Monday, August 1, 2022

The Lost Eugene Kelly House - 33 West 51st Street


from the collection of the New York Public Library

Eugene Kelly was born in Trillick, County Tyrone, Ireland, in 1806.  According to The Evening World decades later, "His parents were industrious farmers, but on account of hard times Eugene Kelly came to this country at the age of twenty, landing in New York with only $3 in his pocket."  The young man took a job in the drygoods store of Donnelly Brothers, and later married the proprietor's sister, Sarah Donnelly.  They would have one daughter, Eugenia.

Sarah died in 1848 and two years later, seeing the opportunities of the California Gold Rush, Kelly went West, where he founded a drygoods firm and a banking house.  Just seven years later he was back in New York City with a fortune.  In 1857 he married Margaret Hughes, the niece of Archbishop John Hughes.  The couple would have four sons, Eugene Jr., Edward, Thomas Hughes, and Robert J. Kelly.

By 1864 the head of the banking house of Eugene Kelly & Co. and his family were living in a double-wide, brownstone-fronted house on West 51st Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.   Theirs would be one of the first upscale structures in the sparsely-developed neighborhood, but by the next decade massive mansions like William Henry Vanderbilt's Triple Palace, steps away at the corner of Fifth Avenue, would begin rising.

The Kelly residence was 42-feet wide and three stories high.  Its dignified Italianate design featured a portico supported by Scamozzi columns that provided a balcony to the second floor.  The openings at that level were crowned with classic triangular pediments.

While the Gold Rush had made Kelly a fortune, the Civil War helped augment it.  During Reconstruction he was highly involved in the rehabilitation of the Southern railroads and founded the Southern Bank of Georgia.  In New York he became a director in three banks, and the Equitable Life Assurance Company.  

The Kellys summered at Dunning Place near Scarsdale, New York.  The Real Estate Record & Guide described it as "consisting of about seventeen acres with elegant house and out-buildings."

The Evening World, December 7, 1894 (copyright expired)

By the mid-1880's, Kelly "held an important position in the society life of the metropolis," according to Prominent Families of New York.  It said of him:

A generous supporter of charity and education, he was one of the original life members of the National Academy of Design, for thirteen years a member of the Board of Education, a patron of the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce....In the Roman Catholic Church, of which he was a member, he was  a prominent layman, being one of the founders of the Catholic University of America.

Eugene Kelly's staunch Roman Catholicism caused a schism within the family in 1882.  Edward fell in love with Helen Mitchell Pearsall, "a tall, well-rounded brunette of the statuesque order of loveliness," as described by The Evening World.  But she was a Protestant.  Eugene refused to allow his son to marry her, but the love-struck 19-year-old, who had been made a member of his father's firm a year earlier, forged ahead.

No one, including Edward's closest friends, knew of the marriage.  The couple moved into "elegant apartments on the third floor of the Murray Hill Hotel," according to The Evening World a decade later, "where they are served by two attentive maids, and are living in a style befitting their station in society, their wealth and their refinement."  The couple would have two children, and the eldest would be 10 years old before anyone learned of Edward's marriage.  On November 10, 1893 The Evening World said the discovery "has set the younger set in society to talking."

Although Edward insisted "There is no reason for secrecy.  I dislike newspaper notoriety," the truth was that the rift with his father had kept the marriage private.  But by now, the two had mended their relationship.  Edward told the reporter, "My wife and I differed in religion.  I am a Catholic, you know.  My father refused to be reconciled until about three years ago.  You will see why there has been no publication."

At the time of his reconciliation with Edward, Eugene was having a falling out with Robert.  It is unclear what caused the estrangement, but time would run out before they could repair the rift.

On December 7, 1894, The Evening World reported, "Eugene Kelly, head of the well-known banking house of Eugene Kelly & in a precarious condition, at his home, 33 West Fifty-first street.  He was stricken with paralysis on Tuesday last."  The diagnosis was what would be called a stroke today.  The article continued, "Owing to his extreme age, his physician and friends fear he may not live until night."

He lingered for nearly two weeks, dying on the morning of December 19, 1894.  Margaret and the five children were at his bedside.  The Evening World noted, "He weas unconscious to the last."

Kelly's estate was estimated at between $10 and $15 million--around $465 million on the higher end in today's money.  Margaret received the townhouse and furnishings, and $200,000 (around $6.3 million today).  The Evening World reported, "The name of Robert J. Kelly, one of Eugene Kelly's sons, is not mentioned among the beneficiaries in the will."

Rather shockingly, on February 9, 1896, less than two months after her husband's death, The Press reported, "Mrs. Eugene Kelly will open her house, No. 33 West Fifty-first street, on February 10 and 11, for a tea and bazaar for the Association for Befriending Children and Young Girls."  It was among the last gatherings in the Kelly home.  On June 6 the Record & Guide reported that Margaret had sold the house to Julia M. Cary for $123, 730--just under $4 million today.

Julia was the wife of Melbert Brinkerhoff Cary, an owner of mines in Mexico.  Putting title to real estate in the wife's name was common among wealthy couples.   The Carys had two daughters, Madeleine and Isabel, and maintained a country home in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Before moving into the vintage home, the Carys hired society architect John H. Duncan to update it.  His plans included the interior remodeling of the "basement, 1st, 2d and 3d stories."  But most significantly, he added modern bathrooms.  It was a ponderous project, given the weight of cast iron bathtubs, and the installation of plumbing.  The project required the addition of a 9-inch and a 12-inch steel beam.

The renovated house was the scene of Madeleine's "coming-out reception," as described by The New York Times on December 2, 1900.   Two years later, on April 6, the New-York Tribune reported that Julia would host a "large theatre party at the night for her daughter, Madeleine, whose engagement to Ronald E. Curtis has just been announced."  The article said, "After the performance she will entertain her guests, some seventy in number, at supper at her house, No. 33 West Fifty-first st."

Isabel's turn in the social spotlight came in 1904.  On December 4 The Sun reported, "Mrs. Melbert C. [sic] Cary will present her daughter, Miss Isabel Cary, at a reception she gives on Dec. 10 from 4 to 7 o'clock."

At the time of Isabel's coming out, automobiles (at least for the well-to-do) were replacing horse-drawn vehicles as the favored mode of transportation.  The trend put footmen and coachmen out of work through no fault of their own.  On November 20, 1906 Melbert Cary placed an advertisement in the New-York Tribune that read:

COACHMAN--Gentleman giving up horses wishes to secure position for his coachman, who has been in his employ a number of years and whom he can highly recommend.  Call or address 33 West 51st st.

In September 1908 the Carys had a prominent house guest, the Democratic party's nominee for President, William Jennings Bryan.   On September 14, the New-York Tribune reported, "Mr. Bryan will be the guest while here of Melbert B. Cary at his home, No. 33 West 51st street." On September 18, the evening prior to Bryan's leaving New York, the Carys hosted a large dinner party in his honor.  Among the guests were Florida Governor William Sherman Jennings, Senator Charles Allen Culberson, and Tammany leader Charles F. Murphy.

The wealthy residents of Midtown Manhattan were being pushed northward by the incursion of commerce in the first decades of the 20th century.  In 1912 the Carys sold their mansion, and on November 21 Engineering News reported that architect J. Reilly Gordon was preparing plans for a 12-story apartment house on the site for the 33 West 51st St. Co.  It was completed in 1913.

1913 Supplement to the World's New York Apartment House Album (copyright expired)

Today the 43-story 1290 Avenue of the Americas, completed in 1963 occupies much of the block.

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1 comment:

  1. Your blog is incredible. Unfortunately so much history has been lost and erased. We could of walked among our past/history, streets with history but now we walk among generic glass boxes.