Monday, December 21, 2020

The Lost George Kemp house - 720 Fifth Avenue

Appearing as part of the corner mansion, 722 5th Av (where the men are standing in front of the stoop) was erected by Kemp as rental income.  Collins' Both Sides of Fifth Avenue, 1911 (copyright expired)

Born in Ireland on March 4, 1826, George Kemp arrived in New York with his family at the age of five.  By 1878 he had made a fortune in Lanman & Kemp, a perfumery nationally-known for its Florida Water and Eau de Cologne.   Florida Water was so popular (today we would call it a "body splash") that baseball teams used it as a refresher during hot games.  He invested heavily in real estate as well, and was the proprietor of the Buckingham Hotel.

George Kemp, The Pharmaceutical Era, December 15, 1893 (copyright expired)

Kemp and his wife, the former Juliet Augusta Tryon had four children, George, Jr., Juliet Augusta, Marion Morgan (known as Marie) and Arthur Tyron.   In 1878 Kemp hired architect R. C. Jones to design a mansion for his family at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street.  Always the businessman, Kemp included in the project an abutting, smaller residence intended for rental income.

The total cost of construction was $60,000--or about $1.6 million today.  On September 28, 1878, as the houses rose, The Record & Guide called them "of a high order of merit and excellence."  The completed structures successfully pretended at first glance to be a single residence.  Faced in red brick and trimmed in stone they rose five stories above a short English basement.  A mixture of Victorian Gothic and Queen Anne, Jones embellished the fa├žade with angled bays, slightly projecting surfaces, and a storybook-ready turret.  The roofline was a mountainscape of gables and dormers.  A mysterious carved face of a man peered down on Fifth Avenue from the central gable.

The plethora of stained glass visible from the street was the work of Louis C. Tiffany.  He was hired to decorate the major rooms--dining room, library, entrance hall and a drawing room (called the Arabian Salon).   According to Roberta A. Mayer in her 2008 book Lockwood de Forest, Furnishing the Gilded Age with a Passion for India, the commission "may have been Tiffany's first major decorating contract."

The entrance hall - Artistic Houses, 1882 (copyright expired)

The salon was described by Alexander F. Oakley in the April 1882 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine as "transplanting an exotic to a Northern elaborate attempt to assimilate the Moresque idea."  The lower walls were paneled in white holly inlaid with "all manner of native and foreign woods, highly polished, and forming gradations and contrasts of browns, buffs, yellows, reds, and black."  Tiffany was almost assuredly responsible for the design of the furnishings of these rooms as well.

Harper's New Monthly Magazine, April 1882 (copyright expired)
Two views of the Arabian Salon.  (bottom image from Artistic Houses, 1882, copyright expired)

The population of No. 720 Fifth Avenue increased (perhaps unexpectedly) by one on December 17, 1880 when Douglas Kemp was born.  His eldest brother, George, was 19-years old at the time and his youngest sibling, Arthur, was 9.

Living with the Kemps were ten servants.  The mansion was the scene of upscale entertainments during the winter social season.  On January 28, 1883, for instance the New-York Tribune reported there would be "an evening reception at the house of Mrs. George Kemp."  The following season, on October 23, 1883, the newspaper noted that George and Juliet were sharing the opera box of Henry G. Marquand and his wife.

Less than four months later tragedy visited the Fifth Avenue mansion.  On February 7, 1884 little Douglas died at just 3-years old.

As Marion and Juliet came of age, their mother turned her attention to their introductions to society.  On February 10, 1888 the New-York Tribune reported, "Mr. and Mrs. George Kemp, of No. 720 Fifth-ave., gave a dance last evening for the Misses Kemp."

In January 1893 the Kemps announced Juliet's engagement to Stephen Higginson Tyng, Jr.  On June 4, 1893 The World wrote, "It is very probable that the wedding of Miss Juliette Kemp and her finance, Mr. Stephen H. Tyng, jr., will be an event of the late summer at Lenox, the prospective bride's parents, Mr. and Mrs. George Kemp, having just taken a cottage at that place."

The Louis Tiffany designed dining room.  Artistic Houses, 1882, (copyright expired)

Family joy would soon turn to grief.  In September George Kemp fell ill.  The situation became worrisome enough that it caught the attention of the newspapers.  On November 3 The Evening World reported, "The condition of Millionaire George Kemp, who has been seriously ill at his home, 720 Fifth avenue, was reported as more comfortable this morning."

He died in the house on November 23 at the age of 67.  The Pharmaceutical Era reported, oddly enough, "The cause of death was malnutrition, and his family and friends had for some time past seen the approaching end of his struggles for life."  His funeral, held in St. Bartholomew's Church, "was attended by the solid, substantial business men of the city, who desired to testify by their presence their respect and affection for their old associate," said the article.

Juliet and her husband moved into the house with her mother and sister, and with Arthur and his wife.  When the family's period of mourning had passed, they re-entered the schedule of summer and winter social activities.  On November 10, 1895, for instance, The Press announced, "Mrs. George Kemp and Miss Kemp have closed their Bar Harbor cottage and are at their house, No. 720 Fifth avenue."  

Later that winter season Juliet resumed entertaining.  On January 22, 1896 The New York Times reported:

Mrs. Juliette Kemp of 720 Fifth Avenue and her daughter, Miss Marie Kemp, gave a reception and musicale at their home yesterday afternoon, the first since the death of Mrs. Kemp's husband, George Kemp, more than a year ago...The rooms were handsomely decorated with palms and flowers, and the guests had a very enjoyable time listening to Mme. Blauvelt's singing.  Victor Herbert played the 'cello.  Mrs. and Miss Kemp entertained a small party of friends at dinner in the evening."

The following month, on February 2, The Press reported, "Mrs. Stephen H. Tyng, Jr., nee Kemp, of No. 720 Fifth avenue, will give a large musicale on Tuesday evening."

Juliet Kemp gave a benefit reception for the West Side Day Nursery on the afternoon of March 10, 1897.  Among the socialites who attended were the wives of some of the city's wealthiest citizens--J. Pierpont Morgan, Theodore Havemeyer, Louis C. Tiffany, Frederick Vanderbilt, Cornelius Bliss and Robert Hoe among them.

George Kemp's library had Tiffany transoms, a veined marble fireplace, and a glorious Esthetic period ceiling.   Artistic Houses, 1882, (copyright expired)

It would be one of the last entertainments Juliet hosted.  She died less than two months later on May 1 at the age of 60.  Perhaps emotionally unable to continue living in the house erected by their parents, Marion almost immediately moved to Europe, Arthur and his wife went to their Newport mansion, the Tyngs left as well, and George relocated permanently to Paris.

No. 720 sat vacant until the siblings leased it to Edwin Gould and his wife, the former Sarah Shrady.  On October 23, 1898 The New York Press entitled an article "Mrs. Edwin Gould to Have a New Home" and reported the couple "will take possession of their new home on November 1.  They have a taken a long lease of the five-story brick and stone house at No. 720 Fifth avenue."  

The article noted "The location of the Goulds' new home is one of the finest in the city.  Just above are the palatial houses of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Harry Payne Whitney; across the street are new Astor houses and those of Hermann Oelrichs and C. P. Huntington, while a few doors below is the city house of Levi P. Morton.  The Kemp home is adapted for entertaining...Without a wearisome struggle with builders and architects, the Edwin Goulds will live in one of the most perfectly created of all the modern houses in aristocratic Greater New York."

Edwin Gould, from the collection of the Library of Congress

Three months after moving in, Sarah gave birth.  On February 20, 1899 The Evening Telegraph reported, "A boy baby was born to Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Gould at their home, 720 Fifth avenue, on Feb. 6, but the fact did not become known until yesterday."  The second son of the couple, he was named Frank Fisher Gould.  

Little Frank's older brother, Edwin, Jr., was five years old.  Later that year in September he contracted scarlet fever at the family's summer home, Ardsley Towers, at Dobbs Ferry, New York.  The infant was sent back to the Fifth Avenue townhouse for his safety.  On October 12, 1899 The Morning Telegraph, reported that the "heir to millions is seriously ill" and that Sarah "is little Edward's constant nurse."

The boy recovered and things returned to normal in the Gould household.  In November that same year Edwin hired architect R. T. Lyons to make $4,000 (about $127,000 today) in "improvements" within the house, including an elevator.  

It was fashionable for wealthy families to have a French cook and an English butler.  The Gould's butler was Englishman Thomas Ashton, who brought with him impressive references.

When the family sailed for Europe in 1900 Edwin placed much of the jewelry which Sarah she was not taking with her in a safety deposit vault.  Nevertheless, items of significant value were left  in a jewel box in her chiffonier.  While Sarah and Edwin took along necessary servants--his valet and her lady's maid, for instance--the housekeeper, Jane V. Miller, and Ashton remained in the Fifth Avenue mansion.

Jane was perplexed when Ashton "left suddenly in June without waiting for his wages, at the same time leaving behind much of his own clothing," as reported later in The New York Press.  And then, during a boxing match in Coney Island "police discovered a well dressed, clean shaven man offering to dispose of handsome pins, rings, cuff buttons, studs, bracelets and brooches to those at the fight," according to The New York Press on August 10.

The New York Press described Sarah Gould as "one of the handsomest women in New York."  October 23, 1898 (copyright expired).

The 28-year old man, Charles W. Blair, was taken to police headquarters where the jewelry was inspected.  "In going over the jewels the police discovered that one pair of cuff buttons bore the initials 'E. G.'," said the article.  Captain McClusky took some pieces to Tiffany & Co. where the firm identified them as belonging to the Goulds.  A telegram was send to Edwin Gould with a description of the pieces and they were identified by Sarah.

Jane Miller was interviewed.  "When shown a picture of Charles W. Blair she readily identified it as that of Thomas Ashton."  In searching the house detectives found Sarah's jewel box discarded in the cellar.  The Sun reported:

Mr. Gould was quoted as saying that his wife was particularly annoyed by the theft as one of the articles stolen was a brooch in the form of a basket of flowers, with a pendant watch suspended from a little diamond bow.  It was a present to Mrs. Gould from the Countess Castellane.  Other articles which Mrs. Gould remembered having left in the chiffonier were a dagger pin, three inches long, set with pearls and diamonds and one ruby, and a brooch of pearls in the form of a dove.

The total value of the stolen jewelry was placed at between $15,000 and $20,000--upwards of $628,000 today (which makes one wonder what was put in the safety deposit box).  Charles Blair was sentenced to four years in Sing-Sing Prison.

In an interesting side note, in the summer of 1907, police were frantically trying to apprehend a "flat house thief" who had been ransacking upscale apartment buildings.  Finally, on August 12 Frank Jones was arrested.  When he was taken in to the Mulberry Street stationhouse, he was recognized as Charles Blair, aka Thomas Ashton.

At the time the neighborhood around No. 720 Fifth Avenue, once described as "one of the finest in the city," was becoming increasingly commercial.  On October 3, 1908 The Record & Guide reported that Edwin Gould had leased the Wilmerding mansion at 18 East 77th Street.

The Kemp family rented the side-by-side houses to art dealers Duveen Brothers in February 1910.  The New-York Tribune reported "Duveen Brothers plan, it is said, [is] to make extensive alterations to the present structure for their own occupancy."

from the collection of the Library of Congress

Instead, however, the firm hired Horace Trumbauer to replace it.  He worked with Parisian architect Rene Sergeant in designing the store building inspired by the 1774 Hotel de la Marine on the Place de la Concorde.  That building survived until 1952 when it was replaced by Emery Roth & Sons 15-story replacement office building which survives.

photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York


  1. Longtime fan of this blog, which is incredible. Is there a way to subscribe to email updates for new posts?

    1. You can click on the "follow" button at the top left; or simply bookmark the page. There's a new post every day except Sunday.

    2. Thanks, don't know how I missed that.

    3. Love the stories

  2. I noted the year this house was completed, 1878 was also the year Alva and William K. Vanderbilt began building their chateau at 660 Fifth Avenue. Completed in 1882, their house changed the future of millionaire mansions in NYC. And yet the Kemps did not remodel. Their Louis C. Tiffany interiors must have been dazzling; although kind of cluttered.

    1. "Cluttered" is only by our 21st century view. During the Esthetic period, the interiors were "filled"!

  3. FYI if you want to see what this address looks like now, here's the link to google maps.

    It really has quite the location - just south Central Park and directly across 5th Avenue from Trump Tower. It also appears that the 100+ year old second empire building next door is still there.

    Most importantly, thank you for another great post.

  4. Simply incredible Tiffany interiors. The rooms had to be dazzling to see and experience in person. Only wish the photos were in color. Thanks for highlighting this house of which I knew very little about. That's what makes this blog equally incredible.

  5. Thank you for this wonderful blog about George Kemp. I am distantly related to him so it is quite interesting to me.