Monday, November 21, 2016

The Lost Coster Mansion - Nos. 539-541 Broadway


from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1830 John Jacob Astor laid plans for the most lavish hotel in Manhattan--the Astor House.  He envisioned it engulfing the block of Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets where the mansions of some of New York's wealthiest citizens stood--including his own.  One by one he purchased the properties until only the mansion of John G. Coster at No. 227 Broadway stood in the way of his ambitious project.

But Coster would not sell.

Forced into a corner, Astor finally paid $60,000 for the house and land; about $1.5 million today.  And now John G. Coster needed a new place to live.

Coster and his older brother, Henry, were born in Holland.  Henry arrived in New York prior to the Revolution and John (who had been educated at a physician) followed a few years later.  They established Brothers Coster & Co., later renamed "Henry A. and John G. Coster."

In his 1863 The Old Merchants of New York City, Walter Barrett wrote "No better merchants ever lived in this city than these two.  When these two honest, guileless merchants formed a partnership in the town, for it was a small one, their place of business was at 20 Dock--now Pearl--street...The great success of these two excellent men was in the store No. 26 William street. They dealt in all sorts of Holland goods--one article in particular, called "Krollenvogel," a species of tape, made of flax. They imported all kinds of oil cloths. Not only did they import, but they were constantly buying and shipping to Europe all kinds of produce. They had strong connections in the old Dutch cities, for they had heavy orders, and they traded also in their own ships, sending out supercargoes."

Following Henry's death in 1821 John continued amassing his fortune.  In 1826 he succeeded Henry Remsen as President of the Merchant's Bank, and he was a director in the Manhattan Bank, the Phoenix Insurance Company and the Globe Insurance Company.  By the time Astor purchased his Broadway mansion, Costner was one of only five millionaires in New York, the others being Astor himself, Nathanial Prime, Stephen Whitney, and Robert Lenox (the Los Angeles Herald, nearly a century later would mention "Cornelius Vanderbilt was at the time struggling with his ferryboat business).

John G. Coster purchased two plots at Nos. 539 and 541 Broadway, between Spring and Prince Streets.  He commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis and Ithiel Town, two of the preeminent architects of the day, to design his new home.  Completed around 1833, the free-standing mansion was faced in granite.  Three stories tall, its hipped roof sat behind a parapet with a central section of balustrades.  The double-doored entrance sat within an elegant, columned portico.

The first floor contained massive rooms and a grand, sweeping staircase at the end of the reception hall  -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Former Mayor Philip Hone's diary made mention of Coster's "noble granite house, furnished in the most elegant style."  And historian Walter Barrett called it "a splendid granite double residence...That was a palace in its day."

The Coster fortune was suddenly increased when John's wife, the former Catharine Lorillard, received one sixth of her bachelor uncle's estate in April 1839.  George Lorillard's property consisted of "upward of four hundred houses, stores, and blocks of property in the city, and is valued at upward of three millions of dollars," according to the Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania The Columbia Democrat on May 4.

The Costers had nine children whose pampered lifestyle was openly criticized by some.  On February 21, 1840 the Morning Herald wrote of Coster "This gentleman is so well known in New York, that it is hardly worth saying one word respecting him.  His immense wealth has made him conspicuous...Mr. C. has been rather too indulgent a parent; but immense wealth in the hands of a parent is apt to make children careless."

Son John H, Coster posed in Newport in 1852, seated at left.  Next to him is Julia Ward Howe and standing behind, at right, is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  photo from the archives of the Perkins School for the Blind

One by one the children wed, all "intermarrying" as one historian put it, with the great fortunes of New York City.  Daniel married a daughter of Oliver Delancy, Gerald married a daughter of Nathaniel Prime, and John H. (widely known more as a playboy than a businessman) married the daughter of Daniel Boardman, "a very rich man," according to Walter Barrett.





Behind the mansion the Coster stables stretched through the property to Mercer Street.  contemporary sketch by Samuel Dunbar from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
When John G. Coster died in 1846 the neighborhood around his granite mansion was shockingly changing as the entertainment district inched up Broadway.  In February that year W. Dinneford leased No. 559 Broadway for his Alhamra theater.  He advertised on February 26 "The Saloon is better adapted for sound than any other in the city, and will be let for Lectures, Concerts, Balls, &c. on the off-nights."

Only 15 years after its completion the Coster mansion was humiliated by also being converted to a theater.  On December 4, 1848 The New York Herald announced a "new music hall" in the building.  An assortment of acts played at the Melodeon.  In April 1853 Heller's Soirres Mysterieuses shared the stage with Owen's Alpine Rambles.

The variety of acts included singers, dancers and popular minstrel performances with black-faced comedians.  During a single week in August 1859 patrons of the Melodeon could hear Master Dave Williams "in his banjo solos every evening this week;" "The Ethiopian Opera, entitled 'Oh, Hush;" the dancer Miss Augusta L Walby; Max Irwin, "the best delineator of the Southern darkey in the United States; and Miss Eva Brent who sang "this beautiful ballad," We Met By Chance; among a host of other entertainments.

By 1863 the former Coster house was known as the Chinese House. That year Walter Barrett explained "The occasion of its being so named, was from the fact that a Canton merchant brought an immense quantity of Chinese articles, and exhibited them in that mansion.  It was one of the most attractive exhibitions ever got up in the city."

On November 25 that same year The New York Times reported "Divers attempts have heretofore been made to establish a menagerie on Broadway, but have invariably failed because of the absence of all proper arrangements, and the preponderance of discomfort to visitors, and of the odors of sawdust, and musty, antiquated animals."  Now, said the article, that was all changed.

"The menagerie opened at Nos. 539 and 541 Broadway is successfully in advance of all previous efforts.  The capacious building has been remodeled, admirably and elegantly arranged, and visitors will find a novelty, in the absence of all the unpleasantness which have marked similar exhibitions."

Almost unbelievably, the mansion that once house fine artwork, costly furniture and imported carpeting, was now home to "the wonderful elephant, Tippoo Saib," lions, panthers and other beasts.  Van Amburgh & Co's. Menagerie remained here for nearly two years.  On February 29, 1864 The Times glowed "This meritorious exhibition...was crowded to excess on Saturday by the juveniles, and it is not in the least strange that the great lion-tamer should be patronized extensively when we take into consideration that an exhibition of such magnitude, established by private enterprise, does not exist on either side of the Atlantic."


But following the catastrophic fire at Barnum's American Museum on July 13, 1865, P. T. Barnum leased the Chinese Building as a replacement.  Only seven days after the blaze, The Times noted "He has engaged an army of architects, masons and other artificers, and in a very short time will have fitted up a spacious museum, lecture-room, and circus."

The Lecture Room.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 30, 1865 (copyright expired)

On September 30, 1865 Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper remembered the building's history (while completely forgetting about the Coster family).  "It is a spot long known to New Yorkers as the Chinese Hall, where 16 years ago the elder Patti charmed the ears of concert-goers, and where four or five years later the Buckley Minstrels produced those capital burlesque operas...which [were] the crowning triumph of burnt cork and melody."

But now, reported the article, it would be Barnum's American Museum.  There were "five long saloons, and a splendid Lecture Room...The stage of this room is 50 feet wide, by 45 feet deep, and the auditorium is about 80 feet deep and calculated to hold 2,500 persons. The decorations are very elegant."  Barnum, according to the article, had sent agents throughout Europe "to gather up, without any regard to cost, every article of purchasable curiosity they could find."


The Coster mansion was still recognizable behind the signage.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 30, 1865 (copyright expired)
Barnum's American Museum and menagerie was a popular Broadway destination.  But then disaster struck again between midnight and 1:00 on the morning of March 3, 1868.  Fire broke out and spread rapidly.  The bitterly-cold night and "a bitter gale," as described by The New York Herald, "rendered the efforts of the firemen almost fruitless."  Inside were dozens of wild animals.

"The giraffe tumbled down near the doorway, and thus blocked up the egress.  A number of the other animals were then rescued, and finally a rope was put around the giraffe's neck and leg and he was raised up, but refused to move.  At this time the flames were bursting through the partition, and the hind part of the poor animal commenced to burn," reported The Herald.

A tiger burst through a basement window on Broadway, "and a scare ensued which was terminated by an intrepid policeman with a revolver in hand, who stationed himself with a huge fire ladder between himself and the animal and fired shot after shot until he finally gave the tiger his quietus."

from the collection of the New York Public Library

The building, still owned by the Coster estate, was a total loss of about $50,000.  Barnum lost everything other than a few animals and stuffed birds.  He suffered "something over $300,000" in losses, according to the newspaper; in the neighborhood of $5.2 million today.

The sites of the Coster mansion and the neighboring No. 537 Broadway which was also destroyed were cleared away.  Within a year the cast iron S. A. Beekman & Co. building was completed and the memory of John G. Coster's granite palace faded.

photo by the author

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