Monday, January 29, 2024

The Lost George Wood Mansion - 45 Fifth Avenue


The Wood mansion (right) was starkly different than its neighbors on the block.  image from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Born in Burlington, New Jersey in 1789, attorney George Wood rose to become the head of the bar in that state.  So respected were his skills, that the story was often repeated of the time Daniel Webster met another eminent lawyer in Washington who told him he was in the city "to argue a case in the Supreme Court of the United States."  

Webster is said to have asked, "Who is on the other side?"

"A sleepy-looking fellow from New Jersey, by the name of Wood," was the reply.

"Ah!" said Webster, "my advice to you is that you shall not wake him up.  Better let him sleep until your case has been argued!"

Wood relocated to New York City around 1828.  The New York Herald later recalled, "His fame soon became wide-spread, and, although distinguished as an advocate, yet his greatest reputation was due to his pre-eminent ability in the argument of questions of law before the bench."

Wood and his wife had two sons, Frederick (who was also a lawyer), and George K. Wood, a physician.  Their daughters were Catharine, Anna, Mary, Julia and Louisa.  

Around 1854, Wood began construction of a double-wide mansion on the east side of Fifth Avenue, just north of 11th Street.  A vacant lot on the corner served as the family's garden (at least for now), and its private carriage house was located conveniently to the rear at 11 East 11th Street.

The brownstone-fronted, Italianate style residence was three-stories tall above a rusticated basement level.  On either side of the centered entrance, floor-to-ceiling windows were fronted by lacy cast iron balconies.  Their permanent metal hoods helped shield expensive draperies and upholstery inside from damaging sunlight.  The stone lintels of the third floor extended beyond the window to accommodate frilly carved ornaments.

Wood was outspoken in his views of contentious issues like slavery, often exposing his inherent racism.  On April 4, 1854, in a long letter to The New York Times, he warned of the work of abolitionists.  "This class of people, with this morbid conscience, will not be satisfied unless they have freed all the negroes in the South, and ruined the population, both black and white."  Sounding much a recent politician, he said "African slavery has its evils, but it has its good effects."  Four years later, as the Civil War loomed near, he warned, "Experience has shown that the black race, accustomed to slavery, will not work when free, especially in a climate which relaxes and enervates the faculties, and renders them indolent."

In July 1855, Wood lashed out in another lengthy letter to The New York Times concerning Maine's recently passed law "for the Prevention of Intemperance, Pauperism and Crime."  Foreshadowing the argument against Prohibition that would sweep the nation decades later, he said in part, "To abolish the entire use of all kinds of liquors except hard cider, raised in the rural going too far in a Constitutional Government.  It is legislating against the many."

Around 1858, George Wood suffered a stroke.  For two years, according to the New-York Tribune, he suffered "from paralysis."  On the night of March 17, 1860, said the newspaper, he "awoke complaining of pain in his arm.  His wife endeavored to assuage his suffering by rubbing the affected arm.  He then said that he felt a cold sweat on his forehead, and in a very brief time after that expired."

Despite his sometimes controversial social stances--easily seen today as repugnant--he was remembered for his brilliant legal work.  On March 24, 1860, the New York Dispatch wrote, "The Bar of our city declared the simple truth when they said that in the death of Mr. Wood they had been deprived of one of their most distinguished ornaments, who, by a rare union of dignity and urbanity, was greatly endeared to them."

Following private services in the drawing rooms of 45 Fifth Avenue, Wood's funeral was held at the Reformed Dutch Church on Lafayette Place.  Among the mourners were Civil War General Winfield Scott, U. S. District Attorney James J. Roosevelt, and "a number of distinguished citizens," according to the New York Herald.

Wood's significant estate included extensive real estate holdings.  His wife received the Fifth Avenue house and the "lot corner of Fifth-avenue and Eleventh-street," as well as six houses in Brooklyn.  George K. Wood received property in Uvalde, Texas; Frederick was bequeathed his father's law library, and numerous properties in Brooklyn.  His wife and six children received equal shares in a 340-acre property in Minnesota, a 30-acre farm in Rye, New York, and 36 more houses in Brooklyn.

At the time of George Wood's death, Frederick and George K. were still living with their mother.  The family remained at 45 Fifth Avenue until 1866.  It was apparently at this time that the Lenox family, which owned large amounts of property in the neighborhood, purchased the house.  That year it was leased to the Clinton Gilbert family.  

As a United States gauger, Gilbert worked for the Customs Department overseeing the importation of alcohol.  It was a job that would end his life five years later.  A group of approximately 30 officials, including Gilbert, embarked on a raid on an "illicit distillery" being operated in Brooklyn.  As they entered the alley, they were fired upon.  Gilbert was shot and died the following day.

By then, the Gilbert family had been gone from 45 Fifth Avenue for three years.  It was now home to journalist and politician Benjamin Wood (not related to the previous Wood family) and his wife Ellen Walsh.  The editor and publisher of the New York Daily News, he had served in the United States Congress from 1861 to 1865, and in the Senate from 1866 to 1867.  

Benjamin Wood, from the collection of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

His relationship with Ellen had begun in scandal.  Coming to New York as a teen, she changed her name to Ida Mayfield, claiming to be the daughter of a wealthy sugar plantation owner.  In 1857, at the age of 19, she propositioned the 37-year-0ld married man in a reportedly lurid letter, and became his mistress.  They married in 1867 following the death of Wood's wife.

The Woods remained at 45 Fifth Avenue until 1872.  (Following Benjamin Wood's death in 1900, Ida Mayfield Wood briefly ran the New York Daily News before selling it in 1901.  In 1907, she withdrew about $1 million in cash--equal to about $32 million in 2024--and took a two-room suite at the Herald Square Hotel.  She lived there as a recluse with her two sisters, not even allowing the maid to enter, until her death in March 1932.)

Ferdinand F. Knaufft and his wife, the former Eliza C. T. Hart, moved into 45 Fifth Avenue following the Woods.  The couple had five children, Henrietta, Anna Augusta, Mary Louis, Frederick Ferdinand, and Wilhelmina Gertrude, the youngest of which (Gertrude) was eight years old in 1873 when the family took possession of the house.

The family operated the residence as an upscale boarding house.  An advertisement in the Evening Post on September 14, 1874, offered, "Superior accommodations, consisting of one or two entire floors in the spacious double house 45 Fifth avenue.  Private table only."  The renting of two floors of a three-story house did not leave a great amount of space for the family of seven.  The caveat "private table only" meant that no outside guests were accommodated at dinner.

By the early 1880s, 45 Fifth Avenue was home to the H. Van Rensselaer Kennedy family.  Kennedy was a nephew of Henrietta A. Lenox (the daughter of Robert Lenox), who currently owned the mansion.  The Kennedys were part of a family enclave--Robert L. Kennedy lived at 99 Fifth Avenue, Rachel L. Kennedy was at 41, and Mary L. Kennedy lived around the corner at 10 East 11th Street.  

Henrietta A. Lenox died on July 6, 1886 at the age of 80, leaving a massive estate of $10 million, according to The Sun (the figure would translate to about $321 million today).  Although the Kennedys were still living here, in November 1886 her estate transferred title to "the house and lot at 45 Fifth Avenue" to Mary L. and J. Fisher Scheafe.   The Scheafes converted the mansion to high-end apartments.  An advertisement on April 5, 1890 offered, "Desirable unfurnished flat, 8 rooms, to let, 45 Fifth Avenue, $1,600 per year."  The rent would translate to about $4,500 per month today.

Among the select tenants in the late 1890s was Harriet B. Mills, the wealthy widow of author John Cruger Mills, who died in Saratoga in 1889; and Adele Ronalds-Reglid and her husband Charles Franklyn Reglid.

Adele was the widow of Thomas Lorillard Ronalds and was "connected by marriage with Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, the Conklins, and other well-known New York Families," according to The New York Times.  The newspaper said she owned "considerable real estate in this city, besides valuable out-of-town property."  On August 16, 1894, Adele "created a great deal of talk" when she married Charles Reglid, "owing to the great difference in their ages," said The New York Times.  An actor and the son of a grocer, Reglid was 40 years younger than Adele.  The newspaper said he "received a gift from his wife of $75,000 at the time of their marriage, on condition that he would not use it in speculation."

Adele Ronalds-Reglid died in their apartment on June 2, 1900.  Two days later, The New York Times reported, "It was said at the residence yesterday that Mr. Reglid was too prostrated to see any one other than his intimate friends."

The lower Fifth Avenue neighborhood changed in the early years of the 20th century as the old, aristocratic families moved northward.  Yet the tenor of 45 Fifth Avenue remained upscale.  The affluent family of Cyrus W. Field lived here in 1902, and in 1908 James D. Layng, Jr. had a large apartment in the building.  A lawyer, he was the son of railroad mogul James D. Layng.

Resident Charlotte Louisa Wilkins, the widow of Martin Gilbert Wilkins lived here by 1913.  She was a descendant of Lewis Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Colonel Nicholas Fish.  Charlotte had a house guest in the winter of 1913.  Louisa Morris Livingston of Albany, was introduced to society there on December 6.  The New York Times noted, "She will come to New York later, and will be with her aunt, Mrs. M. G. Wilkins, 45 Fifth Avenue."  The article noted, "Miss Livingston is a cousin of the Countess de Laugier Villars and of Mrs. Geralyn Redmond."

In 1914, a seven-room and bath apartment here was listed at $1,250, or about $3,150 per month in today's terms.  

On January 2, 1922, Charlotte Louisa Wilkins died in her apartment.  At the time of her passing, the end of the line for the venerable George Wood mansion was nearing.  On August 1, 1925, the Record & Guide reported, "The building located at 45 Fifth Avenue is being razed and on its site the Forty-five Fifth Avenue Corporation will erect a 16 story apartment costing approximately $500,000."  That building, designed by Sugarman & Berger, survives.

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1 comment:

  1. Salamagundi Club to the left. 47 Fifth Avenue