|photograph by the author|
Developer Robert H. Coburn's string of five four-story brownstone homes on East 74th Street near Central Park were completed around 1869. No. 15 became home to General James Grant Wilson and his new wife, the former Jane Emily Searle Cogswell. The newlyweds had married on November 3, 1869.
Wilson's rank was conferred on him after the war. Having served as a colonel, he was appointed a brevet brigadier general in 1867. But his national prominence came not from his military service, but his literary work. He had founded the Chicago Record in 1857, the first literary journal in the Midwest. Now, in New York, he focused on writing and speaking. In 1868 he had edited Fitz-Greene Halleck's Poems and in 1869 completed his own biography.
Wilson was highly involved in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society and the Society of American Authors. He would eventually become president of both organizations. Those associations created close friendships with eminent literary figures; and the 20-foot wide Wilson house would see distinguished guests.
James Grant Wilson was among the dignitaries in Central Park for the unveiling of the bust of Giuseppe Mazzini on Wednesday morning, May 29, 1878. He had brought along his six-year-old daughter, Mary Margaret. The day was insufferably hot and he and close friend William Cullen Bryant found shade under a group of trees before the ceremonies. A friend remarked later that Wilson, concerned that his friend seemed affected by the heat, held an umbrella over Bryant's head.
While Bryant, the preeminent American poet at the time, gave his speech he appeared weak. When the ceremonies were finally completed around 4:00, Wilson insisted that Bryant accompany him and Jane to the 74th Street house for refreshments and rest.
Once there, Wilson headed up the stoop to open the door. A few steps behind him Bryant suddenly collapsed, hitting his head on the stone stoop. A passerby rushed to help while servants came out of the house to bring the poet inside. There Emily applied ice water to his brow and offered him a glass of iced sherry. According to biographer Gilbert H. Muller in his William Cullen Bryant: Author of America, Bryant "then groaned, 'My head! My poor head! I don't feel well.' Resisting entreaties from Wilson and his wife to rest in an upstairs bedroom, Bryant insisted on being taken home."
Wilson accompanied Bryant to his West 16th Street house. The poet and journalist never recovered. He died on June 12.
The Wilsons spent part of the summer of 1883 in Europe, returning in November. After dinner on November 28 Wilson went into the parlor to read and Mary Margaret, now 12, headed upstairs to her third floor bedroom. On the second floor she happened to noticed that her mother's bedroom door was open.
The New York Times reported "this being unusual she went in and saw that the drawers of a bureau were open and that empty jewel cases, some of which had been broken, littered the floor and the dressing-table. She ran down the stairs, crying out 'Papa! papa! there are thieves in the house.'"
Mary Margaret was right. Had she continued to her own bedroom she would have run into the crook face-to-face. As it was, her cries alarmed him and he bolted down the stairs almost directly behind the girl. Just as Wilson reached the parlor door, the burglar appeared at the head of the staircase. "He had a pistol in his hand and, seeing Gen. Wilson, he leveled it at him and as he ran swiftly down the stairs kept his eye on him and faced him while he undid the fastenings of the front doors."
Unarmed and with a firearm pointed at him, Wilson could do nothing. The crook opened the door and rushed down the stoop. Wilson followed in time to see the man and a look-out disappeared onto Fifth Avenue.
Police surmised that the brazen burglar had shimmed up a column of the entrance to gain entrance to Jane's second floor bedroom. He had managed to make off with about $1,000 in diamonds, watches and other jewelry from her room, and $300 in"necklaces, breast-pins, a watch, and bracelets," from Mary Margaret's. The girl's cries prevented him from taking some of her father's expensive clothing. "The thief had prepared the General's best overcoat and some clothing for removal," said The Times.
|General James Grant Wilson - from the collection of the Library of Congress|
In 1887 Wilson invited another famous writer to be a house guest. On April 8 he sent a letter to Walt Whitman which said in part:
My dear Mr. Whitman:
Am glad to see by a morning journal that you are well enough to undertake a visit to New York, and the delivery of your address on Lincoln. If you have no better place to go, I shall be happy to give you shelter under my roof No. 15 East Seventy-fourth St, where I think you spent an hour some years ago.
After closing the letter, Wilson added a post script: "I can offer you a large chamber on the second floor, with a bathroom connected with it, for your exclusive use."
On May 12, 1894 Wilson officiated at the unveiling of Jeronimo Suñol's bronze statue of Christopher Columbus in Central Park. Before the ceremony he and Jane gave a breakfast to an esteemed group, including Vice-President Adlai Stevenson and his wife, the Italian Ambassador and his wife, Baroness de Fava, and the Spanish Minister.
In 1896 Wilson and Mary Margaret now 25-years-old, had a disagreement. The reason behind the father-daughter fight was rumored to be that Wilson refused to allow her to marry the man she loved. Whatever the cause, it was significant enough that Mary Margaret moved out of the East 74th Street house--a startling and potentially scandalous decision for an unmarried woman in the 1890's.
Jane Wilson died in 1904. Wilson stayed on in the 74th Street house, spending summers alone at his country place. On March 31, 1905 he anticipated the summer season, advertising for "A single, Protestant, family gardener, understanding thoroughly vegetables, early and late, under glass and hardy frames." The residence had at least one cow in the barn, the job description ending "must milk."
In 1907 Wilson married Mary H. Nicholson, the widow of his long-time friend, Admiral J. W. A. Nicholson. If there were ever a hope that he and his daughter would reconcile, his marriage extinguished that. Mary Margaret was incensed.
Four years later the 40-year-old spinster became engaged to the wealthy, 60-year-old retired Cleveland businessman Franklin Sylvester Henry. Wilson was unmoved.
The Iowa newspaper The Daily Gate quoted him on June 20 saying "I do not know the man my daughter will marry. I shall not attend the ceremony. I have not been invited. I will neither deny nor affirm that the original estrangement was the result of my refusal of permission for her to marry the man of her choice."
On February 22, 1913 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Wilsons had sold No. 15 to "a buyer for occupancy." That buyer was attorney Wolcott Griswold Lane, and his wife Edith.
The Lanes continued to live at No. 353 West 84th Street while they made significant changes to the outdated brownstone. The architectural firm of Hewitt & Bottomley was commissioned to remodel it into a modern, five-story residence.
|Prior to the renovations No. 15 was identical to the houses on either side in this photograph. The Architectural Record 1916 (copyright expired)|
Faced in limestone the neo-Italian Renaissance home featured a tw0-story rusticated base where the centered entrance sat below a shelf-like lintel supported by exaggerated brackets. Between the second and third floors an elaborate carved cartouche was draped in a sumptuous fruit-and-flower garland. A charming Juliette balcony sprouted from the fifth floor below a stone cornice.
|While the bronze entrance doors survive, the unusual areaway fencing is gone. The Architectural Record 1916 (copyright expired)|
Six years after its completion, the Lanes sold the house. On May 24, 1919 the Record & Guide reported that it was purchased by "Mrs. J. Pierson [sic] for occupancy."
Mrs. Pearson was the widow of millionaire Frank Pearson. She lived at No. 3 West 57th Street and the lavish home was not intended for her own use. It was to be a wedding present.
Two weeks later, on June 8, The Sun reported "There is to be at least one wedding in Newport during August, that of Miss Lesley Fredericka Pearson, second daughter of Mrs. Frederick Pearson...to Henry B. H. Ripley, eldest son of the late Sidney Dillon Ripley." The article noted "The wedding will take place in Trinity Church and will be followed by a reception at Anglesea, Mrs. Pearson's village at Ochre Point where she and her daughter have gone for the summer."
The marriage of two prominent names in Manhattan and Newport society was a noteworthy affair. A month later the social columns of all the newspapers reported on the couple's return to Manhattan. The Sun noted on October 5, 1919 "Mr. and Mrs. Henry B. H. Ripley, who were married in Newport on August 30, have returned from their wedding trip and will be for a while at the St. Regis. One of Mrs. Ripley's wedding gifts from her mother was a house in New York." The newlyweds remained at the hotel "until their new home at 15 East Seventy-fourth street is ready."
|Despite the Italian design of the exterior, the drawing room (above) and dining room were decidedly Colonial. The Architectural Record 1916 (copyright expired)|
The Ripleys enjoyed the lives of the young and rich, their names appearing in newspapers less often for business dealings or charity events as for their movements among society. On July 4, 1920, for instance, The New York Herald reported "Mrs. Henry B. H. Ripley arrived [at Newport] on Wednesday to pass a part of the summer with her mother, Mrs. Frederick Pearson, at Ochre point. Mrs. Pearson gave a luncheon on Wednesday."
|The wood-paneled library was surprisingly cozy. The Architectural Record 1916 (copyright expired)|
A partner in the stock brokerage firm of Lee, Higginson & Co., Durant was a powerful figure downtown. On May 2, 1929 The New York Times reported he had been elected "a director of the Swedish investment firm of Kreuger & Toll." It was an important position, as the newspaper explained. "This firm holds the controlling interest in the Swedish Match Company, which in turn controls as its American subsidiary the International Match Corporation."
That association led in 1931 to Lee, Higginson & Co.'s underwriting for Ivar Kreuger of $50,000 in German bonds held by the International Match Company in the United States. But other brokerage houses became suspicious of Kreuger's integrity, most notably A. D. Birning of Ernst & Ernst.
When Birning asked about the whereabouts of the bonds, Kreuger told him they "had been transferred from the asset of the International Match Company to another of the Kreuger concerns abroad," reported The Times. But as Birning pressured him for clarification, he was less than satisfied. Birning later described Krueger's responses as "those of a sick man or a man not in his right mind, and concerned me a great deal."
In March 1932 a concerned Donald Durant accompanied Kreuger to Europe in an attempt to straighten things out. The Times later reported "When Ivar Kreuger went to Europe in the first days of March, death was walking on his heels in the person of an American accountant who guessed that all was not well with the huge financial structure which Kreuger had erected on a shifty foundation of inflation and forgery."
Once he and Durant arrived in Berlin, Kreuger was trapped. There was no way he could explain away the missing $50,000 in bonds. A few days later, in Paris, he shot himself.
In June 1934 Durant sold No. 15 to Marie de Neufville Iselin, the widow of financier Lewis Iselin who died in April 1928. Marie's three children, Marie, Columbus O'Donnel, and Lewis, Jr. were all grown by now.
The house remained a single-family residence until 1949 when a doctor's office and apartment were installed in the basement, the first and second floors were converted to a duplex apartment, and one apartment on the third floor. The fourth floor contained an apartment plus one "maid's room."
In 1974 it was reconverted, essentially, to a single family house. There remains one apartment in the basement.