Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On Broadway, Postscript

Barnaby Carriage House
Barnaby Carriage House, 159 Sutton Street
On a walk this week down Sutton Street I came across this amazing structure in the middle of a street of frame houses. I jotted down the address and went exploring in my Providence volumes when I got home.

Barnaby Castle
Barnaby Castle, 299 Broadway
Turns out that this is the Barnaby Carriage House, built in 1875. It was originally part of the Barnaby Castle Estate at 299 Broadway, which was featured in my recent series on great Victorian houses on Broadway.  Part 2, A Castle and a Murder, describes the home, and the Colorado murder that helped to make it famous.

The carriage house is large and elaborate, and made of brick, unlike the home it accompanies which is wood frame. My reference book says it has a "Moorish-inspired facade" and that the top center part of the facade used to have a spire and a clock which have since been removed.

According to Zillow, it consists of a single-family residence of 3,480 sq. ft., with parking for six vehicles in the old carriage space. It was on the market for $799,000 for a year (serious wishful thinking!) but with no buyers it was taken off the market nearly two years ago.

You never know what you'll find in the neighborhood!

Illustration Credits and References

Photos by author.

Information about the property from the work Providence, A Citywide Survey of Historic Resources, by William McKenzie Woodward and Edward F. Sanderson, published by the RI Historical Preservation Commission in 1986.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Before Marriage Equality, This: The Union of Elizabeth Drexel and Harry Lehr

Boldini Portrait of Elizabeth Drexel Lehr
1905 portrait of Elizabeth Lehr. 
This 1905 portrait by Giovanni Boldini, which hangs at The Elms in Newport, RI, caught my eye yesterday and I wanted to know more about the beautiful woman in the glorious orange dress. She is Elizabeth "Bessie" Wharton Drexel, and her second husband was Henry Symes Lehr; this is their story.

Elizabeth was a well-to-do Manhattan socialite from the Drexel banking family. At 21, she had married John Vinton Dahlgren. Ten years later, John was dead and Elizabeth was left a young widow with a seven-year-old son. But one of her friends introduced her to the dashing Harry Lehr--an extremely popular (but distinctly unmoneyed) man about town. He was from "a good family" in Baltimore which had seen a reversal of fortune; like many young men and women of the time he saw his opportunity for redemption in marrying up. 

Lehr was handsome and fun, told a good story, and was a great friend of many women socialites in Manhattan and Newport (including Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, Caroline Astor, and Mamie Fish), who found him amusing. He helped them to choose their dresses, plan their parties, and lure their wayward husbands back. He loved to perform--telling jokes, playing the piano, and often dressing as a woman in various living tableaux.

Photograph of Harry Lehr
Harry Lehr.
He swept Bessie Drexel Dahlgren off her feet, and they married on June 1, 1901. The New York Times wedding announcement noted that Elizabeth was "sweetly gowned in white, instead of grey or heliotrope, the customary selection of widows." Harry was referred to as the "Beau Nash of today" and the "dictator of form and fashion and leader in the '400'."

After their wedding they traveled to a Baltimore hotel to spend the night. Bessie recalled later that she had arranged for a lovely wedding night supper to be set up in the dining room of their suite: "Caviar, quails in aspic, his favorite brand of champagne, the cabinet of cigars I had bought for him, along with the gold and enamel watch set beside his plate." But Harry sent word, via the servants, that he would dine in his room, and she would have to dine alone. Shortly thereafter he showed up to tell the horrified new bride in person that he did not intend to consummate the marriage, that he did not love her, and that he had only married her for her money. 

"I married you because the only person on earth I love is my mother. I want above everything else to keep her in comfort. Your father's fortune will enable me to do so. But there is a limit to sacrifice. I cannot condemn myself to the misery of playing the role of adoring lover for the rest of my life." Harry did promise to treat her well in public and to give her the freedom to do whatever she wanted.

Photograph of Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, dressed for presentation to Kaiser Wilhelm
Dressed for presentation to the Kaiser.
Today we would ask why Elizabeth Drexel Lehr did not simply exit the marriage. But she came from a Catholic family and Elizabeth's mother had actively banned from her company the few divorced women who traveled in her social circle. (The Drexels were so Catholic that Elizabeth's cousin, Katharine Drexel, became a Saint!) Elizabeth therefore felt she could not suggest divorce to her mother and had no one else in whom to confide. And of course she didn't know Harry's other secret, which would be obvious to anyone today: he was gay.

The story is so sad to me because both of these beautiful and talented people had to spend the next 28 years together in a loveless and unconsummated marriage, which lasted until Harry's death. His life prospects without a "good" marriage were probably bleaker than hers--to be poor and gay was not an attractive option. But life for her as a married woman (especially in a marriage with a man who did not wish to control her activities) would be much better than the one she would live as a rich widow (or as an ostracized divorcĂ©e). 

Both of them had outside relationships during the marriage, and after her mother's death Bessie came close to divorce when she fell in love with a man she identifies in her book as "Mr. X". But Mr. X died before she could proceed with the divorce.

Bessie and Harry lived in New York and summered in Newport during the early years of their marriage. They lived primarily in Paris after World War I, though Newport continued to beckon in the summer.

King Lehr and the Gilded Age, a book by Elizabeth Drexel LehrHarry Lehr died in 1929; after his death Bessie read his diaries which revealed his painful secret to her. In 1935 she authored a book about Harry and their life and times entitled "King Lehr" and the Gilded Age. (The quotes above from Bessie and Harry originated in this book, though they have been requoted in a number of other blogs, articles, and reviews.)

Seven years later she married the Irish Peer, Lord Decies. They were together only a few years; when Hitler invaded Paris, Baroness Decies fled to New York and Lord Decies stayed in Britain. They died four months apart in 1944. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Marsden Perry's Skyscraper: The Union Trust Company Building

Union Trust Company Bank BuildingThis week's walk took me past The Union Trust Company Building at 60/62 Dorrance Street in Providence. This gorgeous edifice is a 12-story, steel-frame, brick and stone office building constructed in 1901-1902, and at the time it was the tallest in Providence, and possibly the tallest in New England!

It was built for the Union Trust Company, a bank helmed by Providence financier and industrialist, Marsden Perry, and it was built the same year that Perry bought, refurbished, and moved into the historic John Brown House at 52 Power Street. Stone, Carpenter & Willson, architects, were working on both projects, as well as on a renovation at 2 George Street, where Perry lived prior to moving into the John Brown House. Mr. Perry and his architects must have been very busy with construction details that year! (Not that the bank presidency was all Perry had to keep him busy--he also owned the Narragansett Electric Company and the city's trolley system.)

Banks were expected to be impressive buildings in those days--to instill in customers a feeling of confidence in the wealth and power of the bank and its management. And the Union Trust Company building certainly did that.

Union Trust Company Bank Building in 1906
The Union Trust building in 1906.
Industrial National Bank absorbed Union Trust in 1957 and the first floor continued to be used as a banking hall until 1978. The building was then acquired by Greater Providence Deposit and Trust Company in 1980, and used as their headquarters. Then came the Rhode Island banking and financial crisis of 1991, when the Governor closed 32 credit unions which were under-insured; this bank was one of the casualties.

The first floor became a restaurant called Federal Reserve in 1996, and has been occupied by The Dorrance restaurant since 2011.

Some of the interesting architectural and interior design features of this building include:

The Puritan and the Indian.
    The Puritan and the Indian sign
    Window at Union Trust Company Bank Building
  • a Corinthian-columned entrance with bas-relief figures of an Indian and a Puritan--carved by Daniel Chester French (who is more famous for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and the Concord Minuteman). French appears to have been sought after by numerous local firms in the early 20th century; see my blog entry on French's beautiful elevator doors at another former bank not far from this one.
  • Banks of 20-foot high windows, each with a rosette in stained glass that contains the coat of arms of a major European banking family or center (all the big names of 1901). What reassurance this must have provided to the local bank customers--they could imagine their bank as practically on a first name basis with the Rothschilds, etc.
  • A 12-story staircase of green glass. At the time the bank was built, elevators had been invented, but none was able to handle a 12-story rise. The staircase was designed to let light pass through it from a skylight on the roof, and also was supposed to provide entertainment for those poor unfortunates who had to climb to the 12th floor!! Interestingly enough, Perry installed similar (though much smaller) glass staircases
    Glass Staircase Installed by Marsden Perry at Eliza Ward House
    The glass staircase at 2 George St.
    in the renovation of both his current home (2 George Street) and his future home (52 Power Street). (The staircase at the John Brown House is not open to the public--but you can see the base of it in the back of the building, between the long center hallway and the bookstore/gallery space in the back.)
  • The first double-doored bank vault in New England. In the hurricane of 1938, when downtown Providence flooded up to 13 feet deep, and first floors of all the businesses 
    1938 Hurricane Flood Water Marker on Union Trust Company Building
    Sign on the exterior wall at 60-62 Dorrance St.
    were flooded, the double-doored vault stayed dry inside (unlike vaults at many other banks, where bank tellers purportedly stayed busy ironing the currency dry after the waters receded).
I'll talk about Marsden Perry himself in a future post.

Union Trust Company BuildingIllustration Credits and References

The 1906 photo of the Union Trust Company building is from the Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress.

The photo of the glass staircase at 2 George St. was found on the 2 George Street website.

All other photos by author.

Information on the architecture of the Union Trust Company building from Providence, A Citywide Survey of Historic Resources, by William McKenzie Woodward and Edward F. Sanderson, published by the RI Historical Preservation Commission in 1986.