Monday, February 19, 2018

The Lost "Waddell Castle" - Fifth Avenue and 37th Street

Alexander Jackson Davis created this rendering in 1844.  The romantic Gothic villa sat in the countryside at the time. Fifth Avenue Old and New, 1924

William Coventry Henry Waddell was born at No. 53 Wall Street on May 28, 1802 to ship master Captain Henry Waddell and Eliza Martin Daubeney (William added the "Henry" to his name, for some reason, later in life).   His education was interrupted at the age of 18 when his father died and he entered business as a clerk.

Waddell's acumen led to his becoming secretary of the Pacific Insurance Company in 1827.  But his career would truly take off when Andrew Jackson appointed Martin Van Buren as Secretary of State two years later.  Waddell was intimate friends with Lucas Elmendorf, who in turn was a close friend of Van Buren.  Elmendorf managed to procure the position of Financial Agent within the State Department for Waddell--a position that earned him the third highest salary within the Department.

He was in charge of the finances of the State Department, but perhaps more importantly was the confidential messenger between the Department and the President.  The 28-year old Waddell and the 62-year old President formed a close bond.  Historian John W. Jordan, in his 1911 Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania remarked "The entire confidence which the President seemed to give to his young friend let to many long informal talks, and laid the basis for the continuing friendship which never failed to manifest itself whenever opportunity occurred."

William Coventry Henry Waddell -- original source unknown

One such opportunity was the vacancy of the United States Marshalship of New York in 1831.  Waddell went directly to the President's office and asked for the job (one of the most lucrative positions in the Government), which he was granted.  

Waddell and his wife, the former Julia Ann Cobb, had a daughter, Susan Alice.  The family, along with Waddell's widowed mother, Eliza, moved into the former mansion of Benjamin De Forest at No. 27 Bond Street.  Following Eliza's death in 1835, they relocated to Parsippany, New Jersey, where Julia had grown up.  She died there on June 20, 1841.

The following year Waddell married Charlotte Augusta Southwick, whose former husband, William McMurray, had died in 1839, just a few months after their marriage.  Waddell commissioned architect Alexander Jackson Davis to design a "suburban villa" in Manhattan on land he and Charlotte had chosen north of the city, part of the former Robert Murray country estate, known as Murray Hill.  Located between what would now be Fifth and Sixth Avenues, between 37th and 38th Streets, the site was described by the Real Estate Record & Guide decades later: "The avenue was little more than a common road, with old farm fences visible on every side."

The Gothic Revival mansion was similar to the country villa Davis had designed in 1838 for New York Mayor William Paulding, the Knoll (known today as Lyndhurst) near Tarrytown, New York.   Its crenelated octagonal towers, pointed Gothic arches, square-headed drip moldings, and leaded glass oriels created a charming and romantic site for New Yorkers taking a country drive.

A contemporary visitor wrote "The Grounds...were beautifully shaded with oaks and elms, many of which were a century old.  Large green houses, extensive grape arbors, acre of fruit trees and well cultivated gardens made the place a favorite point for strangers to visit; and the castle with its lofty towers overlooking the Hudson, and with its heavy en-garniture of ivy and roses, was known far and wide as the most stately mansion between the Harlem and the Sea."

The picturesque architecture did not diminish the grandeur of the mansion.  A sweeping stone staircase led to the entrance.  Large common rooms led off the reception hall.   Here, according to historian Henry Collins Brown in 1918, "occurred a succession of brilliant entertainments."

The ground floor held the "public" areas--such as the drawing room, dining room, and library.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

And John W. Jordan stressed, "But this residence, while admired and famed for it beauty and environment, will be chiefly remembered, if remembered at all, for the fact that Mrs. Coventry Waddell there established and long maintained a unique center which has been repeatedly characterized as the first American Salon."

In his 1924 book Fifth Avenue Old and New, 1824-1924, Henry Collins Brown noted "This quaint, gothic-looking structure was in its day, the centre of social life in high society.  Thackery speaks of his experiences there which seem to have been unusually pleasant."

If William M. Thackery found his experiences unusually pleasant, it was due to his hostess, Charlotte.  She was described by The New York World in 1891 as "a woman of the very highest cultivation and of the most charming manner.  The younger society leaders of today know her only by tradition as it were, but the chapter in which her triumphs are recorded, is one of the very brightest in the social history of the metropolis."

Charlotte Augusta Southwick Waddell from the collection of the New York Public Library

Chauncey M. Depew lamented upon her death in 1891 "The one thing which New York lacks to make it a metropolis is some house with a hostess of refinement and culture, where for one evening in the week, all that is eminent in literature, journalism, the law, pulpit, medicine, science and art in its various forms of expression, with pencil, brush, chisel, voice, the instrument or on the stage, could meet on an equal footing under her hospitable roof.  Mr. Coventry Waddell did that in her time; no one does it now."

Before the era of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor and Mamie Fish, Charlotte Waddell held sway as the queen of Manhattan society.  John W. Jordan wrote "No record is to be found which treats of the social history of New York City in the nineteenth century as a whole, and which does not pay its tribute to this Salon and its hostess."

Waddell's pride in his new home was evidenced when he had it included in the background of his family portrait in 1852 by Mary Pillsbury Weston.  Pictured with William and Charlotte are their three children, William, Anne and Ida; while Susan Alice, his daughter with Julia, reclines on the grass.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

The Waddells may have had second thoughts about the remote location.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on June 9 might have referred to the mansion. "To Let or For Sale--A new two story brick Cottage House."  The ad boasted the "handsome garden and shrubbery in front, walks flagged and curbed, brick cistern, &c. &c.  The house is finished in the best manner, with marble mantels, stained glass skylight, blinds or shutters to each window, &c. &c. and admirably adapted to the use of a small family.  Apply to W. C. H. Waddell, 16 Wall st."  On the other hand, the "Cottage House" in the ad may have an investment property, a client's home, or even the Parisipanny residence.

If there were any concerns they were soon dismissed as the house became a center of social activity.  The couple were also highly visible in Newport society.  When Charlotte made her appearance at "the last great ball of the season" in 1848, she stole the show.  On September 2 The New York Herald reported:

Mrs. Coventry Waddel, of New York, a very agacante beauty made her appearance as the Belle of 1848, in a magnificent dress of rose colored satin...This elegant costume set off to advantage the truly English complexion of this charming lady, who looked even fairer and more blooming than ever.  One of the most elegant costumes, and the lady herself presented the most exquisite complexion in the room.  The grain de beauté near her lips, is a very great attraction to other lips.

The Waddell mansion would create New York City history of sorts during a fancy dress ball in 1846.  A year earlier the Municipal Police Act created what would be the New York City Police Department.   Prominent attorney James G. Gerard embarked on a lobbying effort to create military-type uniforms which would signify rank, based loosely on the London model.  Henry Collins Brown explained that at the time the officers "were dressed for the most part like tatterdemalions."

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Faced with opposition, Gerard took a bold step.  He arrived at the Waddell mansion for Charlotte's ball "in a costume that illustrated his idea--blue coat, brass buttons, helmet and club," said Brown.  "So convincing was his demonstration that the Common Council shortly afterwards adopted the idea, which is substantially the uniform worn today."

The days of salons and balls would come to an abrupt end when William Coventry Waddell was wiped out in the Financial Panic of 1857.  While some newspapers diplomatically said he "suffered reversals," The New York Times was more pointed, saying the depression "reduced him to poverty."

John W. Jordan explained that "he never financially recovered.  Murray Hill was sold and not long after torn down to furnish the site of the present Brick Church."

The Brick Church survived until 1937.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1986 the 30-story mixed use skyscraper known as 420 Fifth Avenue was erected on the site of the Waddell mansion.
photo via structurae

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