Monday, April 17, 2017

The Lost Blossom Mansion -- 844 Fifth Avenue

On May 30, 1891 the Record & Guide published a photo of the nearly-completed renovation. (copyright expired)


Howard Meyer and his wife, the former Minnie P. Cole Randall, and their daughter Ellen Rowena, lived comfortably at No. 844 Fifth Avenue in the late 1870s.  Their house, like most of the pioneering structures this far up the avenue, was brownstone-fronted.  But by 1891, shortly after Meyer’s death and as millionaires’ mansions began fronting Central Park, the house was out of style.

Minnie remodeled the home, bringing it up to date.  A “happy mix of styles,” it blended a hefty Romanesque Revival basement and parlor floor with a two-story bowed Beaux Arts bay and a Queen Anne style upper floor.  Minnie Meyer’s resultant home was a delightful 1890s rejection of stylistic purity in favor of architectural fun.

Minnie parents, Otis and Ellie Randall, also moved into the mansion.  But the arrangement came to a tragic end early 1895.  On March 17, Ellie died while visiting Egypt.  The shock was possibly too much for her husband.  Five days later Otis Webster Randall died in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  His funeral was held in the house two days later.

The following year a more joyous event was held at No. 844 Fifth Avenue.  Ellen was still a young girl when she and her little friend, Anna M. Jarvis, held white ribbons to form an aisle for her mother’s wedding in the house on the afternoon of November 1, 1898.  The New York Times reported “The ceremony was performed in the Louis XV drawing room by the Rev. Albert Erdman of Morristown, N. J., where the bride’s country home is situated.”

The widowed Minnie Cole Meyer became Mrs. Benjamin Blossom at 3:00 that day and her house fairly groaned under the weight of plants and flowers.  In true Victorian style, “Chrysanthemums were the flower in favor at the wedding.  They were placed in every available nook.  Southern smilax was used with them, and even the mirrors were almost concealed from view by the filmy green, garnished with the soft Autumn blooms.  Pink was the color chosen for the drawing room.  The hall was in yellow and the reception room in white.”

The newspaper noted “Mr. and Mrs. Blossom will give a large reception at their home, 844 Fifth Avenue, Jan 5, upon their return from the honeymoon trip.”

Minnie's remodeled house sat next door to the mammoth Astor palace.   photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWN5O8Q2&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=899

By now Minnie had as her next door neighbor the undisputed queen of New York society—Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.  Two years earlier the gargantuan double Astor chateau had been completed, rubbing its imperious shoulder against Minnie’s house.  On the other side, at No. 845 Fifth Avenue, was the mansion of stockbroker Grant B. Schley.

After the turn of the century Benjamin and Minnie spent less and less time on Fifth Avenue.  The New York Times mentioned they “of late have lived chiefly in Pasadena, where they have a beautiful place, called The Blossoms, on Orange Grove Boulevard.”

John Jacob Astor, who lived in the southern half of the Astor mansion, at the corner of 65th Street, recognized the threat to his property should No. 844 get in the wrong hands.  In 1902 a developer had purchased the house at No. 835 Fifth Avenue, just a block south of the Astor mansion.  The Times reported that he “promptly created a stir among the neighboring owners by the announcement that he would build a fifteen-story apartment hotel.”  The menace was taken care of after several panicked meetings among the homeowners resulted in a tidy profit for the speculator.  But a lesson had been learned.

And so in December 1905 Astor purchased the Blossom property.  It was assessed at $225,000, in the neighborhood of $6.25 million today.  Several weeks later, on January 7, 1906, The New York Times said “The purchase is said to have been made with a view to preventing any undesirable use being made of the property in the hands of some speculator.”

Now that he had another property to rent, John Jacob Astor quickly set to work to make the former Blossom house more marketable.  Minnie’s eclectic mix of styles was on the way out.  On May 23, 1906 architect Charles A. Platt filed plans for what the New-York Tribune called “extensive alterations.”  

In reporting on the $50,000 renovations, the newspaper said “A two story rear extension is to be built, the present south bay removed and the interior remodeled generally and refitted with floors reinforced with steel beams.  The present front will be taken down and replaced with a façade of Colonial design, with a cartouche of carved stone at the third story.  There will be a new central entrance at the ground floor.”

The renovations were completed by the beginning of summer 1907 and The Architectural Record was pleased.  In June it announced that Platt “has designed a building which is adapted in every respect to be the residence of a family of refinement and wealth.  It is both a more completely finished and better-looking dwelling than many private houses on Fifth avenue which have cost twice as much…Every detail of the building has an air of quiet but positive good taste.”

Architectural Record, June 1907 (copyright expired)

In sharp contrast to the Astor mansion, Platt’s design was reserved and understated.  The façade of gray limestone blocks was unadorned with the exception of the carved cartouche and three panels of festoons above the fourth floor openings.  Indeed, possibly the most elaborate feature was the grand iron fence with its lantern perched above a scrolled arch.  

The entrance was slightly below ground level.  This level was used only as a reception area; most of the first floor was taken up by the kitchen and servants’ quarters.  A delicate winding staircase took quests to the piano nobile where the drawing room was to the front and the dining room to the rear.  Platt designed the rooms with an 18th century feel—dark floor-to-ceiling paneling throughout most of the rooms.  The Architectural Record hoped the new residents would follow his lead.  “It will require equally careful furnishing in order to properly complete the effect.”


Platt made heavy use of wood to create an 18th century setting.  The Architectural Record June 1907 (copyright expired)
Off the dining room a set of glass doors led to a small smoking room.  “The architect is peculiarly happy in devices of this kind, which turn to excellent account some of the unfortunate practical conditions of an interior design,” noted The Record.  One floor above was the library which was also finished in dark wood.  “The effect of this apartment has been made much more gay by the rich though comparatively inexpensive subdued gilding of the architectural detail.”

The completed house was leased to Paul Morton.  In reporting on the deal, The New York Times reminded readers that the house was purchased “to protect the Astor property against any undesirable improvement.  Since then it has been almost entirely rebuilt, and is to-day a six-story American basement house of most modern design.”

Morton had recently served as Secretary of the Navy--between 1904 and 1905--but was forced to resign when it was revealed that the Santa Fe Railroad, of which he was vice president, was given illegal rebates under him.  President Theodore Roosevelt supported Morton, insisting that the millionaire never knew of the improprieties. 

Paul and Charlotte Morton --the New-York Tribune, August 20, 1905 (copyright expired)
Now President of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, the affable Morton’s sense of humor was evident in a speech before a banquet of insurance men on May 8, 1909.  He mentioned a rival company which had suffered a bad deal.  When the Equitable offered its consolation for the firm’s bad luck, he said “they took our sympathy in ill part.  It was like the widow who called on us the other day.

“This widow called to collect a small policy due her on her husband’s death.  Our clerk, as he counted out her money, said sympathetically, ‘I am very sorry to hear of your sad misfortune, ma’am.’

“’Well, that’s just like you men!’ snapped the widow.  ‘You’re all the same—always sorry when a poor woman gets a chance at a little money.’”

Morton’s wife, the former Charlotte Goodridge, was not content with vacuous teas and society chatter.  She was an ardent “anti” during the early Suffragist Movement, allying herself with socialites against women’s rights to vote.  By the time she and her husband moved from Park Avenue into No. 844 Fifth Avenue, she was Honorary Vice-President of the National League for Civic Education; an organization that strove to snuff out the Suffragist Movement.

In December 1908, however, things changed.  The National League for Civic Education slated Congregationalist theologian Lyman Abbott to address the group on the subject.  Charlotte Morton listened to his address carefully.

Abbott could not have been clearer in his opinions.  “If woman attempts man’s function, she will prove herself but an inferior man.  Some masculine women there are; some feminine men there are.  These are the monstrosities of Nature.”  Abbott insisted that women do “not wish to assume the responsibility for protecting person and property.”  He pointed out that women’s natural work was in rearing children while men were intended to run countries and businesses.

A few weeks later, on January 12, 1909, The Evening World ran the headline “Mrs. Paul Morton Suffrage Convert.”  The newspaper said that Lymann Abbott’s “attack upon the vote seekers unintentionally made converts of some of those opposed,” and among them was Charlotte Morton.   She now worked as passionately for the Suffragist cause.  

But there was grave trouble developing closer to home; unseen by the public or even Charlotte.

In December 1910 the Equitable Life Assurance Company issued “Christmas policies” and Paul Morton signed up for one.  Shockingly, his medical examination revealed that he was “uninsurable.”  The Insurance Press later said “He had a few weeks’ notice that he was a doomed man.”

On January 19 Morton went to the Hotel Seymour to visit lawyer Paul L. Kiernan.  He was found dead in a corridor, the victim of a ruptured blood vessel in the brain.  The millionaire’s life had been relatively unassuming; his funeral in St. Thomas Church was anything but.  The church was crowded with dignitaries and newspapers were filled with paid tributes.

Astor (who was still busy buying up nearby properties as they became available) now leased No. 844 to former senator John Kean.  The politician, who lived in New Jersey, rented the house for his mother's use.  Lucy Kean moved in with her grown son, Julian, and daughter, Susan. 

A colorful character, Lucy was born in 1826; the daughter of the President of the Bank of Manhattan Company.  Married in 1846 to Colonel John Kean, she had eleven children.  Her son John served two terms in Washington and Lucy had tagged along, living with his family there.  “About public affairs she was very well informed,” The Sun later said, “and she included among her friends President Roosevelt, President Taft, some of the Justices of the Supreme Court and other prominent men.”

The sharp-minded woman was well-known for her deep knowledge of history and her ability to discuss matters of state with her guests.  The now-elderly Lucy Kean gave generously to charities; always with the stipulation that her bequests were kept anonymous.

The Keans got a major scare on December 10, 1911.  The New York Times reported “One man was probably mortally injured and two others were badly hurt last night at Fifth Avenue between Sixty-fifth and Sixty-sixth Streets when a high-powered open touring car shot up on the sidewalk in front of the residences of John Jacob Astor and Mrs. Lucy K. Kean.”

The car had been speeding south on Fifth Avenue when it “got beyond the control of its chauffeur.”  The newspaper said that it “rose high in the air, balancing itself on one front wheel, gyrated completely around, and finally turned over on its side, hurling its three occupants to the street.”

A witness said two women had exited Central Park right into the path of the car, causing it to careen.  He reported that the car was headed “for the black iron fence surrounding the sunken entrance” of No. 844.  “It didn’t get that far.  Instead, it stood right straight up in the air on its left front wheel, turned completely around, and then, fell over on its side so that its four wheels extended in the direction of the Kean house, while its top faced the street.”

The Times reported “The only ones who didn’t rush to help the injured men were the two women who caused the accident by getting in the car’s way.  They hurried off, according to Policeman Cunningham, without even stopping to find out how badly the men were hurt.”

Lucy Kean’s stay in the Fifth Avenue mansion was not long.  She died in the house on the morning of March 9, 1912 at the age of 86.  Her funeral was held in Grace Church.  Susan and Julian Kean remained in the house.

On April 6, 1924 New Yorkers were shocked when it was announced that Vincent Astor had filed plans to replace the double Astor mansion with a 12-story apartment house.  Astor, interestingly, had commissioned Charles A. Platt to design the $1.8 million structure.  “The building is to include the site of the adjoining house at 844 Fifth Avenue, which is also owned by Mr. Astor,” said The Times.

But something happened.  A year later, on July 3 when Susan Livington Kean died in the house, plans for the apartment building had been abandoned.  Instead of the Platt-designed structure, construction began in 1926 on Robert D. Kohn’s massive Temple Emanu-El.   And the 1870s house at No. 844 which had undergone two remarkable makeovers was no more.

The lower extension of the synagogue (left) sits on the site of No. 844 photo by Jim Henderson

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