Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Lost Peter Schermerhorn House - 6 Great Jones Street


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

Peter Schermerhorn was born in Stoutenburgh's (later renamed Hyde Park), New York on April 22, 1781.  He was one of six children born to Peter and Elizabeth Schermerhorn.  The family was one of the oldest and wealthiest in New York.  The first Schermerhorns were living in New Amsterdam by 1654. 

Peter joined his father's ship chandlery firm in 1802 at which point it was renamed Peter Schermerhorn & Son.  His brother, Abraham, joined the firm in 1808.  Following their father's death in 1809 they reorganized it as Schermerhorn & Co.

On April 5, 1804 Peter married Sarah Jones, the daughter of John and Eleanor Jones.   They purchased the former Robert Dickey mansion at No. 67 Greenwich Street.  Peter and Sarah would have six children, two of whom died in childhood.

In 1842 Peter began construction on a new residence at the corner of Great Jones and Lafayette Place in one of the most exclusive residential districts of the city.  Completed in 1843 it was a free-standing brick and brownstone mansion.  Its prim design featured a rusticated base where a short stoop led to a shallow portico capped by a swan's head pediment.  

Shortly after moving into the new town residence, Schermerhorn established a summer estate, "Belmont Farm," overlooking the East River around 84th Street.  He had purchased part of the land from John Hardenbrook in 1818 and added Sarah's portion of her father's country seat following his death.  

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Sarah Schermerhorn died in the Great Jones house on April 28, 1845.  Somewhat surprisingly, given his mother's recent death, William Colford Schermerhorn married Ann Elliott Huger Cottonet five months later, on September 24.  The couple took up residency with Peter.  William's unmarried brother, Edmund Henry, who was 30 years old at the time, also lived in the house.

Unlike his father and uncle, William went into law.  He was admitted to the bar in 1842 and eventually took over the management of the massive Schermerhorn estate.  

Peter Schermerhorn died in the Belmont Farm house on June 23, 1852.  The house on Great Jones Street was suddenly transformed into a social center.  

William Colford Schermerhorn Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

Ann Schermerhorn, like her husband's cousin Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, was determined to be a social leader.  In her 1868 book The Queens of American Society, Elizabeth Fries Ellet wrote, "Mrs. William Schermerhorn has given entertainments to the delight of the fashionable of New York.  She was Miss Continet [sic], and was remarkable for beauty and grace, and for the elegance of her reunions."

Her most notable "reunion" in the Great Jones house was her "bal costumé de rigueur" in 1854.  Six hundred invitations were sent out for the costume ball.  Guests were instructed that costumes of the court of Versailles during the reign of Louis XV were required.  Elizabeth Ellet recalled "The dresses, exclusive of jewelry, were said to have cost between forty and fifty thousand dollars; the jewelry over half a million."  Ann carried out the details of the theme as far as having period uniforms made for the servants and insisting that the gentlemen who attended shave off their beloved whiskers, moustaches and sideburns.

Newspapers were often critical of the ostentatious waste of the upper classes at a time when the city teemed with destitute citizens.  The New York Times was merciless in its ignominy.  "On Monday, the 27th of February, the new outbreak of folly came to its full manifestation," it said.  "Nobody...was admitted into the vast saloons of Mme. S., in Great Jones street, (which, when thrown together, are actually fifty feet in length!) whose ancestors had not, some fifty years before, industriously scrubbed, in person, the door steps of their own houses."

The article went on at length, ridiculing the wealthy.  In describing two 18th century style quadrilles, it called the dancers "heavy, clownish nabobs of Wall street," and said "It was more like a dance of some half domesticated bears than anything else; and even it ceased to be amusing after a time."

In 1860 William, Ann and their five children moved to an new house on West 23 Street, just west of Fifth Avenue.  Edmund Henry continued on in the family home.  

A life-long bachelor, Edmund lived off his inherited fortune.  He entertained in the Great Jones house, albeit not so lavishly as his sister-in-law.   Every gentleman of the 19th century kept a detailed diary, but the contents were private.  Subsequently they were routinely burned upon the death of their authors.  But in the 1930's the diaries of wealthy attorney George Templeton Strong were discovered and published.  In it he spoke of being invited to Edmund's home for an afternoon musicale which he deemed "very agreeable on the whole."

During the Civil War Congress passed a conscription act, creating the first war-time draft in United States history.  It provided a loophole for the wealthy in that exemptions could be purchased for $300--about $5,000 today--or they could pay for a substitute.  Not surprisingly, on September 4, 1864 the list of the "names of Patriotic Gentlemen who have furnished substitutes in advance of the draft" published in The New York Times included the Edmund H. H. Schermerhorn.

Edmund was a life-long member of the Emanuel Church, but a sermon by the Rev. E. H. Porter ended his church-going "very unexpectedly," as worded by The Telegraph.  The article said the rift was "all because the rector preached a sermon which did not suit him.  The sermon was aimed at men whose only object in life was to acquiring [sic] of wealth, and Mr. Schermerhorn had an idea that the discourse was a personal one."

In 1872, as commercial structures increasingly engulfed the neighborhood, Edmund left the Great Jones Street house.  The Schermerhorn family still owned the old Dickey mansion Peter Schermerhorn had purchased six decades earlier.  Somewhat surprisingly, Edmund commissioned architect Detlief Lienau (who had designed William's mansion on West 23rd Street) to remodel the vintage structure.

The Great Jones Street mansion that had been the scene of what one author described as "New York's most extravagant ball" became a rooming house and then the Law School of Columbia University.  It was almost lost on the Fourth of July, 1874, when fireworks landed on the roof and sparked a fire.

In 1877 William Schermerhorn demolished the old family home and hired eminent architect Henry J. Hardenberg to design a commercial structure on the site.  The magnificent Schermerhorn Building survives.

photo by Beyond My Ken

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