Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Lost Wm. Walton Mansion - 326 Pearl Street

A stone wall and gate lead to the extensive gardens behind the mansion which lead to the river's edge.  The Magazine of American History, January 1878 (copyright expired)

Captain William Walton had amassed a significant fortune by the early years of the 1700's.  A merchant, he owned and built the ships that carried his goods.  He and his wife, the former Mary Santford, had two sons, William and Jacob.

The captain was all business, caring little for society.  But, according to an unnamed historian in 1872, "His sons, Jacob and William, on the contrary, were very dashing young men, whose visits were greatly courted by the ladies of the period."  The family's "notorious" wealth was due, in part, to Captain Walton's having relieved the Spanish Government of Florida from a sizable debt, "and they repaid the debt by giving him a practical monopoly of trade with their West India Islands and the port of St. Augustine."

The leading families of New York encouraged a romantic alliance between their daughters and either of Walton's sons.  Jacob married Maria Beekman, the daughter of Gerard Beekman  in 1726, and William married Cornelia Beekman, Maria's niece, on January 27, 1731.

William Walton from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

Following their father's death, the brothers carried on business together until Jacob's death in 1749.  Three years later William began construction on what would be the most palatial residence in the city.   Sometime prior to 1726 his father had purchased what a newspaper described as "a large toft of ground on the present Pearl street, but known at the time of his purchase as the Swallow Field, which extended from Franklin-square down to the river."  Now William chose it as the site of his new home.  In his 1902 New York: Old & New, historian Rufus Rockwell Wilson commented "We are told that when...Walton selected the site for it people wondered why he designed to build so far out of town, for at that time there was only one building on the south side of Pearl Street between Peck Slip and Cherry, and only four or five in the neighborhood of Franklin Square."

Cornelia Beekman Walton - from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
At the time there was no Franklin Square; and Pearl Street was known as Queen Street.  But the undeveloped land would be transformed into ample gardens, lawns and orchards.

Because Walton imported the building materials--the yellow bricks came from Holland and the carved woodwork from England, for instance--the project took about five years to complete.  When finished, William and Cornelia Walton had a Georgian palace that could easily hold its own with its London counterparts.

The house originally had the address of No. 156 Queen Street.  Historian John Fanning Watson, in his 1846 Annals and Occurrences of New York City, pointed out that it was "intended to show the best style of English construction, and of course, as marking a set purpose of avoiding the former Dutch style."

Rufus Rockwell Wilson described, "Set in ample gardens, which then ran down to the East River, with no intervening streets, the Walton house was fifty feet wide, with three stories and an attic, above which was a tiled and slightly sloping roof, encircled by two rows of balustrades."

Within the pediment over the imposing columned portico was the coat of arms of the Walton family.  Wilson went on, "there were spacious drawing-rooms on each side of the wide mahogany staircase.  Some of the rooms were panelled in oak, and the walls of others were hung with stamped and heavily gilded leather, while porcelain tiles set with flowers and birds adorned all of the fireplaces."

Decades later The New York Times wrote "After the building came the furnishing, which was all that boundless means and great good taste could make it.  Gilding, ormolu, molding, rare Spanish-American woods for panels, wainscots and stair-cases of mahogany, carved chimney-pieces in the style of Grinling Gibbons from London, tapestries, damasks, and carpets from France, marbles from Italy, were amassed slowly during several years."

A sketch in Valentine's Manual of 1857 depicted the "Sitting Room" (copyright expired)
The view from Cornelia's dressing room looked out over the garden to the East River where sailing vessels glided past.  The Times later described the garden being "finely laid out in sections of vegetable, flower, and rose beds; also a large conservatory, Summer houses, grape arbors, and graveled walks.  There were cherry, peach, apricot and quince trees in abundance.  The shrubbery was luxuriant.

Charles Hemstreet wrote in his 1902 When Old New York Was Young that "the main rooms were furnished with silk damask and green worsted curtains, mahogany card-tables and dining-tables, and chairs with damask seats; walnut gilt-framed looking-glasses and a large number of framed prints."

The Georgian woodwork of the entrance hall was sumptuous.  Valentine's Manual of 1857 (copyright expired)
William Walton was not only one of the most prominent businessmen of the city, but was "soon looked upon as fitted for political honors," according to The Magazine of American History in 1878.  In 1752 he was elected to the General Assembly (a post he held until 1759).  In 1756 Governor Hardy recommended him as "a suitable person" to take a seat in his Majesty's Council and he remained on the Council until his death in 1768.

In the meantime the mansion was the scene of glittering dinners, dances and receptions.  Historian Isaac J. Greenwood recalled in 1878 that it was "where fashion and power gathered in their pomp and pride."    The famous New York historian Martha J. Lamb said Walton "was genial, full of brilliance, and a master of the arts of politeness.  Dinners were his hobby, and he gathered about his table from time to time such of the celebrities of the Old World as, officially or in the pursuit of pleasure, visited the New."

One of the nost notable entertainments came when the British officers returned to New York from Canada following the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.  The New York Times, decades later, wrote "The lavish profusion of his cellars and larder, and particularly the gorgeous display of his gold and silver plate, astonished those who had the fortune to be invited."

The Walton mansion came into play when the colonists opposed the Stamp Act, passed in November 1765.  They complained that they were unable to afford the tax, and it would ruin many a merchant.  But the officers who had been entertained in the Walton house had taken home stories; The New York Times saying "it became the topic of universal comment in fashionable circles."  The English Ministry took note, "and the house of Mr. Walton [was] quoted in Parliament as proof of the great wealth of the colonial merchants, and their perfect ability to pay the stamp tax."

from the History of the City of New York by Martha J. Lamb, 1921 (copyright expired)
The repeal of the Stamp Act in the spring of 1766 prompted another grand display.   On December 14, 1872 The Times recounted "Oxen were roasted whole and distributed to whoever chose to partake; bells were rung, cannon were fired, and the whole City gave itself up to an intoxication of self-gratulation.  Mr. Walton, now quite an old man, threw open his house to everybody throughout the day; cold meats, port and sherry and strong waters were on the sideboard, and every one was free to feast to his heart's content.  In the evening he gave a grand dinner to the principal merchants and the leading English officials, at which there was a grand reconciliation."

William Walton died in the house in July 1768 at the age of 63, leaving the mansion to Jacob's son, confusingly also named William Walton.  Cornelia remained in the house until her death in May 1786 at 78 years old.  The New York Packet reported that she died "after a tedious illness which she supported with an unshaken fortitude and truly Christian resignation to her last moments.  Indeed she laboured under a complication of disorders, but the dropsy being the most prevalent, terminated her scene of existence, which exhibited a perfect pattern of patience under all the calamities and trials incident to mortality."

Like his uncle and father, William had married into a wealthy, established family.  His wife was Mary de Lancey, daughter of James de Lancey.  The couple would have three sons, William, James, and Jacob, and a daughter, Anne.  Mary died in 1767 leaving William to raise the children alone.  He was a founder of the Chamber of Commerce in 1768, was its treasurer in 1771, its vice-president in 1772, and its president from 1774 to 1775.  He helped incorporate the Marine Society in 1770, formed to assist the widows and children of ship masters. 

Although William was among the Committee of Correspondence in May 1774 that would become the First Continental Congress, he preferred to stay neutral in the growing conflict between the Colony and Britain.   When war broke out he packed up his valuables, closed the mansion and took his family to their country estate in New Jersey.  It was a move that angered both the British and the patriots.  According to Lamb, "he was too marked a man to be left in peace, and was compelled to return to the city when it was occupied by the British."

William remained in the house throughout the war, spending much of his focus and money on the relief of the poor.  The vestry of Trinity Church recorded in 1779 that "he was unceasing in his efforts to soften the miseries of the confinement to which the American prisoners were subjected."

For three years, from 1784 to 1787, he leased the house to the newly-formed Bank of New York, which took the address of No. 67 St. George's Square.   After the bank moved to No. 11 Hanover Square, William Walton returned to the Pearl Street mansion.

He died on August 18, 1796 at the age of 65.  It started a rather rapid-fire change of ownership within the family.  Walton's eldest son, William, inherited the family mansion.  The Times said of him simply, "he took no part in public life, and died without issue in 1806, being succeeded by his brother, James De Lancey Walton, who never married, leaving the property to the youngest brother, Jacob, who had gone off to sea during the Revolution.  A career navy man, he achieved the rank of Rear Admiral in 1840.  He never lived in the mansion, but leased it as a "genteel boarding-house."

In 1821 Goodrich's Picture of New York described the Walton House under the heading of "Principal Hotels" as "kept by S. Backus.  Prices $1 per day, $5 per week, $260 per year."  The $5 weekly room charge would be an affordable $110 today.

But by 1839 things were already on the decline, as reflected in the rates.  An advertisement in the Morning Herald on June 12, 1839 offered:

Board--At the Walton Mansion House, No. 326 Pearl street, Franklin Square, at $3.50 per week.--The location is central, and it is one of the most pleasant summer resorts in this city.  Young men doing business down town, or gentlemen and their wives, will find at the above place a confortable home--Rooms to let at the above house without board.  Also, a splendid Hall for masonic, odd fellows and other lodges, referees, committees, musical parties, &c.

The "splendid hall" was the former Walton family ballroom where Cornelia Beekman Walton had presided over sumptuous entertainments.   As the once verdant area around the mansion became increasingly commercial, tourists and businessmen were lured away to new, modern hotels like the Astor House and the St. Nicholas Hotel.  The Times said years later "it became a common boarding-house, going continually lower and lower in the scale."

The decline in patronage was reflected in the continued lowering of the room rates.  J.. Fowler & Son, who charged $3.50 a week in 1839, lowered the price by a full dollar in 1843.   Their announcement in August that year said in part that "the proprietors having reduced the prices of Boarding to 50 cents per day, or two dollars fifty cents per week."  The Fowlers put a positive spin on the outdated accommodations, saying "The above house needs no comments as it is one of the most airy and spacious premises in the city, having a large yard with a fine spring of water, with every other requisite to make it comfortable."

Problems came when Mrs. Leah Jacobs arrived in town from Liverpool with her sister and two sons on January 3, 1847.  They went to the Walton Mansion House with their luggage for an overnight stay.  After breakfast the following morning, Mrs. Jacobs asked for her bill.  The cost of two meals and the overnight lodging came to $14.25--about $430 in today's dollars.

The New York Herald reported "This was rather more of a good thing than the lady expected; she therefore remonstrated but the payment of the bill was strenuously insisted upon by the person who presented it."  When she refused to pay, the bar keeper "assaulted the lady, and pushing her into the room, detained and imprisoned her, using threats and abusive language, telling her that they should be imprisoned as non-residents, if the amount was not forthcoming."  The world-wise Mrs. Jacobs was not intimidated and sent her son to find a policeman.  A hearing was held on January 18, after which the Mayor revoked and cancelled the Fowlers' license to run a boarding house.

The following proprietor remodeled the exterior.  The update included the removal of the rooftop balustrades, and the portico and installing shopfronts on the ground floor.

from The History of the City of New York, 1859 (copyright expired)

In reporting on a small fire that was discovered in the building at 2:30 in the morning on November 8, 1850, The New York Herald noted it was "speedily extinguished by the inmates and the police," and added "This house is remarkable for its massive proportions, being built in the old English style, before the revolutionary war."

A much more disastrous fire would rage through the building three years later.  On December 10, 1853 at around 1:00 in the afternoon it broke out in the Harper Brothers publishing building on the opposite side of Pearl Street.  The flammable materials inside--printing inks, paper, and camphene for cleaning the rollers, for instance--caused it to spread rapidly.

The fire raged throughout the afternoon, engulfing the other buildings along the block, then jumping across Pearl Street to the Walton Mansion House.   When the inferno was finally extinguished, 16 buildings had been consumed and losses were estimated at more than $23 million dollars today.  A sub-headline in The New York Herald the following day read "The Old Walton House Destroyed."

In reporting on the loss, the newspaper noted "Until very lately, when its front was altered for an emigrant boarding house, the portal was in fine keeping with the style of architecture which, in the day it was built, distinguished the English patricians from the plebeians.  The armorial bearing of the Walton family, supported by two fluted columns in front, were until a few years ago, preserved; but at last the insignia of royalty fell before the advance of republicanism, and the royal emblem of the aristocratic Waltons gave place to the sign of an emigrant boarding house keeper."

The article lamented "For the last few years this once famous place has been used as an emigrant boarding house, and its stately halls, once trod by those in whose veins flowed 'the blood of all the Howards,' have resounded with the revelry of noisy foreigners, and been darkened by the democratic smoke of huge Dutch tobacco pipes."

Although all of the major newspapers deemed it a total loss, when the ashes cooled it was found that the outer walls were intact and that the solid beams and flooring had survived the inferno.  Despite the severe damage, it was repaired and a fourth floor added.  It re-opened as The Old Walton House; although no more illustrious than it had been before the fire.

In 1871 The New York Times imagined that the humiliated old mansion would soon be destroyed.  On March 22 it wrote "In all probability but a short time will elapse before one of the most venerable of our ancient landmarks will be demolished."  While reminiscing on its glory days, the article also described its present condition.  "There are two second-hand stores on the street floor, and rag cellars underneath.  A dingy sign on the second story front reads: 'The Old Walton House.'  There is an extensive cheap boarding-house, occupying most of the upper front and rear rooms, while in the rear extension are a number of tenants."

Rather surprisingly, the former mansion was still owned by a Walton.  When Admiral Jacob Walton died in 1844 it was inherited by his eldest son, the Rev. William Walton.  He died in 1869 and it passed to his brother, Dr. Charles Johnston Walton, who still owned it at the time of The Times article.

The following year it appeared that the newspaper's predication was about to come true.  On December 14, 1872 The New York Times reported that Dr. Walton "is desirous of selling it, for the house is now a reproach and a nuisance, bringing the merest trifle as rent, and the ground is suitable for a large factory.  Its end is close at hand."

But the end was not all that close at hand.  It was not until November 13, 1881 that its sale and impending demolition were announced.    The Evening World noted that it would be razed "that a good building might be put up in its stead;" one which The Times described as a "large building for stores and factories."  The article added that with the disappearance of the Walton mansion, "we shall have lost nearly all buildings, except one or two churches, whose erection preceded the Revolutionary war."

The brick factory building erected by James Callery on the site of the Walton mansion survives as apartments today.


  1. Tom, I'm currently writing a book about the first settlers of the Delaware Co., N.Y. town of Walton and found your account of the Walton House most interesting. I'd like to include the 'Magazine of American History' picture of the house and cite your article as a source reference. With your approval of course.
    cousin John