His mother's son
The staircase rotunda of the Archer Huntington mansion designed by Ogden Codman, now the National Academy Museum at 88th Street and Fifth Avenue.

The October Quest arrived today and the issue is appropriately (for New York, especially at this time of the year) The Arts and Culture. Aside from the wonderful Cricket Burns’ directed photo-shoots, if I do say so myself, of New York’s upcoming supporters of Arts and Culture of our metropolis, all the Quest writers and columnists, it seems, got in on the act.

The beloved rapscallion and mischief-minder of the smart set, Taki wrote about Lord Byron (“the world’s first pop star”), Casanova’s memoir (that’s culture) is reviewed. The prolific and indefatigable Harry Benson reminisces on the Princess Caroline. James Abbott Archer recalls the remarkable career of Jansen, the early 20th century design house in Paris, and I report on the man behind one of New York’s greatest and rarely heralded museums, the Hispanic Society of America, Archer Huntington.

Archer Huntington is one of the unsung heroes of Arts and Culture not only in New York but across America. Despite his extraordinary philanthropy dispursed over half a century he remains an almost unassuming character in the history of arts and culture in America. Brought up in luxury and privilege by a mother who rose from the ranks of common folk to become one of the great connoisseurs of art and antiques in the first quarter of the 20th century, he was prepped for a lifetime of pursuit of knowledge and sharing his largesse with whatever communities he touched. He lived mainly in and around New York for most of his long life (1870 to 1955), and lived with his ego and identity apparently unhindered by his wealth (an achievement in and of itself). He also had a mother who was a tough one in facing the big bad world with a resolute desire to succeed and achieve. She became an accomplished woman, attaining and maintaining her ambitions, so much so that her son came to personify them.

Arabella Huntington (1850-1924), a little girl from a poor family in the South with a drive and personality later typified in the character Scarlettt O'Hara in "Gone With The Wind."

His mother’s son.

He was born on March 10, 1870 in a little town near Galveston, Texas where his mother had gone to stay with relatives during the final months of her pregnancy. Why she traveled so far from New York, where she had been living with a man named John Archer Worsham, a fellow Virginian like herself, is not known, like so many other facts about her life; but she had relatives in the Galveston area and it was far from Eastern eyes and ears.

It could have been assumed that Mr. Worsham was the father. The child was given the name Archer Milton Worsham. But others believed that the boy’s father was Collis Potter Huntington, the railroad and shipbuilding tycoon who was the mastermind behind the creation of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads as well as the Newport News shipyards. Huntington was thirty years older than the newborn’s mother and already married with grown children.

The boy’s mother was Catherine Arabella Duval Yarrington, known as Belle, born in Richmond, Virginia or Union Springs, Alabama on June 1, 1850 or 1852, depending when and where she was asked. She was in her mid-teens, in the 1860s, right after the Civil War, when she moved up to New York with Mr. Worsham, a gambling parlor operator who was twenty years her senior and also married with children. According to New York census records, the couple were registered as Mr. and Mrs. although there is no record of a marriage, or a previous divorce on Mr. Worsham’s part.

Back in New York with child, Belle’s “husband’s” faro parlor was raided by the police and closed down. Belle, in the meantime, now a young woman of 20, while still living with Worsham, had become “associated” with the railroad tycoon Huntington. How they met is also unknown but some believed their first introduction was back in Richmond where Belle’s mother ran a boardinghouse where Huntington sometimes stayed when he was in the area doing business when Belle was in her early teens (and Huntington was in his late 40s).

L. to r.: Arabella's beloved son Archer, in his early 30s; Arabella's "first" husband, the railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington, who left her a great fortune; Arabella's second husband Henry Huntington, nephew of Collis who was also a transportation tycoon in his own right, and with whom she created the Huntington Museum in Pasadena.

Evidently Mr. Worsham was not displeased with Belle’s relationship with Huntington, with whom she began to travel on his business trips, where Huntington introduced her as his “niece.” By the time of little Archer’s birth, Huntington had also transferred some Manhattan residential properties into her name. The relationship between man and “niece” continued until 1884 when Huntington’s wife died (having been nursed and cared for by Belle and her mother). Shortly thereafter, Belle (“Mrs. Arabella Worsham”) married Collis Huntington in her house at 4 West 54th Street, with one of the most famous men in America at the time, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, officiating. Belle was 34 and Mr. Huntington was 63. That same year, the 14 year old Archer was adopted by Huntington and officially became Archer Milton Huntington.

The Collis P. Huntington mansion in state of demolition.

The new Mrs. Huntington was described in the newspapers as having a personal fortune of $2 million (with the buying power of $40 million in today’s dollars). It was said that with Huntington’s “seed money” she made a fortune investing in real estate and securities, often pitting herself against some of the big boys like William H. Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller.

She had a developing penchant for luxury and for spending -- especially on Paris fashions, jewels and painting and sculpture. The West 54th Street house was filled with art she’d begun to collect and furniture by the Herter Brothers. She was a quick study in languages and art history and clearly developed a refined sense of test. She educated herself and became fluent in French and the French culture.

The decoration of her house was so successful that some of the rooms are still on display at the Museum of the City of New York. But shortly after her marriage, she wanted something grander, and persuaded Mr. Huntington to build a mansion on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street with the William C. Whitneys, the Cornelius Vanderbilts, and Mary Mason Jones (Edith Wharton’s aunt) on the other three corners.  She sold 4 West 54 to John D. Rockefeller who was moving from his native Cleveland to establish his base in New York. The property eventually was given to Museum of Modern Art by the Rockefeller family, and is now part of the museum’s garden.

The library of the Collis P. Huntington house on the southeast corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue where Tiffany's stands today.

She was a strong woman who did what she wanted. Not a great beauty, with looks that were not enhanced with time, she nevertheless had a very great allure. In time she became one of the few women to become one of the major art collectors of the early 20th century.

Mrs. Archer Hunnington

She loved Paris and made the crossing at least 22 times. Wherever she went, the boy went too, with private tutors. He grew up to be a gentle-mannered, handsome young man of 6’3” weighing, in his prime, over 250 pounds. He also developed, at an early age, a passion similar to his mother’s, not only for art but for poetry, for coin collecting, for conservation.

Collis Huntington died in 1900 at 79. His widow, who inherited more than $50 million (more than a half billion in today’s buying power) and donned her mourning dress of black and never again wore anything but black in public. In private she wore bright colored tea gowns of velvet, lace and marabou, accompanied by fantastic jewels. She also took up with his nephew Henry E. Huntington, who was approximately her age and long-married. Henry Huntington started out life working for his uncle but eventually went off on his own developing real estate and public transportation companies in Los Angeles, making a fortune as great as his uncle’s. When his wife died in 1912, he and Belle married.

Archer Huntington was 30 years old when Collis Huntington died, leaving him a substantial fortune also. He never bothered with a formal education but with his mother’s approval, he devoted his time to studying the language, the arts, the history and literature of Spain. In 1903 he completed a six year task of translating the epic poem, El Cid.His early interest in the arts and history and literature were now awaiting his exploitation. One of his great loves was Spanish culture and its art. On May 18, 1904, not yet 35, he and his wife executed the deed of foundation of the Hispanic Society, to endow a free public library, museum, and educational institution, within the City of New York. Eight lots of land in Audubon Park were conveyed, and $350,000 granted as an endowment by this deed. His sculptress wife Anna Hyatt Huntington's second Equestrian statue, "Ruy Diaz of Bivar, the Cid Campeador" is in front of the Museum, the first of a group of four to be placed there.In this he achieved something that Frick and Morgan had not yet done at twice his age.

The Ogden Codman-designed Archer Huntington mansion at 88th Street and Fifth Avenue, now the home of the National Academy Museum.
The Arabella and Henry Huntington house in Pasadena, California, now the Huntington Museum.

In 1909, Arabella Huntington, who was deeply engaged in buying art, furniture, objets and manuscripts for Henry Huntington’s house in Pasadena, a major client of the now legendary art and antiques dealer Sir Joseph Duveen. In 1909, through Duveen, she bought Velazquez’s Count-Duke of Olivares for $400,000 and presented it to her son for his museum.

Arabella Huntington died in 1924, at the age of 74, by then one of the richest women in the world. Her principal heir was her beloved son.

With a great fortune in hand, Archer Huntington and his wife embarked on a lifetime of collecting, donating to museums, conservation causes, writing poetry (and on his wife’s part, sculpting and painting), touching wherever they went with their largesse that enhanced the culture, the land and even the neighborhood. He died in 1955 after a long and fruitful life. Today, a century later, Archer Huntington’s museum, although only one of his philanthropic achievements, is still considered one of the great secrets of New York and one of the city’s greatest museums.

Exterior and interiors of Archer Huntington's Hispanic Society of America museum located on Audubon Terrace between 155th and 156th Street in Manhattan.


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October 5, 2006, Volume VI, Number 155
Photographs by DPC & JH/NYSD.com


© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/NewYorkSocialDiary.com