Posts Tagged ‘Gilded Age Mansions in NYC’

New York’s most perfectly preserved Gilded Age mansion is in Murray Hill

August 5, 2022

Murray Hill has always had an aristocratic edge. In the 18th century, it was the site of the country estate of shipping magnate Robert Murray and his wife Mary Lindley Murray—about 30 acres of steep terrain with a mansion standing at today’s Park Avenue and 36th Street.

James F.D. Lanier Residence, perfectly preserved from the Gilded Age

In 1847, with the former Murray estate divided into land lots and sold for development, the “Murray Hill Restrictive Agreement” went into effect for lots between 34th and 38th Streets and Madison to Lexington Avenues. “The agreement provided that the lots could be used for residential purposes only, barring businesses and commerce from the neighborhood,” stated Exploring Manhattan’s Murray Hill, by Joyce and Alfred Pommer.

Lanier mansion in 1916

With such an elitist covenant in place, it’s no surprise that Murray Hill became New York’s millionaire colony through the 19th century.

Quiet, well-tended streets of charming brownstones and row houses went up. These tidy rows were occasionally interrupted by marble or stone mansions owned by old and new money characters like Caroline Astor, John Jacob Astor III, department store baron A.T. Stewart, and financier J.P. Morgan.

Lanier knocked down two brownstones exactly like the brownstone on the right so he had a big enough lot.

So at the turn of the century, when banker James Franklin Doughty Lanier decided to build his own residential palace for his family, he chose 35th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. The spot he wanted already had two matching brownstones on it, but brownstones were dour and out of fashion. Lanier had them knocked down to create the 33-foot lot for the showstopper he had in mind.

His five-story Beaux-Arts beauty at 123 East 35th Street was completed in 1903. It was a breathtaking sight like nothing else on the block, with its Ionic pilasters, arched windows and entryway, carved wood doors, iron railing, and copper mansard roof. “The total composition is both elegant and dignified, one that could be at home in Paris as well as New York,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report in 1979.

Lanier was no stranger to society. An avid sportsman and member of the Knickerbocker Club, he made it on Ward McAllister’s list of the 400 most socially prominent people in New York City. His family founded the banking house where he worked, and he certainly had enough money and clout to build his mansion anywhere he wanted.

That Lanier decided to build in Murray Hill is interesting, considering that some of the neighborhood’s wealthy residents had already decamped to the northern reaches of Fifth Avenue—like Mrs. Astor, who moved to a new mansion on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street. There were also challenges to the restrictive agreement, plus encroaching businesses. Neither of these annoyances pleased the rich who remained, per a 1914 New York Times article. “How long can the Murray Hill restriction be preserved?” the article asked.

Lanier mansion in 1976

Rather than relocating to more fashionable Upper Fifth Avenue like some of his contemporaries, Lanier lived in his Murray Hill mansion until his death in 1928. When his wife, Harriet, died three years later, the mansion went to his only surviving child, son Reginald Bishop Lanier.

Incredibly, as parts of Murray Hill became increasingly commercial—and the feel of the neighborhood transformed from new money rich to more upper middle class—Reginald Lanier retained ownership of the house for the next 50 years. “Reginald’s wife would frequently host tea and cocktail parties until the 1950s, and according to the LPC designation report, the Laniers would retain ownership of the house until at least 1979,” wrote Curbed in a 2013 article.

With the mansion under such a long stewardship by the family that built it, it’s no wonder 123 East 35th Street retains so much of its original Gilded Age loveliness, including the ornamental urns that greet visitors on the sidewalk in front of the entrance.

The best part of this perfectly preserved Parisian-inspired home is that it’s currently for sale. The nine bedrooms, seven bathrooms, parlors, a butler’s pantry, and a servant’s wing can be yours for $33 million.

Christie’s has lots of eye-popping interior photos to pour over. Imagine the grand social events and intimate family life in this time capsule of a mansion!

[Second and fifth photos: CUNY Graduate Center Collection]

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

March 7, 2022

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]