Monday, November 20, 2023

The Lost Charles T. Barney Mansion - 101-103 East 38th Street (67 Park Av)


from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

In 1872, Caroline G. Reed's Boarding & Day School for Young Ladies operated from the stylish double-wide mansion at the northeast corner of Park Avenue and 38th Street.  Designed in the Second Empire style, its entrance above a brownstone stoop faced the side street.  A full-height faceted bay caught breezes on the avenue.  The fourth floor took the form of a smart mansard that sprouted dormers and chimneys.  

At the time, Ashbel Holmes Barney and his family lived a block to the west, at 38 East 38th Street.  Born in Adams, New York in 1816, he and his brother Danford had relocated to Cleveland, Ohio in 1842 to establish Danford N. Barney & Company, a forwarding and commission merchant business.

Danford Barney quickly moved to Buffalo, New York, having been elected president of Wells Fargo & Company in 1849.  Ashbel remained in Ohio until 1857, when he brought his family to New York City.  He was elected a director of Wells Fargo & Company in 1859, and became a director in several railroads, as well.

In 1873 Ashbel Barney purchased 101-103 East 38th Street (the family and newspapers would use either street number interchangeably).  He and his wife, the former Susan H. Tracy, had two children, Charles Tracy and Helen Tracy.  (A third child, Gardiner Tracy, died in childhood in 1856.)  Charles was married to Laurinda Collins Whitney, daughter of James Scollay Whitney and Laurinda Collins.  Helen, who would never marry, moved into the 38th Street mansion with her parents.  

The family had not lived here long before the house was the scene of somber occasion.  Danford N. Barney lived in the  fashionable Windsor Hotel on Fifth Avenue.   He died there on March 8, 1874 at the age of 66.  Danford's body was brought to 103 East 38th Street where his funeral was held on March 11.

It is unclear how extensive the Barneys' renovations of the mansion were; however in 1882 they commissioned a three-part stained glass window from Associated Artists (the partners of which were Louis Comfort Tiffany, Candace Wheeler and Lockwood de Forest).  Called The Sea of Mystery, it was installed in the second floor hallway directly above the entrance.  The theme was based on the tale of the fisherman and the mermaid.

from the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

Sadly, Susan Hester Tracy Barney died that year, on July 3, 1882, at the age of 64.  Ashbel had retired from business the previous year, and would live on in the Murray Hill mansion until his death on December 27, 1886.  (He had fallen ill on Christmas day.)

In reporting on his demise, Harper's Weekly said, "The death of Ashbel H. Barney removes another of that long list of Americans whose names are associated with the great enterprises of the last half-century."  The article noted, "His enterprises made him a millionaire."

Barney's funeral was held on December 30.  The New York Times reported, "The remains reposed in the large hall between the parlors on the first floor...The four large parlors were crowded with the personal and business friends of Mr. Barney."

With his sister now alone in the East 38th Street mansion, Charles and Laurinda (who was known as Lily) sold their house at 10 East 55th Street to editor Joseph Pulitzer and moved in.  Helen would have to become accustomed to much more activity within the household--Charles and Lily brought along six children, Ashbel Hinman, James Whitney, Gardiner Tracy, Helen Tracy, Katherine Lansing, and Marie.  The eldest, Ashbel, was just ten at the time.

Born in 1851, Charles had graduated from Williams College in 1870 and entered banking.  His wife's familial ties assured his success.  He joined the Knickerbocker Trust Company in 1884, and was involved in real estate operations, as well.  In 1890 he, William C. Whitney, W. E. D. Stokes and others would form the New York Loan and Improvement Company.

The residence that had been only tepidly involved in high society now became a social center.  On December 23, 1891, it was the scene of the debutante reception of Azuba Latham Barney, the daughter of Charles's cousin Arthur L. Barney.  The Sun reported:

The rooms and hallways of the double house were trimmed with American Beauty, Mme. Cusine, and dark red roses and Christmas greens.  Lander's orchestra, screened behind trailing vines of smilax and evergreen, festooned with ropes of roses, played in the hallway throughout the afternoon and evening.  Miss Barney, a tall brunette, received in the white and gold drawing room.

The close relationship between the families was evidenced five years later, on April 18, 1896, when The New York Times reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Charles Tracy Barney of 101 East Thirty-eighth Street will give a dinner party to-night in honor of Miss Azuba L. Barney and her fiancé, Reginald H. Jaffray."

The dinner party took place in a totally redecorated house.  Among Charles's and Lily's closest friends were the Stanford Whites.  The couples shared a box at the opera, and White had designed the Barneys' East 55th Street house.  In 1895 Barney commissioned White to re-do the interiors of 103 East 38th Street.  

One of the double parlors following the Stanford White redecoration.  A portiere is slightly opened to reveal a glimpse of a similar room.  Note the stenciled and painted ceiling.  from the collection of the Columbia University Library.

The Barneys' summer home was Windy Barn in Southampton, erected by William Sprague Hoyt and his wife Nettie in 1877.  The Barney's purchased the estate in 1886, paying $20,000 (about $645,000 in 2023).  The couple almost immediately doubled the size of the main house, adding a ballroom and other improvements.  Its Dutch-inspired architecture featured cedar shake cladding and a gambrel roof that harkened to Long Island's colonial past.  Historian William Pelletreau said bluntly, "some call [it] quaintly artistic, and others a monstrosity, but it is an object of interest."  The New York Times, nevertheless, called it "one of the finest residences on the Long Island Coast."

The Barney addition, as see above, doubled the size of Windy Barn, (original source unknown)

Charles Barney again turned to Stanford White in 1900 when he commissioned him to decorate the interior of his yacht, the Invincible.  The following year he was brought back to the East 38th Street house to once again remodel the interiors.  It was a substantial project, costing $100,000, or about $3.5 million by 2023 terms.

The Barneys anticipated the massive upheaval and the army of workmen who would be invading their home.  That fall The New York Times reported, "For this reason, Mr. Barney had recently transferred many valuable belongings from that house to the country home."  Included, said the article, were "rare bric-a-brac and paintings of great value, by European artists."

The family was at Windy Barn on the night of November 16, 1901, when Katherine Barney, who was now 16 years old, "was awakened by the sound of crackling wood and in a few moments knew that the house was on fire," reported The Evening World.  The teen rushed through the darkened halls and stairways, first to her mother's room and then to every bedroom in the house to awaken the household.  "Before she reached the servants' dormitory, which was just above her room, the whole top of the house was shooting flames, visible for miles around," said the article.  Nevertheless, Katherine pushed on, saving the three sleeping servant girls.

The family and staff escaped to the lawn "in scant attire," said The New York Times.  Before firefighters could arrive, the wooden structure was engulfed.  The following morning The New York Times reported, "nothing remains but three tall chimneys, rising like monumental shafts."  The fire had started in the billiard room, supposedly from a defective flue.

Not only were the Barneys' rare tapestries, antique furnishings and valuable paintings destroyed, but Lily reported that she had $125,000 in jewelry in her bedroom.  The Evening World later reported, "for weeks after the family had given up the search for the gems hordes of diamond seekers swarmed to Southampton and spent many fruitless hours sorting debris and ashes in a vain quest for them."

Anders Zorn painted this portrait of Charles Tracy Barney in 1904.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

Katherine's debut in 1903 began with a ball in the mansion of her uncle, William C. Whitney at 871 Fifth AvenueThe Evening World reported on December 17, "Everything that money and taste can do to make the occasion memorable among the balls of exclusive and extravagant New York society has been done."  

Debutante entertainments stretched throughout the winter season, and on January 19, 1904 The New York Times reported, "Mrs. Charles T. Barney gave a small dinner dance at the Barney residence, 67 Park Avenue."  (With the renovations done to the townhouse, the Barneys began using the Park Avenue address, although the entrance was still clearly on 38th Street.)  The article note, "The cotillion was preceded by a dinner of eighty covers, the guests being seated at large tables placed in the green and stone rooms."

The merger of two massively wealthy and socially important families occurred when Charles and Lily announced Helen's engagement to Archibald Stevens Alexander in the spring of 1905.  Following the ceremony in St. Bartholomew's Church on April 8, a wedding breakfast was held in the Barney mansion.

One of the Barneys' most celebrated entertainments was their masquerade party in February 1906.  The New York Herald reported, "Their guests were seated at a long and narrow table placed on three sides of their Renaissance tapestry room, and while it had the appearance of a continuous table, it was really divided into sections so that the costumes of each country represented were grouped together."  The article continued:

Even all the house servants were in costume, and the men, from Sherry's establishment who served the dinner, wore regular "beef eaters" costumes.  It was a most picturesque night when all the guests were seated, the architecture of the room, the brilliant light and the general artistic surroundings quite suggesting a painting of some old master.

Lily's costume was "a faithful reproduction of that worn by Catherine de Medici," said the New York Herald.  (copyright expired)

Katherine's engagement to Courtlandt Dixon Barnes was announced in November 1906.  Three months later, on February 24, 1907, The Sun reported that she would have an "Easter wedding," adding, "Mr. and Mrs. Charles T. Barney have a fine ballroom at their home, 67 Park avenue, which will be the scene of the reception."

Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, November 30, 1907 (copyright expired)

Katherine's wedding came just before a most difficult time for her father.  By now he had been president of the Knickerbocker Trust Company for ten years.  In 1907 the firm became part of a shady deal organized by F. Augustus Heinze and Charles W. Morse to corner the market of the United Copper Company.  The scheme disastrously failed on October 15 when the share price of United Copper crashed.  Morse and Heinze were ruined and depositors began a run on the Knickerbocker Trust Company. 

Six days after the collapse, Charles T. Barney was asked by the board to resign.  The next day the Knickerbocker was forced to suspend operations.  Unlike his co-conspirators, Barney was not ruined financially.  His personal fortune was estimated at the time to be $2.5 million--or about $80.3 million in 2023.  But he was disgraced and humiliated.

At the time, the Barneys had a houseguest, Mrs. Susan Abbott Mead, who had arrived from Europe two weeks earlier.  Five days after Barney's resignation, at around 10:00 on the morning of November 14, 1907, Lily and Susan Mead were in Lily's bedroom, next door to that of Charles, when they heard a gunshot.  Lily told police:

I heard a shot in my husband's room.  I ran in there, and I saw him standing upright.  He fell to the floor, as I was approaching him.  I took his head in my lap.  I heard him say nothing that would indicate that he had committed suicide.  Indeed, I didn't know then he had been shot.

But Charles was shot.  He had placed a revolver to his stomach and pulled the trigger.  Ashbel, who was 31 years old at the time, ran upstairs.  His father directed him, "Don't move me."  Physicians rushed to the mansion and even as they worked to remove the bullet, Barney drew up his will.  He died around 2:00 that afternoon. 

The will was probated five days later.  The New-York Tribune reported on November 20, "The will itself is necessarily brief, made, as it was, when Mr. Barney was suffering from a mortal wound."  He left his entire estate to Lily.

Lily Whitney Barney lived on in the mansion with at least one of her children, Ashbel, who was unmarried.  He had graduated from Yale University in 1898.  

Named for his grandfather, Ashbel Hinman Barney was born in July 1876.  (original source unknown)

Stanford White's renovations to the house in 1901 included electric lighting.  The technology was still unreliable, and it caused a major scare in the Barney mansion on March 15, 1908.  The Evening World reported, "Mrs. Barney was awakened by the sudden turning on of the electric lights in the dining room.  Without waiting to arouse other members of the household she called up the police." 

The mansion was besieged by officers who "searched from top to bottom."  In the dining room were "large quantities of silverware," said the article, "but if the burglars had been there they did not have time to carry any of it away."  Although the house was put on "close watch," detectives told the press "the trouble is believed to have been caused by crossed electric wires."

Lily returned to entertaining following her mourning period.  On May 9, 1916, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported, "Mrs. Charles T. Barney gave a dinner, followed by bridge, last night, at her house, 67 Park Avenue."  But her residency was drawing to a close.  On November 29, 1920, the New York Herald advised, "Mrs. Charles T. Barney will remain at 101 East Thirty-eighth street until December 15, when she will move into her new apartment at Sixty-sixth street and Fifth avenue."

67 Park Avenue replaced the venerable mansion.  It survives.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Lily had sold the mansion to developers who replaced it with a Schwarts & Gross designed, 14-floor apartment building completed in 1922. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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