Monday, December 11, 2023

The Lost George Harrison Byrd House - 69 Park Avenue


A landau awaits in front of the Byrd house on March 26, 1902.  from the collection of the New York Transit Museum

George Harrison Byrd was born in Brandon, Virginia on May 8, 1827.  He descended, according to the New-York Tribune, "from one of the oldest and most prominent families of Virginia."  Byrd's wife was the former Lucy Carter Wickham.  In January 1866, less than a year after before Robert E. Lee surrendered at 
Appomattox Court House, their second child, Alfred Henry, was born.  Perhaps unexpectedly, with Northerners' memories of the bloody conflict still raw, Byrd brought his family to New York City in 1867.

Byrd was a partner in the cotton firm of Wyman, Byrd & Co. and a director in the Bank of New York.  He and Lucy rented a new home at 69 Park Avenue in the fashionable Murray Hill neighborhood from Samuel G. Weyman.  Located on the east side of the avenue just north of 38th Street, the Italianate residence rose four stories above a rusticated English basement.  A wide, stone stoop led to the parlor floor, where the windows wore classical pediments that echoed that of the entrance.  A molded bandcourse that connected the sills of the fourth floor windows broke up the verticality of the design.

Alfred's sister Anne Harrison was seven years old when the family moved in.  Three more children would add to the population of 69 Park Avenue.  Lucy Carter, Francis Otway, and Edward Wickham would be born in the house.

George Harrison Byrd (original source unknown)

George Byrd retired in 1890 at the age of 63.  He would continue to rent the 24-foot-wide residence until, after nearly four decades in the house, he purchased it from Samuel Weyman's estate on March 1, 1900 for $81,000--about $2.9 million in 2023.  

The Byrds were among the "prominent and well known guests" of the Saranac Inn in the summer of 1900, according to the New-York Tribune.  The article hinted at the activities the family enjoyed.  "The golf course retains its popularity, and tennis and boating have their share of devotees.  The casino and billiard rooms always present a lively appearance during the evening."

But the family's attention would quickly turn to a serious threat to their townhouse.  The construction of a subway tunnel up the middle of the avenue was not merely an inconvenience, it was a danger.  On January 27, 1902, a massive explosion at Park Avenue and 41st Street rocked the neighborhood for blocks around, killing six persons and injuring hundreds more.  Damage to nearby structures like the Murray Hill Hotel was substantial.  

On March 3, 1902, Byrd and his neighbors, "driven to desperation by the series of tragic accidents which have occurred along Park avenue between Thirty-fourth and Forty-second streets," held what The World called "a desperation meeting" in the Manhattan Hotel.  "The residents feel that the occupancy of their homes at present is unsafe," said the article.

George and Lucy Byrd had good reason to be nervous.  At the time of the article, the row of houses directly across the avenue had been so badly undermined that they were being carefully demolished.  The World explained, "the front of three houses on the block had caved in and to laymen it seemed as if the other houses on the east side of the street would also cave in."

The houses opposite the Byrd mansion were shored up and being carefully dismantled on March 26, 1902 when this photograph was taken.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Then, on January 30, 1903, the New-York Tribune reported that inspectors and engineers of the Buildings Department had discovered that the Barney mansion next door "had settled," and that three others, including the Byrd house, had sunk "an inch."  The article said that a "large force of men" had been put to work installing "pushing braces to support the front walls" of the houses.  The braces, which were embedded into the sidewalk at a 45-degree angle, "do not prevent the houses from settling, but insure the walls from cracking while the settling is going on," said the New-York Tribune.  T. O. McGill, speaking for the Buildings Department assured owners that, while the houses might sink another two inches, "There is nothing alarming about this settling, and people should not be frightened because they see a large force of men bracing up some buildings."  Despite those assurances, three days later the newspaper reported that an inspection of the houses was being made every two hours.

Irate, George H. Byrd and his neighbors sued the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners on September 7, 1905.  Byrd's claim covered damages caused by blasting, "damages generally," legal expenses, and other items.  It totaled $17,250.79 (nearly $600,000 today).  

In the meantime, life went on in the Park Avenue house.  On May 4, 1904 George and Lucy announced Lucy Carter's engagement to Dr. Ellsworth Elliot, Jr.  The couple was married in the Church of the Incarnation on June 15.  The New York Times noted, "A small reception for the relatives and intimate friends followed at the residence of the bride's parents."

George Harrison Byrd fell ill in June 1910, and died a few days later on June 10.  In reporting his death, the New-York Tribune pointed out, "Mr. Byrd's mother was before her marriage Miss Anne Harrison, whose family was equally prominent in Virginia as the Byrd family.  President Harrison was a distant relative."  Byrd's body was transported to the family cemetery in Berryville, Virginia for internment.  On August 6, The New York Times reported that he left an estate of $1,205,902, the equivalent of $38.3 million in 2023.

Lucy and Anne, who was still unmarried, re-entered the social circle following their period of mourning.  On February 27, 1912, for instance, The New York Times reported that a meeting of the Sewing Class in Aid of Seamen would be held "at the home of Miss Byrd, 69 Park Avenue," on March 27.  Lucy was involved in a sewing class, as well, one organized by the Colonial Dames.

When this photo was taken on April 19, 1920, the end of the line was near for this block of Park Avenue.  To the right of the Byrd house is the Charles Barney mansion.  It may have been the damage from the subway construction that resulted in 71 Park Avenue, on the other side, being demolished and replaced with the fine home we see here.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Anne Harrison Byrd never married.  She and her mother  lived on in the house with their staff of servants as Park Avenue changed from a quiet, mansion lined street to a busy thoroughfare.  Then, on April 19, 1923, The New York Times reported, "Mrs. Lucy Carter Wickham Byrd, the widow of George Harrison Byrd, died on Tuesday at her home, 69 Park Avenue."  As had been the case with her husband, her funeral was held in Virginia.

Before the end of the year, the Byrd house and its neighbor at 71 Park Avenue were demolished to make way for a 13-floor apartment building designed by Walker and Gillette. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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