Monday, August 21, 2017

The Lost Peter Doelger Mansion - Riverside Drive at 100th Street

In 1925 a massive apartment building can be seen in the background.  It had replaced the private mansions north of the Doelger residence and was a sign of what was to come along the Drive.  To the far right can be seen the Doelger carriage house.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Born in Bavaria on March 3, 1832, Peter Doelger and his five brothers learned the brewery business from their father who ran a “small but prosperous brewery, in which he made a dark brown beer, known as ‘yellow’ beer, whose fame spread beyond the province,” according to the American Brewers’ Review decades later.

Peter traveled to New York in 1850.  The 18-year-old had big dreams and no money.  After working in New York for a year, he traveled to Savannah with the idea of starting a business.   But Savannah was a disappointment and he returned to New York where, with a brother, he started a brewery on Third Street between Avenues A and B.  This time he succeeded.   Nine years after setting foot on American soil the young man was ready to go it on his own.  He bought four lots on Avenue A and started an independent brewery.  Nearly single-handedly, Doelger introduced New Yorkers to beer—and they liked it.

The Sun remarked that when Doelger came to New York “lager beer, in the brewing of which he was to make a fortune, was an exotic and unappreciated drink…a mysterious German drink, as remote from most of the community as pulgue or vodka is today.”

Doelger and his first wife, the former Margayethe Lambrecht, had five children.  Mary died in 1878 at the age of 39.  Two years later Peter married Marie Wagner, who was better known as Mary.   The family was quickly increased when Marie was born later that year, followed by Cecelia (known as Celia) and Frank George, born in 1884 and 1886 respectively.

With a family of ten Doelger, needed an expansive home.   He chose a plot on the Riverside Drive at the northeast corner of 100th Street with sweeping views of the Hudson River and Palisades.  On September 5, 1885, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported "William Schickel is the architect for Peter Doelger's house, to be erected on One Hundredth street and Riverside Drive.  It will be one of the handsomest residences in the city."

Doelger may have been attracted to Schickel because of their shared heritage--both being born in Bavaria--and the architect's several works for the Catholic Church.  Doelger was an ardent Roman Catholic.

But the brewer seems to have been in no particular hurry to build his home.  His patience was quite likely due to the slow development of Riverside Drive this far north.  It was not until the fall of 1887 that construction began.  On January 7, 1888, The Record & Guide pointed out that work was being done on the house and stable.

Just five days earlier, The New York Times had noted, "Riverside Drive has assumed an aristocratic character.  Several houses, palatial in their appointments, have been constructed on the Drive during this year, and are in the course of construction, and land has been bought on which some of the richest families will doubtless build homes in the early future."  The article mentioned Peter Doegler's anticipated $100,000 mansion among those of millionaires like Cyrus Clark, James A. Dearing and Samuel G. Bayne.

Peter Doelger had, by now, come a long way from the nearly penniless 18-year-old newly arrived in America.  On November 2, 1888, the Australian newspaper The Petersburg Times noted that he ranked fourth in American brewers "and his wealth is said to run as high as two million dollars."  That figure would be equal to more than $52 million today.

The Doelger house was completed in 1889.  Schickel had produced a four-story, free-standing mansion faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Surrounded on three sides by gardens and protected by a chunky stone wall, the house was a somber take on the often light-hearted Queen Anne style.  It faced 100th Street where the entrance sat within an impressive portico upheld by paired stone columns.  It provided a balustraded balcony at the second floor.  Two additional balconies perched above two-story three-sided bays--one facing the front of the mansion, the other overlooking the drive.  Various sized dormers made the hip roof a visual mountainscape.  

On February 16, 1897, the house was the scene of daughter Madeline's wedding to William A. Morschauser.  Her 13-year-old sister, Celia, was the flower girl and 11-year-old Frank was the "page."  The more than 300 guests were surrounded by American Beauty roses and orchids.  The Doelger fortune was evidenced in the Madeline's wedding dress.  "The bride wore a costume of white satin, court train, point lace, diamond ornaments, and a diamond necklace, the gift of the groom," reported The New York Times.

Among the guests were other wealthy German brewers, like Jacob Ruppert and his wife, and Mr. and Mrs. George Ehret; as well as well-known society figures like John D. Crimmins and his wife, and Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. King.

The following spring, the wedding of Mathilde was celebrated in the Riverside Drive mansion.  She was married to Adolph G. Hupfel on the May 3, 1898.  Hupfel was the son of another German-born brewer, J. C. G. Hupfel, partner in the Hupfel Brewing Co.  The New York Times remarked "The ceremony was performed in the drawing room, a veritable floral bower."

Wealthy businessmen were expected to contribute to civic causes.  In 1899, a drive was initiated to enhance the collection of the Central Park Menagerie and the response was substantial.  Among the donations were a monkey and a peccary given by Lawrence  A. Libbert, two alligators by James E. Jones and an eagle by Edward F. Burke.  Peter Doelger's donation was less grand.  He gave an opossum.

The brewer seems to have been more generous in adding to his own collections.  In March 1900, the American Art Galleries auctioned off the "rare collection of Augustin Daly."  The Daily Journal of Telluride, Colorado reported the "valuable bric-a-brac, bronzes, glassware, rare china and relics" went for "ludicrously low prices."  The newspaper reported, "The highest price realized was $145, paid by Peter Doelger, a brewer, for a large ivory tankard, carved in relief and elaborate with repousse silver mountings."  The price Doelger paid would be equal to nearly $4,300 today.

At the time of the auction the United States, and New York in particular, were being plagued terrorist.  Most were anarchist groups like the Black Hand, or radical labor unions.  At around 3:00 on the morning of January 20, 1903, a man rushed up to Patrolman Relyea at West End Avenue and 101st Street and told him that two men were acting suspiciously in front of the Doelger mansion.

Finding no one around the house, Relyea tried the front and back doors and found them locked.  Despite the early hour, he decided to check on the family.  He rang the doorbell which was answered after a few minutes by two servants.  

Upstairs were Peter and Mary, the three children still living here--Mamie Celia and Frank--and three other servants.  Peter, now retired and 72 years old, had been ill for several weeks, confined to his bed.  While the policeman talked to the servants, he glanced down and, in the light from the hallway, noticed a pipe bomb lying near the doorstep.

The quick-thinking policeman woke up the coachman in the stable.  He told him to bring a pail of water to the porch.  The bomb was dropped into the water and taken to the West 100th Street Station. Superintendent George Murray of the Bureau of Combustibles inspected the bomb later in the morning.  It appeared that the fuse had gone out before reaching the powder.  

The Evening World published a photo of the pipe bomb.  January 20, 1903 (copyright expired)

He told reporters "If a damp fuse had not extinguished the spark just where it did the Doelger house would have been wrecked and doubtless several lives would have been lost.  The explosive was packed in the tube and the pipe caps were of great strength.  The explosion would have been a terrific one.  I never saw a more powerful bomb than this one.  It was made by an expert."

Peter Doelger, Jr. assured investigators that no servants in the house nor employees of the brewery had been fired recently and, according to The New York Times, "had not the faintest idea who could have tried to harm the family."  He did offer a clue, however.  A private detective agency had been offering protection services for homeowners in the neighborhood, but his father had refused to subscribe.  It was possible that the bomb was never intended to explode, but merely to scare the Doelgers into hiring additional protection.

In 1906, the guidebook Seeing New York was published.  It mentioned the mansion and a particular feature often overlooked by other chroniclers.  "Peter Doelger's large red-brick one of the landmarks from the river.  A small herd of white deer is usually to be seen in a netted enclosure."

The Peter Doelger Brewery was headed by Peter Jr. now.  He and other brewers and distillers were challenged with the increasing threat of the Temperance movement.  An advertisement in 1911 offered a creative angle: it was medicinal and healthful.

Peter Doelger First Prize Bottled Beer is an article of diet, a tonic, and will like its popular forerunner on draught, be recommended by medical men, to convalescents in place of wine.  It is a natural food product, every drop laden with body building, healthful, food substances.  The ingredients of this beer are the same as those that go into the making of bread.

On December 15, 1912, Doelger died in his Riverside Drive mansion at the age of 80.  In reporting on his death, the American Brewers' Review said, "Peter Doelger was one of the last of the old guard of the pioneer beer brewers of this country, and no man did more to elevate the standards of the industry as a whole."

Mary received $30,000 and the use of the mansion, "his personal effects, carriages, horses and autos."  Each of the eight children received $15,000, and various charitable bequests included $2,000 for the poor of the town of Kleinwallstadt, Bavaria, and $6,000 to the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis.  The rest of his sizable estate was to be put back into the brewery.  Interestingly, a provision demanded that no officer of the brewery could receive a salary exceeding $20,000 a year.

Following her period of mourning, Mary continued her works for Catholic charities.  On March 7, 1914, for instance, she opened the house for the Lenten Sewing Class for the Catholic Institute for the Blind.  At the time Frank, now 28 years old, and Celia, who was 30, were both unmarried and still living with their mother. 

On July 12, 1914, Frank was driving on Eighth Avenue with three passengers in his car--two women and a man.  He crashed into a crosstown street car at 116th Street.  The impact was so severe that all four were thrown to the street.  Luckily, only one, Lillian Reynolds, was injured badly enough to be taken to the hospital.

Celia's driving drew press attention for a pluckier reason.  On August 12, 1916, the Los Angeles Herald reported "Miss Cecelia Doelger, eldest daughter of Mrs. Peter Doelger of New York, holds the record of having driven her automobile up the classic trail on Mt. Greylock, 3500 feet high, the loftiest peak in Massachusetts.  No other automobile has ever gone up the mountain by this trail, which is narrow and steep and heretofore has been only used by pedestrians."

The family pet in 1921 was a black and white wire hair fox terrier named Jack.  Their love for the dog was evident after he got loose in February.  An advertisement in The New York Herald offered a $50 reward for his return--nearly $675 in today's dollars.

After a long illness, Mary died in the Riverside Drive house on January 2, 1925 at the age of 70.  The New York Times mentioned that she "helped generously many Catholic institutions, among them the Poor Clares, an order of nuns; the Holy Name Club, the Convent of the Repartreas, the Mary Knoll Convent and the St. Vincent de Paul Society."

Later that year Brown Brothers photo agency photographed the house, explaining it "will soon be demolished to make way for a large apartment house."  

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Completed the following year and designed by Rosario Candela, that 15 story Colonial Revival building still stands. 


  1. Never has life changed so rapidly as during this period in time. Particularly in New York.

  2. Beer is “laden with body building, healthful, food substances. The ingredients of this beer are the same as those that go into the making of bread.” Thank you for the excuse to drink more beer.

    “Peter Doelger's donation was less grand. He gave an opossum.” If I die laughing, it's your fault!

    Do you know if Jack was ever returned?

    1. I don't know if Jack was ever returned. He was a fool to leave!