The first houses began rising around the recently-completed Gramercy Park (or Gramercy Place as it was sometimes called) in the early 1840's. Among them was No. 13 on the south side of the park, finished in 1847. The brownstone-fronted residence was an ample 27-feet wide and rose four stories above the high English basement. Italianate in style, its pair of French doors at the parlor level opened onto a wide cast iron balcony. It boasted at least one cutting-edge amenity--running water supplied by the new Croton Reservoir.
|No. 13 is seen as it originally appeared in this 1877 print. It sits to the right of the highlighted Samuel Tilden residence. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The house (which was occasionally referenced by the East 20th Street address of 114) became home to the family of Moses Maynard, Jr. An alderman at the time and the secretary and treasurer of the Long Island Railroad Company, Maynard was, like all his Gramercy Park neighbors, wealthy and prominent.
He appears to have conducted much of his city-related business from his home. On September 5, 1849 the Board of Aldermen passed a resolution to widen Dey Street by ten feet--a project which would affect many property owners. An announcement in the New-York Daily Tribune advised that any objections be made in writing and sent to Maynard "at his house, No. 13 Grammercy [sic] Park."
On July 30, 1855 Maynard, called "a well-known citizen" by The New York Times, died in the Gramercy Park home. His funeral was held there the following day.
By 1860 lawyer Edward M. Willett had moved his family into No. 13. A member of the firm Willett & Grieg, he was married to the former Amelia Ann Stephens. (Willett had been a Columbia College classmate and good friend of her brother, John Lloyd Stephens, who is remembered for finding and mapping Mayan ruins in 1839.)
On the night of December 9, 1868, Thomas F. Barton forced open a rear window and entered the house. He quickly gathered up two overcoats, and six silver napkin rings and other articles worth, according to Willett, $145 (about $2,650 in today's money). The burglar's desperate circumstances were evidenced in that among the those "other articles" was a pair of Willett's shoes.
A week later, on the night of December 15, Barton tried again at the home of a neighbor, politician Samuel J. Tilden. Caught in the act, he was arrested. When he appeared before the judge he was wearing Edward Willett's shoes. Blamed for a string of other burglaries, he was sentenced to seven years in State Prison.
The Willetts remained at No. 13 until the spring of 1884 when they sold it to Frank Work, Jr. and his wife, Emma. The Real Estate Record & Guide pointed out that the purchase came "with right to use Park" and reported the sale price at $50,000--about $1.32 million today. Before moving in the Works had "interior alterations" done. They apparently went no further than cosmetic updating since no architect was involved.
Frank Work, Jr. was a partner in the brokerage firm of Work, O'Keeffe & Co. at No. 68 Broadway, with Samuel J. O'Keeffe. James H. Work, Frank's attorney brother, served as the firm's counsel. James Work and Samuel O'Keeffe involved themselves in a shady $7,000 loan transaction with William F. Croft in January 1889. It ended in the courts and was most likely a significant factor in the collapse of Work, O'Keeffe & Co. in 1891.
On July 9, 1892 The Evening Telegram reported that the Works had sold "No. 13 Gramercy Park (virtually No. 114 East Twentieth street)" to John E. Cowdin for $70,000. The price, equal to just under $2 million today, reflected the constant--actually increasing--property values along the Park.
Cowdin and his wife, the former Gertrude Cheever, had a daughter, Ethel, and two sons, Elliott Channing and John Cheever. Their summer home was in Tuxedo Park and they would later add a country estate in East Norwich, Connecticut.
An 1879 graduate of Harvard, Cowdin was the president of the Grand Street Realty Company. But it was for his polo abilities that he was perhaps better known. His many awards and championships would earn him a posthumous place in the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame in 2007.
On January 13, 1894 the Cowdins received a sudden and unexpected house guest. A close friend of the family, Baron Rudolph de Wardener, left Brentano's bookstore on Broadway around 4:00 that day and climbed aboard a streetcar. Because of the crowd trying to file into the car, he stepped onto the front platform.
The Sun reported "The car started, and just as the Baron was about to open the front doors to get inside, the wheels of the car struck the curve just below Seventeenth street, and the Baron was thrown violently from the platform and ten feet into the street." The article said diplomatically that he "is a heavy man" and the force of the fall broke his arm in three places and crushed his elbow.
In excruciating pain, he was taken by cab from one doctor's office to another for a hour--but none was home. "Finally, when almost unconscious from pain and loss of blood, he succeeded in finding Dr. Robert F. Weir" who treated him, according to the article. Because the Baron lived on Long Island, "he was taken to the house of his friend, John E. Cowdin, No. 13 Gramercy Park, where the fractured bones were set, though the elbow was so badly shattered that little could be done for it." The Cowdins' guest remained until January 25, when it was necessary to remove him to St. Luke's Hospital.
Entertainments in the Cowdin house were often lavish. On February 23, 1895, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "Mrs. John E. Cowdin, of No. 13 Gramercy Park, will give a fancy-dress dance to-night."
A less elaborate event took place on January 14, 1900. Gertrude was a pianist and, according to the New-York Tribune, "well known in musical circles." That night she gave a small dinner party for the Polish pianist and composer Ignancy Jan Paderewski and his wife, Helena. "It was an informal affair and limited," said the New-York Tribune. Among the guests were the Cowdins' across-the-park neighbors, Henry W. Poor and his wife and conductor-composer Walter J. Damrosch and his wife, Margaret.
Ethel was introduced to society at "a large reception" in the house on December 14, 1905. The debutante's social status was evidenced in the surnames of the girls who assisted in receiving, including Roosevelt, Fish, Atterbury and Tuckerman.
In the spring of 1908 Gertrude sailed to Europe, quite likely to shop for fashions for the coming summer season. In April John received an urgent telegram to sail immediately "because of the illness of his wife." His steamship docked on May 3. According to the New-York Tribune, "Mr. Cowdin arrived in Paris a few hours before his wife died."
On May 17 Cowdin arrived back in New York on the French liner La Touraine with Gertrude's body. Her funeral was held in the Gramercy Park house the following morning. The New York Evening Telegram reported that it was attended "by a large gathering of well-known people, including a delegation of members of the Colony Club," which she had helped found. The article noted that among "the collection of beautiful floral tributes was a wreath of white carnations bearing the card of Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt."
Ethel was married to Charles Morgan in St. George's Church on June 4, 1910. The Evening Telegram noted that "Owing to the family being in mourning, the reception which will held following the ceremony at the home of Mr. Cowdin, No. 13 Gramercy Park, will be very small."
Two years later there would be two more Cowdin weddings. On June 5, 1912 John Cheever Cowdin was married in California, and about two weeks later, on June 24, his father married Madeleine Knowlton. The wedding, which took place in the home of the bride's mother, was small and "was followed at 4 o'clock by a reception, for which about 300 invitations were sent out," said The New York Times.
Four years later Cowdin hired architect Adolph Mertin to remodel the Gramercy Park house into apartments. Mertin's extensive plans, filed in January 1916 called for a new facade, elevators, and extending the building to the rear.
The completed make-over left no hint of the former brownstone. The stoop had been removed and the entrance moved to the former English basement level. It was recessed within an arched opening which held a charming sculpture of a youth. Each of the apartments had vast studio-type windows that looked out onto the Park.
An advertisement offered a three-room and bath apartment in 1917 for $1,700 per year; or about $2,775 a month today. Interestingly, among the initial residents was John Cowdin's still unmarried son, Elliott. Also in the building were the families of Hendrick Suydam, Dr. Edward Rufus, and Henry Lee Hobart.
The Hobarts, whose country estate was at East Hampton, Long Island, were socially visible. Henry's wife, Marie, was a sometimes playwright, and the author of the "St. Agnes Mystery Plays." In May 1920 she hosted a luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria to announce the engagement of their daughter, Margaret Jefferys Hobart, to the Very Rev. George B. Myers, dean of Holy Trinity Church in Havana, Cuba.
|Expensive automobiles line the curb as a woman in a fur collar strolls by Gramercy Park around 1940. photo via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services|
"Mrs. Wenzell at her home last night rather reluctantly admitted that the report of her stage aspirations was correct," said the article. Zillah made it clear that Adolphe was comfortable with the move. "In all my plans and aspirations I have the fullest support of my husband. He is an engineer and in his business has to do a good deal of traveling. We are completely in accord in the idea that a woman should have some useful and serious work to do in the world."
Well-to-do tenants continued to make No. 13 their home over the next decades, like author and actor John W. Vandercook who moved in with his new bride, the former Jane Perry, in 1938.
A renovation in 1995 resulted in a total seven apartments within the building. As it did in 1917, Adolph Mertin's bold transformation makes its own statement among its 19th century neighbors.
photographs by the author