Monday, October 2, 2017

The Lost Benjamin B. Atterbury Mansion - 39 Park Avenue

Wealthy spinster Edith Grinnell Bowdoin lived alone in the former Atterbury mansion (far right) in 1920 when the block was still lined with handsome residences.  photo by Arthur Hosking, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Benjamin Bakewell Atterbury was 32 years old when he married Olivia Phelps on April 21, 1847.  The bride's family was one of the wealthiest in New York.  She was the daughter of Anson Green Phelps, a founder of Phelps, Dodge & Co., and the former Olivia Egleston.

At the time of the wedding Atterbury was a partner in a Manchester, England based shipping firm; but he retired just three years later to devote himself to, according to The New York Times, "religious and philanthropic work."

Members of the Phelps and Dodge families established themselves in the newly-developing Murray Hill neighborhood in 1852; so it is not surprising that Benjamin and Olivia selected the area for their imposing brick and brownstone mansion.

Situated at the northeast corner of Fourth (later Park) Avenue and 36th Street, the residence left no question about the social and financial status of its owners.  Four stories tall above an English basement, it was 37-feet wide and stretched 49 feet along 36th Street.  It exhibited the expected elements of an Italianate style mansion--projecting angled bays at the side, and Renaissance-inspired pediments above the parlor windows, and a sweeping stone stoop, for instance.  The elegant but stylishly-incongruous Georgian touches--the balustrade along the roof line, the swan-necked pediment over the doorway, and the entrance fanlight, may have been the result of gentle, late 19th century updating.

The couple had six children, whose middle names left no question of their social pedigrees: Olivia Phelps, Benjamin Phelps, Boudinot Currie, Anson Phelps Stokes, William Dodge and Melissa Dodge.

Benjamin Atterbury entrenched himself in social and charitable causes.  For years he served as a vice-president of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents in the City of New York, he was an Inspector of Schools, and served as an officer of the House of Refuge on Randall's Island (a position he would retain for 50 years).  Deeply religious, he was a founder of the Murray Hill Presbyterian Church and was an elder of the Park Presbyterian Church.

Atterbury's religious dedication was passed on two two of his sons.  Boudinot became a physician and spent years in missionary work in China, and Anson became a Methodist minister.  It may have been that religious disposition within the family that kept entertainments in the Park Avenue mansion to a minimum.  While society pages spilled over with lavish dinners, dances and receptions; No. 39 Park Avenue was almost never included.

photos by Josephine Kass from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The address did appear in print in 1874, but for a far different reason.  On April 6 the Atterburys worried about their runaway pet.  An advertisement in The New York Herald read "LOST--a small Skye Terrier; can be recognized by sore on his back.  $5 reward to the person bringing him to 39 Park avenue, corner Thirty-sixth st."   While the reward seems negligible, it would equate to around $110 today.

In April 1880 the Atterburys sold No. 39 to Robert B. Minturn and his wife, the former Sarah Susannah Shaw for $95,000--about $2.3 million in today's dollars.   Benjamin and Olivia Atterbury would soon move into the newly-completed Dakota Apartments on Central Park West where they died--Olivia in 1894 and Benjamin in May 1900.

The Minturns, like the Atterburys, were vastly wealthy.  He was a partner in the shipping firm founded by his father, Grinnell, Minturn & Co., and a vice-president of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.   They would not live in the mansion for long, however.  They sold in in December 1883 to George Sullivan Bowdoin and his wife, Julia, for $110,000.

Bowdoin was a partner in the House of Morgan and a director in several corporations.   His impressive lineage included the Schuyler, Van Rensselaer and Morris families.  His mother, Frances Hamilton, was the granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton.   Julia Irving Bowdoin was the daughter of Moses H. Grinnell, a U. S. Congressman and a Commissioner of Central Park.  Married on June 18, 1862, the couple had two children, Temple and Edith.

While the Atterburys rarely had appeared in society columns, the same could not be said for the Bowdoins.  They maintained a "cottage" in Newport and were included in the highest social circles.  When, for instance, Cornelius Vanderbilt opened No. 1 West 57th Street for a musicale (which The New York Times said was "on a scale of rather unusual magnitude") on February 21, 1884, for instance, the Bowdoins were there.

Just two months before purchasing No. 39 Park Avenue, George Bowdoin received a colossal scare.   He and Julia were regular guests on J. Pierpont Morgan's 185-foot yacht, the Corsair.   On the afternoon of Saturday, September 22, 1883 the vessel left the West 23rd Street dock headed for Morgan's country estate, Cragston.   On board was Julia.  The New York Times noted "Mr. Bowdoin was asked to go, but could not."

That evening a telegraphed message arrived at the Bowdoin's Newport home.  Signed by a man named Russell, it stated that the Corsair had sunk and everyone, with the exception of himself and the chief engineer, had been lost.   Servants replied that Bowdoin was not in Newport and asked for particulars, but there was no return telegram.  The message turned out to be a cruel hoax.

Julia was highly involved in high level social affairs, like the annual Patriarchs' Ball; but she also worked for charitable causes.   She served on the Executive Committee of the Indian Rights Association and was an officer in the Child's Day Nursery of Grace Church.  That organization, established in 1877, provided day care to children as young as 18 months for needy women who would not otherwise be able to work.   The older children were taught reading, arithmetic and writing, while the girls also learned sewing and knitting,  They received two meals during the day.

On December 16, 1884 Julia threw open the Park Avenue mansion for what The Times called a "very pretty private fair and parlor bazaar" for the group.   Wealthy socialites with names like Winthrop, Kingsland, Townsend and Potter helped.  The newspaper said "The tables, which were arranged in the parlors, were covered with fine hand-embroidered work and hand-painted bric-a-brac, with articles of more practical value," adding "The parlors were thronged during the hours of the fair and the result was a neat little sum for the nursery expenses."

As daughter Edith neared her debut, Julia's focus turned to her.  On January 3, 1894 a dance was held in the Park Avenue house for Edith.  If Julia anticipate a fashionable wedding in Edith's future, however, it would not come to be.

At the time the Bowdoins' private stable was located at No. 30 East 32nd Street.   By 1895 George not only had a telephone installed in the Park Avenue house, but in the stable as well.  The up-to-the-minute convenience allowed the family to notify the grooms ahead of time when a carriage was needed.

George's attention to modern innovations continued when in May 1897 he commissioned society architect Ogden Codman, Jr. not to renovate the interiors of No. 39, but to install an elevator.  It prompted the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide to comment "Electric house elevators seem to be becoming quite a fad among the owners of high class dwellings."

The same publication was worried about the Park Avenue neighborhood in 1907.  Commerce, it feared, would obliterate the fashionable district.  "What will be the future of Park av, between 34th and 40th sts?" it rhetorically asked.  Among the millionaire residents it listed were, of course, the Bowdoin family.   Despite the change in the neighborhood, George seemed determined to remain.  That same year he purchased the architecturally picturesque stable nearby at No. 149 West 38th Street.

George made a gift of $75,000 towards the completion of the Church of St. John the Divine in 1907; a generous donation of just under $2 million today.

Late in November 1913 Bowdoin suffered what The Sun called "an attack of pleurisy.  The 81-year old died in the Park Avenue house on December 16.   His will contained not only the expected financial, real estate and other property, but historically valuable colonial artifacts.

Julia received $200,000 plus "all the paintings, statuary, books ornaments, silver, furniture, and other household effects" in the Park Avenue mansion.  She also understandably received the stable, "all his horses, carriages, and stable equipments" and Pew 50 in Grace Church.  Interestingly, while Julia owned its contents, Edith received the mansion.

The country estates were divided between Temple and Edith.  She received the Bar Harbor mansion while he received the 28-acre New Hamburg, New York estate and half of the 130-acre Irvington, New York property.  The will instructed that should Julia wish to live in the New Hamberg house, "she may do so provided that she notifies her son to that effect within six months of her husband's death."

Temple received "the silver win cooler, given by Gen. Washington to my great-grandfather, Gen. Alexander Hamilton...and all my family portraits."  Julia was allowed to keep the portraits on the walls of the Park Avenue house as long as she lived there.

George was specifically protective of his valuable wine cellar.  The will allowed Julia to choose any bottles she wanted, and the remainder were to go to Temple.  He was directed to judiciously decide which bottles Edith should have.  The will sternly instructed "I direct that my children shall not sell any part of these wines except to one another."

Bizarrely, Bowdoin's death was just the first in a rapid-fire string that would wipe out all of the immediate family, except for Edith, within 15 months.   Temple (whose wife, Helen had died on August 9, 1912) died at his house at No. 104 East 37th Street on December 2, 1914 after undergoing an operation late for an intestinal disorder.   Only two months later, on February 16, Julia died in the Park Avenue mansion.

Edith received $371,448 from her mother's estate, the church pew, and the stables.  Temple's now-orphaned son, 16-year old George Temple Bowdoin added $109,772 (about $2.7 million today) from his grandmother's estate to the $2 million he inherited when his father died.

Edith Bowdoin remained in the Park Avenue mansion, summering in Bar Harbor and focusing much of her attention to the ASPCA.   As the neighborhood changed--just as the Record & Guide had feared--she remained resolutely in place.

On June 6, 1929 when this photo was taken, the parlor level was securely shuttered as Edith was, no doubt, in Bar Harbor.  A flashy limo waits at the light directly outside.  photo by P. L. Sperr, from the collection of the New York Public Library.

When George Temple Bowdoin's wife, Emily, was one of two American women presented at the first court held by the newly coronated King George and Queen Elizabeth of England, newspapers delved into the family's social background.  The Times included "Miss Edith Grinnell Bowdoin lives in the old family homestead at Park Avenue and Thirty-sixth Street."

Among the servants who had moved into the house with the family in 1883 was Harry H. Bloomfield.  After decades of service, he died there on December 18, 1937.  In a touching gesture, Edith placed an announcement in The New York Times that read "Miss Edith G. Bowdoin deeply regrets the passing away of her friend, the faithful and devoted employe of fifty-four years of her father, the late George S. Bowdoin, and herself."

At the age of 74, Edith died in the house on March 15, 1943.  She left an estate of over $1.6 million, much of which went to charity, including $250,000 to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Quite noticeably she had ignored her closet relative, George Temple Bowdoin.  The bulk of the estate went to a dear friend, Dr. Beeckman J. Delatour.

Delatour also received Edith's companion of 14 years, her chow dog Tuchun.  To ensure that Tuchum was comfortably provided for, she left him a trust of $10,000.

A year after Edith's death, on November 1, 1944, a sign offers space to rent within the mansion.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Edith's death was the end of the line for No. 39 Park Avenue as a private home.  In 1944 it was converted to apartments and offices.  When Franklin R. Roosevelt's former Vice President, Henry A. Wallace, initiated his presidential run in 1948, The New York Times noted that the campaign "acquired a party headquarters--a four-story brownstone building at 39 Park Avenue, New York City."

Soon afterward the mansion was demolished and replaced with the 1950 Stonehenge Apartments designed by prolific architect George F. Pelham, Jr.

photo via


  1. Corected link to the Bowdoin' Bar Harbor cottage:

  2. Beautiful facade! One tiny nitpicky correction: J P. Morgan's country place on the Hudson was actually known as Cragston. I grew up there.

    1. Thanks for noticing that. All fixed. That spelling was taken from a newspaper article at the time. You just can't trust anyone! :-)