Monday, May 10, 2021

The Lost Henry H. Cook Mansion - 1 East 78th Street


As the turn of the century approached, other structures began rising around the massive Cook mansion.  American Architect and Building News (copyright expired)
Born in 1822 in Cohocton, New York, Henry Harvey Cook was the son of Constant and Maria Whitney Cook.  His self-made father had started life as a blacksmith and farmer, but rose to become a judge, banker (president of the First National Bank of Bath, New York), and railroad contractor.  Cook attended an academy in Canandaigua, New York, then struck out in "mercantile pursuits in Bath [New York], and was highly successful," according to the 1898 Prominent Families of New York.
He married Mary E. McCay and the couple would have four daughters, Maria Louise, Sarah McCay, Frances Howell, and Georgia (known as Georgie) Bruce.  In 1875 Cook moved his family to New York City where he focused on railroads.  He became a director in the Union Pacific, the New York, Lake Erie & Western, and the Buffalo, New York & Erie Railroads.

Henry Harvey Cook, from the Library & Archives, Canada, Pennsylvania

The Cook family moved into a comfortable mansion at 8 West 53rd Street, just off Fifth Avenue in the neighborhood sometimes referred to as Millionaires' Row.  But (possibly before almost anyone else) Henry Cook recognized that inch-by-inch commerce was moving up Fifth Avenue.  In June 1879--years before mansions would begin rising so far north--he purchased the entire block from Fifth Avenue to Madison, and from 78th to 79th Street from Don, Barlow & Co.  The Record & Guide reported the selling price as $575,000--about $15.2 million today.

It was not until July 1881 that architect William Wheeler Smith filed plans for the new Cook mansion on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 78th Street.  He projected construction costs at the equivalent of just over $5 million in today's money.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Construction of the mansion, which engulfed six building lots, took two years to complete.  Smith had produced a massive Second Empire style palace--its three colors of granite, blue, red and white, creating striking visual interest.  Surrounded on two sides by gardens behind a stone fence, the mansion's entrance was located at 1 East 78th Street.  The three principal floors were capped by a steep two-story hipped roof. 

The New-York Tribune praised the mansion, saying it "is considered by many architects to be one of the best types of architecture in dwelling houses."  Not everyone was as pleased.  Writing in the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, a critic said the shear mass of the house made it "respectable in spite of its monotony and the irrationality of its detail."

Cook's purchase of the entire block was far-sighted and calculated.  With sublime patience he waited for millionaire buyers to migrate north, as he knew they eventually would.  By owning the block on which his own mansion sat, he could pick and choose his neighbors.  And he had restrictive codicils written into the deeds, the New-York Tribune later saying, "Mr. Cook exercised no little discrimination, only selling property to those who agreed to build high class dwelling houses on their lots...By these methods it became a certainty that the class of dwelling houses to be built on the block would not be equalled [sic] by a similar type of house in any other block in this city."

By the time the family moved in only Georgie was unmarried.  But that would change on February 4, 1891 when the mansion was the scene of her wedding.  The Buffalo Courier reported, "Miss Georgia Bruce Cooke [sic], daughter of Henry H. Cooke [sic] of New York City, was Carlos Manuel de Heredia, son of Leoncio Gabriel de Heredia of Paris, France."  The article added, "The groom belongs to an old and distinguished Spanish family."  Upon their return from their wedding trip the newlyweds moved into 1 East 78th Street.

The Cook family had always summered in Lenox, Massachusetts.  Cook's first estate there had burned to the ground in the winter of 1843.  In 1893 Henry began construction on a new summer mansion on his 380-acre estate, Wheatleigh.  Designed by Peabody & Stearns and completed in 1894, the New-York Tribune described it as "an Italian villa, one of the largest and handsomest country places in Lenox."  (It is routinely, and erroneously, described as a wedding present for Georgie and Carlos.)

Wheatleigh was a sprawling, 33-room mansion.  As with their 5th Avenue mansion, Mary and Henry shared it with the De Heredias.  original source unknown

The end of the Cooks' self-imposed isolation from society began to end in 1895 when Cook sold the first of his plots.  Two years later, in reporting that Isaac Dudley Fletcher had purchased the  northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, the Buffalo Evening News noted that Cook's "plans for an entire city block of exclusive residences, each one owned by its occupant, are in a fair way of success."  The sumptuous mansions of Stuyvesant Fish, Edmund C. Converse, and Frederick Gebhard were already completed or being constructed.

In 1902, The Sun would comment, "Mr. Cook was the owner many years ago of a tract known to old citizens as 'Cook's cow pasture.'  The tract is now the site of several of the finest residences in Fifth avenue."

In the meantime, the Cooks and the De Heredias were socially inseparable.  They summered together in Wheatleigh and co-hosted entertainments in the Fifth Avenue house.  On January 28, 1898, for instance, The New York Times reported, "A musical affair of widespread social interest yesterday was the afternoon reception given by Mrs. Henry H. Cook and Mr. and Mrs. Carlos M. de Heredia, her son-in-law and daughter, in Mrs. Cook's big Fifth Avenue residence at Seventy-eighth Street."  (Among those on the impressive guest list that afternoon were the John Sloanes and the William Sloanes, the Frederick W. Vanderbilts, the Anson Phelps-Stokes, and the Charles Laniers.)   And on January 28, 1900 the newspaper announced, "Mrs. Henry H. Cook and her daughter, Mme. de Heredia, will give the first of two 'at homes' at their residence, 1 East Seventy-eighth Street."

Georgie's carelessness prompted an incident of amateur sleuthing on the part of a well-heeled attorney in the winter of 1898.  The Sun reported on February 12, "Mrs. Carlos M. De Heredia of 1 East Seventy-eighth street went shopping on Friday of last week and left her purse in her carriage in front of 21 West Twenty-third street.  The purse contained $20 in money, a gold chain, and a pencil studded with sapphires and diamonds.  When she got back to the carriage, the purse was gone."

As it happened, lawyer H. O. Swain glanced out the office of a friend in that same building and noticed two men open the carriage door and grab something.  He rushed to the street, but the men were gone.  A week later, he was back at the friend's office and, once again, he saw the same men remove a bundle from a carriage.

"Without waiting to explain to his friend, Swain hurried to the street, but the men were nowhere in sight," reported The Sun.  He found them on the corner of Fifth Avenue and followed them.  At 29th Street Swain saw Policeman Perego and explained what he had just seen.

"Well, I'll grab one of them," said the officer, "and you take the other fellow."

The attorney had now become not only an amateur detective, but an unofficial deputy.  Officer Perego got his man almost immediately, but Swain, who was perhaps less in shape, had to run five blocks before overtaking his captive.

The Cook mansion was the scene of the De Heredia's opulent tenth anniversary celebration on February 4, 1901.  The New York Herald reported that the couple "observed the anniversary by giving a reception, followed by a vaudeville performance, a supper and informal dance."  The article said, "Mrs. de Heredia...received her guests in the grand hall, just at the entrance to the drawing room.  There was a plentiful display of spring flowers and palms in the different rooms and hallway.  The guests filled the drawing room and overflowed into the hallway."

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

The New York Press added, "The big drawing room was converted into a theatre with a stage fitted with footlights and other accessories...The floral decorations were handsome, and friends remembered the host and hostess with grotesque trifles of tin."

The Cooks and De Heredias were at Wheatleigh on July 11, 1902 when Mary died at the age of 75.  Newspaper reports that her death came "suddenly" suggest a heart attack.   The funeral was held in Lenox after which a special train was hired to take the family and Mary's body to Woodlawn Cemetery.

On May 1, 1903 The Sun reported that St. Thomas's Episcopal Church "is to have a new $25,000 organ," donated by Henry H. Cook.  "The organ is to be a memorial to Mr. Cook's wife, who died about a year ago," said the article.

Henry's health had begun to fail shortly after Mary's death.  The New-York Tribune commented on his condition during the summer season of 1905 saying he "had been very feeble."  It was most likely Henry's illness that delayed the family's returning to New York that year.  They were still at Wheatleigh in October when pneumonia set in.  He died there on October 10 at the age of 83.  As had been the case with Mary, his funeral was held in Trinity Church in Lenox and a special train transported the casket and the family to Woodlawn.

Cook's will left a total of $90,000 to charities, including $50,000 to St. Thomas's Church (about $1.5 million today).   The Metropolitan Museum of Art received much of the substantial Cook collection of paintings and sculpture.

The four daughters each received an income of $15,000 per year for six years and after that $2.5 million in cash.  "Each is to receive $10,000 in cash in addition to other bequests, and their husbands and children have also been liberally provided for under Mr. Cook's will," reported The New York Times.  Georgie also inherited Wheatleigh.  The article noted, "The executors are empowered to sell the Cook home at 1 East Seventy-eighth Street in case they are unable to rent it."

On July 23, 1907 The New York Times reported that tobacco tycoon James B. Duke had married the beautiful Southern widow, Nanaline Holt Inman.  The newspaper noted that the groom had purchased the Henry H. Cook mansion for $1.6 million “as a present for his bride.”  It went on to say “it stands on one of the most exclusive blocks in the city, and the Dukes’ near neighbors will be Payne Whitney, H. H. Rogers, and Stuyvesant Fish.”

Negotiations for the property stalled, however, but finally in August 1909 Duke finalized the purchase for $1.25 million--more than $36 million today.  Although he initially hired C. P. H. Gilbert to remodel the hulking mansion; he soon changed his mind.  Instead he commissioned Philadelphia-based architect Horace Trumbauer to design a replacement house.  

The exquisite and costly interiors of the Cook mansion were ripped out and resold.  The oak paneling that had cost Cook $55 per section was sold off at $3 each.  An Italian fireplace and mantel sold for $300.  Cook had paid $15,000 for it.  The contractor paid to demolish the structure called it, according to architectural historian John Tauranac, “the best-built house ever torn down in New York City.”

photograph by the author

Trumbauer's magnificent Italian Renaissance Duke mansion survives on the site today. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog.

1 comment:

  1. When Cook sold the first of his plots in 1895, the Cooks' self-imposed isolation from civilization came to an end. The Buffalo Evening News remarked two years later, when Isaac Dudley Fletcher purchased the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, that Cook's "plans for a full city block of elite dwellings, each owned by its owner, are in a good way of success."
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