Monday, November 26, 2018

The Lost E. H. Harriman Mansion - 1 East 69th Street

The house before alterations; its entrance was within the portico on 69th Street.  To the right is the carriage house.  The similar mansion to the left was built in 1882, designed by C. W. Clinton.  King's Views of New York City, A.D. 1903 (copyright expired)
Builders Peter and Francis Herter arrived in New York City from Germany where, according to The New York Times years later, Peter had been "the richest builder on the banks of the Rhine."  The brothers established Herter Brothers--a business name that would cause confusion to this day because of the well-known interior decorating firm, Herter Brothers, flourishing at the same time.

The architectural firm of Herter Brothers made their mark in New York by designing scores of tenement buildings; theirs being a bit more ornamented than the norm.  But in 1879 it was anything but a tenement they produced.  On July 3, 1880 The Real Estate Record & Guide wrote "The residence of Mr. David Dows, (Herter Bros., architects) is a double house, fifty feet front."

The massive brick and brownstone mansion sat at the north east corner of Fifth Avenue and 69th Street.  Its entrance on the side street gave it the address of No. 1 East 69th.  Four stories tall plus a full-story mansard (oddly without any windows), the house featured slightly protruding bays at the first floor which supported stone balconies at the second, arched pediments, Corinthian pilasters and a portico with stairs on either side.

Born on November 9, 1814, David Dows came from a family of farmers.   His ancestors had first settled in Massachusetts in 1630.  He left the family farm at the age of 20 to come to New York City.  Hired as a clerk by commission merchant Ira B. Cary, he learned the business, became a partner, and upon the death of the two senior partners, took over the firm, renaming it David Dows & Co.

The New York Times said later "In a comparatively few years David Dows amassed a great fortune, and his firm was both powerful and famous the world over."  He was among the organizers of the Produce Exchange and the Corn Exchange Bank; was a director in the New-York Elevated Railroad and the Metropolitan Elevated Railway; and in June 1878 he was elected five president of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.  Dows and his wife, the former Margaret Wercester, had seven children, several of them married by now.

 David and Margaret filled the mansion with costly artworks, perhaps most notably Frederic Edwin Church's large painting The Heart of the Andes.

Church's The Heart of the Andes created a sensation when it was first exhibited.  Metropolitan Museum of Art
Despite their splendid mansion and sumptuous summer estate, Charlton Hall, in Hastings-on-Hudson, the Dows name rarely appeared in society columns; other than to mention that the couple had attended a wedding or other fashionable event.

Charlton Hall -- from the collection of the Irvington Public Library
In March 27, 1890 a headline in The New York Times was far more dire:  "DAVID DOWS DYING."  The article began "At a late hour last night the physical condition of Mr David Dows was not such as to afford the family much hope for his recovery...The worst is feared, and all the family are at the residence of the sick man at Fifth-avenue and Sixty-ninth-street."

Symptoms of the now-retired mogul's illness had appeared a week earlier as a series of chills.  Little by little he worsened until doctors diagnosed him with a "complication of ills the most pronounced being a very severe affection of the kidneys."  The newspaper ended its report saying that the 75-year old was "reputed to be many times a millionaire."

Indeed he was.  Following his death three days later, the newspaper reported "His estate is estimated at $18,000,000."  That amount would translate to half a billion dollars today.

The funeral, held in the Dows mansion on April 2, was attended by some of the most powerful figures in politics and industry.  Among them were the former Secretary of the Treasury, Charles S. Fairchild, John Sloane, Henry O. Armour, Darian O. Mills, Samuel Babcock and Roswell P. Flower (who would become New York Governor two years later).

Margaret remained in the house.  David, Jr., who was living in Irvington, New York at the time of his father's death, moved back into the mansion.  Also living with in the house with their mother were Tracy, who was attending Harvard, and Mary .

Margaret died in her home on February 3, 1909.  Her will left large bequests to numerous philanthropies, including the Children's Aid Society, the New York Homeopathic Medical College and Hospital, and the Daisy Fields Hoe and Hospital.

A little over a year before Margaret Dows's death, Edward Henry Harriman had purchased the plot at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.  But the millionaire banker and railroad executive seems to have had second thoughts about building a mansion in the neighborhood which was quickly being taken over by commerce.  On April 13, 1907 the Record & Guide pointed out that "no plans have been prepared or architect selected for a $2,000,000 residence...It was stated that no immediate improvement of this corner has yet been determined"

The delay might also have been influenced by another ongoing project.  At the time of the article, Harriman and his wife, the former Mary Williamson Averell, were focused on the design and construction of their summer mansion, Arden House, on their 40,000-acre estate near Turner Village, New York.  Designed by Carrere & Hastings, construction had begun in 1905 and would go on for several more years.

The Harrimans had five children, Mary, Henry Neilson, Cornelia, Carol, William Averell (who was known by his middle name and went on to become Under Secretary of State), and Edward Roland Noel.  Prospects of the Harrisons building on the 52nd Street corner came to an abrupt end when, two months after Margaret Dow's death, the couple purchased No, 1 East 69th Street and the abutting house on Fifth Avenue.  The Record & Guide explained that they intended "to unit the two properties into the site for a new residence."

But once again, the Harrimans rethought the idea.  Instead society architect Grosvenor Atterbury and with Julian L. Peabody as associate architect were brought in to update and remodel the Dows mansion.  The plans, filed on June 12, 1909, called for replacing the mansard with a new fifth story (a feature of which, when finished, will be the sun parlor," noted The Times), removing the portico and remodeling the entranceway.  The New York Times added "A new ornamental bay to light the library will be built at the second story and have a window seat.  All the present gas fixtures for lighting the large rooms will be replaced with electric chandeliers and brackets, the wires in various instances being laid in open conduits."

E. H. Harriman emerges from his carriage on East 33rd Street.  In the background is the 71st Regiment Armoryphoto from the collection of the Library of Congress

The renovations cost $40,000--just over $1.1 million today.  The Harrimans were not in New York when The Times article was published.  E. H. Harriman had suffered immense stress over the past year--battling law suits, the government, and labor organizations.  On June 8. 1909 The New York Times reported he had landed in Plymouth, England on the Kaiser Wilheim II and "declined to discuss the question of attempting to float in Europe a $150,000,000 bond issue for his railway linen."  A hint of problems within the article went unnnoticed by most readers.  "He will afterward go to Vienna to consult a medical expert, and intends to spend three months in Europe."

Within two weeks reporters took a closer look at his condition, saying he was in Austria "taking the cure," although his doctors said he suffered only from "a nervous ailment."  Frequent articles appeared in the American papers, always saying he was "resting" but feeling better.   On August 21 The Times reported on his treatment by the Viennese specialists: bed rest, special foods every two hours, sun baths, and "when there is no sunshine, champagne baths are to be substituted."

All the while construction continued on the two homes back home.  On August 11, 1909 The Times reported that Arden, although not yet completed, "would be in shape for [Harriman] and his family to move into early next week when he returns from abroad."  In fact only 12 of the 150 rooms had been completed.

Seen from above, it is easy to understand why construction on Arden House lasted years. photo The Wall Street Journal August 5 2010 
The Harrimans landed in Jersey City on August 24.  Their special train car took the family to Arden where the millionaire was transferred to an limousine which had been specially outfitted with train wheels.  It followed the private tracks up the steep slope and directly into the basement of the mansion.  Accompanying the family was the Viennese doctor who had been treating him.  The estate's 600 employees stood in formation at the bottom of the hill to greet their employer.

It was not until after his death, on September 9, that the Austrian physicians revealed that he had been battling stomach cancer.  The following day Adolf Struempell admitted "I could not, of course, communicate this diagnosis to private inquirers, but I informed Mr. Harriman's American physicians of it and that the conditions did not indicate that an operation was hopeless.  I hastened Mr. Harriman's departure homeward."

The Times reported that his estate was valued at "more than $100,000,000."  It was, in fact, more in the neighborhood of $247 million--a staggering $6.8 billion today.

Atterbury and Peabody's renovations to the former mansard are evident.  photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress
Mary was emotionally devastated by her husband's death.  In his 2000 The Life and Legend of E. H. Harriman, Maury Klein wrote "Crushed by grief, she languished in the seclusion at Arden, the huge estate in the Ramapo Mountains of New York that Henry had not lived to complete.  Then, in January 1910, she confided to friends that she was ready to take up life again."

The village of Turner, incidentally, was renamed Harriman in honor of their most famous resident.

The widow's reemergence into public life came gradually.  On May 5, 1910 The New York Times reported that daughter Mary was engaged to Charles Cary Rumsey; but added "Mrs. Harriman was not prepared yesterday at her home, 1 East Sixty-ninth Street, to make an announcement of the matter, but a formal statement is expected to be made to-day."

The hesitation may have been only partly because of Mary's emotional condition.  There is some evidence that she felt her daughter was marrying below her station.  While Rumsey had had a rather privileged upbringing, he had turned to sculpture rather than business for his life's work.

The Times explained he had met Mary four years earlier at the races.  "Later he undertook some work at Mr. Harriman's new house at Arden.  He was up there a good deal, and so got on intimate terms with the family."  The article noted "At Mrs. Harriman's house yesterday all inquires on the subject of the engagement were disregarded.  Mrs. Harriman refused to see reporters and set out word through her butler that their questions would be answered to-day."  A servant quickly asked the reporter "Has it got into the papers?"

The alterations to the mansion were, of course, completed by now.  Mary brought back Grosvenor Atterbury and Julian L. Peabody in February to update the carriage house.  The plans called for new walls, windows, stairs, and elevator shaft.  The $10,000 in renovations would equal about $266,000 today.

Behind the mansion was the substantial carriage house.  To the left is the garden gate and a slice of the conservatory.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

Mary turned her focus to charitable works.  She carefully read each of the "begging letters" that came in, asking for help from her massive inheritance.  She generously supported institutions like the Boys' Club and medical facilities; while, as noted by Maury Klein, "she gave not a dime to any cause that did not interest her personally."

Living with her mother in the Fifth Avenue mansion were Carol, 10-year-old Edward (who was known as E. Roland), and Averell.  The family population was increased in 1911 with the addition of Laddie, a West Highland Terrier.  The luxurious surroundings of the grand home could not compete with the dog's instinctual urges and on November 14, 1912 he made a break for Central Park.

Two days later The Times reported that Mary Harriman had "appealed to the police" to help find the wayward pup.   The article said he was last seen "headed at full speed for Central Park.  Its green stretches are right across the avenue from his home."  Mary worried that "although Laddie is a year old, that night was the first he ever spent out."

Mary was honored when her granddaughter, the first child of Mary and Charles Cary Rumsey, was given the name Mary Averell Harriman Rumsey.  The christening was held in the Fifth Avenue mansion in April 1914.

The following year in September Averell married Kitty Lanier Lawrance and moved his bride into his mother's Fifth Avenue house.  Perhaps not to be outdone by his sister and brother-in-law, he and Kitty named their firstborn Mary Averell Harriman.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mary opened her mansion to the public on May 1, 1916 for an exhibition and sale of Edward Willard Deming's native American themed paintings, bronzes and decorative panels.  The exhibition lasted several days.

In February 1915 E. Roland, then 19 years old, suffered appendicitis.  His mother instructed doctors William G. Lyle and George E. Brewer to perform the operation in the mansion.  On February 26 The Times reported "The young man withstood the ordeal well and is rapidly regaining his health."

Mary Harriman routinely hosted lectures; either in connection with social issues or for her many charities.  On April 4, 1915, for instance, she hosted a "Conference in French by Jules Bois of Paris," and on December 12, 1916 The Times reported that "The Committee for Men Blinded in Battle held a meeting yesterday afternoon at the hoe of Mrs E. H. hear a report by Miss Winifred Holt, President of the Executive Committee in France, who returned here recently for a short visit."

The side of the Harriman house (right) faced Fifth Avenue.  The closer residence at No. 881 Fifth Avenue is the Adolph Lewisohn mansion.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Two weeks later E. Roland's engagement to Gladys C. C. Fries was announced.  The Sun reported "Socially prominent persons in New York are much interested in the engagement."  The last of the Harriman children to marry would be Carol, whose engagement to R. Penn Smith, Jr. of Philadelphia was announced in June 1917.

As the country became embroiled in world war, Mary's focus, like that of so many other socialites, turned to relief work.  On January 7, 1919 the Women's Advisory Committee of The War Camp Community Service met at No. 1 East 69th Street.  A report that afternoon noted that the group had found sleeping accommodations for more than 1 million uniformed men passing through the city the previous year.

Although she was nearly 70 years old, Mary Harriman managed to maintain her social activities.  On January 16, 1920 she gave "a small dinner" for 150 guests in honor of Roland and his wife.  One society columnist noted "It was for young people, chiefly debutantes."

Mary seems to have been frequently visited by her daughters.  Following an appendicitis operation in August 1920, Mary Rumsey recouperated at her mother's home.   On April 4, 1921 The New York Herald reported that "Mr. and Mrs. R. Penn Smith, Jr., who have been passing several weeks at the home of her mother, Mrs. E. Henry Harriman...have gone to their house at East Williston, L.I." and on October 31 that year the same newspaper noted "Mrs. Charles Cary Rumsey is at the home of her mother, Mrs. E. Henry Harriman, 1 East Sixty-ninth street."

The following year, on September 21, 1922 Charles Cary Rumsey was a passenger in an automobile traveling on the Jericho Turnpike.  It smashed into a stone abutment, throwing Rumsey from the car and almost instantly killing him.  Mary Rumsey moved back to No. 1 East 69th Street with her mother.

Mrs. E. H. Harriman in 1927.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress.
She presented one of her husband's works, a statue of Francisco Pizarro to the Spanish town of Trujillo, where Pizarro was born.  In recognition, the King of Spain ordered that she be decorated with the Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic.  The ceremony took place in the Harriman mansion on June 25, 1930.  Mary was presented the decoration by Don Alejandro Padilla y Bell, the Spanish Ambassador to the United States.

A view from 69th Street towards Central Park shows both the carriage house (in the middle of the frame) and the mansion.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

On the night of November 7, 1932 the 81-year-old Mary Averill Harriman died in the New York Hospital after a brief illness.  Two years later in May 1934 a days-long auction was held of her furnishings, artworks, and silver.  Among the items sold were an early 18th century Aubusson tapestry, sets of George III and George IV silver flatware and a George II silver pierced cake basket.

The house as it appeared in 1932.  The mansion on the southwest corner have been demolished for an apartment building.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The chance of survival for the gargantuan mansion during the 1930's was slim at best.  Yet it survived until 1947 when it and the house next door were demolished to be replaced by Emery Roth's last work--880 Fifth Avenue--which survives.

photo via


  1. Great article. I appreciate that you included several pictures and some history of the neighboring house, 881 5th, as pictures of it are scarce. It was originally the Heber R. Bishop house, the stable for which you’ve featured.

  2. Don't know if this is true, but I've heard that Mary Harriman built the Bear Mountain bridge in 1924 because there was no way for an automobile to cross the Hudson except for an inconvenient ferry, and she wanted to make it easier for her friends from the city to visit her at Arden House.

  3. The Dows name ALWAYS has four letters. It's not Dow or Dow's. The proper possessive form is Dows'. I should know. My name is David Lawrence Dows, a distant relative also descended from Lawrence Dows who arrived in Boston in 1630.

    1. I'm sure you did not intend to sound condescending. Thank you so much for pointing out the several inexcusable typos. All seem to be corrected.

  4. He always sounds condescending. It is his nature. And to be correct, the name is actually Dowse. And he knows that.