Monday, December 18, 2017

The Lost Wm. B. Leeds Mansion - 987 Fifth Avenue

photo from Fifth Avenue New York City, 1911 (copyright expired)
William W. and Thomas M. Hall were prolific developers at the turn of the last century.  At a time when millionaires were lining Fifth Avenue across from Central Park with lavish palaces, the brothers joined the trend with speculative residences that held their own among the custom-designed mansions.

In 1899 they purchased the plot at 987 Fifth Avenue, just south of 80th Street, and commissioned the firm of Welch, Smith & Provot to design an opulent townhouse.  The $86,000 purchase price of the lot was evidence of the exclusive nature of the neighborhood.  It would equal about $2.6 million today.

In the meantime, a remarkable story had played out in the Midwest.  William B. Leeds was born in Indiana in 1856.  The New-York Tribune would later say of him, "His parents were poor and he made his first business venture in a very humble role--that of florist in his native town of Richmond."   In 1883, following his marriage to Jeanette Irene Gaar, the daughter of a Richmond banker, he was given a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad by a relative of his new wife.

In an astonishing Horatio Alger-worthy story, while working as a train conductor Leeds met and became friends with Daniel G. Reid who had a similar job on the railroad.   Within a few years the two young men left the railroad, pooled their savings, and purchased the controlling interest in a small tin plate mill in Richmond.  Energetic, ambitious and resourceful, they grew their business, acquiring more and more mills until they had formed the American Tin Plate Company which dominated the industry.

In 1901, the partners sold their corporation to the United States Steel Company for $46 million (about $1.3 billion today).   Leeds and Reid both returned to the railroads--now as controlling owners and executives of several lines.

Like his partner, William B. Leeds moved to New York City.  He had obtained a divorce in 1900 and, as reported by the New-York Tribune, "soon after Mr. Leeds married Mrs. Nannie May Stewart Worthing, also of Richmond, who had obtained a divorce from her husband, George Worthington."  The implication of extra-marital dalliance was clear.  His son by his first marriage, Rudolph, was sent off to the exclusive Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts.

Now William shopped for a new home, what The Virginia Enterprise deemed on April 19, 1901 "a gift for his bride."  That gift was No. 987 Fifth Avenue.   In March he paid W. W. & T. M. Hall $260,000 for the new mansion--more than $7.5 million in today's dollars.   The architects had produced a five story bowed-front confection of brick and limestone.  Its Beaux Arts facade was frosted with fussy French inspired decorations--broken pediments, garlanded cartouches, and iron window railings.  A stone balcony with wrought iron railings girded the fifth floor.  It along with the heavy bracketed cornice and crown-like balustrade gave the mansion a somewhat top-heavy appearance.

Rather surprising to some society columnists, Nonnie (familiarly known as Nancy) managed to slip into fashionable circles rather quickly.   On December 10, 1903 The Saint Paul Globe rather meanly wrote "Another member has been admitted to the ultra-fashionable set.  The newest 'arrival' is Mrs. William B. Leeds, the wife of the tinplate millionaire.  Mrs. Leeds forced her entry through the Long Island set, and, thanks to the Belmont family, she was introduced to every one worth while...Two years ago the second Mrs. Leeds did not exist for the New York set.  When Mr. and Mrs. Leeds settled in the house in No. 987 Fifth avenue, her neighbors said: 'Who, pray, is Mrs. Leeds, anyway?'

Nonnie "Nancy" Leeds - original source unknown

The catty columnist continued, "But Mrs. Leeds did not unbend and the neighbors saw a correctly gowned and graceful young woman going to and from her splendid victoria.  In Palm Beach last spring she put forth her claim as candidate for the right set.  Her husband is said to be worth $30,000,000 and this was her passport."

The neighbors included Hugh A. Murray (left), William J. Curtis next door, and the twin mansions of brothers Irving and Horace Brokaw.  from Fifth Avenue New York City, 1911 (copyright expired)

Nancy entertained lavishly in her new home and in the summer estate William leased on Long Island.  Her charm won over socially important women like Mrs. George Gould, Mrs. Henry H. Flagler and Mrs. Perry Belmont.  The Saint Paul Globe said "soon Mrs. Leeds was seen motoring with Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt Jr., and coaching with the Whitneys."

The Indianapolis Journal described her as "petite, with very delicate features.  She dresses remarkably well, prefers tints rather than colors, and is an extremely dainty figure in organdie or any light fabrics."

While Nancy was busy edging her way into high society, her husband focused on spending money.  On February 10, 1902 he launched his new 261-foot yacht the Norma, named for Nonnie.  The vessel, which cost him $500,000, had electric lighting and heating, and telegraph.

The Evening World reported that each of the vessel's eight state rooms had its own bath.  "A very elegant library extends the full width of the ship.  Galley, pantry, dining-room and smoking-room are situated in the main deck-house.  The women's sitting room is on the shade deck."  Leeds "elegant quarters" included a private office, state-room and bath.

Even though Leeds already owned a country home in Lakewood, New Jersey, in February 1902 he paid Thomas F. Young $200,000 for 400-acres near Theodore Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, Long Island.  The Evening World reported "Mr. Leeds intends to build a large country place in the fashionable colony."  

The Music Room is pictured above.  Below is the Dining Room with its stained glass windows, beamed ceiling and highly unusual marble mantel.  photographer unknown from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the meantime, young Reginald had managed to spark a news story that was reported across the country.  In the fall of 1902 both William and Nancy were ill.  While she rested in the Fifth Avenue mansion, William went to Hot Springs, Arkansas late in September to recuperate.

Sixteen-year old Rudolph read with interest the reports on the ongoing coup in Columbia.  In mid September he slipped away from his prep school "to help General Uribe-Uribe overthrow the government there," according to the Iowa newspaper the Evening Times-Republican.

The teen managed to get to Colon, where he purchased a ticket for Panama.  But by now his father had learned of his adventure.  Leeds contacted the American Consul General at Panama, H. A. Gudger, who was waiting when the train arrived.

"So when Mr. Leeds, full of martial enthusiasm, left the train and approached the first native who looked like a rebel, asking to be directed to the nearest camp, he was promptly captured by Mr. Gudger."  Reginald was packed onto the next steamship to New York.

William's masculine library (above) was a contrast to Nancy's very French "salon."   photographer unknown from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Reginald had a new half brother at the time.  William B. Leeds, Jr. was born on September 19, 1902.  Nancy redid one room of the mansion into a "playroom," a boy-cave that would make even an Astor or Vanderbilt child envious.

One end of little William's playroom shows shelves for toys which, when carefully put away, could be hidden behind curtains.    photographer unknown from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
A large staff of servants meant that motherhood did not interrupt Nancy's social calendar.   In February 1903 she took a risk which was sure to make the social columns when she planned a benefit "winter garden party" on Lincoln's Birthday at the Lakewood estate.  The New-York Tribune, on February 8, asked "What will happen in the event that a blizzard should chance to come, is of course a question, but the plan is to have a corps of young women in summer gowns and shade hats serve at tea tables among the trees on the lawn, while other summery young ladies wander about among the throng selling home-made candy, cake and valentines, and fancy and useful articles."
That summer, while the Oyster Bay house was being constructed, the Leeds summered in fashionable Saratoga.  The Indianapolis Journal noted that Nancy "has already made many friends at Saratoga...among her friends are Mrs. Sydney Smith, Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Oliver H. P. Belmont."

William Leeds was operated on for appendicitis that year.  He seemed to have come through the procedure with no problems; but then on December 3, 1905 The New York Times reported that he "is suffering from partial paralysis as a result of an operation for appendicitis performed two years ago."  The newspaper insisted, however, that "his condition was not serious and he was not even confined to his bed."  Leeds recovered, but it was obvious that the paralysis was not a result of his operation, but a stroke.

William and Nancy continued to broaden their social horizons, including buying the former Frederick W. Vanderbilt cottage, Rough Point, in Newport for half a million dollars.  But Leeds's health problems continued.  Towards the end of 1906 he suffered another stroke which again resulted in partial paralysis.  He traveled to Paris to consult a specialist.  (While her husband recuperated, Nancy went shopping, spending $340,000 on pearls at the Paris jewelry shop of Bernard Citroen.)

After about a year in France, the Leeds returned to New York in November 1907.  Two weeks later William suffered yet another stroke.  Once again his condition was downplayed in the press.  The New-York Tribune, on November 24, assured "The physicians who attended Mr. Leeds said that quiet and rest for a few days would put him in shape again."

William, Nancy and little William returned to Paris.  On the morning of June 23, 1908 the 52-year old died in their suite in the Hotel Ritz.  The New-York Tribune mentioned "Intimate friends in Paris to-day estimated his wealth at $35,000,000.

Four days later a funeral was held in Holy Trinity Church, "the American Church in Paris," according to the New-York Tribune.  The newspaper noted "Many prominent Americans were present."

On July 1 Leeds's casket was taken aboard the German steamship Kronprinz Wilhelm.  It arrived in New York on July 7 and the following afternoon a second funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue mansion.

William B. Leeds A National Register of the Society, Sons of the American Revolution, 1902 (copyright expired)

William's will left nearly his entire estate to Nancy and William, Jr.  Rudolph, now 22 years old and married, received $1 million--a relative sliver of the total which prompted The Richmond Palladium to opine "It would surprise none of Mr. Leeds' friends if the proceedings for probate were followed by a spirited contest."

But Rudolph accepted his father's decision, saying "The will of my father has been read and I am perfectly familiar with its contents.  The provisions of this will are entirely satisfactory to me."

Following her period of mourning, Nancy resumed her social life.  She sent William Jr. to the New Jersey estate where he attended the Montclair Academy.  He was reportedly surrounded by a staff of 20 servants and was escorted everywhere by two private detectives.   The six-year old had his own chauffeur and footman.

Nancy spent less and less time at No. 987 Fifth Avenue.  On January 1, 1911 The Sun reported "Mrs. William B. Leeds now has a home in London.  Few American hostesses have entertained so elaborately as she since the end of her period of mourning allowed her to give parties.  She has been welcomed there with a cordiality that indicates that she will probably find it to her taste to live there permanently."

Later that year, in July, The Sun mentioned that Rough Point "has been closed most of the time."  But it was rumored that Nancy would make a brief appearance in Newport.  "The expectation is now that Mrs. William B. Leeds will spend a few weeks at the resort.  She has a home in London and has taken a place in Scotland."

By the time of that article Nancy had sold No. 987 to Walter Lewisohn.  In reporting on the sale the Record & Guide pointed out that the Leeds had spent about $70,000 in "interior decorations and alterations."  The New York Times added "Although the house was magnificently fitted up by the Halls, Mr. Leeds added a marble hall and staircase and refitted the interior."  Included in the $350,000 sale price was "a portion of the furniture collected abroad by Mr. Leeds," said the Record & Guide.

photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As a side note, Nancy married Prince Christopher of Greece in 1920, becoming Princess Anastasia of Greece and Denmark.  While visiting his mother the following year William met the 17-year old Princess Xenia of Greece.  Within 24 hours they were engaged, causing Nancy to weep for three days and nights, according to reports.

Walter Lewisohn and his wife, the former Selma Kraus, had one son, Walter, Jr.  Lewisohn was 31 years old when he purchased No. 987.  The Yale-educated broker was also vice-president and director of the Salt Lake Copper Co., an officer in the Tennessee Copper Co. and the Lewisohn Exploration & Mining Co., and a partner in the firm of banking firm Lewisohn Brothers.

The Lewisohns maintained a summer estate new Eatontown, New Jersey.  Selma's entertainments in the Fifth Avenue house were often grand, like the dance and supper she gave on Tuesday, January 27, 1914.

The entrance hall (above) and the first floor landing   photographer unknown from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Walter and Selma were drawn into a murder investigation in 1920.  They had dinner with Joseph Bowne Elwell and Selma's sister, Viola Kraus, on June 10 at the Ritz-Carlton Roof, then attended the midnight show at the New Amsterdam Theatre.  After the show everyone went their separate ways.

The following morning Elwell was found in the front hall of his home with a bullet hole in his head.  On June 14 the Lewisohns, Viola and her estranged husband were taken to the Elwell house for questioning.  The were released without suspicion; however the taint of the investigation remained for years.  The case was  never solved.

Shortly afterward Lewisohn suffered heavy losses in the stock market.  It was all too much for him to handle and on May 22, 1923 Selma committed him to the Blythewood Sanitarium for the Insane in Greenwich, Connecticut.

With her income gone and the Lewisohn fortune greatly depleted, Selma took to the operatic concert stage as Mme. Marie Selma.  She sold No. 987 to Elizabeth Carmichael in 1920 for $375,000.   Carmichael leased the furnished house to wealthy tenants like Colonel John F. Daniell, charging $40,000 a year.  But following the Stock Market crash, she lost it in foreclosure to the Franklin Savings Bank in May 1933.

After it sat vacant for more than five years, the bank sold the mansion in December 1939.  Writing in The New York Times, Lee E. Cooper said the old residence "has joined the long list of fine old Manhattan homes which are marked for early demolition."  But it received a reprieve of sorts, instead being converted to three- and four-room apartments within the year.

By the time No. 987 was sold again in 1959 the balustrade was gone and a sixth floor had appeared, set back on the roof.  Rather surprisingly it survived for nearly a decade.  Then, on January 31, 1968 The Times announced that the three old mansions at Nos. 985, 986 and 987 Fifth Avenue had been purchased by developer Bernard Spitzer.

Within the year the once elegant homes were gone, replaced by the 25-story 985 Fifth Avenue.  Among the building's most visible residents was the builder's son, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer.


  1. That is one of the ugliest apartment buildings I've ever seen.

  2. Once again, the replacement building is hideous.

  3. Great post, nice that you have photos of some of the interiors! Love how this ties into the Isaac Vail Brokaw mansion post which only has a partial view of the Brokaw sons' twin townhouses. This post has a full front view as well as a photo showing the side of the Brokaw mansion in relation to the Leeds mansion. Excellent for my OCD mapping of 5th Ave Gilded Age mansions!

  4. The current picture shows both 985 and neighboring 980. 985 is the building on the left with balconies

  5. A footnote to your excellent story and research. In 1907, the Leeds commissioned John Russell Pope to design a new, larger townhouse on a corner lot on Fifth Avenue. The project never progressed byeond the design stage due to Mr. Leeds's death, but was fully enough developed that a photograph of the plaster architectural model was published in the architectural press at the time. Pope, of course, wound up designing the Leeds Mausoleum at Woodlawn instead. His granddaughter later moved him home to Indiana, and at last report, was still trying to sell the mausoleum. This URL will take one to a photograph of the model of the unbuilt house:

    1. A stunning design by Pope. Thanks for the input!

    2. And the Leeds Mausoleum was just featured in “Succession” as Logan Roy’s final resting place.

  6. In what must be impossible odds, a fine eclectic architectural row of 5th Ave townhouses are replaced within a short period of time by two separate developers who manage to build two equally offensive brown and biege brick apartment boxes that will forever make ones stomach turn.

  7. Interested in William J. Curtis. Just discovered my great uncle worked as his valet! Any more about him?

    1. Here is the info on Curtis and his house next door:

  8. Watching Annie Live on NBC last week, I decided to look up the address that Daddy Warbucks gave on the radio. This article and photos were quite interesting for this Oklahoman.

    1. That's exactly what I just did!!

    2. Monmouth University's administration buildings and neighboring grounds in New Jersey served as the stand-in for Daddy Warbucks' mansion in the movie Annie. This particular mansion, while impressive and a real shame it was torn down, is nowhere near the size of the "mansion" we see in the movie Annie. No way it could possibly fit into the real space.