Posts Tagged ‘Union Square 19th century’

The last daughter to live in a 14th Street mansion

July 29, 2019

There’s a modest white fountain topped with an angel (bottom image) on Second Avenue near 10th Street, where two sides of the iron fence surrounding St. Mark’s Church come together.

Below the angel is a faint, undated inscription: “To the Memory of Elizabeth Spingler Van Beuren.”

Who was Elizabeth? She was born in 1831 in New York and died in 1908.

Never married, she was one of the last descendents of the wealthy Spingler-Van Beuren clan, who maintained a fabled farm-like homestead at 21-28 West 14th Street west of Fifth Avenue.

Her family’s story echoes the story of Manhattan.

An island dotted with farms and estates in the late 18th century became a metropolis by the early 20th century.

This sleek, modern city had no room for the “curious relic” that was Elizabeth’s lifelong home—on a large plot of land shaded by gardens and poplar trees, where a cow grazed and chickens wiled away the days.

Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, Henry Spingler (above), was the one who launched the family farm.

A successful shopkeeper, Spingler bought 22 acres of farmland in 1788 centered around today’s 14th Street and Fifth and Sixth Avenues, according to a 1902 New York Times article.

At end of the 18th century, this really was farmland. The city street grid had yet to be created. Union Square, at the “union” of Broadway and the Bowery, wouldn’t officially be established until 1839.

Henry lived in what’s described by a newspaper article as a “quaintly built Dutch structure” until his death in 1811. (The top image and drawing above show what that Dutch farmhouse supposedly looked like.)

In 1830, a granddaughter of Henry’s who married into the prominent Van Beuren family constructed a handsome double-size brownstone mansion on a large piece of family farmland on West 14th Street. (Above image, about 1910.)

The granddaughter was Elizabeth’s mother. Elizabeth and her siblings grew up in the mansion when 14th Street was the center of a fashionable, refined neighborhood.

Not much is known about how Elizabeth spent her days. Like other elite young women in the mid-1800s, she probably had tutors or attended a day school. Her family worshipped at St. Mark’s Church; the Spinglers had a burial vault there.

During the Civil War, she may have also helped raise money for hospital care for wounded soldiers or served in another volunteer capacity, as many socially prominent women of all ages did.

By the end of the war, 14th Street changed. The street became a commercial strip and Union Square itself a theater district. Rich New Yorkers escaped the crowds and noise by moving uptown to posh Madison Square and beyond.

The elite departed—but the Van Beurens remained. Elizabeth’s sister, Emily Van Beuren Reynolds, lived in another brownstone mansion across the garden from hers at 29 West 14th Street.

Together the mansions were known as the Van Beuren Homestead, which stretched to 15th Street, where a stable was maintained.

As the Gilded Age accelerated and 14th Street was colonized by the new department stores like Macy’s (becoming part of the Ladies Mile Shopping District), the Van Beuren Homestead took on almost a mythic quality.

“After 14th Street had grown up about the old home and its gardens, when Macy’s red star was in its ascendency at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street, there were always groups of people standing staring at [the] farm, with a cow and a vegetable garden, flower beds and hens, in the midst of the blooming city,” recalled one man in a 1922 New York Herald article.

“In the heart of New York’s retail shopping district, the old Van Beuren mansion has presented the spectacle of a huge family mansion standing alone in its own grounds, with large gardens, stables, chicken coops, dove cotes, arbors, and grass plots,” the New York Sun wrote in 1902.

“There was nothing modern about the place. It had all the marks of a true homestead inhabited by an old and long-wealthy family who could afford to throw away the enormous profit they could make by turning this valuable land over to business purposes….Artists, poets, and lovers of the picturesque have long feared the destruction of this quaint structure.”

When Elizabeth Van Beuren’s demise was announced in newspapers in 1908, the days were numbered for 21 West 14th Street.

Her sister’s death also put another nail in the coffin for the Homestead. which spent its final years unoccupied.

In 1927, the two mansions met the wrecking ball. (Above, in 1925)

Today, 21 and 28 West 14th Street is occupied by a one-story retail building. What would Elizabeth and the rest of her family, interred in their vault at St. Mark’s, think of the building that replaced their homestead?

[Top image: Fifth Avenue Old and New; second image: Geni.com; third image: 1913 painting by Charles Mielatz; fourth image: MCNY, 1906, X2010.11.5832; fifth image: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: New-York Historical Society; seventh image: New York Sun; eighth image: MCNY, 1925, X2010.11.58021925; ninth image: ENY]