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Mary Mason Jones Mansion

1 East 57th Street, Manhattan, New York

Completed in 1869, for Mrs Mary (Mason) Jones (1801-1891), the widow of Isaac Jones (1795-1854) - great uncle of the great author, Edith Wharton. Built on land inherited from her father at a time when fashionable society was still living 20 blocks south, her mansion was an intentional showpiece. The Italianate marble A.T. Stewart Mansion was completed in the same year (20 blocks south of course), but hers was the first marble chateau put up in Manhattan, predating the likes of the Vanderbilt's Petit Chateau and the Astor Mansion. "Marble Row" as it was also known was home to a succession of three of the most socially ambitious hostesses in Gilded Age history....
In 1839, Mary's husband, Isaac Jones, succeeded her father, John Mason (1774-1839), as President of the Chemical Bank and in their day both men were among the wealthiest merchants in New York City. The Jones' then lived at 734 Broadway and the houses on either side were occupied by Mary's sisters, Mrs Rebecca Jones and Mrs Sarah Hamersley. Invisible to the passer-by, the drawing rooms of each opened up on to the next to create what was then the city's longest ballroom. From this base on Broadway, in the decade before Mrs Astor, the Mason sisters held court and Mary (the eldest) reigned supreme. 

Rumor has it that in his final moments on this earth, old John Mason was barely conscious in a chair when two of his daughters (Mary?!) and their husbands trussed him up and sandwiched him between a board and the chair-back. Now unable to slump forwards, they succeeded in guiding quill-to-paper, signing what was apparently "his will"! Given the circumstances, it may not surprise you to hear that there were a few objections to the will and it was dragged through the courts for 15-years before the dust finally settled! By that time (1854), Mary's husband was dead, but courtesy of Daddy-dearest, she now owned a vast - and soon to be a very valuable - tract of land, covering two city blocks from Fifth Avenue to Park Avenue, between 57th and 58th Streets.

"The Crowning Touch to her Audacity..."

Mrs Mary Mason Jones had a taste for luxury and if her private box in the Park Theatre was anything to go by (upholstered in blue silk with silver, not metal, railings!), you knew this dowager wasn't going to be planning anything ordinary to grace her new corner of town! And, neither could it be: she was acutely aware that large as her landholding was, it was also 20-blocks north of what was then deemed "fashionable-living," her father having acquired it back in 1823 as a future investment for what would prove a steal at $10 a lot!

In 1867, drawing on the France she already knew and loved (her elder daughter, Mary, had married a French Baron in Paris 20-years before), she worked with architect Robert Mook (1830-1917) to produce a revolutionary new vision for old New York, straight from the architectural books of old Europe: Loosely inspired by the likes of the Chateau de Fontainebleu and in many ways resembling an Hotel de Ville (a French City Hall), the shimmering white marble chateau they produced was completed in 1869. It shone out like a beacon amid the row upon rows of brownstone favored by old Knickerbocker society and it drew precisely the right amount of awe that architect and client had hoped to inspire.

"Watching Calmly for Life and Fashion to Flow..."

In "the wilderness" as it then was, Mary was clever not to have created one solitary castle from which to rule. "Marble Row," as her creation was christened, was in fact a series of individual residences and she took up in the east corner, addressed 1 East 57th Street.

If you've read Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence you may remember the rather superbly named "Mrs Manson Mingott," modelled on none other than Edith's great aunt - Edith's maiden name having been Jones - our very own Mrs Mary Mason Jones:
(Mrs Mary Mason Jones/Manson Mingott) put the crowning touch to her audacity by building a large house of cream-coloured stone... it was her habit to sit in a window of her sitting-room on the ground floor, as if watching calmly for life and fashion to flow northward to her solitary doors.  She seemed in no hurry to have them come, for her patience was equaled by her confidence.  She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries, the one-story saloons, the wooden green-houses in ragged gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene, would vanish before the advance of residences as stately as her own - perhaps (for she was an impartial woman) even statelier.
Her house was briefly described in 1884 on the occasion of her great-granddaughter's introduction to New York Society: "The halls of the large house last evening were filled with palms and rare exotic plants. Broad steps ascend from the square hallway as one enters, and leading to the second floor terminate at the entrance to a large ball room… it is a large square room, with high ceiling and furnished with brightly colored upholstering... on one side is a reception room (and) on the first floor is the suite of parlors."

"There is One House Mrs Stevens will Never Enter..."

The widowed dowager continued to entertain as she had done on Broadway, filling her house with New York's ageing upper crust, all the while watching while the city grew progressively north and the value of her property rose with it. But, if there was one thing her blue blood could not abide, it was the parvenus who rode this wave of rapid growth and in her eyes threatened to disrupt the old-world decorum of her inner sanctum.

To Mrs Jones, no-one better represented this dreaded new breed of person than the redoubtable Mrs Marietta (Reed) Stevens (1827-1895) who try as I might, I cannot find a picture of. Her obituary said of her: "Probably no woman conspicuous in New York society has been more talked about than Mrs Stevens". Loved by her friends and loathed by her enemies, she spent a lifetime dividing opinions. The daughter of a greengrocer who made it big and then entered local politics, she was an unapologetic social climber and to the horror of society had started by marrying a millionaire 25-years her senior! Her husband, "the best judge of wines in the country" was hotelier Paran Stevens (1802-1872).

Mrs Jones had long made it her habit to host French-style salons where guests might hope to glean some culture from the artists and writers invited to mix among the crowd. Not only did Mrs Stevens and her "magnetic personality" dare to up the ante by hosting refreshingly alternative musicales with the choicest wines and champagne (for which her husband had been famous); but, in order to eliminate the prospect of rival invitations - to the horror of Mrs Jones - her musicales took place on Sunday evenings when traditional Knickerbocker society was supposed to be at home with their families! It didn't happen overnight, but not before long Mrs Stevens' "position as a hostess was unassailable".

Churlishly - and as it would turn out foolishly - Mrs Jones laid down the gauntlet by stating very publicly: "There is one house (her own on Marble Row) that Mrs Stevens will never enter. I am old enough to please myself, and I do not care to extend my sufficiently large circle of acquaintances". Given another chance, she'd probably not have said that...

"Grandmamma's Reproachful Spirit"

If Mrs Jones had bided her time to watch her corner of Manhattan become fashionable (which it most certainly did), then Mrs Stevens took a leaf out of her book to serve her revenge: In 1891, having outlived her 90-year old arch-nemesis, Mrs Stevens had the last laugh when she became the new occupant of Mrs Jones' beloved mansion, but not before having it completely 'de-Jonesed' and renovated to her own tastes! One of the deceased's grandchildren later admitted, "I assure you I was actually afraid to give my consent to the lease. I felt that I might be visited by grandmamma's reproachful spirit"! 

Here, Mrs Stevens gave, "some of the finest dinners; her wines are of the best; her chef has few superiors, and her hospitality is unbounded... being the owner of the Victoria Hotel she (also) has a large interest in the management of the Fifth Avenue".

Mrs Stevens had achieved her reign over society against all the odds and the likes of Mrs Jones had been formidable opponents. Comfortably ensconced in her rival's mansion, she could sit back and take pleasure in her achievements: she was known to all as a revered hostess of New York society; her beautiful daughter, Lady Paget, was mixing in the smartest circles in England; her grand-daughter, Louise, was the god-daughter of no less a figure than King Edward VII; and, ironically though often forgotten, her son Harry had been engaged to Mrs Jones' grand-niece, Edith Wharton! She entertained until the end, giving a salon concert with the 60-strong Boston Symphony Orchestra and hosting a reception for 150 in the second floor ballroom for the Duke and Duchess of Veragua.

But, perhaps "grandmammas reproachful spirit" had lingered on in her mansion: Just four years later, Mrs Paran Stevens suffered a fatal stroke on hearing of the collapse of her primary source of income, the Fifth Avenue Hotel, started by her husband in 1859.

Bird-watching at "Palace Corners"

Soon after Mrs Stevens death, the entire chateau was purchased by Hermann Oelrichs and his wife, another socially ambitious hostess, Tessie Fair. She was the estranged daughter of - but co-heiress to - "Slippery Jim" and his fast-made millions. Hermann was no slouch either, worth a cool $52 million from shipping. Employing Stanford White, the Oelrichs' converted the chateau into one sole residence, completed in 1897, after which White got to work on their Newport home for which they are better known, Rosecliff.

Standing at an intersection that now included the Whitney Mansion and others, The New York Times dubbed the enclave, "the Palace Corners". Joining them in their new home was Tessie's popular younger sister, "Birdie," who quickly caught the eye of their neighbour across the street, William K. Vanderbilt II (1878-1944), and they were engaged by the following year (1898). The wedding reception was held at the Oelrichs' chateau on which they lavished every attention to make sure it was one to remember. The crowds that gathered outside that day whipped themselves up into such a frenzy with the ostentatiousness of it all that the bride and groom could not reach their carriage and the policemen used their batons to clear a path for the increasingly irate newly-weds!

Unlike his wife, Hermann Oelrichs had little time for high society. By 1906 he had taken to living on his farm near San Francisco leaving Tessie to reign over New York while he managed her Californian inheritances. Despite the change in living arrangements, they remained close and Tessie was devastated when he died after having over-exerted himself, tirelessly helping the victims of the San Francisco Earthquake that struck that year. His funeral was held in their double drawing room on Fifth Avenue.

The Final Chapter

Tessie continued to divide her time between here and Rosecliff in Newport. In a futile attempt to separate herself from the encroaching stores and high-rise blocks that were gradually devouring the neighborhood's mansions, she surrounded the chateau with a wrought iron fence in 1911. By the conclusion of the First World War in 1918, she conceded that she had lost another war - her own to commerce - and decamped further north. 

The New York Trust Company moved in, purposefully maintaining its grand interior to give their clients a "home-from-home" feeling: "The dining room, which will be used for the general banking business is finished in panelled oak, and oak counters will be put in.  The bookkeepers will have the ballroom, the library will be used as the ladies’ room, the parlor for the trust department, and the remaining rooms for consultations".

A matter of weeks before the Wall Street Crash in 1929, the Trust announced their plan to replace what remained of the marble chateau with a 15-story office building. Today, the Louis Vuitton store stands roughly in its place, on the southeast corner across the street. 

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References

Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress, circa 1894; Riches, Class, and Power: United States Before the Civil War (2017), by Edward Pessen; Around Washington Square: An Illustrated History of Greenwich Village (2003), by Luther S. Harris; The Husband Hunters (2017) by Anne de Courcy; Lead Head Pencils Blog - "He was Supposed to be Wealthy (2018); Incredible New York (1996), by Lloyd Morris; The Millionaire Duchesses (2017), by Julie Ferry; The Lost Mary Jones Mansion, Daytonian in Manhattan; The Fifth Avenue Mansion of Paran Stevens, Gilded Age Era Blog.