Thursday, March 8, 2018

From Mansion to Sex Museum--233 Fifth Avenue

Home today to the Museum of Sex; in 1861 it was the mansion of a colorful and controversial millionaire.  photograph by the author
By the end of the 1850's fine brick and brownstone residences had inched up Fifth Avenue past the recently completed Madison Square Park.  Benjamin Halliday lived at No. 233, at the northeast corner of 27th Street--an imposing brick mansion four stories high and three bays wide.  The Italianate house was 28 feet wide on Fifth Avenue and extended 100 feet down the side street.  It boasted a handsome bay on the street side.  Almost assuredly a cast iron balcony fronted the two parlor windows next to the brownstone stoop.  Behind the house was a two-story brick stable, measuring 25 feet wide.

Halliday was the principal in the firm of B. Halliday & Co., one of the firms responsible for delivering mail to the West Coast.  The story of his rise to nearly unlimited wealth was both colorful and notorious.

In the years following the Gold Rush, California saw an explosion in population and the development of cities and towns.  With no transcontinental railroad yet, the mail was shipped on trains from the East Coast to St. Louis, then either by stagecoach or horseback riders (like the famous Pony Express) to San Francisco.  Halliday, known as Ben, was a stagecoach driver on the mail routes
established by Major George Chorpenning.   While Halliday was relatively uneducated and uncouth, he was ruthlessly wily.

According to John P. Ritter, writing in Frank Leslie's Popular Magazine in May 1897, "It is said that he took advantage of his employer, during the latter's absence in the East, and succeeded, by rendering the major's mail contracts with the United States Government void, and afterward securing them for himself, in superseding him in the business.  In this way he laid the foundations of the vast fortune he afterward acquired."

Halliday operated the line of mail stages, then added to his fortune by investing in the Ophir Mine.   When he moved his family East, he ensconced them in No. 233 Fifth Avenue, among the mansions of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens; and established a lavish country estate, Ophir Farm, on 755 acres near Purchase, New York.

The Halliday mansion at Ophir Farm.  On the grounds was a Gothic-style private chapel that Notley Halliday insisted upon.  Frank Leslie's Popular Magazine, May 1897 (copyright expired)

B. Halliday & Co. operated a branch depot in St. Louis.  In January 1861 Halliday embarked on a daring--and expensive--business venture when he purchased the six steamships of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.  Halliday paid $40,000 each for the vessels--a total outlay of around $7 million today.   He planned to reinvent how the Pacific Mail got correspondence across the continent.

On June 20 the Vancouver Washington Territory Chronicle announced "We have from undoubted authority that Halliday & Co., of St. Louis, contemplate a weekly communication between St. Louis and San Francisco.  They are building small steamers with exceeding light draft, but possessed of great power, to play on the upper Missouri, between St. Louis and Fort Benton.  From that place to Lewiston, at the south of Clear Water, stages will run regular, and steamers, forwarding freight and passengers, will connect the latter place with Vancouver, which is to become the head of ocean steamship navigation.  It was with this object in view that the Company lately bought the ocean steamers, if carried out, as it undoubtedly will be, it will be of incalculable benefit to this region."

Wealthy families routinely left one or two servants to maintain and guard their mansions when they left for their summer estates.  When the family went to Ophir Farm in 1867, Halliday left Thomas Stewart and Henry Wood in charge.  This time his trust was misplaced.  He was enraged when he returned in August to "the discovery that a quantity of silver-ware, gold coin, greenbacks and jewelry, in all of the value of $2,000, had been abstracted from the premises during his absence," according to The New York Times.  "He made oath that he had probable case to suspect Stewart and Wood of being the guilty parties."

While Halliday focused on improved communications with frontier towns, his wife, the former Notley Anne Calvert, was more concerned with domestic issues.  She was looking for a personal maid who could double as an in-house dressmaker.  On January 14, 1862 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald:  "Wanted--An English or French Lady's Maid; must understand all kinds of sewing, and be able to fit and make dresses.  Apply for two days, between 11 and 12 o'clock, at 233 5th av."

Great wealth could not buy social acceptance.  The former frontier wife and her socially un-groomed children were shunned.  John P. Ritter described the Halliday children as having the "wild, free manners of the prairie," and described the girls riding Western-style at Ophir Farm, hollering and shooting pistols at "every barnyard fowl they passed in their mad career."  He added "His wife is said to have been a remarkably handsome woman, with social aspirations that were never realized."

Great wealth could buy European titles, however.  One daughter married the Count de Pourtales, of Paris; and her sister married the French Baron de Bussierre.  But dark days were on the horizon.

On September 18, 1873 Notley died.  Her funeral was held in the Gothic-style chapel on the Ophir Farm estate.  Then, according to John P. Ritter, "one by one the other members of the family passed away under circumstances of a more or less distressing nature, until, finally only the eldest son was left."

Failed speculative investments in mines and subsequent law suits ruined Halliday.   By 1876 he was bankrupt.  John Ritter was coldly unsympathetic, saying "'Ben' Halliday's treachery met with a deserved retribution."  Ophir Farm was sold in a sheriff's auction on May 19, 1876.  The Fifth Avenue mansion was lost later that same year.   A tragic side-story was that Halliday's only surviving son, once the apparent heir to a boundless fortune, died a homeless alcoholic shortly afterward.

No. 233 Fifth Avenue was purchased by Amos R. Eno.  Born in Simsbury, Connecticut on November 1, 1810, Eno's family traced its American roots to the 17th century.  He had started out as a dry goods merchant, but turned his attention to the lucrative real estate market.  By now he was one of the best known and wealthiest real estate developers in the city.  It was Eno who had built the lavish white marble Fifth Avenue Hotel four blocks to the south of No. 233 in 1859.

Eno and his wife, the former Lucy Jane Phelps, had six children--Amos, Mary, William, Henry, John and Antoinette.  The family maintained a summer estate near his hometown of Simsbury.

As had been the case with Halliday, boundless wealth could not prevent tragedy.  Amo had been a founder of the Second National Bank and in 1881 his son, John Chester Eno, was made its president.  Amo's contented life was shattered when Jane died in 1882.  Then, two years later, it was discovered that John had embezzled bank funds which he lost in private speculation.  The New-York Tribune reported "the institution could no longer meet its obligations.  A run on the bank followed at once."

Embarrassed and heartbroken, Amos personally kept the bank's doors open.  The New York Times reported "every depositor was paid in full, although to do it cost Mr. Eno between three and four million dollars...Mr. Eno never recovered from the shock of these events."

Growing more feeble, Eno sold No. 233 Fifth Avenue in April 1890 to the Reform Club for $240,000--a staggering $6.5 million today.  On April 18, 1890 The New York Times reported "The premises will be altered so that the main entrance will be on Twenty-seventh-street.  It will open into a spacious lobby, on the left of which will be the parlor, a light airy room, occupying the width of the house, some twenty-eight feet, with three large windows toward Fifth-avenue, nearly forty feet deep."

In 1893, when this photograph was taken, the Reform Club had altered the mansion.  All the other homes on the block had been renovated to accommodate shops by now.  King's Handbook of New York City, 1893 (copyright expired)

The completed renovations included a 26 by 30 foot cafe on the main floor "for the social intercourse of the members."  In the basement was a grill room where meals were served at small tables.  The Times noted "Smoking will be allowed and everything arranged for the perfect east and comfort of the members."  A billiard hall shared the basement level with the grill room.

The second floor held the reading room, overlooking Fifth Avenue, and the public and private dining rooms to the rear.  The Reform Club had lured Delmonico's chief chef, Mr. Boud, to manage the daily 6:00 table d'hote.  The upper floors were modified to "cozy bedrooms" for the club members.

The entrance was originally above a high stoop on Fifth Avenue.  Reform Club; Officers and Committees, 1901 (copyright expired) 

Before the club moved in, it laid plans to extend the former mansion to the rear.  The stable and the house at No. 1 East 27th Street were demolished.  The new clubhouse extension housed the kitchen and laundry on the lower levels, and 75 by 25 foot meeting and lecture hall on the parlor level and a library of the same proportions on the second floor.

Interesting electric art-glass light fixtures hang in the dining room (above). The "parlor" retained much of the architectural elements of the original mansion.  Reform Club; Officers and Committees, 1901 (copyright expired) 

Incorporated in 1875, the the goal of the Reform Club was "to promote such economic and political reforms as may from time to time, in the opinion of ourselves and most conducive to the general good of the people of the United States."

When the club moved into its new headquarters it had a membership of about 800 "resident members" (those who lived in the city) and 650 non-residents.  The significance of the organization was evidenced later that year at its December banquet.  Among the speakers were former President Grover Cleveland, the governors of Iowa, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, three Congressional members and others.

The Grill Room, or Tap Room (above) was in the English basement.  The Library in the rear extension received additional light from the large skylight.  Note the brass spittoons spaced along the carpeting.  Reform Club; Officers and Committees, 1901 (copyright expired) 
In 1899 the club hired architect Percy Griffin to do $5,418 in renovations.  He added a story to the 27th Street extension and rearranged the interior walls.  But the increasingly commercial personality of the neighborhood would soon prompt the club to sell.

On February 3, 1903 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the club had received two offers, both for $400,000.  The club accepted the offer of the Coe Estate, which held the title to the property next door.

As was the case with the other surviving mansions on the block, the new owners remodeled No. 233 for business purposes.   Architect Adolph G. Rechlin's offices were here for several years, and attorney Hartwell Staples was in the building in 1912.  Picture frame makers Newcomb-Macklin Co. operated from one of the store spaces that year.

Show windows were installed on both the Fifth Avenue and 27th Street sides.  Official Hotel Red Book & Director, 1903 (copyright expired)

Following World War I apparel makers and retailers were in the building, including W. L. Leavy, makers of the Mildred Louise frocks for little girls; gentlemen's tailor Louis Berg, and Birdsey-Somers Co., dealers in corsets and ladies' underwear.

By 1908 even less of the former mansion was evident.  photo by Brown Brothers from the collection of the New York Public Library
By the 1980's the beleaguered building was home to Ely's Antiques run by 48-year old Nedjatollah Sakhai.  According to director of antiquities Richard Keresey of Sotheby's Auction Galleries, "Ely's is a known name in the business.  They are a company that is fairly active in antiques and antiquities across the board."

The reason Keresey commented on Ely's Antiques was because Sakhai had been arrested on the night of January 5, 1986 with two other men after they broke into a Queens warehouse and made off with Middle Eastern antiquities valued at more than $18 million.

Startling change to No. 233 was sparked in the spring of 1997 when investor Daniel Gluck envisioned a "museum of sex."  A graduate of the Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts, he eyed the building for the museum's 12,000 square foot home.  Acquiring the building, however, was the simple part.

On May 30, 2002 N. R. Kleinfield, writing in The New York Times, said "For about five years, Daniel Gluck has been consumed with opening a Museum of Sex in New York, what he saw as a sort of "Smithsonian of sex" that would allow some serious study of the subject and also be a pretty interesting place to visit."

Gluck had initially intended the museum to be a nonprofit institution; but the New York State Board of Regents, which oversees nonprofits, refused to accept the name "Museum of Sex."  Frustrated, Gluck registered the name as a for-profit corporation, and announced that admission (limited to visitors 18 or older) would be $17.

Another hurdle came later that year when, in anticipation of the museum's opening, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued a statement calling some of the contributors "pornographers" and said the exhibition should include "a death chamber that would acknowledge all the wretched diseases that promiscuity has caused."

Despite the League's premature condemnation, the opening exhibition was overall scholarly.  It dealt with the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett in 1836; birth control advocate Margaret Sanger; and sex-change pioneer Christine Jorgensen, for instance.

The two-story museum opened on October 5, 2002.  Within the first six weeks it drew more than 15,000 visitors.  The museum continues to operate from the much-changed pre-Civil War mansion.

photograph by the author


  1. Are the upper floors residential or offices?