Thursday, September 12, 2019

The General Henry W. Benham House - 104 East 36th Street

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At just 18-feet wide the four-story brownstone house at No. 104 East 36th Street was surprisingly narrow for the upscale block.  But its handsome Italianate design held its own with its wider neighbors.  Molded architrave surrounds framed the openings and the tall parlor window, which matched the proportions of the entrance, most likely always held French windows that opened onto a cast iron balcony.

Built around 1856, the house was home to Irish-born Matthew McLaughlin and his wife, Bridgett.  The elderly couple had two grown sons, Owen and Michael.   Bridgett McLaughlin died in the house at the age of 80 on March 28, 1865, "after a long and painful illness," according to The New York Herald.  The funeral was held in the house three days later.

Before long the house was home to Jacob Valentine and his wife, Mary.  Born on September 15, 1823, Valentine's ancestors had settled in Hempstead, Long Island in the early part of the 18th century.  An attorney, Valentine was Chief Officer of the New York Supreme Court by the early 1870's.  The couple had two daughters.

Maintaining a residence like this one required a capable staff.  On March 26, 1867 an advertisement in The New York Herald sought "A First Class Cook, Washer and Ironer; one not afraid to work and with good city references."  The duties listed were more often handled by two servants--a cook and a laundress.  So it is perhaps not surprising that the new hire did not work out.  A year later a new advertisement appeared in The Herald:  "Wanted--A Girl; must be a first class washer and ironer and a good plain cook."

A help wanted ad in April 1870 was especially interesting.  "Wanted--In a private family, by the month, a first class embroideress on flannel."  Exactly what it was that required a month-by-month embroiderer is a head-scratcher.  Mary Valentine continued to bundle domestic duties when she advertised in The New York Herald on April 22, 1873 for "A Protestant girl, as nurse and seamstress; must be a good hand sewer."

In June 1881 an auction of "the entire contents" of the Valentine house was held.  Among the items being sold, according to the announcement, were "a rosewood Parlor suite," Wilson and Brussels carpets, and "elegant Dressing Bureau and Bedstead."

The following month the Valentines sold No. 104 to Henry Washington Benham for $18,000 "and other consideration."  The cash portion would be equivalent to about $456,000 today.

General Henry W. Benham - from the collection of the New York Public Library

Benham and his wife, the former Elizabeth Andrews McNeil had three children, Henry Hill, Lilla Marion, and Elizabeth Maria.  A fourth child, Henry McNeil, died as a child.

Elizabeth Benham had notable family connections.  Her father was General John McNeil, who had distinguished himself during the War of 1812; her grandfather, Benjamin Pierce, had been Governor of New Hampshire; and her half-brother, Franklin Pierce, had served as President of the United States from 1853 to 1857.

Henry W. Benham  had a distinguished career.  As a civil engineer he had worked on government works as a member of the Engineer Corps and was an expert in constructing pontoon bridges.  But it was for his military service that he was best known.   He served in the Mexican War in 1847 and '48; and during the Civil War was in command of the engineer brigade of the Army of the Potomac.  The Evening Star said of him, "He constructed and commanded the defenses at City Point, Va., in October, 1864, and on March 13 1865, was brevetted brigadier general for gallant services in the campaign terminating with the surrender of Lee.  On the same date he was promoted to the rank of major general in the United States Army."  Benham was mustered out of service on January 15, 1866.

On January 9, 1883 Lilla Marion married artist and portrait painter Frederick Dielman.   (Among his most notable works is the impressive mosaic mural History in the Library of Congress.)  

A year later, on June 1, 1884, Henry W. Benham died in the 36th Street house at the age of 71.  The Evening Star reported "He was attended in his last moments by Mrs. Benham and their two daughters, but his son, Lieut. Benham, is at present on duty in [the] Washington territory."  The New York Times attributed his death to "a complication of disorders."

Elizabeth lived on in the 36th Street house with her unmarried daughter, Elizabeth Maria.  The women leased it for the winter season of 1896-97 to wealthy newly-weds Archibald Mackay and the former Helen Gansevoort Edwards.  

The New York Times called the bride "one of the prettiest girls in society" at the time of the wedding.  The Evening Telegram reported on November 27, 1896 that the couple "will, on their return from their wedding trip, reside at No. 104 West Thirty-sixth street."  And two days later The New York Press announced that "Mrs. Mackay will receive on Mondays after December."  

The Benham women leased the house again for the winter season of 1904-05 to E. W. Wilson.

Elizabeth Maria died on October 15, 1909 at the family's country home in Oakland, New Jersey.  She left the bulk of her substantial estate to her mother, which, following her death, was to be "divided between the testatrix's brother, Capt. Henry Hill Benham, U.S.A., and her two nephews Frederick M. Dielman and Ernest B. Dielman," according to the Louisiana newspaper The Lafayette Advertiser.  But there was one codicil that drew attention nation-wide.

According to the New York Herald on October 28, 1910, Elizabeth wanted to ensure that "the education of her niece should be practical."  Therefore her will provided $400 to pay for classes in "cookery, drawing and cutting," for teen-aged Lilla Elizabeth Dielman.  The bequest would amount to nearly $11,000 today.

Lilla was an apparently favored niece; for upon reaching 21-years of age, she would received $8,000 outright and a life interest in $8,000.  The world-wise Elizabeth added that the income was "to be free from any debts or control of any husband."

Elizabeth Andews Benham attended the funeral of her son, Major Henry Hill Benham, on March 23, 1911.  She survived another four years, dying in the 36th Street house on January 4, 1915.

The Lilla Benham Dielman continued to lease the house for some years.  It was home to Cornelia Ridgely Wainwright, widow of William P. Wainwright, until her death on May 31, 1918.  Her funeral was held in the house on June 3.

John W. Stevens leased No. 104 next; and on March 22, 1919 the Benham estate sold it to him.  But he did not retain possession long.  On May 20, 1920 an advertisement listed "For Sale: 104 East 36th St., near Park Ave. 4 story and basement dwelling, 12 rooms, 2 baths."

Purchased by Samuel Bookman, by September the house had been converted to apartments.  The stoop was removed and then entrance moved to the basement level.  The architect responsible did a rather remarkable job of matching the renovations with the original design.  The original entrance became a window and matching iron half-round balconies were installed at both openings.  The new entrance received a period-perfect surround; possibly the original which was carefully removed and lowered.

photograph by the author
The apartments throughout the building were designated as "non-housekeeping apartments," meaning they had no kitchens and that cooking was disallowed.  The Department of Buildings went further, describing them as "bachelor apartments."  The new apartments on the former parlor floor were offered by agents Pease & Elliman in December 1920.  "Apartments of two rooms and bath occupying entire floor.  French doors, painted walls.  Plenty of light and air.  Latest conveniences of every type."  

On January 20, 1956 The New York Times reported that Fred H. Hill had signed a contract to buy No. 104.  The article noted that he intended to alter it "into two simplex and triplex apartments."  The renovation was completed the following year, resulting in a doctor's office and apartment in the basement, one apartment on the first floor, and two each on the upper stories.

A subsequent renovation, completed in 2010, converted the building into a doctor's office in the former basement level, a triplex apartment above, and a duplex on the fourth floor and new penthouse level, unseen from the street."

Once one of a long row of elegant Victorian homes, No. 104 looks rather lonely today, an anachronism between a looming 20th century apartment building and a parking garage.  Once home to prominent families, it is easily overlooked today.

photographs by the author

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