Big Old Houses: Fugitive Chic

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A man named Burton Welles published this photo of the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street in a book titled Fifth Avenue New York from Start to Finish 1911. Until the 1920s, grand, if rather somber, Italianate mansions still lined lower Fifth. They constituted a thin crust of gentility, however, menaced by an army of towering loft buildings that had sprung up in their very backyards.

Here’s the same corner more unchanged than it might at first appear. The two brownstone mansions closest to 12th Street have been replaced by your typical 1920s quasi-Georgian Revival apartment tower, but almost everything else in this view was already standing in 1911. That includes the wide townhouse wedged between the apartment buildings at 47 Fifth Avenue. It was built in 1853 by Irad Hawley (1793-1865), first president of the Pennsylvania Coal Company. Since 1917 it has been the home of the Salmagundi Club.

Here’s a closer look at the house taken in the 1930s (below, left). Fifth Avenue wasn’t opened until 1824, and it was ignored by fashion until 1826. That’s when the potter’s field on the site of Washington Square was converted into a parade ground. By the early 1840s, rich men were building significant houses on Fifth. When the city opened Washington Square Park in 1851, lower Fifth became the most fashionable address in town. Irad Hawley had done well in business for most of his life, but it wasn’t until he turned sixty that he went into the coal business and became rich. He then bought a lot in the best part of town, built himself a mansion and retired to enjoy it.

There’s no date on the photo (above, right), but if I’m not mistaken that’s a ’57 Chrysler Windsor parked out front, with an Imperial from the same year behind it. 1957 was not only the year of Chrysler’s “Forward Look,” it was the year 47 Fifth Avenue narrowly escaped demolition. “Salmagundi Club Soon to Decide Fate of its Storied Lower Fifth Avenue Quarters,” announced the New York Times on January 4, 1956. The city was pressuring the club to demolish the grand front stoop and enclose a monumental interior stairway, the costs of which would have been ruinous. Happily, neither happened.

Here’s the Hawley house today, looking better than it has in a long time, thanks to a recent facade restoration. That image from 1911 is deceptive; 47 Fifth Ave. was already a rooming house by then. Hawley died in 1865, his wife in 1891, and the last of his eight children cleared out soon after. The neighborhood was still fashionable in 1893, the year the house was bought by a Pennsylvania lawyer and investor named William G. Park. By 1901, however, there was no pretending any more about lower Fifth Avenue. The village had turned “bohemian” and blocks not characterized by decaying houses full of free lovers, free thinkers, Bolshevik sympathizers and Italian immigrants had instead been canyonized by towering loft buildings.

In 1901 the Park family abandoned lower Fifth, built a new house on East 74th Street, and attempted with occasional success to rent 47 Fifth. There appear to have been a few tenants, but mostly the place was boarded up. Park died in 1909, at which time his estate sold the Hawley mansion to the Seymour-Dunscombe Company, an operator of rooming houses.

It was a better class of rooming house, and a degree of original elegance certainly survived, at least on the lower floors. The childrens’ and servants’ rooms on the upper levels, however, were sliced and diced into a maze of little rooms. Observing all this from rented quarters around the corner on West 12th Street was the Salmagundi Club, founded in 1871 by a (sometimes fast-living) group of painters and sculptors whose goal was to cultivate art in the American psyche. Louis C. Tiffany, John LaFarge, William Merritt Chase and Stanford White were all Salmagundi members. In 1917, the club shook trees, squeezed stones and auctioned off as much of their own art as they could in order to raise money for the down-payment on a $75,000 purchase contract.

95 years later, here we are atop the last high stoop on lower Fifth, about to have what my late father would have called “a look-see.”

This is my host and guide, club member, fine artist and club historian Bob Mueller, in welcoming mode.

Even though it’s almost forty feet wide, the Hawley house has a fairly typical town house layout. This door leads to a small reception room beside the main entrance, now used as an office.

Just ahead is the grand staircase which the city wanted the club to enclose. The Italianate style was making a splash in fashionable architectural circles when this house was built. 47 Fifth was, in fact, one of the harbingers of New York’s endless mid-19th-century Italianate brownstone blockfronts so despised byHenry James and Edith Wharton. Style-wise the house is more Italianate than anything else, but its eclectic interior abounds with earlier Greek and Gothic Revival details.

This door, opposite the small reception room, leads to a double parlor whose detailing, while way too hefty for the delicate 1830s, is an updated version of that period’s Greek Revival style.

Here’s Irad Hawley’s widow, Sarah Holmes (seated), having tea with her daughter Sarah Lavinia in the front parlor of 47 Fifth Avenue in 1870. The plethora of informative Victoriana in this image — ceiling gasolier, ponderous gilded valances, mooning marble statuary and multiplicity of gold framed art — contrasts with the same view today.

Portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Hawley gaze at one another from opposite sides of a columned screen that divides the two parlors.

These views show the second or back parlor.

We’ve now left the back parlor and are headed for the dining room.

I’m taking this photo with my back to what, when the house was built, was a large window overlooking the back yard. The Gothic Revival dining room in the view below is typical of Salmagundi’s interior eclecticism. I’m going to turn around now and shoot a picture in the opposite direction.

No back yard anymore. The club made major alterations to the house in 1917, the most significant of which was this (originally skylit) gallery wing for the exhibition of members’ works. It covers the entire balance of the lot, and contains an identically sized billiard room on the floor below.

It takes a minute to perceive the Gothic dining room as a distinct space in the original house, as opposed to an extension of the art gallery.

The great feature of 47 Fifth Avenue is its magnificent central stairway.

Directly above the double parlors were his and her bedrooms, each with an attached sitting room or, in Mrs. H’s case, a boudoir. These master bedrooms were divided by the sort of closet and double sink complexes we still occasionally see in unmolested brownstone houses. The club removed the bedroom closets and combined the formerly separate bedrooms into one grand library.

The images below focus on the front half of the library, which I believe would have been Mr. Hawley’s bedroom.

This was Mrs. Hawley’s bedroom fireplace, in the bedroom in the back.

I think the rear bedroom was Mrs. Hawley’s because of the size of this attached boudoir. It’s a meeting room now, presided over by portraits of past presidents.

Through this door, at the far end of the hall past the stairway, is Mr. Hawley’s sitting room — or office, or den, or whatever else he used it for. It’s much smaller than his wife’s, which makes me think it belonged to a man.

47 Fifth Avenue was built with indoor plumbing, although perhaps not an awful lot of it. Besides sinks in closets adjoining the major bedrooms, there were at least three real bathrooms, complete with toilets and tubs. The club converted these in 1917 to public restrooms like the one below, located outside the Hawleys’ respective bedrooms.

The second floor was the private realm of the senior Hawleys. The third floor had the same layout and was reserved for children.

As far as I can tell, there is only one intact original room on the third floor, the rest having been divided into a veritable warren by the rooming house operator. After the roomers cleared out, there was a period during which club members stayed in these rooms, sometimes for long stretches. Nowadays, art and preservation-oriented non-profits have settled in.

The back stair used to be the only way to the fourth floor, until the club installed a new steel stair in the main stairwell. This provided easier access, but did so at considerable aesthetic cost. The stained glass oculus that once crowned the stairwell has disappeared.

The fourth floor originally contained multiple single window servants’ rooms surrounding the great open well of the (formerly inaccessible) main stairwell. The partitions installed during the rooming house period remain largely unchanged.

We’re back on the first floor at the bottom of the main stairway. Judging from the undisturbed ornamental plaster and woodwork, the stairs that descend from here to the floor below have always been the main route to the family dining room and kitchen. This is the first time I’ve seen a basement stairway so prominently positioned. The club still uses the circular dinner gong to announce meals.

Now we’re in the hall at the foot of the stairs from the parlor level. The club demolished the 1853 basement floor plan in 1917, replacing it with a gemutlich dining room and adjacent tap room.

Back in 1956, when the club wasn’t sure it could hold onto the premises, journalist Meyer Berger described Salmagundi’s founders as, “a lusty crowd of rowdy-dow intellectuals who painted, quaffed deeply and worked off animal excess after fried-sausage-and-coffee feasts by impromptu boxing and wrestling bouts that always ended in panting laughter, never in anger.”

Of the club’s meal service, Berger wrote that it “always had a good dining hall with waitresses who never seem to leave or fade.” Of the membership in 1956, he added that “they who were the Village wild ones in youth, are the Village conservatives now.”

In 1965, during another financial crisis, the club seriously considered merging with the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park. This would have meant the sale of 47 Fifth and its inevitable destruction. But once again, it didn’t happen.

In 1969, the Salmagundi Club became a Registered New York City landmark. In 1974, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You may wonder where the name came from? It was lifted from a short-lived humorous periodical published in 1809 by Washington Irving and titled The Salmagundi Papers; or, the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. And Others.

Irving’s 1809 humor still provoked gales of laughter in 1871, although today’s readers may find him heavy sailing. Wikipedia (I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up) describes a “salmagundi” as a 17th Century English salad dish that includes meat, seafood, vegetables, fruit, leaves, nuts, flowers, oil, vinegar, spices and the kitchen sink. Well, the kitchen sink is a joke, although the dish sounds perfectly awful even without it.

The Salmagundi club welcomes new members, whether they be artists or not, and mounts year ’round exhibitions of painting, sculpture and photography. This is quite aside from the permanent show of artist-members’ works on the club’s non-gallery walls. The place oozes “olde New York” atmosphere and the cost of membership is extremely reasonable. The link is

Credit Where Credit is Due: The vintage image of the Hawley women at tea, and photos of the clubhouse in the ‘thirties and ‘fifties are courtesy of the Salmagundi Club Archives.

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