Monday, November 29, 2021

The Lost Chauncey M. Depew Mansion - 27 West 54th Street

The gas lamps that perched at the base of the stoop were a notable feature.  The New Metropolis, 1899 (copyright expired)

During the Civil War, Dr. William Alexander Hammond served as the Surgeon General of the United States and in 1862 was promoted to the rank of brigadier general by Abraham Lincoln.  In 1864, at the age of 36, Hammond moved to New York City and opened his private practice.  Hammond counted among his patients some of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens.  

On October 12, 1872 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that the architectural firm of D. & J. Jardine had file plans for a "three-story Philadelphia brick first-class-dwelling" for Hammond.  Located on the north side of West 54th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the 37-feet-wide mansion was completed the following year.

The Jardines had turned to the French Second Empire style.  The original three stories had become four.  A wide stone stoop rose to the nearly centered entrance, which was flanked by Ionic pilasters and capped by a classical pediment.  The two-story midsection featured an angled bay and the fourth floor, above a prominent cornice, took the form of the slate-shingled mansard crowned with delicate iron cresting.

Dr. Hammond's reputation was such that when Michael C. Kerr, Speaker of the House of Representatives became too ill to carry on his duties in February 1876, he and his wife traveled to New York City.  The New York Herald wrote, "Mr. Kerr's purpose in visiting this city was to place himself under the treatment of his physician, ex-Surgeon General William A. Hammond, of No. 43 West Fifty-fourth Street."  (The address would be renumbered 27 in 1905.)

Dr. William A. Hammond, from the collection of the Library of Congress

The year 1888 was a significant one for Hammond and his wife, the former Esther T. Chapin.  It started when the two of them appeared in the Jefferson Market Police Court to identify Samuel Jenkins (alias Jennings, alias Richard Stone).  The Hammonds were on a Ninth Avenue streetcar, returning from the theater, on the night of December 27 when the doctor was jostled and his gold watch stolen.  The valuable timepiece was worth more than $9,800 in today's money.  It is unclear if Hammond got his watch back (although it is doubtful).

The couple was back in court on October 18.  They had gone to their summer home in Long Beach, New Jersey on July 4, "leaving their be cared for by the cook, Julie, and the butler," said The Evening World.  But, the article continued, "Their departure was the signal for a grand jubilee and ball held in the house by Julie and her friends, and the French cook at once was made famous by her wine dinners, dancing and songs."

Word reached Long Beach and Esther returned to New York and fired Julie Arnaud, paying her up to that date.  Amazingly, the dismissed cook sued Esther, saying she "had been hired up to the end of September" and was due extra pay.

That year the Hammonds sold the mansion to Chauncey Mitchell Depew and his wife, the former Elise Ann Hegeman.  The price  of $125,000 reflected the high-end tone of the block.  It would equal slightly more than $3.5 million today.

Depew's was a household name.  Educated as a lawyer, he became the attorney for the Vanderbilt railroads, and a year before purchasing the West 54th Street house was elected president of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad.  He had, as well, served in the State Assembly in 1862-1863, and as New York Secretary of State in 1864-1865.  The Depews had a nine year old son, Chauncey Jr.  Their summer estate was at Scarborough-on-Hudson, New York.

Entertainments in the Depew house were frequent and notable.  On November 28, 1891, for instance, The Sun reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Chauncey M. Depew, last evening, gave an elaborate dinner party at their house."  The guest of honor was British Member of Parliament William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett Burdett-Coutts.  Sitting around the table were members of the highest echelon of Manhattan society.  The article said:

Mr. and Mrs. Depew's guests were: Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Dr. and Mrs. W. Seward Webb, Mr. and Mrs. Richard H. Wilson, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Clews, Mr. and Mrs. John J. Wyson, Mr. and Mrs. Byam K. Stevens, Mrs. Paran Stevens, Mrs. Marshal O. Roberts, Miss Whiting, Col. Cuthbert Larking, and Mr. Ward McAllister.

An elaborate Esthetic period chandelier hangs over the dining table.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Shortly after that dinner party Elise contracted influenza.  She had successfully recovered from the disease in 1889, however this bout had come "in a more virulent form," according to the New-York Tribune.   Two years later she was still in poor health.

In 1890 Depew's portrait had been painted by Adolfo Muller-Ury.  Now, in 1892 the artist was brought back to create a companion portrait of Elise.  It may have been her weakened condition that prompted Depew to commission the work.

The family referred to the back parlor as the "white and gold room."
photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Elise had sat for him only a few times before she and Chauncey traveled to Fortress Monroe, Virginia.  Her condition had noticeably declined when they returned around May 1.  The New-York Tribune reported, "Mrs. Depew had been almost continuously confined to her bed after her return."  A week afterward, she died on May 7 at the age of 45.

Depew was high affected by his wife's passing.  His private secretary, H. C. Du Val, received the many callers who arrived at the house the following day.  He told a reporter, "[Depew's] silent grief at this terrible blow is touching, but he has borne it so far without flinching...There never perhaps were two persons more bound up in each other than were Mr. Depew and his wife.  No matter where he was, on land or sea, in Europe or in the most distant parts of this country, his first thought was for her, and hers for him."

Adolfo Muller-Ury continued work on the portrait.  One can imagine the emotional impact on Depew when it was delivered two months after Elise's death.  

The narrow "music room," with its upright piano, would have been for family purposes only.  A grand piano sat in the more public front parlor.  

Dainty gilded chairs and more comfortable upholstered pieces sit below an intricately stenciled ceiling.  
photos by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On May 2, 1897 The New York Times published a two-page spread on the Depew mansion, the interiors of which it called "a marvel of taste and refinement."  In the main hall were an 18th century tall case clock, and towards the rear a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.  "The broad stairway that leads to the floors above is guarded day and night by a warrior dressed in a full suit of armor and carrying a buckler and sword."

The reception room, off the main hall to the left, "is filled with paintings, bric-a-brac, and souvenirs that [Depew] has collected here and there in his trips to foreign lands."  Among the items was a valuable bronze statuette of Napoleon, "said to be the only figure extant of the great Corsican as First Consul," said the article.

The Reception Room.  A corner of the Muller-Ury portrait of Chauncey Depew is visible at the left.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Across the main hall was the parlor, filled with antique furniture.  Here hung the Muller-Ury portraits.  Behind the parlor was the "white and gold room," a sitting room outfitted in French furniture and a "magnificent chandelier of cut glass."

But the dining room, according to The New York Times, "is one of the most beautiful rooms in the Depew house.  It is papered in dark turkey red.  All of the chairs are handsomely upholstered in leather."  Below the ceiling was a row of mottoes "appropriate to a dining room" in various languages.  One, in French, said "Appetite is the best sauce," for instance.  The bronze dining room chandelier, like all the fixtures in the house, was electrically lit.

Chauncey Mitchell Depew - from the collection of the Library of Congress

By the time of the article, Depew's nieces, Anne Depew Paulding and Charlotte N. Hegeman, were living with with him.  On January 23 that year he "gave one of the most largely attended receptions of the season," according to The Sun, for the young women.  The article noted, "A Hungarian band was stationed in the niche in the central stairway and screened by exotics...A suite of fives rooms was thrown open.  The second drawing room is in white and told.  An elaborate buffet was served in the third large room, which is the dining room."  Depew had issued 2,000 invitations and, once again, the cream of New York society attended.  Among those listed were Mrs. William B. Astor, Mrs. Herman Oelrichs, Mrs. William Rhinelander and the J. Oakley Rhinelanders, the Stuyvesant Fishes, and scores of others.

In 1899 Depew was elected to the United States Senate, a post he would hold until March 1911.  His residency in the West 54th Street house was now, understandably, periodic.  Nevertheless, in 1901 he hired architects Ludlow & Valentine to do "interior and exterior alterations" of the house.

An Egyptian frieze ran below the ceiling of the Depew library.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The updating of the residence may have been in anticipation of his marriage.  On December 29, 1901 The New York Times reported, "The marriage of Senator Chauncey M. Depew to Miss May Palmer took place at noon to-day at the American Church [in Nice, France]."  It was, in fact the second ceremony.  Because the bride was Roman Catholic, a wedding at Notre Dame in Nice had taken place the day before.

At the end of Depew's term in the Senate and following the 1911 summer social season, on November 12 The Sun reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Chauncey M. Depew are now at their home here, 27 West Fifty-fourth street and are likely to give numerous dinners during the winter."  And, indeed, they did.  Among the most anticipated entertainments were May's annual birthday dinners for her husband.

Esthetic period bedroom furniture shares space with an Empire-inspired chandelier.  
photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Depews spent part of the winter of 1927-28 in St. Petersburgh, Florida.  On the train home in late March, Depew "caught a chill," according to his physician, Dr. H. Lyman Hooker.  It led to a bronchial condition and a fever.  That developed into bronchial pneumonia.  The 94-year old died on April 5 after having been ill only a week.

Chauncey Jr. lived in the house until his death in 1931.  His father's library, his paintings and art objects were then sold at auction.  The mansion sat empty for two years before being leased by the estate.

On October 14, 1933, The New York Times reported that the mansion "is to be turned into a rooming house."  The article explained, "the house contains thirty-two rooms, and some of these will be turned into one and two room apartments...The imposing character of the entrance hall, with the great staircase, will be left untouched, also the shelves in the library, which once contained Mr. Depew's collection of rare volumes and bound volumes of his own speeches."

The venerable house survived until 1939 when it and its neighbors on either side were replaced by an apartment building, called Regent House, designed by George F. Pelham.

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1 comment:

  1. Would love to know what the original colors were of the elaborate stencil work, wallcoverings and notable elements like the large Egyptian frieze were.