|photo by Wurts Bros from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Philip Speyer was a descendant of a distinguished German banking family. He immigrated to the United States from Frankfurt in 1837 and founded the banking firm of Philip Speyer & Co. in 1845. Upon his death in 1876 the firm's name was changed to Speyer & Co., and in 1899 Philip's nephew, 38-year old James Speyer, became its senior partner.
James was born in America in 1861. The 1896 marriage of the Jewish millionaire to Ellin Prince Lowery was a bit surprising since the bride was a Christian. The religious differences caused a few social problems since, for instance, there were many fashionable places where Ellen was welcome but her husband was not. Nevertheless, the marriage was a successful and loving one.
|James Speyer - Men Who Are Making America, 1917 (copyright expired)|
The couple was living at No. 207 Madison Avenue in the upscale Murray Hill neighborhood in 1911. But the increasing commercialization of the avenue may have prompted them to relocate. On May 13 that year the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported "James Speyer, the banker...has commissioned Architect Horace Trumbauer of Philadelphia, to design plans for a new residence...at the southeast corner of 5th av and 87th st."
The Speyers' choice of Trumbauer may have been prompted by his James B. Duke mansion rising on the opposite corner of Fifth Avenue and 78th Street. Its stately mid-18th century French Classical architecture bespoke wealth and dignity.
Oddly enough, Speyer seems to have been in no rush to get construction started. On December 2 the general contracts had still not been awarded, although the Record & Guide reported "It was stated on Friday that the contract had practically been signed."
Although Trumbauer was credited with designing the Speyer house, according to Dreck Spurlock Winson in his Julian Abele: Architect and the Beaux Arts, it was actually Trumbauer's senior designer, Julian Abele who designed the mansion. He was among the most formally educated architects in America in the Beaux Arts and Louis XIV styles. But because he was Black he would not begin to receive the credit he deserved for masterpieces like the Speyer and Duke houses until decades later.
Abele created a Louis XIV-style palace 75-feet wide on Fifth Avenue that stretched 110 feet down the side street. The deep light moat which provided light and ventilation to the basement level was protected by a substantial stone wall. The rusticated first floor was pierced by a regimented row of arched openings. The second floor was fronted by a full-width balcony on the Fifth Avenue front, and another at the slightly protruding three-bay mid-section on 78th Street. Two-story pilasters united the second and third floors. Atop the stone cornice a stone balustrade hid the fourth floor, a proportion-preserving deception also used in the Duke mansion.
|The 78th Street elevation was no less impressive than the front. The fourth floor can be clearly seen in this view. photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
|The airy entrance hall rose two stories.|
|Ellin entertained in rooms like these. Portraits on the walls are by artists like Sir Thomas Lawrence. photographer unknown from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
When the Speyers moved into their new mansion, they had both earned admiration for their philanthropies and social awareness. James founded the Theodore Roosevelt professorship in the University of Berlin, which initiated the exchange of professors between the leading universities of the U.S. and Germany, helped found the Museum of the City of New York, and was a trustee of the United Hospital Fund of New York, Mount Sinai Hospital and a director of the Isabella Home. He was also sat on the advisory board of the Salvation Army and was vice president of the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York.
Ellin was no less involved. She was a founder of the United Hospital Fund, was one of three organizers of the first Working Girls' Club in the country, founded the Girl's Branch of the Public Schools Athletic League, and the New York Women's League for Animals.
|The second floor hallway can be seen through the pocket doors of the ballroom. photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Ellin worked tirelessly for animals. The Women's League for Animals provided shelter and medical care to "animals in distress. She had organized the first annual Work Horse Parade in 1910 to shed light on the plight of overworked horses. On March 5, 1912 she took over the ballroom at Sherry's for a bridge party to benefit the Dogs' Brigade, a branch of the Women's League. The New York Times reported "The prizes were numerous and costly, ranging from a Chow-chow puppy to a box at the Metropolitan Opera House."
The Speyers had no children. Their country estate, Waldheim, was located near Scarborough-on-Hudson. Entertainments in the Fifth Avenue mansion were almost always related to charitable, social or political issues. The New-York Tribune reported in 1916, for instance, "Mrs. James Speyer has given the use of her house, 1058 Fifth Avenue, on Thursday afternoon, March 23, for a recital by Fritz Kreisler for the benefit of the St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children."
When the United States entered World War I the Speyers turned their attention to relief work. On March 23, 1918 the Record & Guide reported that James had purchased "the former Dun residence" at No. 261 Madison Avenue in Murray Hill. Two weeks later the Guide explained that he had made the purchase to "place the house at the disposal of some organization engaged in war work."
Ellin was chairman of the Red Star Animal Relief which she had organized in New York with Mrs. Frederick W. Vanderbilt and Mrs. M. Orme Wilson. The group funded the purchase of animals for the U.S. military in Europe.
Elllin pleaded for donations to supply the army with additional horses at the front on March 25. "Few persons realize that 4,500,000 horses and mules are constantly bringing to the first line trenches all munitions and supplies used on the European battlefields...Motor trucks cannot be used as conveyances so near the firing line, and for this reason the Entente Allies have expended more than $400,000,000 in the United States alone since the war began."
The need for constantly replenishing the supply of horses was urgent. The New-York Tribune reported "The average life of a horse at the front is estimated to be two weeks."
With the war over appeared that the Speyers were taking a break. On January 26, 1919 the New-York Tribune reported that "Mrs. James Speyer, has returned home after a six month's stay in Atlantic City, where she had gone for a complete rest." And on July 8, 1919 The New York Times announced that the Speyers "have left for a trip to the Pacific Coast. They have been spending the early Summer at their country home at Scarborough-on-Hudson." What the newspapers did not disclose was that, in fact, Ellin had suffered a nervous breakdown.
Nevertheless, ignoring all advice she did not slow down. On February 15, 1921 she held the annual meeting of the Girls' Branch of the Public Schools Athletic League in the house. Eight days later the New-York Tribune reported that Ellin "is seriously ill at her home, 1058 Fifth Avenue." The article noted "Mrs. Speyer suffered a nervous break-down two years ago, from which she never fully recovered and upon her return from Europe last fall she took up her work where she had left off, though her health did not warrant her doing so."
On February 22 The Evening World reported "Doctors to-day said there was little hope for the recovery of Mrs. James Speyer, known all her life for her active interest in improving conditions among children and animals. This morning she was still unconscious." The New York Times remarked on a traffic policeman who was told that she was probably fatally ill. His response was "Oh, if every man, woman and child Mrs. Speyer has helped in this city would send one big prayer together up to God, she would surely get well."
|Ellin Speyer's bedroom. photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Ellin died just after midnight on the morning of February 23. Her husband was at her bedside with the doctor and nurses. The Times said "The end came quietly. Mrs. Speyer never having recovered consciousness."
Following the funeral, James went to Europe, possibly to grieve privately. The other mansions in the neighborhood were also closed with their owners away at summer estates or resorts. A skeleton staff or a single caretaker was left to watch over the residences.
On the afternoon of September 8 the caretaker of a 78th Street house noticed smoke coming from a window of the Speyer mansion. He rushed to notify the Speyer caretaker, Martin Beuttner. They searched the house and "found the dining room ablaze," according to The New York Herald. Beuttner briefly considered trying to save the paintings; but decided that taking the time might allow the fire to spread.
By the time fire fighters arrived the room was nearly totally engulfed. Part of the ceiling and one wall were destroyed, as well as irreplaceable artworks. The New York Herald reported "Three paintings which were said by the caretaker to have been Rembrandt landscapes were destroyed...A fourth painting, also said to be a Rembrandt landscape, was badly damaged by smoke and water, but there is some hope that art experts may be able to restore it."
|The dining room previous to the fire. photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Possibly to provide emotion support, upon James's return to New York Ellin's nephew and his wife began visiting as somewhat regular house guests. John Dyneley Prince was at the time the United States Minister to Denmark. On February 5, 1923 the New York Evening Post reported that James was giving a dinner party for the couple.
The following year in November the newspaper noted that the Princes "have come into town and are the guests of Mr. James Speyer at his home, 1058 Fifth avenue, until they sail for Copenhagen the third of next month." And in April 1931, after Prince had been appointed Minister to Japan, the couple was back and once again James gave them a dinner party.
In the meantime Speyer had turned his attention to his wife's former causes. On April 17, 1939 the New York Post advised "James Speyer, whose late wife founded the New York Women's League for Animals, twenty-nine years ago, will open his house...for a concert which Laurent Melchior of the Metropolitan Opera Company and Ignace Strasfogel, pianist, will give for the benefit of the league."
On April 14, 1941 the house was again the scene of a musical benefit for the League. This time Metropolitan Opera soprano Kirsten Flagstad gave a recital. In reporting on the event The New York Times mentioned "For many years Mr. Speyer has given the use of his house to the league for concerts in aid of animals." He also continued to host the annual meetings of the Public Schools Athletic League here.
July 22, 1941 was Speyer's 80th birthday. And he celebrated it in true selfless Speyer fashion. The Times reported he "will share his birthday cake and ice cream today with 250 city children at the [University Settlement Society's] vacation camp at Beacon, N.Y." The campers and guests assembled in Speyer Hall (a gift of Ellin years earlier) that afternoon to sing "Happy Birthday to You" and 12-year old Barbara Tuschner presented Speyer with an album of camp photos.
Later that summer Speyer fell ill. He died in the Fifth Avenue mansion on September 30. Newspapers nationwide printed his accolades. The funeral was held in the mansion on November 3.
Much of Speyer's massive estate went to charities and to the organizations he and Ellin had worked to create. He left the Fifth Avenue residence to the Museum of the City of New York, no doubt envisioning it as a fitting setting for the museum.
The auction of the Speyer art collection and furnishings was conducted in two parts. On April 10 and 11, 1942, the paintings, 18th century French furniture, and antique tapestries were sold. The second auction of mostly furniture took place on April 14 and 15, in the mansion.
|photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Despite Speyer's wishes, the Museum of the City of New York sold the mansion in January 1944. One by one the development firm of Simon Brothers acquired the still-surviving mansions on the Fifth Avenue corner. On December 22, 1946 The New York Times reported that the firm had accumulated the Speyer house, the H. H. Rogers mansion and the Benjamin residences. "Simon Brothers intend to start building operations this spring."
|photo via landmarkbranding.com|