Friday, June 30, 2023

The Jacob Wrey Mould House - 123 East 26th Street


When Jacob Wrey Mould arrived in New York from Britain in 1852, the 27-year-old architect had already established a name for himself.  He had studied with influential architect Owen Jones, known for his theories on ornament, color and patterning.  The two spent two years studying the Alhambra in Spain, a period that fostered Mould's appreciation for Moorish style architecture and vivid colors.  It resulted in his co-designing the Turkish Chamber in Buckingham Palace.

The young architect moved into a house on East 17th Street near fashionable Union Square Park.  Having designed ornamentation for London's 1851 Great Exhibition, he was  now commissioned to design details of the New York Crystal Palace, scheduled to open in 1853.  Although, according to Adolf K. Placzek in his 1982 Macmillan Encyclopedia of American Architects, Mould was considered "eccentric" and "ill-mannered," his career soared in New York.

He was hired to work shoulder-to-shoulder with Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted on the design of Central Park and is responsible for some of its most notable ornaments--Belvedere Castle, the sumptuous carvings of Bethesda Terrace, and several bridges, among them.

Victor Prevost captioned this 1862 photo, "View of Willowdell Arch With the Team That Created Central Park Standing on the Pathway Over the Span."  pictured (L-R) are Andrew Haswell Green, George Waring, Calvert Vaux, Ignaz Anton Pilat, Jacob Wrey Mould, and Frederick Law Olmstead. Photos of the New Central Park, 1862 (copyright expired)

In 1859, two years after being hired as Assistant City Architect, Mould moved into the newly-built brownstone-faced house at 75 East 26th Street (renumbered 123 in 1865).  One of a row of identical homes, its narrow Italianate style included gently arched openings and understated architrave framing of the double-doored entrance.  Three stories tall above a high English basement, it was crowned with a ornamental cast metal cornice.

In addition to his Central Park work, by the time he purchased the East 26th Street house, he had designed the remarkable All Souls' Church on Park Avenue, and the interiors of the John A. C. Gray mansion on Fifth Avenue.  The Crayon described his color choices for that residence as "bold as a lion."

from A Description of the New York Central Park, 1869 (copyright expired)

The first shot in the Civil War was fired on April 12, 1861.  Seemingly tepid to the Union cause, an editorial in The New York Times on June 1 was titled, "Problem of the Negro Fugitives," and asked, "what shall we do with fifty or a hundred thousand?"  Jacob Wrey Mould gave his opinion (somewhat racist by a 21st century perspective) in a letter to the editor the same day that said in part:

Set them to constructing roads, to assist on earthworks, utilize them into transporters of provisions, or hospital attendants.  They are acclimated, and used to labor under a sun that will pour down disease and disaster on our hitherto unaccustomed Northern troops.  Nor could their loyalty be a very questionable point.  Whatever their previous attachment to their masters, their love for Liberty would transcend it, and they would pretty speedily recognize the fact that they were assisting in behalf of a Power destined most assuredly to work out that Liberty for them "to the full."
                                I am, Sir, yours respectfully,
                                Jacob Wrey Mould
                                No. 75 East Twenty-sixth street, N.Y.

Mould would have another issue to deal with that year.  It became known that he was living with a woman in the East 26th Street house.  Cohabitation without the solemnity of marriage was associated with the lower classes and, even then, was scandalous and disdainful.  He was ostracized by his friends and society in general.  But while he was personally disgraced, his career went on unaffected.

Mould was appointed Architect-in-Chief of Central Park in 1870.  In 1874, he traveled to Lima, Peru to design a public park commissioned by railroad builder Henry Meiggs.  He would not return until 1879.  In his absence, Minnie A. Madison, a widow and most likely his housekeeper, was listed as the resident of 123 East 26th Street.  

On June 16, 1886, The Sun reported, "Jacob Wrey Mould was one of the most accomplished architects in the United States in his branch of the art.  He died on Monday night of heart disease at his late residence, 123 East Twenty-sixth street."  Mould would have been 61 years old in two months.

Throughout the 1890s, the former Mould residence was home to Professor O. B. Douglass.  A physician and educator, he taught at the Post-Graduate School and was associated with the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital.

The stoop railings date from the late 1880's or 1890's, after Mould's death.  The originals would have looked like those in the background next door.

In July 1900, 123 East 26th Street was sold to Wright Barclay, who operated it as a boarding house.  It became home to professionals like Willis G. Braley, who was a commissioner of deeds in 1905.  

But not everything going on in the house was respectable.  On February 20, 1907, detectives were brought to the house by Morton Woodman of Fall River, Massachusetts.  He complained that he had been swindled out of his recent inheritance--a significant $6,500 in cash, or about $193,000 in 2023.  The New York Times reported, "He had met a man in a cigar store to whom he told of his $6,500 awaiting to earn something.  His new acquaintance told him that he had tapped the wires and could always win on the races.  Woodman was taken to a poolroom where he played a dollar and won five."  Convinced, Woodman drew his entire savings and, "Then he went with the men to 123 East Twenty-sixth Street, where he lost his fortune.”  Police and detectives broke down the door and found five men, "with racing sheets, charts, and a large quantity of 'phony money,'"  according to The New York Times.

Charles W. Akberg purchased the property from Wright Barclay in 1909.  His much more respectable boarder was Dr. Charles Kirtland Stillman, a 1900 graduate of Brown University.  He lived and practiced here in 1910.

In 1936, an office was installed in the basement level, possibly for another doctor, and the upper floors remodeled.  If Mould decorated his home--and there is little chance that he did not-- it was most likely at this time that his irreplaceable work was lost.  The configuration lasted until 1960 when the basement office was replaced by an apartment.  The upper floors, where one of America's greatest architects once lived, remain a private residence.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Ted Leather for prompting this post has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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