|In 1894 the ground floor of the mansion was ivy-covered. To the left is the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The wedding of lawyer Frederick W. Stevens to Adele Sampson “stirred” Manhattan society, as The New York Times worded it. Stevens came from an old New York and Long Island family; however he was “not well off in this world’s goods.” Adele was little known in New York society. The daughter of wealthy Joseph Sampson, she had been educated in Europe and at the Bolton Priory School in Westchester County, New York.
While her handsome new husband may not have been “well off in this world’s goods,” Adele inherited essentially her father’s entire estate. The Times later explained she “was thus made one of the richest women in America” and noted “Miss Sampson brought to her husband so large an income as enabled the couple to take at once a foremost position among the society leaders and entertainers of the day. Society hastened to pay court to the handsome and wealthy couple, and their early married life was passed amid smiles and flowers.”
The Stevens had four children and were as important in Newport society as in New York. Their villa on Bellevue Avenue was described by a newspaper as “one of the most luxurious in appointment and decoration.” Adele outdid every other Newport socialite in 1881 when she gave a ball “which surpassed in magnificence any former entertainment held in the fashionable watering place,” according to The Times. To cool the supper room, tons of ice were arranged in a pyramid and lighted from behind by colored calcium lights “shining through the crystal mass” to produce “a rather beautiful effect.”
In 1875 the Stevens laid plans for a new mansion far north on Fifth Avenue at the corner of 57th Street. The area was only sparsely developed and the Stevens mansion at No. 2 West 57th Street was one of the first of the grand palaces there. It would be another two years before Cornelius Vanderbilt began construction of his massive chateau directly across the street to the north. Property values already reflected the coming Millionaires’ Row and Adele paid $250,000 for the vacant lots alone—more than $5.5 million in 2016.
Architect George Harney designed a sprawling three story and attic jumble of styles that came together in a cohesive whole. The brick and stone mansion faced 57th Street and included a Romanesque Revival portico, a chateauesque, cone-capped tower; German Romanesque openings at the second floor; a French Second Empire pavilion on the Fifth Avenue side; and a an irregular roof line of dormers and gables.
The mansion was completed in 1876 and prompted a guidebook writer to call it “the most expensive house ever built in this city” with the exception of Alexander Stewart’s white marble palace across from the Astor mansions more than 20 blocks to the south.
The New York Times reported “no expense was spared in the construction, or in its interior decorations and furnishings. One room was furnished entirely from the contents of an old Norman mansion.” That room, according to the newspaper was “considered in its way the most beautiful in New-York.”
Things for the Stevens family went well until the Marquis de Talleyrand-Perigord arrived in New York. The down-and-out nobleman had lost his entire fortune speculating in California gold. The Evening World reported later “he went there in search of gold, but returned ruined and discouraged. Years later [in 1881] he decided to avenge himself for that disappointment, went again to America and, thanks to his name, was received in the most exclusive circles.”
The married Marquis became socially friendly with Adele and Frederick. According to Baroness Althea Salvador in 1890, “Mr. Stevens offered him two shares in an oil well. The Marquis had no money and Mr. Stevens gave him credit.” Not only did Frederick fund the Frenchman’s investment, but the Marquis became a long-term house guest. And then the problems began.
The New York Times reported that “early in the season” of 1882 that “it was whispered, then rumored, and finally boldly stated that Mrs. Stevens’s name had been stricken from off the society list, and that she had gone to Europe to join no less a person than the Marquis de Talleyrand-Perigord, leaving husband and children behind.”
Society was shocked and appalled. The Times continued “The fact that Mrs. Stevens, however, should have gone so far as to leave home and family for a Frenchman of no particular personal attractions, the Marquis being short and rather stout and decidedly ordinary-looking, and being moreover supposed to be deeply in debt, and a man having wife and family, occasioned the utmost sensation and surprise.”
Blacklisted from society and living with her lover abroad, Adele sold No. 2 West 57th Street late in December the following year. The New York Times reported “The Stevens mansion, covering four lots on the south-west corner of Fifth-avenue and Fifty-seventh street, has been purchased from Mrs. Adele L. S. Stevens by Mrs. William C. Whitney, for $600,000.” The newspaper diplomatically noted that Adele was “at present sojourning” in Paris. In fact, according to newspaper reports years later, the house had been purchased by Colonel Oliver H. Payne and presented to his sister, Flora Whitney, and her husband.
Like Frederick Stevens, William Collins Whitney came from a family long-established in America. An ancestor, John Whitney, arrived in Massachusetts in 1635; and William’s mother was a descendant of Plymouth governor William Bradford. Although he held a law degree and was a member of the New York bar, Whitney preferred political life. One year after moving in to the 57th Street mansion, he was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Grover Cleveland.
Whitney’s political career may have been inspired by that of his father-in-law. His wife, the former Flora Payne, was the daughter of Senator Henry B. Payne of Ohio. The couple had five children, Harry Payne Whitney, Pauline Payne Whitney, Payne Whitney, Oliver (who had died at the age of five in 1883 a few months prior to the purchase of the 57th Street mansion), and Dorothy Payne Whitney.
|William Collins Whitney in his office as Secretary of the Navy -- from the collection of the Library of Congress|
When Whitney’s term as Secretary of the Navy ended in 1889 the family returned to New York. Stanford White was hired to remodel the interiors of the former Stevens house. Well-known for her lavish DC entertaining, Flora now threw herself headlong into the Manhattan social whirl. On January 11, 1891 The New York Times reported that “Mrs. William C. Whitney has announced a series of informal Saturday evening ‘at homes,’ with dancing, at her residence…to which about six hundred invitations have been issued.”
The Whitneys hosted a high-profile house guest in 1892 in the form of former President Grover Cleveland, who was once again running for office. The President arrived in New York by boat early on the morning of July 20 and was driven directly to the Whitney mansion. The Times wrote “Mr. Whitney was up and waiting Mr Cleveland’s coming, and met him at his gate. It was a most cordial meeting. After breakfast Mr. Cleveland saw several newspaper callers and then went to the library to put the finishing touches to the address that he was to deliver in Madison Square Garden in the evening, and did not see any other visitors until in the afternoon.” The newspaper noted “Mr. Cleveland remained at Mr. Whitney’s residence all the day, ate dinner there, and from there went to the Manhattan Club, where he met the Notification Committee.”
By now, according to The Evening World, Flora Whitney was a major force among hostesses. “Since the retirement of Mrs. Astor, she has practically held undisputed sway in the fashionable set.” The newspaper said she “entertained sumptuously;” a claim that would be proven later that year when preparations began for Pauline’s coming-out.
On December 3 The Times informed society that “on Saturday evening Mr. and Mrs. William C. Whitney will throw open their handsome residence at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street to a large number of invited guests in honor of their daughter, Miss Whitney. This reception will be the first large fashionable evening entertainment this season, and it is understood there will be dancing.”
The affair lasted from 9:00 to midnight and dazzled even the most jaded. The Times reported that the mansion “has been the scene of many notable social events, but none have been more brilliant than the reception give last evening.” The newspaper said “The great size of the house necessitate floral decorations on a grand scale. In the hallway were palms reaching almost to the ceiling and springing out of beds of roses, and garlands of orchids added to the richness of the white-and-gold ballroom, where the reception was given. The famous Whitney tapestries lined the walls of the halls and were hung over the balustrades.”
The who’s-who of guests included the President-elect and Mrs. Cleveland, and the cream of society—the Stuyvesant Fishes, the William Rhinelanders, Mayor Grant, General and Mrs. Alexander S. Webb, the Frederick Vanderbilts, the William D. Sloanes, Mr. and Mrs. Abram S. Hewitt, the Burdens, the Alexanders, the Gallatins, the Cooper Hewitts, and on and on.
A similar, if less gala, entertainment was held the following week for Henry Payne Whitney who was home from Yale for Christmas vacation. The dinner for about 100 was served in “the great lower hall and the reception room and drawing room” and was described by The Times as “the scene of the most brilliant gathering of young people of this season.” Following dinner The Hungarian Band played while the young heirs and heiresses danced late into the night.
|from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Flora Whitney had been suffering heart trouble for several years. Although she was in her early 40s her hair was prematurely white. Nevertheless one newspaper said “her gentle face retained the glow of freshness of youth.” By the time of Pauline’s debut, both Flora and William had become concerned about the heart issues. The New York Times noted “As they increased in severity both Mr. Whitney and herself began to feel apprehensive of the ultimate effects, and the most skillful medical practitioners were consulted.”
Only a few days after she hosted Henry’s dinner party, Flora suffered her worst attack. She was confined to bed for weeks but continued to decline. At 2:55 on the morning of February 5, 1893 she died in her bed at No. 2 West 57th Street. Flora’s will, containing fewer than 200 words, left her more than $3 million estate entirely to her husband.
The subdued mourning period in the 57th Street mansion was abruptly ended with the high-profile wedding of Pauline to Almeric High Paget, grandson of the first Marquis of Anglesey and son of Lord Alfred Paget. The ceremony took place on November 12, 1895 in fashionable St. Thomas Church.
Millionaires and nobility were celebrated by the public much as motion picture or rock stars are today. The Times reported “The crowd extended fully a block up and down the street, and lined along the curb as if some great procession were soon to pass by. Most of the women appeared to be of the class that loves to read the so-called society papers.”
|Celebrity watchers crowd Fifth Avenue and 57th Street to get a glimpse of the millionaire couple. Note the tent-like structure erected to shield the bride from gawking onlookers. photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
|St. Thomas' Church was decorated with floral arches and palm trees for the wedding. photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Following the ceremony, a wedding breakfast and reception was held in the Whitney mansion.
|A section of the Whitney home set up for the wedding breakfast. photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
On August 25, 1896 Henry Payne Whitney married his next door neighbor and childhood playmate, Gertrude Vanderbilt. The Cyclopedic Review reported that the wedding at The Breakers, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s cottage, “attracted much attention in society.”
Munsey’s Magazine lamented “Like her cousin, the Duchess of Marlborough, Miss Vanderbilt was married so young that New York society has had small opportunity of knowing her.” Nevertheless, the magazine was pleased. “It was an ideal match. They had been playmates from childhood, are almost equal in birth and fortune, and are handsome, healthy, and happy.”
Colonel Oliver Payne’s gift to Gertrude was extravagant. Munsey’s reported “he sent her for a wedding gift a pearl necklace ten feet long. It surpassed the famous one collected by Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt, which has astonished London on the neck of the Duchess of Marlborough.”
Society and, reportedly, the Whitney and Payne families were surprised (and some like Oliver Payne infuriated) when less than a month later William C. Whitney announced his engagement to the widow, Edith Randolph, in Bar Harbor. They were married within a week. He immediately built a new country home in Lenox on an estate of 8,000 acres and imported 30 elk from Idaho for the grounds.
On February 28, 1897 the Chicago Tribune reported “Ex-Secretary and Mrs. William C. Whitney gave another of their large dinner parties at the Whitney House at No. 2 West Fifty-seventh street, on Tuesday night. The dinner was probably the last that Mr. and Mrs. Whitney will give in the Fifty-seventh street house.”
And so it was. William gave the residence to Harry and Gertrude while he remodeling the massive Robert Stuart mansion at No. 871 Fifth Avenue. The newlyweds took possession of No. 2 West 57th Street in 1897 and William and Edith leased the Harriman mansion, just west on 57th Street. As his parents had done, Henry hired Stanford White to update the interiors.
The young couple’s first child, Flora Payne Whitney, was born in the house on July 27, 1897. Eighteen months later, on February 20, 1899 little Cornelius Whitney was born. The family made it home just in time. The New York Times remarked “Mr. and Mrs. Whitney have just returned from the South, where they have been passing several weeks.”
A year earlier William and Edith had entertained English friends in their Aiken, South Carolina estate. On February 21 Edith suffered a fox hunting accident that left her invalid. Thrown from her horse, her neck was dislocated. After 15 months confined to her bed, she died in the Whitney country home in Westbury, Long Island. She did not live to see the imposing Fifth Avenue mansion completed.
After William C. Whitney died on February 2, 1904 Harry took over the responsibilities of rearing his 17-year old sister, Dorothy. She suffered appendicitis in June that year and was operated on in the 57th Street mansion. Two years later the house was once again the scene of a glittering debutante entertainment--this time for Dorothy. Two hundred guests were invited for dinner and another 60 couples “took part in the cotillion,” reported The New York Times on January 30, 1906.
The newspaper noted “The Whitney residence is one of the most spacious in New York and has a large ballroom…Not long ago the ballroom was newly decorated and it is now one of the finest in New York. It is in white and gold.”
|By the time Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney posed for this photograph in 1916, the family had left West 57th Street. from the collection of the Library of Congress|
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney hosted a dance in January 1908 for “the foreign guests and relatives who have come over to attend the wedding of her sister, Miss Gladys Vanderbilt, and Count Laszlo Szechenyi.” The New York Times said “It is to be quite a handsome affair with a limited number of people asked, and those principally from the Newport set. There will be a cotillion.”
|The demolition of the Stevens-Whitney mansion reflected a dying era. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
But by now Millionaires’ Row was changing. On January 3, 1909 the New-York Tribune reported that Harry Payne Whitney had purchased his father's former mansion at No. 871 Fifth Avenue. The 57th Street house was converted for business purposes.
Then in 1919 developer August Heckscher purchased and razed the property. Two years later the Heckscher Building opened on the site, designed by the esteemed architectural firm Warren & Wetmore. It survives as somewhat of a Fifth Avenue landmark, known as the Crown Building.
|photograph by the author|