Monday, October 30, 2017

The Lost Cyrus Clark Mansion - Riveride Drive at 90th Street

photo from the collection of the New York Historical Society
The development of the rocky, hilly Upper West Side into a modern suburb was due in great part to the tireless work of Cyrus Clark.   By the end of the Civil War, when Clark was still in his 30s, he had amassed a substantial personal fortune from his wholesale silk business.

He left New York in 1867 to pursue an entirely different career.  After studying real estate development in Europe, he returned in 1870 and began buying undeveloped land in the Upper West Side.  Disinterested in any other sections of the city, he lobbied for improvements like mass transit, sewer and water lines, and gas street lamps.

Clark pushed for laying out Riverside Drive along Riverside Park, construction of which had begun in 1872.  In February 1884 he helped organize the Citizen's West Side Improvement Association, which was incorporated as the West End Association in 1889.  Clark would be its president for years and his unrelenting work led to his being warmly called The Father of the West Side.

Clark and his wife, the former Julia Antoinette Requa, had three children, Walter, Howard and Mary.   When the West End Association was incorporated Clark and his family had lived in their new home on the southwest corner of Riveride Drive and 90th Street for a year.   Architect Henry F. Kilburn designed the mansion--a successful blending of French Renaissance and Romanesque Revival.  Costing $90,000 to construct (about $2.34 million today), it was faced in rough-cut stone.   The tile-covered hip roof was broken by two towers, dormers and clustered chimneys.   Numerous porches took advantage of the location's river breezes and spectacular views.

On December 17, 1891 The New York Times ran the headline "OWNERS LOADED FOR BEAR."  The article explained that mansion owners along Riverside Drive, including Cyrus Clark, accused the Park Commissioners of failing to maintain Riverside Drive and allowing "nuisances" to invade it.  They insisted that the Parks Commissioners were responsible for their falling property value, and now threatened to go to Albany over the "threatened construction of ill-smelling and unsightly factories along the river front."

This interior view of the Clark house shows a typical 1890s assemblage of paintings, statuary and bric-a-brac. photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Clark never let his guard down in protecting the Upper West Side and in particular the Riverside Drive neighborhood.   He was there when the Parks Commissioners met on February 3, 1892 to discuss the proposed licensing of a triangular piece of land in Riverside Park between 72nd and 75th Streets to the New-York Central Railroad.  Clark fought against the proposal, asserting it "was a scheme to gain the right to the river front, so that docks and warehouses could be built there later."

In the meantime, Julia had more immediate issues on her mind.  Mary was now a young woman and her marriage to Dr. Edward Washburn had to be carefully planned.  The ceremony took place in the Riverside Drive mansion on June 3, 1893, prompting The Times to call it "one of the prettiest of the early June weddings."

The groom was an educator with an impressive background.  He had been an instructor in Latin and Greek at Columbia College, and now held the post of Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology at Bryn Mawr College.

Mary's wedding party assembled on the porch and lawn.  Note the little second floor balcony just above the porch roof; a charming detail.   photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The wedding reception was held in the house following the ceremony.  The New York Times mentioned "The bride and bridegroom will spend the Summer in Europe"

The following year, on October 25, 1894, Walter was married to Alice Marshal Westervelt in what was called "an important and unusually pretty wedding."  The ceremony took place in the fashionable St. George's Episcopal Church on Stuyvesant Square.

Walter had graduated from Harvard five years earlier.  His bride was the great-granddaughter of Daniel D. Tompkins, who was several times the Governor of New York and the James Monroe's Vice President.

Howard was his brother's best man.  The 23-year old had enlisted in the United States Army, serving in Troop A Calvary, in 1891.  He had seen field service in the Buffalo Switchmen Strike in August 1892 and three months after the wedding he would help squelch the violent Brooklyn Trolley Strike.

In October 1897 Clark sold the southern half of the block, totaling about 10 building plots, for about $200,000 (just under $6 million today).  His relinquishing of half his lawn may have been a signal.  With two of his children married, he and Julia left the Riverside Drive mansion in 1898, significantly downsizing to a new rowhouse at No. 327 West 76th Street.

The Riverside Drive mansion was purchased by Mary Llewellyn Swayne Parsons.  Her husband, Edwin Parsons had died four years earlier.  The head of Edwin Parsons & Company, a cotton commission house, he left his widow a substantial fortune.  Mary's father, Noah Haynes Swayne, had been a United States Supreme Court Justice.   Her summer estate was at Northport, Long Island.

Mary wasted no time in opening her new home to guests.  On March 1, 1898 The New York Times reported "Mrs. Edwin Parsons gave a dinner of twelve covers at her home, Ninetieth Street and Riverside Drive, last night.  The table decorations were roses."

On August 30, 1900 Mary was an honored guest at the cornerstone laying ceremonies of the Parsons Memorial Library in Edwin's hometown, Alfred, Maine.  Earlier that year she had taken a much different stance against another memorial.

Mary's neighbor to the north, seen here in 1903, was John H. Matthews, the "soda water king." photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In January, calling herself "a taxpayer," she filed suit against Mayor Van Wyck, the President of the Park Board, three city officials and Joseph A. Goulden, the Chairman of the Memorial Committee of the Grand Army.  She intended to stop plans for erection of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument at Riverside Drive and 89th Street.   She declared that the monument would interfere "with the flow of light and air and obstruct the view."

No doubt much to Mary's distress, the lawsuit was defeated and the memorial was built.

Mary Parsons died at the age of 73 in 1913.  She left many charitable bequests including, for instance, were $5,000 to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, $5,000 to the Society for the Relief of Destitute Blind of New York, and $5,000 to the Church Home for Infirm and Disabled Colored People.

Family members, of course, received large inheritances.   The slice of the estate received by Mary's brother, Francis, was $80,000--about $2 million in today's terms--and the Riverside Drive mansion.

In the meantime the wealthy and powerful Bishop Henry C. Potter had constructed his lavish mansion on the corner property that Clark had sold in 1897. That same year restrictive covenants had been placed on the block barring "for a period of thirty-five years" the construction or use of any building except private dwellings intended for single families.

The year before Mary Parsons died William H. Barnard, President of the International Salt Company, and his wife, Lily, had purchased the Potter mansion.  Now those restrictions would result in problems.

Francis Swayne leased his sister's former house to Mrs. Florence B. de G. Shaw.   Florence moved her Hamilton School for Girls into the mansion.  Exclusive private girls' schools were almost always located within upscale residential districts.  But William Barnard was not pleased.

Citing the restrictive covenants, he took Francis Swayne and Florence B. de G. Shaw to court in October 1915.  He argued that the school was a business and, therefore, violated the covenants.  He insisted that "it would be necessary to install fire escapes on the building, which would destroy the privacy of the neighborhood."  The New York Times reported "He said he had heard that Mrs. Shaw would take boarding pupils, as well as day pupils."

Before a grand jury the following month, Florence "contended that the privacy of the Drive neighborhood was passing" and "insisted that her school would be conducted so quietly that it would not disturb the block."

Then she flipped the accusation--pointing out that William Barnard had already broken the restrictive covenant when he leased his mansion for $1,000 to a motion picture company.   Scenes of the silent film thriller, which starred Billie Burke, were shot in the Barnard mansion.  Florence told the court that the privacy of the block was in chaos during the filming.

The mansion was ivy-covered in the early 20th century.  Behind, to the left, can be seen the carriage house. The back of this postcard reads "Cyrus Clark, Father of the West Side, Built This House."

The New York Times reported on November 6, 1916 "The scenes leading up to the capture of the escaped murderer in the house, she said, had been taken on the grounds and in the street, and had created so much excitement that large crowds collected and the peace of the neighborhood was greatly disturbed."

Barnard pressed on with the suit, and hired a private detective to snap photographs.  When the case came to trial on January 8, 1917, William L. Drummond provided his "pictorial evidence" and told of "seeing the girls exercising in the barn, which is now the school's gymnasium."  Barnard testified that his property value had fallen from $880,000 to $800,000 because of the school.

When Barnard won his case, Florence de G. Shaw appealed to the State Supreme Court.  On December 14, 1917 the ruling was overturned and Barnard's suit dismissed.  The court decided that the restrictions applied "to any future buildings erected on the property and did not affect present building there."

The tense co-existence between the Barnards and the Hamilton School for Girls would last only seven more years.  In 1925 the mansions were demolished to be replaced with that block-engulfing apartment building designed by J. E. R. Carpenter which survives.

photo via


  1. Fascinating story, as usual. However, some facts appear to be confused. You have Cyrus Clark's widow, Julia, marrying Bishop Henry C. Potter in 1909. Aside from the fact that Bishop Potter had died in 1908, the year before this supposed nuptial, it was Alfred Corning Clark's widow, Elizabeth, whom Bushop Potter had married---in 1902.

    1. Interesting. I was relying on the New York Times article of October 18, 1915 which reads "This restriction was made by Mrs. Julia M. Clark, who later married Bishop Potter, and who owned all of the property within the restricted portion." I need to dig further. Thanks!

  2. What a spectacular house. Something so special about the residences built on Riverside.