Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The Alexander Brown Mott House - 51 West 16th Street

The doorway, originally where the French windows are today, had a hefty Italianate pediment.

As mansions crept northward along Fifth Avenue from Washington Square in the 1840's, high-end homes erected on the side streets carried on the exclusive tenor of the neighborhood.  Reflective of the wealthy families living on the block of 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues at the time was that of Colonel Herman Thorn, referred to by contemporary writers as a "grandee" and an "American prince."

An advertisement for the new house at 23 West 16th Street (renumbered 51 in 1868) in March 1847 read:

To Let--The elegant modern 4 story house, No. 23 West 16th street, a few doors below the house of Col. Thorn, has baths, water closets, &c.  Rent $850.

The mention of baths and water closets, with indoor plumbing, exemplified the cutting-edge modernity of the house.  What was known as Croton Water had been available only five years.  The rent was affordable by today's terms, equaling $2,500 per month by 2022 terms.

The residence was one of a recently completed row of brownstone clad, Italianate style homes.  Twenty-feet-wide, its dramatic arched pediment above the entrance, supported on scrolled, foliate brackets, and the elliptically arched windows  were typical of the style.  Almost assuredly, a cast iron balcony originally fronted the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows.

The original appearance of the entrance is suggested by the weathered example next door.

Following his marriage to Arabella Upson Phelps in 1851, Dr. Alexander Brown Mott purchased 23 West 16th Street.  He was the son of world-renowned surgeon Valentine Mott.  In 1850 Alexander had been appointed surgeon to the New York Dispensary.  

In September 1851 the newlyweds were away.  In their absence five "notorious burglars," as described by The Evening Post, broke into the 16th Street house.  The newspaper said they "stole therefrom jewelry, plate, and clothing valued at about $600."  It was a significant haul, worth nearly $22,000 in 2022 money.  The crooks were apprehended on October 10, and some of Mott's possessions were recovered and returned.

A year later, on November 17, 1852, the couple had a son, Valentine.  (Like his father and grandfather, he would go on to become a well-known physician.)  Living with them by then was Arabella's mother, Dorothy Ellsworth Phelps.  The family's summer home was on Long Island, near Sayville.

Dorothy Phelps died in 1859.  On April 18, 1861, following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Dr. Mott was given two hours notice to leave for Washington D.C. to organize a medical corps.  It appears that Arabella and Valentine followed him.

Their home became a boarding house, operated by the elderly Catharine Potter.  Catharine was the widow of John W. Potter.  Running a boarding house was a common means for widowed women to make a respectable living.  Her boarders in 1862 included George M. Vannort and his wife and son.  Vannort was a banker with Sachs & Co., and George M. Vannort was a clerk.  The other boarders that year were printer Jesse C. Haney; William C. Claggett, who was a shoe merchant; and dressmaker Elizabeth Davis.  

Catharine's boarders were not transitory.  (The Vannorts and Jesse Haney, for instance, were still listed here in 1868.)  That most likely prompted the wording of an advertisement in November 1862:

Pleasant, well furnished Rooms, unexpectedly vacated, to rent, with Board, to families or gentlemen, upon reasonable terms.

A somewhat colorful resident, Dr. Maurice Vergnes, rented rooms for one year, in 1872 to 1873.  It would appear he used a portion of the basement level for his practice.  An advertisement in the New York Herald read, "Vergnes' (the Discoverer) Electro-Chemical Baths.  Best remedy for Rheumatism, Chronic and Nervous Disorders.  51 West Sixteenth street."

On October 10, 1877 Elizabeth B. Phelps purchased 51 West 16th Street.  If she were related to Annabelle Phelps, it was a distant relationship.  A wealthy philanthropist, she would be best remembered as an ardent suffragist.  The purchase was an investment, and she continued to lease 51 West 16th Street to a boarding house proprietor.  Phelps sold it in April 1883 to Jeremiah A. Cranitch, who resold it to English-born artist Edward Moran and his wife, Alberta Hoover, in 1886.  It was once again a private home.

Considered to be one of America's most important marine painters at the time, he was at work on what would be his most important work, a series of 13 paintings called the Marine History of the United States--ranging from Leif Ericsson through Admiral Dewey.  They would be displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

He was also working on another piece when he and Alberta moved into the 16th Street house--Unveiling The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World.  The dramatic and patriotic oil painting was completed in 1886.

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The house was again the target of summertime thieves.  On July 4, 1887, Moran's home was "robbed of money, diamonds, &c."  The burglary prompted Moran to complain to Mayor Abram Hewitt about unoccupied trucks parked on public streets.  It was Moran's theory (a well-founded one) that they were being used in the commission of burglaries.  His pressure resulted, according to The New York Times on August 10, 1887, in a warning to truckmen "that it is not lawful to obstruct the public streets with unoccupied vehicles."

The Morans sold 51 West 16th Street in October 1889 for $25,750 (around $782,000 today).  Its new owner, Patrick Skelly, was a well-to-do real estate operator who bought and sold properties throughout the city.  Following his death in 1911, the Skelly estate leased the house for several years.

Miss Sidney Colestock had operated an inn, The Dunscombe, at 47 Fifth Avenue--the former Irad Halsey mansion.  When that building was sold to the Salmagundi Club in 1917, Colestock established the Old Chelsea at 51 West 16th Street.  

The Quill, July 16, 1917 (copyright expired)

An advertisement on September 2, 1917 offered, "rooms, suites, floors, furnished or unfurnished" and boasted, "Intelligent Service for busy men and women."  Colestock described the "table d'hote dining room" as being "known for fine home cooking."

The dining room was frequently the scene of gatherings.  On January 27, 1918, for instance, it was where a dinner for the League for Business Opportunities for Women was held.

A more impassioned meeting was held in the dining room on September 20, 1921.  The executive committee of the American Civic Liberties Union met after police drove elderly women, members of the Grandmothers' Club and the Sunset Club, from Bryant Park.  They had been passing out cakes, doughnuts and buns to the homeless there.  The meeting resulted in the committee asserting that police were "guilty of oppression, disorderly conduct and assault and battery."

Having graduated from the University of Chicago in 1922, Ellen Coyne moved to New York City and into the Old Chelsea.  Considered a beauty, she had already appeared in two motion pictures.  In New York she worked as a model, posing for artists like sculptor Joseph Nicolosi and painter May Mott Smith.  She formed a romance with the married poet and dramatist Edgar Lee Masters, and the two became lovers in January 1924.  The writer was exactly thirty years Ellen's senior.

Also living in the Old Chelsea at the time were poet and essayist Allen Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon; and novelist Ford Madox Ford and his lover, Stella Bowen.  According to a Ford biographer, Gene M. Moore, he described the space he shared with Bowen as "a beautifully bright room in a very old sort of Bloomsbury street" where "the sun is pouring in on me as I write."

Ford Madox Ford, (original source unknown)

In November 1979, Ellen recalled to New York Magazine, "My first two and a half years in New York, more than half a century ago, were spent at one of the most wonderful places in town--the Old Chelsea.  Although some of the guests were well-known writers and artists, no one ever presumed--everyone seemed to exist in a happy autonomous state.  When Ford Madox Ford climbed the stairs to visit a friend, no one asked where he was going or waited for his autograph."

She noted that residents were afforded their privacy.  She described seeing "a large man, wrapped in white robes and carrying a shepherd's crook" coming up the stairs one day, on his way to visit a brother and sister on the floor above.  "Only Miss Colestock knew who they were.  And we did not know much about the beautiful blond divorcee who was visited each day by a handsome gentleman, the heir to a throne that no longer existed."

Not surprisingly, in 1924 Edgar Lee Masters came "for a complete tour" of the Old Chelsea.  Coyle said, "Of course, he fell in love with the place, and later in the year he rented an apartment that was to be his home for most of the next two years."  Following his divorce, he and Ellen Coyne were married on November 6, 1926.  

Sidney Colestock converted the Old Chelsea to 15 "non-housekeeping apartments" in 1927.  The term meant that there were no kitchens.

A subsequent renovation completed in 1968 resulted in a duplex apartment in the basement and former parlor level, one apartment on the second floor, and a duplex on the third and fourth.  The exterior was greatly remodeled with the stoop being removed, the brownstone veneer stripped off, and the former entrance converted to a French window.

many thanks to Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post
photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

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