Monday, January 1, 2018

The Lost Marshall O. Roberts House - 107 Fifth Avenue

The Roberts house was wider and taller than its nearest neighbors--and definitely distinctive.  To the rear can be seen one of the art galleries.   photo by Rockwood & Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1833, at the age of 20, Marshall Owen Roberts started in business as a ship chandler at No. 36 West Street.   Decades later The New York Times would attribute his astounding success to qualities he received during his "common school education," saying "While a boy at school he was characterized by his strong common sense, his natural shrewdness, his pluck, and his boldness."

In truth, he was greatly aided by two wealthy brothers with whom he became fast friends.  Prosper M. and Robert C. Wetmore were prominent in political circles.  When President John Tyler took office in 1841, the brothers gave Roberts a contract for naval supplies for the Port of New York.

Roberts steadfastly increased his business, adding cargo ships to his fleet.  In 1850 the Government gave him the contract to supply mail service between New York and San Francisco.  With the Wetmore brothers and another investor, George Law, he established the United States Steam-ship Company specifically for that purpose.  In addition, new steamships transported mail to Havana, New Orleans and Aspinwall in Panama.

When Roberts heard of the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, he sent his steamer, the Star of the West, loaded with provisions to Major Robert Anderson and his Union soldiers.  He then put his entire fortune into United States bonds to sustain the Government's credit.  It was not totally altruistic or patriotic, however.  He charged the Government 90 percent interest.  The war also provided him with large supply naval supply contracts, and he leased steamers to the Union.  The New York Times later noted "During the war his fortune increased ten-fold."

Sporting a Lincoln-like stovepipe hat and beard, Roberts posed for this studio portrait around 1863.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

But before the first shot of the war was fired Roberts had amassed a fortune large enough to erect a princely home on Fifth Avenue at the southeast corner of 18th Street.   The family was listed at No. 107 Fifth Avenue by 1857.

The name of the architect is lost, but his design was unique.  His was a very personal take on the new French Second Empire style--notable in the enframements of the parlor-level windows, the ornate decorations of the entrance, and the full-floor attic level.  A nearly obligatory element of French Second Empire was a mansard roof and the architect seems to have attempted to mimic one here.  But the stiffly upright walls fell short of the expected angle of a true mansard.  The result was that the fourth floor appeared to be an elegant afterthought.

In 1847 Roberts had married Caroline D. Smith, daughter of and the Hartford merchant Normand Smith, Jr.  She was his second wife, and, according to The American Annual Cyclopedia, "was highly educated, and carried to her prominent and exalted position, as the wife of a great merchant, the graces of a well-cultivated and remarkable intellect."

Roberts had two children by his previous marriage, Isaac and Mary.  His marriage to Caroline produced aother daughter, also named Caroline.  While her husband engrossed himself in business, Caroline focused on social work.  Her passion for helping the underprivileged caused a newspaper later to say she had a "peculiar saintliness of character."

She was instrumental in organizing the Wilson Industrial School for Girls on Avenue A in the 1850s.  An appeal in The New York Times on November 2, 1857 said that the directors hoped that "some, in the enjoyment of comfortable homes and firesides, will remember the little suffering creatures provided for by this Institution."

A member of the Ladies' Christian Union, during the Civil War years she helped found the Young Women's Home on nearby Washington Square; and joined in the efforts of the New-York Ladies Army Aid Association to outfit Union regiments with "havelocks, flannel shirts, jackets, drawers, and socks," as noted in The New York Herald on May 30, 1861.   Two weeks earlier, The Times had reported the women had "sent out fourteen boxes of well-prepared articles, both for field and hospital use."

Roberts's massive wealth was evidenced following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  The Times reported that he "sent his personal check for $10,000 to Mrs. Lincoln."

Marshall Roberts was an avid collector of art.  His personal art gallery to the rear of the mansion filled with costly works.  The New York Times said "This love of art became an absorbing passion.  He made no pretensions to connoisseurship, but was guided in his purchases simply by fancy, or with
a view to assisting some needy artist."

One such artist was sculptor Ames Van Wart who became smitten with Roberts's daughter.  In 1869 he married Caroline and the newlyweds moved into the Fifth Avenue mansion.   Caroline's sharing the same name with her mother caused confusion in later years, with several publications repeatedly and erroneously reporting that Marshall Robert's second wife (i.e., Caroline Smith Roberts), was "Mrs. Irving Van Wart."

Although Van Wart would later wonder if the massive fortune of his father-in-law stifled his commissions, he did not turn down one from Roberts.  It was a marble bust of Peter Cooper which Roberts donated to the Mercantile Library Association on November 21, 1870. 

The Van Warts moved to London in 1870 and rarely returned to New York.  It was there, on December 13, 1874 while visiting her daughter and son-in-law, that Caroline Roberts died.  Her obituaries overflowed with praise for her charitable works.  The New York Times said "She was constant in her visits to the homes of the poor, and often knelt by the bed of suffering in prayer for the sick and the dying while her liberal purse relieved their temporal wants;" and The American Annual Cyclopedia noted 'Mrs. Roberts was the acknowledged, though never the self-appointed, leader in many of the organizations for the aid of the suffering."

Mary Roberts had never married and still lived in the mansion with her father.  Before long she would have a new stepmother.  In 1875 Roberts married his third wife, Sarah Endicott "of the 'Mayflower" Endicott," according to The Times.  The couple had met aboard an ocean liner; and The Evening World rather frankly announced years later "She was a poor young woman when the old merchant...fell in love with her on a trip across the Atlantic."

Sarah entertained on a scale previously unknown in the house.  She threw a reception on December 16, 1879 which The Times called "brilliant."  Among the long list of millionaires and their wives present that evening were Vanderbilts, Beeckmans, Agnews, Astors, Townsends, Van Rensselaers and Pierreponts.  The article noted "The Fifth-avenue mansion was decorated with a profusion of flowers and exotics, and the spacious art galleries, containing some of the finest examples of Germone, Meissonier, Huntington, Church, Detaille, and the historical masterpiece of Paul Delacroix [sic], 'Napoleon at Fontainbleau,' were thrown open for the occasion, and thus furnished ample space for the large and fashionable assemblage.

"The hall was transformed, by means of Oriental palms and flowers, into a causeway of exotics.  In the vestibule of the art gallery, where the fine reclining statue of Salome is place beneath a brilliant, were two clumps of splendid camellias--the one white the other red."

While The Times article did not mention it, Emanuel Leutze's 1851 "Washington Crossing the Delaware" hung in Roberts's gallery.  collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The couple bore a son, Marshall; but Roberts would not live to see him grow past infancy.  On September 11, 1880 he died at the age of 67 in the United States Hotel, in Saratoga, from a stroke.

Sarah Endicott Roberts was married only a few years before becoming a very wealthy widow. The Sun, October 25, 1891 (copyright expired)

Calling him "one of the wealthiest and best known of the merchants of this City," The Times reported that by his deathbed were "his wife and her sister, Miss Endicott; his son, Isaac K. Roberts, and his daughters, Miss Mary Roberts and Mrs. Ames Van Wart."

Ames Van Wart completed this bust of his father-in-law in 1884, four years after his death.  collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Roberts's funeral was held in Calvary Church on Fourth Avenue and 21st Street on September 14, 1880 in, according to Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, " the presence of a large concourse, including women from the highest social circles, retired merchants, many of this city's most venerable and respected citizens, the foremost business and professional men, and a number of well-known citizens of other cities."  Roberts's social and business statuses were evidenced by his pallbearers: William M. Evarts, Hamilton Fish, Peter Cooper, Edwards Pierrepont, Henry G. Stebbins, Percy B. Pyne, Samuel Sloan and Edward N. Dickerson.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, October 2, 1880 (copyright expired)

In reporting on his death, The New York Times estimated Roberts's massive fortune at $10 million--nearly 25 times that much today.   The newspaper added that "his gallery in his house on Fifth-avenue is one of the finest ever established by a private collector.  It cost him over $600,000, and is estimated to be worth over $750,000.   Included in the collection were works by Rembrandt Peale, Daniel Huntington, Thomas Sully and Thomas Cole.  Sarah received use of the house, stables and furnishings, as well as a $40,000 year income (about $970,000 today).

Frederick E. Church's "Rainy Season in the Tropics" was among Roberts's acquisitions.

Following her period of mourning, Sarah opened the house to lavish entertainments once again.  On January 30, 1884 The Times reported on the ball she had given the previous night, "attended by the highest rank of society people in the city."  The article mentioned "The house is one of the few in the city in which a large ball can be given, and its decorations and furnishings are magnificent.  The reception-rooms are large, and back of them are two picture galleries, which are filled with works of the best artists.  Last evening one of these galleries was transformed into a ball-room."

Equally extravagant was the ball she gave on January 27, 1887, "one of the social successes of the season," according to The Times.  "The house itself was a maze of elegance and loveliness from the palm-lined hall to the domed art gallery, with its glistening floor for the dancers."  Although Sarah had sent out 500 invitations, the article insisted "the spaciousness of the double house prevented anything like a crowd."

Beginning in 1889 Sarah spent much of her time in London.  The Sun noted in 1891 "for one season she occupied Spencer House, the home of Earl Spencer.  Here she gave some magnificent entertainments, including a series of musicals and dinners, and a ball at which favors remarkable for their beauty and costliness were distributed.  The distribution of such magnificent and costly articles at a ball was a revelation to London society."

The reason behind Sarah's interest in London over Newport or other upscale resorts soon became evident.  On October 25 1891 The Sun reported "The news that Mrs. Marshall O. Roberts has decided to become the wife of Col. Ralph Vivian of England is by no means a surprise to some members of the fashionable world."

That winter season saw several entertainments for Vivian held in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  On December 23 The Sun reported that Sarah "gave last night the second of her series of large dinner parties in honor of her fiance, Col. Ralph Vivian, at her residence, 107 Fifth avenue.  As on Monday night the dinner was served in the picture gallery."  An orchestra played during the meal.

The wedding took place on January 7, 1892 in Calvary Church, where Marshall Roberts's funeral had been held 12 years earlier.  The Evening World wrote "Society circles are in a flutter to-day over the wedding of Mrs. Marshall O. Roberts, New York's richest widow, to Col. Ralph Vivian, an English army officer."  The Times reported "Over 2,000 invitations to the wedding had been issued, many having been sent abroad."  Following the ceremony a reception was held at No. 107 Fifth Avenue.  

The Evening World, January 7 1892 (copyright expired)

"No matrimonial alliance in recent years has attracted more widespread attention.  Mrs. Roberts has for the past twelve years been one of the most splendid entertainers in town.  She is personally a very charming woman."  While gushing on about Sarah's popularity and the colonel's dashing presence, the newspaper mentioned that should the bride die before the groom, Roberts's will made it clear that Vivian would "not get a penny of old Marshall O. Roberts's principal."

The newlyweds sailed off to London and Sarah leased the Fifth Avenue mansion to Cornelius and Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt.   The couple needed a place to live while the enlargement of their massive brick and stone chateau on upper Fifth Avenue took place.  On December 14, 1893 The New York Times updated its readers on their situation.  "Pending the completion of their house at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-eighth Street, Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt are at the Roberts House, 107 Fifth Avenue.  They will probably move into their new house in the early part of January."

After the Vanderbilts moved out, the house sat unoccupied for three years, fully furnished.  Roberts's valuable art collection hung unappreciated in the darkened galleries.  Finally Sarah applied to the courts to allow her to sell.  On February 2, 1896 The Sun reported "She says that she does not intend to return to reside in this country, and that in any event business has so encroached on the neighborhood of the property...that it is not suitable for a residence."  A trustee for the Roberts Estate added that "the property is kept at much expense to the estate."

A week-long auction was held in the mansion beginning January 18, 1897.  The Times lamented that the furniture--the original pieces purchased by Marshall and Caroline Roberts--was out of style.  It diplomatically said "it will be seen that their present display calls more for a kindly and retrospective glance than for any detailed criticism from our present viewpoint of art."   Aside from the paintings, the sale of which was eagerly awaited by museums and collectors, there were "a thousand different numbers in bronzes, art objects, and furnishings to be sold," reported the newspaper.

With the mansion cleared out, its destruction was only a matter of time.  On July 9, 1901, with neither melancholy nor nostalgia, The Times reported "Architect Robert Maynicke filed plans yesterday for the eleven-story building to be erected by Henry Corn on the Marshall O. Roberts property."

Robert Maynicke's building survives.  photo via

1 comment:

  1. I've seen pictures of this house before, somewhere, but until now I had no idea who lived there. How interesting! That man"s pallbearers were upstanding AF (as the young people say).