Monday, September 14, 2020

The Lost 1849 London Terrace - 23rd Street from 9th to 10th Avenues


from the collection of the New-York Historical Society 

In 1833 Clement Clarke Moore was offered $40,000 for his family's country estate, Chelsea, which extended from 19th Street to 24th, and from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River.  He was posed to accept the offer until a friend, James N. Wells convinced him to sell the building plots separately, managed by Wells.  The houses that soon began to rise on Moore's former land were upscale, as dictated in the deed restrictions he wrote.

On May 1, 1845 speculators Cyrus Mason and William Torrey embarked on an ambitious project.  They leased the entire block between 23rd and 24th Streets, from Ninth to Tenth Avenues, from Moore as the site of handsome, upscale residences.

Prominent architect Alexander Jackson Davis was commissioned to design the back-to-back rows.  The 23rd Street side would be called London Terrace, (the concept of "terraces," or elegant rowhouses designed to appear as a single structure had arisen in England in the 18th century), and the similar but less pretentious group on 24th Street were to be deemed the Chelsea Cottages.

The London Terrace houses sat back from the street behind gardens and iron fences.   Each three bays wide, they were faced in stone.  Their somewhat stark design featured three-story Doric piers and oversized Greek key designs in the spandrel panels between the second and third floors.  The fourth floor pretended to be a paneled parapet above the cornice, pierced with windows.

Because Clement Moore had leased the land, not sold it, Cyrus Mason and William Torrey sold the leaseholds of the completed houses, technically not the buildings themselves.  As construction continued on March 24, 1848 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune which read in part:

Will be sold...Nos. 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 and 17 London Terrace...The leases in themselves are very valuable, and the foundations of the houses are laid and a portion of the superstructure raised.

The residences filled with well-to-do merchant class families who, of course, required staff.  An advertisement on December 11, 1850 sought "Two women as cook and waiter.  No one need apply but those who can bring satisfactory recommendations.  To such persons good wages will be paid."  (A waiter was the maid who served meals, poured tea, and carried out similar duties.)  

Among the residents in 1853 were Catharine Underhill, the widow of Thomas S. Underhill and her son, George L. Underhill who lived in the house directly next door to hers.  George was in the pocketbook manufacturing business.  Others were merchants John G. Plimpton, John P. Brown and Richard Douglas.  John H. Dunnell was a manufacturers of furnaces and James Harner was the head of the hardware firm, James Harner & Co.  Not coincidentally, an executive of his firm, Maurice Hilger, also lived in London Terrace.

photo by Ralph Spearman Myers from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Azariah Cutting Flagg lived  at No. 3 London Terrace with his wife, the former Phoebe Maria Cole.  The couple had three children, Martha Maria, Elizabeth, and Henry Franklin.

Born in Orwell, Vermont in 1790 Flagg had entered the printing trade at the age of 11 as an apprentice in his uncle's shop.  He had served two terms as Secretary of the State of New York (elected in 1826 and re-elected in 1829) and two terms as New York State Comptroller.  

Azariah C. Flagg Family Records of the Descendants of Gershom Flagg, 1907 (copyright expired)

When the family moved into the London Terrace home he was New York City Comptroller, the president of the Hudson River Railroad Company, and treasurer of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad.   A family history written in 1907, Family Records of the Descendants of Gershom Flagg, said of him "Azariah C. Flagg amassed a large fortune in spite of his being a politician, and an honest one at that."

None of the Flagg children married, and all lived in the commodious London Terrace home with their parents.  On May 26, 1854 Henry Franklin died at the age of 31.  His funeral was held in the house two days later.  It was the first of three.

Elizabeth died at the age of 48 on June 8, 1866, and Azariah died in the house on November 24, 1873 four days before his 83rd birthday.  The New York Times reported on the funeral in the drawing room, saying "The remains, which were encased in a rose-wood casket with silver mountings, with the face of the deceased exposed to view, were viewed by a large number of friends and former associates of the late Mr. Flagg."  His social and political importance was evidenced by the names of his pall bearers: Thurlow Weed, Samuel J. Tilden, Charles Butler, William B. Ogden, Archibald Campbell, Samuel C. Ruggles, James H. Titus, and John Bigelow.

Scandal rarely tainted the reputation of London Terrace.  Nevertheless, publisher Richard R. Montgomery was arrested on September 28, 1861 on charges pressed by an actress, Alice G. Wood.  The New York Times reported that she accused him of "having defrauded her by means of false representations, out of property valued at the sum of $1,400."  It was a significant amount, more in the neighborhood of $42,000 today."

The fair complainant," said the article "states that about eighteen months ago she arrived in this City, from Texas, having come here with the intention of attaching herself to one of our theatres."  She soon became acquainted with Montgomery who promised to "become responsible for her board" and "induced her to take rooms at the St. Denis Hotel."  The devious publisher, moreover, "represented himself to her as a single man."

When her money eventually ran out, according to Wood, he convinced her to "part with her jewelry, from time to time, until, at length, she learned to her surprise, that it had all been pawned under a fictitious name, he keeping the money received on it."  It was only then that she realized she had been conned and that Montgomery had a wife and child.  The previously seemingly respectable publisher was jailed awaiting trial.

The deep yards were a noticeable feature.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Among Montgomery's neighbors were Charles S. Spencer and his wife, the former Celia Adelaide Loomis.   Born in Ithica, New York, in 1824, The New York Times called him "almost the pioneer among the criminal lawyers of New-York."  Twice he served on the State Assembly and was nominated for Congress two times, but defeated both times.  The Spencers had an adopted daughter.

Spencer was the Colonel of the Fifth Regiment of the New York State National Guard.  An event related to that post drew the attention of The Sun on March 19, 1873.  "At precisely 6:27 last evening," began the article, "a magnificent black charger, heavily laden with military trappings, was led into London Terrace by a stable groom."  Exactly two minutes later, "there emerged from 49 London Terrace a military figure of gorgeous magnificence.  Mounting quickly, without the aid of the stirrup, which was obsequiously held by the stable groom, the military figure road up Twenty-third street at a rapid pace, giving to the casual observer...a fair idea of the traditional solitary horseman 'who might have been seen.'"

The horseman was Colonel Spencer, who rode in full dress uniform with a diamond-studded saber, a white plumed helmet and "a pair of calfskin boots attached to silver spurs."  He was on the way to the Fifth Regiment Armory where he mustered his troops and then marched them to the 22nd Regiment Armory on 14th Street where the State Inspector-General was to hold a review and inspection.  A military band accompanied the procession.

Following the inspection and maneuvers, the band "marched to the residence of Col. Spencer in full uniform (the Colonel, not the residence), where they played several operatic selections to the intense gratification of Mrs. Gen. Morris, Mrs. Col. Spencer, several other ladies, Col. Spencer...and all the officers of the regiment."  Poking fun at the grandiosity of the event, the article said "Col Spencer made a little speech in full uniform, and Gen. Morris replied, after which a bugle solo was blown by the chief bugler (who blew all the dishes off the table, and did other damage to the crockery and plate of Col. Spencer in full uniform), and London Terrace was left in peace."

Residents of London Terrace tended to stay on for years, if not decades.  On August 11, 1887 Spencer had "an unusually hearty dinner at 1 o'clock," according to The New York Times, after which he complained to Celia that "his stomach troubled him."  He sat in a chair and told her that he thought he must be dying.  And he was.  The New York Times said "The end came suddenly."  

His funeral was held in the drawing room on August 13.  Although the services were "extremely simple," as described by The New York Times, it was attended by powerful figures, including the former governor Alonzo B. Cornell, well-known politicians Roscoe Conkling, Thomas S. Murphy and James N. Byrne, as well as military figures like Major A. P. Greene, Colonel William E. Van Wyck and General Franz Sigel.

On June 3, 1887 two homeless men went door-to-door along the block asking for handouts.  When one resident's donation was considered too small, a confrontation ensued.  It happened at an inopportune time for the men.  The New York Times reported "Police Commissioner John McClave, while on the way to his place of business yesterday morning saw a tramp mounting guard at a gate in the part of Twenty-third-street known as London Terrace, and heard another inside the inclosure abusing, in the vilest of tomato-can vernacular, a lady who had seen fit to give him only a few cents."  Unaware of who the interloper was, when McClave got involved, "the fellows turned their abuse on him."  The were sent to Blackwell's Island for six months.

By the turn of the century most of the once-elegant mansions were being operated as boarding houses or rooming houses.  They lost their exclusive London Terrace addresses and were now known by West 23rd Street numbers.  Benjamin R. Rose, a silk salesman, took a room at No. 411 West 23rd Street, in April 1909.  It was described by The New York Times as "an old-fashioned building which stands back from the street, and one of the block composing the once exclusive London Terrace."

When Benjamin Rose lived in London Terrace, the Ninth Avenue Elevated train station was at the corner.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
The house was run by Mrs. Catherine Sutherland who said Rose "had been a mystery to the other boarders."  The New York Times explained "He was the most fastidious man in the household, it was said, wearing a different suit of clothes almost every day, while his cravats were a source of admiration to the other boarders...Mrs. Sutherland and her boarders had thought it strange that so many of of Rose's friends were young men, and it was said that often in the early hours of the morning sounds of revelry had been heard from the silk salesman's rooms."

That all came to a shocking end on Sunday night, September 5, 1909.  The following morning Rose did not appear for breakfast, and at noon a porter, George Mohr, knocked on his door.   Getting no answer he used a passkey.  "He yelled and ran downstairs, his cries of alarm bringing Mrs. Sutherland and the maids."  They found a brutal murder scene.

Rose was on the floor in his nightclothes.  He had been stabbed to death and his throat cut "his head being nearly severed, and his right hand had been pierced by the knife blade, he evidently having fought hard for his life."  The murderer left evidence in the form of a bloody hand print on the wall and fingerprints in blood on a rifled trunk.  Rose, according to his landlady, often wore diamond rings and other jewelry, but none were found in the room.

Ironically, the boarders who lived directly under his room, Mr. and Mrs. Stuart Fredericks had been playing pinochle with friends that night.  At around 11:00 they heard "the sound of a scuffle in Rose's room."  Fredericks told police "It sounded as though someone was jumping on the floor, or that something had been thrown down hard."  But previous sounds of "revelry" from upstairs caused them to disregard the noises.

An article in The New York Herald on March 12, 1922 reminisced about the former glories of Chelsea.  "In the palmy days of its construction a goodly number of what are called 'nice people' had their homes in this vicinity.  London Terrace, for instance, composed a rather pretentious collection of houses with well known names on the plates."  But those days were long past.  Several of the homes had been altered, with additions, and six of them were being used by the New School for Social Science.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

The end of the line for the venerable London Terrace was announced in The New York Times on March 10, 1929.  The article reported that Henry Mandel Associates had leased "on a long term from the Moore estate" the entire block.  "The Mandel project, involving as it does the wiping out of some of the oldest and most interesting private dwellings on Manhattan Island" would cause a great "change in the character of its locality combined with more sentimental features."  The article went on "Set well back from the street and with their dignified pillars, these houses have recalled for many years reminiscences of old New York days when everyone lived in his own individual home and conditions were simpler if not happier."

Henry Mandel demolished the block and erected the massive apartment complex named after its predecessor, London Terrace.  Designed by the firm of Farrar & Watmough, its Tuscan-influenced design has become as much a landmark as was the original London Terrace.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

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