Monday, October 19, 2020

The Lost Cornelius Roosevelt House - 849 Broadway

A cropped view of a stereopticon depiction of Lincoln's funeral procession shows the Roosevelt house, its portico columns wrapped.  Two observers perch perilously on the roof.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

By the 1830's the northward expansion of the city was inching toward 14th Street.  A banker, Samuel Ruggles, spearheaded the creation of Union Square in 1832--intended to be an exclusive enclave of upscale homes surrounding a tranquil fenced garden with a central fountain.   Following the park's completion in 1842 the surrounding lots filled with handsome residences of moneyed families.

Among the most distinguished was the Greek Revival brownstone mansion of Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, on the southwest corner of Broadway and 14th Street.  Born on January 30, 1794, Roosevelt descended from an early Dutch settlers.  He married Margaret Barnhill in 1821.   The couple had six sons, Silas, James, Cornelius Jr., Robert, Theodore and William.

According to the New-York Tribune he "was liberally educated."  Following his graduation from Columbia College he joined his father's hardware business.  Upon the death of his father, James Jacobus Roosevelt, on August 13, 1840, Cornelius inherited a large fortune and continued the family's hardware business.

The house Cornelius built for his family was a commodious free-standing structure, four-stories tall above an English basement.  It faced Broadway rather than Union Square.  Roosevelt owned the entire blockfront to 13th Street and the parcel to the side of the mansion originally contained spacious gardens.

In his 1919 The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, William Draper Lewis quoted the President and grandson of Cornelius saying "Inside there was a large hall running up to the roof; there was a tessellated black and white marble floor, and a circular staircase round the sides of the hall, from the top floor down.  We children much admired both the tessellated floor and the circular staircase."

The Roosevelt family was well-established in the house by 1847 when Margaret, as an officer of the Colored Orphan Asylum, listed her address as "Broadway, corner Fourteenth street."  Decades later, in 1921, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson remembered her grandparents in the February issue of Schriber's Magazine.

Cornelius Van Schaack and Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt, whose old home on the corner of 14th Street and Broadway was long a landmark in New York City.  Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt was a typical merchant of his day, fine and true and loyal, but ultraconservative in many ways; and his lovely wife, to whom he addressed, later, such exquisite poems that I have always felt that they should have been given more than private circulation, was a Pennsylvanian of Quaker blood.

in 1850 Cornelius brought his son, James A. Roosevelt, into the firm, which was now named Roosevelt & Son.  The New-York Tribune later explained that at that time "the business was changed from hardware to plate glass." 

On January 23, 1861 Margaret Roosevelt died in the brownstone mansion at the age of 61.  According to the New-York Tribune, upon her death Cornelius "withdrew entirely from the business, having amassed a princely fortune."  He continued to share the house with his son, James A. Roosevelt and his family.  (James had married Elizabeth Norris Emien in 1847 and they had four children, Mary, Leila, Alfred and William.)

The two little boys peering at the Lincoln procession from the side window of the second floor are presumed to be the future President, Theodore Roosevelt and his brother Elliot.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Cornelius Roosevelt's vast fortune was reflected in an article in the Galaxy in May 1868.  It listed the names of "ten men as the owners of one-tenth part of the taxable property of New York."  Among millionaires like William B. Astor, Peter Lorillard and Peter and George Goelet was C. V. S. Roosevelt, who owned the equivalent of $25 million in Manhattan property by today's standards.

On the morning of July 17, 1871 Cornelius V. S. Roosevelt died in his country residence in Oyster Bay, Long Island after an illness of just two days.  He was 78 years old.  By now the Union Square neighborhood was seeing significant change as commercial interests took over many of the mansions.  It did not take Roosevelt's heirs long to abandon the family home.

On September 13, 1872 architect Griffith Thomas filed plans for an eight-story cast iron building on the site for the Domestic Sewing Machine Co.  His striking Second Empire style structure survived until 1928, replaced by the Emory Roth designed 20-story building that survives (albeit significantly altered).

No comments:

Post a Comment