Monday, November 16, 2020

The Lost Lamon V. Harkness House - 933 Fifth Avenue

Architecture & Building, October 16, 1897 (copyright expired)

In the 1880's the family of Henry O. Armour lived in the handsome house at No. 933 Fifth Avenue, between 74th and 75th Streets.  Henry's wife was just 35 years old when she died in the mansion in 1885.

Within the next decade the neighborhood was filling with far more sumptuous homes.  On March 9, 1893 contractor Leonard F. Beckwith purchased the Armour house for the equivalent of $2.2 million in today's money.  He announced his intentions to replace it with a $5.5 million mansion (thirty times that much today).  His aspirations were overly grandiose.  Architect John H. Duncan was commissioned to design a much scaled down residence.

Even with the diminished plans, Beckwith was in financial trouble, burdened with mortgages and liens of about $120,000.  He sold the unfinished house to Edward C. Sheedy in May the following year for $137,000 (about $4.2 million today).   While the Real Estate Record & Guide called the rising house "magnificent," the New York Herald was less complimentary, deeming it a "queer dwelling."

The Evening Post reported on May 29 "It will cost about $20,000 to finish it in style to conform to what has already been done upon it.  Mr. Sheehy said he did not know whether he would use it as a residence for himself, or would finish it and offer it for sale."  He chose the latter.  

Lamon Vernon Harkness was born in Ohio 1850 to Stephen V. Harkness, whose immense fortune would come following his investing with John D. Rockefeller and a few others in the Standard Oil Company.  When he was 19 years old Lamon's father loaned him $500 to purchase a cattle ranch near Eureka, Kansas.  Three years later he was married to Martha Frances Johnson.  Following his father's death in 1888 Harkness inherited a massive fortune and, although retaining the title of vice president of Standard Oil, effectively retired from business.

When Sheehy put the unfinished Fifth Avenue mansion on the market, Harkness owned a magnificent home on Troost Avenue in Kanas City, Missouri (The Kansas City Star noted in 1951 that he was "the richest man ever to live in Kansas City"), a sprawling farm, Walnut Hill, in Kentucky where he was "engaged in breeding blooded horses," and a 34-acre estate in Greenwich, Connecticut (formerly the home of William Rockefeller).  Now he added No. 933 Fifth Avenue to his list of residences.

Harkness's Kansas City residence.  Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

Harkness disliked city life and had little interest in residing in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  The purchase was a necessity.  He and Martha had three children, Lela, Laura Myrtle (who went by her middle name), and Harry Stephen.   As court papers would later explain, in the spring of 1895 "the time was drawing near for his daughters to take a more active part in social activities."

The mansion was completed in 1896 and opened that fall.  It was outfitted with "servants, wardrobes, horses, carriages and automobiles...for the winter social season."  But only Lela and Laura lived in the house.   Lamon and Martha remained in Connecticut except for a two-week period around Christmas.  After that season, the mansion remained mostly shuttered.

Lamon Vernon Harkness (original source unknown)

A significant social event in 1898 demanded that the house be opened.  On November 30 The New York Times reported that Leila had been married to Dr. Ogden M. Edwards, Jr. in the house the previous evening.  Myrtle was her maid of honor and Harry was an usher.  Another usher was Lamon's half-brother, Edward S. Harkness, who was closer to Harry's age than to Lamon's.   

By now Harkness had purchased another residence, a winter home near Pasadena, California.  Court papers later said "Immediately after the wedding...the New York house was boarded up and the family went to California, returning from there to Greenwich for the summer of 1899."

Laura Myrtle's wedding caused the house to be opened again for a few days that fall.  It was the scene of her marriage to A. Kingsley Macomber in November 1899, but once again Lamon and Martha left New York.  They spent the holidays at Walnut Hall and then divided their time among that estate, Connecticut and California.

After the turn of the century the unused mansion was occasionally occupied by Harry S. Harkness.  While his father was interested in fast horses, Harry was obsessed with fast automobiles.  On October 31, 1904 he was on his way to the auto races at the Empire City track in Yonkers, when he was arrested for speeding.  Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt's chauffeur, Paul Sartori, was arrested at the same time.

Standing before Magistrate Zeller, Sartori explained "he had gone fast because it was a mechanical impossibility to go slow," said The Telegram.  "It is because of the high gear," he said, "The machine cannot go slow.  I put on the power, let it run a little while, then I take off the power and coast."  The article said that Harry Harkness "had the same explanation."  When the arresting officer testified that he "thought the men were doing their best to keep within the law," the cases were dismissed.

On September 24, 1905 the mansion was again opened.  Martha was seriously ill and she was brought to New York to be near her physician.  She died in the house three weeks later.  Harkness closed up the mansion, boarded up the doors and windows and erected a wooden fence along the Fifth Avenue front.  It remained dark except for nine weeks during the winter season of 1907-08 when one of the daughters occupied it.

Harkness's intense dislike of urban living was reflected in court papers, which explained "Practically all of his life he had lived in the country, his chief interest, outside of his family, being horses, cattle and sheep.  He was devoted to country and out-of-doors life and spent a minimum of time in the city."  

He purchased a summer cottage at Easthampton, Long Island, in July 1914, but he would not enjoy it for long.  On January 17, 1915 the 75-year old died while visiting Laura Myrtle and her family in their California home, Paicines Rancho, near Hollister.  In reporting on his death, The Sun did not mention the Fifth Avenue house, saying "Mr. Harkness's home is at his famous Walnut Hill farm near Lexington."  He left an estate, according to Information Annual in 1917 "estimated at more than $100,000,000."  The massive fortune would be just under $2 billion today.

In March 1918 the estate sold the Fifth Avenue house to Charles Edwin Mitchell for $300,000--about $5 million in today's money.  The Record & Guide noted "Since Mr. Harkness' death the house has been vacant" and added "the buyer will alter the dwelling for his own occupancy."  Mitchell hired the architectural firm of Walker & Gillett to do the renovations, which involved interior updating.

A high-profile banker, Mitchell and his wife Elizabeth had two children, Rita and Craig Knowlton.  Mitchell was an executive with National City Bank and one way the athletic banker kept fit was to "frequently walk from his home at 933 Fifth Avenue to his office at 55 Wall Street," according to Time magazine years later.  It was a five-and-a-half mile trek.

Like other wives of millionaires, Elizabeth busied herself with charitable causes.  In March 1920, for instance, she was on the committee of a recital by Fritz Kreisler at the Waldorf-Astoria for the benefit of the Babies' Dairies Association.  

The mansion which had been mostly shuttered and dark for decades was now the setting of social activity.  On December 10, 1920 the New-York Tribune reported that the Mitchells "will give a musicale at their house Tuesday evening, at which Rafaelo Diaz, tenor of the Metropolitan Opera House, will sing and Miss Muckle, 'cellist, will play." 

The Mitchell's maintained two summer estates, one in Tuxedo Park and another in Southampton.  Their travel schedule kept society columnists on their toes.  On June 6, 1921, for instance, the New York Evening Post reported "Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Mitchell of 933 Fifth Avenue, who have postponed their trip to Europe, will spend the summer at Southampton, L. I., and will leave for that resort very soon."

The postponement of the European trip most likely had to do with Mitchell's being named president of National City Bank that year following the resignation of James A. Stillman.

Elizabeth's entertainments most often involved music.  None, perhaps, as more socially important than the dinner she gave for Mr. and Mrs. Ignace Paderewski on the night of May 19, 1922.

Charles and Elizabeth Mitchell.  photo  

Two years later "Sunshine" Charley, as he was known in banking circles, purchased the former Alfred M. Hoyt residence next door at No. 934.  He had the house demolished and brought Walker & Gillette to replace it with a modern mansion.  Construction began in 1925.

As their new home rose, the Mitchells continued to host events.  On November 30, 1925 the New York Evening Post announced the couple "will entertain at a small dinner at their home on the evening of December 22.  Later a few additional guests will come in to hear Lawrence Tibbett of the Metropolitan Opera, who will sing."

The Hoyt house (left) was demolished by Mitchell. Collins' Both Sides of Fifth Avenue, 1910 (copyright expired)  

When the Mitchells moved into the new house next door, they sold No. 933 to Gordon Sohn Rentschler.  He and Charles were well acquainted.  Rentschler had been offered a directorship in the bank by Mitchell in 1923, making him the youngest director in the institution's history at the age of 38.

A bachelor, the 40-year old was unassuming.  A friend reportedly said "You could travel with Gordon for a month and never know he had more than a hundred dollars."  The New York World said his voice "is deep yet faintly nasal.  It carries the easy assurance most successful men display.  Above all, it is a friendly voice...He is a man most persons would like on brief acquaintance."

Gordon married Mary Coolidge Atkins on July 23, 1927.  The couple would eventually have three daughters, along with Mary's daughter from her first marriage.  

The Great Depression caused enormous change in the lives of the next door neighbors.  Under Mitchell, National City Bank had expended rapidly--too rapidly according to many economist.  The Federal Government began investigating Mitchell's activities, while many in financial and political circles blamed his policies for the Stock Market Crash.

Mitchell was replaced as National City Bank's president in 1929 by Rentschler.  Charles Mitchell was arrested in 1933 and in 1940 Rentschler took the reins as chairman of the board.

A year earlier No. 933 had been demolished.  While the Mitchell mansion survived, No. 933 and its neighbors to the south were replaced by a 20-story apartment building designed by Emery Roth.

photo via

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