Friday, April 8, 2022

The Isabella Merritt Hawley House - 48 West 11th Street


In the 1830s and ‘40s Andrew Lockwood operated his real estate development business, Lockwood & Company, from 17 10th Street and erected rows of speculative houses in Greenwich Village.  He often partnered with other builders or investors, and in 1841 teamed with Erastus Freeman and James Harriot to erect a row of five Greek Revival houses along the south side of West 11th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  

Among them was 156 West 11th Street (renumbered 48 in 1853).  Like its identical neighbors, the 21-foot-wide house was faced in orange brick and trimmed in brownstone.   The handsome entranceway within a stone enframement featured narrow sidelights along paneled, Corinthian pilasters, and a carved transom bar with an acroterion.  Extra light was introduced into the low third floor level by extending the windows slightly into the fascia of the dentiled cornice.

Until around 1853 it was home to the family of Julian Chastelain, a commission merchant on Water Street.  They were followed by William P. Stewart who did not list a profession in city directories.  That quite often meant he was a "gentleman"--one who did not have, nor need, a job.  Stewart remained here for more than a decade, until around 1872.

The residence was sold in March 1873, and became an upscale boarding house operated by Georgiana Beers, the widow of George W. Beers.  Her three boarders that year were Senor Don Felipe Zapata, "Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary" of Columbia; and Felix D. Fontaine and Stanley McKenna, both of whom were editors at the Evening Telegram.

Georgiana's boarders continued to be professionals.  In 1874 Julius L. Parrain, a professor of "French conversation and literature," and his wife, Mary E., a dressmaker, moved in.  They would stay at least through 1879.  Two attorneys leased rooms in 1876, Julius N. Ferguson and George Gray.

In 1882, Irish writer and playwright Oscar Wilde arrived in New York City as part of a promotional lecture tour for Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta, Patience.  According to Barbara Belford in her 2000 biography Oscar Wilde, A Certain Genius, "New York welcomed the exhausted lecturer while he examined his options.  He stayed for two and a half months, restlessly moving," until he took rooms at 48 West 11th Street.

Wilde had hired a Black valet, William Traquair, to accompany him on his year-long tour.  The young man was described by newspapers as "likely-looking" and having "an intelligent face."  It seems that Georgiana Beers did not allow Traquair to stay in her home, but she was progressive enough to allow him to take a meal here--almost assuredly in the privacy of Wilde's rooms.  The playwright scrawled a note that read:

Dear Tal,
    Will you give me the pleasure of dining with me at 6:30 tonight.  Here.  
                                            Oscar Wilde
                                            48 West 11th

In 1886, Isabella Merritt Hawley, the widow of Peter Radcliffe Hawley, purchased 48 West 11th Street.  The $15,000 price would be equal to just over $425,000 today.  Moving in with her were her sons, William and Alan Ramsey, who were partners in William Hawley & Co.; and daughters Jennie and Wilhemina.  

A fascinating figure, Isabella was the daughter of millionaire George Merritt and his wife, Julia.  Her childhood summer home, Lyndhurst, on the Hudson River, was sold to Jay Gould following her father's death.  Educated at the Emma Willard School, Isabella was "well known in literary circles," according to the New-York Tribune.  The newspaper noted that she "spoke fluently French, Italian and German and was especially interested in Oriental philanthropy and religion."

One of Hawleys' servant girls in the house got a scare in the summer of 1889.  According to The New York Times, when she went to the cellar on the morning of July 28 to get coal, "she discovered a young negro crouched behind the coal bin."  Rather than panicking, the girl, "with rare presence of mind," pretended she had not noticed the intruder, and casually went back up the stairs.   There she informed Alan Hawley, who found a policeman.  

The servant had no doubt thwarted a burglary.  When Benjamin Myers was searched at the station house, "a lot of pawn tickets representing articles of clothing, opera glasses, and jewelry were found in his possession, and also a bunch of twenty keys, several of them being 'skeletons,'" said the article.

Although the Hawleys were still listed here in the Social Register of 1900-01, it would be their last winter season.  While Isabella retained possession of the house, the entire family moved to a mansion at 22 East 76th Street.

On April 30, 1901 Sarah Rodgers Sloane and Dr. Nelson H. Henry were married.  The New York Press announced, "On their return from their wedding trip, Dr. and Mrs. Henry will live in No. 48 West Eleventh street."

There was apparently one woman who was not pleased with the doctor's marriage.  On May 15, The Morning Telegraph reported, "Soon after the ceremony [Henry] paid a visit to Magistrate Crane, who was then sitting in Jefferson Market."  He brought with him letters from Mrs. Martha Reisse, who was scandalously attempting to seduce him.

Martha Reisse was arrested.  When she appeared in court on May 14, the judge refused to disclose the contents of her letters to the press.  The Morning Telegraph entitled an article, "Letters too Obscene for Reporters," and reported that Magistrate Cornell "said he would not even hint at the tenor of the letters, which he said were vile and unfit for publication even if translated into French."

The newspaper described Mrs. Reisse as "about 48 years old," and said "Flatterers might call her handsome...Her appearance is that of a woman of refinement."  Dr. Henry merely said, "I think the person who wrote [the letters] must be demented.  I scarcely know her."

With the untidy incident behind them, the couple focused on entertaining during the winter social season.  On December 3, 1900 The New York Times reported, "Dr. Nelson Herrick Henry and Mrs. Henry are to give two receptions today--one in the afternoon and the other in the evening--at their home, 48 West Eleventh Street."

Sarah Rodgers Henry, from New York at the James Town Exposition, 1909 (copyright expired)

Dr. Nelson Herrick Henry, from Universities and Their Sons, 1898 (copyright expired)

Born on Staten Island on April 27, 1855, Henry was the Chief Surgeon of the State National Guard, holding the rank of colonel.  In 1902 Governor Benjamin Odell appointed him Adjutant General of the State of New York.  

Sarah was a graduate of the Salem Female Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (later the Moravian College).  She held a meeting of other graduates in the West 11th Street house on February 10, 1902, "for the purpose of organizing an alumnae association," as reported by The New York Times.

Isabella Hawley died in September 1904, leaving 48 West 11th Street in equal parts to her three surviving children, William, Alan, and Jennie.  They leased it that year to Percy H. Brundage, and in September 1908 to Philip Hiss, a member of the architectural firm Hiss & Weekes.  Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1857, Hiss and his wife, the former Helen Kierstede, had three daughters, Margaret deGroof, Hilda Kierstede, and Helen.  

The Hiss family had barely moved in before the parlor was the scene of the funeral of Hiss's esteemed uncle, Dr. Aaron L. Northrop.  Called by the New York Herald "a prominent dentist," he and his wife, the former Carrie M. Hanford, had summered in Paris in 1908.  He died of a heart attack there on August 31.  On September 13, the newspaper reported that Carrie Northrop had arrived from France the day before.  "The body was taken to the home of his nephew, at No. 48 West Eleventh street, where funeral services will be held tomorrow."

A much more joyful event took place three months later.  Margaret was married to Robert McKean Thomas in the Church of the Ascension, just around the corner at Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, on December 16.  The New York Press reported that Margaret wore "lace that an ancestor wore in the days of the Knickerbockers," adding that it "is supposed to be three centuries old."  Following the ceremony a reception was held in the West 11th Street house.

In the meantime, the Hawley family was squabbling in the courts over ownership of the property.  In March 1908, Jennie had eloped to Europe with Charles Levee, a French balloonist.  But the couple returned in May when Jennie was sued by her brothers over "sums of money advanced to her before her marriage," according to The Evening World.  The long court battle would stretch on for years.

While the Hawleys fought, Margaret and Robert Thomas enjoyed a romantic two-month "Southern yachting trip," as their honeymoon was described by The New York Times.  Upon their return, Helen held a reception for Margaret on February 19, 1909.

Finally, in 1910, the Hawleys' heated legal conflicts came to an end, resulting in real property being liquidated.  The West 11th Street house was purchased by Philip and Helen Hiss.  

It continued to be a scene of glittering entertainments.  On December 14, 1911 The Evening World reported, "Helen K. Hiss was another of yesterday's debutantes.  She made her debut at a reception give by her mother, Mrs. Philip Hiss, in their home, No. 48 West Eleventh street."

On April 4, 1914, Helen gave a dinner dance in the house for her still-unmarried daughters, Hilda and Helen.  After listing the dinner guests, The New York Press noted, "Others came in for the dancing, which was informal."

Neither of the girls was in a great hurry to get married.  When the United States entered World War I, Hilda traveled to France to serve with the Y.M.C.A. canteen, and then went to Palestine with the American Red Cross.  

She was the next to wed, marrying Gardner Ladd Gilsey in a fashionable Grace Church ceremony on July 10, 1920.  The ceremony was followed by a wedding breakfast at 48 West 11th Street.  The couple spent their honeymoon in the South Sea islands.

It was not until eight years later that Helen was married.  Her Grace Church wedding to Charles Blyth Martin took place on November 7, 1928.  Once again, a reception was held in the West 11th Street house.

Philip Hiss was 71 years old at the time.  Before long he and Helen moved down the block to the apartment building on the corner of Fifth Avenue.  He died there on December 15, 1940.

The house was sold that year, and converted to a duplex apartment in the basement and parlor levels, and one apartment each on the upper two floors.  That configuration continues today.  

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


  1. Hi Tom: John Cooper of Oscar Wilde In America. I am an admirer of your blog, and we may have corresponded previously in connection with Oscar Wilde.

    On the subject of this article I believe I can be of assistance, principally in that Wilde's valet was not called Traquair, and thus Dear Tal is not addressed to him. Further, that even though scholars (and the rare book owner of that letter) have not identified Tal, I have a reasonable idea. Please contact me for more.

    John Cooper

    1. The email you provided is not working. Please contact me at the email address at the top left.