Monday, June 7, 2021

The Lost Levi Parsons Morton House - 681 Fifth Avenue


The Brickbuilder, 1902 (copyright expired)

In 1869 the art committee of the Union League Club purchased an art collection and the following year exhibited it in the comfortable four-story house at 681 Fifth Avenue, just south of 54th Street.  From that unassuming beginning the Metropolitan Museum of Art was born.

Among the Union League Club's members at the time was Levi Parsons Morton.  He had a sterling social pedigree, his first American ancestor, George Morton, landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts on the Ann in 1623.  He had relocated to New York in 1854 and established the wholesale dry goods business of Morton & Grinnell.  He branched into banking in 1863, opening L. P. Morton & Co., later the Morton Trust Co.

Morton's wife, the former Lucy Young Kimball, died in 1871.  He married Anna Livingston Reade Street two years later.

In 1878 drygoods and banking took a backseat to politics when Morton was elected to Congress.  President James A. Garfield appointed him Minister to France in 1881.  He served for four years, during which time that he officially accepted the French Government's gift of Liberty Enlightening the World, or the Statue of Liberty, for the United States.

Levi Parsons Morton, from the collection of the Library of Congress

Levi P. Morton's political career continued to rise and in 1889 moved his family to Washington D. C. when he became Vice President under Benjamin Harrison.  He followed that auspicious position in 1895 by becoming the Governor of New York.  Morton's term as Governor was from January 1, 1895 through December 31, 1896.

In the meantime, composer and dancing instructor Allen Dodworth purchased 681 Fifth Avenue in 1876.  His estate sold the mansion at auction on May 5, 1896, describing it as "42 feet [wide] on 5th Avenue by 125 feet in depth."  It was purchased by millionaire John D. Crimmons who resold it to Morton four months later for $200,000--more than $6.25 million in today's money.

In anticipation of returning to Manhattan, Morton leased the Amzi L. Barber mansion on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 68th Street for the winter season.  The Albany Express explained on October 11 that 681 Fifth Avenue "is undergoing extensive alterations, and meantime Mr. Morton and his family will occupy the Barber residence."

If, indeed, Morton had intended to alter the old brownstone, he changed his mind.  In January 1897 McKim, Meade & White filed plans for a replacement mansion which would cost Morton another $2.3 million in today's dollars.

As construction commenced and the lease on the Barber mansion expired, the Mortons went to their 700-acre summer estate, Ellerslie, at Rhinebeck on the Hudson River.  The family maintained a second country estate, the 16-acre Pine Brook Camp, on Upper Saranac Lake.

Levi P. Morton erected the main house at Ellerslie in 1887. photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the National Building Museum

The new Fifth Avenue mansion was completed late in 1897.  Levi Morton lived within a decidedly feminine household.  He and Anna had five daughters--Edith, Lena, Helen, Alice and Mary.  Their only son, Lewis Parsons Morton, had died in infancy. 

The Mortons immediately settled into their routine of gracious entertaining.   Anna hosted the meetings of the Tuesday Evening Club in the house that winter season, and on March 2, 1898 The New York Times reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Levi P. Morton entertained at dinner at their home 681 Fifth Avenue, last night.  Covers were laid for about sixteen."

Edith and Helen were 25- and 23-years old respectively in 1899.  Nevertheless, it was somewhat surprising that they sailed to Europe unescorted the following winter season.  On December 1, 1899 The World entitled an article "Misses Morton Abroad" and announced "Misses Edith and Helen Morton, daughters of ex-Gov. and Mrs. Levi P. Morton, of No. 681 Fifth avenue, will probably remain abroad all winter."

The trip quite likely had much to do with buying Paris fashions for Edith.  Exactly five months later, on May 1, 1900, The New York Times reported, "The wedding of Miss Edith L. Morton...and William Corcoran Eustis took place yesterday at Grace Church at noon."  The newspaper said the ceremony took place before "a large and fashionable congregation."

Indeed it was.  Among the long list of guests were the Burdens, Roosevelts, Whitneys, Livingstons, Morgans, Baylies, Iselins, Astors, Belmonts, and on and on.  The elite guests gathered at the Fifth Avenue mansion afterward for a breakfast and reception.   The New York Times said, 

The bride and bridegroom received congratulations in a room completely covered with apple, peach, cherry, and gardenia blossoms.  The lower hall was a bower of palms, vines, and American Beauty roses.  In the upper drawing room, the decoration was principally arranged with the bride's favorite rose--the Gabriel Louzet...The Hungarian Band played during the reception and breakfast.

The newlyweds moved to London the following year when Eustis was appointed Secretary of the United States Embassy there.   They returned to the United States in 1902, establishing their home in Washington D.C.   They often were guests both at 681 Fifth Avenue and at Ellerslie.

On September 23, 1905 the Rhinebeck Gazette reported, "On last Monday evening a son was born to Mr. and Mrs. William Corcoran Eustis, at the New York home of Mrs. Eustis' parents, Mr. and Mrs. Levi P. Morton...This is the first son born to Mr. and Mrs. Eustis, who have two daughters."  And on December 12, 1909 The Sun announced, "Mr. and Mrs. Levi P. Morton will have at their home, 681 Fifth avenue, for Christmas, Mr. and Mrs. William Corcoran Eustis and their children."

It would be one of the last Christmases in the mansion.  By now the Fifth Avenue neighborhood was becoming increasingly commercial.  On December 16, 1911 the Record & Guide reported, "This week Levi P. Morton announced that he would no longer occupy his dwelling at No. 681, and any enterprising merchant who wishes to take his place may do so, for the trifling sum of $800,000.  Mr. Morton has gone to join the wealthy colony already established in the new and expensive apartment house at Fifth avenue and 81st street."  

Morton hired McKim, Mead & White to remove the fence in 1911, in preparation for leasing the house for commercial purposes.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In reporting on Morton's decision, the Rhinebeck Gazette pointed out, "It is not an old house, having been built by Mr. Morton fifteen years ago at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars."

Two months later, with no takers on his property, Levi Morton took matters into his own hands.  On February 10, 1912 the Record & Guide reported, "The property was placed in the market for sale or lease some weeks ago, but Mr. Morton has now decided to improve the site himself."  Perhaps not surprisingly, Morton commissioned McKim, Mead and White to design his replacement structure.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

The 12-story Morton Building, completed in January 1913, survives

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