Monday, January 25, 2021

The Lost Goelet Brothers Building - 9 West 17th Street


from the collection of the Office of Metropolitan History

The Goelet family settled in New York in the 17th century and soon established a family tradition of constant, quiet acquisition of Manhattan property.   There was one cardinal rule:  land was never sold.  The Goelet fortunes increased through leases rather than sales.

When eccentric bachelor Peter Goelet died in 1879, the bulk of his estate went to his two nephews, Robert and Ogden.  By now New York City was spreading northward and the value of the vast Goelet land holdings – once rural meadows and woods—was multiplying.   The fortunes of the already wealthy Robert and Ogden Goelet were nearly doubled upon the death of their father.

In 1886 the brothers purchased and demolished the house at No. 9 West 17th Street, once the home of the Isaac Buchanan family, as the site of their offices.  As they would often do, they turned to the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to design the building.  Stanford White took the reins of the project which was completed within the year.

White designed the three-story building in the increasingly popular Flemish Renaissance Revival style which harkened to Manhattan's Dutch roots.  The picturesque main structure was clad in red brick and trimmed in granite.  To the east a single-story extension took the form of a Flemish carriage house or stable.

The entrance and ground floor windows were recessed within arches upheld by free-standing columns.  White alternated stone and brick at this level to create a striped effect.  The second floor, above a pair of projecting bandcourses, was framed by narrow quoins.  The square headed windows wore stone and brick voussoirs.   Stepped gables, obligatory to the style, gave the third floor (which held the caretaker's apartment) special charm and the centered Dutch dormer completed the design.

The Goelets rubbed shoulders with the city's wealthiest gentlemen.  On March 8, 1891 The Sun reported "The organizers of the new up-town club, which has been dubbed the 'millionaires' club,' held their second business meeting yesterday afternoon in the office of the Goelet estate, at 9 West Seventeenth street."  Among those present were moguls like Louis L. Lorillard, Darius Ogden Mills, J. Pierpont Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and William C. Whitney.  The "millionaires' club" would be officially named The Metropolitan Club.

At the time of the meeting Ogden Goelet's health was failing.  He suffered "a number of severe attacks, but has rallied from all of them," according to the New-York Tribune.  He was on the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1896 when, on July 14, the New-York Daily Tribune reported that he "is lying dangerously ill on board his yacht, the White Ladye, which is anchored in Cowes Harbor."  A reporter rushed to No. 9 West 17th Street where the situation was downplayed.  "The men in the Goelet office seemed inclined to doubt that he was suffering from a dangerous illness."

But Ogden would never sail the White Ladye (which he bought, incidentally, from actress-socialite Lily Langtry) back home.  A telegram from London on August 27, 1897 read:  "Ogden Goelet of New York died at Cowes to-day on his yacht."  The New Haven Morning Journal and Courier noted "Ogden Goelet, by reason of his wealth, his family connections and the part he took in society life, was one of the best known men in New York."

An eerily similar telegram arrived at the offices of the New-York Daily Tribune on April 28, 1899.  "The body of Robert Goelet, who died here yesterday from dropsy on board his steam yacht Nahma, will be left on the vessel and be taken to the United States."

The extensive real estate business was handled by administrators until it passed the Goelets' sons.  Robert Wilson Goelet was the son of Ogden, and Robert Walton Goelet was Robert's son.  The cousins, who were born one month apart in 1880, not only had confusingly similar names, but closely resembled one another.  To ease the confusion Robert Walton was better known as Bertie.  The two men had both graduated from Harvard in 1902 and earned their Masters Degrees in 1903.

Despite the onus of administrating the real estate empire of their fathers, the Goelet cousins were, nonetheless, wealthy young bachelors who enjoyed a good time.  At least one of them was repeatedly arrested for speeding his automobile; but the records always showed Robert W. Goelet and the address 9 West 17th Street (discretion apparently made using the business rather than residential address preferable), so it is impossible to tell which was in trouble in any instance.

The office building was the center of a disturbing incident in the early hours of July 25, 1904.  Dr. F. Leroy Satterlee lived in the residence on West 18th Street directly behind the Goelet building.  He was awakened by the screams of "Murder! Police! Help!"  He opened his window to hear more clearly, then telephoned the police.  The officers who rang the doorbell could get no one to respond although they were certain there was someone inside.

Another neighbor, Dr. Daniel M. Stimson confirmed Satterlee's story, saying the cries "were those of a woman, and that the woman was evidently in distress and probably been beaten."  The New York Times reported "Other neighbors said they heard the cries and that from all observations they could make the cries came from the Goelet estate office building."  One remembered hearing the woman scream "For God's sake don't kill me!"

Half a dozen other policemen arrived and surrounded the house.  Just as they were about to break in the front door, the caretaker, David Barnett, opened it.  He claimed he had not heard the bell.  When asked about the screams, "He would not tell and said he would not let the police in," reported The New York Times.  The police pushed him aside and went in.  They found Mrs. Barnett "crouching in a corner on the third floor."

The terrified woman said that nothing was wrong and that she had not heard the screams.  She refused to make any charges.  The Sun reported "By 2 o'clock this morning the crowd of excited persons in the street had dispersed and the heads were withdrawn from the windows."  The New York Times added, "The police said they had nothing to do but leave.  They found no evidence of any crime, and as the woman had no complaint to make against any one they left."  Sadly, the incident was typical of battered women.

The office building had a vault for the storage of valuable paperwork.  Ogden Goelet's widow used it as well to store some of her jewelry.  In preparation to go to Newport in the summer of 1904, she visited the office to retrieve some items.  Among the stocks, bonds, deeds and titles were "some of her more old-fashioned jewels, a diamond tiara and a riviere of diamonds," said The New York Press.   Two Pinkerton guards stood by as she opened the safe.  But as she "drew forth leather case after leather case," she became increasingly panicked.  A significant amount of her inventory was gone.  Among the $200,000 of missing items (nearly $6 million today) were pearl ropes, diamond bracelets and necklaces.

Detectives called it "the most remarkable robbery of the generation."  Pawn shops were surveilled and various theories followed up on, but no clues could be found.  Then, on August 10, The New York Press reported that Mrs. Ogden had announced she had found all the missing jewels "in the vault where she had left them on June 19."  The mystery now, said the newspaper, was "if she had put those treasures in the vault with her own hands, only to find them gone afterward, by what means were they returned to that self-same vault, there to greet her eyes when she opened the strongbox yesterday?"

The case was eventually dropped, however it was strongly suggested that either her son or nephew had "loaned" the jewelry to a woman, and then sneaked it back in.

In the first decades of the 20th century the Goelet offices were being overwhelmed by soaring commercial structures.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

With the United States' entry into World War I Robert Wilson Goelet enlisted.  He had achieved the rank of captain when he returned to New York on leave in January 1918.  He and a friend, Francis K. Pendelton (who happened to be a Supreme Court judge), went to the theater on the evening of January 16.  As they left, according to the New York Herald, "a large man escorting a young woman bumped into [Goelet] and almost knocked him down.  As Captain Goelet recovered his balance he asked the man if he did not think he was rather rude."

The man was William G. Flood who worked as a waiter.  He responded to Goelet's question  by striking "the army officer in the face with his fist, smashing both his teeth."  The article said "Captain Robert Goelet, one of the largest property holders in Manhattan and now attached to the War Collège in Washington, entertained a large after theatre crowd in Broadway at Forty-third street last night by thrashing a big waiter and then causing his arrest."

The Goelets operated their real estate business from the West 17th Street address into the 1920's.  It was later used by artist Harles Eaton as his studio.  Stanford White's incomparably picturesque little building survived until 1952.  For decades the site has been a vacant lot.

1 comment:

  1. By coiencidence, the replamcnet for the parkigng lot currently on the site was just released: