Friday, June 3, 2022

The George P. Fitch House - 54 Irving Place


In 1843, the owners of 54 Irving Place moved out.  Although it would be two years before Samuel Ruggles began construction on Gramercy Park, three blocks to the north, the neighborhood was filling with upscale residences like this one.  One of three identical homes at 52 through 56 Irving Place, it was three stories tall above an English basement and 26-feet-wide.  Its brick facade was trimmed in brownstone.  The Greek Revival design, reflected in the piers and entablature of the entranceway, had been on the cutting-edge of domestic architecture in 1834, when it was completed.

It was common at the time for homeowners to simply sell their things and start over when moving out.  The auction notice on April 22, 1843 listed elegant furnishings.  Along with "mahogany chairs, sofas, piano, sideboard, card table," were accessories like "rich cut glass dessert service complete, cut tumblers, wines decanters, &c." 

It appears that the family was leaving town.  Not only was the house sold at the auction, but so was the family's pew in the Church of the Ascension.

The residence became home to George P. Fitch and his wife, the former Clara Fowler.  Fitch was the secretary of the Farmers Loan & Trust, a highly responsible and well-paying position.  On May 31, 1844, one year after moving in, Clara died of consumption, the early 19th century term for pulmonary tuberculosis.  She was just 23 years old. 

The following year George Martin Haywood and his family moved in.  Apparently close friends, the Haywood family would share the house with Fitch for decades.  

Haywood was the head of G. M. Haywood & Co., which imported costly silks from Japan and China.  He and his wife, the former Eliza Ann Catherine Meigs, had an infant daughter, Sarah Meigs Haywood, born in 1843.  Another daughter, Eleanor Van Dyck, would arrive in 1852.

Eliza came from a prestigious New England family.  Her  grandfather was Major John Meigs of Connecticut, and her father, Benjamin Henshaw Meigs, had distinguished himself in the Revolutionary War.  Her maternal ancestors were Dutch settlers who arrived in the 17th century.

Eliza's father had died in 1818, and at some point her mother, Eleanor Van Dyck Meigs, moved into the Irving Place house.  She died there on August 18, 1872 at the age of 85.  Her funeral was held in the parlor three days later.

That room would be the scene of a much happier event two years later.  On September 9, 1874, Eleanor was married to James Wilkinson.

In 1879, John Strong Foster purchased 54 Irving Place.  He immediately updated it by hiring architect Peter Tostevin to add a copper-clad oriel above the entrance, replace the stoop railings with modern examples, and install an up-to-date pressed metal cornice.

Foster was president and director of the Bowery Bank of New York, founded by his father William R. Foster in 1865, and a director on several other corporations.  He and his wife, Carrie, had two children, Caroline and Jay Stanley.  (Caroline, from Carrie's former marriage, had been adopted by Foster in 1873, changing her surname from Thompson to Foster.)  The family's summer home, the Meadows, was at Babylon, Long Island.

As was common, the title to the property was put in Carrie's name.  It is unclear what the couple paid for the house, but in June 1879 Carrie L. Foster took out a mortgage with James A. Roosevelt for $7,500, or about $201,000 in today's money.

The Foster children would grow up in 54 Irving Place.  On September 22, 1894, Caroline (who, like her mother, went by Carrie) would be married to Dr. Eugene C. Savidge at the Meadows.  In reporting on the upcoming wedding, The Evening World commented, "Dr. Savidge is the author of several works in general literature, and one of the most successful of New York's younger gynaecologists."  Caroline, said the article, "is a lady of unusual accomplishments, great beauty and marked personality."  Her grandfather, William Foster, gave the couple a home at 66 West 50th Street as a wedding present.

Carrie Foster had inherited her own money, a fact that was clear when she explained the family's finances to a judge in 1895 when Nellie Brown sued for damages after falling on the ice in front of the house.

She said she "paid the help in the house out of my own funds," and added, "My husband might ask a servant of the house to bring up a pitcher of ice water, or he might ask a servant of the house to put on a scuttle of coal, but aside from that thing, he hasn't anything to do with the direction of the help or their work."

As far as household expenses, she testified:

I received no money from my husband to pay those expenses, but I received money for various things.  If I should want to purchase a piece of jewelry or piece of furniture, or anything of the sort, I would be very apt to get it from Mr. Foster.  He also gave me my horses; also gave me my carriage.  He did not give me money to pay the grocer's bill.  I pay the grocer's bill; I paid all the living expenses of 54 Irving Place.  This money is exclusively my own.

Carrie went on to explain that Foster paid for the clothing of the children (but not hers), and all the "general expenses" of the country house.  But even there, Carrie kept total charge of the servants.  "He pays the farm hands.  He does not pay the [household] help--not my help.  I have nothing to do with the farm help.  Ever since I kept house I paid my servants."

Following Jay's graduation from Columbia College, he entered the New York Law School, graduating in 1899.  He did not practice law, however, and immediately took a position in his father's bank.  On December 19, 1903, he was married to Jennie Rice Morgan, the granddaughter of Charles Morgan, who founded the Morgan Steamship Line.  The wedding took place in at the bride's country home, Sunnyside, in South Orange, New Jersey.

Early on the morning of March 11, 1903, Carrie became convinced there were burglars in the house.  She made an urgent call to the police, who "were hurried to the residence in a patrol wagon."  The New-York Tribune said, "No trace of burglars could be found," but the incident upset the neighbors all around.  "The entire neighborhood was alarmed by the police," said the article.  Carrie was possibly on heightened alert following the break-in of the home of Stephen Hansier, the Austro-Hungarian Consul General, around the corner at 123 East 17th Street a few nights earlier.

Jay Stanley Foster moved back into the Irving Place house in 1913.  His marriage had failed and he and Jennie were secretly divorced.  The marital problems most likely stemmed from Jennie's discovery that her husband was carrying on an affair.  According to Lillian Benson, "she first met the banker at a social affair in January, 1913, and almost immediately thereafter he proposed to her."  The divorce was kept amazingly private.  Two years later, on August 3, 1915, The Evening World reported, "Society had known that the couple were estranged, but the fact that a divorce suit had been filed and tried was never made public."

John Strong Foster died at the age of 68 at the Meadows on July 21, 1914.  He had been ill for about ten days.  In reporting his death, the New-York Tribune noted, "He was one of the wealthiest men of this section, and besides owning the handsome estate where he died, also had a large piece of property on Oak Island, in Great South Bay."  His estate, according to The Sun, amounted to $717,831, or just over $19 million today.

Scandal visited the Foster house the following year, when Lillian Benson finally sued Jay Stanley for breach of promise.  He had never, it seems, ended the affair and continually set a date for the wedding, then postponed it.  In her complaint, filed in August 1915, she said:

I waited a reasonable time for him to fulfill his promise, and when, in July of last year, he grew indifferent and cold to me, I consulted friends, and they advised me to bring suit.

Carrie retained possession of the Irving Place house, but soon moved out.  On January 12, 1918, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that it had been leased it to Robert H. Ingersoll, of Robert H. Ingersoll & Brothers.  "The house will be used as a clubhouse for the employe[e]s of the firm, which is situated nearby on 4th av.," said the article.

The club installed a cafeteria in the basement level, and renovated the upper floors for sleeping rooms for members.  It was, however, a short-lived undertaking.  When the club left two years later, an auction of the contents was held on December 15, 1920.    Among the items sold from the "prominent club house" were "fine art pieces," like marble and alabaster figures, a tall case clock with a hand-carved cabinet, a Sohmer baby grand piano, and from the basement level, 200 imported chairs and 30 tables.

A month later, Jay Stanley Foster leased his childhood home to Our Co-Operative Cafeteria, Inc., which made good use of the already altered basement.  It expanded the restaurant space into the parlor level, and converted the upper floors to three sleeping rooms each.

In an article entitled, "Co-Operation: Is It A Menace?," the New-York Tribune weighted the pros and cons of co-operatives--an outgrowth of the Socialist movement.  The lengthy article noted, "Another popular form of the co-0perative is the restaurant.  Worthy of special mention is Our Co-operative Cafeteria, Inc., 54 Irving Place, Manhattan, a '100 per cent American enterprise,' with several branches, doing a business of about $250,000 a year and rebating to its 700 members or transferring to surplus from $12,000 to $15,000 a year."

Not surprisingly, the restaurant, known as Our Cafeteria, became a popular gathering spot for Communist and Socialist groups.  On April 29, 1926, for instance, The Daily Worker Builders' Club of New York hosted a "Dutch Treat Supper," here.  The Daily Worker was a Communist newspaper.  In announcing the event, the newspaper noted, "Every candidate for the Moscow Trip is expected to take the floor at this meeting."

Ironically, Our Cafeteria became embroiled in the cafeteria workers' strike in April 1929.  The union protested "the 12-hour slavery at starvation wages."  The Daily Worker reported on April 27 that "A picket line was established at the Consumer's Cooperative League office and its cafeteria, 'Our Cafeteria,' at 54 Irving Place."

The restaurant continued to be a meeting place for labor unions.  On the night of January 20, 1938, for instance, the Teachers Union held a meeting "for clerical workers in the schools to plan a larger increase for junior clerical assistants."

It was, of course, not merely labor unions who patronized the spot.  On June 17, 1943 the newspaper P.M. wrote, "If you like to enjoy a good wholesome meal in the out-of-doors go to the Co-Op Cafeteria, 54 Irving Place."  The article said, "There are comfortable indoor dining rooms in addition to the open garden."  It noted that "complete lunch combinations are 45c., dinners 65c."  The equivalent cost of the dinner today would be $9.75.

It is unclear exactly how long the C0-Operative Cafeteria remained after World War II.  In 1976 the basement space was home to Paul and Jimmy's Place, deemed by The New York Times as providing "perhaps the best Italian food in the neighborhood."

On December 26, 1993, The New York Times announced, "The 12-room Inn at Irving Place, scheduled to open at 54 Irving Place, is being fashioned from two Federal-style [sic] town houses near Gramercy Park."  While the upper floors of each were operated as a joint hostelry, the houses were not combined internally.

The basement of 54 Irving Place, where for decades the Co-Operative Cafeteria had operated, became home to Verbena in 1994.  Richard Laermer, in his 2002 Native's Guide to New York, said, "The food is healthful, albeit expensive, and the garden is gorgeous."

Verbena made way for Pure Food & Wine in 2004.  The New York Times food critic Frank Bruni sampled the newly-opened restaurant in July 2004.  He said it "abides by vegan dietary restrictions and belongs to the raw food movement."  Having eaten, he and his guests "needed the jolt of coffee."  They were disappointed.  "Pure Food and Wine has qualms with caffeine and boiling water."  The waiter quietly confided that he was lobbying for espresso.  He also pointed out his belt, whispering, "It is leather.  But I don't eat it."

During one of the renovations, a skirt of planar stone was installed to the sills of the parlor floor windows.  And yet, above that line little has changed since John S. Foster's 1879 renovations.

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

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