Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The 1832 Thomas Suffern House - 11 Washington Square North

Work on the exterior is currently taking place, possibly to remove the ill-advised white paint on the marble.

The seven acres of land that New York City purchased from the Herring family in 1790 was chosen for its somewhat remote location.  The property was used as an execution ground and potter’s field.  Seven years later it was increased to 13 acres.  By 1828 the hangings had ceased and Mayor Philip Hone renovated the potter’s field into a military parade ground called Washington Square.  

The Sailors’ Snug Harbor owned the block on the north side of the park between Fifth Avenue and University Place, and Washington Square to 8th Street.  In 1831 it offered leases on lots 1 through 13 with the stipulation that the lessee would erect within two years "a good and substantial dwelling house."

The plot at 11 Washington Square North was leased to Thomas Suffern.  His sumptuous 31-foot-wide Greek Revival style home was completed a year later.  Nearly identical to its immediate neighbors, it was faced in red brick and trimmed in white marble.  The areaway was protected by heavy cast iron fencing topped by large palmettes.  The white marble stoop led to the entrance within an Ionic portico that sat snugly against the facade.  Short attic windows, typical of Greek Revival, pierced a full-height fascia.

Simple Greek Revival fretwork on the bottom panels contrast to the exuberant palmettes atop the fencing.  Rather than gateposts, ornate panels in a lyre motif, flank the gate.

The patrician appearance of the Suffern house reflected the social position of its owner.  Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1787, Thomas Suffern had inherited the tobacco business of his uncle George Suffern in 1810, and additionally made a fortune in importing Irish linens.  A cousin of President Andrew Jackson, he was the business mentor of Alexander T. Stewart.

Thomas and his wife, the former Jane S. Lansing, had two daughters, Janet and Agnes.  In 1855 Agnes was married to Edward Neufville Tailer, Jr. in the drawing room of the Washington Square mansion.  The groom was a descendant of Sir William Tailer, a colonial governor of Massachusetts.  Shortly after the wedding Thomas Suffern helped Edward procure a partnership in the dry goods firm of Winzer & Osbrey (which later became Winzer, Tailer & Osbrey).  The newlyweds moved into a home nearby at 8 East Eighth Street.

Five years later, on October 24, 1860, Janet married Captain Arthur Breese Lansing, who had recently retired from the United States Army after a notable career.

Like all gentlemen, Edward N. Tailer kept a journal.  His, however, went further than most, including newspaper clippings of important incidents, and personal remembrances.  In October 1860 he detailed the ball held for the visiting Prince of Wales, later Edward VII.  He was one of the ushers and danced "in the set next to the Prince," while his father-in-law, Thomas Suffern, "danced in the Prince's set."

Thomas Suffern died in the Washington Square house in 1869 at the age of 82.  In 1874 Agnes and Edward Tailer and their five children--Agnes Suffern, Mary Elizabeth, Thomas Suffern, Laura Suffern, and Frances "Fannie" Bogert--moved back to 11 Washington Square North.  

Edward Neufville Tailer, Jr.  from America's Successful Men of Affairs: The City of New York, 1895 (copyright expired)

Agnes Suffern Tailer, image via

The first of the Tailer children to wed was Mary, who married Robert Reginald Livingston in 1884.  The groom had a prestigious pedigree.  His paternal lineage in America went back to the 17th century and "Robert Livingston of Clermont."  His ancestors included Schuylers, Van Rensselaers, and Beekmans.  His great-grandfather, Robert Robert Livingston, was a Founding Father and the Minister to France under Thomas Jefferson.  

On May 3, 1887 17-year-old Laura died "suddenly," as worded by The Evening Post.  Her funeral was not held in the house, as might have been expected, but at the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street.

Thomas Suffern Tailer was married to Maud Lorillard on April 14, 1893.  The Sun reported, "A thousand persons tried to crush into Calvary witness the marriage."  The account added, "the wedding reception at the Lorillard residence was one of the social events of the year."  The newlyweds embarked on an 18-month world trip, "unconsciously covering a distance of about 40,000 miles," said The Sun upon their return.

On October 28, 1894 The Sun newspaper noted, "During the absence of Mrs. E. N. Tailer and her family in Europe, Mr. and Mrs. T. Suffern Tailer are occupying the homestead in Washington square, but they expect soon to take possession of their Tuxedo cottage, their wedding gift from Mr. Lorillard."

The next to wed was Fannie, who married Sydney Jefferson Smith on December 16, 1896.  The New York Times remarked, "Grace Church was thronged to the doors, and although it had been announced that Mr. and Mrs. Smith's reception would be limited to relatives and intimate friends, the spacious rooms of the bride's father's residence on North Washington Square were almost uncomfortably crowded with guests."

The line of elegant carriages, which "put the neighborhood of Washington Square and Grace Church into unaccustomed animation," drew the attention of artist Fernand Lungren.  He lived in the studio building at 3 Washington Square North and quickly began sketching the scene for a painting, A Winter Wedding.

Fernand Lungren captured the scene as high society arrived at the Tailer house for the wedding reception.

Edward and Agnes Tailer, like most high society figures, were often on the move.  On May 22, 1900, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported:

Mr. and Mrs. Edward N. Tailer have returned to their home, No. 11 Washington Square North, from Tuxedo Park, where they passed several days.  Before sailing for Europe, on Thursday, June 21, Mr. and Mrs. Tailer will be the guests of their son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney [sic] Smith at their country place at Westbury, Long Island.  Mr. and Mrs. Tailer, who intend to remain abroad for the greater part of the summer, will join their daughter, Mrs. Robert R. Livingston, who is now in Paris.

Mary Livingston had just emerged from mourning at the time.  Robert R. Livingston had died at the age of 40 from pneumonia on April 16, 1898, after being ill only a few days.

Agnes had a fright on the night of December 6, 1902.  She was returning home on Fifth Avenue when her coachman, Charles Burrton, stopped as two Eighth Street streetcars crossed the avenue.  The New-York Tribune reported, "Brutton noticed a well dressed man standing in the street...Just as Mrs. Tailer's carriage stopped, the man with the cane walked up to it, opened the door and sprang in, flopping down in the seat beside Mrs. Tailer."

Agnes was understandably frightened.  The article said, "the thought entered her mind that she might have a thief to contend with, as she wore jewelry of considerable value."  The intruder had scarcely entered the carriage before Agnes exited on the other side.  Brutton called to a policeman, who rushed to the vehicle to find the stranger "comfortably lying on the cushions," according to the New-York Tribune.  "He had endeavored to make himself comfortable after Mrs. Tailer had stepped out, and was sprawled over practically the whole interior."

As it turned out, the gentleman from New Jersey was intoxicated to the point that he thought he was still in Newark.  Mistaking the Tailer carriage for a hansom, he had hoped only for a quick trip home.  He got an equally quick trip to the Mercer Street police station, instead.  Agnes, in the meantime, was apparently too shaken up to get back into the carriage and walked the rest of the way home.

photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By the time of the unsettling incident, Mary Livington and her children, Robert Reginald and Laura Suffern, had moved into the mansion with the Tailers.  Laura's introduction to society occurred at a reception here on December 9, 1909.  The prominence of the family was reflected in the elite surnames of the receiving party: Barber, Hyde, Bloodgood, Townsend, Tuckerman, Burr, Stillman, Hoyt and Appleton.

Mary Livingston and her children traveled broadly.  On December 22, 1912, for instance, The Sun reported, "Mrs. Robert R. Livingston, accompanied by Miss Laura Suffern Livingston and R. Reginald Livingston sailed yesterday for Panama to be gone about a month."  And on February 20, 1916 The New York Times announced, "Mrs. Robert R. Livingston and her son, Robert R. Livingston, have returned from a trip to the Pacific Coast and are at their town house, 11 Washington Square North, until they open Northwood, the Livingston estate near Cheviot-on-Hudson.  They spent about six weeks on the coast."

The Sun reported on May 17, 1914, "society was interested in the engagement announced last week of Miss Laura Suffern Howard Shippen Davis.  Miss Livingston and her fiancĂ© are widely known in society, their families being among the oldest in the city."  The wedding took place in St. Paul's Church in Tivoli, New York on September 26 that year.

On February 8, 1917 Edward N. Tailer was stricken with "an attack of indigestion which so weakened his heart that he could not rally," according to The Sun.  The symptoms would probably be diagnosed as a heart attack, today.  He lingered for nearly a week, dying on February 15 at the age of 86.  

In reporting his death, newspapers recalled his Journal of Some of the Events Which Have Occurred in My Life Time, begun in 1848.  Among his entries was a description of the early days of Washington Square:

I remember when heavy guns were drawn over the Square, after it became a parade ground, that the weight broke through the ground into the trenches in which the dead were buried and crushed the tops of some of the coffins.  At one time near 4th and Thompson Streets I saw a vault under the sidewalk opened and the body found there was still wrapped in the yellow sheet in which the yellow fever victims were buried.

Agnes was grief stricken over the loss of her husband of 62 years.  She survived only a month longer than Edward, dying in the mansion on March 18.  The Sun said, "She had borne up bravely under the blow at first, and on the day before her quiet passing away had been well enough to go for a short drive."  The New York Times said simply, "Grief for the loss of her husband was said to have been the immediate cause of her death."

The house was left in equal shares to Agnes's children.  In May 1918 Mary Livingston bought her brother's share.  She and Robert continued to travel--in 1920, for example, they sailed to the West Indies.  

Then, on February 23, 1922, Robert was married to Alice Delafield Dean in St. James's Church on Madison Avenue.  The New-York Tribune said, "it was witnessed by a large gathering representative of society, with which both families long have been identified."

Mary did not let solitude slow her social life.  Several of her entertainments revolved around the new generation.  On December 21, 1935, for instance, she hosted "a debutante reception with dancing" for  her granddaughter, Catherine Livingston Davis.  It would be the last grand affair in the mansion.

After having been in her family for over a century, in 1936 Mary Livingston was forced to abandon the mansion her grandfather had built when Sailors' Snug Harbor refused to renew the leasehold. 

The stately facades might as well be on a Hollywood studio lot since nothing original survives behind them.

In 1939 the mansions from 7 through 13  Washington Square North were gutted and only the facades preserved.  Architects Scott & Prescott created a modern apartment building, with an entrance on Fifth Avenue, which replaced the elegant homes.  Their doorways above the white marble stoops are mostly for show and rarely, if ever, used.

photograph by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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