Monday, July 2, 2018

The Lost Moses H. Grinnell Mansion (Delmonico's) - 1 East 14th Street

Fifth Avenue (foreground) was paved with stone bricks by the time this photograph was taken.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Following his death on November 24, 1877 The New York Herald opined "There were few men better known to the citizens of New York than Moses H. Grinnell."   Over his long and varied career he had been the president of one bank and director of several others, president of the Chamber of Commerce, a member of Congress, Commissioner of Public Charities and Correction, Collector of the Port of New York, and a Central Park Commissioner.

Grinnell's vast fortune, however, did not come from banking or politics.  He was the senior partner with Robert B. Minturn in the shipping firm of Grinnell, Minturn & Co., formed in 1828.   Henry Collins Brown, Director of the Museum of the City of New York, wrote in the 1924 Fifth Avenue, Old and New, "It is difficult for the present generation to realize the former importance, socially and commercially, of the families engaged in shipping.  Practically all of the great fortunes prior to the Civil War were made in shipping.  Grinnell, Minturn & Co. were the largest."   The firm domineered the industry and at one point owned nearly 50 sailing ships.

Born on March 3, 1803, he could trace his family to the 17th century in America.  The first Grinnells--three brothers--settled in Rhode Island in 1632.  His mother's first American ancestor, John Howland, was a passenger on the Mayflower.

Grinnell's first wife, whom he married in 1826, died young.  In 1836 he married Julia Irving, the niece of Washington Irving.  They had three children.

In 1847 Robert B. Minturn moved his family into a new mansion at No. 60 Fifth Avenue, at the corner of 12th Street.  Three years later Moses Grinnell followed suit, erecting his home two blocks to the north, at No. 1 East 14th Street on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue.

Completed in 1850, the Ango-Italianate style house was the latest in domestic fashion.  Three stories of red brick trimmed in brownstone sat above a rusticated stone base.  Two sets of tall French doors opened from the parlor onto cast iron balconies above the entrance level.  Barely visible from street level, two dormers punctured the slightly hipped attic roof.

The Grinnells were socially-prominent and Moses was among the founders of the exclusive Union League Club.  The New York Herald later recalled that Moses Grinnell was "the most liberal entertainer, and gathered about his private table the most delightfully pleasing parties, the charmed sovereigns of wealth, intellect and highest social position."  And in his 1913 book Things I Remember Frederick Townsend Martin wrote "I remember seeing the Grinnell mansion at the corner of Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue, where Mrs. Grinnell queened it as a great lady of fashion, and where she entertained the late King Edward on his first visit to New York."

Moses H. Grinnell from the collection of the New York Public Library
The quiet intersection where Moses Grinnell had built his mansion epitomized wealth and privilege--so much so that when The New York Times printed an unflattering editorial about Manhattan's millionaires on July 15, 1854 the editor used the location to symbolize lavish lifestyles.

Fifth-avenue and Fourteenth-street might teach [the ancient Romans] much, and astound them by revealing the fact that private individuals could not alone live like Emperors, but that they absolutely maintained their luxury on the same royal principle--namely, that of spending other people's money.

In was an unwarranted swipe at the Grinnells, who not only did not rely on credit, as the editorial suggested, but magnanimously donated to charities.  In January 1858, for instance, Julia was elected a manager of the Woman's Hospital Association.  Thurlow Weed said of Moses, "Unlike many men situated in life as he was, he did not contribute to hospital or asylum funds at stated intervals only, but gave in charity every day.  In fact he was always giving either money or assistance of other kinds to the needy."  After his appointment as Commissioner of Charities and Corrections in 1860, Grinnell initiated many social reforms.

The family's summer home was in Irvington, New York, adjoining Washington Irving's "Sunnyside."  During the summer months the writer and the Grinnell family spent much time together.

On March 20, 1860 The New York Times reprinted a rumor found in the Charleston Courier that said in part "Mr. Grinnell has sold his splendid residence at the corner of Fifth-avenue and Fourteenth-street."  While the rumor at the time was mere speculation, within two years it would become fact.

On April 7, 1862 The Times announced "The Brothers Delmonico are determined, it would seem, to keep pace with the rapid up-town strides of society."  A private opening of the famous restaurant's new location had been held the evening before.  "The establishment (which was formerly the mansion of Mr. Moses H. Grinnell) has been fitted up with faultless taste, and is, without any exception, the handsomest place of the kind in the City."

The article added, "We doubt, indeed, if Europe can boast its equal in quiet elegant and real comfort of decoration."  The main restaurant was on the ground floor, as was "a cafe in the true Parisian style, being fitted up with small marble-top tables and destitute of a bar."

The upper floors had been converted to private dining rooms of various sizes.  The Times noted they were "intended for dinner and supper parties, and all fitted up with lavish luxuriousness, but without the slightest excess that can be called garish or vulgar."

Delmonico's had been around since 1827 and had changed the face of public dining.  Before then New York restaurants had served "tavern food."  Moneyed citizens dined in their homes.  John and Peter Delmonico changed that, serving the cakes, fine wines and ices that affluent New Yorkers had grown to expect in Paris and Vienna.  Two years before moving into the Grinnell mansion, the restaurant inaugurated another feature that would alter fine dining in America.  It imported a Parisian chef, Charles Ranhoffer, the first "gourmet" chef in the country.

Delmonico's was by now the host and caterer to high society.  The Illustrated American said of the new site "Its location and its adaptability to evening business made it at once the most fashionable restaurant of the city."   The success was such that only a few months after renovating the Grinnell house, the owners purchased the mansion next door and combined the two; creating a 100-foot wide establishment.

from Fifth Avenue, Old and New, by Henry Collins Brown (copyright expired)
The Nation described the enlarged accommodations, saying that on the ground floor were now two public dining rooms, each about 20 feet wide and 75 feet long.  "Back of these, also on the ground floor, is the cafe, an enormous room, perhaps thirty-five by an hundred feet.  According to strict etiquette that fare only which is usually supplied by a cafe ought to be served in this room, to wit: coffee, chocolate, and tea; all wines and liquors and drinks of various kinds; bread and butter; raw oysters; boiled eggs, perhaps, or an omelet, if any one wants to spoil his morning's coffee with them; radishes, olives, cheese, and all the hors d'oeuvres; ices."

Smoking, the article noted, was allowed only in the cafe.  Directly above the cafe was the large ballroom.  The Nation pointed out that it served as a ballroom only in winter; "but in summer, when balls are not and when the crowd is great in the evenings of those who seek ices and iced champagne, [it becomes] a dining-room."

So meticulously did Delmonico's follow established European deportment, and so elegant was its French cuisine, that the writer of The Nation article suggested it to young couples unsure of their entertaining skills.  "Married people keeping house, unless they are very highly trained already, should dine at Delmonico's once a month at least, oftener if possible...If they do not learn something, it will be because they cannot learn from experience.  The standard cannot be set too high."

The famous restaurant needed no signage.  Photographer unknown.  From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.
While Manhattan's wealthiest citizens dined in the private dining rooms--some small enough to accommodate just eight patrons--the largest rooms saw lavish banquets.   One of the most opulent was that given by Sir Morton Peto of England on October 30, 1865 in reciprocation for the hospitality he had received in New York.

The Times reported "the sumptuous, richness and elegance of this banquet, we feel free to say, has never been exceeded in this country.  We doubt, indeed, whether so complete, so elaborate, and so delightful a dinner was ever served to a party so large as 250 guests in New-York."  The table service used that night had been especially commissioned by Delmonico's for an earlier visit by the Prince of Wales.  The meal, according to The Illustrated American, cost Petro $250 per person, a total of more than $1 million today.

Charles Dickens was feted here on April 19, 1868; but it was certainly not his first visit.  Decades later, on May 16, 1891, The Illustrated American remembered "Charles Dickens was a frequent visitor to the Fourteenth Street house.  He was a heavy eater and a heavier drinker.  he thought nothing of swallowing the contents of two quart-bottles of champagne at lunch, but brandy was his favorite tipple."

Perhaps the most memorable banquet decorations were those described by Ward McAllister in his Society, and How I Found It.  The banquet hosted by "Mr. Lackmeyer" was "of such beauty and magnificent, that even New Yorkers, accustomed as they were to every species of novel expenditure, were astonished at its lavishness, its luxury."  The 72 guests were seated in the ballroom at an oval table that engulfed nearly the entire room.  In its center was "a lake, and a border around the table for the plates."

The "lake" was 30 feet long and nearly the width of the table, and enclosed by a golden wire fence that reached the ceiling.  Four swans, brought from Prospect Park, swam in the tabletop pond, "surrounded by high banks of flowers."  The floral banks prevented the swans from accidentally splashing the diners.  "Then, all around the inclosure, and in fact above the entire table, hung little golden cages, with fine songsters, who filled the room with their melody."  McAllister placed the price tag of the evening, which he called the "Swan Dinner," at $10,000, or about $175,000 today.

No visiting diplomat, military leader, titan of industry or celebrity in the artistic, musical or literary world left New York City without passing through the doors of Delomino's.  The Illustrated American wrote "Within its walls Seward spoke, Abraham Lincoln threw off his quaint and curiously created jokes, and here General Grant was given a great dinner and reception by A. T. Stewart, Edwards Pierrepont and a number of other well-known citizens."

Henry Collins Brown remarked in Fifth Avenue Old and New, "Its ballrooms and dining rooms were the scenes of countless gatherings of wealth and fashion.  The Assembly Ball was only one of its more special events.  Nightly the building was filled with beautifully dressed women and men of national celebrity.  It was said that no man ever attained eminence in the town who did not later pass through the portals of this world-famous establishment."

But the migration of society moved ever northward and, as was the case in 1862, Delmonico's followed.  On September 13, 1876 the restaurant opened its new home at the corner of Broadway and 26th Street near Madison Square.  In reporting on the move, The New York Times reminisced about the many luminaries who had dined there and the memorable banquets that took place within its walls.

On September 20, 1879 The Real Estate Record & Guide noted "Fourteenth-street, between Union square and Sixth avenue, has so thoroughly become the centre of New York's retail trade...It is no wonder, then, that the Blatchford estate, which owns the property so long occupied by Delmonico's, at the northeast corner of Fourteenth-st. and Fifth avenue, has taken advantage of this excellent site and erected thereon a fine store building."

That store and office building, designed by Edward H. Kendall, survived until 1961.

The corner today.

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