Monday, May 4, 2020

The Lost Beinhauer Farm -- Fifth Avenue and 51st Street

The farm as it appeared when J. J. Sawyer created this painting in  1833.  Valentine's Manual of the City of New York, 1919 (copyright expired)
Born in Marburg, Germany, Frederick Beinhauer came to America in the latter part of the 18th century.  According to his great grandson, William S. M. Silber, "He was practically penniless when he reached this country, but he cast around to see what opportunity the New World afforded him."  He found work on several vegetable farms in Brooklyn while taking note of how his employers sold their goods.  Silber wrote, "with characteristic German thrift, [he] diligently accumulated his savings for bolder flights."

Following the end of the American Revolution land formerly owned by the Crown was offered for sale or lease.  Beinhauer initially leased a large portion of "The New York Common Lands" for his "garden farm."  It occupied much of what is now the site of the New York Public Library and Bryant Park.  Shortly afterward he married Wilhelmina Christina Zeiss, daughter of the prominent physician and surgeon William Zeiss.  Wilhelmina was not a typical farm wife.  She had been educated in Europe and was "esteemed a woman of marked talent and ability."

In 1800 Beinhauer gave up the lease and acquired a parcel of land slightly north, facing what would be Fifth Avenue.  There were already some farm buildings on the land from the previous owner.  He paid the city 430 pounds for the land, or about $31,000 in today's money.  The purchase came with an odd stipulation somehow still in effect from Colonial days.  Beinhauer was obligated to pay an annual quit-rent "of four bushels of good, merchantable wheat on the first day of May in each and every year."  And he dutifully did so until 1816 with the city withdrew the conditions "by the payment of $133.33."

After a succession of purchases, in 1813 Beinhauer's farm engulfed what roughly would become 51st Street to 53rd Street, from Fifth to Sixth Avenue.  From here each day the "market wagon" transported produce downtown to the Washington Market and the "Fly" Market.  The once penniless German immigrant was now a notable competitor of the Brooklyn and New Jersey produce farmers.

Frederick and Wilhemina Beinhauer's lives in the rural district that would become bustling Midtown seems to have been quiet ones.  Devout Lutherans, they would have had to travel some distance to worship in a German language church.  But, according to William Silberg decades later in Valentine's Manual of the City of New York, "They regularly rode in the old family gig to and from their homestead to service on Sunday...and stopped at the homes of their children in turn on the way home for the noonday meal of the rest day."

Wilhemina Beinhauer died in 1829 and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.  Three years later a cholera epidemic swept over Manhattan, indiscriminately taking the lives of the rich and the poor.  Being so far north of the city, it most likely seemed to Frederick Beinhauer that he was safe.  But on August 23, 1832 he showed symptoms of the disease.  He died the same day and was buried next to his wife.

The Beinhauer farm was sold in 1834 in parcels--grossing $21,000.  The section that included the Beinhauer homestead--the Fifth Avenue blockfront from 51st to 52nd Streets, was purchased by Ernest Keyser.  He had started out as a butcher and then made a fortune as what The Sun termed an "ice speculator."   The Market Book, in 1862, recalled that he was "one of the pioneers in the ice-trade in this city; through hot and cold, night and day, he was ever busy at work, and by promptness and frugality, he has filled his 'cream-pots' (as he called his earnings) full to overflowing."

Keyser's wife was the former Mary Valleau.  Despite their wealth, the couple apparently resided contentedly in the old Beinhauer farmhouse.  They might have been more contented had the advance of the city not crept nearer and nearer to their property.  Fifth Avenue, also known as the Middle Road, was opened (although it would not be paved for many years to come) and in 1846 the city granted the block directly across from the Keyser property, from 51st and 52nd Street and Fifth to Madison Avenues, to the Catholic Church as the site for the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum.  

The sudden increase in traffic around his property seems to have annoyed Keyser and in June 1842 he petitioned the Board of Aldermen "for the regulation of the Middle Road, or Fifth Avenue."

Keyser retired in 1844, but continued his work in politics.  He was an active member of the Democratic Whigs and participated in the functions of the Seventeenth Ward meetings.

A descendant, Lottie G. Keyser, created this charming drawing of the property from memory in 1900.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

It seems that Ernest and Mary went abroad or to the country in 1846.  An advertisement appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune on August 29 offering "To Let--A House in Fifth-avenue, between 51st-st. and 52d-st.  Said house contains five large rooms and three bedrooms, with barn attached and garden.  Inquire of Ernest Keyser."

On August 15, 1858 the cornerstone was laid for the imposing marble St. Patrick's Cathedral on the block south of the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum.  The area directly around Keyser's formerly tranquil suburban farm was becoming noticeably less so.  He made his dissatisfaction known in May the following year when the Board of Aldermen was presented with the "Remonstrance of Ernest Keyser, against widening sidewalks in Fifth Avenue."

Mary Keyser died on January 19, 1868 at the age of 77.  The New York Herald announced her funeral  would be held two days later "from her late residence, Fifth avenue, corner of Fifty-first street."

At the time of Mary's death the wooden collection of farm buildings was quickly becoming an anachronism as mansions began appearing on the avenue.  A year earlier Mary Mason Jones had begun construction of her massive marble home on the east side of Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets and railroad mogul and financier Henry Keep's impressive mansion was just a little more than two blocks to the south of the Keyser property, at No. 601 Fifth Avenue.

Seven months after his wife's death, Ernest Keyser sold the former farm to Henry Keep.  The Stockholder reported "Mr. Henry Keep, one of the most wealthy railroad men in the United States, has bought two hundred feet square on Fifth avenue and West Fifty-first and Fifty-second sts., on which he proposes to erect a magnificent art gallery at a cost of a million and a half dollars."

That art gallery was not for Keep's personal use.  He had offered $1.5 million (more in the neighborhood of $27.8 million today) to anyone willing to establish a National Academy of Art.  He would not live to see his project through, however.  He became ill early in 1869 and he died on July 30 that year.

Keep's estate was estimated at nearly $77.5 million in today's dollars.  In addition to her other bequests, his wife, the former Emma A. Woodruff, inherited "the twelve lots of land situated on Fifth avenue, on the westerly side thereof, and on Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets...being the premises purchased by me of Ernest Keyser, to have and to hold."

If Henry Keep had assumed his wife would forge ahead with his plans for a National Academy of Art, he was mistaken.  She did embark on other charitable projects, like her gift of $100,000 to the new hospital building of the New York Ophthalmic Hospital in 1874 and the erection of the Keep Memorial Home for Old Ladies in Watertown, New York.

On January 8, 1874 she married Judge William Schley of Savannah, Georgia.  The couple remained in the Keep mansion as other palaces rose around it.  Years later the New-York Tribune would remember "When Mr. and Mrs. Keep moved to their new brownstone house, at No. 601 Fifth-ave, it was the only house of any pretensions in Fifth-ave. above Forty-second-st."  But that was certainly not the case now.

In 1878 Emma sold the former Beinhauer property--with its wooden farm buildings still standing--to William Henry Vanderbilt.  The barn and another large structure were first to go, leaving the house the last of the improbably surviving Colonial relics.  And then it, too, was demolished to make way for Vanderbilt's "Triple Palace," which would house himself and his wife, Louisa, and their unmarried daughters Emily and Margaret.

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
In 1919 William Silbert oriented modern readers regarding the location of the Beinhauer buildings: "The dwelling house stood at a point that was exactly in front of the court that formerly divided the two buildings, and it remained standing after all the other farm buildings had been removed, and until the contractors began excavating for these modern palatial residences."  The Vanderbilt mansions were demolished in 1945.

photograph by the author

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