Wednesday, March 20, 2024

The Henry P. Davison Mansion - 690 Park Avenue


The Davison garage is discreetly tucked into the facade at left.

Born in Troy, Pennsylvania on June 12, 1867, Henry Pomeroy Davison came to New York City to join the Astor Place Bank in 1891.  Two years later he married Mary Kate Trubee.  The couple would have four children, Frederick Trubee, Henry Pomeroy Jr., Alice Trubee, and Frances Pomeroy.  In 1903, just over a decade after arriving in New York, Davison was made a senior partner in JP Morgan & Company.

In 1916 Davison acquired the southwest corner of Park Avenue and 69th Street and hired the architectural firm of Walker & Gillette to design the family's town home.  Completed in 1917, the New-York Tribune placed the cost of its construction at $200,000--just over $4.5 million in 2024.

Faced in red Flemish bond brick above a limestone base, the mansion rose five stories--its top floor masked by a balustraded stone parapet.  The neo-Federal design was splashed with Georgian elements--most notably the impressive entrance reminiscent of Sir Christopher Wren.  A delightful Georgian detail appears at the second floor in the form of bronze sphinxes flanking a classical urn atop the cornice of two of the Park Avenue windows and one on the side street. 

While an attached garage might be expected in the rear of the house, Walker & Gillette placed the Davison garage on Park Avenue, with the living quarters extending above it.  The logistics of getting one's vehicle back out of the garage were solved by an inventive turntable.  

According to The New York Times, the mansion included "ten master's bedrooms, fourteen servants' rooms and two elevators."  

The garage consumed a large portion of the ground floor square footage.  Architecture, June 1919 (copyright expired)

The Davisons' summer home, Peacock Point, was in Locust Valley, Long Island.  Also neo-Federal in design, the mansion on the estate had been designed by Walker & Gillette in 1914.

The family had barely moved into the Park Avenue residence when the country entered World War I and Davison was recruited by President Woodrow Wilson as chairman of the War Council of the American Red Cross.  The position required his visiting the American, French and Italian battle fronts early in 1918 and nearly cost him his life.  On May 17, the day after Davison returned home, The Sun reported, "a few weeks ago in the ancient French town of Chalons a Boche aviator dropped a bomb so close to Mr. Davison that he was temporarily stunned by the shock of the explosion."

Davison updated reporters on the work of the Red Cross overseas.  The Sun recounted in part:

Mr. Davison pointed out that in almost every village and town of Italy and France Red Cross workers are not merely succoring war sufferers.  They are as well strengthening the spirit and determination and bulwarking the confidence of peoples that the Germans are trying to frighten into submission.

Following the war, Davison recommended the formation of the League of Red Cross Societies, combining the British, French, Japanese, Italian and American Red Cross societies.  It was founded on May 15, 1919 with Davison as its chairman.  That year he published The American Red Cross in the Great War.

Henry Pomeroy Davison and Mary Trubee Davison.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Frederick Trubee Davison (who went by his first initial), graduated from Groton School in 1913.  He entered Yale, but left school in 1916 "to organize the first naval aviation unit before the United States entered the war," according to the New-York Tribune.  (He named it the First Yale Unit.)  On July 28, 1917, Davison was making a practice flight over Long Island when "his machine collapsed and he was severely injured."  Indeed, his back was broken and his spinal cord damaged.  He spent six weeks in St. Luke's Hospital.

The second floor rooms extend over the garage area.  Architecture, June 1919 (copyright expired)

His sister Alice was also involved in the war effort.  The New York Times said she "was one of the first debutantes to take up serious work.  She qualified as a wireless operator and in the Spring of 1918 organized a women's unit of wireless operators."

With the war over, 690 Park Avenue could finally become a social center.  In reporting on the Midwinter Ball in the Ritz-Carlton on January 31, 1920, for instance, the New-York Tribune commented, "Many dinners preceded the entertainment, one of the largest being given by Mrs. Henry P. Davison, the chairman of the ball, at her home."

Frederick Trubee Davison was married in April 1920 to Dorothy Peabody in Groton, Massachusetts.  Her father, Rev. Endicott Peabody, had been Davison's headmaster at the Groton School.  (Davison would go on to become the first personnel director of  the CIA in 1951.)

A Stuart portrait of George Washington hung over the mantel in the Davisons' library.  Architecture, June 1919 (copyright expired)

On January 31, 1921, The New York Times denied rumors that Henry P. Davison was seriously ill at Thomasville, Georgia.  At the Park Avenue mansion, said the newspaper, "It was said that Mr. Davison had merely gone South for a rest."  In fact, Davison was suffering from increasingly severe headaches, a symptom of a serious condition of which no one, including the family, was aware at the time.

Henry and Mary announced Alice's engagement to Artemus L. Gates on August 9, 1921.  (The future groom was a Yale classmate of Henry Davison, Jr.)  Two days later, the New-York Tribune reported that her father, "is to undergo an operation for an affection of his right ear."  Davison's doctors told reporters he

...had been suffering with his ear for several months.  It had not been considered of a serious nature, but because of the inconvenience it caused him and because the operation involved was said to be of a comparatively simply nature, it had been decided to submit to immediate surgical treatment.

It appears that the Davison family now recognized the true severity of Henry's condition.  Despite the impending winter social season and Alice's imminent wedding, the townhouse was leased to Marshall Field and his wife, while the Davisons remained at Peacock Point.

The Fields quickly received an esteemed house guest in Lord David Richard Beatty, the British Admiral of the Fleet.  A contingent of mounted police flanked the entrance to the mansion upon his arrive.  On October 22, 1921, The New York Times said, "When he alighted at the Marshall Field home at 690 Park Avenue the escort under command of Lieutenant Harry Eason was drawn up at salute, and Lord Beatty returned the salute and extended his congratulations on the appearance of the mounted men."

The Davisons' dining and living rooms.  Architecture, June 1919 (copyright expired)

A second operation was performed on Henry P. Davison at Peacock Point on May 6, 1922.  The Times Union said, "The surgeons found not the simple external tumor of the brain they hoped to be able to excise, but an infiltrating growth they were unable to entirely remove."  Davison died during the operation at the age of 55.  The newspaper said, "The unhappy termination of Mr. Davison's illness removes from the financial world one of its masters."

Davison had executed his will nine days before his death.  Nearly the entire estate went to Mary.  He bequeathed $20,000 to his secretary, William C. Heinkel, and $10,000 to Mary's secretary, Levina E. Oliphant--a generous $350,000 and $175,000 respectively in today's money.

Mary Trubee Davison would never return to 690 Park Avenue.  On July 27, 1922, the New York Herald reported, "Mrs. Henry P. Davison, who has been passing the summer at Peacock Point...will spend the winter at 845 Fifth avenue, where an apartment is being made ready for her occupancy by October 1.  The Davison home at 690 Park avenue was leased last autumn for a long term to Mr. Marshall Field."

The Fields were still leasing the mansion when Mary sold it to Allene and Anson Wood Burchard in July 1925.  In reporting the sale, The New York Times commented, "It is generally considered to be one of the finest houses in the city."

Burchard was vice chairman of the General Electric Company and chairman of the board of the International General Electric Company.  Born in 1865 in Hoosick Falls, New York, he married Allene Tew Hostetter in London in 1912.  He was her third husband.  Her first, Theodore Rickey Hostetter, died in 1902.  She divorced her second husband, Morton Colton Nichols in 1905 (retaking the Hostetter surname).  The Burchards maintained a home in Paris at 4 Rue d'Aguesseau.

Anson Wood Burchard and Allene Tew Hostetter Burchard.  (Original sources unknown)

On January 22, 1927, two years after moving into the Park Avenue mansion, Anson Burchard arrived at the home of Mortimer L. Schiff for a luncheon meeting.  During lunch, the 62-year-old suffered what the Chicago Tribune described as "acute indigestion" and died.

Allene lived opulently following her husband's death.  In 1928 she purchased a new house in Paris, and in January 1929 she chartered a luxury houseboat, the Indiana, for a cruise up the Nile.  Among her guests were Prince Heinrich XXXIII Reuss of Köstritz.  Allene and the Prince were married on April 10, 1929.  (That marriage would end in divorce in 1935 and the following year Allene would marry Captain Count Pavel de Kotzebue.)

On March 28, 1931, the Buffalo Evening News reported, "The Princess of Reuss recently sold her home at 690 Park avenue in New York city for a reported sum of $700,000.  She had not occupied the house since her marriage to the prince.  The dwelling is located in the center of one of the more exclusive residential sections of the world."

The mansion became home to Harry Payne Bingham and his third wife, Melissa Williams Yuille.  Born in 1887, Bingham graduated from Yale University in 1910.  A former broker, he had sold his seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1924.  In 1937 he became a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Bingham died in Palm Beach, Florida on March 25, 1955 at the age of 67.

In July 1955, the Consulate General of Italy in New York moved into 690 Park Avenue, and it remains there today.  In November 1970 the Davison mansion was designated a New York City individual landmark.

photographs by the author
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  1. Doug Floor Plan
    Tom, I'm not trying to pick an argument; I'm asking for an education. You describe this house at 690 Park Ave as "The neo-Federal design was splashed with Georgian elements." To me, the exterior of the Davison mansion is remarkably similar to the exterior of the Elihu Root mansion, completed 12 years earlier (1905) two blocks to the north at 733 Park Ave (posted on January 15, 2024). That mansion was described as "neo-Regency". What exterior differences should I be looking for? Or are you talking interiors? Thanks.

    1. The American Federal style was a result of the British Regency style, and they were happening simultaneously. (Some architectural historians describe Federal architecture as the American version of Regency.) The differences can be subtle. The Root house employs more neo-classical motifs than the Davison house, but otherwise, as you point out, they are similar in design.

  2. Nicely put, instructive