Monday, January 3, 2022

The Lost Cooper-Hewitt House - 9 Lexington Avenue

image via

In the first decades of the 19th century Peter Cooper almost single-handedly constructed his wooden house at the corner of 8th Street and Fourth Avenue.  (He moved the house 20 blocks to the north in 1820.)   By 1846, the 55-year-old had come a long way.  He had invented the Tom Thumb, the first steam locomotive in America; served as a city alderman; ran a highly successful glue factory; owned the Canton Iron Works and the West Point Foundry; and held several patents.  That year he erected a stately mansion at 9 Lexington Avenue, one block north of fashionable Gramercy Park.

Peter Cooper, from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Three stories tall above an English basement, the residence was designed in the emerging Italianate style.  A broad stone stoop rose to the centered entranceway (the enframement of which clung to the waning Greek Revival style).  The elliptically arched openings wore what appear to be cast iron lintels, and atop the roof was a quaint belvedere.

Cooper and his wife, the former Sarah Raynor Bedell, had two children, Edward and Sarah Amelia (known familiarly by her middle name).  Two years before moving into the mansion, the family had nearly lost Edward.

A student at Columbia College, he traveled to Europe in 1843 with his mathematics professor, Abram Stevens Hewitt.  On the return voyage a year later, they were shipwrecked.  Hewitt returned the young man safely home and he became a close friend of the family.  He visited the house often, both officially (he continued to tutor Edward) and as a guest.  By 1850 a romance was blossoming between Hewitt and Sarah Amelia, and in 1855 they were married in the Lexington Avenue mansion.

The newlyweds initially moved to Trenton, New Jersey, where Hewitt and Edward Cooper co-managed Peter Cooper's Trenton Ironworks (later renamed Cooper & Hewitt).  But in 1858, the Hewitts were listed at 9 Lexington Avenue with the Cooper family.   The couple would have seven children.

The families summered at Ringwood, the 19,000-acre estate purchased by Peter Cooper in 1853.  The purchase had a pragmatic side to it, since the property guaranteed a supply of iron ore for the foundry.  

The sprawling main house on the Ringwood estate.  image via

Perhaps because of his own limited education, Peter Cooper strongly endorsed adult education.  He professed that education should be "as free as water and air."  In 1853 he broke ground for the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.  Abram Hewitt was closely involved.  He supervised the construction, which was completed in 1859.   Cooper's endowment made the school free for working class students.  In a revolutionary step, he welcomed women and Blacks as students.  The school included a free library and a massive lecture hall.  

Cooper became active in the anti-slavery movement and was a vigorous supporter of the Union cause during the war.  He was, as well, concerned with the Indian Reform movement and helped organize the United States Indian Commission, dedicated to the protection and "elevation" of Native Americans.

An ardent proponent of paper currency, Peter Cooper helped found the Greenback Party and in 1876 was its candidate for President.  His political stance made his mansion the target for one journalist, Francis R. Porter, in 1880.  On December 11, The New York Times reported that Porter, "who smashed the windows in the vestibule of the residence of the Hon. Abram S. Hewitt, at No. 9 Lexington-avenue, in order, as he said, to revenge himself on the venerable Peter Cooper, was arraigned on an indictment accusing him of malicious mischief."

The article noted, "The prisoner, in conversation with the court officers, said he expected to realize a handsome revenue from the sale of his paper.  The trial, he said, would be a spicy one.  George Francis Train and himself, he said, would have Mr. Cooper and Mr. Hewitt on the witness stand."

On April 4, 1883 Peter Cooper died in the mansion.   His funeral was held in All Souls' Unitarian Church nearby at 20th Street and Fourth (later Park) Avenue.

In the meantime, Abram S. Hewitt had entered politics in 1874 when he was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives.  Two years after his father-in-law's death, in 1885, the Hewitts hired architect Stanford White to remodel the Lexington Avenue mansion.  He removed the now-outdated stoop, and lowered the entrance to a the former basement level.  Because the doorway was now below sidewalk level, the columned portico, which provided a balcony to what had had been the entrance, took on rather squat proportions.  

from Old Buildings of New York City, 1907, (copyright expired)

The New York Sun deemed the 35-room Hewitt mansion "Probably the most artistic as well as beautiful house in New York," saying it "has been thoroughly remodeled and refurnished from top to bottom."  Stanford White had designed the interiors in French motifs, so popular in the 1890's.

"The great drawing room, which is perfectly square, is decorated in Louis XVI style, and for the most part is furnished with articles of the same period," said the article.  The walls were covered in crimson damask silk, which matched the draperies.  From the domed ceiling hung a large alabaster lamp, mounted in gilded bronze.  The New York Sun said, "Among the exquisite articles in the room is a Louis XV harp, gilded and carved, with its sounding board covered with beautifully painted flowers and musical instruments."

Adjoining the great drawing room was the Louis XV style "small drawing room."  The article said, "in its furniture are seen three distinct styles in vogue during the reign of that monarch."  The walls were covered in greenish-gray silk, and the silk draperies were an exact copy of the "bedroom hangings designed by Phillippe de la Salle and presented to the Dauphin, afterward Louis XVI" upon his marriage to Marie Antoinette.

Departing from the French motif was the Renaissance style dining room.  The wood paneled ceiling and walls were copied from a baronial mansion in England.  The New York Sun said, "The carved furniture and window hangings are an exact reproduction of the period.  Crimson is the prevailing tint."  Most notable was the painted frieze of women and children playing with fruits and flowers.  "It was purchased by Mr. Hewitt off the walls of a decaying Venetian palace."

Stanford White transformed the original entrance into a stately balcony with chest-high railings.  The gas lamps were added during Hewitt's term as mayor.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

On March 4, 1887, Abram S. Hewitt took office as mayor of New York City.  With his new role, the Lexington Avenue mansion was expectedly host to prestigious figures.  But perhaps none was more distinguished than the guest of honor at an afternoon reception on May 21, 1887, Queen Kapiolani of Hawaii.  The New York Times reported, "The house was handsomely decorated, and the broad marble stairway leading from the entrance hall to the main drawing rooms was appropriately flanked with incense-breathing clusters of Spring blossoms."

The Queen and her substantial entourage arrived about 4:30.  "She was met at the door by the Mayor, who escorted her upstairs to where Mrs. Hewitt and her daughters, assisted by the Misses Cooper, were engaged in welcoming their guests."  Only a few others had arrived, but by 5:00, said the article, "they began coming thick and fast, and the Mayor was kept busy introducing New-York's fair women and brave men to her Majesty, who expressed herself as delighted with everything she saw."

It was an highly important social and political incident and any glitch could have international ramifications.  Outside was an army of police officers who kept everyone within a two-block radius moving along.  The streets were closed to any vehicles except those bringing guests.

In the winter of 1899, the Hewitts had a prominent houseguest.  On February 24 The New York Times reported, "Lord Charles Beresford is the guest of ex-Mayor Hewitt at his residence, 9 Lexington Avenue, where he will remain about a fortnight."  The article added, "It will be remembered that Mr. Hewitt, when Mayor, married at the City Hall, Lord Charles Beresford's present sister-in-law, Lady William Beresford, to the late Duke of Marlborough."

A year earlier, on February 17, 1898, the Hewitts had given a most innovative entertainment.  The New York Times explained it "took place in the form of a 'plant party," and was attended "by several hundred of the city's wealthiest and most fashionable people."  Each of the well-dressed guests represented a vegetable.  The article said:

The edifying spectacle of richly costumed and bejeweled women carrying about on their persons imitations of various representatives of the vegetable kingdom, from squash and lettuce to meteor roses and orchids, and of men in conventional evening dress, with similar additions, was something enough out of the ordinary to interest the people concerned, and also plenty of others who were not favored with invitations.

At the time, the Hewitts' unmarried daughters Sara and Eleanor had taken their places in high society, as evidenced in an announcement in The New York Times on March 17, 1901:

Perhaps the most original entertainment of the coming week will be that to be given on Tuesday evening by the Misses Hewitt at their residence, 9 Lexington Avenue.  There will be a little play, and an especially good opera singer has been engaged to sing.

In December 1902 Abram S. Hewitt became afflicted with obstructive jaundice.  On January 11, 1903, his doctors released a statement saying, "Mr. Hewitt has continued to grow progressively weaker.  He sleeps most of the time, and suffers little pain."  The extended family members were called to the house.

Newspapers published daily updates on his condition.  On January 13, for instance, The New York Times rather insensitively reported, "The condition of ex-Mayor Abram S. Hewitt, who lies near death's door at his residence...remained practically unchanged at 2 o'clock this morning."

Hewitt lingered until January 18.  According to reports, he removed the oxygen tube, which had helped him breathe, from his mouth and uttered, "And now, I am officially dead."   His funeral was held on January 21, The New York Times describing the services as "doubly impressive in their dignified simplicity and the absence of all ostentation."  

The Hewitt mansion as it appeared around the time of the former Mayor's death.  image via

Sarah Amelia and her unmarried daughters lived on in the mansion.  Following the tragic sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 15, 1912, Sarah and her daughter-in-law Mary (the wife of Edward Hewitt) helped organize the Women's Relief Committee.  Within four days the group had collected more than $12,000--around $330,000 today--to help the survivors.  On April 19 The Evening World noted, "the next meeting of the Women's Relief Committee will be held to-morrow morning at 11 o'clock in the home of Mrs. Abram S. Hewitt, No. 9 Lexington avenue."

Sarah Amelia Cooper Hewitt photo via

The group was Sarah's last philanthropic effort.  She died at Ringwood Manor on August 14, 1912.  The Evening World reported that she had "inherited $3,000,000 from her husband."  That amount would top $82.5 million today.

The New York Times reported, "Under her will...Sarah C. and Eleanor G. Hewitt [receive] equal shares in 9 Lexington Avenue, and its furnishings."  Each of her children received 600 acres of Ringwood Major "that her children might also live near each other in the country."  

The will also instructed Sarah and Eleanor "to collect all papers relating to their grandfather, Peter Cooper, and their father, Mayor Hewitt, and to edit these in the form of biographies, of which they should hold the copyrights."  It directed that all profits from those books should "be used in decorating the museum of the Cooper Institute."

The Hewitt sisters never married.  They acted in unison, appearing in society pages always as the Misses Hewitt.  In listing the events of the week on January 24, 1915, for instance, The Sun noted, "FRIDAY--The Misses Hewitt, 9 Lexington avenue, a musicale."  

Passionately conservative, they hosted a meeting of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage in the house in April 1918.

from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Eleanor, known to the family as Nellie, died in 1924.  Six years later, on October 16, 1930, Sarah died in the Lexington Avenue mansion, "where she had been confined to her bed since an operation performed in 1928," according to The New York Times.  Sarah was 71 years old.

Of her siblings, only Erskine and Edward Hewitt survived her.  Erskine was the principal beneficiary of her nearly $6 million estate.  She was generous to two of the servants.  William Donnelley received a bequest of $200,000 in today's money, and Anna Engesser received, "a bequest of $1,000 and the income from a fund of $30,000."  The trust fund would equal about $600,000 today.

Erskine was the youngest of the Hewitt children.  Never married, he moved into the Lexington Avenue house and maintained a summer estate on Lake Cupsaw in Passaic County, New Jersey.  He died in the country home on May 22, 1938 at the age of 67.

Six months later, the mansion was opened to the public for a three-day auction--from November 9 through the 11th.  The New York Sun reported, "A quantity of the original rosewood and mahogany furniture, placed in the house when it was built, appears in the sale.  Most of this is in the American Empire style and is found both in the bedrooms and downstairs rooms."

A demolition permit for the property was granted in 1939.  But it survived until 1948 when it was razed to make way for a modern apartment building The Park Gramercy, designed by Boak & Raad, completed in 1951.

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  1. I am always amazed by how many wealthy, educated, well-traveled women at the turn of the last century did not believe women should have the right to vote. And for those who were opposed, I don't remember an instance where, 10 years or more after the passage of the 19 Amendment in 1920 anyone had an example to demonstrate why it was a mistake.

    1. I've always wondered if the ultra-wealthy women were simply out of touch with less privileged females, since they existed quite comfortably under the political control of a male population. I think, perhaps, they could not identify with the conditions of other classes.

    2. I had the same thought! Why would they work against their own interests? It's baffling!

  2. More fascinating real estate—and NY historical—history. Thanks for your many posts.

    1. I'm glad that the histories I can document are being appreciated by readers like you, Andrew. I find the stories about properties like this one to be so engrossing and I love passing them on.