Monday, January 15, 2024

The Lost Elihu Root Mansion -- 733 Park Avenue


The New York Architect, August 1907 (copyright expired)

Born on February 15, 1845, Elihu Root was a pioneer in the practice of international law.  He married Clara Frances Wales in 1878, and the couple had three children, Edith, Elihu Jr., and Edward Wales.  The family's summer home was in Clinton, New York.

A 1907 postcard depicted the Root summer home.

Elihu Root was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1883.  Then, in July 1899, he was made Secretary of War by President William McKinley.  Root resigned his cabinet position on February 1, 1904 to return to New York and his private law practice.  It appears that Root had considered his resignation for some time.  A year earlier, on May 9, 1903, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide had announced that Carrere & Hastings was designing "the new dwelling which Secretary of War Elihu Root will erect at the southeast corner of Park av. and 71st st."  The article noted that Root had paid $100,000 for the land and that the "dwelling will cost in the neighborhood of $150,000."  The combined costs placed Root's outlay at over $8.5 million in 2024 terms.

Elihu and Clara Frances Root, from the collection of the Library of Congress.

On June 25, 1904, a year into construction, the Record & Guide reported that the mansion "has reached the 5th story floor level."  The article said, "The design, by Carrere & almost devoid of ornamentation, the structure depending upon its proportions, simplicity of line, and the rich color of its Harvard brick exterior, for its effectiveness."  The journalist added, "The house is to have a richly carved marble staircase with ornamental balustrades."

Construction was completed in 1905.  Carrere & Hastings's reserved, neo-Regency style design recalled the townhouses of the London gentry a century earlier.  The entrance sat within a shallow limestone portico crowned by a broken pediment.  Faux balconies fronted the second story windows, the limestone frames of which terminated in panels carved with classical urns.  The fifth floor sat discretely behind a balustrade above the terminal cornice.

Visitors were no doubt awed when they entered the spacious "foyer hall" wits its sweeping marble staircase.  The New York Architect, August 1907 (copyright expired)

If the Roots moved into their new home at all, it was for a very short period.  On July 19, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Elihu Root Secretary of State, and, once again, he and Clara relocated to Washington.  

Indoor & Out, March 6, 1906 (copyright expired)

In their absence, the Roots rented the mansion to Paul and Charlotte Morton.  The two couples were assuredly well acquainted, Morton's position as Secretary of the Navy having just ended on June 30, 1905.  (The end of his one-year term was uncomfortable, at best.  He was forced to resign when it was revealed that the Santa Fe Railroad, of which he was vice president, was given illegal rebates under him.  President Theodore Roosevelt supported Morton, insisting that the millionaire never knew of the improprieties.) 

Morton was now president of the Equitable Life Assurance Society.  He and his wife, the former Charlotte Goodrich, had two daughters, Charlotte and Pauline.  Charlotte was an ardent “anti” during the early Suffragist Movement, allying herself with socialites against women’s rights to vote.  She was Honorary Vice-President of the National League for Civic Education; an organization that strove to snuff out the Suffragist Movement.

Indoors & Out, March 6, 1906 (copyright expired)

The Mortons had impressive, if unexpected, houseguests on January 15, 1906.  The New York Times reported that former President Grover Cleveland and his wife arrived in town that day, and that "Paul lodgings for Mr. Cleveland on Monday evening" at the Hotel Buckingham on Fifth Avenue.  Cleveland first attended a luncheon at the Lawyer's Club, then went to the hotel.  Astonishingly, given that Cleveland was a former United States President, he was not accommodated.

Indoor & Out, March 6, 1906 (copyright expired)

"'I am very sorry, but there really isn't a room in the house,' he was told," said The New York Times.  "Mr. Cleveland seemed disappointed as he walked away."  And so the Clevelands turned to the man who had been entrusted in securing their lodging.  "After failing to get rooms at the Buckingham, he went to Mr. Morton's house, at 733 Park Avenue.  Mrs. Cleveland joined him during the day, and they spent last night there," said the article.

Paul and Charlotte Morton, New-York Tribune, August 20, 1905 (copyright expired)

The Roots and Mortons apparently had an understanding that the former could use their home when necessary.  On January 25, 1907, the New-York Tribune reported, "Secretary Elihu Root of the State Department and Mrs. Root arrived in the city at 9 o'clock last night on the Montreal express...They went at once to their town house, No. 733 Park avenue, and will leave here this morning for Washington."

The library.  Indoors & Out, March 6, 1906 (copyright expired)

The next day, The Sun reported that among the "notable weddings" to take place the following month would be that of Pauline Morton to J. Hopkins Smith, Jr.  "Mr. and Mrs. Paul Morton, the bride's parents, are living in the fine new establishment of Elihu Root, 733 Park avenue, which will be the scene of the big reception."

The wedding took place in St. Thomas's Church on February 2, after which a who's who of society filed into the Park Avenue mansion.  Included among those invited were not only the expected society names like Astor, Cutting, Atterbury, Alexander and, of course, the Roots, but also President  Theodore Roosevelt and the First Lady.  

Elihu Root's term as Secretary of State ended in 1909.  But he would not be returning to Park Avenue.  On March 4 that year he began service as United State Senator.  Never having truly occupied the sumptuous house they had erected, Elihu and Clara Root sold it in November 1910 to Carll Tucker for $350,000 (about $11 million in today's money).   The Mortons moved to 844 Fifth Avenue, next door to the John Jacob Astor mansion

Tucker's wife was the former Marcia Myers Brady.  The couple had two children, one-year-old Luther and four-month old Nicholas Brady.  Three more children would be born in the house, Marcia Anne, in 1914; Ruth Burnett in 1917; and Carll Jr. in 1921.

An early photograph of Carll Tucker (original source unknown)

As with all monied families, the Tuckers filled 733 Park Avenue with impressive art.  Included in their collection were paintings by modern artists like Edward Hopper.

The Tuckers' elevated lifestyle was reflected in The New York Times reporting on the New York Horse Show on November 7, 1915.  One of the last gasps of the summer social season, like Ascot in Britain, it was where socialites displayed their finery.  And six-year-old Luther was already being groomed.  The article said,

The children of society were there in numbers, and they marched around the promenade in twos and threes, in dainty and modish costumes, just like their mammas, while the less fortunate children looked down upon the scene with wondering eyes.  Some of the children hugged the silver cups they had won, all afternoon, particularly little Luther Tucker of 733 Park Avenue, who was with his sisters and a governess.

On May 14, 1920, The Sun reported that the Tuckers had purchased "the handsome house of Edmund Butler known as Sengahurst, and thirty-seven acres of land surrounding."  The family renamed their new summer estate in Mount Kisco "Penwood."

A postcard depicted Sengahurst, which the Tuckers renamed Penwood.

Like almost all extremely wealthy families, the Great Depression did not noticeably affect the Tuckers' lifestyle.  In 1929, Carll commissioned the Migrant, a steel-hulled, 800-ton three-masted auxiliary schooner, called by The New York Times, "one of the largest of its kind built in the United States."  And Marcia continued her routine of entertaining and charitable works.  On February 18, 1933, for instance, The Evening Post reported on the sewing classes of the Fresh Air Association of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  "On March 14," said the article, "the group will meet with Mrs. Caril [sic] Tucker at her home."

A disturbing incident occurred on May 23, 1933.  Marcia traveled to Penwood with a maid, Bertha Hubert, who had been hired a month earlier.  As the automobile neared the estate, Marcia, Bertha and the chauffeur, Robert E. Yaeger (he was one of three chauffeurs employed by the family), heard a noise and noticed a shimmying of the vehicle.  Later that same day, Marcia asked Robert to take Bertha and another servant, Nellie Fisher, back to the Park Avenue house.  He mentioned to Carll Tucker that he suspected "there was something wrong with the front tire and the steering," according Bertha later.  She said that Tucker replied, "Never mind, that is a new tire."

The library at Penwood.  Architectural Forum, Volume XLII, 1925 (copyright expired)

On the way to New York City, Bertha testified, "I heard a crack like a blow-out" after which the car crashed and rolled over twice.  All three occupants of the automobile were hospitalized and all three sued their employer.  (Robert Yaeger later dropped his suit.)  A jury awarded $4,000 to Bertha Hubert and $2,000 to Nellie Fisher ($84,500 and $42,000, respectively, in today's money).

photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Tuckers were at Penwood on July 30, 1956 when Carll died of a coronary thrombosis at the age of 74.  Calling him a "clubman," since he had no real profession, in reporting his death The New York Times mentioned, "Mr. and Mrs. Tucker entertained frequently at their New York home, the former Elihu Root mansion, 733 Park Avenue...and on their extensive Mount Kisco estate."

Marcia Tucker sold 733 Park Avenue to Alex Muss in 1969.  The following year, on October 11, 1970, The New York Times began an article saying, "Ground has been broken for a $10-million cooperative apartment house on Park Avenue in which the least expensive being offered at $270,000."  Muss had demolished the former Root mansion to erect the 28-floor building designed by Kahn & Jacobs with Harry F. Green.  The building is known as 733 Park Avenue.

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