Born on the day after Christmas in 1805 in Harwinton, Connecticut, John Jay Abernethy was one of two sons of Dr. Roswell and Anna Abernethy. While he followed his father's professional footsteps, his brother Charles became a merchant and banker.
Dr. John J. Abernethy would experience an exciting and marked career. Having been initially educated by home tutors, he graduated from Yale College at the age of 20 in 1825. He received his medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in February 1837 and entered the navy as an assistant surgeon.
The New York Times would later say, "His first perilous service was seen during the Florida war [i.e., the Seminole Wars], and during the war with Mexico he was with the squadron that co-operated with Gen. Scott in his memorable campaign from Vera Cruz to the City of Mexico." During the Civil War Abernethy was promoted to Medical Director. The New York Times would recall that he "was with the blockading squadron off the Carolina coast, and he had gathered a host of thrilling narratives of running the blockade."
Never married, upon his retirement in 1871 Dr. Abernethy moved into a newly-built house at 39 West 56th Street with his brother Charles and sister-in-law, the former Sarah McLean. It was a 25-foot-wide, four-story brownstone. Charles was by now a prominent dry goods merchant and a director of the Metropolitan Bank.
Sadly, the brothers' residency in their fine new brownstone would be short. Charles died in March 1878. Rather surprisingly, his funeral was not held in the family's drawing room, but at the Broadway Tabernacle on Sixth Avenue.
The following year, on October 28, 1879, John Jay Abernethy died. The Obituary Record of Graduates of Yale College explained, "His only brother's death, early in 1878, gave a shock to his own health, from which he never recovered." The New York Times said, "Dr. Abernethy was unmarried, and leaves an ample fortune." His funeral was held in the house on October 30.
Within an 18-month period Sarah McLean Abernethy had inherited the estates of both her husband and brother-in-law, making her a very wealthy woman. John J. Abernethy had left one provision in his will. It directed that after Sarah's death, a $10,000 endowment to Yale be established to establish a fellowship.
Sarah remained alone with her domestic staff in the 56th Street house, her name appearing in newspapers only for her charitable work. Since 1858, for example, she had sat on the board of directors of the Woman's Hospital, a position she would hold until her death.
That death came in 1905. Sarah left an estate estimated, according to The New York Times, "to be more than $3,000,000." (That figure would translate to about $93.2 million in 2023.) With no surviving children, after some charitable bequests, she left the bulk of her fortune to her nephew, George P. Mclean. (He, incidentally, would become a United States Senator and the Governor of Connecticut.)
On June 5, 1906 McLean sold the house at auction. The Real Estate Record & Builder's Guide reported that it was purchased by publisher Ormond G. Smith, adding, "Mr. Smith will tear down the present building and put up a 5-story American basement house for his own occupancy."
The journal had gotten the facts slightly wrong. The property had been purchased by Smith's brother and business partner, George Campbell Smith. And, in fact, the publisher hired architect Frank A. Moore not to replace the outdated brownstone, but to drastically remodel it. His plans, filed in May 1907, called for a new front and rear facade, new plumbing, and all new interior walls--in short, nothing but the structural walls were to remain. The renovations would cost the Smiths the equivalent of just over $1 million today.
The transformation resulted in a slice of Paris in Midtown. The basement and first floors were clad in rusticated limestone. A short stoop led to the entrance, crowned with a broken pediment. The large parlor window sat within a beveled arch behind a lacy French-inspired railing. A full-width stone balcony with iron railings fronted the fully-arched windows of the second floor. Moore faced the two-story midsection in tan Roman brick and decorated the openings with frothy keystones. The top story took the form of a slate-shingled mansard punctured by rounded dormers behind a stone balustrade.
photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1883, Smith had joined Stead & Smith, the publishing firm co-founded by his father, Francis. He and his wife Annie had three children, George Jr., Anne and Dorothy Frances.
The family moved into their opulent new home in time for Dorothy's debut into society. On December 12, 1909 The New York Times announced, "Mrs. George Campbell Smith will bring out her daughter, Miss Dorothy Frances Smith, at a reception at her home, 39 West Fifty-sixth Street."
Once introduced, young women in high society were expected to marry. And it would not take Dorothy long to do so. On May 26, 1912, The New York Times reported, "The announcement of the engagement of Miss Dorothy Francis [sic] Smith, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George Campbell Smith, to Artemas Holmes, is one of great interest in New York society, as it unites two of the oldest families here." The article noted that Dorothy "is very popular in the younger set."
The following month the New-York Tribune reported that Mrs. Lloyd S. Bryce had leased "her house at Roslyn, Long Island, overlooking Hempstead Harbor, to George C. Smith." It would prove to be a striking setting for the wedding. The ceremony took place at the Roslyn estate on August 28, 1912. Anne served as the flower girl. The New York Times reported, "A special train for the guests from the city will leave the Pennsylvania Station."
The wealth of the Smiths was evidenced in George's collection of motorcars. In 1914 he owned a Fist, a Lancia, and a Winton automobile.
Friends and relatives of the family were no doubt shocked and dismayed when the read in The New York Times on May 31, 1916, the George C. Smith "died early yesterday morning at his home, 39 West Fifty-sixth Street, in his sixty-second year." The 52-year-old George Campbell Smith was, in fact, quite alive. The newspaper had confused him with George Carson Smith, a director in the Westinghouse Company and former railroad official.
Later that year, in November, the Smith family moved to Park Avenue and leased 39 West 56th Street to Dr. Hermann Michael Biggs and his wife, the former Frances M. Richardson. The couple had two children, Katharine Elsie and William Richardson.
Biggs was internationally renowned. A pioneer in public health, he initially focused on the scourge of tuberculosis and was among the first to apply the concept of bacteriology to the prevention and control of infectious diseases. In 1914 he was appointed the State Commissioner of Health and in 1920 was made medical director of the general League of Red Cross Societies in Geneva, Switzerland. For his services in preventative medicine, he was knighted by the King of Spain.
In 1922 Katharine briefly stole the spotlight from her celebrated father. On October 10, the New York Herald titled an article "Miss Biggs's Wedding Day" and reported that the recent debutante would be married to Roessle McKinney in the Brick Presbyterian Church on December 9. The article noted, "Miss Biggs, who returned recently from Europe, is a graduate of Miss Spences's School and is a member of the Junior League." It neglected to mention she had graduated from Vassar in 1920.
In the May 1923 Dr. Biggs returned from the Conference of Social Work in Washington. In his 1929 The Life of Hermann M. Biggs, C. E. A. Winslow said that Biggs "was completely exhausted and he and Mrs. Biggs sought their haven or rest at Little Moose Lake." On the afternoon of June 2, Biggs rowed his boat on the lake, but that evening his temperature rose to 102.5 degrees. The "next day [he] was taken back to New York, just a week before he had planned to sail for Europe for a real recuperation."
He and Annie would not make that trip. He died in the West 56th Street house on June 28, 1923. The funeral was held in the Brick Presbyterian Church two days later.
In 1926 the first floor was converted to a tearoom for the Cabin Tea Rooms, Inc., which would lease the space well into the 1930s. A renovation completed in 1932 resulted in the upscale apartments on the upper floors. The stoop was removed and the entrance lowered, the upper portion of the original doorway now becoming a window. The architect deftly preserved the pediment, reinstalling it above the new entrance. A decorative window to the restaurant was installed at street level, and the sloped mansard became a flat, vertical wall.
In 1941 the mansions along the block had all been converted for business. The changes in the Smith residence are clearly visible. via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
George C. Smith Jr. sold the building in 1935. A subsequent remodeling that year produced offices on the second floor and two apartments each on the third through fifth.
The space that had been home to the Cabin Tea Room for so many years was taken over by Romeo Salta in 1953. His restaurant, named after himself, was one of the first in Manhattan to serve upscale Northern Italian dishes. McCall's magazine described it in 1955 as "A stunning restaurant specializing in classic North Italy cuisine. Expensive." Pasta dishes were prepared at the diners' tables.
Salta had arrived in America in 1929 penniless, an illegal immigrant who jumped ship in New York. While on board he had met the operator of the Central Park Casino, from whom he got a job as a waiter. He eventually worked in high-end restaurants in the Pierre, the Waldorf Astoria and the St. Moritz hotels. His Romeo Saltza restaurant, a haunt of theatrical and music personalities, closed in 1994.
By then the upper floors had been converted to retail stores and showrooms. On October 26, 2005, The New York Times reported, "at 39 West 56th Street, three floors of an elegant brownstone have been gutted, and construction has begun on the Townhouse Spa. One floor will be for women, one for men, and a third will be for mingling."
At some point the square window above the entrance was skillfully remade into a circular version. Despite its several incarnations, much of the exterior fabric of the Smith mansion survives.
photographs by the author
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