Monday, August 7, 2023

The Lost Alfred L. Loomis Mansion - 19 West 34th Street

When this photograph was taken on August 24, 1902, the mansion was surrounded by commercial buildings.  photo by Robert L. Bracklow, from the collection of Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York

Born in Germany in 1815, Rudolph A. Witthaus became a prominent merchant and banker after relocating to New York City.  A clothing importer, he was a founder of the German Savings Bank and a director of the German-American Bank.  Active in civic affairs, he was at one time a Commissioner of Emigration, a Commissioner of Education, and in 1854 was elected president of the German Society of the City of New-York.  He and his wife Marie had one son, Rudolph, Jr.

The Witthaus family is first listed at 31 West 34th Street (later renumbered 19) in 1861.  The mansion sat within what had become the most exclusive residential district in Manhattan.  Steps away, at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue, was the large brownstone residence of Samuel P. Townsend, and engulfing the Fifth Avenue blockfront between 33rd and 34th Streets were the mansions of John Jacob and William B. Astor.

The Witthaus mansion held its own with those brownstone palaces.  Its Italianate design featured a columned portico with balcony above the centered stoop.  The arched, floor-to-ceiling parlor windows were fronted by stone balconies.  The openings of the second and third floors wore Renaissance-inspired pediments, and carved ornaments decorated the fascia below the bracketed stone cornice.

In 1866 Witthaus retired from the importing business and turned to real estate.  The family sailed to Paris in 1867 to view the International Exposition.  While there they purchased items to add to their already sumptuous furnishings.  The New York Herald described their acquisitions as "magnificent bronzes, onyx vases and clocks."

Rudolph Jr. was nearly lost at sea when he sailed alone to Europe in 1873.  He boarded the French steamship Ville du Havre in New York on November 15.  Seven days later, just before dawn on November 23, the steamer was struck mid-hull by the British ship Loch Earn.   The Ville du Havre sunk "like a stone," according to the New York Herald, which said its passengers were "summoned from sleep to eternity."  Indeed, the ship sank within 12 minutes, its 313 passengers and crew having little time to react.  

Remarkably, of the 26 passengers and 61 crew members who survived, one was Rudolph A. Witthaus, Jr.  The New York Herald reported on December 3, "Mr. Witthaus swam one hour in company with Mr. Barbanson, until picked up by French boats."  Marie, who was in Paris, was the first to receive the news.  She sent a telegram to her husband that said, "Shipwrecked!  Rudolph saved, in perfect health."

Unfortunately, things were not going well at home for Rudolph, Sr.  The New York Times later explained that when he gave up his importing business he had "a large fortune."  But, it said his real estate venture had "proved disastrous."  On March 23, 1877 the newspaper reported, "His financial troubles affected his mind to such an extent that it was deemed prudent by his family about three months ago to send him to a private lunatic asylum at Flushing."  On Monday, March 19, 1877, while his attendant was out of the room, Witthaus "obtained possession of a razor, and cut his throat in such a horrible manner that he bled to death in a few moments."

Marie and Rudolph, Jr. soon liquidated the magnificent furnishings and artwork within the mansion, including Witthaus's library of rare books.  The house was sold at auction in 1880.  Among the bidders was a representative of Dr. Alfred Lebbeus Loomis, who was authorized, according to The Evening Post, "to offer only $60,000."  Loomis's agent placed the winning bid, but at $67,000 (about $1.98 million in 2023) it surpassed Loomis's limit.  The Evening Post reported, "the doctor, it is said, was somewhat displeased when this price was exceeded."

Dr. Alfred L. Loomis, from the collection of the New York Public Library

Born in Bennington, Vermont, Loomis was a specialist in diseases of the lungs and heart.  When he purchased the West 34th Street mansion, he was a professor of medicine at the University of the City of New York, and was a visiting physician with Mount Sinai Hospital.  A widower, his children Henry Patterson and Adeline Eliza lived with him.

In April 1887, the architectural firm of J. C. Cady & Co. filed plans for a five-story laboratory on East 26th Street for Loomis.  Three months later, on July 27, he was married to Anne Maria Morris Prince, the widow of Henry D. Prince, in the Church of the Holy Communion on Sixth Avenue.  The Doctor reported, "Dr. Loomis is too well known to our readers to need any comment here.  The distinguished by her personal beauty, by her position in society, and by her works of charity."  The newlyweds spent their honeymoon at Loomis's camp "in the recesses of the Adirondacks," as described by The Doctor.

Anne quickly began entertaining.  On November 28, 1887, for instance, The Evening World reported that she "will give a reception on Dec. 7."  

Also moving into the house was Anne's 21-year-old son, John Dyneley Prince.  He was the same age as Adeline Loomis and it was not long before romance bloomed.  The couple was married in the Church of the Holy Communion on October 5, 1889.  The New York Times commented, "The mother of the groom has been Mrs. Loomis for the past two years, and Mr. Prince is now the doctor's son-in-law as well as his stepson."  The newlyweds continued to live at 19 West 34th Street.

The eminence of Dr. Loomis was apparent in 1892 when the Secretary of State, James G. Blaine became seriously ill.  In his 1893 biography Life of the Hon. James G. Blaine, James Wilson Pierce wrote that in October 1892 "Dr. A. L. Loomis, of No. 19 West thirty-fourth street...was hastily summoned to Washington."  Two months later, on December 20, The New York Press reported, "Dr. Alfred L. Loomis returned to his home, No. 19 West Thirty-fourth street, last night."  Asked about Blaine's condition, he was somewhat evasive, saying he "had nothing further to add" to his earlier report.  Loomis was fully aware of the politician's grave situation.  Blaine died four weeks later on January 27.

In the winter of 1895, Alfred Loomis contracted pneumonia.  His illness was short, and he died in the mansion at the age of 64 on January 23.  In reporting his death, the Buffalo Medical and Surgical Journal mentioned, "He served for two terms as president of the New York Academy of Medicine and has been president of the New York Pathological Society and the Medical Society of the State of New York.  His funeral was held in the Church of the Incarnation on Madison Avenue on January 26.

Loomis left an estate of $1 million (about 36 times that much in today's money).  Anne received $150,000 and "his house at No. 19 West Thirty-fourth street, and his horses, carriages, and bric-a-brac," and the summer estate in Ringwood, New Jersey.  Harry Patterson Loomis received his father's medical library.  After generous donations were made to the Loomis Laboratory and the New York Academy of Medicine, Harry and Adeline received the remainder of the estate in trust.

On February 25, 1897, The New York Press reported, "In the home of Mrs. Alfred L. Loomis, No. 19 West thirty-fourth street, the recently organized Woman's Auxiliary to the University Settlement held its first regular meeting yesterday afternoon."  It was the last gathering Anne would host in the mansion.  The University Athletic Club had already signed a two-year lease on the property effective May 1.  On February 13, the Record & Guide noted the organization "will occupy it as a club house when necessary alterations are made."

Established in 1891, the University Athletic Club's members were almost all members of the University Club, as well.  Its objects were stated as:

The particular business and object of said Society or Club shall be the furnishing of property apparatus and facilities for athletic and social enjoyment and recreation to the members thereof, and for the encouragement of amateur sport.

Membership was limited to 1,000.  Appleton's Dictionary of New York and Its Vicinity noted, "Only persons holding collegiate degrees, and graduates of the United States Military and Naval Academies are eligible for membership."  The annual dues were $50, or about $1,800 in 2023 terms.

In 1915, club historian James Waddel Alexander explained, "Its membership was composed, as was natural from the very character of its constitution, of men who were younger on the average than those in the University Club."  The new clubhouse was officially opened on May 16, 1897.  The Evening Post noted, "The lower floors will be fitted for the accommodation of the members' bicycles, locker-rooms, baths, kitchens, etc."  On the main floor was the secretary's office, reception rooms, a billiard room, and a café and "lounging-room."  The second floor held the banquet/meeting room and the library, and the upper floors contained members' bedrooms.

The Evening Post wrote, "The entire house is furnished in mahogany and black walnut, the rooms are all lofty, well-lighted, and richly decorated.  The rear windows of the billiard-room and café open upon an open court with shade trees, which will be used during the summer months."

The club did not renew its lease, and in 1899 the former mansion became home to the City Club.   On May 19, The Evening Post reported that Governor Theodore Roosevelt would be the guest of honor at the housewarming dinner that evening.

In addition to the City Club's own activities, the house was the scene of meetings of various civic-minded organizations, like the Woman's Municipal League.  But its residency, too, would be short-lived.  On December 21, 1903, The Evening Post reported, "Arrangements have been made for the razing of the Loomis house at No. 19 West Thirty-fourth Street, and the erection on the site of a twelve-story business building.  The whole will be occupied under lease by Revillon Freres, furriers."  The article mentioned, "The Loomis house is one of the most conspicuous properties on Thirty-fourth Street.  In the gala days of that thoroughfare as a residential street, no house was better known."

photograph by the author

Construction of F. A. Minuth's Revillon Freres Building began on the site of the Loomis mansion in the spring of 1904. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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