Monday, January 7, 2019

The Lost Charles Boyd Curtis House - 9 East 54th Street

A hansom driver sits in his high seat behind his cab in front of the Curtis mansion. The sumptuous residence to the right belonged to Dr. Robert F. Weir.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York    
In the years immediately following the end of the Civil War the family of John S. Meyer moved into the newly-completed brownstone house at No. 9 East 54th Street.  The block, between Fifth and Madison Avenues was lined with similar four-story residences by the mid-1870's.

On November 1, 1877 Andrew Ellicott Douglass purchased the house for $45,000.  The price tag, equal to more than $1 million today, reflected the upscale tenor of the block.

Born at West Point, New York on November 18, 1819, Douglass and his wife, the former Sarah Cortelyou Cornell, were married in 1847 and had one daughter, Isabel.  While he was a highly successful businessman--the president of the Hazard Powder Company--and held memberships in the Century Association and the Church Club, his true passion was American anthropology.  His academic interests were reflected in his memberships--the American Society of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Numismatic and Archaeological, the Linnaean, Ethnological and American Geological Societies, and the Anthropological Societies of Washington and Paris.

Douglass's purchased of the commodious house followed by one year Isabel's marriage to Charles Boyd Curtis.  The newlyweds and their two-month old son, Ellicott, moved in with the Douglasses.

The marriage was Curtis's second.  The new father, at 50 years old, was 21 years older than Isabel.  Born in 1827 he came from an early New England family and had served in the Civil War.  Although he was admitted to the bar in 1850, by now he had given up law and was listed as a commission merchant.

Like this father-in-law, his passion was not in his business.  His expertise in art was recognized internationally.  In 1880, for instance, The American Art Review noted that he was preparing a new book, the Catalogue Raissoné of the Works of Velasquez and Murillo.  "The plan on which the author proceeds is a novel one.  He begins by examining all the old Spanish authorities,--Pachero, Palomino, Paez, Cean Bermudex, Tubino, etc.  All the pictures mentioned by these writers are to be classified according to subjects, to be fully described, and to be traced down to their present owners, wherever that is possible."  The expensive and exhaustive work took another three years to complete.

Charles Boyd Curtis original source unknown, via
The Douglasses and Curtises not only shared the 54th Street townhouse, but a summer estate, Locust Wood, in Rye, New York.   The Curtis population gradually increased with the births of Charles Boyd, Isabel Woodbridge and Ronald Eliot Curtis.

For long stretches the families would see little of Andrew Douglass.  He had retired in 1876, the year of Isabel's wedding, and had thrown himself full-time into his study of anthropology.  The Wisconsin Archeologist later wrote "Since 1876, Mr. Douglass devoted much of his time to the study of the Indian artifacts of the United States.  He spent ten winters cruising along the Floridan Coast, locating over fifty Indian mounds, many of which he excavated."

When he was at home he, like his son-in-law, spent hours writing and his essays were widely published.  (Incidentally, Douglass should not be confused with the identically-named Andrew E. Douglass, born in 1867, who also left his name on archaeology.)

As the turn of the century approached, Fifth Avenue just steps away had seen the rise of palaces, most notably those of the Vanderbilt families.  The Douglass's brownstone was decidedly out of fashion, architecturally.  In May 1899 Douglass commissioned the architectural firm of York & Sawyer to give it a substantial make over.  Their plans, filed on June 2, called for a "new front, brick extension and interior alterations."  That hardly described the transformation.

York & Sawyer removed the stoop and pulled the facade nearly to the property line.  The rusticated stone base was fronted by a columned portico which upheld a balcony at the second floor, or piano nobile.  Three stories of Flemish-bond red brick were given understated Beaux Arts touches, like the effusive cartouches below the cornices of the second floor openings.  A full-width stone balcony introduced the steep copper-clad mansard level.

The interiors, of course, were also transformed.  The architects avoided fussy French decor, so popular at the time; but focused on English prototypes.  The families apparently whole-heartedly embraced the do-over, for period photographs show the rooms filled with new furniture.  Only a few antique pieces were kept.

The dining room (top) with its exquisite plaster ceiling and leaded windows, had both gas and electric lighting.  One of Curtis's large artworks hangs in the library.  Interestingly the graceful staircase seen through the doorway seems to be original and survived the extensive remodeling.  photos by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The renovations were completed by the end of 1900 and on December 20 the New-York Tribune noted "Mrs. Charles Boyd Curtis, of No. 9 East Fifty-fourth-st., has issued invitations for at homes on January 8 and 15."  ("At homes" were necessary to prevent confusion among socialites as to who was receiving and who was calling.)

The New York Times society column preferred to call the January 8 at home a "reception," and the following day said it "was practically a house warming, as it was the first entertainment given at their residence since its rebuilding."  Entertainments would temporarily end following the winter season that year.

Rather unexpectedly, there were no sliding doors between the major rooms like the music room (top) or parlor--just portieres.  photos by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On September 30 Andrew Ellicott Douglass died in the 54th Street house at the age of 82.  The Wisconsin Archaeologist lamented "Anthropological science has thus lost a sincere friend."  Earlier that year he had presented a collection of over 22,000 specimens to the American Museum of Natural History.  In writing his obituary, Harlan I. Smith wrote "Although suffering from an infirmity of old age, Mr. Douglass was enthusiastic and cheerful to the last.  He was a man of great patience, charitable to those who differed from him in opinion, and of a gentle and courteous nature."

On October 18, 1902 Isabella Curtis was married in Christ Church at Rye, New York.  The New York Times reported "The ceremony will be followed by a reception for relatives and intimate friends only, as both families are in mourning, at Locust Wood, the country home of the Curtises at Milton Point, near Rye."

Charles Boyd Curtis died "unexpectedly" in the 54th Street house late on the night of March 25, 1905.  The New York Times recalled his book on Valesquez and Murillo, saying it "is often referred to as an authority."  He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery where Isabel erected a 20-foot tall Celtic cross created by Tiffany Studios to mark his grave.

At the time of Curtis's death, William Rockefeller had been battling the incursion of commerce along the section of Fifth Avenue known as Millionaires' Row for several years.  His own house stood at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street.  In 1901 he purchased 5 East 54th Street and in 1904, when the St. Regis Hotel threatened to break through the block, he purchased Nos. 3 and 7.  Now, in 1906, he bought the Curtis house.  On September 29 the Real Estate Record & Guide commented "the purchase by Mr. Rockefeller effective shuts the St. Regis out of 54th st."

The Curtis family seems to have leased their home from Rockefeller.  Isabel and Elliott were both still listed at the address in 1908.  But following Sarah Douglass's death in 1910, they moved on, replaced in the mansion by Mrs. David Wagstaff.

Although Rockefeller stubbornly stayed on in his brownstone mansion, in 1914 he finally faced the cold facts.  On April 11 The Sun reported "William Rockefeller, who lives at the northeast corner of Fifth avenue and Fifty-fourth street has decided that trade has gained too much of a foothold in his section for him to prevent further expansion and yesterday leased the dwelling at 9 East Fifty-fourth street for business purposes.  Up until least year it was occupied as a dwelling."

William Rockefeller's house was on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
London art dealer E. M. Hodgkins signed a lease at $10,000 a year--more than a quarter of a million in today's dollars.  The Sun added "The house will not be altered, as it could not be improved on for the purpose it is to be put to.  Mrs. David Wagstaff lived in the dwelling up to last year."

The building saw a variety of tenants over the next decades.  Following Hodgkins, Charles & Heller, ladies' tailors was here until 1921, after which Adolphus Gayne, Baron de Meyer leased the property.  Despite his noble title, Gayne was best known as a celebrity and fashion photographer.  He took the portraits of divergent figures from actors John Barrymore and Lilian Gish to King George V.  In 1913 he was appointed as the first official fashion photographer for Vogue magazine.

New-York Tribune, June 4, 1922 (copyright expired)
The photographer's stay was short lived.  In 1922 the former house filled with a variety of tenants. Interior decorator Agnes Foster Wright took the top floor, while other spaces were leased to Madame E. Ritchie, "gowns," dressmaker Miriam Bouslogue, and Mabel A. Barnet.  The ground floor was taken by K. and W. Hat and Cap.

The following year the Rockefeller estate sold No. 9 to the Mandel-Ehrich Corporation, which simultaneously purchased Nos. 3, 5 and 7 and 12 East 55th Street.  The former mansion was leased in November 1923 to Emile Villemin for use by the Librarie des Annals.

Along with the Library, the property now housed other organizations, like the Alliance Francaise and the Overseas Service League where Brigadier-General Lord Thompson spoke about World War I on March 7, 1925.  In 1927 the Overseas Service League lobbied theater managers to provide entertainment for disabled World War I veterans.  Its efforts resulted in blocks of ten seats being set aside in certain theaters, like the Roxy, for soldiers wounded in battle.

By the outbreak of World War II, the street level of No. 9 had been converted to a storefront, home to society clothier Boué Soeurs de Paris.   On April 18 it was the scene of a fashion show and entertainment to benefit the Red Cross War Fund of Greater New York.  It included an auction of autographed books by noted French and American authors.

When Wurts Bros. took this shot on a much-changed East 54th Street, Soeurs announced its name in letters applied to the second floor facade and on the awning.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The annual fashion shows of  Boué Soeurs were anticipated events among female members of society.  On March 16, 1950 The Times remarked "Femininity personified is the keynote of the spring and summer collection of Boue Soeurs 9 East Fifty-fourth Street."

But the days of fashion shows were coming to an end.  On December 7, 1950 The New York Times reported "Plans for the erection of a fourteen-story business building on Fifty-fourth Street, near Fifth Avenue, were announced yesterday."   The last of the Boué Soeurs shows was held in its salon on October 4, 1951.  A replacement building, engulfing Nos. 3 through 9, built by the Knickerbocker Construction Corporation, was completed in 1955.


  1. I'm always curious how you come up with the current value of these properties. This one says it was sold for $45,000. in 1877, which is more than $1 million today. But I can't imagine a property like this selling for less than several million dollars today. Please enlighten me. Thank you.

    1. There are many conversion tables available on line, easily accessible.

    2. I guess they would be easily accessible if I knew where to start. Just accounting for inflation does not seem to give accurate results.

    3. Far more than just inflation is involved in home or real estate values.

  2. I believe some of the interior photographs were taken at different times. In the first photo of the library (with the large painting) there is an arm chair with a large pillow on it next to the entrance. In the second photo of the library (with the piano) it is now a side chair with no pillow. Still on the library photo with the piano you can see on the far wall of the landing a painting with a lamp underneath it. In the photo of the landing, the painting is still there but lamp has been replaced with a side chair and a small display case. The wallpaper and rugs stayed the same. I wonder why at least two photo sessions when so little changed?

  3. I wondered if there was some obscure connection between the next door neighbors in your first pic when I read that Andrew Ellicott Douglass was born at West Point. Turns out his father was a professor there and he grew up at the academy. The neigboring name of Dr. Robert F. Weir sounded familiar too, as there was an art professor at West Point named Robert Weir. Although I didn't find a direct connection between Dr Robert F Weir and Professor Robert Weir, Dr Weir's portrait was painted by J. Alden Weir, a son of Professor Robert Weir who also grew up at West Point. I bet there's some other connection going on there. New York was a small(er) place back then.

    1. West Point is an important connect point for the Douglass family. A E Dougalss' Mother was Sarah Ellicott whose father was the famous surveyor, Andrew Ellicott and professor of mathematics and surveying at West Point. His parents met after David B Douglass was assigned to West Point as part of his military duties. He too was a surveyor and expedition member of the Cass Expedition to the NW territories. D.B. Douglass and Andrew Ellicott had a lot in common and the joining of their families was definitely one of geography as well as affinity.