled to keep up with his wife's lavish spending.  In 1904 he organized a private bank, Henry Siegel & Co., and in 1905 he expanded the department store with a Boston branch.  But now Marie's spending "alarmed" Henry.  The Day Book said "1912 was the year of Mrs. Siegel's crowning triumphs in a social way and money flowed like water."  In addition to the grand parties which she hosted in the Paris apartment, "she gave entertainments at a club in the Bois de Boulogne whose gorgeousness and display stunned even Paris."

The Monroe Journal, May 1, 1914 (copyright expired)

Henry separated from Marie, agreeing to provide her with a $25,000 yearly allowance.  The stipend, approximately $638,000 today, put a significant crimp in her lifestyle.  A newspaper reported in March 1914 "Last year she did not entertain lavishly in Paris and since her return to New York she was been in practical retirement."

But Henry's reining in of his wife's spending came too late.  A few months before the separation, in September 1911, he commissioned architect George Keister to renovate the 82nd Street mansion.  The plans called for $10,000 of interior alterations including bathrooms, new walls and staircases.  The result was a sprawling 11-room duplex apartment within his mansion from which Siegel could garner extra income.

Charles S. Kuh, who signed a lease the duplex apartment in Siegel's mansion in October 1913, had problems of his own.   The following year, on October 29, his limousine was heading along Park Avenue between 46th and 47th Street.  A group of boys was playing handball on the sidewalk and suddenly 10-year old Eugene McCarthy dashed into the street in front of Kuh's car.

The New-York Tribune reported "He was thrown fifteen feet.  His head struck a curb and his skull was crushed."  In the automobile behind the Kuh limo was Dr. E. W. Roberts, who rushed to the injured boy.  "A glance told him that the accident had been instantly fatal."

The newspaper noted "The automobile concerned last night was travelling slowly, and the chauffeur was freed of all blame."

Henry Siegel's financial deck of cards was about to collapse.  On March 12, 1914 The Evening World ran the headline "Big Siegel Stores to Be Closed Out to Pay Creditors"  Two months earlier the private Siegel bank had failed.

Siegel's lawyers blamed Marie in part for the bankruptcy.  In distancing herself from the humiliation of financial problems, she had published statements saying Siegel had "pursued a criminal course after she had warned her husband that he was on his way to state prison."

And if Henry Siegel had any thoughts that his wife might stand by his side, they were dashed when she sued him for divorce and, separately, for possession of the real estate and the art and antiques in the 82nd Street and Driftwood homes.  She was specific in her list of wants, going so far as to include "letters from a former husband, a bed once occupied by royalty and a vacuum cleaner."

In court, according to The Day Book on April 1, 1914, "Mrs. Siegel denied flatly that her husband was ruined by her extravagance."  Instead, she insisted that Henry had spent "large sums of money on various women of his acquaintance."  She described herself as "entirely destitute and without means."

She claimed the emotionally-draining affair had made her an invalid.  Newspapers nationwide were not quick to take pity.   They repeatedly recalled her social climbing and ambition.  On April 12, 1914 the New-York Tribune noted "Mrs. Siegel, who at Laurel-in-the-Pines, Lakewood [New Jersey], was said to be seriously ill, was well enough yesterday afternoon to attend the polo game with a maid.  She looked the picture of health, but was said to be in an extremely nervous condition and under the constant care of Dr. Charles P. Lindley and a trained nurse."  And despite being "entirely destitute," she lived in "elaborate apartments" at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan.

On June 22 1915 The Sun reported "Humiliated by the fact that he is now a convict, but optimistic regarding his future, Henry Siegel entered the Monroe county penitentiary here this afternoon to begin serving a term of ten months."  The sentence was the result of fraud charges regarding his failed bank.  Despite his optimism for the future, Siegel died in a boarding house in Hackensack, New Jersey in 1930.

Six months prior to his imprisonment No. 26 East 82nd Street was sold in foreclosure.  It was purchased by the United States Trust Company for $115,000, less than half of what Siegel had paid for it originally.  The Times, in reporting on the sale, noted that house had been "recently altered for business."

When the United States Trust Company sold the property in 1919, in was described as an "apartment house."  Nevertheless, the 11-room duplex was still intact.  When it became available in 1922 the listing described "exceptionally large light rooms; 3 baths; magnificently furnished."

In 1924 the former mansion was combined internally with No. 24, resulting in four apartments each on the second to fifth floors.  A new penthouse of two rooms was part of a fifth floor duplex.

Among the moneyed residents in the newly-converted building was the family of Justus Ruperti.  A banker and a partner in the import-export firm of G. Amsinck & Co., he was married to the former Sallie Nicoll, who came from the old New York Corlandt and Nicoll families.

Not only did the couple move into a new home in 1924, they were planning the weddings of three of their five daughters that year.   On November 7 the apartment was the scene of the wedding reception of their eldest daughter, Lilly.  The New York Times noted "Last August, while at their country place, Marigolds in Cedarhurst, L. I., Mr. and Mrs. Ruperti announced the engagement of their second daughter, Miss Ida Ruperti, to Charles Marshall, Jr."  And on October 18, just weeks before Lilly's wedding, they announced the engagement of Sallie to Charles K. Clisby.

The Rupertis and the other residents would have to find new homes in 1930.  Architect Julius Eckmann converted the combined former mansions into an interior decorator store.   By 1984 the Barry Friedman antiques gallery was located in the building.  

From outside there is no hint that the two houses are internally combined.

In 1979 the two structures had been purchased by Kreisel Company, a real estate management firm.  Then in 1984 it announced it would convert them to "condops," described as "a combination of co-op and condominium characteristics, and are usually formed when a landlord divides a mixed-use commercial and residential building into several large condominiums, then subdivides one condominium into a residential cooperative."

Although somewhat confusing in concept, the result was commercial space on the first floor, apartments and an art gallery on the second, and two apartments each on the upper floors.  Although the ground floor of No. 26 was heavily altered in the 1915 makeover, the upper floors are little changed since Henry Siegel and his socially-ambitious bride took possession in 1901.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Andrew Porter for suggesting this post


  1. When built, there was a semi-circular driveway entrance on Madison Avenue, where the single story A&P supermarket (replaced by the current high-rise next door) once stood. In later years, part of the basement housed a toy store accessed by a stairway from the bookstore above. The proprietor told me that some of the toy soldiers he sold came from the collection of Donald A. Wollheim, a well-known collector and once publisher of DAW Books. And one of the buyers was George R.R. Martin, whose "Game of Thrones" (HBO) is so popular.

    When I lived there with my mother and stepfather in the early 1960s, the buildings were managed by Kreisel. The building superintendent was a Cuban exile, reputedly Cuban royalty. There was a small hallway connected 24 and 26. While our apartment was actually in 26, the building entry and mailboxes were in 24, with a seldom used exterior door, visible to the left of the store awning, from 26.

    Our apartment, #3C, was above that apartment rented by Ahmet Ertegun, who owned Atlantic Records. There was a separate entrance from the public hallway directly into the kitchen, and a small maid's room in the back of the apartment (where I lived, with my growing book collection). Ertegun's apartment had a small terrace, which you can't see in the modern photos. The living rooms, with fireplaces, were about 20 x 30 feet, and Ertegun threw big parties, with live music, using the lobby of 24 as a coatcheck. Whenever he threw his parties, he placated the neighbors for the loud music by giving us LPs from Atlantic Records.

    Later residents of the building included Baby Jane Holzer. Several of the apartments were combined into one, which was purchased by actress Renée Zellweger; she later sold them. You can see the plans in this Curbed article:

    Among the stores were The Copper Lantern, a coffee shop, which I see is no longer there. For many years there was also a bookstore. In early 2017, Crawford Doyle Booksellers, which claimed to be there for 21 years, closed. However, there'd been a bookstore there since at least the late 1950s. I know, because as a teenager, I had a job delivering Womrath Library rental books to posh apartments around the area.

    I'm delighted that I was able to add to your account. Thanks for the post! I'm sending the link out to a whole bunch of people and blogs.

    1. This has now been published on the website!