Monday, July 29, 2019

The Lost Fernando Wood House - Broadway and 77th Street

 D. T. Valentine's Manual for 1857 (copyright expired)
Upon their marriage Teunis Somerindyck and Cornelia Dyckman received a large parcel of farmland from the bride's grandfather, Cornelius Dyckman, Jr.  It stretched approximately from what would become 73rd street to 77th Street, and Broadway to the Hudson River.  The Teunis Somerindyck home was built in 1745 and stood near the northwest corner of 75th Street and Broadway.  Before long another Somerindyck house, nearer the 77th Street corner was built.  In 1796 Teunis and Cornelia conveyed the property to Richard Somerindyck.

The Teunis Somerindyck residence had impressive house guests in the form of French King Louis Philippe, exiled in 1793, and his brothers, the Duc de Montpensier and the Comte de Beaujolais.  The three royals "taught school for the living," while living here, according to The Tourist's Hand-book of New York in 1906.  It would have been a brief vocation since the king's stay in America lasted only four years, during which time he also lived in Philadelphia and Boston.  The handbook added "The Duke of Kent, Queen Victoria's father, visited them here."

King Louis Philippe teaching in the Teunis Somerindyke House -- Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1869 (copyright expired)
Large sections of the extended Somerindyke family properties were auctioned in 1847 and it was most likely at this time that Fernando Wood purchased what had originally been Teunis Somerindyke's farm.  The district was bucolic, peppered with summer homes of Manhattan's wealthy and working farms.

Wood named the estate Woodlawn and before he moved into the northern house with his second wife, the former Ann Dole Richardson, their children and his mother, he set about making alterations and enlargements.  The original 18th century portion was retained as a quaint extension to the new mansion.  He explained to Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper years later, in December 1879, "I have preserved the farmhouse intact solely from its historical interest."  

The publication waxed romantic in its description, saying the "cozy dwelling stands on the Boulevard [now Broadway] and Seventy-seventh Street, upon a grassy knoll overlooking the lordly Hudson and the rock-ribbed Palisades.  The northern wing is modern; the southern with its low stoop and gambreled roof, pure pre-revolutionary.  Ivy clings to the eaves, and trees that might have shed their infant foliage to the sound of English artillery bend protectingly over the velvet grass."

Wood was the son of Quaker parents, Benjamin and Rebecca Wood.  Born in 1812, he had left school at the age of 13 and failed at several businesses before becoming a member of the Tammany Society at the age of 24.   Tammany Hall nominated him as a candidate to U. S. Congress and he served as a Representative from 1841 through 1843.  

Upon his return to New York he established a ship chandler business.  In 1848 his fortune was greatly increased by a lucrative real estate deal.   The Wood children were privately schooled and the family spent the first week of every August at Saratoga Springs.

Fernando Wood - from the collection of the Library of Congress
Although best known later for his political career, his shrewd real estate operations would continue to reap massive profits.  The extent of his realty business was evidenced in a single For Sale advertisement in The New York Herald on March 13, 1852.  In it he offered 12 brick houses, and 37 undeveloped plots of land around the city.

The maintenance of the grounds required professional attention and on the same day of the his real estate advertisement, Wood placed another: "A gardener wanted--A man who is capable of taking the entire charge of a vegetable and flower garden; none other need apply."  He may have proved to be a difficult employer; for nearly identical ads appeared again in 1853 and 1854.

In the meantime, Ann was looking for help as well.  Her ad in The New York Herald on February 15 1853 read "Wanted--In a small family, a woman who understands cooking, washing and ironing; she must be well recommended.  Also, a girl about fifteen years old, to wait and make herself useful in light work.  Apply to Mrs. Fernando Wood, corner Broadway and Seventy-seventh street."

Despite having been convicted of defrauding investors during the California Gold Rush, Wood was elected mayor of New York City in 1854.  As such he was entitled to perform marriages and he did so in the parlor of Woodlawn on June 12, 1855.  The New York Herald announced he had married "Francis M. Smith, Esq., to the amiable and accomplished Miss Dorah Beards."

The 18th century portion of the house is in the foreground.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, December 29, 1879 (copyright expired)
Wood was among the earliest supporters of presidential candidate James Buchanan.  In November 1855 State Senator Daniel Sickles informed Buchanan, "One of your best friends in New York is the Mayor--and he has made himself one of the strongest men in the State."  So when Buchanan arrived in New York in 1857, Fernando and Ann held a private six-hour reception at Woodlawn in his honor. 

Wood's support was, as always, more about self-interest than the candidate.  He hoped for a place in Buchanan's administration and, according to Jerome Mushkat in his Fernando Wood: A Political Biography, "By the eve of the July convention, Wood was certain that he had entered Buchanan's select inner circle."  But Sickle, who once promoted him, soon warned Buchanan, "There is a very strong desire among the bet men in our party to get rid of Wood."

The anti-Wood sentiments had much to do with his Tammany affiliations and widespread corruption.  In his American in 1857: A Nation on the Brink, Kenneth M. Stampp wrote "Hards and Softs were united temporarily in an effort to defeat a third political force: Mayor Fernando Wood and his disreputable bank of ward heelers, thugs, and corruptionists."  

The offensive worked--at least temporarily--and Wood was defeated in the 1857 election.  But he was back in office in 1860.  That year Woodlawn was the scene of its most illustrious gathering.  The top echelons of Manhattan politics and society turned out in their finery for the Woods' entertainment in honor of the Prince of Wales.  The Prince met a new Mrs. Wood that evening.  Ann Richardson Wood died in 1859 and within the year Ferdinand had married Alice Fenner Mills.

Wood was a vocal racist who staunchly opposed the abolitionist cause.  In January 1861 he proposed that New York secede, becoming a "free city" so it could continue doing business with the South.  The attack on Fort Sumter, however, galvanized New Yorkers against the Confederacy and Wood was defeated in the mayoral election that year.

Despite his racism, or perhaps because of it, Wood placed an advertisement in The New York Herald on December 13, 1862 which read "Waiter wanted--Wanted, a Colored Lad, who understands the duty of waiter, in a gentleman's house; one but a first class person need apply."

Although he carried the baggage of corruption and racism, Wood was re-elected to the House of Representatives, beginning his term in March 1863.  He fought against the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery, and attacked anti-slavery Democrats as having "a white man's face on the body of a negro."

Wood was re-elected in 1866 and split his time between Woodlawn and his Washington D.C. house.  In 1868 the city's process of physically laying out streets which had been only on paper for decades arrived at Woodlawn.  Property owners were paid for land taken by public domain and for the cost of relocating structures, if necessary.

Fernando Wood in the library at Woodlawn  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, December 29, 1879 (copyright expired)

West 77th Street not only cut through the Woodlawn property, but through the mansion.  On March 14, 1868 the city awarded Fernando Wood $25,001.00--or just under half a million in today's dollars.

Wood accepted the money, but had no intention of moving his house nor having a public street cut through his property.   Instead he erected substantial fences that prevented "trespassing."  

In February 1869 he sold the portion of the estate that held the ancient Teunis Somerindyke house, described in the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide as simply a "frame building."  Frederick W. Coggill paid Wood $72,500 for the 170 by 158 foot plot, about $1.4 million today.

On May 24, 1870 Rebecca Wood died in the mansion at the age of 82.  Her funeral was held in the house three days later.  The New York Herald advised mourners that Fernando and his brothers, Henry and Benjamin, had arranged for carriages to be waiting from 2:00 to 2:45 at the 71st Street and Eighth Avenue streetcar stop.

The New York Times had a long anti-Tammany tradition and Fernando Wood's refusal to relinquish the property for which the city had paid him did not escape its notice.  On October 31, 1878 the newspaper ran the headline "A Democratic Squatter" and began the article saying:

As one drives of these pleasant Autumn afternoons, taking the Circle near the Central Park, and branching off on the Boulevard toward the North is struck by the elegant and solid appearance of a well-constructed gate on the Boulevard, which leads up by a wide carriage road to a handsome wooden house.  This gate is certainly attractive...Proprietors of country-seats in this neighborhood have, of course, a perfect right to embellish their grounds as they please, and the passer-by, as he admires this really substantial gate, ought to feel obliged to Mr Fernando Wood for the aesthetic taste he has displayed.

But, the article went on, Wood had been paid "handsomely" for the laying out of 77th Street and "for the last 12 years has been living and enjoying three-quarters of a house, and using a road in a private way for which he has been fully paid."  And it listed the several petitions property owners had filed with the Board of Aldermen, complaining that they could not access their property because of Wood's fences.   But the Chairman of the Committee on Opening of Street was Alderman Bryan Reilly, described by The Times as "the sturdy henchman of Hon. Fernando Wood."

When one citizen applied directly to "Boss" William Tweed saying "Is there no way possible for me to get my right--to put my foot on my own land?  I can't climb Mr. Wood's fences!," Tweed reportedly answered "get into your land with a balloon."

In December that same year Michael Cashman took Wood to court over the matter.   The New York Herald reported on December 12 "Mr. Cashman complains that he cannot get access to his lots without climbing Mr. Wood's fences or opening the gate which Mr. Wood has put up in Seventy-seventh street and in Eleventh avenue."  The judge agreed that while 77th Street was public property, it was a street "in name only."  And because of the rocky terrain "it is impossible to pass over the same with vehicles."  Therefore, he ruled, "I have refrained from interfering with the fences and structures thereon."  Fernando Wood proved once again that he wielded immense and corrupt power.

When the Frank Leslie's journalist visited Woodlawn that month, he noted "In the wide and airy hall is a genuine Vandyke, representing 'Christ before the Doctors.'"  He described the library as having "two low windows giving upon the lawn.  Between them is a table desk.  The books--all bound in buff leather--are so uniform as to suggest dummies or secret panels.  It is a room wherein to peruse 'Sir Roger de Coverly' or the 'Vicar of Wakefield,' so quaint is it, and of an old fashion all so charming."  The mantelpiece, he wrote, was "of that monumental pattern so much in vogue when the redcoats mustered on Manhattan."

Fernando Wood traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas in the winter of 1881 in hopes of recovering his health.  He died there on February 14.  Newspapers nationwide reported on his death, detailing his checkered, sometimes scandalous, career.  His body was taken to the Washington D.C. residence for the funeral, then brought to New York for burial.

It did not take his heirs (the virile politician had 16 children, 11 of whom were still alive) to begin selling off his immense real estate holdings.  Five days after his death the Record & Guide reported that Fernando Wood, Jr. had sold "Seventy-third street lots, between Ninth and Tenth avenues."  

On November 18 the following year the Guide reported the Wood estate sold to Joseph Stern and Jacob Metzger "the two entire blocks located between Seventy-sixth and Seventy eighth streets and the Boulevard and West End or Eleventh avenue.  The consideration being $303,000."  Included was the mansion, described in the deed as a "one and two-story frame dwelling."

Despite the rampant development going on in the Upper West Side, the operators did not immediately demolish Woodlawn.  On September 4, 1886 The Sun noted that in the house "are now three tenants--Mrs. McCaffrey, an Irish woman; Mrs. Parlavasino, a native of Italy, and Mr. Wagener, a German, with their respective families, goats and other live stock.  Mrs. McCaffrey lives in the centre of the house and was an old servant of the Wood family.  She pays no rent.  The others pay rent."  Because the house still stood, 77th Street "is not yet cut through."

Two years later The Epoch noted "New York has some notable historic places that are rapidly disappearing."  Among them was Woodlawn.  "Near Seventy-fifth [sic] street and the Boulevard stands the country seat of Fernando Wood, where the Prince of Wales was royally entertained in 1860.  My informant expressed considerable regret over the proposed demolition of all these places at a date not far distant."

By 1899 the house was gone and 77th Street was finally opened.  Only a portion of the stone wall remained, but even now The New York Times got its jabs at Fernando Wood in.  On April 9, 1899 an article made note that the stones were "precisely the same as is used in the walls around Central Park, and there is a verified tradition--if such a thing is possible--that he 'swiped' what was necessary to build his fence."

The "Central Park" stones of Wood's wall can be seen below the advertising posters in 1899.  from the collection of the New York Historical Society
The corner plot remained vacant until 1901.  On April 13 that year the New-York Tribune reported that Stein, Cohn & Roth had filed plans for the nine-story Belleclaire Apartment house, which survives.


  1. Utterly fascinating---and great picture sourcing

  2. Great history! Fernando Wood was certainly an interesting and complicated man.

  3. So much phantom history on every block!

  4. Great article. NYC was heavily involved in both slavery and commercial profits from the slave trade. The life of Fernando Woods underlines this connectoin.