Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The J. Walter Thompson House - 14 West 76th Street

In 1899, the year after he had begun construction on a row of four opulent residences on West 76th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, James Carlew brought architects Cleverdon & Putzel back to add three more.  Each of the seven Beaux Arts style was 25-feet wide and five stories tall.  The cost of construction was $40,000 each, or around $1.25 million today.

The homes were harmoniously similar, designed in a purposely off-balance A-B-B-A-B-A-C configuration.  No. 14 and its next door neighbor at 16 were mirror images.  The centered bronze-grilled entrance doors were protected by a columned portico  The service entrance to the left sat below a round window framed by a carved wreath.  A balustrated balcony fronted the bowed bay of the second and third floors.  The windows of the fourth floor opened onto a balcony protected by a stone railing, their ornate carved enframements capped by molded cornices.  Intricately decorated panels separated the fifth floor openings, below a deeply overhanging bracketed cornice.

On October 29, 1901 The Sun reported that Carlew had sold No. 14 to "a Mr. Thompson" and mentioned that only one of the seven was left unsold.  The buyer's identity was finally revealed in December when title was placed in the name of Margaret H. Thompson.

She was the former Margaret Riggs Bogle and had married James Walter Thompson in Brooklyn on June 10, 1879.  Margaret's father was the well-known portrait artist, James Goble.  And Thompson's mother, before her marriage to Alonzo De Calvis Thompson, was Cornelia Ann Roosevelt, a cousin of the newly-elected President.

Born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on October 28, 1847, Thompson had grown up in Ohio.  Around the time of the Civil War he moved to New York City.  He obtained a job as a bookkeeper and general assistant in a small advertising agency; and eventually purchased it from his employer.  His vision would revolutionize advertising in America.

As explained by The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography in 1916, "In 1868 most of the magazines were literary ventures, some of which like 'Harper's Monthly,' refused outside advertising on any terms."  But Thompson was convinced that if he could get advertisers and publishers to cooperate, the advantages to both "would be enormous."

When he placed a highly successful advertisement for one of his clients in Godey's Ladies Book and Peterson's Magazine, his foot was in the door.  The J. Walter Thompson Co. was, by now, "one of the largest as well as oldest advertising agencies in the United States."

The Thompsons had one son. Walter Roosevelt Thompson was 10-years old when the family moved into the 76th Street house.  Their 14-room summer home was in New London, Connecticut where Thompson's yacht was moored at their private dock.  The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography made note of his yachting passion, saying he had "owned a boat of some kind" since he was 8-years old.

J. Walter Thompson posed with cigar in hand in his New York Yacht Club outfit.  The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1916 (copyright expired)

The winter season found Margaret entertaining.  On February 15, 1903, for instance, a single line in the New York Herald advised "Mrs. J. Walter Thompson of No. 16 West Seventy-sixth street, entertained at cards on Wednesday."  But the house was shuttered during the summer season when the family was either in Connecticut or traveling.  They spent the summer of 1904 in "an extended trip through Europe," as mentioned in The New York Herald.

Thompson fell victim to swindlers in 1914.  The man who had created an advertising empire from essentially nothing was surprisingly duped by Charles Ubelmesser and William Wenderhold.  The paid offered him the position of president of the newly-formed American Transparel Company in exchange for a significant investment in the firm.  They told him, according to the New-York Tribune on May 2, that they possessed "a secret formula, discovered hidden under a sphinx in Egypt, that would make all wood and metal work shine like new."

The secret formula was varnish.  Ubelmesser and Wenderhold were arrested and convicted of swindling.  The amount of Thompson's investment was not disclosed by newspapers; but Harold Woofenden, who was hired as one of the "numerous" sales managers, turned over $500--about $13,000 in today's money.

By now Thompson seems to have preferred to stay at home while his wife and son traveled.  That year the New-York Tribune reported that "Mrs. J. Walter Thompson and W. Roosevelt Thompson are at Bretton Woods" in the White Mountains; and a few months later, on January 10, 1915 The Sun noted that Margaret had arrived at Hot Springs, Virginia.

The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.  Seven months later 26-year old Walter enlisted in the Navy.  He was promoted to lieutenant on July 1, 1919.  In the meantime Margaret assisted in the war effort by serving as chairman of the Women's Liberty Loan Committee.

Following the war Walter returned to No. 14 and, once again, he and his mother traveled while his father remained home.  On June 25, 1922 the New York Herald reported Margaret and Walter had arrived at Briarcliff Manor Lodge; and the following month they were at the New London, Connecticut residence.

No. 14 at left, is a match to No. 16 next door.
At the time the extended family of historian and author Hopper Strike Mott lived in the four-story house at No. 288 West End Avenue.  The Motts were one of the oldest families in America, first arriving in the first half of the 17th century.  The Hopper Farm once covered both sides of what would become Broadway above 50th Street.

On June 17, 1924 The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Mott had died "at the close of a year's illness in which thirty-two doctors, eighteen nurses and two Christian Scientists had been employed to save his life and the health of his niece, a cripple from childhood.  Soon after the funeral services next Wednesday all remaining members of the Mott family--his mother, 92 years old; his widow, his brother and sons--will move from the Mott home on West End avenue to escape the darkness caused by the erection of an apartment house next door.  The brother, Alexander H. Mott, said the family estate had dwindled during the years until now the few properties owned were hardly enough to provide food and shelter."

Alexander Hosack Mott had greatly overstated the facts.  In fact, the Motts were quite well-to-do.  His search for a new home ended at No. 14 West 76th Street when he purchased the house from the Thompsons, who moved to No. 11 East 68th Street.

Moving into the house were Thompson's wife, the former Elizabeth Harrison Cooper, their daughter Winifred Striker Mott, and Alexander's mother, Ruth Ann Wallace.   Ruth was born on December 3, 1827, the daughter of John J. and Sara Shaw Schuyler.  She had married John Hopper Mott in 1850.  Following his death she married dry goods merchant David Wallace in 1873.  He died in 1904.

On April 24, 1925, just a year after the family moved in, Elizabeth "suddenly" died.  Her funeral was held in the house three days later.  Unexpectedly, Alexander announced Winifred's engagement on October 29 that same year.  Her marriage to Warburton C. Webb took place in the Church of the Transfiguration on November 7; a surprising breach of mourning protocol.

Ruth Anne Wallace seemed in perfectly fine health when she went to bed on Saturday night, May 23, 1931.  But the following morning she was heard coughing and her doctor was called.  By the time he arrived at the house she was dead.  The New York Times reported "'Old age' was the cause."  She was 103-years old.  The North Shore Journal added that Alexander "is more than 80 years old and in exceptionally good health."

No. 14 was sold in 1938 and a conversion, completed the following year, resulted in one apartment on the first floor, two each of the upper floors, and one on the newly-built penthouse level, unseen from the street.  A subsequent renovation in 1954 divided the first through fourth floors into three apartments each.

The apartments were home to upscale tenants throughout the century.  In the 1950's one was occupied by Alvaro Carranco-Avila, Mexican attache to the United Nations.  Despite the changes inside, the majestic appearance of the Thompson house is outwardly unchanged.

photographs by the author

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