A stunning Gilded Age mansion on Riverside Drive—and the tabloid drama of its first owners

If you’re keeping up with HBO’s The Gilded Age, you might conclude that New York’s richest families of the era only lived on Fifth Avenue. There’s some truth to this, as old and new money New Yorkers with names like Astor and Vanderbilt built fancy fortresses for themselves on this premier avenue south and east of Central Park.

330 Riverside Drive, aka the Davis Mansion

By the turn of the century, however, another millionaire mile in Manhattan was giving Fifth Avenue a run for its money. Riverside Drive was booming with spectacular mansions mostly of the then-popular Beaux-Arts style—some elegant row houses; others stand-alone palaces with sloping yards and river views. (No brownstones, which were entirely out of fashion.)

Riverside Drive never did overtake Fifth Avenue as the city’s millionaire colony. It was too far from the action at Delmonico’s, the Metropolitan Opera House, and the elite hotels and clubs where business was done and deals were made. (It also didn’t have the same kind of foot traffic as Fifth, and what was the point of living on a street where you couldn’t see and be seen by those who mattered in society?)

Still, plenty of rich New Yorkers lived well in these new Riverside Drive mansions in the early 20th century. One stunning house that looks like it belongs in the Belle Epoque still stands at 330 Riverside Drive, on the corner of 105th Street (above).

This five-story Beaux-Arts beauty that fronts 105th Street and also overlooks a narrow stretch of Riverside recalls “a great Parisian mansion,” according to the Riverside-West 105th Street Historic District Designation Report from 1973. The same builder of 330 also put up numbers 331, 332, and 333 Riverside—three slender, harmonious, equally expensive row houses.

Completed in 1902, this example of light brick and limestone loveliness features a “richly ornamented recessed doorway,” decorative balconies, dormer windows, “three tiers of triple windows,” a mansard roof, and a one-story “conservatory” (above) on the east side of the mansion, per the Historic District Report.

It’s a knockout for sure. But the beauty of the mansion belies the unsavory story of a Gilded Age tycoon and his wife, who were the first occupants. You know this businessman—or at least you know his name, which is emblazoned on the product he packaged in a red and orange cylinder and is still sold in supermarkets everywhere.

Lucretia Davis, Jennie Davis, and Jennie’s divorce lawyer, Delphin M. Delmas

Robert Benson Davis, a Civil War veteran who fought for the Union, was the man behind Davis Baking Powder, which he began manufacturing around 1880. The product made him a fortune and earned him the name “baking powder king.” (Interestingly, at 176 Riverside lived John H. Matthews, known as the “soda water king” for manufacturing soda fountains.)

Davis moved into the mansion in 1905 with his wife Jennie (who he married when he was 38 and she just 18 years old), and their adult daughter, Lucretia. Perhaps it was their age difference, or maybe the corrupting influence of money. But this was an unhappily married couple. Davis left for Los Angeles, where he sued his wife for divorce in 1910.

330 Riverside Drive in 1925

The allegations about their marriage were perfect for the tabloid era. According to Daniel J. Wakin, author of the lively book The Man With the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block, “Davis charged that Jennie tried to have him declared insane so she could seize his business, accusing her of telephoning executives of the company to say he was losing his mind. She intercepted his mail while keeping him trapped in his house under the surveillance of nurses.”

Davis also alleged that Jennie held him captive in the house. “Once, he said he dropped a letter to a friend from a fourth-floor window, asking for help,” wrote Wakin. “The friend sent a car, and Davis said he slipped out when the servants were distracted by clearing his dinner dishes, and headed for another home he owned, in Summit, New Jersey.”

The mansion in roughly 1940

Of course, the affair Davis supposedly had with his nurse didn’t help his case. Jennie hired the same lawyer who helped get Harry K. Thaw a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity verdict at Thaw’s infamous trial for shooting Stanford White on the roof of Madison Square Garden in 1906.

Jennie was awarded some financial support and remained at 330 Riverside with Lucretia. She appealed the divorce case for years, seeking a bigger financial settlement, until she unexpectedly died in 1915.

330 Riverside Drive facing Riverside Drive

Davis died five years later. Lucretia and her husband (who took over the Davis Baking Powder company) inherited the mansion. They lived in it together until the husband passed away in 1951. Lucretia held on, then left the house. At the time, some of the other mansions on Riverside had been carved up into apartments or rooming houses, and the elite feel of the area took a downward turn.

Number 330 may have survived so long because of the Roman Catholic order that purchased the mansion and turned it into a school. Today, Opus Dei occupies the house, according to Wakin. It’s an outpost of quiet and peace more than a century after the bitter divorce and tawdry allegations of the original homeowners.

[Fourth photo: Los Angeles Herald, 1911; fifth photo: NYPL; sixth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

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6 Responses to “A stunning Gilded Age mansion on Riverside Drive—and the tabloid drama of its first owners”

  1. kenny Says:

    Fun Story !

  2. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Does Lucretia have a black eye in the photo or is that an artifact of the reproduction. The old adage “money doesn’t but happiness” was certainly true in the case of this family!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m going to assume it’s the quality of the photo; I hope she doesn’t really have a black eye!

  3. petlover1948 Says:

    Opus Die? Isn’t that sort of cult like?

  4. AEB Says:

    These are all fascinating. Thank you! And Opus Dei, eh?

  5. countrypaul Says:

    Opus Dei is typically regarded as an extreme conservative division of the Catholic church. From Wikipedia: “Due in part to its secrecy, the Jesuit-run magazine America referred to it as, ‘….the most controversial group in the Catholic Church today.'” Considering its notoriety, and the Davis saga before them, perhaps notoriety comes with the house.

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