|The balustrade at the top of the mansion was marble with bronze balusters. The Architectural forum, November 1922 (copyright expired)|
When Morton F. Plant purchased the building plot at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street from William K. Vanderbilt in 1904, he agreed not to sell it to a commercial interest for 25 years. But in 1915, not half-way into the term, Vanderbilt conceded that the battle against businesses was lost and lifted the restriction from the deed.
|Morton Freeman Plant - from the collection of the New-York Historical Society|
Plant paid Bernard M. Baruch $700,000 for a vacant lot at the the northeast corner of on Fifth Avenue and 86th Street, safely distant from the encroaching mercantile district. Architect Guy Lowell filed plans on January 7, 1918 for a five-story, limestone clad mansion to cost $300,000; bringing the total price of the project to $24 million in today's money.
Lowell designed a dignified Italian Renaissance palazzo 50-feet deep along on Fifth Avenue and 120-feet wide on 86th Street. The Architectural Forum called it "one of the most important individual dwellings erected in New York during recent years." Faced in pink Tennessee marble, the tripartite design consisted of a rusticated base that supported a single-story midsection and two-story upper section. The fifth floor, containing servant quarters, was hidden behind a bronze and marble balustrade to preserve the proportions.
|Portrait artist Alphonse Junger captured Maisie wearing a double string of pearls. via doyle.com|
Unlike the Plants' former home, the new mansion was relatively restrained. A columned entrance portico supported a second-floor balcony, the openings of that level sat upon blind balustrades and wore Renaissance period pediments, and an intricate frieze ran below the cornice. A cartouche and ribbon on the 86th Street elevation was the only other embellishment.
The first floor, with 15-foot ceilings, contained the dining room to the right of the entrance hall, and two reception rooms. The entire avenue side of the second floor, or piano mobile, was taken up by the drawing room. The ceilings on this floor were 18-feet high. The drawing room was connected by a long gallery to the library, facing 86th Street, and the billiard room at the far end.
|The sweeping marble staircase was hung with tapestries. To the right is the highly ornamented elevator door. The Architectural forum, November 1922 (copyright expired)|
|The Architectural Record published this photo of the "English painted fine chimney piece" in the dining room. The Architectural forum, November 1922 (copyright expired)|
Morton Freeman Plant was the son of Henry Bradley Plant who, upon his death in 1899, had left him an estate estimated by The Sun at "more than $30,000,000." (That fortune would equal $945 million today.) Morton was chairman of the Southern Express Company; vice-president of the Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville Railway Company; director of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Company; and other railroads and banks. A year before starting construction on the new mansion he had purchased the Boston newspapers the Herald and the Traveler, and the New London Telegraph.
His passion, however, was yachting. The Sun commented that "In the yachting field his fame extended over two continents." He was the commodore of the Larchmont Yacht Club and owned the steel schooner Ingomar, the steam yachts Venetra and Iolanda, a schooner, the Elena, and a "power craft," as described by The Sun, the Thelma. In addition he owned the New London baseball team and was part owner of the Philadelphia Quakers club of the National League. (The New York Times later commented "He maintained the New London club at a loss simply for his own pleasure.")
Plant had married Nellie Capron in 1888. Shortly after her death on August 7, 1913, he met Sarah Mae Caldwell Manwaring, the wife of Selden Manwaring. The captivating Maisie, as friends called her, was exactly 30 years younger than the tycoon--he was 61 and she 31 years old.
In May of 1914, not ten months after the death of his wife, Plant announced his engagement to Mae who had obtained a divorce the previous month. A month later the couple was married at Plant's immense Groton, Connecticut estate. As his wedding gift he gave the bride $8 million.
|Branford House was designed in part by Nellie Plant, a trained architect, with Robert W. Gibson, who designed the 52nd Street Plant mansion. postcard from the author's collection|
Moving into the new mansion with the couple was Henry Bradley Plant, Morton's 22-year old son by his first marriage, and Maisie's son, 16-year-old Philip Morgan Plant (Morton Plant had adopted him upon marrying Maisie). Henry would not be here long. On June 28, 1917 he married Amy Warren.
With the outbreak of World War I that year, Henry enlisted in the Navy. Philip was sent to a military academy at Concord, Massachusetts. Maisie, like so many wealthy socialites, gave her support to relief work. On January 6, 1918 The Sun reported, for instance, "A concert will be given this evening at 9:30 o'clock at the home of Mrs. Morton F. Plant, 1051 Fifth avenue, for the benefit of the Hospital Under Three Flags, at Ris-Orangis, France." The hospital trained front line army surgeons.
On October 25 that year the 66-year old Morton Plant arrived home from his office with a severe cold. The Brooklyn Citizen reported "He immediately went to bed and Mrs. Plant sent for the family physician." His condition continued to deteriorate. On November 4 Maisie sent for Henry and Philip. They arrived at the Fifth Avenue mansion just before Plant's death at around 7:20 that evening.
The millionaire's funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue mansion on November 7. The mayor of New London, Connecticut, E. Frank Morgan, ordered that all businesses there be closed during the time of the service. (Plant's generosity to Connecticut had included $1.125 million to found the Connecticut College for Women and the construction of two dormitories there, later.)
Plant's will left $1,000 to each of the servants who had been with him for 10 years or more--a windfall equal to about 17 times that much today.
Although Maisie was still in mourning, on May 21, 1919 she opened the house for the wedding of her sister, Florence Morgan Caldwell, to Dr. James M. McTiernan. As it turned out, it would not be the only wedding that year.
The following month, on June 21, The Evening Post teased "Somewhere in this city this afternoon Col. Hayward, who resigned as a Public Service Commissioner to become the Colonel of the famous 15th (colored) Infantry, is being married, sly as he is keeping it." The article added "Just as City Clerk Scully was preparing to leave his office for the day this noon, Col Hayward and Mrs. Sara [sic] Mae Plant slipped in and got the license. Then they slipped out and--there you are."
The article was right. That afternoon the 42-year old Colonel William Hayward and 39-year old Maisie Plant were married at the Plaza Hotel. Among the few guests were Maisie's sister and new brother-in-law, her son Philip (who gave his mother away) Hayward's son, Leland, and a few other relatives. Noticeably absent was Henry Plant. Immediately after the ceremony the newlyweds left for Hayward's summer estate in Bar Harbor.
|The second floor gallery (top) connected the billiard room on the east to the drawing room overlooking 5th Avenue. On the roof was the "playroom." The Architectural forum, November 1922 (copyright expired)|
Hayward was well-known for his service during World War I when he organized and led the 15th Regiment of the New York Infantry. Military troops were segregated by race and the 15th was an all-Black regiment. The men were decorated with the Croix de Guerre by the French Army, and Hayward himself was additionally awarded the Distinguished Service medal from for "personal bravery in action and military leadership of the highest order," from the U.S., and the Legion of Honor from the President of France. This was his second marriage, his first ending in divorce in 1912.
Later that year the boys went off to college, Philip Plant to Yale and Leland Hayward to Princeton. Before long they would bring more press attention to the family than their parents.
The following year, on November 1, 19-year old Philip was driving from New Haven to New York City with three other Yale students and 19-year old actress, Helen Jesmer. She sat beside Philip in the front seat of his touring car. The New-York Tribune reported the car "left the roadway at a turn in Pelham Bay Parkway, near Hunter's Island bridge, and was demolished against a tree."
Philip suffered a broken leg and facial cuts, Charles H. Morehead a broken nose, and Normal I. Huffey "contusions of the back." Helen, who was thrown from the car, was more severely hurt. The Daily News reported "Miss Helen Jesmer, an actress, is dying in Fordham Hospital, as the result of wounds received when an automobile drive by Philip M. Plant...crashed into a tree."
|A year after the accident Helen Jesmer looked good as new. The Tatler, December 1920 (copyright expired)|
Helen was a member of the Greenwich Village Follies chorus and had appeared with Douglas Fairbanks in silent films. The Daily News added that she "is also in demand as a fashion model." The article noted "Due to her critical condition no operation could be performed" on her. Despite The Daily News' dire prediction, Helen survived. She sued Philip for more than $3 million in today's money. She later married and gave birth to actress Julie Newmar.
|The Architectural forum, November 1922 (copyright expired)|
A few hours later the Gibbs family received a telegram from Greenwich, Connecticut "saying that they were married and asking forgiveness." The article said "They added that they were going to Europe for their honeymoon. Presumably they are on their way there now."
|William Hayward - from the collection of the Library of Congress.|
In 1923 a romance blossomed between Philip and 18-year old actress Constance Bennett. Neither set of parents was particularly happy. Constance had been married at the age of 16 (her parents had the marriage annulled) and her parents were not eager to see her rush into another. To put space between them, the Bennetts took Constance off to Italy on the White Star liner The Majestic in June 1923. The Haywards came up with the same scheme. But in an unbelievable stroke of fate, both families found themselves on the same ship. On July 8, 1923 The Ogden Standard-Examiner said "Now the little beauty and the heir to all the Plant millions were assured a week of cosy intimacy which an ocean liner affords."
Both sets of parents were thwarted and the couple married. They moved into No. 1051 Fifth Avenue where things seemed to work out harmoniously. On January 16, 1927 The New York Times reported "A farewell party was given last night by Mrs. William Hayward, who with her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Philip M. Plant, will sail on Jan. 29 to join the other members of her family in Egypt. The house at 1,051 Fifth Avenue was beautifully decorated. There was dancing until 1 o'clock when supper was served."
Philip's marriage to Constance Bennett ended in divorce, as well, in 1929. By then William and Maisie had added to their properties. They purchased Clarendon Court, the former Bellevue Avenue cottage of E. C. Knight in Newport, and in 1930 opened Casa Louwana in Palm Beach, Florida. The couple's entertainments at all three residences were covered routinely in society columns.
|A vintage postcard depicted Clarendon Court while it was still owned by Knight.|
In 1943 William and Maisie were at Casa Louwana when William fell ill. The New York Sun reported "Upon the advice of his physician he returned from the South on his birthday, April, 29. The following year, in July, he was admitted to the Doctor's Hospital on East End Avenue. He was still there three months later when, on October 12, 1944, he died at the age of 67. Maisie and Leland were at his bedside.
|In 1941 the house looked exactly as it had in 1917. photo via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services|
|Maisie's fourth husband was John Edward Rovensky. original source unknown|
Maisie died in Newport two years later, on July 22, 1956. Six months after her death, on January 16, 1957, The Saratogian reported that her executors had opened "the last of the great mansions" for two days. "And in the twilight of opulence, the public peered into the oak-paneled past, climbed the circular staircase, fingered the tapestries and sat on the brocaded chairs of the late Mrs. John E. Rovensky."
|In January 1957 gawking New Yorkers climbed the staircase to see how the other half lived. The Architectural forum, November 1922 (copyright expired)|
The reporter told of one elderly woman, who mumbled, "It's not right to let people touch the things of that poor, dead woman." Another, "heavy with mink, leaned against the Elizabethan carved oak paneling of the Lord Nelson Room and advised an attendant: 'We must see the kitchen. My cook and I have come expressly to see the kitchen.'"
The article advised "The mansion and the two adjacent houses will be sold as a real estate parcel." They were replaced by the 19-story apartment building designed by Wechsler & Schimenti (described by the late Christopher Gray as a "plain brick 1950's box") which survives.
|photo via cityrealty.com|