A delicate and delightful iron fence surrounded by property. (original source unknown)
Born in Taunton, England in 1841, William Fowler Foster arrive in America in 1856, first settling in Chicago. Foster began a silk business in the burgeoning frontier city, amassing a fortune. Then, like so many businessmen, he saw everything he had worked for wiped out when downtown Chicago burned for two days on October 8 through 10, 1871.
The resolute Foster started over, turning his attention from selling silk to the manufacturing of gloves. Around the time he married Bertha M. Fox, he invented what The Sun would describe as "a fastening for gloves which was instrumental in building up his fortune." He and Bertha relocated to New York City where he established a glove factory, Foster, Paul & Co., in Harlem. The Sun said he "extended it until he had become one of the largest manufacturers of gloves in America."
Within three years, Foster, Paul & Co. had relocated his offices to 84 Reade Street and established a large factory on East 14th Street. Before the turn of the century the firm would own a substantial building at 365-367 Broadway where it employed 150 women.
William and Bertha M. Foster lived at 533 East 120th Street in 1887. That year they laid plans for an opulent home to the west, along the developing Riverside Drive with its magnificent views and refreshing breezes. The northern part of the Drive was just beginning to see the rise of magnificent mansions, like the Samuel Gamble Bayne house at 108th Street, completed that year. The Fosters purchased the southern half of the block between 102nd and 103rd Streets and commissioned architect Halstead Parker Fowler to design their home. His plans, filed in January 1888, estimated construct costs at $70,000, or just over $2 million by 2023 conversions.
Whether it was Foster or his architect who decided to use cast iron in the construction is unclear, but it was a bold step and almost unheard of in domestic construction. Using a cast iron facade accelerated the building process and the mansion was completed within a few months. Fowler's three-story, Renaissance Revival design was intended to catch the breezes from the river, with faceted bays on the front and side elevations. The panels were cast to resemble undressed stone and a broad, complex Renaissance Revival frieze ran below the balustraded cornice. A deep, columned porch provided support for a second story solarium. The unusual residence quickly earned the nickname "the Iron House."
The Fosters had only just moved in when, in July, they brought Fowler back to enlarge the house with a "one-story brick and iron extension." The "glass and iron roof" mentioned in the plans suggests a conservatory. The addition cost Foster the equivalent of $59,000 today. Two months later Fowler would design a two-story brick stable to the rear of the property.
Foster's greatest pride was his massive library in his new mansion. The Sun mentioned, "many of his friends were surprised when he showed them a catalogue of over 1,400 volumes, which he had carefully selected while deeply immersed in business affairs." The Fosters additionally owned a valuable collection of oil paintings.
In 1893 Bertha's unmarried sisters, Carrie and Emma Gertrude Fox, were visiting from Chicago. On the afternoon of December 17 William took them for a carriage ride along Riverside Drive. "Their carriage was driven by Mr. Foster's coachman, and was drawn by a pair of big black horses, that were both gentle and valuable," said The Sun. At around 5:00, as they were returning home, disaster struck.
"As they were nearing Seventy-third street," reported The Sun, "the coachman saw two buggies come racing down the avenue, each drawn by a fast horse. Neither driver would let the other pass." Foster's coachman pulled the carriage as far to the curb as possible and stopped. Nevertheless, one of the racing buggies crashed into the carriage "with tremendous force." The coachman was tossed into the gutter. Foster jumped out and called to the women to do the same, but they were too shocked and unnerved to move.
William Foster pulled Carrie from the carriage. As he had her about half way out, the horses became frightened and started off. "Mr. Foster held tight to the young woman, but he could not prevent her falling, and she was struck by the wheel of the coach and whirled about." A terrified Emma Fox was still in the carriage as the two panicked horses galloped away, with the coachman and Foster running behind.
At one point, the carriage struck a metal fence upheld by iron posts. The article said, "Then followed a display of fireworks that is likened to the blaze and sparkle the trolley leaves in its train. The steel axles of the heavy carriage struck the wire posts one after another and raised a stream of sparks." Emma's screams of terror only added to the fright of the horses. The runaway carriage destroyed the fence for three blocks. Each time it struck a fencepost, another explosion of sparks occurred. At 76th Street one of the horses became tangled up in the wire of the fencing. "The other dragged its mate along for ten or fifteen feet," said The Sun, "and then was seized by three men who had been walking down the footpath."
Emma was removed from the carriage, unhurt but shaken. The racing drivers had disappeared, their buggies left in pieces on the Drive. Foster's carriage, which he said had cost the equivalent of $37,300 in 2023 money, "was a wreck." Perhaps worse, one of the horses had a deep, 18-inch cut on hits flank. According to Foster, it "was one of quite a famous pair which were owned by the son of Gen. John A. Logan." It was unclear at the time if the horse could be saved. Luckily, while Foster had bruised his knee and Carrie Fox was "somewhat bruised and shaken," none of the party was seriously injured.
The following year the Fosters seriously considered another move. On October 6, 1894, the Record & Guide reported that William had purchased the country estate of Laura B. Field at Hastings-0n-Hudson for $45,000. The eight-acre property included a "stone mansion and outbuildings." He simultaneously paid $40,000 for an adjoining 11 acres and "is said to contemplate the erection of a costly residence."
The Sun explained that his intention was "to build there a Roman villa." But his vision of what The New York Times described as "an extensive country place, to be known as Sabine Farm," would not come to pass. Just as the plans were finalized, in March 1895 Foster was diagnosed with cancer. The Sun reported later, "recognizing the fatal nature of his disease, he had to forego the realization of his idea."
Foster's death came quickly. He died on December 3, 1895 at the age of 54. His will was extremely generous to his employees. In reporting on its terms on January 16, 1896, The New York Times said, "It is with his former employes [sic] that the deceased millionaire's will is liberal beyond parellel [sic]." To 11 of his business employees he gave annuities of $500, and to 13 others annuities of $300. To 27 others and to five of his domestic staff, he gave annuities of $100 each. For an employer to provide an annual income to his employees after his death was nearly unheard of. (There was a total of 150 annuities in his will.)
Bertha remained in the iron-clad house. It was the scene of Emma Gertrude Fox's marriage to Roberto Friedrich Bahmann of Cincinnati on October 29, 1905. Carrie, now married, was the matron of honor and Bertha gave the bride away. The New-York Tribune reported that the ceremony "took place in a bower of palms and under a lovely bell of white chrysanthemums. The house was beautifully decorated with smilax, Southern laurel and white chrysanthemums."
On March 9, 1917, New York Herald noted that Bertha's home, "known as 'the iron house,' is one of the show places of the Drive. There are about fifteen servants living in the house." Several weeks before that article, a burglar had entered the residence and had partially cut a valuable painting from its frame before being discovered and running off. Immediately after the incident, Bertha installed burglar alarms. They soon proved to be a valuable investment.
At around 7:30 on March 8, while Bertha was at dinner, a maid on the third floor, Annie Girlke, saw a man who had shimmied up a drain pipe entering a window. The New York Herald reported that the burglar alarms "were set in operation by the maid the moment she saw the burglar climb in the window." Hearing the gongs, coachman Carl Peterson and his two sons rushed into the house and up the stairs, where they came face-to-face with the intruder. The thief drew a revolver and threatened to shoot if anyone made a sound.
The New York Herald wrote, "Nevertheless Peterson called for help, and Mrs. Foster and [the] servants promptly locked themselves in rooms." The burglar climbed out the library window on the second floor, dropped to the ground and fled. The ringing of the burglar alarms drew scores of people from homes and apartment houses. By the time police arrived, the burglar was long gone. "So terror stricken were those within, however, that it was almost fifteen minutes bef0re they recovered sufficiently to admit the policemen." The newspaper noted, "Although Mrs. Foster kept much valuable silver and jewelry in the house, the police believe that the thief was after some of the paintings in the library."
On March 2, 1922 the New York Herald reported that developers Harris, Albert and Samuel Sokolski had purchased the Riverside Drive property, "on which is the large residence of Mrs. Bertha M. Foster." The article noted, "The buyers will erect on the corner...a fourteen story apartment house and a nine-story apartment adjoining the street."
Calling the Foster mansion "one of the residential landmarks of Riverside Drive," The New York Times said the property was "the largest site in that section overlooking the Hudson under single ownership." The mansion and outbuildings were demolished later that year and replaced with the 300 Riverside Drive apartment building.
Bertha died two years later at the age of 66 and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the memorial she had erected for her husband 27 years earlier.
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