Posts Tagged ‘Alive De Lamar Heiress’

A rich Gilded Age ‘man of mystery’ builds Murray Hill’s most flamboyant mansion

March 28, 2022

Most of the opulent mansions that lined the avenues of Murray Hill in the late 19th century have been demolished, and the spaciousness and quiet formality of what used to be an entirely residential neighborhood has largely disappeared.

But in the early decades of the Gilded Age, the east side blocks between Madison Square and 40th Street comprised the most elite enclave in the city. Mrs. Astor’s brownstone mansion commanded respect on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue; her brother-in-law lived in a similar house next door.

Department store magnate A.T. Stewart built his French Empire fortress across the intersection, and J.P. Morgan lived in a more restrained mansion at Madison Avenue and 36th Street.

By the turn of the century, however, most of the Gilded Age rich decamped for Upper Fifth Avenue; Murray Hill was thought of as staid, even a little shabby as commercial enterprises crept in.

Captain De Lamar’s mansion soon after completion

So it raised eyebrows when, in 1902, Joseph Raphael De Lamar—who made millions in gold mining and then millions more on Wall Street—chose the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 37th Street as the site for the breathtaking Beaux-Arts mansion he built for himself and his young daughter.

Joseph Raphael De Lamar, undated photo

De Lamar was rich, but he was an outsider when it came to Gilded Age society. Born in Amsterdam, he supposedly stowed away on a ship as a child and spent years as a sailor, visiting ports around the world, according to his 1918 obituary in the New York Times.

After settling in Martha’s Vineyard, the Captain, as he was called, moved out West. There, he made his mining fortune, tried politics in Idaho, and then set his sights on New York City.

The De Lamar Mansion in 1925

On Wall Street, he was known as “the man of mystery.” Wrote the Times: “His intimate friends said that he never talked much,” but was “uniformly successful in his transactions.”

De Lamar was socially ambitious as well. In the 1890s he wed Nellie Sands, the daughter of a prosperous New York druggist. Despite their wealth, “the Lamars never became a part of the inner circle of society,” wrote Wayne Craven in his book, Gilded Mansions: Grand Architecture and High Society. After having a daughter, Alice, the family subsequently spent a few years in Paris. “Wealthy Americans who were shunned by society often tried their luck in European capitals,” stated Craven.

The marriage ended in divorce. After De Lamar returned to Manhattan with Alice, he hired Charles P. H. Gilbert, the architect behind some of the best-known Gilded Age mansions, to construct his as well. De Lamar gave Gilbert “a free hand so far as the dwelling itself [was] concerned,” wrote the New York Times in 1904, via Gilded Mansions.

De Lamar may have chosen the Madison Avenue and 37th Street site for a specific reason: to spite J. P. Morgan, who resided a block away and “had regularly rebuffed [Lamar] in business,” according to Leanne Italie in a recent Associated Press article.

The Parisian-style mansion, completed in 1905, didn’t reflect Gilbert’s usual French Gothic style. But physically and stylistically, it overshadowed Morgan’s dwelling—thanks in part to the rusticated stone, copper crests, recessed entrance, and roof. “The subtly asymmetrical house, with an entrance that is flanked by marble columns and crowned by a pair of putti, is surmounted by an exceptionally imposing mansard,” wrote The Guide to New York Landmarks.

That spectacular mansard was dubbed “the most formidable mansard roof in New York,” by the AIA Guide to New York City.

De Lamar added another impressive feature to his mansion: a sidewalk-level car elevator. “At the far right edge of the property, a large metal plate flush with the sidewalk is actually the roof of his automobile elevator, which goes down to the basement,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2008. (The outline of the metal plate is barely visible now under a new stairway.)

For the next 13 years, De Lamar and Alice lived in the eye-popping mansion; the 1910 census recorded the two living with nine servants, stated Gray. Society may not have accepted him, however, and Alice seemed to shy away from the display of wealth. Even so, when De Lamar died in 1918 at Roosevelt Hospital, he left part of his fortune of $29 million to his daughter, who was now 23 years old.

The mansion in 1975

“Alice De Lamar soon deserted her father’s house for a Park Avenue apartment, and went on to become a volunteer driver and mechanic for the Red Cross and an advocate of housing for working women,” wrote Gray. This “bachelor girl,” as 1920s and 1930s gossip columnists dubbed her, spent time in her homes in Palm Beach, Connecticut, and Paris. She was a quiet supporter of the arts until her death in 1983.

And the mansion? It was bought by the American Bible Society, and then became the headquarters of the National Democratic Club in the 1920s.

In the 1970s, De Lamar’s Beaux-Arts gem was purchased by the Polish government, which made it the site of its Consulate General. The interiors are rumored to be as lovely as the facade. Keep an eye out for events that might be open to the public.

[Third image: MCNY MNY233642; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: NYPL; ninth image: MCNY 2013.3.1.852]