Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Leonard Mortimer Thorn House - 23 West 16th Street

Augustus Thomas Cowman was born around 1814, the son of Captain John Cowman, who sailed ships in the employ of John Jacob Astor (going twice to China).  On Monday, September 30, 1833 The Evening Post reported that Augustus T. Cowman had married Ann B. Gillender, the daughter of another sailing captain, James Gillender.  Just over a century later, in 1938, the Year Book of the Dutchess County Historical Society said of Cowman, "He had saved his money and invested it in New York real estate and had become wealthy."

It was in actuality his father who had invested so heavily in Manhattan real estate, quite possibly with the tutelage of his boss, Astor.   The Tribune listed the extensive property left to Augustus in his father's will in 1842.  It including 19 building lots on the former John Hone land, between 14th and 15th Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues; 14 lots on West 16th Street; nine on Fifth Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets; the large lot of land "known on the map of Cowman's Union Place" between Fifth Avenue and Broadway on 17th Street, and more.

At the time Augustus T. Cowman inherited the properties they were becoming increasingly valuable.  The exclusive residential enclave encircling Union Place (later Union Square) had been begun in 1832.  Little by little the adjacent blocks would see the rise of upscale, brick or brownstone-fronted homes.

The same year that the New-York Tribune inventoried Cowman's properties, he inherited a 60-acre estate in Dutchess County along with its 18th century "cottage" from the estate of Magdelena Hosack.   He and his family were living there by the end of that year.  

Among his varied vocations Cowman was a contractor (he was the owner of the building firm A. T. Cowman & Co.), a publisher (in November 1845 he founded The American, a newspaper which was later renamed The Poughkeepsie American) and an architect.  The New York State Guide listed the 1844 St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park as being "designed by the amateur, Augustus Thomas Cowman."

And so it is almost without question that it was Cowman who designed and built the handsome Greek Revival house at No. 23 West 16th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, around 1845.  Tax records show the house completed that year and owned by him. 

The three-story residence held its own among the elegant homes that were filling the block.  Three bays wide and clad in warm red-orange brick, it exhibited the architectural details expected in an upscale home.  The wide brownstone stoop was flanked by exquisite iron railings, the design of which carried over to the cast iron balcony fronting the parlor windows.  

The pattern of the ironwork at the top step is echoed in the balcony.

The earred stone enframement of the entrance was a popular design in domestic Greek Revival architecture; although its origins were, in fact, Egyptian.   The single door was flanked by paneled Corinthian pilasters and three-paned sidelights.  They and the ample transom allowed sunlight into the entrance hall.  The Greek Revival style had done away with the peaked roofs and dormers of the Federal style.  To provide light and air into the squat attic level, Cowman punched inconspicuous windows into the fascia board.

As early as 1848 the family of Walter Jagger lived at No. 23.  The principal in the brokerage firm of Walter Jagger & Co. at No. 66 Wall Street, he and his wife were listed here through 1849.  When the House of Industry and Home for the Friendless solicited donations in 1848, Mrs. Jagger provided "a bundle of clothing," according to the Advocate of Moral Reform and Family Guardian.

Dr. Alexander Brown Mott was one of four sons born to the world renowned surgeon Dr. Valentine Mott and his wife, the former Louisa Dunmore.  In 1851 he married Arabella Upson Phelps, daughter of wealthy merchant Thaddeus Phelps who had died in 1847.  Listed in city directories as living with the newlyweds at No. 23 West 16th Street that year was Arabella's mother, Dorinthia.  

The family had scarcely settled in before the house was broken into.  On October 11, 1851 The Evening Post reported on the arrest of "five notorious burglars, named James Clark, Charles Southwick, William Garbet, Frank Frees, and Robert Turley."  The article said "Sometime in September, it appears, they entered the dwelling of Mr. Alexander B. Mott, No. 23 West Sixteenth street, and stole therefrom jewelry, plate and clothing valued at about $600."  (It was a significant haul worth more than $20,000 today.)

The New-York Daily Tribune narrowed the dates to "between the 15th and 20th of September" and explained "The family of Mr. Mott were absent from the City at the time, and the burglars effected an easy entrance into the building by forcing open the shutters of a rear-basement window."  Mott identified some of the stolen property which the thieves had not disposed yet of.

In February 1858 Dr. Mott was scheduled to testify in the trial of another burglar, one named Beglin.  The youth had attempted to break into a store on Avenue A, but was discovered and shot.  He nevertheless escaped, but later Dr. Mott was called to attend to his wound.  It was Mott's reporting the suspicious injury to police that resulted in Belgin's arrest.

But a gang of Belgin's cohorts, including George Abrahams, alias Cobb Gunnion, set out to prevent Mott's appearance in the courtroom.  As the doctor left Bellevue Hospital late one night he was brutally attacked.  

Abrahams, who was just 20-years-old, was arrested a few weeks later for picking the pocket of Samuel Parker at the corner of Broadway and Bond Street, removing his gold watch and chain.  On February 23 The New York Times remarked "The present charge, however, is one of trifling character, compared with the more serious accusations which have been brought against the prisoner since his arrest.  The gravest of these is that he was one of the persons who attempted, a few weeks since, to take the life of Dr. Alexander B. Mott while passing through Tenth-street, near First-avenue, at a late hour at night."

The Mott family left West 16th Street before 1861.  That year an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald, offering "Rooms to Let--Furnished or Unfurnished, with Board, for families or single gentlemen."

Among those renting rooms in 1864 was single father Thomas James and his six-and-a-half-year-old son, Thomas Owen.  James had lost his young wife, Anna, two years earlier, on July 27, 1862.  Now, tragically, little Thomas Owen James died on June 9, 1864.  His funeral was held in the house.

Sometime around the late 1870's Leonard Mortimer Thorn purchased the house.  Born in 1816, he had spent many years in Texas and, according to The New York Times, "acquired a thorough knowledge of Indian life and customs, being at one time proficient in thirteen Indian tongues."  He married the former Augusta Amelia Raguet (whom that newspaper noted "came from an old French St. Louis family") in 1858.  The couple had four children, Leonard, Jr., Conde Raguet, Marcia Raguet, and Emily Augusta.

Some socialites subscribed to the incredibly detailed THE SEASON--An Annual Record of New York & Brooklyn Society.  The publication, hundreds of pages long and hard bound, listed every significant social event.  In the 1882-1883 volume it mentioned Augusta and Marcia (referred to only as "Miss Thorn") as entertaining.  It noted that on December 12, for instance, "Mrs. Mortimer L. Thorne and Miss Thorn gave a reception."  Perhaps Augusta forgave the publishers for placing the "L." in the wrong position.

The door of No. 23 would have been hung with black crepe following Marcia's death on August 30, 1884.  Friends and family members gathered for her funeral in the drawing room on September 3.

The Thorn drawing room as photographed in the late 1890's.  The floral pattern carpeting, the Aesthetic Movement-inspired draperies of Asian fowl and flowering branches, the paintings crammed frame-to-frame, and the overflow of bric-a-brac is dizzying to the modern eye.  photographer unknown, image via 

Thorn's substantial fortune came in part from his real estate dealings; but more significantly from his partnership in the cotton goods firm of Garner & Co.  In 1892 American Millionaires said he "made a million by the discovery of a fast dye for calico."  The family did not own a summer estate, but traveled to the fashionable watering holes, and trade journals like the Real Estate Record & Guide followed their movements.  On July 30, 1887, for instance, it noted that "L. Mortimer Thorn is sojourning at Narragansett Pier, R. I."

Augusta Amelia Raguet Thorn - original source unknown

In November 1887 Mrs. A. E. Tucker gave "a large theatre party to the Madison Square Theatre in honor of Miss Lillian Gwynn," as reported in The Evening World.  Known familiarly as Lily, she was born in the South, the daughter of Nicholas Gwynn, a prominent member of the Cotton Exchange.  The Morning Telegraph described her as "petite, blonde and possesses considerable beauty and other personal attractions."  

L. Mortimer Thorn, Jr. and Emily were among the guests that night.  Lily's beauty and "other personal attractions" had not been lost on him and he had earlier proposed marriage.  But from the very beginning the prospective bride does not seem to have been overly-excited with the prospects of matrimony.

A few weeks before the party, on October 28, The Evening World reported "No date or even year has been fixed for the marriage of Mr. L. Mortimer Thorn, jr., and Miss Lillian Miss Gwynn, who has been out only for a few months, wishes to enjoy society as a young lady for a year or two previous to her marriage."  It was, perhaps, an omen of things to come.

The wedding took place in the Gwynn family home at No. 40 West 58th Street on June 2, 1888.  The New York Times noted "The parlors were tastefully decorated with flowers, and the floral bell beneath which the ceremony was performed bore on a ground of ivy leaves the initials of the bride and groom in lilies of the valley."  The article mentioned as well, "Among the many handsome presents was a curiously-wrought dressing case which was once the property of the Empress Josephine."

Conde was close behind his brother on the path to matrimony.  On February 18, 1889 The Evening Telegram reported that "Mrs. L. Mortimer Thorne [sic], No. 23 West Sixteenth street, gave a dinner on Saturday night in honor of the engagement of her son, Mr. Conde Thorne [sic], to Miss Louise Floyd-Jones."  The article remarked passingly, "The table decorations were pink."

Augusta continued to appear in society columns for her entertainments, now with a new "Miss Thorn," Emily, after her introduction to society.  On January 3, 1892 The Press notified readers that "Mrs. Mortimer L. Thorn [sic] and Miss Thorn are at home on Mondays."  (Reporting "at homes" ensured that socialites who went calling did not appear on the doorstep of someone who was also out calling.)

Although society journalists routinely had trouble putting her husband's initial L in the right place, Augusta's elevated social status was reflected in The Evening Telegram's mention on January 9, 1893 that "Among the notable society incidents of this date are Mrs. William Rockfeller's luncheon party [and] the reception of Mrs. Mortimer L. Thorn [sic] of No. 23 West Sixteenth street."  Just over a week later the newspaper announced "Mrs. M. L. Thorne [sic] of No. 23 West Sixteenth street, will give a large reception from four to seven o'clock this afternoon.  Pinard will serve."  (That J. B. Pinard & Sons catered the event was noteworthy.  It was the most fashionable of the society caterers not connected with a restaurant, as were Delmonico's and Sherry's.)

Leonard, Augusta and Emily continued to summer at a variety of resorts.  In the summer of 1894 they not only spent time at Normandie-by-the-Sea, but at Richfield Springs, New York.

That year was a tragic one for L. Mortimer, Jr. and his wife.  Their five-year old daughter, Marcia Raguet, died at Highland Beach, New Jersey in November.   Relations between the pair were troubled, and this sad occurrence may have worsened it.

On February 5, 1899 The New York Times noted "Their married life has not been especially happy, and they are now living apart.  Mrs. Thorn is staying at present at the Maison Felix, 2 West Twenty-fifth Street."   The article reported that Lillian had taken a bold and shocking step, one which most likely infuriated the Thorn family.

It began "It was learned yesterday that one more young society woman whose histrionic talents have won her recognition in many amateur performances is to devote herself to the stage."  Using her maiden name, she was to open in "the new melodrama, 'The Great Ruby,' at Daly's Theatre."

The article said "Her family connections and those of her husband are prominent, and the fact that she is about to adopt a stage career will come as a surprise to many of her friends and acquaintances in this city...Her father-in-law, L. Mortimer Thorn, Sr. who lives at 23 West Sixteenth Street, is a man of large means.  His brother, the late W. K. Thorn, married Miss Vanderbilt, the eldest daughter of Commodore Vanderbilt."

Lilian Gwynn Thorn - New York Herald May 5, 1900 (copyright expired)
Lilian's stage career would be a short one.  In a one-line notice on May 6, 1900 The New York Times advised simply that she had died two days earlier.  The New York Herald was less obscure, saying "mystery surrounds her death."  The article went on "The family maintained a strange silence as to the cause and circumstances surrounding her death...At the home of Mr. Thorn's parents, No. 23 West Sixteenth street, it was stated that all that was known was that Mrs. Thorn was dead."  Little more on the colorful woman's demise was printed after that.

Augusta Raguet Thorn died in the West 16th Street house on December 18, 1902 at the age of 71.  In reporting her death The Times mentioned that the Thorns had lived in the residence "for many years."

Although the brownstone enframement has suffered weathering, the entrance is beautifully intact.

By 1907 L. Mortimer, Jr. had moved back into the 16th Street house with his father and sister.  Conde and his family were living far north at No. 310 West 77th Street.

Leonard Mortimer Thorn died in the house on August 18, 1909 at the age of 94.  In reporting his death The New York Times could not resist resurrecting a sensitive subject.  "He was the father of L. Mortimer Thorn, Jr., whose wife, who was a Miss Lillian Gwynn, went on the stage about ten years ago."

Two years later the Thorn heirs liquidated much of their father's significant properties.  Some of the highly-valuable real estate was in the Herald Square district.

L. Mortimer Thorn, Jr. contracted Bright's disease around this time, a severe kidney condition most often diagnosed as acute nephritis today.  The New-York Tribune reported that "He made many trips abroad in the hope of regaining his health."  But after suffering for a few years, he died on September 1, 1912 at the age of 54.  

A month later, on November 13 the New York Herald reported that Thorn's estate "is said to be 'utterly unknown,' but probably in excess of $5,000."  There was little doubt about that.  His will divided his estate between Emily and Conde.

It is unclear how long Emily A. Thorn remained in at No. 23, but by the 1930's it was being operated as a high-end boarding house.  According to Solveig Shearer, her relative, Rosemary Shearer boarded here along with her partner Susan Patrick.  The two had founded the RSSP School Clothiers, which eventually operated next door, at No. 21 West 16th Street.  According to Shearer, "Susan [lived] on the third floor and Rosemary on the fourth floor" of the former Thorn house.   They were apparently still here in 1940 when another resident, 28-year old Louis Franks was arrested on March 29 as part of a demonstration in front of the French Consulate.  

The Spanish Government had fallen to the revolutionary forces of General Francisco Franco on January 26, 1939.  Spanish refugees, fearing certain death in their homeland, fled to France to seek asylum.  But that country had recently approved harsh rules which called for asylum seekers to be detained in internment camps.

Families who crossed the border were separated.  Women, children and the elderly or wounded were relocated to scattered locations across France.  The conditions in the fenced enclosures were inhumane.  One French historian wrote "There was no drinking water and the mortality rate was extremely high."  Americans like Louis Franks were shocked and outraged. 

On March 30, 1940 the New York Sun reported on the "second battle within ten days" between demonstrators and police in front of the French Consulate.  Louis Franks and around 500 other protesters carried banners and placards reading "Don't Let The French Government Send Spanish Refugees to Their Death," and demanding "Save the Spanish Refugees."  The article said "Quickly the police, more than 300 strong, moved in to force the marchers in against the buildings, then to herd them down Forty-ninth street and out of the area."  Franks was one of those arrested.

In 1956 the former Thorn house was converted to apartments, one per floor.    Rosemary Shearer had discovered a wealth of L. Mortimer Thorn's personal items--such as his diaries.  Most likely horrified that they would otherwise be discarded, she packed them up and took them with her to Ohio in 1958 when she began suffering from diabetes.  They were recently rediscovered by Ms. Shearer, who writes "[Thorn's] 1840 diary details his return from Nacogdoches where he learned merchandising from his Uncle Frost (the first millionaire in Texas) to his family in NYC, where he bought books, was impressed by the India Rubber Man at the circus in the Bowery, had his portrait drawn, and learned to dance the quadrille."

An astounding amount of the 1845 Greek Revival interiors survive within No. 23 West 16th Street.  And the exterior is nearly unchanged, save for the vandalism of air conditioner slots carved into the facade.

Grecian columns and ceiling molding survive from 1854.  The marble mantle was an 1860's update; its brown staining caused by someone burning wood in the fireplace meant for charcoal.  via

photographs by the author


  1. Asylum seekers to be interred in internment camps...families drinking water...must be just a coincidence this detailed information is in this current post. Time to pass on this blog. It was fun.

    1. The 1940 incident is part of the history of the house. Why reporting facts that happened 80 years ago would be offensive is puzzling. Are we to ignore or erase history because for some reason or another it offends current readers?

  2. Don't worry.....THIS TN fan won't desert you. GREAT post!

  3. Just saw this post in 2021. Thanks for the history. I live next door at 25, built in 1920 but before that, in 1892, it was St. Clare House, a home for women new to NYC with no family or relatives. I love the various properties on my block, many that you have written up. Thanks, again.