Monday, September 16, 2019

The Lost Oscar Straus Mansion - 5 West 76th Street

The still-vacant plot to the right sat at the corner of Central Park West  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Although he was educated as an architect, William T. Evans made his fortune in the dry goods business.  President of the firm Mills and Gibb, the Irish-born merchant was perhaps better known for his knowledge of art and his impressive collection.  In 1890 he possibly surprised many in art circles when he sold off his entire collection and started anew, now focusing on American artworks.

At the same time he set out to provide a new venue for exhibiting his new acquisitions, not to mention a new home for his family.  On November 22 that year the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Evans "will build a semi-detached four-story residence, 40x60" on the corner of 76th Street and Central Park West.  "The dwelling will be first class in every particular, and it will have an art gallery extension which Mr. Evans proposes to place his large private collection of paintings."

Evans appears to have personally designed his new Romanesque Revival-style residence.  The basement and first floor levels were clad in brownstone, while the upper three floors were brick.  The asymmetrical design was splattered with openings of various shapes and sizes, a rounded bay on West 76th Street and a faceted bay on the eastern elevation, a fanciful turret that clung to the corner, gables and dormers.

The 47-year old Evans quickly filled the new house with American works.  In 1891 he loaned pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of art, including Frederick S. Church's Midnight, Edmund Tarbell's Girl with a Violin, George Inness's A Summer Morning, Arthur Parton's Evening, and Homer D. Martin's Madison and Jefferson.  His wife, Mary, was a collector as well, although less passionate about American art.  She loaned the museum French artist  Émile van Marcke's Landscape and Cattle.

A distinct departure from Evans's European collection was Tarbell's Girl with a Violin. (private collection, image via
Evans's memberships reflected his cultural interests.  He was a member of the Lotus Club (where he oversaw its art collection), the American Fine Arts and the Salmagundi Clubs, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the New-York Historical Society, among others.  In 1892 he and Mary sold the plot on 76th Street corner (Nos. 1 and 3) abutting their home to the New York Historical Society.  The museum paid $21,000 for the lot, just under $600,000 today.

No. 5 West 76th Street can be partially glimpsed at the far left, behind the newly erected New-York Historical Society building in 1902.  (original source unknown)

In March 1901 the Evanses sold No. 5 to Oscar Solomon Straus who had recently returned with his family from Turkey.  Straus had resigned his post as Minister to Turkey after having "disputes with the Sublime Porte," as worded by The New York Times.  The newspaper said the Government had supported his resignation "as an act of respect" and that Straus had "left the Sultan to find some way to make good his promises" without him.

Oscar S. Straus - from The American Spirit, but Oscar Straus, 1913 (copyright expired)

Born in Otterberg, Germany, he and his wife, the former Sarah Lavanburg, had three children, Mildred, Aline and Roger Williams Straus.  Sarah had been born into a wealthy Jewish family, the daughter of banker Louis Lavanburg and his wife, Hannah.  She had been educated in private schools.

Sarah Lavanburg Straus.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
The house was the scene of a joyful gathering later that year.  On December 12, 1901 Mildred Caroline Straus was married to Edward Shafer in Temple Emanu-El.  A wedding supper was served in the 76th Street house afterward.  Among the guests were Mildred's uncle, Isidore, part owner of Macy's Department Store, and aunt Ida Straus.

Called by newspapers the "Disraeli of America," Straus's resignation from his post as Minster to Turkey did not diminish his political activities.  In January 1902 he was appointed a permanent member of the Committee of Arbitration at The Hague.  And his connections in government led to highly-visible guests at No. 5.   In 1903, for instance, former President Grover Cleveland was a house guest.  

Both Oscar and Sarah were active in philanthropic causes.  Straus was a director in the Hebrew Orphans Asylum and a member of the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society of New York.

Straus sometimes used entertainments as a means of achieving goals.  When a bitter labor strike paralyzed the coal industry in 1902, Straus was made a vice president of the Arbitration Committee of Thirty-six.  After formal meetings in its Fourth Avenue offices provided no results, Straus invited all parties to a dinner in the 76th Street house.  Newspapers widely credited the event--during which the strike was reportedly not discussed--as leading to a relaxation of tensions.

The humor magazine Puck depicted Straus as a nurse tending to a tantrum-throwing baby during the coal arbitration.  May 28, 1902 (copyright expired)
And on December 9, 1905 Straus hosted a dinner for a highly diverse group that included, among others, Andrew Carnegie, Archbishop John Ireland, Congressman Richard Barthold, and Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University.  The purpose of the gathering was the formation of an American International Law Association.  

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Straus to the post of Secretary of Commerce and Labor in 1906.  He thus became  the country's first Jewish Cabinet member.

The Straus family received devastating news in April 1912.  Isidore and Ida Straus had been heading home from Europe on the R. M. S. Titanic when the ship struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean.  The elderly couple perished together after Ida gave up her seat in a lifeboat to her maid in order to stay with her husband.  "We have been together a number of years," she was reported to have said, "Where you go I will go."

A letter of condolence from Mayor Jay Gaynor arrived at the 76th Street house.  It said in part:

Your brother met his death by neglecting his own safety in his eagerness to work for and save the lives of others.  And his noble wife refused to leave him on board the sinking ship. And thus two noble souls went down to death together.

Oscar Straus continued on in his life of public work.  On December 24, 1915 the New-York Tribune announced that he had been named the new chairman of the Public Service Commission.  It added "Mr. Straus celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday last night with a family gathering at his home, 5 West Seventy-sixth Street."  He told a reporter "I feel as fit as I did thirty years ago.  I enjoy good health and expect to be good for hard work for some time to come."

Sarah was involved in politics, as well.  On March 26, 1920, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported she would be hosting a meeting "of the Hoover women's campaign committee" that afternoon.

The esteem in which Straus was held among the top-most level of government was exhibited in June 1924 when the 71-year-old underwent surgery.  A telegram to Sarah arrived at the 76th Street house that read:

I have been deeply concerned to learn this morning that Mr. Straus has undergone an operation.  Allow me to express my sympathy to both him and yourself with all hopes for his early and complete recovery.  The nation he has served so well and long will wait eagerly for good news of him.
Calvin Coolidge
June 18, 1924

Sarah sent a return telegram to the President assuring him that the operation was entirely successful and that her husband would be home in two weeks.

The operation may have prompted the elderly couple to consider giving up their large private home.  Title was held in Sarah's name and the following year she sold it to the New-York Historical Society.   The organization announced that it would demolish the mansion for a 12-story annex to its existing museum building.  That project would not come to fruition for several years, however.

Then on February 28, 1937 The New York Times reported that the former Straus mansion was to be demolished.  "The classic architecture of the present building will be carried out in the addition.  Walker & Gillette are the architects," it said.

The nearly seamless addition engulfed the corner plot and the Straus residence.

1 comment:

  1. I remembered all the details of Isidore and Ida Straus on the Titanic, and Oscar and Sarah Straus' endless public works etc. But I had forgotten that Oscar Straus had become Secretary of Commerce and Labour. I hope the house had been big enough and elegant enough for all those political gatherings.