Monday, June 12, 2023

The Lost Henry Rutgers Remsen Mansion - 40 Fifth Avenue


The yard of the Church of the Ascension provided an extra wall of light and ventilation to 40 Fifth Avenue (left).  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Because the 1841 Church of the Ascension engulfed the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, there could only be four mansions on the block.  By 1858 the plots were filled.  Each residence was stately and aristocratic, but none, perhaps, more architecturally noteworthy than 40 Fifth Avenue.

Home to the Murray F. Smith family, the four-story-and-basement home was designed in the Second Empire style, recently imported from France.  The three-sided parlor level bay and the entrance were capped by gently curved hoods, as were the second story openings.  Interestingly, the middle window of the third floor was square-headed, unlike the others, and the fourth floor took the form of a curvaceous iron crested mansard.

Smith was a partner with John M. Ridley in Smith & Ridley, cotton merchants.  His son, Murray M. Smith, was a member of the New York Produce Exchange.  The family remained at 40 Fifth Avenue until 1866, when attorney Silas McCormick purchased the house.

Like almost all socialites, Mrs. McCormick busied herself with charitable works.  She was a manager of The Nursery and Child's Hospital on 51st Street and Lexington Avenue, for instance.

The McCormicks, too, would not remain especially long in the mansion.  In 1871 it became home to the family of Henry Rutgers Remsen.  Although educated as an attorney, Remsen was a "gentleman," meaning that he did not work.  And, indeed, he did not need to work.

Born in 1809, he traced his American ancestry to Rem Janse Van der Beek and his wife Jannetje Rapalje who were married in New Amsterdam in 1642.  Henry was the grandson of dry goods merchant Henry Remsen, whose massive mansion at Cherry and Clinton Streets was one of the most opulent of Manhattan's 18th century homes.  His father, Henry Jr., was not only a wealthy merchant, but private secretary to John Jay and Thomas Jefferson. 

Henry Rutgers Remsen married Elizabeth Waldron Phoenix on October 21, 1834.  The family summered at Beechwood, an 18th century estate near the hamlet of Scarborough, New York, acquired by his father in 1850.

The mansion at Beechwood as it appeared in 1947.  from the collection of the Westchester County Historical Society.

The couple had eight children.  Daughter Catherine Ann Schuchardt married Alexander S. Webb on November 28, 1855.  (As a general in the Civil War, Webb was decorated for his gallantry at the Battle of Gettysburg.)  On December 1, 1870, just months before her parents moved into 40 Fifth Avenue, Caroline married Isaac Underhill Coles.  

Living in the Fifth Avenue residence with the family was Henry's brother, Dr. Robert G. Remsen.  Like Henry, despite having a medical degree, Robert did not work.  The Annual Biographical Report of the Century Association said he preferred "the leisure which ample means gave him for more congenial pursuits in the direction of large corporations, in club association and free intercourse with a large circle of friends."

Henry Rutgers Remsen died in April 1874 at the age of 65.  In reporting on his funeral at the Dutch Reformed Church on Washington Square on April 9, The New York Times mentioned, "Mr. Remsen's circle of business friends being unusually large for one who had not engaged in business during his lifetime, the church was crowded."  He was buried in the Remsen vault in Greenwood Cemetery.

Elizabeth Waldron Phoenix Remsen in her later years.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

Elizabeth Remsen survived her husband by sixteen years, dying on July 7, 1890 at the age of 83.  The Fifth Avenue mansion was sold to Charles Francis Roe, who was gobbling up the other homes on the block as well.  His purchases almost assuredly were to ensure the stability of the block, as commerce had already begun inching up Fifth Avenue.  In June 1891 he purchased 46 Fifth Avenue, on the corner of 11th Street, and immediately leased it for $4,700 a year--around $12,000 per month in 2023 money.  

Born in Highland Falls, New York in 1848, Roe graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1868.  He served in the calvary during "the Indian Campaigns" until 1888.  According to The Century Association's historian Alexander Dana Noyes in 1923, he was a lieutenant "in Gibbon's troop in 1876, when it made the famous ride to the relief of Major Reno after Custer and his command had been massacred by the Indians."

General Charles Francis Roe in 1899.  from the collection of the Century Association.
In 1895 Charles F. Roe leased 40 Fifth Avenue to banker and stockbroker George Coppell for five years.  If the Roe family intended to return to the mansion, it was not to be.  In 1898 Governor Black appointed him Major General in charge of all "citizen soldiers" (or National Guard troops) in the state, a position he would hold until 1912.

Born in England in 1837, the widowed millionaire George Coppell had been the British Consul during the Civil War.  He was the senior member of the firm Maitland, Coppell & Co. and a director in several corporations and railroads.  He and his late wife Helen had had eight children.  

Living with him at 40 Fifth Avenue were his unmarried children, Arthur (who was also a member of Maitland, Coppell & Co.), Elizabeth, Helen, Grace, and Mary.  The family's summer home was The Towers in Tenafly, New Jersey where, according to The New York Times, was "a wonderful collection of Chinese curios."

The Coppell's summer home, The Towers.  (original source unknown).

Mary's marriage to Edgar Hetfield Booth was held in Grace Church on November 28, 1899.  In reporting on the ceremony, The World mentioned that Mary Bowers was among the bridesmaids, noting that her "marriage to Arthur Coppell will be solemnized soon before Christmas."

Arthur would be the last of George Coppell's children that he would see wed.  He was already ill when Mary was married, and in the spring of 1901 he went South "to try to recover his health," as reported by The New York Times.  Shortly after returning home, he died in the Fifth Avenue mansion on April 19 at the age of 64.

Elizabeth Coppell remained in the mansion until 1903, when Charles F. Roe sole it to William Bowen Boulton.  (She moved permanently to The Towers, where she caused scandal in 1914 by marrying her chauffeur, Robert D. Connors.  She was 50 years old and her husband was 32.)

The sale of 40 Fifth Avenue was the beginning of Roe's liquidation of his properties on the block.  Within the week, he sold 10 West 11th Street, around the corner, and in May 1907 sold 44 and 46 Fifth Avenue.

Boulton was a member of the brokerage firm Taylor, Bates & Co.  He and his wife, the former Adele Hager, had two daughters, Anita Teresa and Pauline.  On April 7, 1904 The Globe and Commercial Advertiser reported that the Boultons had issued invitations to Anita's Calvary Church wedding to John Grenville Bates on April 23.  The newspaper noted, "Nearly 2,000 invitations have been issued for the church and for the reception at the house."

The following week, on April 16, the Boultons hosted a dinner for the bridal party.  Of the 25 guest around the table, most had socially recognizable surnames, like Vanderpool, Van Rensselaer, Baylis, Auchincloss and Atterbury.

That autumn was Pauline's debutante season.  On New Years Eve her mother gave "what her cards term a 'Nonsense Dance' at her home at 40 Fifth avenue," as reported by The Globe and Commercial Advertiser.  "The dance is a compliment to Miss Pauline Boulton, and some genuine merriment may be anticipated by those invited," said the article.

By the outbreak of World War I, 40 Fifth Avenue had become the home of Frank Bestow Wiborg and his family.  Born in 1855 to a Norwegian immigrant, he had worked his way through the Chickering Scientific and Classical Institute, graduating in 1874.  His wife, Adeline Moulton Sherman was the daughter of Major Hoyt Sherman and a niece of General William Tecumseh Sherman.  The couple had three daughters, Mary Hoyt, Sara Sherman, and Olga.  (Olga had married Sidney Webster Fish, son of Stuyvesant and Miriam Fish on June 15, 1915, shortly before the family moved into 40 Fifth Avenue.)  The family's country estate, The Dunes, was in Easthampton, New York.  The house on the property held 30 rooms.

Frank Bestow Wiborg (original source unknown)

Wiborg had founded the printing ink company of Ault & Wiborg in Cincinnati.   By 1895 he had amassed a personal fortune in the millions.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Daughter Sara was married in the mansion on December 30, 1915 to Gerald Murphy.  The New-York Tribune reported, "A temporary altar of gold brocade was erected in the bay window of the drawing room for the ceremony."  

Well before America entered World War I, Adeline's focus turned from social functions to war relief.  The Sun said, "almost since the beginning of the European war [she] had been identified with relief organizations working on the side of the Entente Allies."  She traveled to Europe in 1916 "for the purpose of allied relief work," said the newspaper.

Although it was winter, upon Adeline's return to the United States, she went to the Easthampton estate to rest.  Not long afterword, she suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed.  She was brought back to 40 Fifth Avenue around December 15, where she died on January 2, 1917.  She was 58 years old.

The efforts of millionaires like Charles F. Roe to keep lower Fifth Avenue exclusively residential had failed by the end of World War I.  The four mansions on the block were demolished in 1928, to be replaced with the neo-Georgian style apartment building known as 40 Fifth Avenue.

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  1. When F. Scott Fitzgerald published "Tender Is the Night" in 1934, it was widely assumed that the characters of Dick and Nicole Diver were modeled upon Gerald and Sara Wiborg Murphy.

  2. If I'm not mistaken, this house was designed by Calvert Vaux and appeared in his book,Villas and Cottages.