Monday, April 30, 2018

The Lost Richard Tighe House - 32 Union Square East


Soon after its owner died in 1896, a violin store appeared in the basement level of No. 32.  The upper floors retain their 1841 appearance.  Note the interesting attic window shutters.  Early New York Houses, 1900 (copyright expired)

On May 1, 1834 Samuel Ruggles leased plots on what had been the farm of Cornelius Tiebout Williams and began development of Union Square--an exclusive residential enclave similar to his Gramercy Park.  Ruggles paid $50 per lot and personally built brick houses on some of them; leasing the others to those who preferred to erect their own homes.

On February 12, 1841 he sold the 26-foot wide house on Lot 18 (later numbered 32 Union Square) to Richard Tighe for $14,000; a little more than $400,000 today.   The plot formed an L to 16th Street where the private stable was located.  Nine years later Tighe purchased the lease on the land from Cornelius Williams's heirs for $6,500.  He now owned the entire property outright.

The Tighe house was typical of upscale Greek Revival style mansions.  Four stories tall, it featured fluted brownstone columns on either side of the entrance and a cast iron balcony at the parlor level.

The second son of an Irish baronet, Tighe was born 1806 and was educated in Trinity College in Dublin.  He arrived in New York City in 1838, "bringing considerable money with him," according to the New York Tribune later.   Tighe was a shrewd businessman and investor and his personal fortune quickly grew.  For years he was a director in the Manhattan Fire Insurance Company.

His purchase of the new Union Square house was no doubt prompted by his marriage to Caroline Chesebrough that year.  The bride came from a socially-impressive family, and was the daughter of Robert J. Chesebrough, president of the Fulton National Bank.  Nevertheless, even from the start of their marriage the couple rarely entertained.

Following his elder brother's death, Tighe received the title of baron; but he embraced his Americanism and insisted on being called "Mr. Tighe" rather than Sir Richard Tighe.

Little by little the Tighes isolated themselves within their stately cocoon.  The New-York Tribune said decades later "The close couple never entertained or went into society, though Tighe's own standing in Ireland and that of his wife in this city could easily have procured them an entrance into the most fashionable society of the day."

Following the end of the Civil War Union Square saw the gradual invasion of commerce.  Upscale businesses like Tiffany & Co. overtook the mansions, either converting them for business or razing them.  On Christmas Day, 1888 The New York Times remarked "There is only one strictly private residence on Union-square and that is the handsome brick house next to the corner of Sixteenth-street...When [Tighe] bought, Union-square was a place of residences.  The belief that it would always remain so was pleasing to him, for he liked the neighborhood and often declared that he would never live anywhere else.  Having settled his mind on this, he viewed the encroachments of business in the lower part of the square with some complacency, although on the whole regretting it."

But the changes outside his windows did not affect life within.  "Nor did the continued absorption of residences for trade purposes worry him much, for he was not interfered with," explained the article.

That is, until the altered house next door was leased by the Travelers' Publishing Company.  Tighe looked out his parlor window to see a steam engine on the sidewalk.  The contraption was waiting to be installed in the basement where it would power the company's presses.  Now, he decided, he was being interfered with.

"Mr. Tighe regards this arrival as a menace to his peace of mind and to his slumbers, and he has served notice on the company that, if the engine is started, he will take every means within legal reach to stop it," wrote The Times.  Through his attorney Tighe claimed that the steam engine would damage his walls and "deprive him of his nightly rest."  He additionally claimed there was a covenant on the property restricting it to use as a residence.

The attorney for the publisher pointed out that "in the open market his house would yield him more than enough to buy him a fine residence in a fashionable section."  The Times said he "scoffed at the suggestion" and ordered his lawyer "to serve notice of war on the publishing company."

Tighe lost his battle, however.  The judge ruled commerce should not be "retarded in a commercial neighborhood for the benefit of a man who insists on staying in Union-square despite its changed conditions and character."

By now Robert and Caroline Tighe showed other signs of eccentricity.  Despite their vast wealth, they lived frugally, never buying new clothing or otherwise spending money.  Decades later Andrew Warner, president of the Institution for the Savings of Merchants' Clerks, would recall "He kept a fine team of horses, and it was an odd sight to see him, in his garb of poverty, riding with his wife behind that pair of dashing animals."

Concerned over the fate of their money, they repeatedly wrote new wills, sometimes in pencil.  When a relative pleased or displeased them, a new will would be made.

The New-York Tribune reported that after Caroline died in 1891 "a large number of such wills were found in the drawer of a bureau once used by Mrs. Tighe."   Richard inherited her estate.   His newfound solitude only increased his bizarre behavior.

"He discharged most of his servants, closed up most of the rooms of his large house and drew himself into his shell completely," said The Tribune.  Although the 16th Street carriage house still contained horses and a fine carriage, they were almost never used.

"Few servants were kept for such a big establishment, and the daily life of the household was so frugal as to border close upon miserliness.  Tighe always dressed shabbily, and denied himself every little luxury, so that hardly any one suspected the size of the fortune he was quietly piling up."

Every morning Tighe would leave his mansion and walk to the same bench in Union Square.  A park policeman, Stephen Frahn, told a reporter in May 1896, "I thought he was a 'bum.'  He used to sit on that bench over there in the shade by the hour.  He looked as though he hadn't a cent in the world.  His clothes made you wonder how they hung together.  I never saw him talk to a man more than a second or two."

Even in the winter Tighe wore his tattered summer-weight suit.  "His pants were light, and didn't get as far as his ankles, and he wore low shoes.  There wasn't much heat, either, in his coat--a hard-looking, almost worn-out, square-cut thing," said a Union Square regular, William Halpin.

Tighe's daily ritual included a walk to the Society Library on University Place.   He was a shareholder in the institution; but he was not there to check on his investment.  Instead he spent an hour or two reading the daily newspapers--saving him the expense of buying them.

When Tighe fell ill on May 6, 1896 there was little hope that the 90-year old would recover.  He died in the time capsule he called home within 24 hours.   On May 12 The San Francisco Call reported "The first funeral in many years that has taken place from a house in Union square was held Saturday..The only dwelling-house in the famous square is No. 32, where Sir Richard Tighe, or Mr. Tighe, as he insisted on being called, had lived alone for years.  The funeral was strictly private and only a few friends were present."

On May 30 The New York Times summed up the odd character saying "He could have called himself Sir Richard Tighe, Irish baron, and he could have drawn his check for many thousands, but he preferred to drift to death in his ninetieth year, the strangest figure that ever haunted Union Square, lean of person, with the face of a starveling, disheveled, almost beggarly, as to clothing, secretive of information concerning himself, seldom exchanging more than a dozen words at a time with a human being, and finding his sole pleasures in gazing by the hour at property he owned and in reading the newspapers."

Strong boxes in various institutions were unlocked.  Stacks of railroad securities, bonds and real estate titles were discovered.  Tighe's estate was finally calculated at more than $2 million; more in the range of $60 million today.

The recluse's last will provided "three trivial legacies," as described by the New-York Tribune, to servants, then divided the rest into 100 equal shares benefiting relatives of his wife.  Nothing was left to his own family.

Not surprisingly, distant Tighe relatives and other claimants emerged to contest the will.  As one case was put to rest, another would arise.  Among the most bizarre was the claim of Thomas A. Tighe, a janitor in a Harlem apartment house.  On November 12, 1899 the New York Journal & Advertiser reported "Tighe is somewhere between thirty and forty years old.  Already he is spending his coming fortune in his day dreams."

The janitor claimed that Richard Tighe was his grandfather; that before coming to America he had married (although he could not give a name for his mysterious grandmother) and the couple had a son, Michael.  The son, according to Thomas, came to New York in 1858.  Despite his colorful and detailed history, there was little to back up his claims.

In the meantime, the executors leased the basement level of the mansion to a musical instrument shop.  The upper floors were rented as a residence.

Finally, in April 1900 the estate was settled.  Thomas A. Tighe, incidentally, was not included in the list of beneficiaries and his daydreams of a fortune disappeared as he returned to his mop and broom.

On April 4, 1903 the Record & Guide reported that the house and the stable were sold as separate parcels to the same buyer.  Within the month architect W. G. Pigueron filed plans for the nine-story office and loft building that survives on the site.

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

2 comments:

  1. A baronet is not the same as a baron though American newspapers might be forgiven for not knowing the difference. A baronet is titled Sir, whereas the baron "Gramercy" would be titled Lord Gramercy.

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