Monday, February 5, 2024

The Lost Stephen Whitney House - 7 Bowling Green


Seen here around 1860, the Whitney mansion had a commodious rear garden.  To the right is the cast iron fencing of the Battery.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Stephen Whitney's first American ancestor arrived in Connecticut around 1650.  Although he was born into modest circumstances in Derby, Connecticut on September 4, 1776, he would eventually amass a fortune considered second only to that of John Jacob Astor I.  Whitney relocated to New York City while in his early 20s, first working for Lawrence & Whitney, co-founded by his brother Henry.  Around 1800 he partnered with John Currie in a wine and spirits importing and wholesale grocery business.

It was the War of 1812 that changed Whitney from a successful businessman to a mogul.  An embargo on exporting cotton made the commodity nearly worthless, but a far-sighted Whitney allowed his agents to accept cotton as payment for Southern debts owed him.  At the war's end he had warehouses full of cotton and with the lifting of the embargo, the prices skyrocketed.  At the age of 42 in 1818, he was wealthy enough to retire.

In the meantime, Whitney had married Harriet Suydam in 1803 and moved to 4 Stone Street where they had nine children (one of whom, John Currie, died shortly after his birth in 1808).  

In 1817, according to historian Joseph Alfred Scoville, Stephen Whitney erected a fine brick-faced mansion on the corner of Bowling Green and State Street.  Three-and-a-half stories tall above a high English basement, it provided views of two elegant parks--the Battery and the Bowling Green.  The Whitney house not only had a large, walled garden in the rear, but an ample front garden.  A broad stoop (most likely marble) rose to the arched entrance with Corinthian columns, and leaded sidelights and fanlight.

The Whitney mansion faced Bowling Green park.  The "Bowling Green Row" can be seen on the opposite site.  from the collection of The New York Public Library

Retirement for Whitney did not mean inactivity.  He now focused on investing his fortune in real estate, and in 1827 worked with William B. Astor and other businessmen in erecting the Merchants' Exchange Building, which became the first permanent home of the New York Stock and Exchange.   

Whitney once again saw opportunity in adversity when the country suffered the Financial Panic of 1837.  He bought up what was essentially worthless commercial paper, holding it until the economy revived.  His fortune was greatly increased by the move.

The parlors of 7 Bowling Green were the scene of two almost back-to-back weddings.  On June 25, 1828, Emeline Whitney, who was 22, married John Dore.  The couple made their home with Emily's parents.  A year later, on October 28, 1829, Mary Whitney was married to Jones Phillips Phoenix in the house.  The newlyweds moved to 18 State Street, just around the corner.  (The New England Historical and Genealogical Register mentioned that the Phoenix residence sat within the "aristocratic and fashionable quarter of Bowling Green and the Battery.")

Mary and J. Phillips Phoenix moved to 18 State Street, the middle house to the right, steps from her parents' home and garden (left).  from the collection of the New York Public Library

While the Whitney daughters were refined and well-married, the Whitney boys were a problem.  In his 1864 The Old Merchants of New York City, Joseph Alfred Scoville wrote, "He [i.e. Stephen Whitney] had a great deal of trouble with his sons. They were all more or less dissipated when young."   

Around 1824, Stephen Whitney set up his eldest son Samuel Suydam Whitney in business.  According to Scoville, 

He told Sam, when he set him up, "Now, my son, I have given you ample capital. If you are steady, and take care of it and yourself, you will do well and make a large fortune.  I only wish I had had such a beginning as you have.  Keep out of bad company; avoid gambling. I will indorse all your business notes for your tea and other purchases. If you do not do as I wish you will incur my serious displeasure." 

In 1832 Samuel took George B. Storm into the business, renaming it Whitney & Storm.  Interestingly, Storm appeared in the 1836 city directory as living at 7 Bowling Green.

Like her sisters, the Whitney's youngest child, Caroline, was married in the family house on November 3, 1841.  The groom, Ferdinand Suydam Jr., was her cousin.  Caroline was 18 years old.

Despite his father's admonitions, Samuel Suydam Whitney did not "keep out of bad company" and "avoid gambling."  Never married, he remained in the Bowling Green mansion with his parents.  While his business thrived, his drinking and gambling got out of hand.  He successfully hid his habits until one morning a "blackleg" (a British term for a swindler or gambler) knocked on the door of 7 Bowling Green and asked for Mr. Whitney.  Stephen Whitney came downstairs and the man showed him a check for $1,000 which had bounced.  Joseph Alfred Scoville explained, "The son had lost that sum at the faro table the night before."  Whitney replaced the check with one of his own, then headed to the offices of Whitney & Storm.

There, Whitney told his son, "You shall no longer bring disgrace upon me.  I will put a stopper on such goings on."  Scoville wrote, "The son left business, never to engage again in it."  Surprisingly, he was allowed to remain in the Bowling Green mansion, "but was never regarded as of any account by his father, or anyone else."

Equally (or worse) "dissipated" was Stephen Jr.  Born in 1814, like Samuel, he never married.  Described as "very wild and extravagant," Scoville wrote that he "formed one of those injurious connections with a young lady that are not deemed as respectable as marriage.  By her he had two children."  The Whitney family, of course, knew nothing of this.  For now.

Stephen Jr. died of consumption at 7 Bowling Green on November 21, 1858 at the age of 44.  Like all the Whitneys, he was buried in the family chapel in Greenwood Cemetery.   During the funeral at Trinity Church, Stephen Sr. noticed a woman, apparently in deep grief, whom he did not recognize.  He asked another mourner who she was.  According to Scoville, he answered, "She was the mistress of your son, and has by him two lovely children."

The following day Whitney investigated the matter and learned the woman's name.  He had $20,000 of stock in the New Jersey Transportation Company placed in her name and sent it to her.

Exactly one month after Stephen's death, Samuel Suydam Whitney died in the house on December 21, 1858.  He was 54.  His funeral, too, was held at Trinity Church.

On February 17, 1860, The New York Times reported, "At noon, yesterday, Mr. Stephen Whitney, one of the oldest and wealthiest of our citizens, died at his residence in Bowling-green."  The article said his "strictly upright" dealings had brought him his fortune, "estimated at the enormous amount of $8,000,000."  (The figure would translate to about $290 million in 2024.)

The article noted, "Perhaps no fact exhibits [the] conservative element of his character more forcibly than his persistent refusal to follow his old acquaintances and neighbors who, years ago, resigned their downtown mansions for more quiet and fashionable homes in the upper part of the City.  For the last fifty years Mr. Whitney has resided on Bowling-green."

By the end of the century, the streetcar tracks that ran up Bowling Green and State Street testified to the change in the area.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Whitney's will left divided his estate among the family, leaving nothing to charity.  Harriet received "all stocks and moneys which stand credited to her on his books; the dwelling house at the corner of State street and Bowling Green, together with its furniture, and the sum of $100,000."  The will noted, "The dwelling-house, which falls to the relict [i.e., widow] of Mr. Whitney, is not to be sold without her consent given in writing."

That clause was soon irrelevant.  Three months later, on May 12, Harriet died at the age of 77.  Unlike those of her sons and husband, her funeral was held in the parlors of 7 Bowling Green.

The Whitney heirs wasted no time in emptying the mansion of its fine furnishings and artwork.  On October 3, 1860 an announcement appeared in The Evening Post of the sale of Stephen Whitney's "choice old wines" to be held in the house the following day.

Like the other once-refined residences along Bowling Green and State Street, the Whitney house was converted for business.  It became headquarters of the Hergues & Co. Steamship Co. and in 1861, with Civil War raging, the Government leased space as headquarters of the Coast Division of the Union Navy.

After the war, the Government continued renting space at 7 Bowling Green.  In 1868, the War Department was leasing three rooms for the Chief Court Marshal, and four rooms as the offices "for engineer agency, Forts Columbus, Wood, and Gibson, Castle William, and South Battery."

The house as it appeared in 1880.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1869 the Anchor Steamship Line took over the house.  The firm suffered a string of horrendous events.  A year earlier the Hibernia sank in mid-ocean; in 1870 the United Kingdom vanished in the Atlantic with no trace; and in October that same year, the Cambria sank.  In all 340 people died in the three horrible incidents.

The Anchor Line remained in the former mansion until 1899, when it and its neighbors were demolished for the magnificent U.S. Custom House, designed by Cass Gilbert.  

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  1. Doug Floor Plan

    Thanks, Tom, for an interesting post. I'm impressed that, not only did Stephen Whitney see the future value of cotton and commercial paper, but he did not overextend himself and was able to hold each until the market turned in his favor. Too bad about having wastrel sons. Do you know if the Whitney family fortune survived through his daughter's?

    1. John Dore, Jones Philips Phoenix, and Ferdinand Suydam Jr. had significant fortunes of their own. The Whitney daughters were not named in their father's will; however they undoubtedly shared in equal parts the estate of their mother.