Monday, January 23, 2017

The Lost "Mark Twain House" - No. 21 Fifth Avenue

In 1935 when Berenice Abbott took this photograph, No. 21 (left) was wondrously intact, as was the former home of Dr. Edward L. Partridge, next door at No. 19.  photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
When Henry Brevoort, Jr. made plans for a new mansion around 1831 he understandably focused on the exclusive Bond Street neighborhood.  But his father, Hendrik Brevoort, had other ideas.  He insisted that Henry built much further to the west, on Fifth Avenue above Washington Square.

The land was part of Brevoort's "farm."  The sprawling estate had been owned by the family since 1667.  There were no homes on the unpaved avenue and Washington Square was in the early stages of development. Henry begrudgingly agreed, building a lavish residence at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street, completed in 1834.  A family member later remarked that he "felt very much in the woods and quite out of it."  Unknown to Brevoort, he was setting the tone for Fifth Avenue for generations to come.

Two years after Henry's home was completed, his father deeded the land diagonally across the avenue to Henry's sister, Margaret Ann.  She was married to James Renwick, who was professor of chemistry and "natural philosophy," at Columbia College, as well as an architect and engineer.  The couple had three sons, James Jr., Edward and Henry.  All, predictably, studied at Columbia.

James Renwick, Jr., entered the school at the age of 12, graduating with a degree in engineering.  In 1843 the 25-year old received the commission to design the masterful Gothic Revival Grace Church, the site of which, too, was on his grandfather's farm.  Henrik Brevoort had died in 1841 and Henry Brevoort soon after sold the plot to the church.

Around 1850 Renwick turned his attention to designing his parents' home.  Completed in 1851 (according to The New York Times decades later, "the first one on the block") it generally took the Italianate form so popular at the time.  Yet Renwick, who was highly influential in popularizing Gothic Revival in the United States, splashed the house with Gothic touches.  The cast iron fence around the property was of an elaborate, spiky Gothic design; in rather shocking contrast to the Italianate iron balcony fronting the parlor.

The Gothic drip moldings which crowned the arched openings were nearly identical to those he used on his 1846 design for the Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington; as were the Romanesque clustered colonettes of the entrance.  Toothy brick sills below the second floor front windows and an intricate brick corbel table below the roof line carried on the Gothic motif.

Henry Brevoort and James Renwick, Sr. shared an intimate friend in Washington Irving.  The author was a regular guest in the Brevoort mansion, and was James Renwick's traveling companion on several European trips.  When James Renwick, Jr. designed No. 21 Fifth Avenue, he included "the middle room on the second floor" as Irving's bedroom when he was in town.

The New York Times later mentioned "the rooms are of stately proportions."  But while their son gained national recognition and the Brevoorts across the street gave some of the grandest entertainments of the era; James and Margaret Renwick lived and hosted quietly in the sumptuous home.

Also living in the house was eldest son, Henry Brevoort Renwick and his wife.  He complicated social directories when he married Margaret Janney.  The couple further tangled things when they named their son, born in the Fifth Avenue house in 1856, James Armstrong Renwick.  The snarl of Margarets, Jameses, and Henrys would confuse for decades.

By the time James Armstrong Renwick graduated from Columbia University in 1876, the family had left No. 21 Fifth Avenue.  It was being leased to W. B. Girard and his wife, who operated it as a boarding house.  One boarder, with the initials J. B., was looking for a job in September 1875.  He placed an advertisement in The New York Herald which read "A young single man wishes a situation as coachman; best city reference."

Notably similar was the ad placed by "Thomas," on May 3 the following year.  "Coachman--Thoroughly experienced; city or country; best references."

The Girards operated another property for those seeking relief of Manhattan's stifling summer heat.  On May 18, 1877 they advertised "Country Board--One hour from Jersey City; mountain air; picturesque scenery; trout fishing; good roads; beautiful grove adjoining the house; a lake within half mile and pleasant drive to Greenwood Lake."  Before noting "For particulars inquire of Mrs. Gerard [sic]," the advertisement promised "no chills nor mosquitoes."

It appears that Mrs. Girard stayed in the city to manage the Fifth Avenue house, while her husband handled the Jersey property.  As the season drew to a close, they lowered the country prices.  "Few pleasant rooms; First Class table; reduced rates balance of season; boating,fishing, fine drives and mountain air.  Call W. B. Girard, Pompton Junction, N. J., or 21 5th av."

The area continued to be an exclusive one.  Among the neighbors were wealthy attorney William Starr Miller, Robert B. Roosevelt. Edwards Pierrepont, Andrew C. Kingsland, the De Rham family (relatives of the Brevoorts who now lived in the Brevoort mansion), former Mayor Edward Cooper, and John D. Crimmins.

The upscale tone of the boarding house was slightly soiled when General Nicholas Cassina took a suite of rooms in July 1878.  He had disappeared from the Hotel Brunswick after being charged with the abduction and seduction of Emma Collins.  Her father, Patrick, hired a private detective who discovered him here.

The wealthy defendant appeared in court impeccably dressed.  The New York Times reported that he wore "a black cut-away coat, white vest, and light pantaloons.  He carried a heavy silver-headed cane in one hand, and in the other a fan."  The judge dismissed the case of abduction; however pursued the charge of having spoiled the young girl after promises of marriage.

Also boarding in the house around this time were vocal coach Max Maretzek, who announced on December 28, 1879 that he would resume instruction "after January 5;" and Cuban-born civil engineer Antonio Aguirre.

By the turn of the century No. 21 Fifth Avenue had returned to a single-family home.  It was being leased by the sister of retired merchant Theodore W. Hewitt.  Hewitt had been the "confidential man" of millionaire dry goods merchant Alexander Tunney Stewart, for many years.  Following Stewart's death he became associated with several major dry goods emporiums throughout the country--including James H. Walker of Chicago and Dresser & Co. on Greene Street in New York. Hewitt was only 53 years old in 1900; but he had stopped working as his health failed.  He moved in with his sister, who apparently cared for him.

Directly across the avenue, at No. 20, the Berkeley House hotel had been erected in 1876 by William C. Rhinelander.  On January 14, 1902 Hewitt and his sister were "stepping across the avenue to see friends" there, according to The Times, when a hired brougham was pulling up to the curb.  Hewitt was struck by the pole of the carriage and knocked to the pavement.  He was carried back to No. 21 suffering scalp wounds and shock.  Dr. Edward L. Partridge, who lived next door at No. 19, was summoned.  In the meantime, Sterling Fletcher, the driver of the cab, was arrested. 

The mansion would be the scene of Theodore Hewitt's funeral 10 months later.  He died in the house on November 7.  Miss Hewitt left No. 21 shortly afterward.

The house was leased to attorney William A. Walling, son of the former Superintendent of Police and brother of police Sgt. Edward Walling in 1903.  It was in 1904, however, that No. 21 would get its most celebrated resident.

On August 18 The New York Times reported that "Samuel L. Clemens, 'Mark Twain,' has taken a lease of the four-story brick and stone dwelling."  The article noted "He will occupy it early in the Fall."

The delay had to do with the refurbishing of the mansion.  Twain's daughter, Clara Clemens, spent months redecorating.  According to biographer Laura Skandera Trombley in her Mark Twain's Other Woman, Clemens's live-in secretary, Isabel Lyon, wrote "This house is...nicely oldish--with gothic adornments over the doorways & windows on the main floor.  When it shall be finished--weeks hence--it will be harmonious."

The relationship between Clara, and Isabel was uneasy at best.  Clara felt that running the household, including instructing--and disciplining--the staff was her responsibility.  Isabel disagreed.

No. 21 Fifth Avenue was ready for Clemens's arrival in the fall of 1905.  Five days before he arrived, Isabel did.  And Clara was waiting.  Her deceased mother had always insisted that Isabel not live with the family and now Clara enforced the old rule, telling the secretary she would have to find other accommodations.  Her victory, however, was short-lived.  When Clemens arrived he ordered Isabel back--mollifying Clara by telling her she had sole rule over the staff.

Clemens added his own touch to the decor when he ordered an Aeolian Orchestrelle, an early player organ also known as a telharmonium, in 1906.  Its immense size was such that it had to be housed in the basement and the music transferred upstairs by speakers.  He told friends that "the first thing he did in 1907 was to glory in the fact that he would be able to rejoice over other dead people when he died in having been the first man to have telharmonium music turned on in his house--'like gas.'"

Biographer Albert Paine said "He believed that he would play it himself when he needed the comfort of harmony, and that [daughter] Jean, who had not received musical training, or his secretary could also play to him."

A steady stream of visitors came and went while Clemens lived in the house.  Clara held her own as far as entertainments went.  On New Year's Eve 1906 a party was given in Clara's honor; but it was her father who stole the attention.

While the guests were playing a game of charades at around 11:30, Clemens entered the drawing room in his customary white suit with another man, identically dressed.  Their coats were fastened together and they held their arms around one another.  Clemens introduced the man as his Siamese brother.

Clemens then went into what today would be called a stand-up routine.  He professed to be a temperance reformer and preached to the guests on the evils of alcohol.  All the while his "brother" sneaked swigs from a flask, getting Clemens more and more inebriated.  By the end of the act, his partner's drinking had made the temperance man falling-down drunk.

"Glorious work--we doin' glorious-work-glori-o-u-s work.  Best work ever done, my brother and work of reform, reform work, glorious work.  I don' feel jus' right."

The guests, according to The Times, were "hysterical with laughter," which "became so great that it was impossible for the old man to carry on the little farce any longer, and in a few minutes the Telharmonium music...was turned on and it was playing 'Auld Lang Syne' when the New Year was ushered in."

Clara's entertainments were normally less boisterous.  An accomplished vocalist, her gatherings often centered around music.  On the evening of February 12, 1908, for instance, she gave a musical for "a large number of friends," during which Boston violinist Marie Nichols and Clara performed.

Although one room doubled as library and study, the aging Clemens did his writing in bed, not appearing downstairs before 11:00.  His biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, noted that he liked his ornate headboard so much that he slept with his pillows at the foot of the bed, so he could always admire it.

One of the letters written in that bed was sent to Andrew Carnegie in Scotland on February 10, 1906.  The thank-you note for the case of scotch the industrialist had sent dripped with Mark Twain humor.

Dear St. Andrew--The whisky arrived in due course from over the water; last week one bottle of it was extracted from the wood and inserted into me, on the instalment [sic] plan, with this result; that I believe it to be the best, smoothest whisky now on the planet.

That year Albert Paine arrived at the house to start on Clemens biography.  The two had recently discussed the concept at a dinner party.  Paine later wrote "The house at 21 Fifth Avenue, built by the architect who had designed Grace Church, had a distinctly ecclesiastical suggestion about its windows, and was of fine and stately proportions within.  It was a proper residence for a venerable author and a sage, and with the handsome Hartford furnishings distributed through it, made a distinctly suitable setting for Mark Twain."

Paine was given a key to the house so he could come and go on his own schedule.  He would sit in Clemens's bedroom in the mornings asking questions, while his stenographer took notes.  In the afternoons Paine would take over the study to work on the manuscript.  The result was a four-volume set, Mark Twain, a Biography; The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

Paine had a country home in Redding, Connecticut and during the summer months Clemens would visit as they continued work on the book.  Taken with the beautiful countryside, in 1907 Clemens purchased 195 acres of land there.  He commissioned John Mead Howells, son of the editor of Harper's, William Howells, to design his villa, Stormfield, named after the title character of his story "Captain Stormfield."
The house was completed in 1908 and the Clemens family, including of course Isabel Lyon, left No. 21 Fifth Avenue.  Clara had been traveling with friends in Europe that summer and her return was accompanied by whispers of romance.  "With the party is Charles Wark of New York, whose engagement to Miss Clemens has been rumored," said The Times.

Her father came from Redding to meet the ship.  Although The Times reported on September 8 "At the present time the only furniture remaining in the Fifth Avenue house is a small table for the cards of visitor, some chairs, a rug on the drawing room floor, and a few pictures on the walls...With the aid of the few furnishings left in the house Miss Clemens will give a reception at the old house on the evening of her arrival."  The article added "It has been suggested that her engagement will be announced at that time."

The mansion had already been leased to Dr. Robert J. Kahn for five years.  In the basement was one of Clemens's favorite rooms, where he had played billiards for hours.  The table had been presented to him soon after he moved in.  The Times mentioned "Mr. Clemens's billiard room will become the physician's consulting room, while the top floor, where Mr. Clemens had his study and library, will be given over to servants."

Following World War I the lower Fifth Avenue neighborhood was being taken over by apartment buildings as the millionaire homeowners moved far north, along Central Park.  But Edward Renwick Whittingham insisted to reporters that No. 21 would not be torn down, not as long as he was alive.  On August 10, 1924 The Times wrote "Mr. Whittingham's property, a part of the old Brevoort farm, has been longer in the hands of one family than any other in New York--250 years.  The young lawyer feels that it would be almost a sacrilege to let it go."

The Greenwich Village Historical Society agreed.  The following year in June it affixed a bronze plaque to the side wall.  Bas relief images of Washington Irving and Mark Twain, as occupants, were depicted and the name of James Renwick, Jr., as architect, was included.

The 1925 plaque is affixed to the side of the house in this photo.  Note the elaborate inner doorway and the inward-opening multi-paned windows.  photograph via the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
But change was inevitable.  In 1925, the same year the plaque was unveiled, the house was converted to apartments.  And in 1929, after leasing the house from Whittingham, the newly-organized Washington Square National Bank announced its plans to renovate the mansion into a commercial structure.  Backlash was immediate.

The Greenwich Village Historical Society and the Washington Square Association went to court to stop the alterations.  In the meantime, Edward Renwick Whittingham had changed his tune regarding sacrilege.  "I cannot say just what will be done," he told reporters.  "If the court decides that the bank cannot use the property, I will probably be forced to tear the old house down and erect something that will bring in a fair return on the value of the property."

Associate Architects John D. Boyd and F. B. & A. Ware released the proposed alterations in July 1929. (copyright expired)
The proposed alterations did not come to pass and the former mansion continued life as an apartment building.  Whittingham, however, apparently had not exaggerated his financial straits.  In July 1933 the house was sold in foreclosure proceedings.

Interest in preserving the historic building continued for decades.  In 1935 "an army of small boys," some dressed as Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, marched up Fifth Avenue in an attempt to sway Mayor La Guardia to purchased the house as a memorial to Mark Twain.  In March that year a poster contest was held among city art classes to celebrant Twain's 90th birthday.  Among the judges was illustrator Albertina Randall Whelan, who coincidentally lived at No. 21 Fifth Avenue.

In 1945 Josephine Barry created this charming sketch of the vintage house.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In January 1954 those hoping to preserve the historic house were jolted when plans for an 18-story apartment building by developers Sam Minskoff & Sons on the site were announced.  Two weeks before demolition the Greenwich Village Chamber of Commerce expressed hopes to raise $70,000 to move the building and establish it as the Greenwich Village Historical Museum.  Stanley D. Josephson, secretary of the organization, was confident that the money would be raised through public donations in time.

Josephson was over-optimistic.  On February 18 The New York Times reported that exactly $3 had been contributed--one dollar each from three female employees of Time magazine.  The Greenwich Village Chamber of Commerce announced it had given up on saving the structure.

Hope came from overseas when British film producer Ronald Neame pledged $10,000.  He even boarded the Queen Elizabeth to sail to New York to help in the cause.  Unfortunately, despite the foreign support, New Yorkers did not respond.  The historic residence was razed in the spring of 1954 along with its neighbors.

photo via

The Brevoort apartment house engulfed the block, including the site of No. 21.  Designed by Boak & Raad and completed in 1955, it survives.

1 comment:

  1. NYC and the cities progress has never been very kind to history. Much has been "saved" by fluke as much as by concerned citizens. The losses, Federal Hall, Penn Station, Singer Tower, St Johns Chapel, Madison's home, the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion, the Roxy, the original Madison Square Garden, the Academy of Music, the long long list of historic losses could compose quite a grand city.