Monday, February 22, 2021

The Lost 1857 John A. C. Gray Mansion - 43 Fifth Avenue


The cross-hatched mullions of the attic windows were highly unusual.  American Renaissance, 1904 (copyright expired)

In 1857 John Alexander Clinton Gray hired architect British-born Jacob Wrey Mould to design the interiors for his mansion at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 11th Street.  The two undoubtedly knew one another through their mutual work on Central Park--Gray was a Park Commissioner and Mould worked closely with Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted in designing many of the park's structures.

Mould was known for his unexpected and aggressive use of colors, and his work on the Gray interiors was no exception.  In 1859 The Crayon described his color choices for the rooms as "bold as a lion."

The brownstone faced John A. C. Gray mansion was a successful blend of the Greek Revival and Italianate styles.  Three stories tall above an English basement, its architrave openings wore bracketed cornices and each of the floor-to-ceiling parlor level windows was fronted by a cast iron balcony.  The cross-hatched mullions of the attic windows were an innovative touch.

In addition to his position as Park Commissioner, John Alexander Clinton Gray was the head of the dry goods house of John A. C. Gray & Co., and a director in the Goodhue Fire Insurance Company.  He and his wife, the former Susan Maria Zabriskie, had three sons, John Clinton, Albert Zabriskie and George Zabriskie, and two daughters, Katharine and Frances Susan.

When the family moved into the new house John Clinton Gray was away in Europe, studying in at the University of Berlin (he had received his earlier education in Paris).  He returned in 1861 and continued his education at the University of the City of New York, receiving his law degree from Harvard in 1866.  Both his brothers would go into religious life.

In the meantime, with the outbreak of Civil War John A. C. Gray had been called to Washington D.C. to inspect uniforms.  His expertise in the dry goods business made him an excellent choice.  A telegram received by the New York Herald on June 10, 1861 said in part, "Mr. John A. C. Gray is here, and, as a citizen of New York, with many others, has inspected the uniforms of the Cayuga regiment, and agrees with everybody else who has seen them, that they are most wretched looking things."

Gray's altruism was evidenced in 1871 when he threw his financial support behind the proposed construction of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park.  His donation of $1,000 that year would be equivalent to more than $21,000 today.

George was ordained a deacon of the Episcopal Church by Bishop Horatio Potter on April 22, 1862.  Albert had also become an Episcopal minister and was rector of the St. Philip's Church in the Highlands, in Garrison, New York by the early 1870's.  When extensive repairs were necessary in 1875, Albert paid one-fourth of the costs.   He would go on to become dean of the Theological Seminary at Cambridge, Massachusetts before his untimely death at the age of 49 on August 4, 1889.

At the time of Albert's death his brother John had been appointed a judge on the Court of Appeals.  At 45 years old in 1888 he was the youngest member of the court.  He would serve for more than a quarter of a century in that position.

Judge John Clinton Gray.  from the collection of the Historical Society of the New York Courts.

Around 1885 the family of John A. C. Gray (his two daughters were still unmarried) moved north to Fifth Avenue and 55th Street.  He died there on December 15, 1898.  In the meantime, No. 43 Fifth Avenue became home to a relative, James Montaudevert Waterbury and his wife, the former Catherine Anthony Furman.  Catherine was best known as Kate.

Born in New York City in 1851, James graduated from Columbia College in 1873 and entered the business of his father, Lawrence Waterbury, the Waterbury Rope Company.  By now he was not only the president of that company, but of the New York Steel & Wire Company and the American Type Bar & Machine Company.

James and Kate had eight children and maintained a country estate in Westchester County.  Prominent and Progressive Americans said that Kate "has shared with him in making their home a notable center of social life."  Known as a great beauty, Kate entertained lavishly.  On February 5, 1888, for instance, the New York Amusement Gazette noted that she "gave a dance at her residence on Friday evening last."

A spectacular entertainment was held during at the beginning of the summer season of the following year.  On May 6, 1889 The Evening Bulletin reported:

A number of wealthy young men and women performed in an amateur circus Friday evening at the country resident of James M. Waterbury in Westchester county.  There was a large attendance of New York society people to witness the novel affair, which passed off with great success.

Godey's Magazine was popular among women and featured color plates of the latest fashions, serialized novels, and articles of interest to female readers.  It often featured illustrations of prominent women of society.  In its review of the current issue on October 31, 1892, the Albany Morning Express noted, "The four art pictures, printed in ten colors, represent Mrs. James M. Waterbury, the Marquise Lanza, Mrs. Marshal Orme Wilson and Mrs. George J. Gould."

As John A. C. Waterbury had done, James supported civic causes and in 1896 was listed among the prominent citizens who funded the erection of the Triumphal Arch at Washington Square.

Among the Waterbury sons were Lawrence (known popularly as Larry) and C. Livingston (known as Monty).  In 1902 Prominent and Progressive Americans noted, "Mr. Waterbury's sons inherit their father's and their grandfather's taste for manly out-of-door sports, and have distinguished themselves especially upon the polo-field."  Indeed both Lawrence and Monty achieved international renown for the polo playing.

Monty Livingston (front) and his brother Larry are wearing white in this undated photograph.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Shocking the financial world, James M. Waterbury's firm failed in 1893.  The District Attorney received complaints "charging James M. Waterbury with the crime of grand larceny by false pretenses, and also charging him, in connection with others, with the charge of conspiracy to defraud," according to The New York Times.  Those charges were withdrawn be the end of the year, but the stigma remained.

Waterbury claimed personal bankruptcy in 1896.  The New York Times noted on May 10, "In the days when Cordage Trust was flourishing Mr. Waterbury spent money lavishly.  His Westchester home was a country clubhouse in its appointments and hospitalities.  All show of prodigality ceased, however, with the collapse of the trust, and Mr. Waterbury has since lived quietly."  Asked in court how he managed to get on financially, the humiliated Waterbury replied, "My wife was continually making me advances to pay my debts, and I sold her some property from time to time."  It was Kate's own substantial fortune that kept the family afloat until her husband could reestablish himself.  

By the first years of the 20th century the neighborhood around the Waterbury mansion was changing as apartment buildings replaced private homes.  On June 18, 1903 The Sun reported that the Waterbury house had been sold for $350,000--a staggering $10.5 million today.  (Notably it had been mortgaged for more than half that amount.)  Before the end of the year the mansion was demolished, replaced by a lush Beaux Arts style apartment building designed by Henry Anderson.

photo by Beyond My Ken


  1. What an exceptionally handsome house. Fun confusing trivia. Son George Zabriskie Gray married the daughter of George Gray Zabriskie. By coincidence I had to sort it out for a project just a few daus ago.