Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Lost Herman O. Armour House - 856 Fifth Avenue

The brilliant stained glass transoms of almost every window in the house can be clearly seen in this photo..  Photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Herman Ossian Armour was born on March 2, 1837 in Stockbridge, New York; one of six sons of farmer Danforth Armour.  At the age of 18 he left home "having been attracted by the opportunities offered in the West to young and progressive men," as explained in the New-York Tribune decades later.   While most adventurous teens heading West in 1855 would have been seeking California gold, Armour went only as far as Milwaukee where he went opened a butcher shop.  It eventually became Armour, Plakington & Co.

Ambitious and seemingly tireless, he left the business in charge of his partner, John Plankington, in 1862 and headed to Chicago, where he established a grain commission business.  Three years later he moved again, opening a branch office of Armour, Plankington & Co. (now a major pork packing business) in New York City.  In 1868 founded the commission house, H. O. Armour & Company, in New York City.

By now Herman's brother Philip, oversaw the Midwestern packing business, renamed Armour & Co. in 1870.  In 1875 that operation was moved to Chicago.

Herman and his wife, the former Mary A. Jacks, had two daughters, Mary and Juliana.   The family lived in a fashionable section of Brooklyn, where Armour's wife died in 1870, leaving Herman to raise the little girls alone.  (Albeit with a significant domestic staff.)

The American Monthly Review of Reviews, January 1901  (copyright expired)
In January 1881 Heber R. Bishop sold the four building plots at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 67th Street for a total of $300,000.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on January 22 "On the ground thus secured, three houses will be built on the avenue and one 30 foot house on the street."  Bishop had sold three of the plots to Hugh Lamb, a partner in the architectural firm of Lamb & Rich.   The corner plot went to Herman Armour.  The transaction included another $200,000 for the mansion that would be built on the site, also designed by Lamb & Rich.

The firm designed four similar, but distinct, homes in the Queen Anne style which were completed before the year's end.  The Record & Guide called them "the highest grade houses offered for sale on 5th av."  The Armour house was four stories of red brick above a rough-cut stone basement.  The relatively sedate design relied on scalloped gables and dormers, and projecting bays at different levels to provide interest.  The three balconies, two at the fourth floor and one at the third, were protected by ornate iron railings.

Collins' Both Sides of Fifth Avenue, 1910 (copyright expired)

It may have been his daughters' domestic futures that prompted Armour to move to Manhattan.  But it was his own clandestine romance that shocked New York in the winter of 1887.  The New York Times remarked on February 5 that his marriage at Syracuse, New York a few days earlier to Jane P. Livingston "came as a complete surprise."  The article went on, "Surprise was not lessened by the fact that both of the contracting parties belong here...Naturally Mr. Armour's acquaintances wondered why he and a New-York lady should go to Syracuse to be married."  The newspaper finally surmised, "A 'homestead' honeymoon was the most likely conjecture, as Mr. Armour came from that part of the State."  The groom was 50 years old and his bride was 43.

The family summered most often in Long Branch, New Jersey.  There they rubbed shoulders with millionaires like Pierre Lorillard, Jr., John Sloane, Moses Taylor and Julia Grant, widow of the former President.

Back in Manhattan, the Armours rarely entertained on a large scale.  While their names appeared in society columns as guests at balls and receptions; Jennie, as she was familiarly known, was seldom listed as a hostess.

It is possible that Herman, like Joseph Pulitzer for instance, simply did not like the domestic disruption entertainments caused.  He seems to have been more interested in politics; the Armour name most often appearing in print connected with political meetings and dinners.

Nevertheless, the house was not without music and entertainment.  On February 13, 1888, for instance, the New York Amusement Gazette reported "Mrs. H. O. Ormond [sic] 856 Fifth Avenue, will give a pink dinner and dance for her daughters, on Tuesday evening."

When this photo was taken, No. 2 East 67th Street (behind) had been demolished and replaced.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
Juliana was married to Dr. Farquhar Ferguson in 1890.  The wealthy couple would become well known as patrons of the arts and establish a sprawling country estate, the Monastery, on Huntington Harbor, Long Island.

On April 2, 1893 The New York Times printed a one-line article entitled "An Interesting Engagement."   It read "Last week brought forth the announcement of the engagement of Miss Mary Armour, youngest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. W. [sic] Armour of 856 Fifth Avenue, to W. A. Nichols."  (The fact that newspapers seemed unable to get the family's names correct must have been a constant irritation.)

By the time of Mary's engagement the family's summer residence was outside of Tarrytown, New York.  Her wedding took place on the lawn of the estate, Waldheim, on June 20.  The New York Times reported "As the Russian Court Orchestra played the wedding march the bride, leaning on the arm of her father, came out of the mansion and walked down a carpeted lane and was received by the guests under the tall oak trees."

Following the ceremony, "a wedding breakfast was served by Berger on the lawn in a large marquee, in which there were eight tables," said the article.

With both his daughters now married, Herman was annoyed when envelopes began arriving at the Fifth Avenue house addressed to "Miss Armour."  Inside each was the same printed circular from a matrimonial agent promising to find her a husband.

Having reached the end of his patience, Herman marched into the Jefferson Market Court on June 27, 1894, complaining that the agent was "annoying his daughter by sending her letters."  He told Justice Ryan "The impertinence of the agent is rendered doubly odious by the circumstance that my daughter is married and has children."

When the judge suggested that he swear out a warrant for the man's arrest, Armour declined.  "Mr. Armour did not think this punishment would fit the crime," said The Evening World.  He told a reporter he did not think the letters were sent with malicious intent; but he did feel that "As a citizen I deemed it my duty to show the circular to the police...That's the whole matter in a nutshell."

The avenue in front of the Armour house (behind the awning) was lined with sleek carriages arriving for the wedding of Anna Gould at No. 857 on March 2, 1895 Photograph by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
In June 1901 Herman and Jennie leased the General Wilson B. French cottage in Saratoga, New York for the summer.   Mary there was with her parents in September.  On September 7 Herman drove to New York City to handle business, but was back the same day.   The following morning, according to the Minnesota newspaper The Bemidji Pioneer, "he enjoyed his usual drive and appeared much refreshed by his outing."

The newspaper reported "He was conversing with friends on the piazza of his cottage when suddenly his head dropped to one side and he expired almost immediately."  Jennie and Mary were both on the porch at the time.  In reporting on his shocking death, the New-York Tribune added, "His wife was Miss Jennie P. Livingston, a woman of strong character, who, he was accustomed to say, was invaluable to him as a counselor in his business."

The funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue home three days later, on September 11.  The Times reported that the service "was of the simplest character, and was attended by only the immediate relatives of Mr. Armour, close friends, and a few business associates."  Among them were former Mayor Franklin Edson, Senator Thomas C. Platt, and high ranking business and banking figures.

Following her period of mourning, Jennie spent less and less time in New York.   In August 1902 she was in France; and when the steamship Kaiser Wilhelm II arrived in New York from Cherbourg on August 30, 1904, The Times noted that among the passengers disembarking were W. D. Rockefeller, Baroness de Reinelt, Baroness Alice de Rose, Baron P. de Morogues, and Jennie Armour.

On June 6, 1908 the San Francisco Call reported that Jennie had arrived on the Nippon Maru.  "Mrs. Armour, in company with Miss A. L. Barrett, has been touring the world and is now on the way home," it said.  "The ladies were accompanied by E. T. Atkinson, who travels with them in the double capacity of guide and courier.  They will remain here for a few days as guests of the St. Francis [Hotel]."

In February 1910 Jennie sold the now-outdated mansion to Elbert H. Gary, chairman of the board of the United States Steel Corporation.  The Record & Guide pointed out the changes in the immediate neighborhood.  "No. 854, the former residence of Mr. Andrews, has been torn down and rebuilt by Mr. Beekman...No. 855, residence of the late Simon Berg, was rebuilt by him; No. 2 East 67th st (one of the four [of the original Lamb & Rich row]), owned by Henri P. Wertheim, was torn down and rebuilt by him."

The article advised "No. 856 will be demolished by the new owner, who will construct on this site one of the handsomest dwellings on the av."  In June 1910 mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert filed plans for a new $300,000 mansion for Garry.

Less than two decades after it was constructed, the Gary mansion was being demolished in 1927.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

It was, indeed, "one of the handsomest dwellings" on the avenue; but it did not last.  In 1927 it was razed to be replaced by the apartment building which survives.

In 1929 Wurts Bros. photographed the newly-completed building from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York


  1. The Monastery, in my hometown, was usually referred to as Ferguson's Castle; among the tidbits of local lore were that a silent film version of Romeo & Juliet was filmed there, the contractor hired to demolish it went bankrupt because it was so well built and perhaps most eerie, the dining room floor was paved with the gravestones of children who had died before the age of five.

  2. Farquhar Ferguson is one of the best names ever.

  3. Not sure what is more surprising and wasteful on so many levels; that the lavish CPH Gilbert mansion would only survive approximately 16 years before its untimely demolition or the fact that the Monastery in Huntington was actually operating as a museum when owned by Suffolk County before they decided to close it, leave it to the vandals to ransack and pillage, before the abandoned building met its own untimely demolition.

  4. The apartment building was designed by Rosario Candela(floor plans) and Warren & Wetmore ( exterior).
    They also worked on 960 Fifth Avenue, also in 1927 , an apartment house which replaced the famous Clark mansion at 77th street.