Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The 1847 Gouverneur Morris, Jr. House - 9 Gramercy Park South

In 1847 a flurry of construction was taking place along the southern border of Gramercy Park.  The elegant new park would soon be ringed by opulent brick or brownstone faced homes of wealthy citizens.  Two matching speculative houses were finished that year at Nos. 9 and 10.  Completed in 1848 they were four stories tall above English basements and an ample 26-feet wide.  Their Greek Revival design was, on the most part, understated.  The parlor levels, however, hinted at the upscale nature of the homes and their owners.  The entrances were flanked by fluted pilasters with foliate capitals, the leafy carvings of which were highly influenced by Egyptian Revival.  The two floor-to-ceiling windows almost assuredly were fronted by cast iron balconies.

Converted to a window today, the entrance featured capitals which reflected two current architectural trends--a sort of Greece meets Egypt.

No. 9 became home to the Gouveneur Morris, Jr. family.  Born on his family's estate, Old Morrisania, in the Bronx in 1813, he was the son of Gouverneur Morris, who not only signed the Constitution and the Articles of Confederation, but wrote the Preamble to the United States Constitution.

Morris was a vice-president of the New York and Harlem River Railroad.  He and his wife (who happened to be his first cousin), the former Martha Jefferson Cary, had five children, including Gouverneur Morris III, Anne Carrie Morris, Mary Fairfax Morris, Peter Randolph Morris, and another daughter.

Morris's father had died in 1816 and Old Morrisania passed to him.  The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record later said "Inheriting a large and beautiful estate in West Chester County from his father, Mr. Morris' early years were passed in the occupations of a gentleman farmer, inheriting with his estates a strong interest in nature and all her marvellous processes."

Known familiarly as "Gouverno," much of his professional focus now involved the district around the estate.  He had donated St. Ann's Church there as a memorial to his family; helped develop Port Morris as a commercial port, and gave land in 1848 for the development of a workingman's village to be called Morrisania.

Gouverneur Morris, Jr. from the collection of the Walters Art Museum
So attached to the family homestead was he that when Mary was married to John Alfred Davenport in the chapel of Rose Castle in Carlisle, England on August 15, 1874, The New York Herald described her as the "daughter of Gouverneur Morris, of Old Morrisania, N.Y.," ignoring the town house completely.

But that same year the city annexed Morrisania.  Morris moved his family permanently out of the estate, fearing the neighborhood would become another crowded urban environment.  The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record later explained that because he "had an inherent objection to being one of a million people in a city, left Morrisania and made his home in a quaint anti-revolutionary house at Pelham, belonging to members of his family."  About the same time the family stopped returning to the Gramercy Park residence.  The Record said he was "Not sorry to be far away from the stir and weariness of life."

Morris did not sell No. 9, however.  He leased it.  In the early 1880's George Glanzer lived here.  On January 24, 1882 The Evening Telegram noted that he "will give an elegant dinner party on Saturday."  Later that year the family of Lloyd Aspinwall moved in.

Three days before Christmas in 1882 the house was nearly lost.  At 10:00 on the morning of December 22 a fire started in the basement and quickly spread to the parlor floor.  The Watertown Times reported "The occupants of the house, Mrs. Aspinwall, two children, three servant girls and a butler, were panic-stricken, and their escape by the stairways being cut off, they took refuge on a window sill, where they stood shrieking for help."  Everyone was rescued by fire fighters who raised ladders to the windows.

Gouverneur Morris died on August 20, 1888.  By the time of his death his daughter Mary and her family had moved into the Gramercy Park house.  Earlier that year the New York Evening Telegram had reported "This afternoon Miss Sarah Cowell will give the last of a series of Browning readings, at the residence of Mrs. Alfred Davenport, No. 9 Gramercy park."

J. Alfred Davenport was a corporate lawyer, the head of Davenport, Smith & Perkins.  He traveled to the Southwest  on business early in 1890 and, while returning, was "prostrated by a severe cold," according to the Obituary Record of Graduates of Yale University.  He made it as far as Cincinnati, where he was taken to a hotel suffering from pneumonia.  Within about a week symptoms of typhoid appeared.  He died there on May 3 at the age of 51.

In his memory Mary donated a "mural mosaic" to the church her father had built, St. Mary's Protestant Episcopal Church.  It was unveiled on February 7, 1892.  The New-York Tribune wrote "The decorations represent angelic figures in attitudes of prayer and praise."

Mary and her two daughters, Beatrix Cary and Hettie Gouverneur, remained at No. 9.  The girls were 15- and 13-years-old respectively at the time of their father's death.

Four years later the girls were introduced to society simultaneously, although Hettie was a bit younger than most debutantes.  On December 7, 1894 the New-York Tribune reported "Mrs. J. Alfred Davenport, of No. 9 Gramercy Park, gave a dinner party last night in honor of her daughters, Miss Beatrix Cary Davenport and Miss Hetty Gouverneur Davenport."  And two weeks later on December 20 the Evening Telegram that Mary would be "among the dinner-entertainers of this evening."  The article added "Mrs. Davenport's dinner company will be the finale of the first of her series of receptions which is on this afternoon."

By 1898 Mary and the girls had moved permanently to England.  The magazine Form wrote in its October issue that year "The last members of the Gouverneur Morris branch, who occupied Old Morrisania, was Mrs. J. Alfred Davenport, née Mary Fairfax Morris, now with her daughters...residing in London, England."  But like her father, she retained possession of the Gramercy Park house, preferring to lease rather than sell.

The family of Edward Prime was living here in May 1903 when he and his wife announced that the wedding of their daughter, Charlotte Hoffman Prime, to William Massena Benjamin would take place in Grace Church on June 11.

On March 22, 1919 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Mary had sold No. 9 to Capt. G. W. Bond "who will probably remodel."  The journal noted "This is the former residence of Governor [sic] Morris...The old house still contains the original mahogany doors, panels and is a very good type of the old Colonial interior."

George W. Bond, Jr. was not especially impressed with the intact condition of the vintage residence.  He converted it to non-housekeeping apartments (meaning there were no kitchens).  The Certificate of Occupancy demanded "less than 16 sleeping rooms."

Although the entrance was moved to the basement level, the original framing was preserved and converted to French windows.  A rather attractive two-story metal bay replaced the parlor and second floor windows and the cornices of the other windows were shaved off.  It was, overall, a rather architecturally sympathetic conversion given the period.

Rent on a two-room and bath apartment in the renovated building ranged from $1,500 to $1,800 per year--about $2,100 a month today for the more expensive space.

A subsequent renovation completed in 1940 resulted in three apartments in the basement and two each on the upper stories.  The configuration continued until 1965 when the second floor was converted to just one apartment.

Compared to the other vintage houses along the block, the Gouverneur Morris house survived conversion in relative good shape.  It is not difficult to imagine it as it was when the Morris family climbed the brownstone stoop to the handsome entryway.

photographs by the author

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