Saturday, July 29, 2023

The John C. Fremont House - 56 West 9th Street


Real estate developer and builder Reuben R. Wood focused his work primarily in the Greenwich Village district where he lived.  In 1853 he completed a row of three narrow houses on the south side of Ninth Street, just east of Sixth Avenue.  The identical Anglo-Italianate homes were faced in brownstone, each two bays wide and four stories tall.  Their arched entrances sat above a three-step stoop.  The Italianate cast iron fencing and stoop railings were matched by the ironwork of the second floor balconies.  Eye-catching were the paired, arched windows set within segmental arches on the upper floors.

Apparently pleased with his finished products, Wood moved his family into the westernmost house, 58 Ninth Street.  He sold 56 Ninth Street (the "West" in the address would come later) to tobacco merchant Christian H. Lilienthal, who never seems to have lived in the house.  Instead, until 1856 it was home to John S. Hicks, a furniture dealer.

That year John Charles Fremont and his wife Jessie Benton (daughter of powerful Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri) rented 56 Ninth Street, moving in with their five children.  Fremont's life--already one of adventure and political and military successes (and failures regarding the latter)--was taking a major turn at the time.

John Charles Fremont from the collection of the Library of Congress

Born in Savannah, Georgia on January 21, 1813, Fremont had married Jessie against her father's wishes (the young man was not considered equal to Jessie's social class).  Benton and Fremont later reconciled and the senator became his great promoter.  Fremont began his Western explorations in 1842, carefully mapping the unexplored territories and writing detailed reports--co-written by Jessie.  Read widely in the East, their works encouraged Americans to travel West, and his maps of the entire Oregon Trail were used by American emigrants for years.

The expeditions were interrupted by the 1846 Mexican-American War.  Fremont joined the American forces, and was appointed the military governor of California in January 1847.  But seven months later he was arrested and charged with several offenses including mutiny for disobeying an order which he claims he never received.  He was convicted on January 31, 1848, but President James K. Polk almost immediately commuted Fremont's sentence.

In 1850 Fremont was elected a California senator and following his term resumed his explorations.  Then, in 1856, he relocated to New York City and into 56 West 9th Street as his campaign for United States President commenced.  Fremont, at the age of 43, was the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party.  (He had also been asked to run as the Democratic candidate, but he disagreed with the Fugitive Slave Law.)

Jessie Fremont ran her husband's campaign.  Having lived her life in Washington and accustomed to politics, she was well equipped for the job.  Fremont was promoted as a war hero and intrepid explorer, called The Pathfinder.

This 1856 election poster depicted Fremont as a brave explorer.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Anti-Fremont political propaganda spread the rumor that he was a Roman Catholic (the idea of a Catholic President was as unthinkable as a Jewish President at the time), and that he had been a slave owner.  On June 30, 1856 Jessie replied to a letter from Dr. John Robertson, negating the claims, saying in part:

I can only find time now to say this much and to assure your enquiring friend that Mr. Fremont was born and educated in the Protestant Episcopal Church--for more exactness, at St. Phillips church in Charleston, that he is now in the same church--that I am too an Episcopalian and our children were all baptized in that church.  Neither has either of us ever owned any slaves, which is the other bugbear.

The West 9th Street house was besieged with admirers and detractors throughout the campaign.   While visiting, a good friend, Elizabeth Blair Lee, wrote on June 27, "This house has people pouring in from all quarters from 6 o'clock in the morning until late at night."  On September 19, 1856, the New-York Daily Tribune reported on a large group who had come to offer congratulations "to the next President of the United States."

A large number of the booksellers and book publishers, who are at present in the city, attending the Trade Sales, yesterday made a formal call upon Col. Fremont at his residence, No. 56 Ninth street...The visitors began to arrive as early as 11-1/2 o'clock.  They were ushered into the parlor and introduced to Mr. Fremont, who received them with the most courteous and modest urbanity.  But it was not until 12-1/2 o'clock that the principal delegation, consisting of more than two hundred gentlemen, reached the house.

Unfortunately for Fremont, he lost the election to James Buchanan.  On June 28, 1857 the New-York Dispatch reported that "Colonel John C. Fremont, who having grown tired of the political atmosphere of this country, has determined to recruit himself in Europe, where his family are at present staying."  (In fact, Fremont returned to the West, where he owned Rancho Las Mariposas, a gold-rich property valued at around $10 million in 1857 dollars.)

On June 26 an auction was held of the Fremont household goods at 56 Ninth Street.  The New-York Dispatch reported that "the furniture, which was of the most tasty and elegant description, brought the sum of $4,000."  (That amount would be equal to about $128,000 today.)  But the New-York Daily Tribune exposed a sham perpetrated by the auctioneers.

The following day the newspaper reported, "It is possible that the carpets and some of the old tables and benches in the basement were once Col. Fremont's, but of the tables, curtains, pictures, chairs, sofas, &c., in the parlor or dining room, we could not discover a familiar thing."  The auctioneers had brought in furniture knowing the public would be interested in owning something of the Fremonts'.  To encourage potential buyers even more, an imposter purported to be John Fremont was on hand.   The article scoffed, "It is needless to say that those who went to see how they lived, and went away satisfied that they had seen, and also seen 'the Colonel,' were not of that class who voted for him last Fall for President of the United States."

Famed architect James Renwick, Jr., rented the house briefly and was here in 1858 and 1859.  Following his lease, he moved directly across the street to 55 Ninth Street.

The residence next became home to former New York State Lieutenant Governor and founder of The New York Times, Henry Jarvis Raymond and his wife, the former Juliette Weaver.  The couple had eight children.  Born in 1820 on a farm near Lima, New York, Raymond traced his American roots to Captain Richard Raymond, who arrived in Salem Massachusetts about 1629.  

He had founded The New York Times in September 1851 and was the author of several historical books, including A Life of Daniel Webster, published in 1853; Political Lessons of the Revolution, released the following year; and two volumes on Lincoln, A History of the Administration of President Lincoln and The Life and Public Services of Abraham Lincoln, published in 1864 and 1865 respectively.

Famed photographer Mathew Brady took this portrait of Henry J. Raymond.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Raymond (who served in the New York State Assembly in 1850 and '51), played an important part in the formation of the Republican Party.  With the outbreak of the Civil War, he was a staunch supporter of the Union cause.  President Abraham Lincoln defended Raymond's newspaper, saying, "The Times, I believe, is always true to the Union, and therefore should be treated at least as well as any."

Juliette supported the war effort in her own way.  On April 22, 1861, The New York Times reported, "There are thousands of women in the City eager to do something in aid of the great cause which fills all hearts and enlists all thought.  Something should be done at once to enable them to organize their efforts."  The article went on to say that Juliette was holding a meeting that day at noon "for ladies living in that part of the town," to "form small organizations among themselves for the purpose of preparing bandages, line and other articles of indispensable necessity for the wounded."

Henry J. Raymond died of a heart attack on June 18, 1869 at the age of 49.  The high esteem he had earned was reflected in the opening lines of an article in a rival newspaper, the New York Dispatch:  "Seldom have we felt such a painful shock--shared though it was with an entire community--as we did on Friday last, on learning of the sudden death of Henry J. Raymond."  The article continued, "It would be well if, in the walks of both journalism and politics, there were more men of Mr. Raymond's stamp, who would rather be misunderstood with the consciousness of good motives and objects, than to enjoy a popularity based upon the ignoring of self-respect in obedience to popular excitement."

It is unclear how long Juliette, who would live until 1914, remained in the Ninth Street house.  By 1873 it was home to a family named Smith, and from 1876 through at least 1880 Charles R. Henderson, secretary of the Matteawan Mfg. Co. lived here.

Wilmot Townsend Cox next purchased the house.  Born on December 27, 1856 he was a lawyer and real estate "guarantee," or mortgage loaner.  He had married his wife, the former Maria Duane Bleecker Miller in the former Wood house next door at 58 West 9th Street on the day after Christmas, 1896.  The couple had no children.

Around the turn of the century, the Coxes began leasing the house.  Their tenants in 1904 were insurance executive John Appleton Haven Hopkins and his wife, Alison Low Turnbull.  They were well-known in society and on June 26 that year The New York Times reported, "Mr. and Mrs. John A. H. Hopkins and their two children are spending the Summer at Morristown, N. J., having closed their city residence at 56 West Ninth Street.  As usual, they will be the guests during August of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Francis Stone at the latter's country place, Camp Comfort, near Bennington, Vt."  Alison, however, would become much better known for her later advocacy for woman's suffrage, including demonstrating at the White House in 1917.

The Coxes continued to lease the house to affluent families for years.  From around 1911 through 1915 it was home to William Armstrong Greer, the son of New York Episcopal Bishop David H. Greer.  He had married Louise Noel on November 7, 1906.  The New York Herald said, "The marriage was an event in the social season that winter."

The marriage was threatened in 1911.  On November 19 the New York Herald ran the headline, "Bishop Greer's Son Named in Werner Marital Suit," and reported that Greer had been identified as one of the two "other men" in his divorce suit against his wife, Anna Leah Werner.  The tempest appears to have blown over, however, and Louise Greer appeared in the society columns repeatedly until 1915 as she entertained at 56 West 9th Street.

Cornelia S. B. Miller moved into the house following the end of World War I.  Following her death in 1924, a two-day auction (the catalog of which required two hardback volumes) was held.  On March 16, The New York Times began an article saying, "A Shiraz double saddlebag and some rare rugs contained in the assemblage of heirlooms and collection of Cornelia S. B. Miller, of 56 West Ninth Street, are to be on exhibition beginning this afternoon at the Anderson Galleries."  The museum-ready collection included Early American furniture and Colonial glassware, 17th and 18th century textiles, and 500 pieces of porcelain.

Soon afterward, unofficial apartments were being leased within the house.  It continued to be operated as such until a renovation, completed in 2013, returned the house with its remarkable history to a single family home.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

1 comment:

  1. I'd already written this up in my book before reading the article - honest