Monday, August 14, 2017

The Lost John Taylor Johnston Mansion - 8 Fifth Avenue

The blinds were pulled down when this photograph was shot around 1912, possibly because the family was gone for the summer.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1856 John Taylor Johnston had an immense personal fortune.  His parents were John Johnston, a Scottish-born shipping baron and banker, and Margaret Taylor.   The son of privilege, he traveled to Europe at the age of 13, seeing the museums of Rome, Venice and Florence and visiting galleries where his father purchased old masters.

Johnston graduated from the University of the City of New York in 1839 and Yale College law school in 1841. Two years later he accompanied his parents to Europe again, browsing through the Louvre with his mother while his father added to his art collection.

It was on that trip that Johnston met Frances Colles, the daughter of James Colles, an art broker for wealthy Louisiana plantation owners.  Romance bloomed and back in the United States the couple eventually married in 1851.

In 1848 Johnston "was induced" (as The New York Times worded it) to become president of the 25-mile long Somerville and Eason Railroad.  He quickly transformed it to the 400-mile Central Railroad of New-Jersey, a freight line carrying coal.

Johnston's parents lived on Washington Square.  In 1855 he began construction of his own lavish mansion a block north of the park, at the southwest corner of West 8th Street.  The plot was leased from William C. Rhinelander, whose 1839 mansion was one of the first on Washington Square.

Johnston chose for his architect Frederick Diaper who, according to the Architectural Record decades later, in 1917, "was assisted by Mr. A. J. Bloor."  Diaper was responsible for the sprawling William Patterson Van Rensselaer manor house upstate, and the New York Library Society Building.

Completed in 1856, the Taylor home left no doubt as to the wealth of its owner.  Three bays wide, the Italianate mansion rose four floors above an English basement and stretched far back along West 8th Street.  But Diaper had placed his client's house a notch above the elegant brick homes of Washington Square and the brownstone mansions of Fifth Avenue--it was faced in gleaming white Vermont marble.

Photographed by Berenice Abbott in 1936, the marble mansion stands out beside its brownstone neighbors.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Taylor followed, then surpassed, his father's passion for art collecting.  Despite the size of his mansion, before long he renovated the private stable, directly behind the house on West 8th Street, into a private gallery.   (Taylor's brother, John Boorman Taylor, was no less passionate and in 1857 built the famous Tenth Street Studio building nearby on West 10th Street, exclusively for artists.)

Johnston renovated his private stable, directly behind the mansion, for his art gallery.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The first real step in establishing the Metropolitan Museum of Art was taken in Johnston's marble mansion on December 19, 1870.  The New York Times reported that "A large number of gentlemen, interested in the subject of the progress of art in the City, were invited by Mr. John Taylor Johnston to meet the officers of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday evening at his residence, No 8 Fifth Avenue."

The article noted "After an hour spent in the examination of Mr. Johnston's magnificent gallery of pictures, the subject of the meeting, the raising of funds to establish the Museum, was opened by the host."  Among the dozens of millionaires in attendance that evening were James W. Beekman, J. Pierpont Morgan, Levi P. Morton, Henry G. Marquand, Alexander Stuart, Rutherford Stuyvesant and Alexander Van Rensselaer.

There were esteemed American artists in the gathering as well, including John Quincy Adams Ward, John LaFarge, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederick E. Church; and leading architects such as James Renwick, Calvert Vaux, and Richard Morris Hunt.

When the men filed out that cold evening they had pledged $45,000 (or about $854,000 today) towards the goal of $250,000 to establish the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Johnston would be its first president.

In the meantime, Johnston's gallery held what was considered "one of the most important art collections in America," according to The New York Times years later.   He opened it to the public once a year and "was in the habit of assembling in it all the artists of New-York."  In it hung both European and American masterworks.  Works by Daubigny, Breton, Corot, Thomas Cole, Gilbert Stuart and Durand hung near Frederick Church's Niagara and one of Johnston's favorite acquisitions, J. M. W. Turner's The Slave Ship.

Turner's "The Slave Ship" was considered one of Johnston's greatest acquisitions.  Museum of Fine Arts Boston
John and Frances raised five children in the house--Colles, John Herbert, Frances, Eva and Emily.  (An infant boy died in 1886.)  The family summered in their 100-acre country estate near Plainfield, New Jersey.

In 1877 Johnston showed symptoms of what was called "creeping paralysis."  He retired from the railroad that year and, perhaps shocking to many, sold his beloved art collection.  The New York Times reported "In his collection, which was the result of many years' purchasing, were example of the American, German, and English schools.  This sale was one of the first great art sales in this city and it is said that the pictures realized a handsome profit."

John Taylor Johnston  from The History of the St. Andrew's Society of the State of New York, 1906 (copyright expired)

Despite his disability, Johnston remained the president Metropolitan Museum of Art and was the president of the Governing Board of the University of the City of New-York.  He sat on the boards of the Presbyterian Hospital, the Woman's Hospital, and the St. Andrews Society.

Frances busied herself with charitable causes, as was expected of wealthy wives.  In the winter of 1886, for instance, she met with a group of socialites to discuss establishing "at an early date an asylum for destitute orphan Italian girls at some point on the Harlem Railroad, near New-York."  The asylum would train the girls as "house servants of a high grade."

Eva was introduced to society in February 1886.  Frances hosted a cotillion in the house, which The New York Times deemed "an exceedingly pretty one."  The newspaper added "It has been some time since this once most hospitable of New-York houses has been opened to society."

The lull in entertaining in the mansion was most likely due to family health problems.   Eva's brother, Colles, was 33 years old at the time of her coming-out.  Never married, he still lived in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  Educated as a lawyer, he was vice-president of Central New Jersey Land Improvement Company.  But because of his father's limited mobility he devoted much of his time to handling his business affairs.  Colle's health, however, was a problem, too.  He suffered from a lingering case of "consumption," better known today as tuberculosis.  Seven months after Eva's debut dance he died in the Plainfield house.

Two years later, Frances Colles Johnston died in the Fifth Avenue mansion.

One by one the aging John Taylor Johnston saw his children marry.  Emily married Robert W. De Forest, Eva married Henry E. Coe, and on April 30, 1892 Frances was wed to Pierre Mali in the family home.

The New York Times reported "The marriage was performed before an altar erected in the northern end of the art gallery, covered with white altar cloth and decorated with a brass cross and bunches of lilies."  The groom was the Vice Consul of Belgium and so among the guests were the Belgian Minister, Count and Countess Gaston d'Arschot of the Belgian Legation, and the Consuls General of China, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, Russia, and Turkey.

Just over three weeks later, on May 23, John Henry became the last of the children to marry.  His wedding to Celestine (known as Teenie) Noel was performed in her parent's residence on Waverley Place.

The marriages did not leave their father alone in his marble mansion.  Following their two-week honeymoon Frances returned to the house with her new husband.  And none of the others were far away--John Herbert lived at 20 Washington Square, Eva and Henry Coe lived at 5 East 10th Street, and Emily and Robert De Forest were at 7 Washington Square.

Long an invalid, on the morning of March 24, 1893 John Taylor Johnston died at No. 8 Fifth Avenue.  His $1.5 million estate--worth about 40 times that much today--was divided equally among the four children after specific bequests, such as the $10,000 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an equal amount to the University of the City of New York.  Each of his five grandchildren received $1,000.

Frances and Pierre inherited both No. 8 Fifth Avenue and the Plainfield estate.   Four days after Johnston's death, the latest grandson, John Taylor Johnston Mali, was born in the house.  Amazingly, on the same day Eva had a baby boy, Colles J. Coe.

Five years after Johnston's death Pierre became the Consul General to Belgium.  While the Fifth Avenue mansion had been quiet during her father's final years, Frances revived it as a center of Manhattan social activity.

She was a member of the exclusive Thursday Evening Club, initiated by Mrs. John Jay in her Washington Square mansion in February 1878.  Mrs. Jay intended the social club to "maintain its standard, and to make it increasingly a centre of intellectual intercourse and recreation, by resisting every tendency to ostentation or extravagance in its entertainments."  Members were expected to host occasional meetings which included literary or artistic program.

On the night of December 10, 1903 the group assembled in the Mali house.  "The programme consisted of reading from 'Pippa Passes' by Arthur Howard Pickering and songs by Miss Katherine Lee Jones, with Arthur Rosenstein as accompanist, and a large supper was served," reported The New York Times.   The millionaire couples attending that evening had names like Dodge, Rhinelander, Bowdoin, Schieffelin, and Lydig.  The socially visible Bishop Henry C. Potter was there as well.

Frances routinely hosted dances and dinners, such as the "small and early dance for young people not yet out" in February 1912.   Later that year the entertainments would focus on daughter Gertrude's debut.  The first of these was the dinner dance given on Friday, December 13.  Frances's siblings aided in making it a sumptuous affair.  The New York Times noted on November 10, "Mrs. Robert W. de Forest and Mrs. J. Herbert Johnston, also Mrs. Henry E. Coe, will give dinners for the debutantes of the last two seasons, taking their guests afterward to Mrs. Mali's."

The guests at J. T. Johnston Mali's 21st birthday party on March 28, 1914 included several of the eligible debutantes of that season.  Simultaneously, his cousin Colles was celebrating his 21st birthday in the Coe mansion on East 10th Street.  When the Mali dinner was over, the entire group joined the Coe party for a dance.

That winter No. 8 Fifth Avenue would be the scene of Eva Mali's debutante entertainments.  The following November her parents announced her engagement to David W. Noyes of Boston.  But something seems to have gone awry.  On February 27, 1916 The New York Times reported that Frances had given a "small dance last evening" for Eva.  "There were about 125 guests in all, and all were of the young set."  Gertrude and Eva helped her mother receive.  There was no mention of Noyes made.

By now the blocks of Fifth Avenue closer to 14th Street had become heavily commercialized.  Those millionaires had several years earlier moved northward.  But, perhaps because of its proximity to the still fashionable Washington Square, the blocks around the Mali residence remained upscale and residential.  In 1918 Arthur Barlett Maurice's book Fifth Avenue noted some of the Mali's wealthy and important neighbors.

Lispenard Stewart lived next door in No. 6 and Spender Witherbee at No. 4.  Other mansions in the immediate neighborhood housed Dr. Robert J. Kahn, Charles De Rham, Mrs. Peter F. Collier and Edwin W. Coggeshall.

Frances Mali continued her routine of lavish entertaining.  She held a dance on April 22, 1920 for Elizabeth H. Frank, daughter of Mrs. Abbot A. Low, to celebrant her engagement to Seth Low.  And later that year, on December 18, 1920 she hosted a dinner for her debutante cousin, Harriet Camac.

On October 4, 1923 Pierre Mali died at the age of 67 in the Plainfield, New Jersey estate.  Frances inherited his personal property, while the four children received his "money and securities."  He explained in his will that Frances "has independent means of her own."

Only Henry was still living in at 8 Fifth Avenue with his mother.  The other children were married by now.

Following her period of mourning Frances offered the mansion as the scene of a benefit bridge party for the Judson Health Centre on January 15, 1925.  She was washing her hands in an upstairs washroom when the first of her 80 guests rang the bell.  In her haste to greet her guests, she neglected to put her rings back on her fingers.

It was several hours after the party was over that she realized she was missing her rings.  She set her servants on a complete search of the house, but they were nowhere to be found.  On February 4 The New York Times reported "Although Mrs. Mali hesitated to question the honesty of any of her guests, she decided a few days ago to put the matter into the hands of the police."

Although the intrinsic value of the jewelry was several thousand dollars, Frances explained they had even more sentimental value.  "One, an octagonal ruby surrounded by diamonds, was her engagement ring," said The New York Times.  "The other, a large sapphire, with two diamonds on either side of it, was given to her by her father when she was 18 years old."  It is unclear if the rings were ever recovered.

Frances Mali left the venerable Fifth Avenue house in 1928, giving up the leasehold her family had held with the Rhinelander estate since 1855.  She died later that year, in December, at 944 Fifth Avenue.

In the meantime, the Rhinelander family had sold the entire block from Washington Square North to 8th Street.  It was announced in September that the new owner, A. E. Lefcourt, intended to replace the three houses with "a large housing improvement."

The developer's plans were thwarted, most likely, by the Stock Market Crash and the advent of the Great Depression.  Instead of being demolished, No. 8 was converted to apartments, called Marble House.

photo by Berenice Abbott from the collection of the New York Public Library

New owners attempted to demolished the block again in 1945.  On May 9 architect Sylvan Bien filed plans for a 28-story apartment house on the side for Chalfonte Syndicate, Inc.  The $2.8 million building was projected to house 399 families.

But that plan, too, fell through.  By January 1950 the property was owned by a new syndicate headed by Samuel Rudin.  He announced his intentions to immediately develop the site with a 300-family apartment building.

At the time No. 8 was home home of New York University's Center for Safety Education.  The upper floor still contained apartments.  The house's stables, once home to John Taylor Johnston's famous art gallery, was now the Clay Club, which provided studio space to artists.

Local residents and historians rallied against the demolition of the vintage homes.  Their protests went as far as Washington DC where legislation was introduced to save the houses as a "precious historical heritage for "all the people throughout the land."

The movement gained momentum, pulling powerful names like architect Harvy Wiley Corbett and the president of the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings, Major General Ulysses S. Grant III into the battle.  The American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society weighed in on the side of the Rhinelander properties.

But decades before historic preservation had gained true power, it was all to no avail.  The houses were demolished to be replaced by Emery Roth & Sons' 1951 apartment building, 2 Fifth Avenue.

The Johnston mansion sat at the far right corner of this photo.  via


  1. Fascinating post. I have a question though: although it is clear that the blinds are drawn in the first photo, whatever is covering the first two sets of windows along West 8th Street appears to be on the outside of the windows, as no fenestration is visible. If you look at the 2nd photo, it also appears (although this might be an issue with the angle of the photograph) that at least the first column of windows along West 8th were covered, although the shades on the front of the house are open. I wonder if they were "dummy's"?

    1. A good observation. I wonder if they were, perhaps, exterior "shutters" installed over the windows in the summer to thwart burglars; a consistent problem during the months when the mansions were essentially vacant. Because a staff of one or two would have remained in the house the avenue windows would have to be kept functional for light and air.

  2. Amazing how very close this row of townhouses came to being preserved. The replacement apartment is utterly ordinary and suburban.

  3. As a family member, I commend you on your impeccable detail.

    1. Thank you. I try hard to be historically accurate. The internet is filled with far too much misinformation.

    2. As another family member, I second the commendation. Such a shame it wasn't preserved. The JTJ Bedroom did end up as a exhibit at the Met, however.

  4. The street address of this wonderful home reminded me I have a question. Do you know if there was ever any renumbering done on lower Fifth Avenue? I've been looking for a picture of the Stephen Romer Roe house, later owned by his son General Charles F. Roe, which stood at 40 Fifth Avenue. Stephen Roe's widow lived at that address and was one of the neighbors who contributed money for the construction of the Washington Square Arch. The problem is that, according to various internet sources, 40 Fifth Avenue was the location of the John A. C. Gray house. The Gray House was well known, being an early Second Empire style building designed for Mr. Gray by Calvert Vaux and decorated be Jacob Wrey Mould. Sources have Mrs. Roe and Mr. Gray living at that address during the same time period, which is impossible. So, if you or anyone else knows, is it possible the street numbers were changed? Or something like that?

  5. Thank you for this wonderful detailed history! Currently residing on Mali Drive on the grounds of the former Johnston Estate and have been fascinated by the history found of the family and their origins while exploring the development of the neighborhood. It's amazing that up to Johnston Drive overlooking the Netherwood Farm down to the Netherwood Train Station that lead to the Old Gate house of the Estate on Johnston Drive it all now encompasses so many families and box-store-retail. Also, the Johnston name is nearby in Jersey City since the Central Railroad lead to what is now Communipaw Terminal. Interesting the Slave Ship painting given family friend Admiral Farragut "Damn the torpedoes full speed ahead" lived nearby, the Farragut Road opening to the public 150 years ago and bordered the Johnston Estate from the Hyde Estate, of which there were many a neighboring estate quarrels. Very interesting to read here about their lives when not Summering at their estate in "the Colorado of the East" of Plainfield, NJ ... fantastic post!