Monday, November 20, 2017

The Lost John H. Matthews House - 176 Riverside Drive

The Shingle style mansion was surrounded by a cast iron fence in the form of swirling, stylized vines.  The carriage house, on 90th Street, followed the architectural form.  photo by Dr. Martin Deschere from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In October 1898 Thomas Cady's article entitled "New York's Riverside Park" appeared in Munsey's Magazine.   In it he mentioned that "The home of Mr. John H. Matthews, who made a solid fortune out of effervescent soda, is easily the most striking bit of architecture on the river front, it's ample porches and picturesque tile roofs distinguishing it from its more conventional neighbors."  Cady could not have been more spot-on.

Designed by the firm of Lamb & Rich, the free-standing residence was completed in 1891.  While other esteemed architects, like McKim, Mead & White, were designing sprawling Shingle style mansions on summer estates in Connecticut and Long Island, for instance; Hugh Lamb and Charles Alonzo Rich turned to the style for John Matthews's city house--a bold and unique move.

Drawing inspiration from English and early American architecture, the style reflected the recent interest in Colonial America.  The somber elements of 17th century buildings--plain, shingled surfaces, for instance--were reborn with vibrant and interesting shapes, angles and contrasting hues and materials.

The Cyrus Clark mansion sat on the opposite corner.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The New York Times reported "the house is said to have cost over $200,000," or more than $5.4 million today.   Matthews had purchased the plot at the northeast corner of Riverside Drive and 90th Street--about six and a third city lots--from Cyrus Clark, known as the "Father of the West Side," who had erected his own mansion at the opposite corner in 1888. 

Clad in brick, rough-cut stone and, of course, layered shingles, the Matthews mansion was dominated by a corner current with a conical cap.  An "American" porch extended the width of the Riverside Drive elevation, wrapping around the turret.  The profusion of balconies provided multiple spots for enjoying the river views and cooling breezes.   A shocking departure from "colonial" was Lamb & Rich's use of classical caryatids as supports in a second-floor bay.

The surprising caryatids can be seen above the porch.   World War I Liberty Loan posters are affixed to the unique iron fencing.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Known popularly as the Soda Water King, John H. Matthews had amassed a tremendous fortune by the time he began construction on his Riverside Drive house.  His grandfather, also named John Matthews, had come to American from England in 1832.  An inventor and "mechanical genius of rare ability" according to America's Successful Men of Affairs, he had patented machinery for manufacturing soda water.   John H. Matthews and his cousin, George, now headed the massively-successful firm.
While many other millionaires spent their free time in yachting and horse racing, Matthews had a less expected hobby, breeding bulldogs.  He served as the president of the Bulldog Club, as well.

C. H. Tate drew a charming depiction of the mansion for Munsey's Magazine in October 1898 (copyright expired)

On November 4, 1893 the Indianapolis News reported that the breed was now "in favor with fashion and considered beautiful" among socialites.  "These dogs are seen more and more on the 'avenue' each day.  Fashion has begun to set her mark on them, and the only difficulty is that they are hard to secure, and a long purse is needed."

The article mentioned the Matthews kennels "adjoining his chateaulike residence on Riverside Drive."   It noted that two of his dogs, Bathos and Dollie Tester "are splendid specimens of the highest breeding, and one or the other of them--more especially Dollie Tester--often accompanies Miss Matthews in her walks about the West Side."  The writer deemed Bathos "with hardly a doubt the best white English bulldog in America."

Matthews's prize-winning Bathos appears rather disinterested in this 1893 photo.  Indianapolis News, November 4, 1893 (copyright expired)
An unusual aspect of the Matthews mansion was that it adjoined the impressive private stable.  While the carriage houses of most wealthy New Yorkers were located several blocks away, some were placed on the grounds--but in those cases they gave wide berth to the mansion.  This arrangement proved nearly disastrous in the winter of 1896.

The coachman had just finished hitching up a team to a carriage on the evening of December 11.  He had left the stable for a few minutes when fire broke out in the hay loft.  The New York Times reported "He returned in time to get out the horses and a couple of carriages, but four carriages, all of the hay, and part of the interior woodwork were burned out."

Fire fighters arrived in time to keep the blaze from spreading to the mansion.  The chaos caused by fires provided opportunities for crooks and the article noted "About thirty policemen formed a line about to guard against thieving."  The blaze caused "about $5,000 damage and a great deal of excitement," according to The Times.   The loss would equal about $147,000 today.

When this photograph was snapped the land north of the Matthews mansion was undeveloped.  To the far right are the matching private stables.  Greater New York Illustrated, 1905 (copyright expired)

The family remained in the mansion until January 1905, when Matthews sold it to John B. Russell.  The price was kept quiet, however Russell's $210,000 mortgage (nearly $6 million today) gives a hint.  In reporting on the sale, the New-York Tribune called it "one of the 'show houses' in Riverside Drive."

John B. Russell was the president of the Russell Contracting Company.  The firm won large building contracts like the paving of the United States Naval Academy in 1903 and construction of a bridge in Oyster Bay, Long Island, in 1905.

In 1899 the porches and now-dead tree in the side yard were ivy-covered.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Although Russell and his wife, Grace, put nearly $100,000 into altering and remodeling the house, they would not remain in it especially long.  They listed the property for $500,000 in May 1910.  When The New York Times reported on May 20 that they had sold it "to a syndicate which would build a big apartment house" Grace was quick to deny the story.

And, indeed, the Times report was mere rumor.  The following month the Russells sold the house to real estate operator Franklin Pettit, who resold it within a week to Mrs. Mary B. Pell.  Pettit had looked to make a quick, substantial profit, offering it for $600,000; "but it is understood that Mrs. Pell obtained it for slightly over $500,000," explained The Times.

Mary Pell owned the Riverside Drive mansion next door to the former Matthews house and, according to the New-York Tribune on June 29, "purchased the property chiefly for the purpose of preventing the encroachment of an apartment house next to her."

Mary Pell owned the house next door with the unusual second floor balcony when she purchased the Matthews mansion.  Seen here in 1921 the ivy has been stripped away.   photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The wealthy widow died in her Riverside Drive residence on May 26, 1913.  Her will left generous bequests of $1 million each to Columbia University, Rutgers College and the Reformed Church of America. While real estate operators may have suspected that her death would signal the demolition of the two properties, they survived until late in 1921.

On November 5 that year The New York Herald reported that Harry Schiff had taken out a $1.15 million building loan for the construction of a 13-story apartment building.  That structure, completed in 1922 and designed by Schwartz & Gross, survives.

photo via


  1. While I don't dislike the replacement buildings, I always find the push of progress sad. Beautiful buildings torn down, just for the sake of progress.

  2. Just a very late comment: In 1900 Utah mining magnate Alfred McCune and his wife Elizabeth were prepairing to build a house in Salt Lake City when they saw the Matthews mansion and decided that it was exactly what they wanted.
    They commissioned a near exact replica, except exactly reversed for their new home.
    Thank you very much for one of my favorite architecture blogs.