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Big Old Houses: A Center of Fashion, A Century Later
by John Foreman


I always wonder, when I look at old street scenes, who those people on the sidewalks were. The view above was taken in 1909, probably in the early fall judging from the clothing. A group of pedestrians has paused at the corner of 30th and Fifth to admire a glamorous coach, its rooftop crammed with society folk, clattering up the Avenue. Surely somewhere there's a photo of me, standing among a group just like this, hands clasped behind my back just like that fellow in the image above. I even have a hat like his. He may have been thinking about his girlfriend, or boyfriend, or business or children, but I'll warrant the instant this photo was taken he was thinking about the gilded world of that four-in-hand coach.

From the mid-1870s until the automobile chased the coaches off the road, New Yorkers were gaga over the gentleman's sport of coaching. Picturesque, romantic, requiring considerable skill and costing the moon, "driving," as it was (and still is) properly called, was a far more visible talisman of wealth than today's Gulfstream jet tucked away on a private strip.
The New York Coaching Club was founded in 1875 by a couple of rich Manhattan swells named William Jay and Delancey Astor Kane. The story is that Jay, absorbing English style on a visit across the pond, was bewitched by the vanished romance of English mail coaches, which by then had been rendered pretty much extinct by the railroad. Driving one of these things, besides requiring skill and knowledge, is not an easy physical task. Back home in New York Jay's rich society friends jumped at the idea of a club that would preserve a romantic tradition and provide a venue for competitive athletic skill in an appealingly showy manner. Coaching clubs didn't exactly proliferate, but enough were started for coaching parades, long distance excursions (the coach in the image above is on its way to Newport), and even regular coaching "services" to become features of metropolitan life.
The first meet of the New York Coaching Club was held in 1876 at Madison Square, a former center of residential fashion then in transition to a chic district of hotels and shops. The names on the NYCC's member roster — Bennett, Jay, Kane, Bronson, Newbold, etc. — constitute an iconography of upper class 19th century New York. Interestingly, before the end of that anti-feminist century, a Women's Coaching Club appeared. The image below shows Mrs. Thomas Hastings, wife of the famous Carrere and Hastings partner, holding the ribbons of a four-in-hand in front of the old Colony Club at Madison and 30th.
Everybody sat on top of a coach, never inside. The elegantly upholstered interiors were reserved strictly for picnic hampers, spare wraps and servants. I guess the view from the top was better, and certainly the passengers themselves were more visible. That's Rosamund Street on the front seat in the image below; behind her are Mr. and Mrs. Robert Brewster; next to them is Mrs. Oliver Gould Jennings. Don't they ever look the part. The man in the top hat behind Mrs. Jennings is a groom, as is the man in the foreground, waiting for the driver whose traditional apron is folded on the seat beside Miss Street. The drag is parked at 62nd and Fifth. The empty lot in the background, including the houses on either side of it, is the future site of the Knickerbocker Club. The Central Park coaching parade, a fine weather ritual, typically left from the Metropolitan Club. I'd guess this coach was waiting in the lineup.
Regularly scheduled service to places that only rich people would go was an amusing affectation of certain clubs. I find it hard to believe that Delancey Kane really roused himself every morning for the three hour haul up to Pelham and back, fancy lunch break or no. It was a very "social" excursion. Seats were reserved well in advance, and not by the hoi polloi. There was in the coaching world a delicious attention to detail typical of upper class society back them — the nosegays on each horse's left ear, the authentic English coaching horn, the perfection of the grooms' livery, etc., etc.

If there was a spiritual heart to New York's coaching world, it was the Brunswick Hotel, located on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 26th St. and described by King's Guide as "much favored by English tourists and ... patronized also by the wealthy young men about town."

It was at the Brunswick, in August of 1883, that Oscar Wilde was interviewed in a Times profile titled "Oscar Wilde's Hair." "Have you changed your opinion about the ugliness of the Atlantic Ocean?" he was asked. "No;" he replied, "I must still quarrel with the Atlantic. It is not beautiful at all. There are no objects to give it distance; nothing but gray, gray sky and gray gray sea. It is simply monotonous." While Wilde opined on the ocean, smart society sat in the Brunswick's sidewalk cafe overlooking Madison Square, waiting to board the coach to Pelham.

Coaches from the Brunswick headed north up Fifth Ave., past Marble Collegiate at 29th and Fifth and the 1891 Holland House Hotel at 30th, both well remembered landmarks of the coaching world.
Every year the NYCC organized a long distance excursion to one of its members' country places. In 1878 Kane drove a club coach all the way to member Bronson's estate at Norwalk CT, a distance of 56 miles. In 1879, the destination was H.R. Rive's place outside Newburgh, 74 miles from the Brunswick. To be more accurate, Kane was spelled during these long trips, handing the ribbons to different members at prearranged intervals. Horses were changed regularly too, adding to costs and complicating logistics. Wherever four-in-hand coaches went, however, they were traffic-stopping spectacles. The public loved 'em.
So what's all this have to do with big old houses? Admittedly, it's a lateral shift from houses to the people who lived in them. The coaching craze coincided with a shift in the residential fortunes of Madison Square, a district I've always found both socially and architecturally interesting.

Madison Square Park was a high end residential destination the moment it opened in 1847. Less than 30 years later, however, high society was rapidly vacating its excellent houses, to be replaced by a new and often louche cafe society invading its chic hotels and restaurants.

The image below is the Holland House, built in 1891 at 30th and Fifth, arguably the best hotel in town in the years before the Waldorf. New York's finest hotels were all down here — the Fifth Avenue and the Hoffman House on 23rd and 24th, the Brunswick and the Holland on 26th and 30th, and to a lesser extent the Gilsey over on Broadway and 29th.

Delmonico's and its successor, the Cafe Martin, were on Fifth and 26th; the fabled Seven Sisters, bordellos of surpassing elegance, were on 25th between the square and Sixth Avenue. New York society no longer lived in this neighborhood, but it came here to dine and dally. The presence of the Coaching Club gave things an extra bit of gloss.
The Holland House was converted to offices in 1925, its vanished glamor commemorated today by a small brass plaque.
The voluptuous Gilsey House on the northeast corner of Broadway and 29th is now a condominium, its original fenestration fatally altered by somebody who richly deserves to be slapped upside the head.
The Fifth Avenue Hotel (on the left) and the Hoffman House (the agglomeration of buildings running up the blockfront to its right) faced Madison Square between 23rd and 25th Streets. Both had famous bars, that of the Hoffman renowned for an over-scaled Bougereau titled "Nymphs and Satyr." Its luscious nymphic buttocks were quite the scandal in Victorian New York. Williams College owns the painting today.
Is that really a stuffed bear on the bar?
In 30 more years, the neighborhood changed again. The view below shows the Hoffman House in 1911, gamely holding on in the wake of an invasion of the neighborhood by the garment industry and the 1908 demolition of its long time neighbor, the Fifth Avenue. By the 1920s, both of these landmarks had been replaced by massive loft buildings.
The Cafe Martin shared the same fate.
By 1911, the Brunswick Hotel was gone, replaced by yet another huge manufacturing loft called the Brunswick Building. It looms at middle left in the image below, on the northeast corner of Fifth and 26th. This photo and others below come from "Fifth Avenue from Start to Finish," published in 1911 by Wells and Company. The Brunswick Building today speaks to another reversal in the fortunes of Madison Square. It's now a pricey condo known as 225 Fifth Avenue.
Marble Collegiate, named after the Tuckahoe marble with which it was constructed, has stood on the northwest corner of Fifth and 29th since 1851. The fashionable district of single family brownstones it once served was short lived, notwithstanding the survivor across the street in the image below. A sliver of the Holland House is visible to the right of the church; a smaller sliver of the Gilsey is barely visible to its left, at the Broadway end of 29th St. My late mother was a fan of Marble Collegiate's long time minister (1932-1984), Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, author of "The Power of Positive Thinking."
The overwhelming majority of big brownstones that lined Fifth Avenue south of the Central Park were built by speculative contractors. These houses became increasingly luxurious with each generation, but no sooner were they built than restless fashion moved further north. A joke of the period had it that their builders were simply outfitting the rooming houses of the future. Reminders of the residential past survive in this 1911 image of the west side of Fifth from 30th to 31st Streets. Actually, remnants like these are all over the place, for those who care to look. Fifth Avenue south of Central Park was widened in 1908, leading to the demolition of all the brownstone stoops. By then, however, the social horses were well out of the barn.
Despite the invasion of trade, the widening of the street and the erection of loft and office towers, there were some who refused to abandon their fine Fifth Avenue houses. In so doing they underscored the profligacy of architectural destruction surrounding them. According to Wells and Company, the two brownstones to the right of the Mason and Hamlin piano building were still private in 1911. The Countess de Laugiers-Villars occupied No. 311 on the left; her neighbor Jerodine (sic) Redmond held out next door at No. 309. Wells spelled Brunzwick with a "z" so it's anybody's guess what Redmond's first name really was. A glassy new condo rises on the site today.
The brick building in the center of the view below is the Wilbraham, built in 1888 on the northwest corner of 30th and Fifth as a residence for high class bachelors. Interesting tidbit: in 1890, 45% of male New Yorkers over the age of 15 were unmarried. (And we think it's hard to find a boyfriend now).
City bachelors traditionally lived in humble surroundings, with family or in rooming houses, but late in the century speculators recognized the market and began to build what turned into hundreds of bachelor hotels. The Wilbraham attracted the prosperous end of the market, men who could afford style but didn't want the hassle of a house. One of the Wilbraham's sort-of-famous former residents was James Henry Smith, an "extra man" with Tuxedo connections and a nepotic job managing his rich English uncle's American real estate interests. In 1899, upon the death of said uncle, 45-year-old Smith inherited a whopping $56,000,000 estate. Society, in the persons of Mamie (Mrs. Stuyvesant) Fish and her jokester pal, Harry Lehr, took notice and took Smith up. They dubbed their laconic new discovery "Silent" Smith.
Silent Smith was a sensation in the society columns. He took up driving (not surprisingly, given its elite image), deserted the Wilbraham for the fashionable West 50s off Fifth, and married a society bolter named Annie (Mrs. William Rhinelander) Stewart. Harry Lehr's wife Bessie thought Smith's famous silence had less to do with an oracular nature than with having not very much to say. That's him, third from the right, in satin knee breeches, boutonniere and handlebar mustache, at James Hazen Hyde's famous ball at the Waldorf in 1905. Smith's patroness, Mamie Fish, is seated at the far right; the man immediately to the left of him is Stanford White. Smith's life as a social lion was a short one; he died in 1906 on a round-the-world honeymoon yachting cruise.
The Wilbraham's two-room, kitchenless bachelor suites were converted to apartments during the depression. The building is a coop today.
Quite a lot of old houses, in various states of abuse and disguise, are still to be found in this neighborhood. The ones below are on the north side of West 29th St. next to the Gilsey House.
McKim Mead and White's original Colony Club, where the Women's Coaching Club met and Elsie de Wolfe got her first big chance, still stands on Madison and 30th. The club itself moved to grander Delano and Aldrich designed digs on 62nd and Park in 1914 and the original clubhouse is now occupied by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Marble Collegiate, founded in 1628 (although not here), has survived the comings and goings of several successive congregations. It appears to be thriving today. The yellow ribbons bear the names of young men and women — people's children, just like yours and mine — who've died in Iraq and Afghanistan, if not the reasons why.
The old Seaman-Drake mansion, a marble confection in Inwood dating from 1855, served for a while as the clubhouse of the Suburban Riding and Driving Club, a coaching club to which its last owner belonged. The showy gate is on the west side of Broadway on the line of today's 216th Street.
The house itself enjoyed views of both the Harlem and the Hudson Rivers, the latter framed by the wooded slopes of Inwood Hill and Spuyten Duyvil — an enchanting place, no doubt, before its urban inundation.
The 20th century took its toll. In 1938, the surviving superblock with the old house in the middle became the site of Park Terrace Gardens, an apartment complex now operated as a coop. (Images: www.myinwood.com)
The house is gone, but the arch survives — well, sort of. It is now the entrance to a large shed that houses Jack Gallo Auto Body.
The gentleman's sport of coaching survives as well. There are still coaching parades too, like this one, organized not too long ago by the New York Coaching Club. A parade of park drags, four-in-hands and antique mail coaches tooled from Lenox to Stockbridge, Mass on a sunny afternoon, pleasing hundreds of smiling onlookers just as Delancey Kane and his set did all those years ago at Madison Square. I felt a curious identity with that fellow on the corner of 30th Street — remember the man with my hat? — and wondered if he ever got onto one of those fancy coaches himself. Probably not. But I did, perhaps for both of us. That's me in the grey suit and dark glasses on brake. Would that I had more opportunities to wear a top hat; it's a good look.
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