Monday, June 13, 2022

The Lost Essex Hotel -- Madison Avenue and 56th Street


The ground floor windows on Madison Avenue were filled with stained glass.  Architecture, December 1902 (copyright expired)

Francis Lynde Stetson was a highly-regarded and successful corporate attorney.  The head of the firm Stetson, Jennings & Russell, he had formerly been the law partner of Grover Cleveland.  He and his wife, the former Elizabeth Ruff, had lived in the high-stooped, four-story house at 576 Madison Avenue for years in 1899.  But the encroachment of commerce into the recently exclusive neighborhood forced them to sell the house in March 1899 to Francis S. Kinney.  They moved into the opulent newly-built home at 4 East 74th Street, far north of stores and hotels.

Kinney already owned the adjoining houses at 572 and 574.  He demolished the three structures and hired the architectural firm of Howard, Cauldwell & Morgan to design a residential hotel on the site.  Their plans projected the construction cost at $225,000--around $7.24 million today.

The Essex was completed in 1902.  The architects' tripartite, Beaux Arts design included a two-story, rusticated limestone base.  The entrance, above a short set of steps, was protected by a portico upheld by banded columns.  The seven-story mid-section was clad in red brick.  French-style balconies sat about the intermediate cornice at the third floor.  The top section, girded by a continuous balcony, took the form of a two-and-a-half story mansard, with massive dormers that terminated in imposing arched pediments.

Walter H. Kilham praised it in the December issue of The Brickbuilder that year, calling it "one of the best of the higher class of apartment houses in New York."  He went on to say:

Its plan is a good example of the development of the possibilities of a corner lot.  The rooms are of ample size, averaging fifteen by twenty feet, with bath rooms about ten feet by ten feet.  Each floor contains nine rooms and five bath rooms, served by two elevators.  The equipment of the "Essex" is of the most elaborate description and the decorations are in remarkably good taste.  The handsome facades are built of Harvard brick and light stone.

The residents of The Essex were well-heeled.  Among them in 1908 were Thomas Denny and his wife, the former Lucy W. Wright.  The couple had a daughter, Adeline.  Lucy Denny was described by the New-York Tribune on June 4 that year as "one more honest automobilist," following an incident in the Jefferson Market police court the previous day.

Mrs. Denny was headed to Philadelphia on June 3, driven by the couple's chauffeur, Hiram Reed.  But before they had even left the city, Patrolman Lemmon attempted to pull him over for speeding.  Rather than stop, Reed went even faster.  In court Lemmon told the judge he had chased the automobile for eight blocks and charged Reed "with driving his car at twenty miles an hour."

Lucy Denny spoke up, correcting the officer.  "We were going at a rate of twenty-five miles an hour," she said.  "I was watching the speedometer in the car all the time, and I'm sure of it."  

The chauffeur made "anxious signals," according to the New-York Tribune, who said he "did not seem at all pleased with her frankness."  Mrs. Denny turned to her chauffeur and said, "We may as well admit it, Hiram.  Let's pay your fine and get out of here."

After settling the matter with the judge, the very honest Lucy W. Denny "resumed her way to Philadelphia," said the article.

The Brickbuilder, December 1902 (copyright expired)

The Dennys were still living in The Essex five years later when Lucy experienced a more frightful incident with an automobile.  She was summering in Lenox, Massachusetts and on August 7, 1913, she, Adeline and a friend, were "motoring" on the Lenox Road, two miles north of Stockbridge.  The New York Times reported, "their car hit a heavy lumber truck on a narrow piece of highway.  The fore left wheel of Mrs. Denny's car was wrecked and a part of the side of the automobile ripped off."  None of the women were injured, "but they were badly frightened."  A Lenox hotel sent an automobile to pick them up.

Also living in The Essex was the family of Coleman Benedict, a stockbroker.  The Benedicts came from an old New York family, the earliest ancestor, Thomas Benedict, having come from England to New Netherland in 1662.  

On June 7, 1908 The Sun reported that son Lemuel Coleman Benedict had been married to Carrie Bridewell, "a well known contralto on the operatic stage [who] sang for three seasons at the Metropolitan Opera House."  Like his father, Lemuel was a stockbroker, a member of the firm Benedict, Drysdale & Company.   The Sun noted that the bride "will retire from the stage."

Lemuel Coleman Benedict.  from History of the City of New York, 1609-1909 (copyright expired)

Lemuel Coleman Benedict had apparently waited for the right women.  This was the 41-year-old's first marriage.  His bride was 21 years old.   The couple moved to a home at 216 West 72nd Street.

The Kinney family sold The Essex in November 1916 to G. Maurice Heckscher.  The building had been managed by Francis G. Cart since 1903, but Heckscher had other plans.  He leased The Essex to M. L. Mayo, "who for the past twenty years has conducted the famous Maidstone Inn at Each Hampton, Long Island," said The Skyscraper Times in its November 1917 issue.  The article noted, "Keen rivalry and competition were experienced during the negotiations for the proprietorship of this, one of New York's best known apartment hotels.  Many prominent New York families now have their home at The Essex."

Among those prominent residents living here at the time was Julia Frances Purdy Stout.   Julia's husband, Joseph Suydam Stout, who died in 1904, was "descended from several of the pioneer families of Manhattan Island," according to the 1898 Prominent Families of New York.  She apparently moved into The Essex shortly after her husband's death.

Julia had four grown sons, Joseph, Jr., Andrew Varick, Dr. Arthur Purdy, and Newton Ewell.  Shortly after Joseph's death on November 5, 1921, Julia fell ill and never recovered.  On August 16, 1922 she died in her apartment at the age of 77.  In reporting her death, the New York Herald mentioned that she was "a member of a family for generations in the business, political and social forefront of New York."

The Laurence Lewis family typified the affluence of the residents of The Essex.  Laurence's wife, Louise Francis, had inherited Kirkside, the Henry M. Flagler mansion in St. Augustine.  (Louise's aunt, Mary Lily Kenan, had married Flagler in 1901.)

The couple had two children, Mary Lily Flagler and Laurence Lewis, Jr.  The Lewis lifestyle was reflected in an article in the New-York Tribune on May 29, 1922:

Mr. and Mrs. Laurence Lewis and their children, Laurence, jr. and Mary Lily Flagler Lewis, have come from their home, Kirkside, in St. Augustine, Fla., and are at their apartment, 572 Madison Avenue, for a short stay.  They will leave for St. Paul next week, and following their return to New York the latter part of June they will go to White Sulphur Springs, Va.  In the fall they expect to go to Europe for a few weeks.

The building had been converted to shops and offices when this tax photograph was taken.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The Midtown neighborhood became increasingly commercial by the first years of World War II.  The last of the residents were moved out and in 1941 The Essex was converted to offices.  It survived until 1979 when much of the block was demolished, including two C. P. H. Gilbert-design structures, to make way for the 590 Madison Avenue, the IBM Building, designed by Edward Larrabee Barns and Associates.

photo by Americasroof.

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

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