Big Old Houses: "Nothing to Wear"

Big Old Houses: "Nothing to Wear"
by John Foreman


In 1857, a fellow named William Allen Butler published an anonymous poem in Harper's Weekly, titled "Nothing to Wear." The poem skewered social pretentiousness in general, and Madison Square in particular. Here's how it begins:

William Allen Butler.
Miss Flora McFlimsey of Madison Square
Has made three separate journeys to Paris
And her father assures me, each time she was there,
That she and her friend Mrs. Harris*
(Not the lady whose name is so famous in history
But plain Mrs. H., without romance or mystery)
Spent six consecutive weeks without stopping
In one continuous round of shopping
Shopping alone and shopping together
At all hours of the day, and in all sorts of weather
For all manner of things that a woman can put
On the crown of her head or the sole of her foot
Or wrap round her shoulders, or fit round her waist
Or that can be sewed on, or pinned on, or laced
Or tied with a string or stitched on with a bow
In front or behind, above or below
...
And yet, though scarce three months have passed since the day
This merchandise went on twelve carts up Broadway
This same Miss McFlimsey, of Madison Square
The last time we met was in utter despair
Because she had nothing whatever to wear!


*The Mrs. Harris, whose name is "so famous in history," is not even a little famous to me. I googled her in vain, doubting somehow that she was either the Catherine Harris (1809-1907) of Underground Railroad fame, or the eponymous character in Fielding's novel, "Amelia." I don't know who she was.

The lead image is of Madison Square in 1900, the year the city erected a temporary triumphal arch to celebrate Admiral Dewey's victory at the Battle of Manila Bay. Sufficient subscriptions could not be raised to make it permanent, a commentary perhaps on the Spanish American War itself. The view is to the northeast, taken from the roof of the building on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd St. The proto-Stalinist tower in the distance sits atop Stanford White's famous Madison Square Garden, built in 1890.
Pictured above is the east side of the square, looking south on Madison Avenue from 26th Street. The image dates from the late 1870s, when restless fashion was just beginning to pull up stakes. That jazzy mansion in the foreground, which survived until 1967, belonged to Leonard Jerome, socialite sportsman, "King of Wall Street" (in his day) and grandfather of Winston Churchill. Madison Square, named after our fourth president, was opened in 1847 and aggressively colonized by elite residential construction during the 1850s and '60s as the storm surge of fashion pushed New York society ever northwards. The east side of the square was always the best, house-wise, although the north and south flanks looked much like it.
The west or Fifth Avenue side of Madison Square was given over to hotels and restaurants. Pictured above is an early shot of the famous Fifth Avenue Hotel, built in 1859 on the blockfront between 23rd and 24th Streets. Until its eclipse by the Waldorf in 1890, anybody who was anybody stayed at the Fifth Avenue — from Mark Twain to Ulysses Grant to the Prince of Wales. Republican politicos crowded its famous bar, either surrounding Boss Platt if they were lucky, or hovering in the so-called "amen corner" waiting for a chance to button hole the great man. Across 24th Street you can see a corner of the equally famous Hoffman House, with an equally famous bar, this time full of Democratic politicos. The Hoffman House bar was one of the sights of New York, notable for an enormous — and enormously shameless — painting over the bar by Bougereau called "Nymphs and Satyrs."
The Hoffman House grew like Topsy over the years, eventually swallowing an adjacent hotel on the same block called the Albermarle. By the 1880s, Madison Square was more famous for the glamorous comings and goings of its hotel guests than the social standing of its residents who had, in any case, already begun to quietly decamp. Butler's doggerel became more apt as years passed and the neighborhood, much against its will, became a natural home for people named McFlimsey. Here's another bit of the poem, in which Miss McF frets with her boyfriend, Harry, over the upcoming grand ball at the Stuckups':

Madison Square Garden, 1890, with Jerome house across the street.
Looking south on Madison Avenue with the main entrance to the Garden on the left.
So I ventured again: "Wear your crimson brocade" -
(Second turn up of nose) - "That's too dark by a shade."
"Your blue silk" - "That's too heavy."
"Your pink" - "That's too light."
"Wear tulle over satin" - "I can't endure white."
"Your rose-colored then, the best of the batch" -
"I haven't a thread of point-lace to match."
"Your brown moire antique" - "Yes, and look like a Quaker."
"The pearl-colored" - "I would, but that plaguy dress-maker
Has had it a week." "Then that exquisite lilac,
In which you would melt the heart of a shylock" -
(Here the nose took again the same elevation)-
"I wouldn't wear that for the whole of creation."
"Why not? It's my fancy, there's nothing could strike it
As more comme il faut" - "Yes, but dear me that lean
Sophronia Stuckup has got one just like it
And I won't appear dressed like a chit of sixteen
...

In the odd way of New York, fine houses were often perilously close to seemingly undesirable commercial structures.

The view (top, right) shows White's beautiful Madison Square Garden of 1890 with the Jerome house directly across the street. The Garden's main entrance was half a block from Jerome's front door. Before he died in 1891 Jerome sold the house to the Manhattan Club, the first of several clubs to occupy the building. The University Club was here for a while too, before moving in 1899 to its own McKim Mead and White palazzo on 54th Street.

We're looking south on Madison Avenue (above, right), with the main entrance to the Garden on the left; the cross street is East 27th. By the 1890s a somewhat tattered air of exclusivity still clung to the east side of the square. The surrounding blocks, however, were already getting grim.

Here's the Garden shortly before its demolition in 1925. The splendid New York Life Building of 1928 stands on the site today. If we had to lose a fine building like the Garden, it is some consolation that what replaced it is (for a change) a fine building as well. I love this image; it so captures the gritty feel of urban American in the 1920s.
What finally killed Madison Square's lingering social pretensions was the construction in 1902 of the Fuller — a.k.a. Flatiron — building. Interesting, isn't it, that the building's stone skin was attached first to the upper floors.
In 1888, the social center of Manhattan — being a hypothetical geographical point at the very center of those addresses owned by "society" people — was the corner of Fifth Avenue and 21st St. In less than twenty years, huge commercial structures had obliterated the residential air of that hallowed intersection and transformed the avenue into what you see extending south on the right side of the Fuller Building.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel closed in 1908, after which it was torn down and replaced with the loft building on the site today.
The Hoffman House, in a moment of misguided optimism, built an addition in 1907. Management hung on gamely, in spite of a bankruptcy and changes in the neighborhood, before closing in 1915. By that time Madison Square had become the center of New York's garment industry.
So I asked myself, what big old houses could be left in this once glamorous district? Answer: not many. There were fine brownstones on West 25th between Broadway and Sixth Avenue that held out into the twentieth century, but in very different hands from those who occupied them originally. The so-called Seven Sisters were a line of sumptuous brothels operated by cultured madams who kept carriages, summered in Saratoga, and distributed engraved invitations to guests at the nearby hotels. Evening affairs in their elaborate 25th Street brownstone mansions were strictly white tie, at least on the lower floors. There's not a trace of them today, unless that outline on the wall above the parking lot is actually the ghost of a Sister.
The Madison Square neighborhood — now generally called Flatiron — has enjoyed a renaissance of late, sparked by a brilliant renovation of the park in 2001.
Here's the site of the Hoffman House today; that high connecting bridge between the two loft buildings spans 24th Street.
Given Madison Square's opulent big old house past, I was certain I could find survivors — even in deep mufti. This 1911 view shows the west side of Fifth Avenue between 27th and 26th Streets. Fashion has clearly fled this place and left no forwarding address, but I see one surviving house, albeit now converted to retail use.
And here it is today, still more worse for wear, but also still standing.
There's a surprisingly handsome church between Broadway and Sixth Avenues, on a lot that extends between the Seven Sisters parking lot on 25th and frontage on 26th. Here's the back of it, with a parish house next door.
Imagine this parish house without the flesh colored paint job, with a handsome sweep of brownstone stairs with fat stone balusters leading to the front door, plush curtains behind lace sheers in the windows, and you've got a pretty good idea of the Seven Sisters — at least from the street.
This battered old survivor still stands on the south side of 23rd St between Madison and Park Avenues. It was once a very fine, wide brownstone mansion, and it speaks eloquently — to me, anyway — of a vanished era.
The second house from the right, in this view of the west side of Fifth between 27th and 28th Street, was wounded but still standing in 1911.
Now it's a little more wounded, but still there.
You can just barely see the ghosts of the elaborate window surrounds that once ornamented the facade of this imposing corner house on the northeast corner of Fifth and 27th Street. It's now the Museum of Sex!
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