Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Thomas D. Jordan House - 58 West 88th Street

The architects protected the areaway with large carved blocks.

The block of West 88th Street, between Ninth Avenue (later Columbus Avenue) and Central Park West was undergoing rapid-fire development in 1888.  Among the projects going up that year were five rowhouses for developers Ryan & Rawnsley, and 19 for James J. Spaulding.  Interestingly, both projects were designed by the architectural firm of Thom & Wilson.

For Spaulding's nearly block-wide row the architects mixed Renaissance Revival with Romanesque and Gothic Revival elements to create eclectic concoctions sure to appeal to Victorian taste.   Unlike some of its neighbors, No. 58 remained relatively true to its Renaissance roots.  

Rather than iron railings, the wide stoop was flanked by pierced wing walls which terminated in beefy stone newels carved with bow-tied garlands of fruits.  The basement level, normally-understated, was anything but.  Horseshoe arches capped the openings which were separated by short, fluted piers.  

The double-doored entrance sat within an elaborate framework of paneled Corinthian pilasters and a grand arched hood, the tympanum of which was decorated with a large leafy plant.  The floor-to-ceiling parlor windows sat within similarly carved arches.  They were separated by a fluted, engaged Corinthian column from which sprouted the angled bay of the second floor.  The openings of the third and fourth floors were separated by fluted pilasters and an unusual pressed metal cornice with parapet completed the design.  The overall appearance left no doubt as to the financial status of the potential buyer.

That buyer was Thomas Demilt Jordan and his wife, the former Mary Elizabeth McClenan.   Also in the house were their daughter Elizabeth, and Frank Bertram Jordan, Thomas's son from his previous marriage to Catherine Guish.

Jordan was involved in several insurance firms, but was best known as the controller of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States.  Son Frank worked for the firm as a broker before the turn of the century.

Both children would marry within a decade of moving into the 88th Street house.  Frank married Lillie Semmes Williams and the newlyweds settled into the Jordan house; and on June 4, 1899 Elizabeth was married to Edward D. O'Brien in the Church of the Blessed Sacrament on West 71st Street.  Elizabeth's wedding reception was held in the 88th Street house.

To the outside world nothing seemed awry within the Jordan household.  The couple maintained a summer home in Englewood, New Jersey and Mary was visible in Upper West Side society.  Her parlor was regularly the scene of teas and receptions.  On February 2, 1902, for instance, in its "Society Uptown" section the New York Herald reported "On Thursday last, Mrs. Thomas Demilt Jordan, of No. 58 West Eighty-eighth street, was assisted in receiving by Mrs. E[lizabeth] D. O'Brien and Mrs. F[rank] B. Jordan."

Thomas Demilt Jordan looked every inch the successful businessman.  New-York Tribune, May 29, 1907 (copyright expired)

But in 1904 an investigation into fraud among life insurance companies was launched by a joint committee of the State Senate and Assembly.  It would quickly shine an unwanted spotlight on Thomas Jordan.  

An audit of the Equitable Life Assurance Company's books revealed disturbing irregularities, and they all pointed back to Jordan.   In the fall of 1905 hearings were held in Albany.  And month before they began Jordan transferred title to the 88th Street house to William T. McClenan, a relative of Mary, and then promptly skipped town, taking his wife with him.  Frank and Lillie continued living in the house, which could no longer be seized by authorities.

Understandably, among the first witnesses called to the stand in Albany was Frank.  On November 18, 1905 The Standard reported: "At Friday morning's session, Frank B. Jordan, son of Thomas D. Jordan, ex-comptroller of the Equitable, was again examined as to the whereabouts of his father, but was unable to give any information."  He told the Armstrong Committee he "did not know whether his father was alive or dead."

The bad press surrounding her in-laws did not seem to affect Lillie's social standing.  On February 2, 1906 the New-York Tribune noted "Mrs. Frank Bertram Jordan has issued cards for a reception on Thursday, February 15, from 4 until 7 p. m. at her home, No. 58 West 88th-st."

Then, less than two weeks after Lillie's gathering, her in-laws were spotted in the South.  On February 27 The Evening World reported that Thomas and Mary were recognized at "one of the leading hotels in Hot Springs, Ark."  Thomas refused to speak to reporters, but Mary commented "I am sorry we have been found here.  It will cause too much needless publicity."

The State government no doubt disagreed that the publicity was needless.  Mary assured a reporter that they would be staying at the hotel for another week--and then that night the couple boarded a train for parts unknown.  But authorities were hot on their trail.  A month later the Jordans were discovered in Atlanta.

In May the following year a grand jury indicted Jordan on 18 charges of perjury and forgery in the third degree.  A California newspaper noted that while awaiting his trial "Jordan has been before the public eye very little.  He attended the meetings of the directors of the companies in which he was interested, but he always kept in the background."

In July 1908 he pleaded not guilty to the indictments.  The mental strain and public humiliation of the drawn-out process may have been too much for the 66-year old.  On the afternoon of July 14 he was with Frank downtown.  The two said their good-byes at the Wall Street subway station.  Frank had only walked a short distance before a messenger boy caught up with him.  His father was dead.

The San Francisco Call reported "Thomas D. Jordan...dropped dead of heart disease late this afternoon in the Wall street station of the subway...Scores of persons saw him fall, among them Dr. F. C. Wells, a friend."  Wells rushed to him but Jordan had died instantly.  The newspaper added "The son was overcome with grief."

The Equitable Life Assurance Company seems to have forgiven Jordan in death.  In reporting on his funeral in St. Agnes's Chapel on Columbus Avenue, the New-York Tribune noted "Two carriages loaded with floral tributes from officials and employes of the Equitable were sent to the chapel, and many officials of the company attended the services."

Following the expected period of mourning, the extended Jordan family resumed their places in society.  On July 29, 1909 The Evening Telegram reported that "Mr. and Mrs. Frank Bertram Jordan and family have closed their house, No. 58 West Eighty-sixth [sic] street, and gone to Stafford, N. H., where Mr. Jordan has taken former Commodore Sutton's villa for the summer."

Mary, too, appeared in society columns as she came and went.  On October , 1913 the New York Herald announced "Mrs. Thomas D. Jordan, of No. 58 West Eighty-eighth street, has returned from a trip through Canada.  She spent the early part of the summer in Europe."

The children of Frank and Lillie--Frank Bertram, Jr., Kathryn Semmes, Marie Driscoll, Thomas Demilt, and John Williams--were growing by now.  In December 1915 Mary hosted a debutante reception for Marie.

The outbreak of war in Europe quickly affected home life at No. 58.  On May 2, 1917 The Evening World reported on the newly-opened military balloon training camp on Staten Island.  "Twenty-five men are ready to begin training, fifteen of who have passed the physical tests for military aviation."  Among them was Thomas D. Jordan.

Brother Frank was close behind in enlisting.  On October 27 the Army & Navy Register noted that 1st Lt. Thomas D. Jordan had been assigned to the Aviation Section of the Signal Officers' Reserve Corps, and Capt. Frank B. Jordan to the 8th Infantry.

A year later, on November 24, 1918, the New-York Tribune ran the headline "Sister of Army Balloonist To Be Bride of Navy Man."  In reporting on Marie's engagement to Ensign Frederic V. Schaettler, the newspaper ignored Frank's service, saying only "She is a sister of Lieutenant Thomas D. Jordan, balloon service, U.S.A., who is in France."

The wedding would have to wait until after the war.  It took place in the St. Regis Hotel on January 24, 1920, performed by Monsignor Lavelle of St. Patrick's Cathedral.  Kathryn was her sister's only attendant.

Now approaching her own debut, Kathryn was well-known among the "younger set."  On June 25, 1921 the New York Herald reported "Miss Kathryn Jordan, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Bertram Jordan of 58 West Eighty-eighth street, is a guest of Miss Gloria Gould at the country home of Mr. and Mrs. George J. Gould in Lakewood."

She was introduced to society on Thanksgiving Day 1925 in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton.  Her aunt, Elizabeth Jordan O'Brien, assisted her in receiving.  It was a nearly all-day affair, starting with a large reception and dancing in the afternoon, followed by a dinner for the receiving party.  Then Lillie took select guests to the theater, after which "the party returned to the Ritz-Carlton to attend the dance of another debutante.

Now officially introduced, Kathryn (known popularly as Kay) slipped into the role of hostess.  On April 18, 1932 she gave a dinner in the 88th Street house "in honor of Dr. and Mrs. Beekman Delacour," according to The New York Sun.

The two remaining unmarried children, Kathryn and Thomas, stayed on in the house with their parents.  The New York Sun noted on October 25, 1932 that "Mr. and Mrs. Frank Bertram Jordan, accompanied by Miss Kay Jordan and Thomas Jordan, have returned to 58 West Eighty-eighth street from East Hampton."

After being in the house for half a century, the Jordans sold No. 58 in 1939.  Lillie and Frank moved to No. 1155 Park Avenue.  The 88th Street house was converted to a total of 15 furnished rooms.

In the 1977 a small company, Get Your Act Together, was formed in one of the apartments.  A division of film producers Berke-Wood, Inc., it advised performers on issues like "lighting, writing, choreography and staging."

And then a renovation, completed in 2006, brought the Jordan house back to a single-family home.  Although the house had already suffered a coat of paint over the masonry, the exterior is otherwise little changed.

photographs by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment