Saturday, April 23, 2022

The John Williams Morgan House - 39 West 11th Street

The sheet metal window cornices were added to the simple, original brownstone lintels later.

Although Josiah Dodge was listed in city directories as a carter, he was far more than a wagon driver.  The designation most likely referred to his owning a successful cartage company.  Politically involved, he was on the American Republican Party's list of possible nominees for Vice President in 1843.  Dodge and his wife Abigail lived on West 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

In 1842, he erected a Greek Revival home on the block, at 39 West 11th Street.  Three stories tall and faced in ruddy red brick, its fine doorway included pilasters with palmetto capitals, paned sidelights, and a transom decorated with a Greek antefixe and honeysuckle details.

Dodge retained possession of the house, leasing it to well-to-do families.  He added three more homes on the block, including the one next door at 37 West 11th Street, erected six years later.  Upon his death on March 20, 1855, each of his four children, two daughters and two sons, inherited one of the income properties.

Josiah Dodge, Jr. became the owner of 39 West 11th Street.  He continued leasing the property, which by the 1870's appears to have been operated as a high-end boarding house.  Living here in 1872 was Eugene Mehl, a French chef, and by 1879 Isaac Moses, a merchant tailor was listed here.

Following Dodge's death, the house was retained by his estate, and handled by Dr. Beekman T. Burnham.  In 1896 he leased it to John H. Comer and his wife, the former Anna Evertson Phillips.  Their four-year lease came with a rental of just over $10,000 per year in today's money.

Comer was born in Liverpool, England in 1829.  He had immigrated to Boston as a young man and obtained work in the drygoods firm of Jordan, Marsh & Co.  Within a year he relocated to New York City and became the private secretary of James Fisk, Jr.  He held that position until the millionaire's murder by Edward S. Stokes in 1872.  

He and Anna had one son, William Russell Comer.  The family's summer estate was in Goshen, New York, where Comer bred Holstein-Friesian cattle.  By the time they moved into 39 West 11th Street, John was the treasurer of the National Stockyard Company of New Jersey, and secretary of the New Haven Cooper Company.  He was, as well, the senior warden of St. Ann's Church on East 11th Street.  

The Comers remained in the house past their initial term.  Anna's health had begun to fail after the turn of the century and she died on August 26,1906 at the age of 69.  Her funeral was not held in the drawing room here, as would have been expected, but in the Church of St. John the Evangelist on West 11th Street and Waverly Place.

Seven months later, in March 1907, 39 West 11th Street was leased to Judge William Henderson Wadham.  An 1896 graduate of Yale University, he was a partner in the legal firm of Baldwin, Wadham, Bacon & Fisher.  

An active Republican, he was a delegate to the Republican Convention in Chicago in 1912.  The New York Telegram reported on June 14, "While packing his grip at his home, No. 39 West Eleventh street, today he strained a tendon in his back and had to be carried to the railroad station...He was advised to stay at home, but he refused to do so saying, 'I'd go if I had to go in pieces.  I want to see President Taft renominated.'"

After more than six decades of being rented, the house was sold to the newly-elected District Attorney Edward Swann in 1916.   A graduate of Columbia Law School, he became affiliated with Tammany Hall politics and served in the United States Congress from December 1, 1902 to March 3, 1903.  A bachelor, in November 1915 he was elected to the post of New York County District Attorney.

District Attorney Edward Swann in 1917.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Somewhat surprisingly, Swann sold the house only a year after moving in.  Three years earlier, he had purchased another home uptown, at 103 West 70th Street, which was being leased at the time.  With his tenant now gone, he opted to live there.  On September 9, 1917, The Sun reported, "Miss E. A. Foster is the new owner of the Swann dwelling.  She will occupy it as her dwelling."

The mysterious Miss Foster went only by her initials, as, apparently, did her widowed mother.  On June 9, 1918 the New-York Tribune arcanely noted, "Mrs. M. B. Foster, of Tuscaloosa, Ala, died suddenly at the residence of her daughter, 39 West 11th st."

Foster sold the house in July 1923 to John Williams Morgan.  A  1915 graduate of Princeton University, he was a member of the soap manufacturing firm of Enoch Morgan's Sons, founded by his father and uncle.  He had married Marion Haviland Burt in 1919 and the couple now had one son, George Frederick.  Sharing the house with them were John's parents, George F. and Helen De Wolf Morgan.

The Morgans' summer estate was in Greenwich Connecticut.  Their social prominence was reflected in John's exclusive club memberships, including the Princeton Club, Ardsley Club, Greenwich Country Club, and the Army and Navy Club.

George F. Morgan died on March 2, 1925, leaving his entire $8.5 million estate (about $126 million today) to Helen.  John now stepped into the position of president of Enoch Morgan's Sons.

John and Marion regularly appeared in the society columns.  On May 29, 1928, for instance, the New York Evening Post announced they "are leaving for Europe tomorrow night on the Aquitania."  Marion's luncheons and dinner parties were frequent.

She opened the house once a year for the Washington Square District Garden tour that benefited Greenwich House.  But war in Europe interrupted that routine in 1941.  When the couple were married, John had held the rank of First Lieutenant of the 103rd Field Artillery of the 26th Division American Expeditionary Forces.  Now, with a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, he was called back to service.

On September 27, 1941, The New York Sun reported, "Lieut-Col. and Mrs. John Williams Morgan have opened their house at 39 West 11th street, where Mrs. Morgan will be for the next two months.  Lieut-Col. Mortgan is serving with the 186th Field Artillery at Fort Ethan Allen, Vt."

Things returned to normal following the war.  Frederick, now married, still lived with his parents with his wife and daughter, Evelyn.  A photograph of the little girl in The New York Sun on May 14, 1946 noted, "Her grandmother, Mrs. John Williams Morgan, will open the garden to visitors on Thursday afternoon as part of an exhibition of places of interest near Washington Square." 

Shortly afterward, the family went to Vermont.  On July 11, a servant found the basement door opened.  A search of the house revealed a robbery.  Five days later, The Sun reported, "Burglars escaped with $30,000 in jewelry from the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Williams Morgan at 39 West 11th street last Thursday night, but left untouched an additional $100,000 worth of jewelry in the house, the police disclosed today."

The tantalizing mention of overlooked jewels worth more than $1.3 million in today's money caught the eye of an ex-GI, 22-year-old Joseph Antonio O'Nil Landry.  On July 31 Morgan left for his office and Marion went shopping.  Still in the house were two painters in the parlor level, doing redecorating, the maid, Esther Nielsen, and the cook, Agnes Murray.

At around 2:00 that afternoon a "neatly dress" man rang the doorbell.  The New York Times reported, "the cook opened the door just a crack--she has been cautious since the robbery a fortnight ago--and [the caller] showed her a man's wallet.  He said politely, 'I have a wallet I think belongs to Colonel Morgan.'"  

When Agnes Murray opened the door wider to look at the wallet, he drew a revolver, "slithered through the door opening and asked: 'Where are those jewels?'"  Agnes said, "They took all there was, sir, the last time."  Just then Landry noticed the painters on their ladders and forced them into a closet at gunpoint. 

Meanwhile, Esther Nielson, who was working upstairs, peered over the landing baluster, saw what was happening, and tiptoed to the roof.  "She leaned out over Eleventh Street and shrilled, 'Police, robbers, police," reported The New York Times.

Residents along the block phoned the police.  With "sirens screaming," seven patrol cars converged on the Morgan house.  Esther Nielson directed them to the rear yard where Landry had fled.  He was seen scrambling over a fence two doors away and was apprehended.  At the station house he admitted that he was looking for the remaining jewelry.  Ironically, advised The New York Times, Agnes Murray was correct.  "Apparently the original thieves got all there was."

In 1948, Frederick Morgan and two other Princeton alumni started a literary magazine, The Hudson Review, from the house.  The first volume was released on March 1.  The Princeton Alumni Weekly described it as "not only the first major literary magazine of the post-war period, but the first full-scale review started in this country since 1939."  The article noted, "Among the contributors are Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings, Robert Lowell, Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, R. P. Blackmur, Lionel Trilling and Francis Fergusson."

The house was sold in July 1964.  It became home to Dr. Robert Wallace Gilmore and his wife, the former Joyce Mertz.  Gilmore was an organizer of peace and civil rights groups, like CORE (the Congress on Racial Equality), and the founder of the Global Perspectives in Education (later the American Forum), a nonprofit agency that sought to improve elementary and secondary education throughout the world.  He was, as well, a partner in the magazine subscription company, Publisher's Clearing House.

Joyce, who graduated from Swarthmore College, was equally involved in civil rights.  The New York Times called her "an active support of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." and noted that she counseled, "A. Philip Randolph, Bayard, Rustin, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League."

Joyce Mertz Gilmore died of cancer in the Harkness Pavilion of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center on January 17, 1974 at the age of 44.  In memory of her love of dance, her mother, LuEsther Mertz, created The Joyce Theater on Eighth Avenue.

Gilmore later married Elizabeth Burke.  He died on June 14, 1988 at his home in Miami, Florida from Alzheimer's disease.

Unlike many of the 19th century houses along the block, 39 West 11th Street house has never been converted to apartments.

photograph by the author
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1 comment:

  1. Son George Frederick Morgan was a noted poet, and editor/founder of the Hudson Review. An understated elegant fellow, with the most enviable old-fashioned manners imaginable