A Gilded Age oddball and his mansion menagerie

Imagine yourself at Broadway and 19th Street in the 1870s. All around you is the bustling city of streetcars and grand emporiums, including Arnold Constable & Company’s magnificent store on the southwest corner, part of the Ladies Mile shopping district.

On the northeast corner (above photo), however, is something of a throwback to a rural, undeveloped New York.

At the time, this was the site of a stately, restrained brownstone shielded by a cast iron fence and with a substantial backyard garden where peacocks, storks, guinea fowl, and even a cow roamed the premises.

This 1830 mansion, called a “curiosity shop” by one publication, was the longtime home of Peter Goelet, a wealthy heir and one of Gilded Age New York’s best known oddballs.

“An eccentric man gone,” read the headline of the New York Times on November 22, 1879, one day after the lifelong bachelor’s death at the age of 80.

Everyone in New York at the time knew of the Goelet family. Peter Goelet was a descendant of François Goellete, a Huguenot refugee who arrived in New York in 1686, according to a McClure’s magazine article in 1912.

His son Peter became a wealthy ironmonger and owner of a hardware concern on Hanover Square. Peter’s sons married into a landowning family that in the early 19th century held a swath of Manhattan from roughly Union Square to Grand Central Terminal.

This land was all beyond the city limits at the time, and neither Union Square nor Grand Central Terminal even existed. But as the 18th century went on and Manhattan moved northward, this land, much of it centered on Broadway, would make the Goelets extremely rich.

The Peter Goelet living on Broadway and 19th Street, aka “Peter the Hermit,” helped manage the family real estate holdings. While passersby were charmed by his livestock—in particular the one lone cow on the property, which Peter kept for fresh milk and even milked the cow himself—the man was very much a mystery.

On one hand, he was notoriously thrifty, “noted for his economy” as the Times put it. He saved scrap paper to use as rent receipts and stood by his rule of “never parting with a foot of land.”

He was not a people person. “His usual expression was of complete abstraction, bordering, at times, upon melancholy,” the Times continued. “It is said of him that he never smiled but once, and that was 20 years ago when a Mr. Naylor congratulated him upon the handsome pair of horses he had recently been driving at Rockaway.”

Nor did he have any interest in being a society swell. “Of Peter himself his fellow New Yorkers obtained only occasional glimpses,” stated McClure’s.

“A spare, bent, gray-haired figure, shabbily and scantily dressed, with hat drawn down and coat closely buttoned up, passed silently now and then through the streets, usually on some rent-collecting tour.”

Goelet’s devotion was to his widowed sister, Hannah Gerry (who lived with him); Hannah’s son, a favored nephew; and his animals.

“He was a lifelong collector of blooded poultry and rare birds,” wrote McClure’s. “He filled his Broadway garden with storks, peacocks, birds of paradise, cranes, and Indian pheasants—his backyard, indeed, would have served as a modern stage-setting for Chantecler.”

The Times‘ obituary pointed out that though he was eccentric, he wasn’t mean; he took care of the families of soldiers from a New York regiment who died in the Civil War. Goelet was also a blacksmith who spent hours in his basement forge.

After Peter’s death and his burial in the family vault at St. Mark’s Church on East 10th Street, Hannah Gerry continued to live in the house. Gradually, the birds and the cow disappeared.

Gerry died in 1895, and the house was torn down in 1897. It was replaced by a tall commercial building that blended right into this corridor of commerce—Goelet and his mansion menagerie mostly forgotten.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society, 1893, second photo: New-York Historical Society, 1893; third and fourth images: date and source unknown; fifth photo: MCNY, 1885, X2010.11.820; sixth photo: NYPL 1900; seventh photo: New York Times headline 1879]

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7 Responses to “A Gilded Age oddball and his mansion menagerie”

  1. Frank Schorn Says:

    Looks like it’s now an AMC movie multiplex.

  2. Beth Says:

    Another interesting New York story! One thing: a “spendthrift” is the opposite of frugal. Elton John could be a good example of a spendthrift. LOL

  3. Lady G. Says:

    This made me sad. Thank you for keeping the memory of this eccentric millionaire alive. They were so quick to tear down what I’m sure was considered an eyesore. And surely couldn’t wait to gobble that property back up. What does everything get replaced with today? Yet another chain pharmacy, fast-food joint, or Starbucks. At least there’s a movie theater now.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      It amazes me too that on this corner, with the movie theater and ABC Carpet and other posh shops nearby, was once a yard with a cow and birds behind an iron fence! I understand why animals like these don’t really work in the city, but what a treat it would be if we could walk by this corner and see them today!

      • Lady G. Says:

        Yes! That would be fun. Living in Brooklyn I used to love to try and point out the buildings that have those conspicuous side driveways that were really for horses once upon a time.

  4. Marilyn Papas Says:

    The entire island of Manhattan was farms and woods.

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