American Architect, October 1901 (copyright expired)
DeWitt Clinton Blair was born on September 6, 1833 in Gravel Hill, New Jersey (later renamed Blairstown in honor of his father). The son of railroad mogul John Insley Blair, he married Mary Anna Kimball on April 21, 1864. Two of the couple's three sons, Clinton Ledyard and James Insley, survived to adulthood.
At the time of John Insley Blair's death on December 2, 1899 he owned three railroads and was the president or director in more than 20 others. His wife had died in 1888 and of his four children, DeWitt was the only one still living. The New-York Tribune reported on his will later that month, saying that John Blair "makes provisions" for his five grandchildren, along with other bequests. "All the rest of the estate, real and personal, is bequeathed to Dewitt C. Blair."
The estate, according to the Democrat & Chronical later, amounted to "more than $20,000,000"--in excess of $610 million today. The gargantuan amount expectedly prompted a series of suits which lasted until March 1908 when the courts upheld the original will.
Within a year of his father's death DeWitt and Mary Blair began construction on a new townhouse at No. 6 East 61st Street, behind the massive Elbridge T. Gerry mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue. Designed by Robert Henderson Robertson in the Renaissance Revival style, the double-wide mansion was faced in limestone. Architecturally subdued compared to its flamboyant neighbor, its sparse decorative elements were the columned portico above a short stoop, a two-floor rounded bay upholding a balcony, and a single carved cartouche at the fourth floor. Robertson opted for quiet elegance over extravagant show.
While the Blairs maintained a country home in Belvidere, New Jersey, the same year that they started construction on their city house, they purchased a second country estate in Bar Harbor, Maine. Avamaya had been built for Major George Wheeler in 1888 and designed by Sidney V. Stratton. The couple renamed it Blair Eyrie. It, like the 61st Street house, was the scene of upscale entertainments. On July 22, 1906, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported, "Mr. and Mrs. DeWitt Clinton Blair, of New York, entertained a small party at dinner at their cottage, Blair Eyrie, on Thursday evening. Covers were laid for twelve."
DeWitt was the head of the brokerage firm Blair & Co. and oversaw the operation of his father's railroad empire as well. He shared his fabulous wealth on worthy philanthropies, including his alma mater, Princeton University. His father had had no formal education, having left school at the age of 11. But following DeWitt's graduation in 1856 he formed a close relationship with the university, endowing the professorship of geology in 1864 and in 1896 funding the construction of Blair Hall, a magnificent Tudor Revival structure designed by Cope & Stewardson.
On March 10, 1906 the Buffalo Evening News reported that the trustees of Princeton University announced various gifts, including a significant one from DeWitt Clinton Blair. The article said he "has agreed to build another dormitory, to extend from the west of of Blair Hall along University Place to the Halsted Observatory."
Mary Anna Blair died at the age of 77 on February 12, 1914. Her funeral was held in the 61st Street residence four days later. Her will offered a glimpse into the couple's upscale lifestyle. The New-York Tribune reported, "Ledyard Blair, son, is given all of the family portraits. Among the articles passing to J. Insley Blair, son, were 'Arab Bandits,' a painting by Al Schreyer, appraised at $3,500; an original Chippendale mahogany table, $500, and an antique Gobelin tapestry, $1,600." Mary's granddaughter, Marjery B. Clark, received "much of the jewelry," including a $1,500 diamond collar, a diamond comb valued at $400, along with a $2,000 Russian sable stole and muff.
Mary had been generous to charities and to her servants. Her personal maid received $5,000 (more than $130,000 today), and the butler was bequeathed $1,000.
Perhaps in an effort to sidestep inheritance taxes, that Christmas Dewitt gave each of his sons a present of $7 million. Less than six months later, on June 3, 1915, DeWitt Clinton Blair died from pneumonia. In reporting his death, The Wall Street Journal noted, "He was 82 years old, and for the past few years has given little attention to business. It is believed that his various interests in numerous corporations were apportioned among his prospective heirs prior to his death." Two weeks later the newspaper followed up, saying "The will of DeWitt C. Blair ahs just been admitted to probate...It disposes of an estate valued at $50,000,000." That amount would top $1.3 billion today.
The 61st Street house was inherited by John Insley Blair. Perhaps surprisingly, he leased it to Helena May Mackie, a registered nurse, who converted it to a private sanitarium. It catered to the upper echelon of society. Among its patients over the coming years, for instance, were Charles Wickliffe, described by the New York Herald as "a well known member of the Tuxedo Park colony;" and millionaire banker Jules S. Bache. On February 10, 1922 the New York Herald reported that he "was resting comfortable last night in the private sanitarium of Miss Helena M. Mackie in 6 East Sixty-first street, after an operation performed three days ago."
Then, on February 8, 1929, the Daily News reported that John Insley Blair had sold the house built by his father. Simultaneously the buyers, the Gerry Estates, Inc., purchased No. 4 East 61st Street, the home of Mrs. Arthur J. Moulton. "A 40-story hotel, to cost $15,000,000 will be raised on the site." The Pierre Hotel opened in 1930.
many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for prompting this post