A piece of New York’s hidden presidential history sits at 123 Lexington Avenue. This is the brownstone that was once the home of Chester A. Arthur, prominent city lawyer and U.S. vice president elected in 1880.
And in the front parlor, Arthur took the presidential oath of office at 2:10 a.m. on September 20, 1881, just hours after the death of his Republican running mate, James Garfield.
It was a hastily arranged swearing-in. Ten weeks earlier, on July 2, Garfield had been shot in the back at a Washington train station by a disgruntled federal office seeker.
Garfield lingered in critical condition all summer. His doctors thought he was getting better, despite the shoddy care they gave him.
Finally, Garfield succumbed to infection at 10:30 p.m. on September 19.
“It becomes our painful duty to inform you of the death of President Garfield and to advise you to take the oath of office as president of the United States without delay,” read the telegraph sent to Arthur just before midnight.
Upon receiving the news, Arthur, a recent widow, wept at his desk in his upstairs room; he reportedly never wanted to be commander in chief in the first place.
There, he became the 21st president of the United States. (above).
Two days later, he caught a train to Washington and began his single term as U.S. president.
In 1885, he returned to Lexington Avenue, resumed his law career, and died the next year.
His bronze likeness stands today in Madison Square Park (left), not far from his longtime home. The two brownstones flanking it give us an idea of what the house must have looked like before it was brick-faced and altered.
Since 1944, 123 Lexington has been occupied by Kalustyan’s, the Indian food store in the neighborhood once called Little Armenia and now known as Curry Hill.
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