Monday, February 19, 2024

The Lost Theodore G. Thomas House - 600 Madison Avenue


American Architect & Buildings News March 13, 1886 (copyright expired)

The block of Madison Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets in 1886 was only slightly less prestigious than the mansion-lined Fifth Avenue a block to the west.  That year world famous gynecologist Theodore Gaillard Thomas moved his family into their newly-completed residence at 600 Madison Avenue.
Dr. Thomas had commissioned architect Bruce Price to design the five-story mansion.  His Queen Anne design was heavily blended with romantic elements of the German Renaissance--notably in the protruding gargoyles above the fourth floor openings, and the intricate leading of the windows.  

Fearsome gargoyles, and German carvings between the intricately leaded windows were influenced by the German Renaissance.  cropped image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The house was faced in brick and trimmed in stone.  In stark contrast was the full-width bowed bay at the second floor, which was covered in "repousse copper," according to The American Architect & Building News on March 13, 1886.  It provided a spacious balcony to the third which, too, was fronted by copper panels decorated with pressed bosses.  A prominent gable clad in waffle-like "Akron tiles" and stars fronted the mansard, which sprouted two fairytale dormers.

The American Architect & Building News wrote, "The basement-floor, offices, parlor-floor, parlor, library and dining-room are all finished in oak, with heavy-beamed ceilings."  Rowhouses had the disadvantage of having only two walls of windows--front and back.  Price relieved that problem by inserting a light court at the left-center of the house which provided extra light and ventilation.

The Thomas family sacrificed interior square footage for light and air by allowing Bruce Price to cut a courtyard into the side of their home.  The American Architect & Building News, March 13, 1886 (copyright expired)

Although Dr. Thomas was a gynecologist, he nevertheless came into contact with infectious diseases.  He had Price design a personal "hospital" on the top floor, "carrying out a hobby of the doctor's for quarantining any member of his own family stricken with any infectious disease," said the article.

Theodore Gaillard Thomas (who went professionally by his first initial), was born on November 21, 1831 in Edisto Island, South Carolina.  He was educated in his home state, then studied medicine in Europe from 1853 to 1855.  When he erected his Madison Avenue home, he was the chair of the gynecology department at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.  His 1868 Diseases of Women was translated into French, German, Chinese, Italian and Spanish.

Dr. Theodore Gaillard Thomas, from the collection of the New York Public Library

Thomas and his wife, the former Mary Theodosia Willard (who went by Mae) were married in 1862 and had three sons, John Metcalf, Edward (who was born disabled), Theodore Jr., and Howard Lapsey.  The family's summer home, The Birdhouse, sat on 13 acres in Southampton, Long Island.

"The Birdhouse" was the subject of an early 20th century postcard.

In fact, The Birdhouse was the second expansive cottage built in Southampton.  After being invited to the area in 1863 by a patient's husband, Thomas vowed to someday build a summer home there.  It was not until 1877 that The Birdhouse was erected.  Originally called The Dunes by the Thomases, villagers thought the two wraparound porches and railings gave the house the appearance of a fancy bird cage.  Decades before Southampton would become the playground of the rich and famous, a journalist with Long Island Magazine scratched his critical head, saying he could not understand "why anyone should wish to imitate the inconveniences that plagued our ancestors."  Thomas is credited today with convincing other well-heeled New Yorkers to establish the summer colony that became the Southampton we know today.

On April 14, 1892, the Arizona Territory newspaper The St. Johns Herald reported, "It is estimated that a hundred New York doctors have each an annual income of $10,000 and over."  At the top of the list were "Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas and Dr. Salisbury," who were "popularly supposed to receive, from their professional duties, $100,000 a year."  It was an almost inconceivable amount to the newspaper's Western readers--equal to around $3.7 million in 2024.

Despite their significant wealth, the Thomases appeared in the society pages only occasionally, like the mention in The New York Times on February 24, 1892 that "Dr. and Mrs. Theodore G. Thomas of 600 Madison Avenue gave a dinner last evening.  Fourteen invitations were issued."

A significant exception was when Howard Lapley Thomas was married to Adele Larocque on November 19, 1895 in St. Bartholomew's Church.  It was a society affair, The New York Times noting, "The church was crowded, many of the guests being from Washington, Boston, and Philadelphia."

Tragically, less than two years later, on June 8, 1897, the New-York Tribune wrote, "The New-York Stock Exchange, of which he had been a member since April 4, 1895, received notice yesterday of the death on Saturday of Howard Lapsely Thomas, son of Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas."  The young man had died of consumption.

Dr. Thomas retired in 1899.  Two years later he was given a testimonial dinner on his 70th birthday.  On November 18, 1901, the New-York Tribune reported, "A large number of his friends in the medical profession intend to take part in the celebration by giving a dinner for him at Sherry's on the evening of his birthday."

It was, perhaps, the last such event the doctor would attend.  On March 1, 1903, The New York Times reported, "Theodore Gaillard Thomas, one of the foremost gynecologists in the United States, died yesterday at Thomasville, Ga.  His home in this city is at 600 Madison Avenue."  The article noted, "His work as a gynecologist became widely known and brought him a fortune."

At the time of Thomas's death, commerce had already invaded his Madison Avenue neighborhood.  By 1907, the Thomas heirs had converted the lower floors of their former home for retail purposes--home to the fur shop of Max Bowsky & Co.--and the upper floors to high-end apartments.  

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Mrs. Gertrude A. Lee, who lived nearby at 570 Madison Avenue, was shopping at Max Bowsky & Co. on the afternoon of November 27, 1907.   Also in the shop was a regular customer named Hunter.  Sometime after Mrs. Hunter's departure, Gertrude Lee flew into a panic when she realized her purse was gone.  The New York Times described it as "very valuable, being of solid gold and studded with diamonds."

Because Max Bowsky knew Mrs. Hunter well, according to The New York Times, "suspicion fell upon the boy, who was the only other person about."  That youth was 14-year-old Edward Fives, who apparently worked for Bowsky.  Gertrude Lee had him arrested for theft, although he vehemently denied having taken her purse.  Fives was taken to the Children's Society and held for trial.

The following day, Gertrude Lee received a telephone call from the Fifth Avenue Trust Company.  Mrs. Hunter had dropped off her handbag there, saying she accidentally picked it up somewhere by mistake.  (Exactly how she mistook a gold bag studded with diamonds for her own was not explained.)  After rushing to the bank and retrieving her purse, Gertrude turned her focus to Edward Fives.  The New York Times said, "after obtaining his release, Mrs. Lee said she would remunerate him for the mistake."

A celebrated resident upstairs in 1914 was the famed Shakespearean actress Julia Marlow.  She gave the public a scare that spring when it was rumored she had undergone an appendicitis operation.  Theater-goers gave a sigh of relief when, on March 11, The Washington Herald reported, "Miss Julia Marlowe, the Shakespearean star, was not operated upon last week as reported. The actress, who is living at 600 Madison avenue, New York, has been seriously ill, but is now able to take daily rides."

Julia Marlow - from the collection of the New York Public Library

On February 3, 1917, the Record & Guide reported that John Metcalf Thomas and Theodore G. Thomas Jr. had leased the building to dressmaker and milliner Fitzpatrick, Inc.  The article noted the firm "will use part of the building for its own business and sub-rent the balance."  The upper floors continued to contain high-end apartments.

The New Gallery, Inc. opened here in 1922.  In December that year it staged "The Hundred Dollar Holiday Exhibition" that included works by Picasso, Modigliani, Dufy, Sprinchorn and other modern artists.

At mid-century, the former Thomas mansion was a distinct anachronism along the once-residential block.  But that ended in 1961 when the Frouge Corporation demolished it and its neighbors to make way for the Emery Roth & Sons designed 600 Madison Avenue, which survives.

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1 comment:

  1. Gorgeous gingerbread of a house. At least the image survives.