Monday, May 22, 2023

The Lost Charles Nicoll Talbot House - 62 Fifth Avenue


from the collection of the New York City Public Design Commission's Frank Cousins Collection (cropped)

When Henry Brevoort Jr. began construction on his brownstone mansion at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street, there were no other houses on the still-unpaved Fifth Avenue.  That would quickly change.  By the 1840s other handsome Greek Revival mansions were rising in the neighborhood, like the grand homes of Robert Bowne Minturn and Charles Nicoll Talbot at 60 and 62 Fifth Avenue, respectively.  The Minturn family moved into their house at the northwest corner of West 12th Street in 1847, and the Talbots followed suit the following year.

The Talbots had been living in a fine home at 61 Bleecker Street in the fashionable Bond Street neighborhood.  The Fifth Avenue residence would equal or surpass it in comfort and elegance.  Three-and-a-half-stories tall, its red brick facade was trimmed in stone.  A low stoop rose to the especially handsome Greek Revival entrance of layered Doric pilasters that upheld a prominent cornice.  The windows were fully framed and sat upon diminutive brackets.  The small windows of the squat attic floor were disguised within the cornice frieze between fluted modillions.  Around the corner, on West 12th Street, was the family's carriage house.

Although completed only about a year apart, the two mansions had significant architectural differences.  from the collection of the New York City Public Design Commission's Frank Cousins Collection

Charles Nicoll Talbot had a sterling social pedigree.  He was born on October 4, 1802 to George Washington Talbot and his wife Maria DePeyster Bancker.  Charles's grandfather, Commodore Silas Talbot, supervised the building of the  frigate U.S.S. Constitution, and was for years its commander.

Talbot took a position in the importing house of Thomas H. Smith & Co., and at the age of 18 traveled to China for the firm, setting up his residence there.  In 1828 he and W. C. Olyphant partnered to form the firms of Olyphant & Co. in Canton, China; and Talbot, Olyphant & Co. in New York. 

Talbot remained in China until 1833.  Shortly after his return to New York he married Charlotte Richmond of Providence, Rhode Island.  They established their summer estate, Pomham, on Narraganett Bay, just below Providence.  The couple would have 13 children, 10 of whom survived to adulthood.

Charles Nicoll Talbot, In Memoriam. C.N.T. 1874 (copyright expired)

In 1846, two years before moving into 62 Fifth Avenue, Talbot retired from Olyphant & Co.  He remained active, however, becoming senior director of the Howard Fire Insurance Company, and in 1874 was elected senior director of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company.

Each of the Talbot sons attended Columbia College.  In 1857 Augustus was a sophomore and his brother Richmond was a freshman. 

The Talbot residence was filled with costly antiques and artwork.  A carved oak "Hadley" chest from Colonial Massachusetts was among their collection, as well as the 1836 Thomas Cole landscape The Oxbow.  The painting was included in the National Academy of Design's annual exhibition in 1836.  Charles and Charlotte Talbot had attended the event and purchased the painting directly from the artist.

Thomas Cole's magnificent The Oxbow hung in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  (Close inspection reveals Cole's tiny self-portrait between the rocks in the foreground with his easel.)  from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Charles Nicoll Talbot died at the age of 72 on November 29, 1874 "with startling suddenness," according to the Annual Report of the Presbyterian Hospital.  He had suffered a heart attack in the Fifth Avenue home.  His funeral took place in the mansion on December 2.  A memorial booklet related, "The house was crowded with sympathizing friends and neighbors.  It was a most impressive assemblage, remarkable especially for the large number of aged and venerable men, eminent in all the walks of life, who were present."

A close friend of the Talbot family was Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, wife of Russell Sage.  It appears that Charles bequeathed the Thomas Cole painting to Margaret Sage, since she acquired it that year.  The Talbots may have first become acquainted with Mrs. Sage through Charlotte's and daughter Helen's many philanthropies.  

Charlotte lived on in the Fifth Avenue mansion with Helen and a son, Charles M. Talbot.  Helen was a trustee in The Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, and a manger of the Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children.  (Half-orphans were what today would be known as children of single parents.  The group had become extremely important during and after the Civil War, when so many fathers did not return home.)  

Charlotte Richmond Talbot died "suddenly," according to The New York Times, on February 24, 1901 at the age of 92.  She  left the Fifth Avenue to Helen, who was still unmarried.  Charles M. Talbot also still resided in the mansion.

A week before Charlotte's death, millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan had purchased the former Minturn mansion next door.  Nine months later, on November 1, he purchased 62 Fifth Avenue along with the Talbot carriage house from Helen for $275,000 (slightly more than 9 million in 2023 dollars).  The Real Estate Record & Guide noted that the property "surrounds No. 60 at the northwest corner of 5th av. and 12th st."

Ryan, no doubt, purchased the property to protect his own.  Commerce had been inching up the avenue for years and he could now determine who his next door neighbor would be and how the property was used.  He leased 62 Fifth Avenue to the wealthy widow Helen S. Kingsland.  

Helen's husband, millionaire railroad mogul George Lovett Kingsland, had died on July 14, 1892.  Living with her was her 15-year-old daughter, Ethel.  The winter season of 1905-06 was an important one for the Kingsland women, as it marked Ethel's introduction to society.  The New York Times reported  that she came out "formally at a large ball given by Mrs. Kingsland at Sherry's on January 4."

On January 14, 1906, The New York Times explained to readers, "Mrs. George Lovett Kingsland...was Miss Helen S[chermerhorn]. Wells, a sister of Benjamin Wells, and a niece of Mrs. Astor.  For some time she has occupied the old Minturn [sic] mansion, at 62 Fifth Avenue...Mrs. Kingsland is a gracious hostess, and her friends are numerous among both the old Knickerbocker and the newer so-called 'Smart Set.'"

On the very evening that the article appeared, Helen Kingsland's ability to be a "gracious hostess" was sorely tested.  The New York Press reported, "Great excitement spread among the guests at a large dinner party in the home of Mrs. George L. Kingsland, at No. 62 Fifth avenue, early last night when a fierce fire started in soot in a chimney."

The article said, "Carriages had brought about twenty men and women to the Kingsland house when a man on the opposite side of the avenue saw flames shoot high from a chimney."  While he turned in a fire alarm, another pedestrian dashed up the steps and "shouted an alarm to those within the house."  Understandably, the situation "threw all into dismay, but Mrs. Kingsland obtained quiet by advising delay until danger actually showed itself."

The fire in a chimney "speedily" filled the two upper floors with smoke.  Astonishingly, even while firefighters swarmed into the mansion, "Several women guests of the Kingslands left their carriages a block distant, and stepping over the hose, made their way to the house."  The firefighters decided to dump coal dust down the chimney to smother the flames.  The parlor pocket doors were closed and a tarpaulin spread before the grates to protect the carpets.  The newspaper said, "The coal was dumped in two piles into the chimney, coming down to the parlor grate with a tremendous clatter.  All the soot was carried before the anthracite, and the fire was put out at once."  The article concluded saying, "Mrs. Kingsland, though much alarmed, maintained coolness through the most exciting moments and was gratified in the end to find that the dinner could go on."

A fisheye lens allowed the photographer to capture the Minturn and Talbot houses along with the First Presbyterian Church in 1911, the year Helen Kingsland died.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Helen died on February 14, 1911 at the age of 69.  Her funeral on the morning of February 16 would be the last in the venerable mansion.

Having given up the fight to preserve the residential nature of lower Fifth Avenue, Ryan had moved his family to 858 Fifth Avenue in 1909.  He retained possession of 60 and 62 Fifth Avenue and their carriage houses until 1915.  In April he sold the corner property to the 11 West Twelfth Street Company, and two months later sold 62 Fifth Avenue to the publishing firm MacMillan Company.  The entire corner property was demolished for the Forbes Magazine building, completed in 1925.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

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