Monday, April 12, 2021

The Lost Benjamin N. Duke Mansion - 2 East 89th Street


photograph by William J. Roege, from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

The sumptuous brick and stone mansion of Benjamin Newton Duke and his wife, the former Sarah Pearson Angier, at No. 1009 Fifth Avenue had stood only seven years in 1908.  Nevertheless, the millionaire began to assemble plots further north, at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 89th Street, as the site of the family's new home.

In March that year he purchased the 34-foot wide corner plot, and in October acquired the 129-foot long parcel on 89th Street.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide commented, "The additional property has been secured to enable Mr. Duke to increase the size of the residence which he is going to build on the site, plans for which are being prepared by architect C. P. H. Gilbert."  Gilbert's plans called for a six-story residence to cost $190,000--just under $5.5 million today.  

Construction took three years to complete.  The regal Renaissance Revival structure was faced in limestone and surrounded by a balustraded stone wall.  The entrance within a columned portico was centered on 89th Street.  Gilbert forewent fussy decoration, producing a dignified, understated residence that reflected the massive wealth of its owner.

Benjamin Duke was the son of industrialist Washington Duke.  He and his brother, James, now headed their father's American Tobacco Company.  In 1905 they had founded the Southern Power Company, later named Duke Energy.  Benjamin and Sarah had two children, Mary Lillian and Angier Buchanan.

Benjamin N. Duke, The chanticleer, 1913 (copyright expired)

Mary was 24-years old when the family moved into their new mansion.  Her father's great wealth and her beauty and cultural refinement drew many suitors.  Among them was Prince Ludovico Pigniatelli d'Aragon of Spain, who fell hopelessly in love with her.  It was a one-sided romance and one that neither father supported.  (For one thing, the prince was a Roman Catholic and the Dukes were Methodists.)

The prince visited New York in the winter of 1911, prompting The Evening World to comment, "Rumors that the tobacco prince's daughter would see the visiting Spanish prince caused much discussion."  Like Benjamin Duke, however, King Alfonso of Spain was vehemently opposed.  The World reported that in March 1912 Prince Pigniatelli "left for Spain to win the King's consent to his proposed alliance."

The attempt failed.  On May 13, 1912 The Evening World reported that the prince "has retired to Biarritz, very much depressed.  The cause of Prince Pigniatelli's depression is the determination of Miss Mary L. Duke...not to marry the Spanish nobleman."  A reporter who knocked on the door of the Fifth Avenue mansion got a curt, one-line statement from Benjamin Duke:  "There never was any engagement between my daughter and Prince Pigniatelli."

Mary Lillian Duke broke the heart of a European prince.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Not long afterward the New-York Tribune reported that the prince had attempted "suicide in his apartments in Paris after he had been reported as jilted by Miss Mary Duke...A revolver bullet was removed from above his heart and his life saved after several weeks in the hospital."

The second floor staircase hall.  The New York Times, May 31, 1914 (copyright expired)

The year 1915 was remarkable for the Duke family.  On April 28 more than 1,200 persons filed into Philadelphia's Holy Trinity Church to witness the wedding of 31-year-old Angier to 17-year-old Cordelia Drexel Biddle.  Mary Duke was the maid of honor.  The New York Times  said "the fact that one of the oldest and richest Philadelphia families was united with one of the richest families of the South combined to make today's ceremony one of the most notable in this city in recent years."  

Angier and Cordelia Duke on their wedding day.  The New York Times, May 9, 1915 (copyright expired)

The reception was held at the Biddle mansion, during which some guests may gotten a surprise.  The bride's spotlight was slightly stolen when the engagement of her brother, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Jr. and the groom's sister, Mary, was announced.

The Evening World wrote, "it was a real love match, this betrothal of one of the greatest of American heiresses and a sturdy young member of an American family which is foremost in democracy, blood and wealth.  Miss Duke had been wooed by princes and noblemen.  She rejected them all for a keen, clean-cut, blue-eyed Yankee."

The wedding took place at James B. Duke's country estate, Duke Farms, in Somerville, New Jersey two months later on June 15.  The Evening World reported, "On the great Duke estate of 4,900 acres, filled with fountains and flowers, birds and trees of all kinds, they found a background for a romantic wedding which could not be equaled anywhere in the world."  One guest, former President William H. Taft, agreed, calling the ceremony "A marriage in Paradise."

Sarah Duke's bedroom (above) and boudoir.  The New York Times, May 31, 1914 (copyright expired)

The first hints that Benjamin Duke's health was declining came in February 1917 as he and Sarah were heading to Palm Beach.  They got as far as Jacksonville, Florida, when doctors deemed it "advisable" to turn around and go instead to Durham, North Carolina.  On February 20 the New-York Tribune reported that he was "said to be suffering from a nervous breakdown."

Press attention would turn to Angier the following year, when Cordelia left him, taking their two sons, Angier, Jr. and Anthony Drexel Biddle Duke.  Cordelia "made her home at Byrn Mawr," said the New-York Tribune, while Angier moved back into his parents' mansion.

On August 13, 1921 The New York Herald ran the shocking headline "Angier B. Duke Held On Homicide Charge" and reported that on August 9 he was driving from his summer home in Ardsley-on-Hudson, New York when he was involved in a collision with the automobile of Henry L. Hobart at Broadway and 201st Street.  Owen Kevlon, a 50-year-old chauffeur, who was walking along the roadway, was struck and killed.  

Duke, released on bail, did not help his public persona by his actions.  On August 14 the New York Herald reported that he "could not be reached yesterday to learn his side of the story.  It was said first at his home in Ardsley-on-Hudson that he was golfing and later that he had gone to the Ardsley Club for dinner."  Nevertheless, on September 15 The New York Times reported that charges against Duke had been dropped for insufficient evidence.

The drawing room.  The New York Times, May 31, 1914 (copyright expired)

Five days after that article Cordelia filed for divorce.  It is possible that she suspected that there was another woman.  On September 20, 1921 the New-York Tribune noted, "It was reported in New York about a month ago that Duke, after being divorced, purposes to wed Miss 'Peg' Watson, of New York."

Angier Duke's misfortunes only continued.  On August 25, 1922 he crashed his automobile into a light post in Southampton, Long Island.  The New-York Tribune reported, "The force of the collision broke the post and badly damaged the automobile.  Duke was taken to Southampton Hospital with cuts and lacerations.

The next year he was returning from the Kentucky Derby and slipped while passing between two private railroad cars, breaking his shoulder.  "According to witnesses, it was fortunate that Duke did not fall beneath the wheels," reported the Daily News on May 27, 1923.  His luck would not last through the year, however.

On the night of September 3 Duke and five guests, including three women, boarded a small boat to row out to the Duke yacht moored near the Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Long Island Sound.  One of the party, Mrs. Richelieu E. Wheelan, 
later said, "The dinghy was overloaded when Angier stepped in, throwing us into the water."  Angier had just helped Mrs. Wheelan back into the boat and was about to pull himself in, when he was apparently struck by a float and was drowned.

His funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue mansion on September 4 after which his body was taken to North Carolina "in the special car occupied by Mrs. [Florence] Harding in President [Warren G.] Harding's funeral train," according to the Daily News.

Angier B. Duke's casket is removed from the mansion following his funeral.  Daily News, September 5, 1923 (copyright expired)

Only Mary attended the ceremonies in Durham.  The Daily News reported, "Sorrowing in their Fifth Avenue mansion over the accidental drowning of their son, Angier B. Duke, thirty-nine, Benjamin N. Duke, multi-millionaire tobacco maker, and Mrs. Duke were unable yesterday to escort the body to its final resting place," and added, "The Dukes are prostrated by their son's death."

Benjamin Duke's coffer-ceilinged library.  The New York Times, May 31, 1914 (copyright expired)

Benjamin N. Duke's health continued to fail.  Finally, on January 9, 1929 The New York Times reported that "the last of the famous Duke tobacco family...died at 5:45 o'clock yesterday morning at his home, 2 East Eighty-ninth Street.  He was in his seventy-fourth year and had been in ill health for several years."  Sarah, Mary and her husband, and the family's clergyman, Rev. Dr. Ralph W. Sockman, were at his bedside.

The New York Times noted that at the turn of the century Duke's fortune had been estimated at more than $60 million (closer to $1.9 billion in today's money).  But over the years he had given massive amounts to "numerous public and private benefactions."

The bulk of the fortune was left to Mary, and $1.165 million was bequeathed to philanthropic enterprises including $580,000 to the Angier B. Duke Memorial, Inc.  Sarah received "the life use of the residences" in New York and Durham.

photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Sarah did not remain in the mansion which she and her husband had erected two decades earlier.  On October 11, 1929 the New York Evening Post reported that the Thorofare Development Company had "persuaded the Benjamin Duke estate to sell its large house."  It was in turn sold to the James L. Stewart Corporation which was gobbling up the adjoining mansions.  After four months of purchases the corporation laid plans for an 18-story and penthouse co-operative apartment house.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum occupies the site of the Duke mansion.  photograph by Jean-Christophe Benoist

That structure survived only until 1958 when it was demolished to make way for the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

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