|photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1860, Thomas Shields Clarke pursued a career far afield of the railroad industry in which his father was an executive. After graduating from Princeton University he studied at the Art Students League in New York, the Académie Julian in Paris, and ultimately the esteemed École des Beaux-Arts.
Clarke's first real recognition came in 1885 when one of his paintings was exhibited at the Paris Salon. The following year he married Adelaide Knox in Switzerland. The couple would have three children, Alma Adelaide, Beatrice, and Charles John. Having lived abroad for eleven years, in 1894 Clarke brought his family to New York and soon turned his focus to creating a permanent home.
Architect C. P. H. Gilbert was busy designing a number of upscale residences along Riverside Drive and its side blocks. On April 5, 1896 he filed plans for a four-story brick residence on the northeast corner of Riverside Drive and 77th Street for Clarke. The commodious mansion would be 28-feet wide on 77th Street and stretch 83 feet along the Drive. Construction costs were projected at $40,000, or approximately $1.23 million today.
Completed within a year, the red brick structure followed the angle of Riverside Drive with a succession of angles and setbacks. Gilbert drew freely from historic styles. Romanesque Revival appeared in the first floor openings and the medieval corbel table that girded the house above the third floor. An Italian Renaissance hood capped the main entrance above a cascading staircase, and a deeply overhanging Tuscan roof completed the design.
The family had barely moved in before the idyllic quietude of the location with its beautiful vistas of the Hudson River was shattered by dynamite explosions on the opposite side. At a meeting of the West End Association on November 19, 1897, Clarke asked a committee "to report whether property-owners have any remedy for damages due to heavy blasting on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River."
The Clarkes were visible in high society, summering among the wealthy at the best resorts. On June 30, 1899, for instance, The Evening Telegram reported "Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Shields Clarke, of No. 50 Riverside Drive, leave this week for Lenox, where they have taken a cottage."
At the time Clarke had just completed his portion of the Admiral Dewey Memorial--an elaborate triumphal arch and colonnade which would would sit at Madison Square to welcome the admiral to New York. A compliment of well-known sculptors had been hired to create models of the figures that would adorn the arch. Workers then translated them into plaster for the temporary monument. A month after the Clarkes arrived at Lenox The Sun reported on August 27 "The designs for the statue of Commodore Hull, the work of H. K. Bush-Brown, and that of Commodore McDonough, by Thomas Shields Clarke, have not been completed, but work on them will be hurried."
|Among the statues of military figures lining the top of the arch was Clarke's Commodore McDonough. King's Views of New York, 1899 (copyright expired)
And indeed he did. Designed by Wilson Wyre, Fernbrook would be completed in 1904. Although it was a sprawling manor, because Clarke wanted a "rustic" home, it took the form of an overblown English cottage.
|A vintage postcard depicts Fernbrook's charm.
|Thomas Shields Clarke, Brush & Pencil, August 1900 (copyright expired)
The Clarkes spent that winter season in Paris. The Riverside Drive house was in charge of a caretaker, but he did not live in the mansion. He arrived one morning to find the house ransacked by thieves who, according to The New York Times, "carried off nearly $10,000 worth of art treasures, jewelry, valuable antique bronzes, ornaments, silverware, and wearing apparel." While the value on paper was about a quarter of a million in today's dollars, Clarke knew well that some of the items were invaluable. His collection of ancient Greek and Roman bronzes was considered one of the finest in New York.
Notified of the theft by a cable from the caretaker, Clarke sailed home. His great fear was for the bronzes, knowing that uneducated crooks might very well sell them for scrap metal. Detectives spread across the city, scouring pawn shops, art galleries and such. Thankfully, all of the bronze antiquities were found in a junk shop where the dealer said he had purchased the lot for $20.
The break-in prompted Clarke to burglar-proof his Riverside Drive home. Not only did he move the caretaker into the house, he installed "sliding steel blinds and burglar alarms on doors and windows," according to The Times, as well as interior alarms. "If any safe breaker succeeds in getting through the steel blinds he will set going half a dozen burglar alarms, which will arouse the whole block."
The Clarke's entertainments most often took place during the summer, at Fernbrook, than in the Riverside Drive house. Even Beatrice's coming-out dance was held in her father's studio there. And while house guests at Fernbrook always held social significance, none were more impressive than the President and First Lady in 1913. On August 3 The Sun explained "Mr. Clarke was a classmate of President Wilson at Princeton."
A month later the Clarkes sold No. 50 Riverside Drive to Albert E. Smith, the head of the Vitagraph Company. Born in England in 1874, the son of a gardener, Smith had come a long way. The Sun later recalled that he and J. Stuart Blackton "were entertainers in the Lyceum when they first became interested in motion pictures; that was in 1898. Mr. Smith invented a device to eliminate the objectionable flickering, and Mr. Blackton devoted his ability to perfecting the methods of expressing thought through action." By now Vitagraph Company was one of the largest motion picture studios in the nation.
Smith's purchase of the Riverside Drive residence came just months after his marriage to silent film actress Hazel Neason (he had divorced his first wife, Mary May, in 1912).
|The service entrance was tucked around the corner, on the West 77th Street side. from the collection of the New York Public Library
As tensions rose overseas Smith used film as a means toward public awareness. Fearful that America was unprepared for war, he produced The Battle Cry of Peace, mixing entertainment with political statement.
The silent film industry was centered on the west side of Manhattan, in Brooklyn, and in New Jersey at the time. The sprawling Vitagraph studios were in Brooklyn. So elated was Smith when World War I came to an end, that he rewarded his entire staff. On November 17, 1918 the New-York Tribune reported "Everybody in the Vitagraph studio, from office boy to star, was presented with a $5 bill by Albert E. Smith last Monday in honor of the signing of the armistice. And then he gave them a half holiday to go and spent it. And if they stayed in Brooklyn $5 was enough to last them, money goes so much further on the other side of the bridge."
|Albert E. Smith The Sun, May 23, 1915 (copyright expired)
With the war now over, Smith purchased the rights to Empey's book, Over the Top, and cast Empey to play himself in the film version. The resultant work was as much thrilling entertainment as documentary.
|New-York Tribune, March 31, 1918 (copyright expired)
Smith's use of the film medium as an important documentary tool continued. On December 8, 1918 The Sun reported "At the request of several prominent anthropologists Albert E. Smith, president of the Vitagraph Company, will begin recording by motion pictures the dances, games, sports and all things possible to a complete pictorial history of the American Indian early this spring." Smith was intent on memorializing the disappearing culture authentically. "Accuracy will predominate in the picturization, and the spectacular, while not neglected, will be sacrificed for historical values."
|Hazel Neason Smith, original source unknown
The auction listing revealed the sumptuous interiors, saying that the "handsome furnishings and embellishments" were "by the Tiffany Studios, W. & J. Sloane and other First Class Establishments." The oil paintings were sold separately in the grand ballroom of the Plaza Hotel later.
Smith's sale of the unusual brick mansion came at a time when the opulent homes of Riverside Drive were being bulldozed for modern apartment buildings. No. 50 survived only nine more years. On December 3, 1929 The New York Times reported that the 50 Riverside Drive, Inc., Isaac Polstein, Inc. planned at fifteen-story apartment building on the site. That structure, designed by Gronenberg & Leuchtag, survives.
|photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York