Monday, August 24, 2020

The Lost 1852 John Jacob Astor III House - 338 Fifth Avenue

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1827 William Astor, son of the original John Jacob Astor, purchased half of John Thompson’s farm north of the city.   It was a prodigious investment, as things would turn out.  Within a few decades Astor's purchase--stretching along Fifth Avenue from 32nd Street to 35th Street--would sit within the most prestigious residential district in the United States.

Astor erected a brick dwelling at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, apparently for rental purposes.  The Astor family continued to live on elegant Lafayette Street.  

William's son, John Jacob Astor III, married Charlotte Augusta Gibbes in 1847.  Described as a "Southern belle" by newspapers, she was the daughter of Thomas Stanyarne Gibbes, Jr. of South Carolina.  The following year their only child, William Waldorf Astor (known as Willie) was born.

In 1854 William Astor gave John Jacob and his brother, William, the western block front of Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets.  John took the southern half which held the house.

In 1859 John Jacob Astor erected a fine brick home on the site of the earlier house.  It was a remarkably early example of the French Second Empire style and may have been designed by the New Jersey-born architect Detlef Lienau, who had designed the city's first mansion in the style, the Hart M. Schiff house, several years earlier.  The two mansions exhibited similarities, including the slightly projecting central pavilion, the treatment of the dormers, and the stone quoins.

The mansion, No. 338 Fifth Avenue, was 50 feet wide on the avenue and stretched back 107 feet along 33rd Street.  A split brownstone staircase rose to the arched entrance which was flanked by paired, engaged Corinthian columns.  

Frank Leslie's Illustrated newspaper later commented that the house "is crowded with costly paintings and rare art treasures."  The Holley, New York newspaper The Standard said it is "conspicuous for nothing but its plainness and the spacious grounds which surround it...The interior compares favorably with any palace."

Three years later William Backhouse Astor, Jr. filled his half of the block with an Italianate brick and brownstone home.   A shared garden with a fountain separated the two mansions.

When the Civil War broke out, many of the sons of Manhattan's wealthiest families avoided military service.  The situation resulted in the bloody three-day Draft Riots in 1863 after millionaires paid to have their sons' names removed from the lottery.  

But John Jacob Astor stepped forward, volunteering for military service.  It may have been a difficult decision, considering his wife's Southern roots and family.  He served on the staff of General George B. McClellan and returned home after the war with the rank of colonel.

from the collection of the Library of Congress

On November 24, 1875 William Backhouse Astor, Sr. died at the age of 83.  He was the richest man in America at the time.   The Evening World reported, "He left the vastly increased family fortune to his eldest son, John Jacob Astor."  In fact, John Jacob inherited two-thirds of the massive estate (broadly estimated at the time at between $50 million and $200 million, the lesser amount equal to $1.2 billion today).  His father also left him the privilege of calling himself "Mr. Astor."  

As explained in The Illustrated American on February 21, 1891, "It being allowed that Mister, as a distinguishing title, passes from father to son, it must pass in accordance with the custom of other countries to the eldest son."  So with the death of his father, John Jacob Astor was permitted by social protocol, to drop his Christian name and be addressed as Mr. Astor.  The same applied to Augusta, who by long established social decorum was the rightful Mrs. Astor.

But her next-door neighbor and sister-in-law, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor--someone normally defined by proper social formality--disagreed.  She appropriated the title Mrs. Astor.

Augusta Astor had other things with which to concern herself.  Ardently religious, she dedicated her time and much of her money to charitable organizations.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper described her as "a woman of deep piety, broad sympathies and wide culture."  Having received a private education, she spoke French, German and Italian.  Unlike Caroline Astor, whose guests were chosen for their wealth, Augusta was "delighted to gather around her people eminent in art, science and letters."

Charlotte Augusta Astor - Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, December 24, 1887 (copyright expired)
Augusta was actively involved in the Children's Aid Society and hosted an annual Christmas dinner for the newsboys and bootblacks at the Newsboys' Lodging House on Duane Street.   She supported the Woman's Hospital, the Nursery and Child's Hospital, and was an early supporter of cancer research.  Unlike most socialites, who supported their charities with checks, Augusta was hands-on, visiting and working in the hospitals and lodging houses in person.  It was a situation that Caroline Astor vocally decried as being beneath her station.

The windows of the Astor mansion are draped in black as the funeral procession of Ulysses S. Grant passes on August 8, 1885.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The two Astor mansions were increasingly being separated by more than a garden.  The differences between the Astor women were mirrored in their husbands.  Once extremely close, their interests and lifestyles had drifted apart.  

Although they had side-by-side offices, The Evening World noted "It was the whim of William Astor that it was undignified for a great landed proprietor to concern himself about details of business, and he liked to look upon himself as a fashionable man, and there can be no doubt that he felt agrieved [sic]...that he must take the place of a 'younger brother.'"  The newspaper said that while John Jacob "trudged down to the office every day and counted the money," his brother "wandered over the world in his steam yacht."

John Jacob and Augusta had two country homes, Beaulieu, in Newport, built by Federico Barreda in 1859; and Ardsley Park, the former Cyrus W. Field estate, near Rhinecliff-on-the-Hudson.  Ardsley Park was John Jacob's preferred spot--possibly because of its privacy.  The Standard called it "an ancient-looking establishment, kept in the finest order, and is a reminiscence of olden times."

The Newport mansion, Beaulieu photo by RGMinNYC
John Jacob Astor moored his yacht at Ardsley Park.  from the Photograph Collections, University of Maryland

In its January 1885 issue Parsons' Memorial and Historical Library Magazine hinted that Augusta's health was failing.  It reported that her son, William, "is a clear-headed business man, and now holds the important position of minister to Rome.  He is now very desirous to return, since the feeble health of his parents required his presence."  Willie had resigned his post and was on the way home to New York.

John Jacob Astor III (image in public domain)
On October 2, 1887 The New York Times reported "Mrs. John Jacob Astor is very ill at 'Beaulieu,' Mr. Astor's palatial Summer residence, on Bellevue-avenue, and her family have decided to take her to New-York on Monday.  She has been in poor health for some time, but until recently it was thought her condition was improving."

Augusta was, in fact, seriously ill.  A special train car was hired for the journey, which The New York Times said "was not without danger to the patient."  On the evening of October 3 she was "resting quietly in the Astor residence at Fifth-avenue and Thirty-third-street."

Augusta lingered until the evening of December 12.  At her bedside was her husband, "who is himself feeble," according to The Sun; William and his wife, the former Mary Dahlgren Paul; Augusta's sister, Selah Gibbes "and a few of the old family servants, some of whom had been over thirty years in Mrs. Astor's employ."

Newspapers reported on the high esteem in which Charlotte Augusta Astor had been held.  She had continued her generous charitable gifts to the end, recently donating $225,000 to the New York Cancer Hospital.  The Statesman remarked "Mrs. Astor was in truth a most excellent woman, and her life--kind, sympathizing, just and unostentatious amid the temptations of enormous wealth--is full of useful and instructive lessons."

On February 22, 1890 The Evening World reported "The palatial mansion at Fifth avenue and thirty-third street, which lost its benevolent mistress a little more than two years ago, is without a master and America loses the chief of millionaire princes."  John Jacob Astor III had died that morning at around 4:00 of heart failure at the age of 67.

Astor's death was "wholly unlooked for," according to the newspaper.  "On the day before he was stricken he walked about five miles."  The article gave a glimpse into the household:

This morning the darkened windows and fluttering crape [sic] betokened that the home of wealth and opulence, which had been the scene of so much life and happiness, had been transformed into a house of mourning.

Servants trod the hall on tip-toe, and the liveried lackey who answered the bell to admit the few callers answered all inquiries in the faintest of whispers.

Two days later The Evening World reported "The body of John Jacob Astor, serene in the repose of death, lies to-day in the corner room on the second floor of the great brick house at the northwest corner of Fifth avenue and Thirty-third street.  It has not been embalmed, nor will it be; but it lies in a bed of ice while the room is redolent of hyacinths, violets and all kinds of fragrant blossoms."  The article said that the house, "always a gloomy one outside, is darkened and gloomy within."   The funeral at Trinity Chapel was held the following morning.

The Illustrated American commented "The late John Jacob Astor frequently said to his son William Waldorf: 'When I die you will be Mr. Astor."  William took the title seriously, and, unlike his mother, he was also serious about Mary's taking the title that was now rightfully hers, "Mrs. Astor."

William Waldorf Astor, "The" Mr. Astor.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Included in William's inheritance was Beaulieu.  He had new calling cards printed for his wife which now read "Mrs. Astor, Newport."  A very public feud was born.  

On February 21, 1891 The Illustrated American reported that during the preceding summer season "The postmaster at Newport found in his office a letter addressed to Mrs. Astor.  It was his duty to deliver it to the person addressed.  He knew of two Mrs. Astors--one Mrs. William Astor, the other Mrs. William Waldorf Astor.  Who was Mrs. Astor?"  The publication laid out the long-established protocol which clearly gave Mary Astor the distinction.  But the imperious Caroline Astor was unmovable.

The rift was too much for William to tolerate.  He laid plans to move his family permanently to England.  As a final blow to his aunt he planned to demolish the family mansion and erect in its place a livery stable.  He was persuaded, however, to build a high-end hotel instead.  A commercial structure and the resultant pedestrian and vehicular traffic would be equally annoying to Caroline Astor while reaping significant profits at the same time.

On May 29, 1890 The New York Times reported "The splendid hotel which Mrs. William W. Astor proposes to erect on the site of the old Astor homestead, at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-third Street, will, in many respects, be the finest edifice of the kind in New-York."  

The Waldorf Hotel replaced the J. J. Astor house, a parting shot in the vicious family feud. photo Mina Rees Library, The Graduate Center, CUNY 
The Waldorf Hotel, named for the village where the founder of the Astor dynasty was born, was not only a money-maker for Astor, but eventually forced his aunt to abandon her own mansion.  

She erected the Astoria Hotel on its site.  The families never totally reconciled, but did join the two hotels internally, forming the famous Waldorf-Astoria.

The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building in 1930.


  1. I do not think Detlef Lienau ever practiced in New Orleans

    1. You're right. Thanks for catching that massive typo. It's New Jersey, which is only slightly similar to New Orleans!

  2. On 19 April 1912, the hotel's 'East Room' became the setting for the US Inquiry into the sinking of the 'Titanic' (which had occured four days earlier. Among the passengers was John Jacob Aster IV; Madeleine (his second wife); his valet; her maid; her nurse and their dog. The couple occupied one of Titanic's two Parlour Suite, which was most luxurious accomodation on the ship. Madeleine; her maid and nurse all found space in lifeboat No 4, but Aster's request to accompany his wife since 'she was in a delicate condition' (pregnant) was denied under the the rule of 'women and children first'. Aster; his dog and his valet all perished when the liner sank.

  3. According to my Great Grandfather George Anthony Purdy’s Uncle George Purdy’s obituary in 1905, he was the Chief Decorator and Gilder for the late John Jacob Astor III.