Monday, August 20, 2018

The Lost Oliver Harriman House - 24 West 57th Street

By the time this photo was taken, the exterior staircase had been removed. The openings between the upper floor windows were added in the commercial conversion.   photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
Cummings H. Tucker & Sons was both the builder and the developer of the 50-foot wide brick and brownstone mansion at No. 24 West 57th Street completed late in 1874.  Although the architect is unclear, his design was on the cutting edge of domestic architecture.

Four stories tall above an English basement, the stately mansion wore over-the-top neo-Grec ornament.  Even the surrounds of the basement windows were fully carved.  A stone stoop originally let to the entrance where paired columns upheld an elaborate portico.  The architrave frames of the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows included rosesettes and intricately carved brackets and lintels.  The treatment of the upper openings was no less complex.  Incised carved designs filled the pediments and lintels which sprouted Greek-style ears, or acroterion.  A full-height slate-shingled mansard sat above a bracketed cornice.

Manhattan's upper class was just beginning to migrate this far north.  Cummings H. Tucker had put the title to No 24 in the name of his wife, Mary.  On February 16, 1875 she sold it to Oliver Harriman, who paid $50,000 for the mansion, in excess of $1 million today.

Harriman was 56 years old at the time.  He had started out in the dry goods commission house of McCurdy, Aldrich & Spencer; but after marrying Laura Low he co-founded the dry goods firm of Low, Harriman & Co. with her father, James Low.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle would later say "The firm became one of the best known and wealthiest in the trade."

The Harrimans  needed a commodious home for more than housing their art collection and entertaining.  Their large family included five sons and three daughters, including one toddler, three-year old Herbert.

The entertainments in the mansion were exemplified by the dinner dance on December 18, 1885.  The New York Times reported that "Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Harriman gave a cotillion last evening at their residence, No. 24 West Fifty-seventh-street, in compliment to their son and daughter-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. James Low Harriman."  The article noted "As the affair was not intended to be a ball the invitations were limited to young people."

Ball or not, society caterer Pinard supplied the elaborate dinner and florist Klunder filled the halls and parlors in with orchids, palms and Japanese ferns.  The wealthy guests--numbering between 30 and 40 couples--included socially-recognizable names like Lorillard, Goelet, Belmont, Rhinelander, Mills and Hoyt.  Making his appearance was the self-appointed arbiter of New York society Ward McAllister.

As the Harriman children married they dispersed to New Jersey, Westchester, Tuxedo Park and other areas.  Only a few remained in Manhattan.  So it was, as described by The New York Times, "a notable gathering" in the 57th Street mansion on February 26, 1892 when the entire family reunited.  The newspaper said "At 8 o'clock Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Harriman sat down to dinner surrounded by their children, sons and daughters in law, and grandchildren."  Also at the table was 82-year-old James Low.

Because it was the first time in eight years that the entire family was together, a photographer was hired.  "When the family had gathered around the board a photographer took a flash-light picture of the scene, copies of which will be made for every member, with a few words on the back, descriptive of the occasion."  One can imagine the photographer bent under the black drape of his box camera on a tripod and the bright explosion of the flash powder.

(original source unknown)

Herbert Harriman's marriage to Isabella Hunnewell on September 26, 1894 in Boston prompted The Sun to mention "The Harriman and the Hunnewell family connections are wide, and a liberal distribution of invitations foretells a large wedding."   The article predicted that the marriage "will be the occasion for a brilliant wedding."

In 1897 Oliver and Laura Harriman made a decision to leave the 57th Street house for good.  They retained ownership, however, and on October 2 The Real Estate Record & Guide reported they had leased the "fine house" to "ex-Secretary of the Navy, Wm. C. Whitney."

Whitney, who had lived steps away in the massive mansion at No. 2 West 57th Street on the corner of Fifth Avenue, had married Edith Randolph in September 1896.  He gave that residence to his son, Henry Payne Whitney and his new bride the former Gertrude Vanderbilt.  The Whitneys intended to lease the Harriman house only as long as it took to remodel the gargantuan Robert Stuart mansion at No. 871 Fifth Avenue.

William Collins Whitney - from the collection of the Harvard Art Museum

In the winter of 1897 the Whitneys were at their Aiken, South Carolina estate.  On February 21 they joined in a fox hunt.  At one point the route went through a covered bridge; one which Edith had ridden through several times before.  But today, according to The New York Times, she was on a much taller mount and "neglected to bend her head low enough, and she received the blow which resulted in a dislocation of her neck."  She was, according to the article, "picked up insensible."

For days it appeared that the injury would be fatal.  Special trains sped specialists from Manhattan to the estate.  Edith survived "on a bed of sickness and pain" as described by The Times for a year, then was transported to New York on a private train.  On April 20, 1898 the newspaper reported "Mrs. Whitney stood the journey splendidly, and not only reached New York without having suffered a set-back, but feeling in good spirits."

Five days later The Sun reported that Edith "continues to improve and her condition was reported last night as affording much for her ultimate recovery.  She is in the care of Dr. McGahan, who is with her constantly at her home, 24 West Fifth-seventh street."

On the afternoon of May 31 another private car took Edith to the Whitney country home in Hempstead, Long Island.  William Whitney was in the process of building a race track there and The Times explained "as she was greatly interested in racing and horses, her room and windows were arranged so that she could see the speeding and the trials of the horses every day."

Despite newspapers' continued optimistic reports of her condition, Edith died in the Long Island house on May 6, 1899.  She would never see the magnificent Fifth Avenue mansion completed.

Now twice widowed, William Whitney did not remain in the Harriman house, despite the fact that the Fifth Avenue mansion was not yet fully completed.  In October 1899 the 57th Street house was leased to Perry Belmont and his new bride, Jessie.

Their marriage earlier that year was fodder for gossip and scandal.  Jessie Anne Robbins had been married for 17 years to Henry T. Sloane.  Sloane had been visibly absent from the gala opening of their East 72nd Street mansion in January 1897 after he had learned of her ongoing intimate affair with Belmont.

Five hours after the Sloanes were divorced, Jessie and Perry were married.  Society was not quick to forget Jessie's infidelity and she was effectively snubbed.  Nevertheless the couple kept up appearances.  On November 21, 1900 The New York Times reported "Mr. and Mrs. Perry Belmont have closed their house at Newport and returned today to their New York residence, 24 West Fifty-seventh Street."

Perry Belmont and the once beautiful Jessie Robbins Sloane Belmont in later years.  photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress
When the Belmonts sailed for Europe in the spring of 1901 they loaned the house to a Colonel Crawford, along with the use of the Belmonts' servants and vehicles.  When they returned they would find they had one fewer carriages than when they left.

On May 26, 1901 the New-York Tribune reported "A brougham drawn by a spirited pair of horses belonging to Perry Belmont came into collision about 7 o'clock last night with a northbound Sixth-ave. car at Fifty-seventh-st.  Colonel Crawford was in the vehicle. The brougham a moment before had left Mr. Belmont's home, No. 24 West Fifty-seventh-st."

When the carriage reached Sixth Avenue, Belmont's coachman, Patrick Fitzsimmons, thought he could cross before the oncoming streetcar reached the intersection.  Although John Dineen tried to stop the passenger-filled car, it collided with the rear wheels of the brougham.

Sitting next to Crawford was Belmont's footman.  He was jarred from his seat and Crawford was thrown violently against a carriage door.  "He hastily jumped out to the street," said the newspaper.  "He roundly denounced the motorman, who he declared, had been running his car at too high a speed."

A policeman, Daniel Lefanne, helped by the streetcar employees, lifted the carriage to free its wheel from the streetcar, then used a leather strap to temporarily repair a broken trace.  "Colonel Crawford was driven away to fulfill his engagement."

On January 31, 1904 The New York Times commented "Mrs. Harriman died a couple of years ago, and Mr. Harriman, though still living, is a very ill man."  Indeed he was.  The millionaire died on March 12 that year.  The Harriman estate retained ownership of the house and continued to lease it to well-heeled families.

On June 12, 1907 the New-York Tribune reported that William Rhinelander Stewart had been living in 57th Street mansion "for some time past."  But now his lease had ended.  The once-exclusive neighborhood was filling more and more with shops and offices.  Finally on November 13, 1909 the Record & Guide reported that the Harriman estate had sold the house to a buyer who intended "to improve the plot with a modern building designed and planned exclusive for occupancy by physicians."

The New York Times reported that Charles Sooysmith had paid $300,000--more than $8.3 million today--for the property, adding that "The Oliver Harriman home is one of the finest and largest in Fifty-seventh Street."

But the plans for demolition and replacement stalled, and in August 1910 it was announced that the high-end ladies tailor, Dunstan, had leased the house for 21 years.  "The lessee, it is reported, will make extensive alterations to the old residence at a cost of $40,000," reported The Record & Guide.

Those alterations included removing the stoop and adding openings between the existing fourth floor windows.  Otherwise the house retained its domestic appearance, including pulled-back draperies in the lower floor windows. 

Having spent the significant funds to renovate the property, Dunstan moved across the street just three years later.

The upscale women's apparel store announced its move with a sale on December 14, 1913.  The Sun (copyright expired)

By November 1915 the former home was owned by William Phelps Eno.  That month the Record & Guide announced he had leased "the 5-sty residence formerly occupied by Perry Belmont, Oliver Harriman and later by Dunstan."  The new tenants were Mrs. Arthur Aymay Cater and Mrs. R. W. Hawkesworth "who will use the premises for dancing classes and private entertainments."  Dancing classes were de rigueur for society's sons and daughters and were often operated, as in this case, by wealthy socialites.

But as war broke out in Europe, other socially-prominent women leased a store in the building.  On March 17, 1916 The New York Times reported "Well known women of fashionable society are to donate their slightly worn clothes in the cause of war relief.  The clothes sale, which is unusual in the annals of society, will begin on Monday in a newly-rented shop in the very heart of the social zone, 24 West Fifty-seventh Street."

The entire building was turned over to war relief the following year.  The Sun reported on December 29, 1917 that "William J. Eno 'had donated his house, 24 West Fifty-seventh street, to the work of the Navy Auxiliary of the Red Cross."

Two months later a floor in the house was dedicated for use by military men awaiting deployment.  The Sun reported on February 5,1918 "'All dressed up and no place to go' is an obsolete slogan now for the hundreds of officers who come to New York for the few days before embankment for France.  In the old Harriman entire floor and several rooms on the ground floor have been furnished and fitted out for an officers' club for the use of officers of the army, the navy and marines of the United States and allied countries."

The new Paul Jones Club included a reception room, a billiard table, a "smoking and lounging room," a card room, reading room and a canteen.  "There are also Red Cross workers at hand to teach the officers how to knit," added the article.

With the end of the war the Red Cross Navy Auxiliary no longer needed space and the Paul Jones Club was closed as well.  On September 27, 1919 Eno announced his intentions to "erect an 8-sty building, in which he intends to conduct an establishment for the sale of women's apparel," according to the Record & Guide.

from the collection of the New York Public Library 

The new building, designed by Buchman & Kahn, received the Fifth Avenue Association's gold medal for the best building constructed in 1920.  It survives, somewhat altered at the lower levels, today.

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