Friday, October 9, 2020

The Lost Charles Maverick Parker House - 96 Fifth Avenue


An elegant split staircase rose to the entrance.  Miller's New York As It Is, 1872

Charles Maverick Parker was married to Cornelia Vanderburgh on May 16, 1826 in Troy, New York.  Both families traced their roots to old Dutch settlers.  The couple would have four children, only one of whom, James, born on December 15, 1830, would survive to adulthood.  In 1853 Parker was listed as "gentleman" in directories, indicating that he had sufficient wealth to dispense with the necessity of a profession.

In her 1911 book As I Remember, Marian Gouveneur recalled "Fifty years ago, more or less, a house was erected in New York on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifteenth Street by Mrs. Charles Maverick Parker."  The author referred to it as Mrs. Parker's house, since the deeds to domestic property in the 19th century were almost always placed in the name of the wife.

The three story brownstone mansion sat upon a tall English basement.  Fifty-two feet wide, it drew from the best elements of Greek Revival and Italianate styles.  An imposing curved, split staircase led to the entrance.  The architrave windows wore molded cornices and sills and an understated, modillioned cornice ran along the roof line.

Gouveneur said "Many old residents visited it on its completion, as such a costly structure was regarded with nothing short of amazement."  Cornelia Parker embraced her position as a social doyenne while pretending to relate to masses.  Marian Gouveneur recounted that "when Mrs. Parker was personally escorting some unusually prominent person through the mansion, she pointed to a pretty little receptacle in her bedroom and exclaimed as she passed: 'That is where I keep my old shoes.  I wear old shoes just as other people do.'"

Cornelia apparently changed her mind about wearing old shoes when Richard K. Haight erected a fine mansion directly opposite the Parker House.   A "great rivalry" erupted between Cornelia and Mrs. Haight.  Each tried to outdo the other in "hats, feathers [and] gowns," said Gouveneur.  "In fact, the far-famed houses of Montague and Capulet could not have maintained more skillful tactics; and all the while the Gothamites looked on and smiled."

On December 12, 1851 the New-York Daily Tribune reported "We understand that the splendid house of Charles M. Parker, on the corner of Fifth-av. and Fifteenth-st. has been sold, with the furniture, to Mr. George Law for $65,000."  The price Law paid would amount to about $2.25 million today.

A self-made man, Law had little formal education.  He learned masonry and building and in 1825 was employed by the Delaware and Hudson Canal in making canal-locks.  He was a self-taught engineer and draughtsman, eventually becoming a major contractor in the building of railroads and canals, including parts of the Croton waterworks.  Most importantly, in 1839 he was given the contract to erect the High Bridge over the Harlem River.

In March 1852, not long after moving his family into the former Parker mansion, Law submitted his long resume and bid for the construction of the Erie Canal.  The same year he started construction on the Eighth Avenue Railroad (he advanced $800,000 on the project, more than $27 million in today's money), and in 1853 purchased the Staten Island Ferry for $600,000.

Famed photographer Matthew Brady produced this portrait of George Law.  original source unknown

On May 22, 1852 a grand testimonial dinner was held in Law's honor at the Astor House, given "by a number of our most eminent citizens," according to the New York Herald.  It was "beyond question," said the article, "the most sumptuous and marked feast ever given within the walls of the Astor or any other place, on a similar occasion."  

The 1855 Sketch of Events in the Life of George Law mentioned the mansion, saying, "In that plain but substantial edifice...he resides, surrounded by every comfort, with a library unequalled, including his early friendly volume."

The Law family prepared to leave No. 96 in October 1858 by selling the household furnishings at auction.  The announcement of the two day event said that most of the "elegant and costly" furniture "was either imported from Paris or manufactured in this city by the best makers, expressly for the owner's use."  As the Parkers had done, they sold everything before moving--therefore affording the opportunity to outfit their new home with the latest in fashion.

Along with the rosewood furniture and gilt pier mirrors, the tapestries, "bronze and gilt gas fixtures," bronze statuary, antique clocks and "very rich dinner service, [by] Sevres." 

The mansion was purchased by James Benkard and his wife, the former Mary Robinson.  The couple had six children, James Julius, Henry R., Philip, Mary, Emma and Anna.  James was a partner in the European fabric importing firm of Benkard & Hutton.

The Benkards purchased furniture for their new home.  It had all been installed and the mansion was being prepared for them when, on November 11, 1858, disaster occurred.  The New York Herald reported "preparatory to moving into the house he had the hot air furnace and pipes cleaned, and a fire made in the furnace about ten o'clock in the morning."  At about 5:30 that afternoon the man in charge locked the mansion and went home, leaving the furnace fire burning.

At around 9:30 p.m. a furnace pipe set fire to the floor beams.  The New York Herald said "The building and furniture, it appears, have lately been purchased by Mr. James Benkard."  Fire fighters were soon on the scene and extinguished the blaze, but not before between $8,000 and $10,000 damages were done.

Among the notable social events within the mansion was Emma Benkard's wedding to Charles Strecker on June 21, 1860.

James Benkard died in the house on April 21, 1864 at the age of 65.  Mary did not stay in the mansion, but sold it and the furnishings to the newly-formed Manhattan Club.  Not included in the sale was her husband's extensive art collection.   That was sold in a special two-day auction in November 1865.  Listed in the announcement were works by Correggio, Holbein, Velasquez, Rembrandt and Poussin.  

On October 24, 1865 The New York Times wrote "The Manhattan Club...has purchased for a club-house...the elegant mansion belonging to the estate of the late James Benkard."  The New York Herald added "A fine building, handsomely furnished, has been an expense of one hundred and ten thousand dollars."  That price would equal about $1.78 million today.

The New York Herald explained the politicly-based club saying "It seems that the democrats have determined to offset the republicans by a new club, to be called the Manhattan, and to be devoted to the propagation of democratic doctrines and the cultivation of the social amenities."  It added "Our foreign visitors will be received and entertained there in a style fully equal to that of Sir Morton Peto's dinner at Delmonico's."

In its August 1876 issue, The Galaxy wrote "The house is fitted up with great comfort and elegance.  The cuisine is unsurpassed; the chef is one of the great lights of the culinary art, and formerly occupied the same position at the Union Club."

Membership in the Manhattan Club was limited to 600.  The initiation fee was $250 (more than $6,000 today), and the annual dues were $50.  In his 1882 New York by Gaslight, James D. McCabe, Jr. commented "the club consists of the better elements of the Democratic party."  Among those were millionaires like August Belmont, John Van Buren, and Samuel J. Tilden.

A few of the house rules were documented years later in the History of the Manhattan Club.  The only card game permitted was whist, "with $5 a stake."  Additionally, "smoking in the restaurant was forbidden, and no members could sleep on lounges or sofas except on the third floor.  Members who broke china or damaged furniture had to settle for it before leaving the house."

It was a dinner in honor of Samuel J. Tilden that, according to popular lore, branded the name of the Manhattan Club into popular culture.  Especially for that banquet Dr. Iain Marshall blended a cocktail which was favorably received.  It earned the name of the Manhattan.

Abraham Hosier depicted the house in a watercolor in the last quarter of the 19th century.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Just as had happened in 1858, an over-heated furnace pipe set fire to ceiling joints in the cellar on December 28, 1885.  It spread to the beams below the large reading room.  While members were at dinner at around 7:30, a firefighter on his way to duty saw the flames.  He ran to his fire station at 18th Street and Fifth Avenue and the responding engines were at the club before the members were aware their clubhouse of the fire.

Chief Bresnan directed his firefighters to tear up a section of the reading room floor.  "This brought out an indignant protest from several excited members of the club," reported The New York Times, "who, in evening dress, crowded about the firemen and insisted that they should desist.  The floor is inlaid with rare and expensive woods, and is said to have cost over $5,000."  Some members accused the firefighters of "wantonly destroying the property of the club."  Chief Bresnan "waxed angry," said the article, and threatened to have them arrested if they did not stop interfering.

The flooring was torn up and the fire extinguished.  When the charred beams were exposed, the club members realized their mistake.  "They not only made graceful apologies, but entertained the firemen handsomely," said The New York Times.

Two months later, in February 1886, The New York Times reported on the repaired club.  "The massive and severely plain exterior of the Manhattan little indication of the comfort and cheer within.  The broad tessellated entrance hall, which fortunately escaped the flames recently, prepares the eye for the spacious parlor alongside, with its two big fireplaces."  

Members in evening dress attend a reception.  The New York Times October 10, 1915 (copyright expired)

In the rear of the house was the billiard room.  "The card card room on the second floor used to be a great resort in the old days when the late Commodore Vanderbilt played whist nightly before he took unto himself a second wife."  Members dining here enjoyed "diamond-backed terrapins and canvas-backs...from the Chesapeake direct to the club."  The Times said, "The butter is manufactured expressly on the model dairy farm of a Pennsylvania railroad magnate at a cost of $1.25 per pound" and the "wine cellar is probably the finest in this country."  The temperature of the cellar was controlled "by close observation of numerous thermometers."

At the time the Manhattan Club had been left behind by the other exclusive men's clubs which had moved further uptown.  The first hint that the club might join them came on March 16, 1888 when The New York Times reported that the subject of a meeting the night before was "changing the quarters of the club from Fifth-avenue and Fifteenth-street to the Stewart mansion, at Fifth-avenue and Thirty-fourth-street, or some other suitable place."

In January 1889 the club prepared to move into the former Alexander Turney Stewart mansion.    On January 8 The New York Times reported "Within a week, there is at present scarcely any doubt, the Manhattan Club will abandon its old home at Fifteenth-street and Fifth-avenue and go into new quarters."  

Ironically, that same day fire broke out again in the venerable mansion.  The New York Times reported "The roof was completely burned off, and part of the fourth floor, which is used as the servants' quarters, was also destroyed."  There were about 40 members still in the building and they "devoted themselves to protecting the property of the club as best they could.  After the fire they proceeded to console themselves."

The Manhattan Club moved north and the former Parker mansion was converted to offices and artists studios.  Among the tenants was the well-known portrait and landscape painter, Nicholas Biddle Kittell.  Ironically, one of his better known portraits was that of Governor William L. Marcy, which hung in the Manhattan Club.  He had just completed a portrait of the Rev. Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst in June 1894 when suffered his third stroke and died.

Astonishingly, a defective furnace once again resulted in fire.  On December 4, 1894 The New York Times reported "The artists occupying the upper part of the building...formerly occupied by the Manhattan Club were routed from their studios about 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon by a fire in the basement."

Smoke filled the stairways, making escape difficult.  "George Rand, an artist on the third floor, when he ran out of his studio found a girl groping her way through the smoke-filled hallway."  He guided her through his studio to the fire escape through.  There she told him there was another girl trapped in a room.  "Two of the firemen carried the girls safely down the fire escapes," said the article.  Another artist, "slightly paralytic," was lowered to the ground by a rope.

Another well-known artist with a studio here was James Well Chapney.  On February 28, 1897 The New York Times reported "Mr. and Mrs. J. Wells Chapney gave a reception, which was largely attended by artists, and literary and society people, at Mr. Champney's studio, 96 Fifth Avenue, yesterday afternoon."   The event was not entirely social.  "Mr. Champney also gave a second exhibition of his pastel paintings of types of American girls, with several new pieces."

On November 22, 1899 the Champney's daughter, Marie Mitchell Champney, was married to John Sanford Humphreys in St. Bartholomew's Church.  Brooklyn Life called it "of particular artistic as well as social interest."  Marie was a an artist, herself, and her husband was an architect associated with Carrere & Hastings.  A wedding breakfast was served in the Champney studio afterwards.

It was, perhaps, the last event held in the former mansion.  Only a week later The Evening Telegram reported on its coming demolition.  "It was a delightful old building, once the family residence of people who went down in the shuffle before Tammany Hall was coming to the fore."  It was replaced by the Manhattan Building, named with a nod to the former club on the site.  And that made way for the Mayfair Fifth, a 19-floor apartment building completed in 1962.

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