Monday, October 14, 2019

The Lost Cassius M. Wicker House - 599 West End Avenue

The For Sale signs in the windows date this photo to 1923.  Brilliant stained glass transoms can be seen at the second and third stories.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

On October 1, 1887 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide pointed out that architect J. H. Taft was "working on plans for ten first-class brown stone and brick residences, to be built by Squier & Whipple."  Joseph H. Taft was highly busy at the time on the Upper West Side; and this project may have actually been for one of his major clients, William Earl Dodge Stokes, who sometimes disguised his involvement by using the names of other builders' or developers' on the building applications.

Whoever was behind the project; it would result in Taft's producing ten upscale homes that wrapped the southwest corner of West End Avenue and 89th Street.  The Record & Guide projected that "these dwellings will exhibit some of the most satisfactory architectural work on the west side."

Squier & Whipple added to the confusion by listing itself as "architects and builders" of the house in an advertisement for the row in the West End Avenue Association's 1888 brochure "West End Avenue."  It described the design of "dwelling houses" as "Old English, enriched with sculptured panels and carved stone around doors and windows."  Upscale details inside included "Cabinet trim of Mahogany, Oak and Ash on each and every story.  Hard wood floors.  Perfect sanitary plumbing, all first-class"

Although the advertisement described the style as "Old English;" the houses were in fact a mixture of styles that included a melding of Queen Anne and Flemish Renaissance Revival, with Dutch stepped gables and dormers, turrets and stained glass.  Each cost an average of $20,000 to build--about $563,000 in 2019 dollars.

All ten homes were sold in 1888, before the last going for just over $1 million in today's dollars.  The showpiece of the row was the 80-foot wide corner house, No. 599 West End Avenue.  Its impressive entrance portico above a dog-legged stoop faced West 89th Street.  The undressed brownstone of the first floor provided a contrast to the red brick facade above.

The purchaser of No. 599 seems to have overextended himself and the house was quickly lost to the New York Life Insurance Co. in foreclosure.  On May 12, 1890 Cassius Milton Wicker bought it for $41,500 (just under $1.2 million today).

Wicker moved into the house with three children, Henry Halladay, Lucy Southworth, and Cyrus French.  Wicker's wife, the former Augusta Carroll French had died a year earlier.  Also living in the West End Avenue house was Wicker's widowed mother, the former Maria Delight Halladay.

Cassius Milton Wicker, Prominent and Progressive Americans, 1902 (copyright expired)

Wicker's career was wide-flung.  The 1903 Geneological and Family History of the State of Vermont called him a "railroad president and manager, financier and investigator."  Born in in Vermont on August 25, 1846, three of his ancestors had arrived on the Mayflower--Mary Chilton, Elder Brewster and William Latham.  He had gone west at the age of 21, settling in St. Louis where he became involved in the Star Union Railroad Line.  By the time he moved to New York City in 1887, he was vice president of the Colorado Eastern Railroad.  Now he was an executive in several railroad and surface car lines, a partner in Wicker Brothers, bankers and brokers, a vice-president of the Washington Savings Bank of New York, chairman of the board of the Bank of Discount, and a director in several other banks and corporations.

The Wickers' summer estate was The Locusts near North Ferrisburgh, Vermont.  The Successful American said "The old New England homestead has been enlarged and added to by its present occupant, as only a dweller of a city can appreciate and adapt the suggestions of Nature to a country habitation."

Henry Wicker was 14-years old when the family moved into No. 599.   Before many years he would be dipping his toe into social affairs.  On January 1, 1893 The New York Times reported on the New Year's Eve party of the young Brock sisters.  "A gay company of young people clad in fantastic costumes was the old year out last night at 265 West Seventy-third Street as the guests of Miss Edna Brock and Miss Georgie Brock.  There were about seventy-five masqueraders present."  Among the youthful heirs with prestigious names like Stokes, Seward, and de Peyster was Henry Wicker.

Henry studied at the preparatory Berkeley School where he was well-known for his athletic prowess both as a football and baseball player.  The Sun described the boy as "a tall, manly fellow, handsome and muscular."

The year after the Brock sisters' party, Henry graduated from the Berkeley School and was accepted at Yale for the following fall.   The family did not go to The Locusts that summer, but leased a cottage at Swampscott, Massachusetts, on the ocean.  The Sun described the area saying "The beach at Swampscott stretches out to meet Massachusetts Bay, and every cottager there possesses on or more boats."

Henry wanted a boat, too.  According to The Sun, "He had long known how to swim, he pulled a strong oar, and was a fairly good sailor, so his father bought for him a large dory, rigged with a leg-o'-mutton sail."  Nearly every day that summer Henry spent hours on the water and became a familiar sight to the local fishermen.

The family had a house guest as the summer drew to a close.  On Tuesday morning, September 11, Henry invited his cousin, "Miss Halladay," to sail with him to Marblehead.  The family was seriously concerned when they had not returned by dinner time; but just as they were about to start a search the two walked in.  As it turned out the water became so rough that Henry wisely pulled the boat into a fishing settlement and they walked home.

The following day Cassius and his mother had business to take care of, so it was arranged that all the young people would go to "The Willows," described by The Sun as "a sort of Coney Island on a small scale."  Henry told his sister and cousin that while they went to the train station to see their father and grandmother off, he would rush over to retrieve his dory.  He promised he would be back before they returned.

But he was never seen by the family again.

The girls went on to The Willows, leaving word with a servant to have Henry join them there.  When they returned at 3:00 he had not shown up.  At 5:00 the girls went to the fishing hamlet and inquired about him.  He had been seen sailing off toward Egg Rock, about five miles distant.  The fishermen were only a little concerned that there had been a "wind flaw," or sudden gust, that morning.  The Sun reported "If the flaw had struck the dory--well the old fishers gravely shook their heads."

Two days later, at 11:00 on Wednesday morning, the fishing schooner Acacia saw Henry's dory bottom-up.  Tugboats were chartered to patrol the waters and shores to no avail.  Four months later the family abandoned all hope.  On January 12, 1895 a brief noticed appeared in The New York Times:  

Lost at sea, off Marblehead, Tuesday, September 11, 1894, Henry Halladay Wicker, aged 18 years, 7 months, and 2 days, eldest son of Cassius M. Wicker, and of Augusta French Wicker, deceased.

Henry's body was never found and his name was carved into the granite monument in the family plot in the North Ferrisburg, Vermont cemetery, "Henry Halladay Wicker, lost at sea off Marblehead."

Maria Delight Wicker died in the West End Avenue house on April 9, 1903.  Her funeral was held in the drawing room the following afternoon.  She was buried in the North Ferrisburg cemetery, near Henry, on the next day.

At the time of his grandmother's death, Cyrus was 19-years old, attending Yale.  Like his brother, he proved himself athletically, earning attention for his abilities on the track and as an oarsman.  He gradated with honors in 1905 and went on earn his law degree from New York Law School in January 1907.  That same year he received a "special certificate" in International Law from Columbia University.  

On March 10, 1907 The New York Times reported that he was appointed a Rhodes scholar and "will enter Balliol College at Oxford."  The following year Cyrus updated his classmates, writing in the 1908 History of the Class of 1905:

I take tea regularly now at half after four, have a private 'scout' who brings in the morning tub and serves breakfast and lunch within my own rooms in Balliol College, and I go to lectures in great Gothic halls with Elizabethan ceilings and windows glowing with mediaeval blazonry.

I have grown almost used to my clothes, which are of genuine Harris tweed with five pockets on the outside and large leather buttons; have joined the Dramatic Society here, the American Club and the Oxford Union, and have tried 'soccer,' cricket, and lately and disastrously, punting on the Isis.

Cyrus focused on International Law at Oxford.   On January 17, 1909, The New York Times foreign correspondent in Berlin reported "Cyrus French Wicker, a graduate of Yale and a Rhodes Scholar of Balliol College, Oxford, has come to Berlin to act as private secretary to Ambassador [David Jayne] Hill.  He expects to return to Oxford for the Spring semester."

In the meantime, Cassius Wicker's name appeared in print for a surprising incident.  In addition to his many positions in railways and banks, Wicker owned real estate.   Among his holdings was a building at No. 118 West 49th Street, where he rented rooms to Polish actress Madame Alexandra Viarda in October 1909 "so that her company might have a place to rehearse 'Die Braut von Messina,'" according to the New-York Tribune on December 25.

The actress did not prove to be an easy tenant, prompting the Tribune to say "What with bickerings between landlord and tenant and soliloquies of sweeping passion from morn until night, Vicker [sic] has lived under a constant strain for some time."   Wicker again confronted the actress on December 23 after she and her company took over a storeroom in the building not included in their lease.  

Witnessing the conflict was the actress's manager, 27-year old Baron Frederick Joseph von Schiller.  A native of Germany, Von Schiller had drawn attention to himself a few years earlier when he joined the Unites States Army, but, according to The Evening Telegram, "growing tired of barracks life, he deserted."  He was arrested and sentenced to three years in the military prison on Governor's Island.  Just eight months before the confrontation between Wicker and Viarda, he had been pardoned by President Taft after much lobbying from Madame Viarda.

While Wicker and Viarda argued heatedly, von Schiller lost his temper.  "During the argument Von Schiller rushed up and struck Wicker so the latter told the magistrate and threw him over a trunk," reported the New-York Tribune.  The article said "Cassius M. Wicker has no sympathy with the tragic muse when it comes to being thrown over a trunk by one of its devotees...Wicker promptly took his grievance to Magistrate Kernochan, in the West 54th street court, and had his alleged assailant arrested yesterday on a charge of assault."

Von Schiller was convicted and fined $10 (about $285 today).  But worse for him was the embarrassment caused when the publicity prompted a closer look at the baron.  A week later, on January 3, the New-York Tribune informed its readers that while von Schiller "declares himself to be a descendant of Germany's famous poet, and inasmuch as this assertion has received widespread publicity, it may be just as well to state in the most emphatic manner that his pretensions are entirely without foundation."  Not only was he not related to poet Friedrich Schiller, neither was he a baron.

With only he and Lucy still in the West End Avenue house, Wicker placed it on the market that November.  It was sold a month later to Ada B. Callender who almost immediately leased it to the Hamilton Institute for Boys.  An announcement in The New York Press on August 30, 1911 read "The 20th year of the Hamilton Institute for Boys will open in its New Home at 599 West End Av."  The academy offered college and commercial preparation courses.  Its founder and principal, N. Archibald Shaw, Jr. and his wife moved into the mansion.

Advertisements offered "Visual Instruction in History, Geography and Science.  Lessons prepared at school.  Gymnasium, Outing Classes, Athletic Field."  That curriculum broadened with the United States' entry into World War I.  An advertisement on October 6, 1918 noted "Special Military preparation for boys 15 to 19."

It was about the same time that the Institute got a new landlord in Catherine F. Smith.  The school would have to find a new home after March 1922 when the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that "Mrs. C. F. Smith leased to a tenant, for a term of 21 years, the 4-sty and basement stone dwelling 599 West End av."   

That tenant was the Columbia Preparatory School, which operated from one block away at the northwest corner of West End Avenue and 88th Street.  It was run by headmaster and owner, F. Arthur Clawson.   The New York Times reported "The building will be entirely remodeled and every modern convenience and equipment installed for classrooms, dormitories, gymnasium, swimming pool, dining quarters and outdoor kindergarten."  The article added that the school would retain possession of its other building, "as a girls dormitory."

The Columbia Preparatory School's 21-year lease was soon curtailed.  On July 18, 1923 The New York Times reported that Catherine Smith had sold the house to "an investor, who will improve the site with a ten-story apartment."  The selling price was $75,000, about $1.1 million today.

By then No. 599 was the last hold out along the West End Avenue block.  Demolition permits were issued in 1924 and architect brothers George and Edward Blum managed to designed the 12-story apartment which squeezed itself into the domestic footprint of the Wicker mansion.

photograph via

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