Thursday, December 14, 2023

The Henry Talmadge House - 538 Madison Avenue


In 1870, builder John Sares completed a row of four upscale, high-stooped houses on the northwestern corner of Madison Avenue and 54th Street.  Most likely designed by architect Mortimer C. Merritt, each of the Italianate style homes rose four stories above high English basements.  Their arched entrances and parlor floor windows were embellished with classical pediments.  An interesting design element was the large chain motif that connected the brackets of the individual cornices. 

The "chain" running between the foliate brackets of the cornice was an innovative design choice.

Sares sold the northernmost house, 538 Madison Avenue, to Henry Talmadge and his wife, the former Helen White.  Moving in with the couple was their 23-year-old son, Henry Pearl Talmadge.

Talmadge descended from Thomas Talmadge, who arrived in America from England in 1631.  Henry was the founder of the banking firm of Henry Talmadge & Co.  He was, as well, a trustee of the Central Trust Company, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, vice president and director of the Cossitt Land Company, and a director of the Mechanics' National Bank. 
Sares's 1870 row was intact in the early 20th century.  The Talmadge house is at the far right of the row.  photo via Culver Pictures

Henry Pearl Talmadge had graduated from Harvard in 1868.  Two years after the family moved into the Madison Avenue house, he married Lucy White.  The newlyweds moved into the Madison Avenue house, and the same year Henry's father made him a partner in the banking firm.  

The household of four would rapidly expand.  Lucy would bear five children here--Lucy White in 1873, Henry Pearl Jr. in 1877, Arthur White in 1880, Helen Dunbar in 1881, and Frank Cossitt in 1884.

All the families in the neighborhood had at least one country home.  In 1884, Henry Pearl Talmadge commissioned architect Douglas Smythe to design a sprawling Queen Anne style mansion in Plainfield, New Jersey.  The $45,000 cost of construction would equal about $1.43 million in 2023.

The Henry Pearl Talmadge summer home, "Netherwood."  (original source unknown)

Frances Anna Cossitt Talmadge died on November 30, 1883 at the age of 64.  Despite his advancing age, Henry continued to go to his office at 50 Pine Street everyday.  He was still doing so until the morning of May 19, 1907, when he died at the age of 90 in the Madison Avenue house.

Rather than go to the New Jersey estate that summer, Henry Pearl Talmadge and his family instead went to the mountains.  Two months after Henry's death, the New-York Tribune reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Henry P. Talmadge have left town for the Adirondacks, where they have rented the McAlpin camp for the summer."

Arthur White Talmadge went into the family's banking business.  He was still unmarried in 1909 when the 29-year-old traveled West to Arizona.  Shockingly, on January 12, 1910, The New York Times reported, "News has been received in New York of the death of Arthur White Talmadge at Prescott, Arizona."  Whatever the details of his death were, they were not published in any of the local newspapers.

Arthur's body was returned to Netherwood, where his funeral was held on January 21.  The New York Times noted that "carriage will be in waiting" at the Plainfield train station for mourners arriving from New York City.

By the time Frank C. Talmadge married Beatrice Cornish in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in January 1918, the Madison Avenue neighborhood had greatly changed.  Once trafficked only by the smart carriages of the homeowners, it now bustled with shoppers and motorcars.  A year later, on July 24, 1919, The New York Times reported that Henry had sold 538 Madison Avenue for $124,000 (just over $2 million today).  The New-York Tribune added that the buyer was "a prominent art dealer who will use the building for his business when alterations are completed," noting "it has been used by the family as a residence for almost forty-eight years."

The "prominent art dealer" was Max Williams who converted the former basement and parlor level for his maritime art gallery.  Although the upper floors were maintained as a single-family residence, Williams continued to live in Brooklyn.  

Asia magazine, September 1921 (copyright expired)

In July 1924, Scribner's Magazine announced, "A special exhibition of ship models collected by a British sea captain will be held during July at the Max Williams Gallery, 538 Madison Avenue."  But the gallery's residency would not be especially long-lasting.

Just three years later, Dante Gambinossi had moved a branch of his Italian store into the building.  Headquartered in Florence, Dau's New York Social Register noted in 1927 that the shop sold "hand tooled leather [and] hand made linens from Italy."

Living upstairs in 1930 were society interior decorator Rose Cumming, who was 42 at the time, and her sister Dorothy Grenville Cumming, who was 30.  The women had come a long way from the Australian sheep ranch where they were born.  Dorothy had begun her acting career in silent films in 1915.  Two of her more notable roles were the Virgin Mary in Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 The King of Kings, and the jealous wife in The Wind, produced the following year.

Dorothy Cumming in the 1927 role of the Virgin Mary in The King of Kings.   from the collection of the Pepperdine Library

The Cummings sisters would have to find new accommodations that year.  In 1930, architect Robert A. Fash was commissioned to remodel the building.  The stoop was removed and a two-story storefront installed.  The top floors were converted to showrooms and storage.

Fash's sleek new storefront can be seen here in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Dante Gambinossi moved out in 1943.  The retail space now became two, one on either floor.  They were home to Brenner Bros., furriers; and Renal of Paris, Inc., women's apparel.

Starting around 1964, the Durlacher Brothers antiques gallery operated from 538 Madison Avenue.  Founded in London in 1843 by Henry Durlacher, it was renamed by his two sons who took over the business following his death.  Its customers over the years included The Frick, the Berlin Museum, the British Museum, and private collectors like J. Pierpont Morgan, Sir Richard Wallace, and the Duke of Hamilton.

The upper floors were, by now, being leased as offices.  Among the most high-profile of the tenants was pediatrician and author Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose office was on the third floor.  Spock's 1946 Baby and Child Care became one of the best-selling books of the 20th century.  He was also well-known for his ultra liberal political views.  And when President Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon on September 8, 1974, Spock was irate.  He fired off a hand-written letter to the White House on his office stationery that read:

Dear President Ford,

 I feel outraged at your premature and unjustified pardon of Richard Nixon.  It is the ultimate cover-up.  It condones Nixon's monstrous crimes.  It shows that there is one law for top leaders, another law for the rest.  It will prolong the division in the country.
In total sincerity,  Benjamin Spock

The store space saw a variety of tenants over the succeeding years, including Adolfo in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  In February 1997, Caviar Russe, described by The New York Times food critic Florence Fabricant as "a new caviar bar, restaurant and boutique," opened on the second floor, above a Vermont Teddy Bear Co. store.

On December 7 that year, a section of the 33-floor office tower next door collapsed, "raining debris on holiday shoppers and tourists, snapping a hanging work platform in two and dangling a ton of bricks from a torn safety net," as reported by The New York Times.  A week later the newspaper reported that "engineers who inspected 538 Madison Avenue yesterday found more extensive damage to the roof than expected."  It was too much for the Vermont Teddy Bear Co., which broke its lease and moved out.  Caviar Russe took the opportunity to expand into both floors, and continues to occupy the space today.

Other than its masonry being painted blue and white, the upper floors of the Henry Talmadge house are surprisingly intact after more than a century and a half.

photographs by the author
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  1. Really enjoyed this article, as I do all of your articles on this blog!! Thank you for the quality history lessons from around NYC :)

  2. Doug Floor Plan
    The Talmadge summer home, "Netherwood" was included in George William Sheldon's 'Artistic Country-Seats', published 1886 - 1887. The book was republished in 1982, with updated comments and information by Arnold Lewis and titled 'American Country Houses of the Gilded Age.' Lewis observed "Netherwood" would have been considered flamboyant for a conservative NY banker. It cost $45,000 to build and was destroyed by fire in 1969.

  3. What a captivating journey through time at 538 Madison Avenue! The Talmadge family's transition from the opulent residence to the Adirondacks and the subsequent transformations of the space into an art gallery, Italian store, and antiques gallery add a rich layer to the building's history. It's almost surreal to imagine Dr. Benjamin Spock, the renowned pediatrician and political voice, sharing the same space where caviar is now served. The tales embedded in each era truly make this architectural gem a witness to the city's ever-evolving tapestry. Kudos to the author for unveiling these hidden chapters.

  4. Thank you for this history of my Great Grandfather’s Madison Ave home. My grandfather was Frank Cossitt Talmadge. My mother and I knew the address, walked uptown to stand in front in the ‘70s but never knew more about it. Netherwood aside from being in Henry Delvin’s Portraits of American Architecture is depicted in the Delvin’s children’s book, The Old Witch Rescues Halloween. I read it to my grand kids each year.
    On another note, my parents who were devoted to Dr. Spock’s child raising g techniques would have been thrilled to know of the connection.
    Lastly, I’m wondering what prompted you to write about 538 Madison and tge Talmadges?
    Thank you!
    Linda von Geldern
    Feel free to contact me

    1. I'm so glad you found the article on your ancestors' house helpful. As to its writing, I have covered the history of more than 4,000 Manhattan locations, so this house just happened to catch my eye one day.