Monday, January 18, 2021

The Lost William B. Astor Sr. House - 32 Lafayette Place


from Magazine of American History, edited by Mrs. Martha J. Lamb, 1886 (copyright expired)

Born in 1792, William Backhouse Astor's life began much differently than it would end.  His father, John Jacob Astor I, had originally come to America to join his brother, Henry, in his butcher shop.  After working there a short time he left to make money in the fur trade, buying raw hides from Native Americans.  He opened his own fur shop in New York in the late 1780's.

William was educated in public schools while simultaneously working in his father's store.  By the time he was 16 his father's financial status was such that William was sent to Germany for further education.  Upon his return in 1815 he entered his father's firm, although at least one source scoffed that he was in truth merely "an industrious and faithful head clerk."

John Jacob Astor was "on terms of intimacy," as worded by The Sun later, with General John Armstrong.  Armstrong had been, as well, a delegate to the Continental Congress, a U.S. Senator and President James Madison's Secretary of War.  

Three years after William's return to New York, in 1818, he married Armstrong's daughter, Margaret Alida Rebecca Armstrong.  She was decidedly above his social class.  Margaret's mother was the former Alida Livingston.  The Livingston family was prominent in society as was the family of Alida's mother, Margaret Beekman.

According to The Sun later, "at the time of William B. Astor's courtship the young man was poor.  His father was actively attending to his business; but his uncle, Henry Astor, who had long been a celebrated butcher in the Bowery, assisted him."

William and Margaret would have seven children, Emily, John Jacob III, Mary Alida, Laura Eugenia, William Backhouse, Jr., Henry III, and Sarah Todd.

When Henry Astor died childless in 1833 he left his $500,000 estate to William--about $15.7 million in today's money.  It afforded him the means to erect a fine home in the fashionable Lafayette Place neighborhood.  His father had begun buying up property in the district in 1804 and by now the marble-fronted LaGrange Terrace, an elegant grouping of nine mansions, had been completed directly across the street from William's plot.

Four bays wide, the Greek Revival style house at No. 32 Lafayette Place sat above an English basement.  The entrance sat within a columned portico and French windows at the parlor level opened onto cast iron balconies.  The family enjoyed a walled garden to the side.

The neighborhood filled with Astors.  John Jacob Astor I's house was located less than a block away on Art Street (later Astor Place), and William's brother John Jacob Astor, Jr., moved into LaGrange Terrace.  (John Jr. was mentally challenged and sickly.  Deemed by The Troy Daily Times as the "idiot son," he was never involved in the family businesses.)  William's sister Dorothea's mansion, Langdon House, would be completed at the corner of Lafayette Place and Art Street within the decade.  

Former New York Mayor Philip Hone spoke of his many visits to the William Astor house in his journal.  Historian Martha J. Lamb quoted a passage in 1886:

His dinner parties were very recherch√©, and on special occasions a display of gold and silver plate glittered beneath the gas-lights; but not a sign of vulgar pretention marred the refinement of the entertainment.

One of those brilliant affairs preceded the marriage of the Astors' eldest son, John Jacob III, to Augusta Gibbs.  Again it was Philip Hone who memorialized the evening of December 15, 1846:

Last evening my daughter and son went to a party at Mr. Astor's, and I was tempted to mix in the splendid crowd of charming women, pretty girls, and well-dressed beaux.  The spacious mansion in Lafayette place was open from cellar to garret, blazing with a thousand lights.  The crowd was excessive, and the display of rich jewelry enough to pay one day's expense of the Mexican War.

The mansion was the scene of a much more solemn event two years later.  On April 5, 1848 the Troy Daily Whig reported "the funeral of the late John Jacob Astor took place on Saturday afternoon, from the residence of his son, No. 32 Lafayette Place.  The procession passed from thence to St. Thomas Church."

The procession was led by the heads of six important churches--St. Thomas's, St. John's, St. Bartholomew's, St. Mark's, the Church of the Ascension, and Grace Church.  "Then came the corpse, borne on the shoulders of six men."  Among the honorary pall bearers were Washington Irving, David B. Ogden, Thomas J. Oakley, Philip Hone and James Gallatin.

At the time of his death John Jacob Astor was the wealthiest man in America, leaving an estate estimated at approximately $20 million--around $668 million today.  The bulk of his fortune went to William.

The Astors' eldest daughter, Emily, had married politician and author Samuel Ward in 1838.  Later that year their daughter Margaret Astor Ward was born.  Emily died in childbirth in 1841, as did the baby.  Little Margaret, affectionately known as Maddie, became "a favorite of Mr. William B. Astor's family," according to The Sun, later.

William Backhouse Astor, Sr. from the collection of the National Trust, Cliveden

On January 23, 1862 the New York Daily Herald reported that Maddie's wedding to John Winthrop Chandler had taken place in the Astors' Lafayette Place mansion.  The bride was 23 years old and the groom 35.  Maddie's close relationship with her grandparents was evidenced when the newlyweds moved into the mansion.  Their son, Archie, was born in the house before the year's end.

The refined neighborhood had been rocked by the Astor Place Riots in May 1849 (when Dorothea's house across the street was left looking "as if it had withstood a siege," according to Philip Hone).   Upheaval came again in July 1863 when the three-day long Draft Riots broke out.  Astor's house was apparently targeted in one incident and on July 22 The New York Times reported "A laborer named John Murphy was arrested by the Tenth Precinct Police yesterday, charged on the complaint of Wm. B. Astor, of No. 32 Lafayette-place...with riotous conduct."

Margaret Armstrong Astor in 1865.  from the collection of the National Trust, Cliveden

Margaret Astor died on February 15, 1872 at the age of 73.  In reporting her death The Sun described said, "A woman of culture and refinement, her society was sought by the more select circles of fashionable people in this city, but she seldom left her mansion expect on errands of charity."

Her funeral was held in Grace Church, rather than the Lafayette Place mansion as might have been expected.  The New York Times listed among the many mourners names like Schuyler, Van Buren, Van Rensselaer, Cruger, Gallatin, the Alexander Tunney Stewarts, Governor Edwin D. Morgan, "and many other leading citizens."

At the time of Margaret's death the once-exclusive neighborhood was becoming increasingly commercial.  Maddie Ward (whom The Sun reported "will inherit her mother's fortune, which, it is said, will amount to $10,000,000") had moved uptown two years earlier.  Nevertheless, William refused to leave his beloved mansion.

He fell ill on November 20, 1875 and died four days later in the Lafayette Place mansion at the age of 83.  The New York Times reported, "Mr. Astor was in his usual good health, except for a slight cold, until Saturday last week."

His will left the Lafayette Place mansion to his daughter Alida.  The New York Times placed the value of the property at $250,000--more than $6 million today.  She inherited, as well, "the contents of the Lafayette place house" as well as other real estate and outright cash.

Alida was quick to convert the family mansion for commerce purposes.  Within the year it was operated as Sieghortner's Restaurant, which became a popular venue for testimonial dinners and social gatherings.  The property was sold in April 1890 and soon replaced by an eight-story commercial building which survives.

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