Monday, November 27, 2017

The Lost Samuel L. M. Barlow House - 1 Madison Avenue

The substantial Barlow mansion dwarfed its high-end neighbors.  To the left is the brownstone Madison Square Presbyterian Church.  original source of photograph unknown
Samuel Latham Mitchill Barlow was just 35 years old when the Civil War broke out; but he had already made a remarkable mark on American law, industry and politics.

Born in 1826 in Granville, Massachusetts, he was the son of physician Samuel Bancroft Barlow.  His mother's aristocratic family had fled the French Revolution.  When Barlow was just 16 years old he came to New York City, working for a legal office for $1 a week.  Aggressive and ambitious, he was admitted to the bar at the age of 23 and quickly earned a reputation as a successful corporation lawyer.  Astonishingly, that very year he was paid the staggering fee of $250,000 (more than $8 million today) to settle claims following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago with Mexico.

In 1852 Barlow married Alice Cornell Townsend, the daughter of Peter Townsend.   In 1914 historian Cuyler Reynolds, in his Geneological and Family History of Southern New York, said "and thus [Barlow] allied his family with one of the oldest and most respected in this country."  Alice was just 19 at the time of her marriage.  The couple would have two children, Alice Wadsworth (fondly called Elsie), born within the year, and Peter Townsend, born in 1857.

During the 1850s Barlow's clients included railroad tycoons and princes of industry, like Cornelius Vanderbilt. In 1852 he co-founded the legal firm of Bowdoin, Laroque & Barlow.  That year he traveled to Europe representing an Illinois railway.  The case earned him $50,000.  It was just one example of the astonishing sums the young lawyer demanded.

It was through his prompting that George B. McClellan, a West Point graduate who had distinguished himself during the Mexican-American War, accepted the position of superintendent of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad in 1860.  There was a difference of only three months in their ages and the two would be life-long friends.

McClellan left the railroad the following year when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter.  Throughout the war he confided in Barlow, asking for his opinions regarding strategies and his help in influencing politicians and powerful men in authority.

Neither Barlow nor McClellan believed that eliminating slavery was a primary issue in the cause.  An intact Union and an end to conflict were the major objectives.  The New York Times diplomatically called Barlow "an apologist for slavery."

In the meantime, a millionaire with quite different goals lived in a lavish mansion at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 23rd Street on Madison Square.  William Lane was one of the leading wholesale drygoods dealers in the country and was vocally pro-South.  He did extensive business in the Southern states, and just prior to the outbreak of war, Lane entertained Jefferson Davis in his home.

The mansion outdid its neighbors both in size and magnificence.  Four stories tall above an English basement, its broad stoop befitted the oversized proportions of the residence.  Noticeably grand were the first floor openings--each a set of French doors that opened onto balustraded stone balconies.

While  Barlow's massive wealth continued to grow, the Civil War ruined William Lane, who sold Barlow his Madison Square mansion.  It would be months before the Barlow family moved in as renovations were initiated.

Meanwhile Barlow had been busy amassing a large library; much of it focused on American history.   It already included irreplaceable books and documents like the the first printed letters of explorers Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci and Hernan Cortez, and what a later cataloger described as "the rich series of colonial pamphlets, English, French and Dutch," and one of the largest sets of Jesuit Revelations ever compiled.

As the residence was being renovated, Barlow had the opportunity to purchased the library of Thomas Aspinwall--one that had taken thirty years to accumulate.  About 200 of the most precious volumes were packed in a trunk and delivered to Barlow's office.  The rest, around 3,700 volumes, were sent to the warehouse of Bangs Brothers to await the completion of the library in the Madison Avenue house.  On the night of September 18, 1864 the Bangs Brothers warehouse burned to the ground.

Although Barlow attempted to find scorched survivors, the books were lost.  Luckily, the rarest, including the 17th century records of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, were safe in the trunk.

Almost unbelievably, once in the invaluable library was in place in the Madison Avenue house Barlow made it accessible to the public.  Years later librarian James Osborne Wright wrote "You had only to come to the house, ring the bell, express your intention, and you were at once ushered into that hospitable 'Black Library,' where every bookcase was constantly kept unlocked.  If unable to come in person, or residing in a distant city, books, maps and manuscripts were forwarded to the student who stood in need of them to continue or complete historical labors."

Barlow continued his high-level legal work while Alice involved herself in charitable causes.  In 1867 she was assistant treasurer of The New-York Ladies' Southern Relief Association.  The goal of the group was to provide aid to "the suffering women and children of the South."  A plea for donations that year noted "Tens of thousands of families have lost all they possessed.  Many are houseless, and have only their land left, without even a plow or hoe, a horse or mule to cultivate it."

Three years later, with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Alice was involved in staging "the grand national bazaar" which opened on October 31, 1870 for the benefit of France.  The proceeds of the event went to "procuring and forwarding material aid to the widows and orphans of that sad land, many of whom are in a state of starvation."

Barlow, too, would be involved in the Franco-Prussian conflict; but in a much different way.  Upon the declaration of peace he settled a dispute concerning a $1.6 million contract between an American arms manufacturer and France, which no longer needed the weapons.  (They were shipped three months later.)

Madison Square, originally surrounded by an iron fence and seen from the parlor windows of the Barlow mansion, was described by James D. McCabe Jr., in his New York By Gaslight as "the prettiest of all the smaller parks of New York" and lined with "superb private mansions."   The author wrote "A fine fountain in the centre is one of its chief attractions, and around it gather, on fair mornings, crowds of children and nurses from the neighboring fashionable streets."

But all that was threatened in March 1871 when the Tammany administration proposed extending Madison Avenue (which ran northward from 23rd Street) to the south.  The project would not only destroy about 90 houses and other structures, it would change Madison Avenue from a quiet residential street to a thoroughfare.  Although his name does not appear in the reports, it is almost doubtless that Samuel Barlow played a major role in defeating the proposal.

The vast wealth of the Barlow family was evidenced in August 1872 when a servant, Charles Augustus Stevens, helped himself to some of Alice's jewelry.  He was committed for trial on August 30 for the larceny theft of $6,000 in jewelry and diamonds--about a quarter of a million dollars today.

Earlier that year the Madison Avenue mansion was the scene of an event that sent vibrations across the nation.  On March 12, 1872 The New York Herald ran the headline "ERIE OVERTHROWN--Downfall of the Corrupt and Infamous Erie Ring--JAY GOULD MEETS HIS FATE."

The article explained "Yesterday a party of about twenty gentlemen assembled at the house of Mr. Samuel L. M. Barlow, the well known lawyer, who was foremost, from the beginning, in preparing the results of yesterday's hard and successful work...There were in the party some of the best known and most respected citizens--men of probity and standing in the community--whose characters were of that kind that made them fit to deal with the Erie conspirators."

Included in the group was Barlow's good friend Major General George B. McClellan, and other Civil War luminaries like Major General John A. Dix,Colonel H. G. Stebbins and General H. L. Lansing.  The men went to Jay Gould's offices where he was removed from the presidency of the Erie Railway Company.

While the editors of The New York Herald were ecstatic, saying "The blow has fallen at least on the Erie thieves and banditti, and not a fragment of their once great conspiracy remains to tell of its arrogance, dishonesty and unblushing effrontery;" The New York Times accused Barlow of being the rogue.

Months later the newspaper was still attacking him, suggesting on October 19 that his $30,000 fee he charged was "a very improper one" and instead of working for the benefit of the Erie corporation, "he used the opportunities which his position gave him to make money for himself."

Barlow finally had had enough and on March 12, 1873 his letter to the editor was published.  It said in part, "If The Times published an extraordinary, malignant lie, I shall go before the Grand Jury and have the parties doing it indicted; if it prints a medium-sized half-and-half lie, I shall reply to it by a card in the public prints; if it gives out an immaterial, slipshod lie to the world, I shall not notice it at all, but go on tending to my own business."

Although The Times continued to wage war against Barlow, things returned to normal.  He and Alice were guests at the wedding and reception of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor to Marshall Orme Wilson in November 1884--the most important social event of the year.

Before long Samuel and Alice would be alone in their cavernous house with their staff of servants.  Elsie had married Stephen Henry Olin in 1879; and Peter, how a lawyer himself, was married to Virginia Louise Matthews in Paris on May 6, 1886.  His sister would not live to see him married.  She died in the Barlow family's Glen Cove summer residence in 1882.

In addition to his renowned library, Barlow was an amateur art collector and a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Despite its long-standing feud with the millionaire lawyer, The Times admitted on March 13, 1888 that he "owns some fine old works."  Later the newspaper pointed out "In the matter of paintings he had a liking for the Dutch and Flemish old masters, and in at least one case he is said to have secured a specimen of the first quality, a Van Dyck."

The Barlow family's summer estate, Elsinore, in Glen Cove, Long Island, was named for daughter Elsie.  original source unknown
In July 1889 Alice, now a partial invalid, was at Elsinore along with Elsie's two daughters.  As was the case with many wealthy businessmen, Samuel spent several days in the city conducting business, commuting on weekends and periodically staying at Elsinore for a week or more.    He had not been in his usual good health for several days, but he and his friends thought little of it.  The Times said they "attributed his slight indisposition to the weather."

Then, on Tuesday morning, July 9, a partner in his firm felt Barlow was looking especially ill.  He advised him to go home to Long Island.  When he arrived there, Alice sent for a doctor who "at once determined that his patient was in danger."

A telegram was sent to Peter in Europe, telling him to rush home; but it was too late.  At 8:00 the following morning Barlow died of heart failure at the age of  63.  In reporting his death, The New York Times added "His fortune is estimated at nearly $2,000,000."  That figure would equal close to $540 million today.

Barlow's funeral was held in St. Paul's Church in Glen Cove.  On July 13 The Times reported "Rarely is such a representative body of men of national as well as local reputation seen together in these days when an hour from business is counted an hour lost, as that which assembled in the picturesque little church of St. Paul's in Glen Cove, L. I., yesterday morning to take part in the last sad rites over the body of Samuel Latham Mitchell [sic] Barlow."

Among the mourners were the well-known politicians like former Secretary of State, Thomas F. Bayard, and former Mayor William Russell Grace, Congressman John J. Quinn, military figures and titans of business. 

Just three months later Alice died in the Glen Cove residence.  Newspapers noted that her death "cannot be said to have been wholly unexpected.  She had been an invalid for several years, suffering from a disease from which there was scarcely hope of recovery."  Although she had occasionally rallied to the point of taking daily drives through the Long Island countryside, most felt that Samuel's death had hastened her own.

Her funeral was held in the same little church, and The New York Times, on October 22, advised that the "burial will take place at Glen Cove, where her husband and daughter lie in the Episcopal graveyard."

Peter Barlow was now tasked with the liquidation of his parents' sizable art collection and library.  On August 14, 1889 The New York Times wrote "Mr. Barlow was a collector with a wide range of tastes, and his home on Long Island and his house in the city are said to be crowded with handsome and valuable objects of art...But he is best known as an ardent and indefatigable collector of rare and beautiful works relating to America...His library of Americana is understood to be among the few great collections in the country; it will be a matter for regret that he did not leave it to the New-York Historical Society in its entirety."

Nevertheless, Peter decided to auction off the "paintings, bronzes, books and bric-a-brac" through the American Art Association.   The first to go was the furnishings and artwork beginning on February 3 1890.  The announcement lured buyers with the promise of "valuable oil paintings, principally by Old Masters; rare Oriental and European ceramics," including "The Famous Sang de Boeuf Vase."  Also included were "old silver, enamels, ivory carvings, cabinet specimens, bronzes, curios, tapestries, clocks" and carved and inlaid furniture.
Five days later the auction of Barlow's prized library began.  Its catalog listed books and manuscripts dating back to the 15th century, including letters from Queen Isabella of Spain, and a 1789 volume by Thomas Anbury entitled Travels through the Interior Parts of America, including plates and maps. 

Everything seems to have been sold.  A three-day auction at Elsinor sold "choice plants, live stock, &c."  Included were the plants from the Barlow greenhouses and conservatory: "the finest collection of Orchids, Palms, Cereas, and Aquatic Plants, Camelias, Shrubs, &c. in this country."

The neighborhood around his childhood home had drastically changed by now.  With No. 1 Madison Avenue cleared out, Peter sold the old mansion to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.   The firm wasted no time in demolishing it.  The Bridgemen's Magazine reported "The building operations of the company on the block commenced in May, 1890, when the fine old brown stone mansions at the corner of Madison avenue and Twenty-third street were demolished and excavations were started.

The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's new headquarters.  King's Photographic Views of New York.
The Renaissance Revival style facade of what became known as the South Building (the famous Metropolitan Life Tower came in 1909 and North Building in the 1920s) survived until 1962.  A modernization stripped off its architectural details and replaced them with a modern facade.

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