Attorney Frederic Henry Betts was a partner in the firm of Betts, Betts, Sheffield & Betts. His wealth and social status were reflected in his memberships to some of New York's most exclusive clubs--the Metropolitan, Century, and Grolier Clubs among them. He and his wife, the former Mary Louise Hollbrook (who went by her middle name), were well known among Manhattan society. Their summer estate was at Ardsley-on-Hudson.
In March 1897 Betts purchased the large property at the southwest corner of Madison Avenue from Archibald D. Russell for just under $1.8 million in today's money. The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on March 13 that Betts "will build a residence for his own occupancy."
Betts commissioned society architect Grosvenor Atterbury to design the home. His choice of architects is not surprising, since until three years earlier Charles Atterbury, Grosvenor's father, had been Betts's partner in Betts, Atterbury, Hyde & Betts.
The cost of construction brought his total outlay including land to the equivalent of just under $3 million today. Construction progressed with lightning speed and the sumptuous residence was completed within the year.
Atterbury had produced a dignified neo-Georgian style mansion. It was 25-feet wide on the avenue and stretched 95-feet along 65th Street. The centered entrance sat within a portico below a grouping of three windows, fronted by a stone loggia. Each of the second floor windows was enhanced with colorful stained glass transoms. Atterbury used limestone for the quoins and bandcourses, which contrasted with the red brick, and faced the entire fifth floor in stone.
The couple had three children, Louis F. H., Mary E. (who was already married), and Wyllys Rossiter. Louis and Wyllys moved into the mansion with their parents. (Wyllys received his unusual name in honor of his ancestors, early Connecticut Governors George Wyllys and Samuel Wyllys.)
Louise resumed her social routine in the new home. Every Monday morning during the winter season the Ladies' Singing Class met in the Betts residence. Louise had organized it several years earlier and the New-York Daily Tribune deemed it "the oldest organization of its kind in New-York society." On the evening of February 23, 1899 she showed off the group's accomplishments.
The Tribune reported "a very pleasant incident on Thursday evening was the informal reception given Mrs. Frederic L. Betts at her new home, No. 22 East Sixty-fifth-st." Mary assisted her in receiving the guests, including some of the most recognized names in Manhattan society--like Mrs. Charles T. Barney, the William D. Sloanes, the Edward J. Berwinds, the Townsend Burdens, the Koernochans and the Schieffelins. The article noted "The musical part of the entertainment was contributed by the members of the Ladies' Singing Class."
Three weeks later, on March 14, Louise experienced a frightful accident. She was riding down Fifth Avenue in her brougham when a bicyclist, Michael Davay, lost control and ran into the pole of her carriage. Louise's driver was able to control the frightened horse, but Davay suffered a fractured jaw.
|The brougham Mary Betts was riding in was much like the one above. Davay crashed into the pole at the side of the horse. original source unknown|
While Frederick and Louise sometimes summered in Europe, they most often spent the season at their Long Island estate, Mocomanto, in Southampton Village. The house sat on Lake Agawam. Louise had a gondola shipped from Venice in which she would be seen entertaining small groups of four or six on the lake.
|Mary Louise Betts and friends in her Venetian gondola. original source unknown|
On November 11, 1905 Frederic Betts died suddenly in the 65th Street house. In reporting on his death, newspapers remarked on his illustrious career. The Newburgh Register called him "one of the most prominent lawyers in New York," and said "He had been counsel in patent cases for the Western Union Company, American Bell Telephone Company, Edison Electric Light Company and many others."
Louise received the entire "big estate," as worded by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, with the stipulation that she "is to care for the children." Saying that Betts was "classed among the millionaire summer residents" of Southampton, the newspaper estimated the value of Mocomanto alone at $200,000--nearly $5.9 million today.
By 1908 Louise had moved into a Park Avenue apartment. She leased the 65th Street house in August that year to banker James Cunningham Bishop and his wife, Abigail.
Like Mary Louise Betts, Abigail was interesting in honing musical talent. She organized weekly classes for underprivileged children in the house. In an unexpectedly democratic move, she included her four of her five daughters in the classes--three who played violin and one the piano.
On February 16, 1911 The New York Herald reported that she had sent out invitations to an upcoming Children's Orchestra concert in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel. "The concert will be out of the ordinary run of musical entertainments prepared for society," said the article, "as the performers will all be children, prodigies of Mrs. Bishop, and members of her own family."
The article went on "Many women in society provide for the children of the less fortunate tribes in the country in the summer, but in lieu of anything of this sort, Mrs. Bishop has made possible for children of talent whose means do not allow its cultivation a chance for the study of music and for several winters these children have met at her house, No. 22 East Sixty-fifth street and have been trained by Mr. Louis Cornau."
To anyone who knew the Bishops, their married life seemed tranquil. Their names repeatedly appeared in society columns for entertainments like the dinner party on October 15, 1912 for Abigail's niece, Laura Merriam and her fiancé, James Freeman Curtis, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. Two months later a dinner and dance was held in the house for the Bishops' debutante daughters, Mary and Augusta.
But things had been rocky in the Bishop household for several years. What the guests at the glittering debutante dinner and dance probably did not know was that James had moved out on November 9. On January 8, 1913 Abigail sued for divorce, naming Mrs. Lelia Gaines Gwathmey as her husband's mistress. Abigail had given a maid at the Astor Hotel a camera to capture evidence of the dalliance.
The drawn-out hearing was not a pleasant affair. Bishop denied any misconduct and called his wife's charges "the phantoms of a disordered imagination, induced by the excessive us of alcoholic stimulants for the past several years." Affidavits signed by three psychiatrists (known as alienists at the time) prompted an all-caps headline in The New York Herald on February 5, 1913:
ALIENISTS SAY MRS. BISHOP DRANK LIQUOR TO EXCESS
In what might be seen as a attempt to gain sympathy, Abigail filed for bankruptcy on March 8, 1913, claiming her husband refused to support her and the children. She told the court that "the only assets she can actually lay her hands on are the furnishings of her house at 22 East Sixty-fifth street, which she estimates to be worth $1,000."
The Sun, however, pointed out that she owned outright $57,000 shares of stock in the Orchard Spring Water Company (about $1.5 million today), and would receive a $20,000 a year income when the divorce was finalized. Abigail was immediately concerned, however, in the $28,351 she owed her dressmaker, milliner and lawyer.
Things turned physical on the evening of May 22, 1913. James and his brother, Francis, visited Abigail that night. The discussion apparently grew heated, for Abigail called her lawyer, James W. Osborne, and said "My husband and his brother are in my home and my husband has said he would kill you, Mr. Osborne."
Osborne and his nephew, also named James, jumped in a taxicab and arrived at the 65th Street house a few minutes later. Just as they reached the door, Osborne and his brother were leaving. Word were exchanged and Osborne's nephew and James Bishop began throwing punches. The battled went from the porch to 65th Street, and "extended over a good part of the intersection of that street and Madison avenue," reported The New York Herald.
|The colorful and complex stained glass transoms survive in the second floor windows.|
Abigail won her case on May 30. She won custody of their seven-year old daughter, the other four being of the age to choose. They chose their father. The judge, Justice Hendrick, noted that Abigail would most likely have to leave her lavish home.
"It appears that this house is rented by the plaintiff at $10,000 a year...It is evident that if the plaintiff is to live in that house in such circumstances as she has been accustomed to it will be an expensive establishment to maintain."
He was apparently correct, for Abigail moved out within a year and a half. In March 1915 Martina Downing signed a 20-year lease on the house. The Record & Guide noted "Mrs. Downing will move her business to that location."
Madison Avenue had already become highly commercialized with high-end shops. The location was perfect for Martina Downing's dress shop. The designer had created a reputation among fashionable society women. On August 7 The Record & Guide reported that architect Charles F. Peck had designed the renovations for a store in the Madison Avenue elevation.
Martina, her husband, Mortimer J. Downing, and their 19-year old son, Mortimer, Jr., moved into the house. They were looking for a new houseman (a catch-all term for someone available to do general duties) in March 1920. Their ad specified a "steady, reliable, Christian man, with first class references."
Mortimer and Martina worked together in the business, but it was Martina who ran it. The Woman's Home Companion said in July 1923 that she "makes clothes for smart younger New York and may be trusted as an authority."
|Martina Downing designed these summer dinner dresses in 1923. Women's Home Companion, June 1923|
|Seams in the brickwork testify to the missing portico.|
"And so did Mrs. Winthrop Rockefeller, wife of the Governor of Arkansas, Mrs. Leland Hayward (who was once Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law), Mrs. Joseph A. Meehan, Mrs. Julien Chaqueneau, Mrs. Lawrence Copley Thaw, Countess Guy de Brantes, Mrs. Palmer Dixon and other regulars who have their hair done at the Monsieur Marc salon."
In 1985, Mimi Sheraton wrote an article in Harper's Bazaar about the society restaurant Le Cirque. She mentioned "Nancy Reagan is likely to order the [lobster] salad, but when she is at her hairdresser's (Monsieur Marc, 22 East Sixty-fifth Street) and doesn't have time to make it to the restaurant, Sirio sends over a chicken-and-watercress salad."
In the meantime the ground floor shops housed upscale businesses. Harbour Knits opened in 1982; The Green Thumb, a florist, was here the following year; and the gourmet shop Terra Mare by 1995. In 2018 contemporary art gallery Kurimanzutto opened.
Although sadly missing its terminal cornice and its elegant entrance porch, the Betts mansion manages to remind the passerby of its elegant past.
photographs by the author
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