Monday, November 6, 2017

The Lost Hart M. Shiff Mansion - 32 Fifth Avenue

A newspaper published this photograph of the mansion around 1905.  (original source uncertain)
When Henry Brevoort completed his Greek Revival mansion in 1834 it was the only home on the unpaved Fifth Avenue.  But it set the tone for the avenue that would last for nearly a century.  By mid-century the city's wealthiest citizens were erecting lavish homes along the blocks just north of Washington Square.

In 1849 wealthy merchant Hart M. Shiff joined the party.  Recently arrived in New York from New Orleans, he commissioned Detlef Lienau to design a free-standing residence at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 10th Street.   The architect had come in America from Paris just a year earlier. Surprisingly forgotten today, Lienau was described by the Columbia Spectator nearly a century later, on January 10, 1936, as "the first architect with Paris training to practice in United States after Colonial times" and a "leading architect of the period."

Lienau would become one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects.  For the Shiff house he would introduce Americans to a new architectural style that would sweep the country.

In the years before blueprints, Lienau used intricate, water-colored working drawings.  In some cases not only were the exact measurements of particular building blocks noted, but the name of the workman responsible for laying them.  One of his notations for the Shiff house described the top floor as "a la mansard."

Within the next few decades untold numbers of American houses and business buildings would sprout mansard roofs--one of the most notable elements of the French Second Empire style.  But the Shiff house would be the first and one journalist noted it "was widely remarked upon."

Detlef Lienau's detailed working drawings were done in pen and ink.  from the collection of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

The mansion, completed in 1850, was 50 feet wide and 126 feet deep.  Clad in red brick and trimmed in brownstone, its patrician facade was distinguished by a slightly projecting center bay where a split stone staircase rose to the entrance, by paired two-story pilasters, and, of course, the ground-breaking mansard.  Each of the dormers was given a rounded hood except the central dormer at the front.   It wore a tiara of finials and scrollwork, emblematic of the aristocratic nature of the home.

Sadly, Hart M. Shiff would not enjoy his magnificent new house for long.  In 1851, within a year of its completion, he died.

No. 32 Fifth Avenue became home to the family of Dr. Josiah Hornblower Gautier.   Born in 1818, Gautier was a descendant of Huguenot Jacques Gautier who settled in America in 1716.   He had practiced medicine in New Jersey for some years before founding the manufacturing firm of J. H. Gautier & Co. in New York City.   On December 10, 1844 he married Mary Louise Gregory, daughter of U.S. Senator and the first mayor of Jersey City, Dudley S. Gregory.  The couple had seven children: Dudley Gregory, Thomas Brown, Maria Louisa, Josiah Hornblower, Anna Elizabeth, Charles Edward, and Clara Sutton.

Like almost all wealthy businessmen, Dr. Gautier made time for relaxation.  He was a member of the New-York Sportsman's Club and on the evening of February 10, 1873, he hosted an important meeting of the club in the Fifth Avenue mansion.   The group was troubled because a few months earlier the State Legislature had annulled certain game laws.  Without restrictions, some wildlife would be endangered.  The men's concern was a surprisingly early example of conservation efforts.

They turned their attention that night to out-of-season trout fishing.  The New-York Sportsman's Club had already taken legal action against four fish retailers for selling illegally-caught trout.  Now the club's chairman, Royal Phelps, announced that after hearing that James H. Laird had frozen trout in his store on Sixth Avenue, he had marched off to the shop "accompanied by two of his servants."  There he found 40 frozen Long Island trout.  The members "unanimously resolved that the suits should be vigorously pushed."

The group's concern over wildlife conservation was so grave that by December 8 of that year, when Gautier hosted another meeting, its name had been changed to the New-York Association for the Protection of Game.  Royal Phelps happily announced that "there were now only nine suits pending for violations of the Game law" and told the members "the whole country was waking up to the immense importance of protecting the wild game, and especially the far West."

The New York Times reported "At the conclusion of the meeting the members adjourned to the magnificent supper-rooms, where a sumptuous supper was prepared in Dr. Gautier's usual style.  The delicacies of the season having been indulged in, the company enjoyed themselves in the happy manner peculiar to those pleasant reunions.'

In April 1883 Gautier joined "a few gentlemen who regard favorably the idea of a Huguenot Society" in the mansion of John Jay.   The assembled men that afternoon had venerable surnames like Wittmeyer, de Peyster, De Lancey and Gallaudet.  The meeting ended with the society being approved and the resolution that a pamphlet would be drafted "which shall fully explain the nature and object of the new society," and be sent to all "persons o Huguenot descent."

The Huguenot Society was not an elitist social club like most of the exclusive men's clubs of the day.  Its members quickly began assembling a library on Huguenot history and promoting an understanding of the early Huguenots in America, who arrived to promote religious freedom.

In 1875 the city wrangled with the prospect of paving Fifth Avenue.  There was no question that the road needed to be paved.  The New-York Tribune wrote on February 15 "That the pavement on this avenue--being the only easy approach to the Central Park, and the only road therefore for the multitude of pleasure carriages--should be smooth and noiseless is also agreed."   But when the city proposed using Grahamite, an asphalt type of covering produced by the Grahamite Pavement Company and introduced around 1869, Gautier and his neighbors protested.

The editors of the New-York Tribune were highly in favor of the material, saying "We had been inclined, from the experience of the Graham pavement in front of the Worth Monument, to believe that it might serve the purpose, but property-holders who have watched it differ, and their judgment has weight."

Gautier was among what the Tribune called "gentlemen who inconsiderately attached their names to the petition."  Those names gave credence to the "weight" their opinions held.  Among them were James Lenox, William C. Rhinelander, Robert Lenox Stuart, William M. Kingsland, Charles de Rham, John Taylor Johnson and others--among the wealthiest and most powerful of New York's businessmen.

The paving of Fifth Avenue and state game laws were just two of the causes for which Josiah Gautier made his opinions clear.  He was outspoken in his opposition to Tammany Hall, for instance; and was on the front lines against the proposed street car up the middle of Fifth Avenue in 1894.  By now he and a few other millionaires had begun buying up the old mansions in the neighborhood in a futile attempt to stave off the advance of commerce.  When a New York Times reporter asked him about the street car project on April 12, 1894 he replied:

"I shall oppose it most strenuously.  I own Nos. 16, 28, and 30 Fifth Avenue and this house, and my property ought to be worth $450,000.  I am ready to join with others in opposition to the railroad."

Josiah H. Gautier died in his Fifth Avenue mansion on April 1, 1895 at the age of 76.  His funeral was held in the Church of the Ascension across the street from the house, three days later.

No. 32 became the home of Amos R. Eno and his bachelor son, Amos F. Eno.    The Enos were well-known in real estate circles.  It was the elder Eno who built the lavish white marble Fifth Avenue Hotel at 23rd Street in 1859.  By now the men were responsible for scores of structures throughout the city. 

Amos R. Eno was already in feeble health when he moved into the mansion.  In 1897 he was no longer able to conduct business. 

Born in 1810, he had started out in the dry goods business on Pearl Street.  The New York Times said decades later "While making a fortune in the dry goods business, Mr. Eno began to invest judiciously in New York real estate.  He picked out desirable corners, and occasionally he would buy an entire block of land.  When he was doing business at 74 Broadway he erected the first brownstone-front business building in New York."

Eno was well respected for his honesty and forthright business dealings, an admirable characteristic which was put to the test in 1884.  Another son, John Chester Eno, had been made president of the Second National Bank three years earlier.  In May 1884 it was discovered that he had used bank funds for private speculations--to the point that the bank was on the verge of failure.

Amos Eno kept the bank doors open.  The Times reported "every depositor was paid in full, although to do it cost Mr. Eno between three and four million dollars...Mr. Eno never recovered from the shock of these events and of those which followed as their natural consequence."

Amos R. Eno - New-York Tribune February 22, 1898 (copyright expired)

Adding to the mental shock was the death of his wife the following year.  Amos R. Eno died in the Fifth Avenue house on February 21, 1898 at the age of 87.  At the time of his death his real estate holdings were valued at around $20 million--nearly $600 million in today's dollars.

Amos F. Eno, like his siblings, received one-sixth of the residuary estate after the payment of his father's many generous charitable bequests (like the $50,000 that went to Amherst College).   He also received the Fifth Avenue house and $1.25 million outright.  The will noted "He has helped me more than any one else in the management of the estate."

Like Josiah Gautier, Amos F. Eno fervently battled changes in the neighborhood.  The Sun later mentioned "Mr. Eno was one of the most active leaders in the fight to preserve the residential character of lower Fifth avenue and Washington Square...and when business houses threatened to encroach upon that residential quarter Mr. Eno made determined and successful resistance."

Perhaps expectedly, the unmarried millionaire did not throw gala dances and dinners.  He did regularly host the Neighborhood Amusement Club, however.  It was apparently his single greatest diversion and he enjoyed putting on the lighthearted entertainments.  On April 11, 1901, for instance, The New York Times noted that the club's last meeting of the season would take place in the Eno residence five days later.  "There will be an elaborate entertainment of music and vaudeville."

Eno's regular hosting of the meetings would be reported in the society pages until his death in 1915.  On October 7 that year it was announced that the millionaire had donated property and worth $65,000 to the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York.   The purpose of the gift was to give the Society an income-producing property.

It would be the last charitable act Amos F. Eno made during his life.  Exactly two weeks later, on October 21, the 81-year old died suddenly in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  He had attended a dinner and wedding and came home "in his usual good spirits and apparent health," according to The Sun.  "About midnight he became ill and he died at 3 o'clock in the morning."

Eno had earned the rank of colonel during the Civil War.  The Society of War Veterans of the Seventh Regiment turned out for the funeral services in the house on Saturday, October 23.

Eno's house staff were generously taken care of through his will.  His valet, Edmond Bigaut, and his housekeeper, Helen Desperins, each received $5,000 (nearly $125,000 today).  His cook, Delia Nolan, received $3,000, and six other servants were left left $1,000 each.

Like his father, Eno left enormous bequests to various institutions.   For instance, the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen received $1.8 million; the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History each received $250,000, and Columbia University was to receive a large cash amount plus the mansion and its contents.  Additionally the New York Public Library was given $50,000 and "all the books, prints, and engravings relating to New York, which are in the testator's home, 32 Fifth Avenue."

That last bequest would prove to be priceless.  On October 30 The New York Times said the Library was now "the possessor of one of the finest collections of old New York material in the country.  With the single exception of the New York Historical Society, the Public Library will now have the largest collection of rare New York views extant."

In addition to the hundreds of prints, the Eno collection included rare and early maps "of inestimable value."  Included in the collection was the Visscher print of New Amsterdam printed in 1655.  The Eno collection remains one of the library's most precious archives.

The scattered relatives of Eno were not pleased with his magnanimous gifts to the various institutions.  A month after his death they were in court to contest the will.

Things quickly took a highly suspicious turn when a law clerk, John E. Merz, was sent to the house by the attorney for the executors "to make an inventory and to guard the valuable art collection."  But when Eno's niece, Florence C. Graves, arrived at the house she found it filled with smoke and later told a judge that the housekeeper, Helen Desperins, was in a "greatly excited condition" and said "that Mr. Merz was upstairs destroying everything and that he had no respect for anything."

Mrs, Graves rushed upstairs to find Merz and the houseman, Svante Johnson, burning piles of papers in the fireplace.  According to Johnson, Merz had ordered him "Don't throw those papers out; burn them."  At Mrs. Graves's staunch demand, Merz stopped the destruction; but not before hundreds of valuable documents were gone.

When this photograph was taken, the Eno house still enjoyed a large garden to the south.  from the collection of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

In the end the relatives won their suit.  The Richmond, Indiana Palladium reported on July 24, 1916 that the court ruled "Amos F. Eno was mentally incompetent when he drew a will in June, 1915."  The relatives now received many times more than he had intended and the institutions like Columbia University (which had expected to receive $5 million) were disappointed. 

In 1918 the Eno mansion was leased to Charles F. Rogers, proprietor of the Prince George Hotel.  His rent was $15,000 per year, or about $20,000 per month today.   The wealthy hotelier was well-known in society and the following year purchased 16 acres of Southampton property as the site of his summer estate.

Rogers did not stay especially long.  The Eno estate placed an advertisement in The New York Herald on November 7, 1920 offering "For rent, furnished, to high class private family; no under letting."  The change in the neighborhood was evident in the rental price, which had dropped to $12,000.

In the meantime, some of Eno's relatives were still battling it out in court for his money and holding up the settlement of the estate.  In court on January 4, 1922 attorney Clarence J. Shearn attacked two of the relatives, Amos R. E. Pincholt and his brother, Gifford Pinchot, calling them "bequest grabbers."  He accused them of "coming into court and trying to seize the bequests that Mr. Eno made to various public institutions after they had already received large sums."

Finally, on December 22, 1923, the suit was put to rest.  Columbia University agreed to renounce "its interest to the contents of the Eno home at 32 Fifth Avenue, his Summer home at Saratoga, and give up an additional $1,000,000," according to The Times.

The Eno estate wasted no time in liquidating the Fifth Avenue property.  Within weeks architects Schwartz & Gross filed plans for the 14-floor plus penthouse apartment building that survives on the site today.

photo via

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