Monday, June 18, 2018

The Lost Samuel P. Townsend Mansion - Fifth Avenue at 34th Street

The extension visible to the rear held the conservatory.  To the far right is the "picture gallery."  photo from The Abbott Memorial Book, 1912 (copyright expired)
In 1799 John Thompson purchased 20 acres of farmland in today's Midtown.  It abutted the farm of Caspar Samler, to the south, on land that engulfed the area now including Madison Square Garden.  But farming on the bucolic land would last only a few more decades.

The tide of progress was already on its way.  The 1811 Commissioners' Plan laid Fifth Avenue in a straight path through Thompson's land.   William Astor recognized the potential of the property and in 1827 purchased 10 acres from Thompson for $20,500, more than half a million today.

By 1854, when Astor's son, William, married Caroline Webster Schermerhorn, Fifth Avenue (although still unpaved) extended well past 54th Street and houses were already appearing in the 30's.  Astor gave the newlyweds the plot of land at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, where they began construction of their brick and brownstone mansion.  When ground was broken there was already one massive residence under construction across the street on the northwest corner.

Samuel P. Townsend had purchased much of the land above Astor's.  His brownstone residence would outshine the William Astor mansion (and that of his brother, John Jacob Astor which would share that block) in architectural magnificence, if not in social importance.

Townsend had been a contractor, but in 1839 went into the sarsaparilla making business.  Sarsaparilla was a concoction of sassafras, birch oil and other secret ingredients and was a popular tonic.  A supreme marketer, Townsend slapped "Dr." to his name and touted Dr. S. P. Townsend's Sarsaparilla as a cure for freckles and blotches on the faces of girls; difficult menstruation, barrenness and "incontinency of urine," among women; and rheumatism, nervous debility and piles in men.  A full page advertisement in The Genessee Farmer in 1849 even promised that women "approaching that critical period, 'The turn of life,'" could delay the process by several years simply by using his sarsaparilla.

This ad in The American Advertiser in 1849 ensures "cures disease without vomiting."  (copyright expired)

"Sarsaparilla" Townsend's factory shipped to Canada, the West Indies, South America and Europe.  As his fortune grew, he branched into banking, and in 1852 was president of the Nassau Building and Mutual Loan Association, and vice-president of the Third Mechanics' Building and Mutual Loan,

Construction on his Fifth Avenue home began in 1853 and would take two years to complete.  According to Herman Michael Biggs in his 1897 Preventative Medicine in the City of New York, it "cost about $100,000, and was one of the wonders of the City."  Deemed by some the "costliest residence in the city," the price tag would be in the neighborhood of $3 million today.

The free-standing Italianate-style mansion was, indeed, imposing.  A graceful split staircase led to the entrance.  Stone balconies graced the parlor and second floor openings on the Fifth Avenue elevation, and bay windows clung to the southern side.  A scalloped, hexagonal belvedere on the roof offered panoramic views.

The New-York Tribune described it, saying "The edifice is entirely of brown stone four stories in height; and surrounded by open and handsomely laid out gardens.  A large double stoop and portico, supported by fluted Corinthian columns forms the entrance."

If Caroline Astor's visitors were impressed by her ballroom, they were stunned by Nancy Townsend's entrance hall, which rose all four floors to "an arched ceiling, beautifully ornamented in blue and gold."  Each floor, supported by columns, looked onto the grand central space.

To the left of the entrance hall was the main drawing room, 25 by 80 feet.  The ceiling was frescoed and painted panels adorned the walls.  Behind the drawing room was the dining room.  It led to the conservatory which was "richly ornamented by stained glass."

On the opposite side of the entrance hall from the drawing room was the library and the "small but unique apartment called the 'Pompeii Room,' which is a fac simile in size and frescoes, of a room in the exhumed city," said the Tribune.

The magnificent mansion was a source of city pride and a tourist destination.  Arthur Barlett Maurice recalled more than half a century later in his 1918 Fifth Avenue, "The improvements on Fifth Avenue, north of Thirty-fourth Street, began with the erection of the Townsend house, which was a feature of the city and shown to visitors.  The location was the foot of a high hill."  Maurice deemed it "one of the wonders of the town."

Surprisingly, only four years after the house was completed, the Townsends left.  The news reached as far away as Ohio, where on July 21, 1859 the Holmes Country Republican reported "The Palace of Dr. Townsend, on Fifth avenue and Twenty-fourth [sic] street has been sold.  The Rev. Gorham D. Abbott, of the Spingler Institute, has purchased it, with all its elegant furniture, for $290,000."

The article explained "Dr. Townsend is a large land owner, and will soon erect another splendid house farther up town.  So the world moves along."  The writer was not pleased with the prospect of a school moving into the "palace."  "The wholesale stores are driving the retail up town.  The schools are driving the dwellings farther and farther up.  Soon the vicinity of Central Park will alone be the fashionable quarter of the city."

The reporter's figure was slightly exaggerated.  Abbott had spent $250,000 for the house and furnishings--nonetheless a significant $7.6 million by today's standards.

Born in Maine in 1807, Abbott was educated at Bowdoin College and Andover Theological Seminary.  In 1838 he turned his focus from preaching to educating and organized The American Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; and then in 1843, with his brother, established the Abbott Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies in fashionable Colonnade Row on Lafayette Place.

His purpose, according to The American Journal of Education, was "the hope of calling attention to a higher order of education for daughters in our country, and of elevating its general character."  Daughters of wealthy businessmen, plantation owners and industrial tycoons came from across the country to receive the education necessary for a refined wife and socialite.

So successful was the venture that in 1848 Abbott erected the Spingler Institute on Union Square.  At the cornerstone laying, Abbott expressed the difficulties women faced in obtaining quality education.  "We have between one and two hundred colleges in our country, but where is the Yale, or Harvard, or Princeton for the education of females."

Rev. Gorham D. Abbott The American Journal of Education, 1866 (copyright expired)
Now, eleven years later, Abbott and his wife prepared to move the school into the Townsend house. The Ohio newspaper Western Reserve Chronicle predicted on July 20, 1859, "It will be one of the most sumptuous schools in the land, if not in the world."

The New York Evening Post chimed in "Our readers will remember the excitement that marked the completion of the Townsend Mansion, and its public exhibition...We think it a more important announcement that the Abbot Collegiate Institute...has come into the possession of this remarkable private palace.  No building on the island is more easily susceptible of metamorphosis from a dwelling to a College."

The academy had taken back its original name, the Abbott Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies.  It was no vacuous finishing school.  The young women who attended the school received a proper college level education.  In addition to learning Italian and French (required courses), the students received art education, science classes and labs, music--both voice and instrumental--and of course, moral and religious studies and deportment.

Upon opening the Fifth Avenue location, Abbott announced "It is believed there is not in the world at this day, an Institution for the education of daughters with a library of ten thousand volumes, a telescope worth five thousand dollars, and corresponding appointments in apparatus, cabinets, and works of art, that would be deemed indispensable in a college for sons."

The New-York Tribune, in August 1860, pointed out that "the gallery of paintings [is] filled with some of the choicest works of art to be found in this city."  The students who boarded here were housed on the third and fourth floors which the newspaper said "are assigned to the ordinary purposes of domestic apartments."

At the time of the Tribune's article, the editor of The New York Times was less interested in the appointments of the school than in one potential visitor.  On August 21 an article reported on the many preparations for the upcoming visit of the Prince of Wales to the city.  There was the issue of accommodations for the 19-year old heir to the throne.

"Several private citizens of New-York have pressed 'His Excellency the Mayor' to offer the Prince of Wales the use of their respective houses during his stay in New-York, and among them one gentleman who is the fortunate propriety of a 'Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies.'"   Abbott had offered to turn over suites within the sumptuous mansion to the royal entourage.  The editor did not hold back in his opinion.

He warned "they should consider the frailty of human nature, and remember that scriptural injunction which warns us to avoid even the appearance of things evil."  He called the idea of the youthful prince residing within a female college "essentially ludicrous."  And he suspected the Rev. Abbott's true motivation was publicity.  "It lends itself, too, to the most unfeeling criticisms on the uses to which such a proposition may be turned in the way of an 'advertisement for the Fall term."

The newspaper's concerns were laid to rest when his High Royal Highness was given nearly an entire floor in the newly-opened Fifth Avenue Hotel.

Abbott's offering of the school for the royal visit may also have had to do with repairing some devastating publicity two months earlier.   Wealthy families expected that their daughters would be strictly supervised and protected against the evils of the world outside the Institute's brownstone walls.  The serious breach of trust that occurred in June 1860 hit newspapers nationwide.

from the collection of the CUNY Graduate Center Collection, Murray Hill
On June 2 the Mississippi newspaper The Yazzo Democrat ran a headline "Abduction of a Young Southern Lady from a Fashionable School," and recounted the scandalous details.  A student, Miss Phipps of Tennessee, received a visiting relative from home, General Bynum, in the parlor.  On subsequent visits the two went out once in public "with others," and once separately.

The attentions of the relative caused Rev. Abbott and his wife to be suspicious that, as The Evening World worded it, "Gen. Bynum's visit was not in the character of a relative."  On Saturday May 19 inquiries were made at the St. Nicholas Hotel where General Bynum was staying, "and good reasons were found for not permitting any other visits."  When Bynum arrived at the school that day, he was told to leave and he promised "upon his word of honor, as a man and a gentleman," that not only would he not return, but would leave the city "forthwith."

That same evening, however, he was back.  He sent his calling card to Mrs. Abbott who appeared, just about the time Miss Phipps descended the stairs.  While the general and Mrs. Abbott argued, the girl interrupted, "very affectionately" telling Mrs. Abbott "I must bid you good bye."

Mrs. Abbott grabbed the girl and screamed for assistance.  The Evening World reported Bynum "threw" Mrs. Abbott "from him with such a violent and insulting manner as almost to prostrate her upon the floor."  The young woman rushed out the door to Bynum's waiting carriage.  As Mrs. Abbott pleaded with her to return, the staff and students "then rushed out, joining in the remonstrance, and crying out 'shame, shame, shame!"

The young Southern woman may have briefly considered the irreparable decision she was about to make.  The Evening World noted "As she stood at the carriage step, the spectators say, she paused a moment, clasped her hands, looked upward, and in a deadly pallor seemed to hesitate about the fatal step."

But, as reported in the Maryland paper The Daily Exchange, "Gen. Bynum then put his arms around her, urged her into the carriage, and they rolled away.  Mrs. Abbott followed into the street, and with loud calls, begged of spectators to interfere, and arrest the deed of violence."  That article concluded "Gen. Bynum and Miss Phipps are now at the St. Nicholas, probably a married couple--the result, doubtless, of previous arrangement in Tennessee."

That newspaper's and others' suggesting that the couple had married was purely to protect the woman's reputation.  There was no proof of a marriage.  Across the country Bynum was painted as a violent abductor and Miss Phipps as a duped victim.

The Abbott Collegiate Institute weathered the damaging publicity of the incident.  On August 23, 1862 The Chicago Daily Tribune called it "one of the best if not the very best institutions in the country...Parents and guardians who wish their daughters and wards to enjoy the highest social and religious advantages, and an intellectual training equal to that which our best colleges can afford, will be sure to have them at the Abbot [sic] Collegiate Institute."

The Institute maintained a staff of 25 instructors.  The girls' tuition, including board, went as high at $500 a year--more than $12,500 today.  The same year as the Chicago Daily Tribune's endorsement, The Home Journal said "Its library, its chemical, philosophical, and astronomical apparatus, its mineralogical cabinet, and its gallery of paintings, are of the highest and best character.  Among the privileges which the students of the institution possess, are being able to enjoy lectures, pronounced by the most distinguished minds in this country, on various subjects, chiefly relating, however, to the sciences, natural, mental and moral, to history, literature and art."

Like the free-spirited Miss Phipps, many of the Institute's students came from aristocratic Southern families.  And so when Civil War broke out, those girls packed their things and left for home.  In 1866 The American Journal of Education noted "But the disturbances of the war, and other attending circumstances, disappointed Mr. Abbott's plans, and swept away the principal fruits of his five and twenty years of effect to establish an institution for daughters worthy of the metropolis of our country."

Earlier that year Abbott leased a smaller mansion on Park Avenue.  The New York Evangelist reported "It will be gratifying news to many friends that this excellent Institution has re-opened in a very advantageous location and with the best prospects.  Dr. Abbot [sic] has taken the large house of Mr. James Suydam, at the corner of Thirty-eighth Street and Park Avenue."

The disappointment was too much for Abbott.  He announced "Circumstances make it desirable for me to have a year of respite."  But he never returned to his beloved school.  Historian Nehemiah Cleaveland wrote in 1882 "The gradual wasting away of physical powers, attended by frequent attacks of severe pain and prolonged suffering, at last terminated in paralysis and death in 1874."

In the meantime, merchant prince Alexander Tunny Stewart purchased the former Townsend mansion.  As Arthur Bartlett Maurice eloquently wrote in his 1918 Fifth Avenue, "He found brown-stone and left marble."

The 1918 book Fifth Avenue illustrated the two mansions side-by-side.  (copyright expired)
"Townsend's pride and folly was tumbled to the ground, carted away, and in its place there went up the Italian palace" of Stewart.  The French Second Empire-style mansion, clad in Italian marble, cost $2 million and would set the bar for Fifth Avenue mansions to come.  It survived until 1901.

The corner as it appears today.


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