Friday, September 20, 2019

The J. C. Fargo House - 122 East 37th Street

Around 1856 the imposing home at No. 24 East 37th Street was completed for Patrick McCaffrey.   While it shared many of the elements of the other Italianate style residences rising along the block between Park and Lexington Avenues, its extra width--a full 25 feet--and its short stoop set it apart.  

By 1865, when East 37th Street was renumbered giving the house the new address of No. 122, McCaffrey seems to have left.  It was home to the Rev. S. A. Carey by the early 1870's.  It is unclear with which church the minister was associated; but its congregation found itself no longer able to make the payments on the house in 1873.   It would be the last year Carey lived here.

The church had taken out a chattel mortgage on the property--putting up the furnishings as collateral.  An announcement in The New York Herald on December 29, 1873 read:

Mortgage Sale--By virtue of a chattel mortgage I will expose for sale at public auction, on Tuesday, December 30, 1873, at 11 o'clock in the forenoon, at No. 122 East Thirty-seventh street, the Furniture of said premises, consisting of walnut Furniture, Carpets, Mirrors, Oil Paintings &c.; also one splendid Piano and a valuable collection of Books, and all appurtenances that go to make up a first class private residence.  Michael G. Murray, Attorney for Mortgagee

Henry Lord purchased the house in March 1885, paying $27,000, or just over $725,000 today.  Like his well-heeled neighbors, Lord haunted fashionable resorts to escape the summer heat and, occasionally, the frigid winters.  He went to Hot Springs, North Carolina for the holidays in 1889, staying at the luxurious Mountain Park Hotel.  Among its amenities, according to the New-York Tribune on December 22, was its "finely appointed and luxurious bath-house, containing large marble pools...built over some of the [hot] springs."

Lord left No. 122 that year and it was purchased by James Congdell Strong Fargo, president of the American Express Co.  Both his sons, James Francis and William Congdell, were involved in the firm.  Son James F. began construction on his own house next door at No. 120 in 1892.

Fargo was married to the former Frances Parsons Stuart, known familiarly as Fannie.  Along with their sons, they had a daughter, Annie Stuart.  The family's summer estate was at Irvington, New York, near Sunnyside.  It was there in 1882 that Annie had married William Duncan Preston.  

Tragically, Annie died giving birth to their only child, Stuart Duncan Preston, on January 1, 1884 at the age of 24.  By at least 1895 William was leasing the East 37th Street house from his father-in-law and moved in with young Stuart, along with his widowed mother, and his sister, Florence Isabelle.

Florence's engagement to Henry Graves, Jr. was announced on December 1, 1895.  The wedding took place in the fashionable St. Thomas's Church on Fifth Avenue on January 21, 1896.  William gave his sister away and The New York Times reported "Following the ceremony, there was a small reception at the residence of the bride's mother, at 122 East Fifty-seventh [sic] Street."

The following year the Prestons moved on and in September James C. Fargo leased No. 122 to T. Suffern Tailer.   Born into an aristocratic New York family, the New-York Tribune called the Washington Square home where he grew up "one of the most beautiful homes in the city as well as one of the oldest."  In 1893 Tailer had married Maude Lorrillard, the only daughter of Pierre Lorillard.  The couple's summer residence was near the Lorillard estate in Tuxedo.  It was a wedding present from the bride's father.

Maude stole the spotlight from her husband in the society papers because of her fashion sense, her unrivaled beauty and her skill as a rider.  When the couple visited the Lorillard apartment in Paris, The Evening World commented "Doubtless Mr. and Mrs. T. Suffern Tailer will add greatly to the spirit of the autumn gayeties.  Mrs. Tailer will have an opportunity to air some of her Parisian finery at the annual autumn ball."  The Evening World described her as "beautiful in a royal way, with the arched eyebrows and Cupid-bow mouth, so emblematic of generations of breeding.  Although a famous belle, a lover of horses and athletic sports, she is associated in the minds of those who  best know her with kindly charities and unselfish consideration for those who need her aid."

The Evening World poked good-natured fun at some of Manhattan's wealthy gentlemen, including Tailer, with caricatures on August 5, 1902.  (copyright expired) 
In May 1899 James C. Fargo transferred title to No. 122 to William C. Fargo.  Despite the technical change of landlords, the Tailers continued on in the house.

Maude and a maid left New York for Sioux Falls in February 1902 where she took a house.  Rumors were that "she had come to South Dakota for the purpose of remaining in the State for the necessary six months in order to obtain a divorce," said the New-York Tribune.  The rumors were correct.  She received a divorce on August 14 on the grounds that her husband intended to desert her.  Although the divorce was "without sensational features," it was apparently not a friendly split.  The Tribune noted that Maude had the luggage tags with her initials "M.L.T" removed and replaced with ones reading "M. L."

But it appears it was not T. Suffern who had intentions of desertion.  Just three months later, on November 10, The Evening World reported "Mrs. T. Suffern Tailer is the bride in London of the Hon. Cecil Baring."  T. Suffern Tailer was given custody of the couple's son.

John Hamilton Gourlie died on February 21, 1904.  The wealthy broker left four grown children, including an unmarried daughter Eliza.  On April 17, 1904 The New York Times reported that William C. Fargo had leased No. 122 East 37th Street to "the Misses Gourlay [sic]."  The plural reflected Eliza's guardianship of her two nieces, Nathalie and Isabelle Thacher Groulie.

The women had lived here only a year when Eliza announced Isabel's engagement to Noel Lispenard Carpender.  That winter was the season of the girls' introduction to society.  On January 27, 1906 the New-York Tribune reported on a dance she had given the evening before.  "Miss Gourlie's dance was for her two nieces, Miss Isabel and Miss Nathalie Groulie  There was no cotillion, but general dancing throughout the evening."  

Isabelle's wedding took place on April 24, 1906 at the nearby Calvary Church.  Nathalie was her sister's maid of honor.  The Sun reported that "Her aunt, Miss E. C. Gourlie, of 122 East Thirty-seventh street, with whom she makes her home, will give a reception after the ceremony."  

There would be a second wedding reception in the house two years later, almost to the day.  On April 21, 1908 Nathalie was married in St. George's Church on Stuyvesant Square to Francis Henry Appleton, Jr.   The New-York Tribune noted that the "large gathering" all "adjourned to the reception given by Miss Gourlie, the aunt of the bride, at her house in East 37th street."

James Shewan, head of the shipbuilding firm of James Shewan & Sons, died on May 7, 1914.  The Sun reported "He gave his entire estate to his wife, Ellen Shewan, and left nothing to his two sons and three daughters."   In September that year William C Fargo leased No. 122 to Ellen.  She remained only two years, and in November 1916 the house was leased to Mary Fels, the widow of Joseph Fels.

Joseph Fels had made his fortune in the soap industry.  His best selling product was the Fels-Naptha soap brand which he developed in 1894.   In 1906 he turned much of his focus on the hopes that a Jewish homeland would be founded in Israel.  Now Mary continued his work from No. 122.  It became home to The Public Publishing Company, publishers of The Public, A Journal of Democracy; and to the Zionist Society of Engineers and Agriculturalists.  

On April 5, 1919 The American Contractor announced that the group "is at present planning to send an Engineering Commission to Palestine for the purpose of making a survey of the natural resources."  The Public went further, saying that arrangements had been made "whereby young men, Zionists, technically inclined, able-bodied and anxious to go to Palestine, will get a thorough training in tractor work and in practical agricultural methods generally."  

Original detailing survives within the arched entrance.

Mary Fels left in 1919 and the house continued to be leased to wealthy tenants.  In August that year the New-York Tribune reported that "Misses Rebecca Cramp and Florence P. Gill, of Philadelphia" had leased No. 122 from Helen F. Fargo.  They were followed by C. Hammond Avery, Jr. and his new bride, Helen MacDonald in 1921, and by Frances Marion Brandon by 1925.

Brandon was an assistant corporation counsel and a force in Manhattan politics.  On June 12, 1925 The New York Times reported that she held a meeting of "some twenty leaders of Tammany Hall and about eighty other men and women well known in Democratic and social life" in the house.

But Frances's name was already better known to most New Yorkers for a scandal that had begun a few months earlier.  She had sent a notice to The Times on March 14 announcing that she was engaged to a high-powered lawyer, George J. Gillespie, Sr., of Gillespie & O'Connor.  Along with his other dealings, he was the personal counsel to Cardinal Patrick Hayes.  The announcement said the engagement had taken place on November 13, 1924, but was not announced because of the recent death of Gillespie's wife.  "It was stated that the wedding would take place early this Spring," said The New York Times.

When he read the newspaper reports of his engagement Gillespie was infuriated.  He first called the newspaper and then told a reporter in person "I have never been engaged to her and I never will be.  The idea of marrying Miss Brandon has never occurred to me."  Oddly, Frances told The Times she would marry him despite his denial.

It all ended up in the courts, with Frances bringing a series of lawsuits against Gillespie charging breach of promise, fraud, $74,000 which she says he owed her, and $500,000 in damages.  (Frances apparently was greatly damaged, her suit topping $7 million by today's standards.)  The issued dragged on for years and on February 28, 1930 The Times reported that the jury could not come up with a verdict.  The case would have to start over.

Photographed around 1940, the house had lost its Italianate detailing, once similar to those on the houses further up the block. photo via NYC Department of Records & Information Services.
By then Frances had lost her job as assistant corporation counsel and had left East 37th Street.  Afterward the house was converted to apartments and by the late 1930's the Victorian brownstone facade details had been shaved flat.

Looking somewhat spartan without its 1856 architectural elements, today there are four apartments in the building.

photographs by the author

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