Monday, October 16, 2017

The Lost Robt. L. Stuart Mansion - 154 Fifth Avenue

The rear and side of the mansion as seen from the 20th Street side.  The carriage entrance is flanked by massive lanterns.  The sunlit conservatory, or tea room, faces the side street.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

When Kinloch Stuart and his wife, Agnes, fled Scotland to New York in 1805 because of crushing debt they could never have imagined that their sons would be among their new homeland's wealthiest citizens several decades later.   Upon landing in Manhattan Kinloch took his total savings of about $100 to open a candy store on Barclay Street.  The couple lived above the business and it was there in July 1806 that Robert Leighton Stuart was born.

When Kinloch died in 1826 he left a substantial estate of $100,000 (about $2.5 million today), half going to his widow and the other divided between his two sons, Robert and Alexander.

The brothers took over the family business, adding sugar refining to the manufacture of candy.   In 1835 the refinery business had grown so large that the candy operation was abandoned.  As their fortunes increased, the Stuarts completed side-by-side mansions at Nos. 167 and 169 Chambers Street.  But in 1862, "the business part of the city having invaded Chambers-street," as explained by The New York Times, Robert and his wife Mary erected a lavish stone-faced mansion on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 20th Street.

The Italianate residence and grounds engulfed fully half of the block front; the norther half being occupied by the Gothic Revival-style South Reformed Church.   The manicured grounds included a greenhouse--necessary to propagate the exotic plants de rigueur in mid-Victorian interiors--and were anchored by a palatial carriage house at the western edge of the property.

Between the South Reformed Church and the mansion were manicured gardens.  The handsome Stuart stables are in the background.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Stuart mansion was a staggering 92 feet wide and 100 feet deep.  Its rooms reflected the Stuarts' refined culture.  The library contained about 25,000 volumes and included rare illuminated manuscripts.   One newspaper deemed it "one of the most valuable in the City."  The Times noted that "Mr. Stuart's gallery of paintings was collected with great pains and lavish outlay and was one of the finest in the City."

The couple may have been influenced in the choice of the site by to its proximity to the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, a block away at the northwest corner of 19th Street.   Both Robert and Mary were ardent Presbyterians and deeply religious.

The couple focused more on charitable and civic causes than lavish entertainments.  At the time they moved into their new home Mary held the post of First Directress of the New-York Half Orphan Asylum.  In 1864 Robert was among the founders of the Home for Disable Soldiers; and he was a trustee of the First Ward Lord Industrial School and president of the Presbyterian Hospital.

The Stuarts' second floor sitting room was quintessentially mid-Victorian in decor.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1870, when John Taylor Johnston assembled millionaire art collectors to form the Metropolitan Museum of Art in his marble mansion nearby at No. 8 Fifth Avenue, Robert L. Stuart was expectedly among them.   He was also a founder of the Museum of National History, and when President Ulysses S. Grant laid the cornerstone for that new building on June 2, 1874, Stuart was at his side.

Later that night the President, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, Orville E. Babcock (the Secretary to the President, or what in today's terms would be the Chief of Staff), and Secretary of the Navy, George M. Robeson, dined in the Stuarts' Fifth Avenue mansion.

Stuart would brush shoulders with the new U.S. President, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879.  Hayes traveled to New York to open the fair within the new Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue.  A feature of the fair was the 135 loaned artworks that hung in three large galleries on the third floor.  Collectors like John Jacob Astor, William B. Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt removed paintings from their picture galleries to loan to the exhibit.  Stuart loaned First Impressions, by German genre artist Johann Peter Hasenclever, and Grandmother's Story, by French painter Hugues Merle.
Grandmother's Story was loaned by the Stuarts to the Seventh Regiment Armory Fair.  image via
 On the evening of April 21, 1880 a fund raising event for the Hahnemann Hospital took place in Madison Square Garden.   Well-dressed citizens danced and chatted in elegant surroundings.  And then tragedy occurred.   The Madison Avenue wall “including the tower at the north-western corner, fell into the street, carrying away the Art Gallery, the dancing-room, and part of the restaurant.”  Four patrons were killed and 22 hospitalized.

Robert L. Stuart responded by writing a check for $10,000 to the Hahnemann Hospital--just under a quarter of a million dollars today.  It was just one of the munificent gifts the Stuarts routinely bestowed.  He was described by The New York Times as "one of the most generous donors of Princeton College," and he and Alexander jointly built Stuart Hall on its campus.

The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church moved to Fifth Avenue and 55th Street in 1875.  It was emblematic of the northward migrations of its neighbors and congregants leaving the Fifth Avenue neighborhood below 23rd Street.  On March 19, 1881 The Real Estate Record & Guide announced that "Mr. Robert L. Stuart will build a sumptuous dwelling at Sixty-eight street and Fifth Avenue."

Robert Leighton Stuart as he appeared just prior to his death in 1882.  Contemporary Biography of New York Vol. II 1882 (copyright expired)

Sadly, the mogul would never see his new home completed.  In late November 1882 he became ill and was confined to his bed for three weeks.  He died in his bedroom on December 12 from what The New York Times reported was septicaemia, a blood infection.  The newspaper noted "Mr. Stuart leaves a widow and an estate valued at between $5,000,000 and $6,000,000."

Stuart's funeral took place in Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church three days later.  The church was crowed with millionaires, educators and politicians.  Former Governor Edwin D. Morgan, Assistant U.S. Treasurer Thomas C. Acton, John Sloane, J. Pierpont Morgan, John T. Agnew, and Darius Ogden Mills were a few of the notable mourners.

Mary moved into the completed mansion at 871 Fifth Avenue and leased No. 154 to the well-known decorating and furniture firm Herter Brothers.  The company signed a 10-year lease at $20,000 per year--an astounding $40,333 per month in today's dollars.

New-York Tribune, March 3, 1886 (copyright expired)

On July 2, 1889 the Philadelphia News wrote a one-paragraph article that had nothing to do with a news story.   It merely enlightened its readers on the noble works of Mary Stuart.  The writer said that she cared little for high society, "and probably never saw the inside of a theatre; but the poor and afflicted know her bounties, if not herself."

The newspaper revealed "She keeps a person whose sole occupation it is to visit the different police courts and give bail for any deserving person whose detention would be a hardship until proved guilty, and often pays their fines when the offense is light."  Calling her a "sweet, simple, retiring woman of the noblest type, quiet and self-sacrificing," it noted that the widow had inherited "some $10,000,000."  "She does more genuine good than the world dreams of; but then she does not do it for the world to know or herald."

Two years later, on December 30, 1891 Mary died at the age of 75.  Her will left $1 million to the Boards of Home and Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church "to be used as a permanent fund."  The Boards purchased Mary and Robert Stuart's old home at No. 154 Fifth Avenue in December 1893 and used her endowment to replace it with The Presbyterian Building to house its mission offices.  That building, designed by James B. Baker, survives.

An early postcard view depicts the gleaming new building.


  1. Being ardent Presbyterians and deeply religious served the Stuarts well!

    Everyone with heaps of money had a magnificent interior, but it is not very often we see fabulous exteriors and surrounding buildings. Between the South Reformed Church and the mansion were manicured gardens (which were a bit understated) but the stables in the background were very handsome and the church was elegant and not gaudy. My idea of heaven on earth would be that sunlit conservatory aka tea room!

  2. Gorgeous house, but I'm wondering what a "half orphan" is.

    1. Half orphans were children with only one parent. New York, for instance, had a glut of half orphans during and following the Civil War when so many fathers were killed in battle. Women were most often financially unable to support children on their own.