Monday, April 6, 2020

The Lost James W. Gerard House - 17 Gramercy Park

The delicate Gothic style cast iron balcony matched the areaway fencing.  from Old Buildings of New York City, 1907 (copyright expired)

Samuel B. Ruggles laid out Gramercy Square in 1832.  Banker Elihu Townsend was among the first purchasers of lots on which elegant mansions would begin rising a decade later.  On March 25, 1844 he sold a 33-foot wide plot on the south side of the park to James W. Gerard.  His mansion, No. 17, would be among the first, if not the first completed on the square.  It was also said to be the third brownstone-fronted house in Manhattan--a trend that would eventually change the personality of New York City homes forever.

Gerard's architect's innovations went beyond the brownstone facing.  In 1840 Richard Upjohn had introduced the Gothic Revival style to New York City in his Trinity Church far downtown.   The Gerard house was almost assuredly the first Gothic Revival style residence in the city.

Four stories tall above an English basement, its double-doored entrance was recessed deeply within a portico, the free-standing columns of which supported miniature turrets and a castellated balcony.  The floor-to-ceiling parlor windows which opened onto a wide cast iron balcony provided views of the park and welcomed ventilation in the warm months.  Square headed drip moldings crowned the openings and a frieze of pointed arches ran below the simple cornice.

James Watson Gerard was born in New York City in 1794 and graduated from Columbia College in 1811.  He was admitted to the bar in 1816.  Interested in civic good from an early age, in 1824 he founded the House of Refuge for Juvenile Delinquents, the first such establishment in the country.  He also took an active role in Gramercy Square and the first meeting of the park's trustees was held in the Gerard house in 1844.

His wife was the former Eliza Sumner, daughter of Increase Sumner who was Governor of Massachusetts and a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  The couple had four children, William Sumner (who died young), Ida, Juliette Ann, and James Watson (the fourth James Watson Gerard in the line).

Gerard made his mark on the city's newly-formed police department that same year.  In 1843 the Metropolitan Police--a professional force--was formed.  Up to then the officers wore no uniforms.  One anonymous historian remembered in 1907 "Occasionally, an ordinary looking man would be seen wandering about the streets, and, if the wind happened to turn aside the lapel of his coat, one might observe a small metal shield.  This was the only indication of his office."  Henry Collins Brown, his 1924 book Fifth Avenue Old and New, was more direct, saying that at the time the officers "were dressed for the most part like tatterdemalions."

Gerard lobbied to created military type uniforms which would signify rank, based loosely on the London model.  But his idea was met with opposition.  So when he and Eliza were invited to a fancy dress ball at the home of Charlotte and William Coventry Waddell in 1844, he arrived "in a costume that illustrated his idea--blue coat, brass buttons, helmet and club," said Brown.  "So convincing was his demonstration that the Common Council shortly afterwards adopted the idea, which is substantially the uniform worn today."

James, Jr. followed in his father's professional footsteps, graduating from Columbia College in 1843.  After serving as United States attaché at London, he entered his father's law firm, Platt, Gerard & Buckley.

In 1859 Juliette Ann married one of her father's law partners, Thomas C. T. Buckley.  Her sister Ida married British consul J. Frederick Wiggin.  And on October 31, 1866 James, Jr. married Jenny J. Angel, daughter of former Minister to Sweden Benjamin F. Angel.  Her mother was the former Julia Jones, daughter of Captain Horatio Jones.  The bride was also a direct descendant of Elder William Brewster, who arrived on the Mayflower.

James's marriage was the only joyous occasion for the Gerard household that year.  Both Juliette Ann and Eliza died in 1866.  James and his bride moved into the Gramercy Park mansion with his father.

Two years later Gerard retired from his legal practice, although he continued to hold the position of Inspector of Public Schools.  He died in the house at the age of 80 on February 7, 1874.

Gerard's will was, according to The New York Herald, "a very long and elaborate document."  James received "his stables in East Twentieth street, near Third avenue [and] all his horses and carriages" as well as "all his furniture, plate, wines, paintings (except the 'Queen of Sheba'), books engravings and works of art in the late residence of the testator, No. 17 Gramercy Park."  (Gerard had promised Ida the excluded painting.)

The house was inherited jointly by James and Ida; however their father had his ideas about it.  "He advises that his son shall, if practicable, buy out the interests of the testator's daughter and son-in-law, T. C. T. Buckley, in the residence and live in it himself."  Jennie was also a beneficiary of the will, receiving "a large lot of land and three houses in East Boston, and other valuable property," according to The New York Herald.

James did, indeed, purchase his sister's half of the house.  Like his father, he was now a respected attorney, specializing in real estate and property law.  He and Jenny had three children, James Watson, Sumner, and Julian Monroe.

Gerard was elected to the State Senate in 1876 and served one term.  He wrote several books on history, the most important being The Peace of Utrecht.   The wealth and social position of the family were evidenced in his memberships to the Players, Tuxedo, St. Nicholas Society and Union Clubs.

The Gerards were out of the city for the winter season of 1881-82 and they leased the mansion to General George B. McClellan and his wife, Nelly.  McClellan was nationally known for his service during the Mexican-American and Civil Wars (although not universally lauded).  On December 4, 1881 The Sun advised "Gen. and Mrs. McClellan have issued invitations for Thursday evenings in January at their new residence, 17 Gramercy Park, which they have rented for the winter from Mr. James W. Gerard."

Social events in the Gerard house were often lavish.  The New-York Tribune later recalled "Mr. and Mrs. Gerard gathered about them some of the brightest spirits of the worlds of literature, art and fashion."

On December 6, 1891 The Sun reported "Mr. and Mrs. James W. Gerard gave an elaborate dinner last night at their residence, 17 Gramercy Park, in honor of Mrs. George Pendelton Bowler.  The table was handsomely decorated with American beauty roses and ferns, and the tall candelabra were covered with pink and white satin shades."  Among the guests that night were some of Manhattan's most prominent citizens, including the Nicholas Fishes, the Byram K. Stevenses, Ward McAllister, and Mrs. Blanche Cruger.  Also in attendance was Colonel Cuthbert Larking of England, "who was equerry to the Duke of Connaught and attached to the Queen's household."

James Gerard died in the house on January 28, 1900.  In reporting on his death The Tammany Times called him "a gentleman of scholarly attainments."  The residence was inherited by his 33-year old son, the fifth in a row of James Watson Gerards.  His two younger brothers, Sumner and Julian were both still unmarried and continued to live in the Gramercy Park house with him and their mother. 

James had graduated from Columbia in 1890 and he too went into law.  He had became a partner in his father's firm, now named Bowers & Sands, in 1899.  A year after his father's death, on June 11, 1901, he married Mary August, the daughter of millionaire Marcus Daly, who had died only a few months earlier.

On September 20, 1907 Jenny Gerard died at the family's summer home, Canary Cottage, in Bar Harbor, Maine, at the age of 64.   James and Mary, along with Sumner and Julian, were all still living at No. 17.  But that situation would not last long.

In the summer of 1908 the house was leased to the National Independence Club, a political organization.  On August 30 the New-York Tribune reported that the formal nomination of Thomas L. Hisgen and John Temple Graves as candidates for President and Vice-President, respectively, on the Independence Party ticket had been announced from the club.

But then, on April 29, 1909, The Sun reported "The Independence League will abandon before the end of the week its club at 17 Gramercy Park.  It has been less than a year since the club was opened with fireworks and band playing, but the attendance has been so small and the members have shown such a reluctance to pay up their dues, that the lease has been transferred to the Technology Club of New York."

The Technology Club made no changes to the exterior appearance of the mansion.  photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Technology Club was formed by graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  On May 8, 1909 the New-York Tribune reported "The club moved into its present home about a week ago" and mentioned that among its members were "many of the best known engineers throughout the world."

In 1937 the Gerard family sold the nearly century-old mansion to real estate developers and builders George Schor & Sons.  On February 25 The New York Times reported "A six-story apartment house will rise on the site of the former home of James W. Gerard...J. Lewis Mayers is the architect."  The following year, on October 16, the newspaper commented on its completion.  "It is in colonial style to harmonize with the general treatment of the Gramercy Park section."  One could argue that point.

1 comment:

  1. Eliza Sumner Gerard had a brother, William Hyslop Sumner of Boston. His first wife was Mary Ann DeWolf, the widow of Raymond Henry Jones Perry whose brother Matthew married Jane Slidell of New York and was the father-in-law of August Belmont. Slidell, Louisiana is named for one of Jane's Confederate brothers.