Monday, November 30, 2020

The Lost William C. Schermerhorn House - 49 West 23rd Street


Family members assembled on the split staircase for a photograph.  Apparently no one thought to remove the carpet which was airing from a third floor window.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Jacob Janse Schermerhorn arrived in New Netherland in 1636.  His descendants would become among the oldest and wealthiest families in New York City.  William Colford Schermerhorn spent much of his life in the family mansion at No. 6 Great Jones Street which, following his parents' death, his wife, the former Ann Elliott Huger Cottonet, made a center of lavish entertaining.

Born on June 22, 1821, Schermerhorn received a private education before attending Columbia College.  Educated as an attorney and admitted to the bar in 1842, he really never practiced law.  He and Ann had five children--Fanny, Sarah, Franklin, Simon, and Annie.  In his office at No. 41 Liberty Street he devoted almost all of his time and energy to the management of the extensive Schermerhorn holdings.

William Colford Schermerhorn Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association

When his father erected the house on Great Jones Street that neighborhood was among the most fashionable in the city.  But not long after Henry Brevoort, Jr.'s construction of his lavish, free-standing house on Fifth Avenue at 9th Street in 1834, society began migrating west.   In 1858 William commissioned German-born architect Detlef Lienau to design a mansion on the exclusive block of 23rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

Nine years earlier Lienau had designed an architecturally groundbreaking mansion for millionaire Hart M. Shiff at No. 32 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 10th Street.  It is considered the first example of the French Second Empire style in New York City (described by the architect as "a la mansard").  Now Lienau produced a near match for the Schermerhorns.

Lienau's rendering for the Schermerhorn house (above) was extremely similar to that of the Schiff residence. collection of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library 

The mansion sat on two plots--Nos. 49 and 51 West 23rd Street.  Three bays wide, it was accessed by a split staircase.  Each story was defined by an intermediate cornice, and stone quoins lined the three vertical sections.   Directly above the entrance, a pair of French doors, crowned by a classical pediment, opened onto a stone balcony.  The New York Herald described the residence broadly, saying:

The house is a very large and handsome one, occupying three [sic] lots of ground.  It is red brick, four stories high, with attics and with brown stone trimmings; it has a high stoop and elegant stone balconies.

The family moved into the completed mansion in 1859.  Its sumptuous interiors were outfitted with imported French furniture.  Perhaps no space was more important than the large picture gallery which, like that of William's cousin Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, doubled as a ballroom for Ann's opulent entertainments.

Ann was described by Elizabeth Fries Ellet in her 1868 book The Queens of American Society as "remarkable for beauty and grace, and for the elegance of her reunions."  Attending those "reunions" were the most elevated names of Manhattan society.  On February 5, 1869, for instance, the Evening Telegram reported:

On Friday Mrs. William Schermerhorn, 49 West Twenty-third street, gave one of the largest and most recherche receptions of the season.  Among the ladies present, noticeable for their rich and stylish toilets, were Mrs. Gracie King, Mrs. [Mary] Mason Jones, Mrs. Hamilton Fish, Mrs. Coventry Waddell, Mrs. Samuel Failes, Mrs. Cutting and Miss King.

Ann's entertainments vied with any throughout society, including those of her husband's cousin.  On February 22, 1887 the New-York Daily Tribune reported on the "large reception and tea" she had given the previous afternoon.  "Over two hundred guests called," it said.

On the night of February 10, 1897 Mr. and Mrs. Bradley Martin gave a fancy dress ball at the Hotel Waldorf to which 1,200 invitations were issued ("but little more than half of those invited were in attendance," noted The New York Times).  It was a costume ball and, as was common, invited socialites gave pre-ball gatherings.  Because of the costumes and the decorations of the 23rd Street house, Ann Schermerhorn's reminded many of her earlier, famous Versailles ball.

The New York Times reminisced, "Forty-three years ago Mr. and Mrs. Schermerhorn gave a great which the guests appeared in costumes of the time of Louis XV, and the affair last night, though less pretentious in point of numbers and preparation, had many points of resemblance to it."  The article called it "the most elaborate of the several costume events preceding the ball."

Following an 8:30 dinner "to a few of the close friends of the host and hostess," said the article, "the large handsomely decorated parlors and ball room of the mansion were thrown open for the reception of about 100 guests."  As always, the guest list was impressive, with names like Suydam, Van Nest, Redmond and Iselin.  "An interesting feature of the reception was the exhibition of costumes worn at the famous Schermerhorn ball of 1854, and some of the silverware used at the banquet on that occasion."

Sharing the house with William and Ann were their unmarried daughter, Sarah; Fanny and her husband, Samuel W. Bridgman; and Annie and her husband, John Innes Kane.

Bridgman became the target of a highly-publicized blackmail scheme in 1897.  He had married Fanny in 1869 and was described by the Patterson Evening News as "a member of the Knickerbocker, Metropolitan, Tuxedo, Camera and Military clubs.  His life is that of a clubman, and is divided between his clubs and his home."  On the night of April 17 he and Fanny left for the theater.  On the street a man presented him with papers "in a suit for $100,000 brought against him by one James Ward for the alienation of his wife's affections," according to The Sun.

Bridgman laughed it off as a joke--until a second letter arrived from a supposed attorney the next morning, threatening to involve the Sheriff.   The conman behind the scheme, William C. Woodward, known as "Big Hawley the confidence man," assumed that his wealthy patsy would pay to avoid unwanted scandal.  Instead Bridgman went to the authorities and a trap was laid.  Detective Sergeant McNaught masqueraded as a worker in the office of Bridgman's lawyer.   When the blackmailer arranged an in-person negotiation, the trap was sprung.

William and Ann maintained a summer estate in Lenox and one in Newport.  Their movements kept society columnists on their toes.  On September 8, 1901, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "Mr. and Mrs. William C. Schermerhorn and Miss Schermerhorn, of New-York, who have been at Newport since July, have returned to Lenox and are at their Elm cottage."

By the time of that article, the West 23rd Street neighborhood was no longer residential.  The mansions of the Schermerhorn's' neighbors had either been converted for commercial purposes or demolished and replaced by emporiums.  But the Schermerhorns stubbornly refused to move north and abandon their home.  It was now a stark anachronism of a more refined era along the block.

The transformation of the once-elegant block is evidenced in this photograph.  The Schermerhorn house can be glimpsed at the right.  The Eden Musee next door was a wax museum and music hall.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On January 2, 1903 The Evening Post reported, "William Colford Schermerhorn, the oldest of his family, who had kept his residence at No. 49 West Twenty-third Street while the shops moved up to him and around him and then beyond him, died there last night."  Schermerhorn was 82 years old had had been ill only two days.

Sarah, who had a kidney problem, had never married.  Ann was still deep in mourning when her daughter's condition worsened.  Fanny and John maintained a summer estate in Bar Harbor and all four went there "hoping the change of air would benefit Miss Schermerhorn," according to the New-York Daily Tribune.   On July 30, just six months after her father's death, Sarah died in the Bar Harbor residence.

In reporting in Sarah's funeral in the 23rd Street mansion, the New York Press focused mostly on the house, beginning the article saying "There is something lugubrious about the old Schermerhorn house, at No. 49 West Twenty-third street.  It is the only private dwelling on that busy shopping block."  

The article mentioned that Annie Kane and Caroline Astor "are the best of friends, yet Mrs. Kane is as quiet socially as Mrs. Astor is active.  Like most of the Schermerhorns, Mrs. Kane is passionately fond of music and her entertainments usually take the form of musicales."  

One sentence revealed that Ann had ceded her place in society to her daughters:  "Mrs. William C. Schermerhorn was a great patron of the arts in her day.  With wealth at her command, this matron's greatest pleasure was to send young women to study in Paris in the hope of producing a second Jenny Lind.  She never had that reward."

Despite her advancing age, however, Ann continued her routine of moving among her several homes.  On September 29, 1906, for instance, the New-York Tribune announced "Mrs. William C. Schermerhorn is to open her Main street cottage [in Lenox] for October.  Mr. and Mrs. John Innes Kane, who are at Bar Harbor, will return to Lenox with Mrs. Schermerhorn."

That would be Ann's last season in Lenox.  On February 15, 1907 The New York Times reported that she had died in the 23rd Street house the previous day.  "With her death New York has lost one of the few remaining women who had been really great leaders of society in this city."  The 83-year-old had outlived all but two of her children--Annie and Fanny.

Ann's beloved house was an architectural fly in amber.  Her deep affection for it went beyond her death.  A few days after her funeral the New York Press reported that she had "provided for its preservation by a clause in her will."  The article recalled "It was in the Schermerhorn mansion that the first foreign opera singers appeared at musicals.  On one occasion the Schermerhorns became the talk of the city by engaging the entire orchestra of the Academy of Music to play at a reception."

Despite Ann's posthumous efforts, life among retail stores was unattractive to her daughters and their husbands.  First the Kanes moved to Madison Avenue and then, on March 19, 1908, the New-York Tribune reported that Samuel and Fanny Bridgman had purchased the five-story house at No. 954 Fifth Avenue.  The article reminded readers "Mrs. Bridgham was Miss Fanny Schermerhorn.  She and her husband have occupied for some years the old Schermerhorn house, No. 49 West 23d street."

Three years later, on May 3, 1911, The New York Times entitled an article "Schermerhorn House To Go" and commented that since the Bridghams moved out the mansion had been unoccupied.  "On its site will rise a twelve-story loft building."

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

The mansion was replaced by the remarkable "Modern French" style structure designed by Schwartz & Gross which survives.


  1. A really astonishing house. One could make an entire genre of antique photographs of houses with rugs hanging out upstairs windows. I think the Kanes cannot have moved to Madison Avenue? They began construction of their new Fifth Avenue house at 1 West 49th in 1904, and surely it was finished by 1908? Or had they left much earlier, with an interim on Madison? Btw, worth mentioning that just as Mr. Schermerhorn was a cousin of Caroline Astor, so John I. Kane was a cousin of Mr. Astor. And lastly, Samuel Bridgham was a noted amateur photographed, and I think that a couple of his surviving photographs were taken in this house? Will check. Fascinating post, as always.

    1. When John Innes Kane was thrown from his carriage and injured on March 2, 1905, the New York Herald reported that he was "resting comfortably" at his residence, "No. 37 Madison avenue, last night." So they lived in the Madison Avenue house between the 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue houses.

  2. Maddening. Although, when I needed to know more about Bridgham a few years ago, there were a number of his photographs online, including some scenes in an obviously Victorian interior, the capricious Google algorithm gods are not on my side today. Grrr.