Monday, July 8, 2019

The Lost George B. Post Jr. House - 3 East 51st Street

The gated service lane, between the house and the Union Club, allowed for a full wall of windows.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

When the the city leased the block of land between Fifth and Madison Avenues and 51st and 52nd Streets to the Catholic Church in 1845 (at $1 per year rent), the area was undeveloped and bucolic.  The rolling meadows provided a perfect spot for the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum.  

But as the century drew to a close that was no longer the case.  The orphanage now sat squarely among the mansions of the city's wealthiest citizens, its Fifth Avenue lawn facing the Vanderbilt family's "triple palace."  A replacement site was procured in Fordham Heights and in 1900 the old buildings were razed.  Suddenly there were building plots available within the most exclusive residential neighborhood in Manhattan and developers scrambled.

Among them were brothers John T. and James A. Farley.  Their firm, Terence Farley's Sons had been busy erecting upscale speculative homes for about two decades when they acquired the plot at No. 3 East 51st Street.  They commissioned architect Charles Chary Thain to design a 32-foot wide mansion on the site, one which would fit into the high-end neighborhood of Astors, Rockefellers and Goulds.

The plot sat directly behind the rising Union Club, which faced Fifth Avenue--a testament in itself to the fashionable tenor of the block.  For it Thain designed a five-story, limestone-clad Beaux Arts mansion that left no question as to the financial and social status of the future owners.  

The entrance within the rusticated base sat above a short, wide stoop.  The French-style windows of the second floor opened onto a stone balustraded balcony.  Carved garlands which emanated from the keystones trailed halfway down the architrave frames.  The fourth floor sat above a substantial stone cornice, the window pediments extending into the copper-clad mansard of the fifth floor, which was punctured by three oeil-de-boeuf windows.

Construction on the house suffered a setback in the fall of 1903.  With the major work completed, workmen were finishing up the interior details.  On November 12 the New-York Tribune reported "Two Italians were working in the house polishing the hardwood floors, a composition of oil being used.  It was rubbed on the floors with cotton waste.  A large bag of this waste was in a pantry on the second floor."

While the men took their lunch break in a front-facing room, the oily rags ignited, apparently from spontaneous combustion.   But it was not the workmen who noticed the smoke and flames, but the chief engineer of the newly-opened Union Club.   He quickly ordered the smartly-uniformed attendants to drag the club's fire hose to the house.  Millionaire club members joined in, "working side by side," according to the article.  By the time fire fighters arrived the flames were mostly subdued.

The fire caused nearly $15,000 in damages by today's standards and repairs were now necessary on what had been a nearly finished mansion.

As the summer of 1904 approached the house was completed.  And then the Farleys faced another glitch.  On July 16, 1904 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported "John T. and James A. Farley have sold the 5-sty American basement dwelling, 3 East 51st st., a new fireproof structure, adjoining the Union Club."  But to whom?

Broker George A. Mills took out a mortgage on July 29.  But another mortgage on the same day, provided by John T. Farley himself, was made out to Katherine C. Weidenfeld.  The confusion resulted in architectural historians to this day referring to No. 3 East 51st Street as the George A. Mills house.  It was not.

If there was a dispute, Katherine won.  It was not the end of confusion, however.  While the title and the mortgage documents listed her as Katherine C. Weidenfeld, she was in actuality Katherine C. Edey, the widow of Albert Rivington Edey.  And that was a strange story in itself.

A wealthy stock broker, Edey had been, according to The New York Times "considered peculiar."  He and Katherine had two daughters, Anna and Louise, and a son, Albert, Jr.  But "he preferred to live alone with his books and his bicycle in a Brooklyn boarding house, while his family lived in the fashionable Knickerbocker apartments," explained the newspaper in November 1900.  The writer was quick to say "Mr. Edey was not estranged from his family, who have independent means, but called on them frequently."

Albert Edey was renting a room from John Seymour in Brooklyn in November 1900.  On a Sunday afternoon when he had not come down, one of the Seymour family members checked on him.  He was lying on a couch in his room, "completed dressed, except that he had removed his shoes and put on a bathrobe instead of his coat.  His vest was buttoned up tightly about him."  He was dead.

The local doctor who was called pronounced the cause of death apoplexy.  It appeared to him that Edey had suffered a massive stroke while reading his newspaper.  He still wore his eyeglasses, there was no gun, and the newspaper had fallen across his chest.  Press coverage reported that the unfortunate death was caused by heart failure.

In fact Edey had shot himself in the heart, a fact that those in the boarding house had not only neglected to mention, but took pains to hide.  The following day the undertaker discovered the gaping wound and notified police.  When they searched the dead man's room, they uncovered the hidden gun.  The New-York Tribune reported on November 21, "The detectives say that there were many indications that an attempt had been made by the friends to hide the fact that it was a case of suicide."  

A relative, Frederick Edey, told a New York Times reporter that he was "not surprised to find that it was a case of suicide, as the dead man had always been very eccentric."  The possibility that this was, instead, a covered-up murder apparently did not occur to anyone and the case was closed.  

Katherine Edey's name did not appear in the society columns for hosting large dinner parties and receptions.  When Anna Rivington Edey was married to John Knickerbocker Porter Stone in the mansion on January 15, 1908, society was caught off guard.  The New York Times noted "No formal announcement had been made of the engagement, and the announcement of the wedding will come as a surprise to all but the intimate friends of the couple."

When Alfred was married to Marion Howard Armstrong in the fashionable Grace Church in April the following year, The Sun noted "The bridegroom is a son of Mrs. Albert Rivington Edey of 210 West Fifty-seventh street."  Katherine had earlier moved out of No. 3 and later that month, on April 25, The New York Times reported "Katherine C. Weidenfeld" had sold the mansion.

Katherine may have moved further uptown because of the changes in the neighborhood.  More and more businesses were elbowing their way among the palaces of Fifth Avenue.

No. 3 became home to the George Browne Post, Jr. family.  The wealthy banker and broker, partner in the firm of Post and Flagg, was the son of esteemed architect George B. Post.  Born in 1864, he was descended from an old Dutch family in America.  He had married Julia Cotton Smith on November 22, 1888 and the couple had two children, George Browne Post III, and Harriett.  

The family's country home, Kenilwood, was in Bernardsville, New Jersey.  It was there that Post bred pedigree dogs; the Encyclopedia of American Biography noting "His pack of Somerset beagles, his favorite breed, was famous throughout the country, and over a long period he was often a judge at beagle shows."

George B. Post, the son of the esteemed architect.  Encyclopedia of American Biography, 1938.

Upon the death of George B. Post, Sr. in 1913, the younger George properly lost the "III" after his name and gained the distinction "Jr."  On February 17, 1916 his engagement to Irene Langhorne Gibson was announced by her parents, Irene and Charles Dana Gibson.  

The New York Times noted "Their marriage will united the families of a great artist and a great architect.  Mr. Post's grandfather, the late George B. Post...was one of the most prominent architects of America.  Among the famous buildings which he designed are the New York Cotton Exchange, the New York Stock Exchange, and the residences of the late Cornelius Vanderbilt and the late Collis P. Huntington, which beautify the northwest and southeast corners of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street."  The bride's father, said the article "is the leading black-and-white illustrator of his generation, and has created wonderful types, one of the best known being the Gibson Girl."

Unlike Katherine Edey, the Posts regularly appeared in society columns.  On January 24, 1920, for instance, The Sun reported "Mrs. George B. Post gave a small dance last night in her home, 3 East Fifty-first street."  And on February 4, 1921 The New York Herald commented, "Mr. and Mrs. George B. Post gave a dinner last night at 3 East Fifty-first street, after which Miss Ruth Draper gave several of her monologues."

Ruth Draper was an actress, dramatist and diseuse--a performer of monologues.  She specialized in characters and drew praise from stage legends like George Bernard Shaw, Thornton Wilder and Uta Hagen.  So her appearance in the Post home was a significant event.

In 1926 George B. Post purchased the five-story mansion at No. 45 East 78th Street.  In reporting on the transaction The New York Times said "Mr. Post leased his former residence at 3 East Fifty-first Street to the French art firm of Jacques Seligmann & Co. for twenty-one years."

After renovations the high-end gallery opened on November 30, 1926 with a reception for "400 New York artists, art patrons and other guests," according to The New York Times.  Professor Charles R. Richards, former director of the American Association of Museums addressed the group, and architect Harvey Wiley Corbett read a congratulatory message from French Minister of the Interior Albert Serraut.

The Jacques Seligman Art Galleries would cater to the top echelon of society and the most astute of art connoisseurs.  Among the first exhibitions was a benefit showing of the world-famous 15th century Quo Vadis tapestry for the New York Foundling Hospital.  

In February 1927, two months after Jacques Seligman Art Galleries opened, it was joined in the former mansion by C. M. de Hauke.  His first exhibition included works by Renoir, Manet, Gaugin, and Van Gogh.    Incomparable masterpieces would hang in both galleries for decades.  On December 25, 1927, for instance, The Times reported that the 1771 portrait of Mr. Barwell and His Son by Sr. Joshua Reynolds had been procured by Jacques Seligman & Co.  The painting, seven feet tall and five feet across, was considered by the gallery as "one of the finest Reynoldses in existence."  It was priced at $200,000, or about $2.89 million in today's dollars.

The Jacques Seligman Art Gallery sold Richard Barwell and His Son to millionaire William Goadby Lowe.

Rather surprisingly, the 51st Street block had changed little, outwardly, by the 1940's.  Despite the stores and hotels that had sprouted along Fifth Avenue, the row of old mansions and even the Union Club survived.  But change was about to come.

A 1940 tax photograph shows No. 3 within a block of outwardly little-altered mansions.  via the NY Dept of Records and Information Services
On December 12, 1944 the New York Sun reported that Best's Store "will erect a new building at 5th Avenue and 51st."  The article said that the department store would move from Fifth Avenue and 35th Street "as soon as a modern, twelve-story air-conditioned building can be constructed."  The plot involved included the Union Club property and 3 East 51st Street.  

The Best Store building was completed in 1946.  That building was demolished in 1971 for the 51-story glass and steel Olympic Tower designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, completed in 1975.

photo via
many thanks to reader Phyllis Winchester for suggesting this post


  1. Thanks Tom! The house's history is a wonderful capsule of the architecture, personalities and lifestyle of the Gilded Age. Great research and great post!

  2. A footnote worth mentioning is that Ruth Draper and the Gibsons were part of the same exclusive summer set at Dark Harbor on Islesboro in Maine, where both families had cottages (the Gibson estate actually a few hundred feet offshore from Dark Harbor on 700 acre island. Draper and Irene Gibson appear to have been good friends. There survive films of the incomparable Draper house guesting at "Peterloon", the Ohio estate of Irene Gibson Post and her second husband, John J. Emery Jr.