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The Houses of Lafayette Place

 By Walter Prichard Eaton
 
 

Four old Columned houses, shorn of their porches and their little front yards and iron palings, and no longer homes, are all that is left of the glory that was Lafayette Place. These four houses, of the original nine which constituted La Grange Terrace, or Colonnade Row, as it was later called, are directly opposite the old Astor Library building. The last of them were abandoned as residences in 1915, (the present numbers are 430 and 432), which under the name of the Oriental, a famous boarding house opened in 1851, clung on like Casabianca. It is a sad commentary on our American cities that no better use can be found for buildings of architectural charm and enduring construction than to tear them down.
La Grange Terrace was built of marble, so well and solidly laid that when the southern five houses were demolished a little over a decade and a half ago (they stood where the new Wanamaker store house is now erected), dynamite had to be employed. Architecturally, they were unique in New York, their American counterpart being the old Charleston Hotel, in Charleston, South Carolina. The ground story projected six or eight feet, and was comparatively low with pretty porches. This ground story was solid masonry, making the windows deeply recessed. It supported, in front, tall fluted columns which ran up two stories high and carried a heavy cornice of solid stone.

There were still two other stories above this cornice, invisible from the street. Along the base of these columns ran a wrought iron rail, and the low windows of the second story parlors let out upon the stone balcony thus formed. Inside, the houses were (and two at least of those that remain, are) adorned with mahogany doors on silver hinges, doors which have not sagged half an inch in nearly a century, with elaborate plaster work, marble mantles, and stately Greek columns of wood between the large parlors. As far as solidity and perfection of construction goes, these houses could probably not be duplicated today without a tremendous expenditure of money. Yet the town sweeps by them, and all this splendid masonry, this monument to the taste of an elder day, goes by the board!

Lafayette Place

Lafayette Place was cut through from Great Jones Street to Astor Place in 1826. Eastward the Bowery was "farthest north," and on the west Broadway practically ended at Astor Place. From the last years of the 18th century, the space between, at the upper end, had been used as a pleasure ground, called Vauxhall Garden, with various forms of entertainment purveyed after 1804 by a Frenchman named Delacroix. It had previously been owned by a Swiss florist named Jacob Sperry. He sold the plot in 1804 to John Jacob Astor, for $45,000, and Astor gave a twenty-one year lease to Delacroix.

The laying out of Lafayette Place in 1826 of course cut directly through this property, and the garden shrank to the easterly half, between the present Astor Library building and Astor Place. Shortly after, in 1830, a man named Seth Geer, much to the amusement or scorn of many, began the erection of La Grange Terrace, on the west side of the new Place. Such palatial residences far from town were looked upon as folly; but Geer persisted (incidentally causing something of a rumpus among the stone cutters trade by securing his stone by convict labor from Sing Sing), and presently men and women began to come up here "into the fields" to see the magnificent houses, which were rising in solitary splendor. Probably at the same time the trees which later almost met over the little street were set out, and the rather remote spot began to assume attractiveness. At any rate, Geer's folly turned out to be wisdom, for very soon after Lafayette Place began rapidly to attract the rich and fashionable.

The Middle Dutch Church

In November, 1836, the cornerstone of the Reformed Dutch Church was laid, on the northwest corner of Lafayette Place and Fourth Street, and the building was dedicated in 1839. It was called "the Middle Dutch Church." The building was strictly Greek, with twelve splendid granite monoliths on the portico, the only monoliths in the city then, or for years thereafter. A poor wooden spire, out of keeping, surmounted this Greek temple, and years later was destroyed by fire to nearly everybody's' relief. The building was razed in the early '90's, and the monoliths destroyed, an inexcusable piece of stupid legal vandalism. St. Bartholomew's church, on the northeast corner of Lafayette Place and Great Jones Street, was also built in 1836, a small congregation at first attending it. But it rapidly grew larger and more fashionable. Ultimately it moved to Madison Avenue and 44th Street, and even now is about to move a third time, three removals in less than a century. What other city on the globe is so restless?

Opposite the centre of La Grange Terrace

About opposite the centre of La Grange Terrace, which, of course, was occupied now by families of wealth, William B. Astor, son of John Jacob, presently erected his mansion, a substantial, block-like brick building not unlike those on North Washington Square. Immediately south was the Sands House, built by Austin Ledyard Sands, of severe gray granite. Both these residences were visible within recent memory, the Astor home in after years being noted as Seighortner's restaurant. In the Terrace, in Number 33 (the second southernmost house) lived Irving Van Wart, with whom his relative, Washington Irving, spent many winters. In Number 43 lived the Honorable David Gardiner, whose daughter Julia was there married. In 1844, to President John Tyler. Edwin D. Morgan, later the New York war governor, lived at Number 35. Next door lived John Jacob Astor, son of William B. Astor. Later, in the same house, the Columbia Law School was founded.

An Astor son-in-law. Franklin H. Delano, lived in number 39. Farther north, on the corner of Astor Place, was a large house built by the elder John Jacob Astor for his daughter, Mrs. Walter Langdon. It had an elaborate ball room, and a garden surrounded by a high wall. Walter Langdon, the younger, who married Catherine Livingston, built a house almost directly opposite, which stood there almost into this century, directly south of Brokaw's old clothing store. The Langdon mansion on the west side was demolished about 1875. All up and down the Place similar houses, in the two decades following the opening of the street, were erected and occupied by the wealthy and fashionable New Yorkers of the time. St. Bartholomew's Church, on the Great Jones Street corner, became noted as the church of "society" weddings. Dinners and balls were the rule in the season, and the street was alive with the roll of gay carriages. The houses on the west had stables and gardens behind, reached by an alley from Broadway, and those on the east were reached by a similar alley from the Bowery. Meanwhile Vauxhall Gardens persisted, though restricted now to a small area on the east side of the Place at the northerly end of the present Astor Library building.

The Astor Library

John Jacob Astor the elder died in 1848, and in 1853 his memorial, the Astor Library, was completed, one third of the present structure. Two additions were later given by his family, in 1855, and 1875. What will become of the building, a rather mournful and gloomy pile, now that the books have gone to the central depository of the New York Public Library, is a question not yet solved.

Numbers 43 and 45

In 1851, Israel Underhill opened in the two houses of La Grange Terrace, Numbers 43 and 45, a family hotel, for people of wealth who did not care to keep house. This was known as The Oriental, and was destined to be the last survivor of domesticity on Lafayette Place. Fashion was still, at that time, centered about the tree hung street. In 1856, the Schermerhorns who lived at the corner of Great Jones Street, gave a "bal costume de rigeur" of the reign of Louis XV, which certainly would have increased the membership of the Socialist party if there had been a Socialist party in those days. "Mr. S___ff's costume" (we quote from a contemporary account), "diamonds included, cost it is said, $17,000." At Astor Place, too, stood the Opera House, facing down Lafayette Place, but the McCready-Forrest riots in 1849 rather put the damper on that institution, and not long after it was converted into the Mercantile Library.

Lafayette Place Affected by the Expansion of The City

The expansion of the city following the Civil War affected Lafayette Place seriously as a residence street, in spite of the fact that it was tucked away between the Bowery and Broadway, and was not a through thoroughfare. Backing up to it on Broadway came the theatre (where Wanamaker's new storehouse and garage is now), which, originally a church, had a checkered career, finally ending up as a prize fight arena. The later additions to the Astor Library had put out the little colored lights and smothered the tables in Vauxhall Gardens. In 1872 St. Bartholomew's Church moved away. In 1875 a loft building replaced the Langdon mansion. The five southern houses of La Grange Terrace became the Colonnade Hotel (with an entrance, still remembered, on Broadway). Just south of them another house became the Diocesan House of the Episcopal Church of New York.

The Astor Mansion was converted into Sieghortner's restaurant. The trees still stood, and the noble monoliths of the church on the corner of Fourth Street, but the decay of the street had obviously set in. By the beginning of the present century the monoliths had gone, the five houses of the famous terrace which made up the Colonnade Hotel had been destroyed (leaving a vacant lot which was not built up till last year), and across the way many of the old houses had been replaced by business structures, or else converted into trade and made ugly and almost unrecognizable. The final blow came with the building of the subway. Lafayette Place was cut through south from Great Jones Street, rechristened Lafayette Street, paved with noisy Belgian block, and used as a through artery for heavy traffic. Its doom as a place of residence was sealed.

The Houses numbered 430 and 432

But the two houses now numbered 430 and 432, the middle two of the four survivals of La Grange Terrace, still bore the gold sign, "The Oriental," over the door, and the great Virginia creeper climbed the stone columns to the roof. Two daughters of Israel Underhill still kept the house, almost, one might say, kept the faith. They kept it even when, a few years later, the Street Commission made them strip off the porches and the little green front yards, to widen the sidewalk. The panes in the windows were turning faintly purple, like the glass on Beacon Hill. The mahogany doors still swung on noiseless silver hinges. The elderly men and women who had come to look on the Oriental as home and many a visiting Bishop who welcomed the proximity to the Diocesan House, still filled the rooms. And, on every Memorial Day, the old, torn flag which had flown from the house during the bitter years of the Civil War, when the Seventh had formed in Lafayette Place to march to the front, draped the iron balcony rail. These two houses were an oasis of an elder day in the heart of the lower town.

But even these two brave old ladies gave up the struggle at last, and retired from the racket and dust of truck traffic, the surrounding hum of sweat shops, to the quiet of the country. That was in 1915. "The Oriental," is no more. The last residence has been abandoned on Lafayette Place, and only four dingy stone relics of the nine columnar houses which once made La Grange Terrace remain to speak to the passerby of its ancient glory. Not a tree is left, not a vine.

But one vine still lives. The writer has a root of that great Virginia Creeper which climbed over 43, and 45, and it is flourishing still. The war flag, too, still is draped from a balcony on every Decoration Day. But vine and balcony are far away from Lafayette Place. The scene when Astor walked stiffly down to Great Jones Street, on his way to Wall, when gay carriages rolled under the trees and the colored lamps twinkled in Vauxhall Gardens, lives only in the memories of a few old people. Nothing is permanent in New York but change!


 

 
 
Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: The Houses on Lafayette Place by Walter Prichard Eaton
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina

Source:

Valentine's Manual of New York City, 1917-1918; Henry Collins Brown
Time & Date Stamp:  

 

   
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