|When George F. Arata took this photo on May 26, 1912, Serena Rhinelander was living here alone with her staff of servants. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
In the 1796 John Rogers purchased four acres of the former Warren estate north of the city, just east of Greenwich Village. His vision of the area's potential had been extremely far-sighted. At the southern hem of the property were an execution site where criminals were hanged and a burying ground for crooks and paupers. Upon his death the land was divided among his three children, George, John Jr., and Mary.
In 1826 the City transformed the potter's field into a parade ground named in honor of George Washington and two years later bachelor George P. Rogers began construction of his summer house facing the square. It would be the first in what would become a fashionable enclave of Greek Revival style mansions girding the park.
George's sister, Mary, was married to William Christopher Rhinelander on October 4, 1816. The couple moved into a substantial home at No. 477 Broadway, near Broome street. But, as The Sun explained decades later, "That neighborhood, which was then a residential one, was soon afterward invaded by business."
The Rhinelander family were congregants of the Church of the Ascension on Canal Street. When it burned in 1839 William provided the bulk of the funds to rebuilt far north, on the still unpaved Fifth Avenue at 10th Street. Architect Richard Upjohn, who had only recently arrived in New York, was its designer.
Simultaneously, Rhinelander hired him to design a fine brick and marble house on Mary's inherited property at the western corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Square North. Completed in 1840, it was four bays wide along Washington Square North, and rose three full floors above the basement level to a short attic level. A wide marble stoop led to the columned portico and a cast iron balcony fronted the parlor windows.
The Rhinelander family was one of the oldest and wealthiest in New York. William's father, also named William, had purchased the family's "summer seat" on the Upper East Side in 1798. The Washington Square house became a repository of valuable family art and artifacts. The Sun later noted "Long before 1816 had been commenced the collection of family plate, the gathering of portraits, the preservation of rare furniture and exquisite belongings which naturally accumulate generation by generation. And with these came established social position."
The couple had six children, four of whom survived childhood--Mary, Julia, Serena and William. Mary's stay in at No. 14 Washington Square would be relatively short. She married Lispenard Stewart on December 22, 1847. And after William, Jr. married Matilda Cruger Oakley on June 1, 1853, only Serena and Julia were left at home with their parents.
When William, Jr. and Matilda named their third son William Copeland Rhinelander, it greatly pleased the infant's grandfather. (Even though the middle names were different, they were nonetheless both William C. Rhinelander.) Reportedly, the boy became his grandfather's favorite and, according to The Sun, the millionaire "intended to leave his namesake, this William C. Rhinelander, the bulk of his fortune."
The Rhinelanders' religious convictions were deep enough to affect their choice of servants. On July 14, 1857 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald: "A Protestant Waitress wanted immediately; one willing to assist in chamberwork." (It was an unusual job description, not because of the religious bias, but because "waitresses," who did the serving, were considered a step above the maids who cleaned. Few were asked to do work "below their station.")
One female servant was the source of significant family upheaval in 1876. Margueretta McGuinness did not work in the Washington Square mansion, but around the corner on Fifth Avenue for William, Jr. and Matilda. Their 21-year old son, William, did the unthinkable when he eloped with her. So egregious was his social transgression that his name was later obliterated from the family genealogy. Enraged, the young man's grandfather disinherited him.
Mary Rogers Rhinelander had died on November 13 1859 and William C. Rhinelander died in the Washington Square mansion on June 20, 1878. His funeral was held in the Church of the Ascension three days later.
On June 25, 1878 the details of the estate were made public. The New York Herald said Rhinelander was "one of the seven largest real estate owners in the city, and left an estate valued at about $50,000,000." The staggering sum would top $1.25 billion today.
After bequests to charitable institutions, the estate was divided among the children. The will directed that Julia and Serena could use the Washington Square house for two years, and then "be sold and the proceeds divided among the children." There was no mention of the wayward William.
The spinster daughters continued living on in the mansion, surrounded by a substantial staff of servants. They apparently purchased the property to satisfy the terms of the will.
The women turned their focuses to philanthropies, and in 1885 they funded a massive redecoration of the chancel area of the Church of the Ascension as a memorial to their parents.
|The nearly identical house next door was constructed simultaneously, also designed by Upjohn. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The article commented on her personal life, saying "It is thought she will never marry, she so entirely refuses to listen to the almost endless offers of the male sex to undertake the care of her money."
Julia was overseas when she died on October 11, 1890. Her sister now lived on in No. 14, continuing to generously donate to worthy causes.
Perhaps her most notable gift came in 1897 when she donated the St. Christopher Mission House, costing $300,000, as well as ten lots on East 83rd Street near First Avenue to Jame's Protestant Episcopal Church. The land was part of her grandfather's summer estate and Serena would eventually be responsible for a chapel, parish house and clergy house as well. The New York Times called it "another magnificent donation."
The Church of the Ascension continued to benefit from her membership and patronage. She paid for its new organ and "subscribed liberally to the endowment fund" of the church, according to The Sun later.
Like her sister, Serena managed her own business and financial affairs. The Salt Lake Herald wrote on February 12, 1899, "Miss Serena Rhinelander has one of the oldest and biggest New York estates on her hands, and she keeps the management of it mainly in her own hands. She owns scores of tenement and apartment houses, knows their exact condition and the rental they should yield, and she has perfected herself in domestic architecture to be able to examine and criticise intelligently all building and improvement plans for her property."
Serena and her Washington Square neighbors had resisted the trend to move northward along Fifth Avenue. In doing so they preserved the aristocratic nature of the square; and that was clearly in evidence in 1900 when Serena temporarily got a new next-door neighbor.
On September 12, 1899 the head of the Vanderbilt family, Cornelius, died suddenly in his gargantuan Fifth Avenue mansion. He, like William C. Rhinelander, had vociferously opposed a marriage within the family. His namesake son, known familiarly as Nelly, received $500,000 from his $70 million estate; the bulk going to his other son, Alfred.
On November 18, 1900 the New-York Tribune reported "Among the important leases reported last week was that of No. 15 Washington Square North by Cornelius Vanderbilt."
Serena's life was not one of an eccentric hermit. She routinely hosted the family Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners and traveled every year to upscale resorts. On June 17, 1902, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "Miss Serena Rhinelander has closed her house, in Washington Square North, and has left town for Narragansett Pier, where she has a cottage for the summer."
And she kept up with fashion. Having returned from Narragansett she prepared for the winter season with new clothes; a few of which she would never receive. She purchased a fur boa, a muff and two hats at the women's furnishings store of Miss Sweeney at No. 15 West 35th Street on December 9. Ladies did not tote packages and Serena headed home to await the arrival of the delivery boy.
The fur items, worth about $3,230 today, were bundled up and entrusted to 14-year-old Charles Burgman. When he got to the corner of Fifth Avenue, he was approached by "a well dressed man with a small black mustache, who offered him a quarter to take a message to Thirty-seventh-st. and Fifth-ave.," according to the New-York Tribune.
The man said to go into the tailor shop and ask for the owner. "Tell him that his lawyer, Mr. Stamford, is waiting for him here." For his trouble, the stranger offered to hold Charles's bundles until he returned. "But he was not there when the boy came back and detectives are trying to find him," said the article.
|The Rhinelander mansion anchored the western row. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Serena's brother died on January 3, 1908. His obituary ignored the fact that his son, William, had ever existed. "He leaves a wife...and two sons, T. J. Oakley and Philip Rhinelander." The notice mentioned "A sister, Miss Serena Rhinelander, still lives in their father's old house, No. 14 Washington Square."
(The disgraced son did receive something, however. The New-York Tribune reported "Even to the time of his death, the father never became reconciled to his son, but he did add a codicil to his will, directing the executors to pay him $5,000 a year, on condition that the son remain out of New York.")
At the age of 85, Serena Rhinelander died in her venerable home on June 11, 1914. Her will left $50,000 each to the Church of the Ascension and St. James's Church, the same amount to the Children's Aid Society, and $10,000 to the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. She provided bequests for each of her 17 household servants as well. The New-York Tribune noted "T. Oakley Rhinelander, one of her nephews, is to have use of the family house for life."
Newspapers made special note that "the much disinherited" William had been left out of the will. The newspaper wrote on June 27, 1914 "For the third time in six years, and for the fourth time in his life, William Copeland Rhinelander, son of the late William Rhinelander and the late Mrs. Matilda Cruger Oakley Rhinelander, has been disinherited."
Following her funeral, Serena Rhinelander's casket was placed in the family vault in St. Paul's churchyard. The Evening World noted "It was said there had not been a burial in St. Paul's churchyard for almost a year."
T. Oakley Rhinelander leased the family home to the colorful Mrs. Philp M. Lydig. Born Rita Hernandez de Alba de Acostea, she had become the first wife of millionaire William Earl Dodge Stokes on January 3, 1895 at the age of 19. The marriage ended in divorce in 1900 with Rita receiving a settlement of $2 million. In 1902 she was married to Army captain Philip M. Lydig. That too, was an unsuccessful marriage.
The couple had separated the same year that Serena Rhinelander died. Known in society by her married name, Rita was reportedly referred to as "the most picturesque woman in America." Her striking good looks and fashion sense led to her being a favorite subject of painters, sculptors and photographers--including Edward Steichen, Malvina Hoffman and John Singer Sargent.
|Rita was painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1910. image by Rauantiques|
On June 18, 1919 The New York Times reported that Rita "will be a passenger on the french liner Espagne, which sales on Saturday for France. While in Paris, Mrs. Lydig will sign her final decree of divorce from Major Philip M. Lydig."
Three years later the end of the road as private residences came for the former Rhinelander mansion and the butting Nos. 15 and 16. On June 18, 1922 The New York Herald reported "Fears that the post Colonial appearance of the north side of Washington square would begin to disappear with the start of the building operation underway at the west corner of Fifth avenue can be laid at rest, at least for an indefinite period."
Architects Maynicke & Franke had been hired to renovate the three mansions into a modern apartment house. The Herald explained "The fronts...have been removed and in their places white marble and brick facades will be erected." One of the original Georgian Revival porticoes was salvaged and used as the entrance. Maynicke & Franke attempted to preserve the tenor of the Square by recalling Greek Revival elements, reproducing the cast iron balconies, for instance. The apartment building was named Rhinelander Houses.
|Maynicke & Franke released this rendering in 1922, The New York Herald, June 18 (copyright expired)|