Monday, December 25, 2023

The Lost Eli White House - 51 Fifth Avenue


Seen here in April 1925, 51 Fifth Avenue (on the corner) is one of only three mansions still standing on the block.  The southernmost, 47 Fifth Avenue, was originally home to Irad Hawley and is today the Salmagundi Club.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

The construction of the Henry Brevoort mansion in 1834 transformed Fifth Avenue above Washington Square.  Still a dirt road at the time, within a few years it saw other splendid structures, like the James Lenox residence on the northeast corner of 12th Street, vying or surpassing the Brevoort house in magnificence.  

In 1851 Eli White moved his family into a recently completed house on the southeast corner of 12th Street, across from the Lenox mansion.  Its architect had married the quickly waning Greek Revival style with the more modern Italianate to create an imposing five-story-and-basement home.  The former style was evident in the pilasters and heavy entablature of the entrance atop the high stoop, and in the squat attic level and understated cornice.   Italianate made its appearance in the molded, architrave window frames and the grouped openings on the parlor level facing 12th Street.  The family enjoyed a walled garden in the rear.

Born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1791, White married Caroline White in 1817 (whether she was a relative is unclear).  He was the head of the hat importing firm Eli White & Sons and a director in the North River Insurance Company.  The couple had five children, Arthur Eli and James L., who were partners in his father's firm; Susan Elizabeth; John Jay, who was an attorney; and Mary Ann.  A sixth child, Caroline, had died in infancy in 1825.

Eli White (original source unknown)

Like their neighbors, the White family maintained a country home.  In the decades before the Upper West Side teemed with apartments and businesses, what was known as Bloomingdale was sparsely populated with farms and summer estates.  When the Whites leased theirs for a summer (they possibly went to Europe that year), the advertisement described:

At Bloomingdale, about five miles distant from Union-square, between 119th and 121st sts--a pleasantly situated residence, consisting of between five and six acres of land, extending from the Post Road to the Hudson River, with a convenient dwelling and all requisite out-buildings, a good garden, water, fine shade and fruit trees, &c.; suitable for a Summer and Winter residence, and will be let to a private family only.

Arthur Eli White died on September 7, 1855 at the age of 37.  His funeral was held in the parlor, and he was buried in New York City Marble Cemetery.   (The family had second thoughts six years later, and on April 25, 1861, his body was removed to the White family plot in Litchfield, Connecticut.)

Caroline White White (original source unknown)

Eli White's prominence in the business community was evidenced in the spring of 1863 when he joined others "opposed to the Broadway Railroad scheme," as worded by The New York Times on April 4.  White owned the building at 361 Broadway, on the corner of Franklin Street.  A year earlier the area was described by Harper's Magazine, which said, "Some of the new stores in Broadway are almost as imposing as some of the palaces in Italian cities."  The concept of a "street railroad" running up Broadway threatened the upscale tenor of the shopping district.  During a meeting on April 3, White was chosen as one of 24 committee members to carry their objections to Albany.  His eminent co-members included the likes of Charles L. Tiffany, Paran Stevens, Alexander T. Stewart, William E. Dodge and William H. Appleton.  (Importantly, in 1882 James L. White would erect a magnificent cast iron replacement structure at 361 Broadway.)

Caroline White died on November 26, 1873 at the age of 79.  Eight days later, Eli White died.  He was 82 years old.  Both were buried in the Litchfield, Connecticut plot.  In reporting his death, the New York Herald called him "an old and very much respected merchant" who "always maintained a reputation for the strictest commercial integrity and liberality towards those in his employment."

Still living at 51 Fifth Avenue were James, who was still unmarried; and Mary Ann, her husband William J. Fitzgerald, and their four children, Arthur Butler, born in 1860; Augustine (known as Austin), burn in 1862; Caroline, born in 1865; and Edward, born in 1871.  Following's James White's marriage, the Fitzgerald family continued to occupy the mansion.

Caroline Fitzgerald enjoyed the lifestyle of a privileged young woman, spending 18 months in Europe with the family beginning in 1876; and between 1881 and 1884 they lived in London and Geneva, Switzerland.  Following Caroline's debut, she became well known in Manhattan society.  She would go on to be a poet and classics scholar.  At Yale College, she became one of the first women to study Sanskrit.  

Edward Burne-Jones painted this portrait of Caroline in London in 1884   from the collection of the University of Toronto Art Centre.

The family's travels brought Caroline into contact with important people who would help shape her life.  In 1882 she met poet Robert Browning and the two corresponded regularly.  Bertrand Russell was a friend of the family, who called Caroline "the ideal of young womanhood."

On July 14, 1889, the New York Press titled an article, "To Marry Titled Husbands / Miss Gwendoline Caldwell and Miss Caroline Fitzgerald."  The article said in part:

Miss Caroline Fitzgerald who, when she is in New York, lives at 51 Fifth avenue, but who is now in England enjoying the blessings of prospective matrimony.  Her future husband is Lord Edward Fitzmaurice, the younger brother of the Marquis of Lansdowne, formerly Governor General of Canada and now Viceroy of India.  Miss Fitzgerald is only 21 years of age, and as charming as she is young.  She is wealthy in her own right, and is also the heiress of the estate of the White family, which owns a big share of the lower part of Fifth avenue. 

The article mentioned, "By her marriage Miss Fitzgerald will establish a bond of kinship between her family and that of Queen Victoria, as her future husband's brother married a daughter of a cousin of the Queen," adding somewhat cattily, "The demand on the pretty and rich girls of America by titled foreigners has recently been a very large one, and the business is rapidly increasing."

Only a few months after this photograph was taken on June 16, 1928, 51 Fifth Avenue and its next door neighbor would be demolished.  from the collection of the New York Library

As the end of the century neared, the wealthy families of Lower Fifth Avenue were migrating northward.  The Fitzgerald family still occupied 51 Fifth Avenue on April 14, 1894, when The World reported succinctly, "William J. Fitzgerald is in Europe."  Within four years, however, William Wood & Co., publishers of medical books and The Medical Record, was in the former mansion.

William Wood & Co. operated from the converted mansion for nearly three decades.  Then, on October 21, 1928, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "The southeast corner of 5th ave. and 12th st., Manhattan, is to be improved immediately with a 16-story fireproof apartment house to be known as 51 Fifth Avenue.  Designed by Thomas Lamb, the building survives.

The 1928 structure left the Irad Hawley house sandwiched between two soaring apartment buildings.  image via

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