Standing in front of 122 Chambers Street, you are unlikely to be reminded of the opulent Gilded Age. But this property was once part of a highly desirable residential district in the City. It was where one of New York’s most fashionable families lived – a family so dominant it may have inspired a very well known English saying.
Around 1806 leases were expiring on properties owned by Trinity Church on Chambers, Warren and Murray Streets. Trinity’s new terms required leaseholders to erect substantial brick or brick-fronted houses within a window of time. These new leases prohibited hazardous uses, and so, in an early episode of gentrification, artisans were forced out. Well-to-do merchants and professional men and their families moved in.
One fashionable couple – Isaac Jones, third president of Chemical Bank, and his wife, Mary Mason Jones, daughter of John Mason, second president of Chemical Bank and a founder of the New York and Harlem Railroad (part of today’s Metro North Railroad) – built and moved into a rowhouse at 122 Chambers Street in 1818. It was gas lit, and much admired as the first New York house with a bathtub. (Details on the bathtub are scarce but it must have been enviable since it was mentioned in her 1891 obituary in The New York Times.)
However, the spread of commerce around Chambers Street spurred an exodus of wealthy residents from the area. The couple moved north and Mary’s real estate ventures became more ambitious. As her grand-niece, the novelist, Edith Wharton, explained “In those days the little “brownstone” houses…marched up Fifth Avenue…in an almost unbroken procession from Washington Square to the Central Park…The most conspicuous architectural break… occurred…at the awkwardly shaped entrance to the Central Park…[where] our audacious Aunt Mary…erected her own white marble residence…I doubt whether any subsequent architectural upheavals along that historic thoroughfare have produced a greater impression.” Impressions such as these fueled the phenomenon, and inspired the expression, of “Keeping up with the Joneses.”
Not many could.
This was not Wharton’s most famous accounting of her Aunt Mary’s real estate ventures. Mary was the model for Mrs. Manson Mingott in the book, The Age of Innocence. Published in October 1920, the bestseller won the Pulitzer Prize in May 1921. Though Mary died in 1891, this book made her immortal. You couldn’t keep up with her even after death.
Today 122 Chambers bears little resemblance to Mary’s original rowhouse. It was inherited by Isaac and Mary’s daughter, Emily. Between 1857 and 1858 she redeveloped the property as the Italian Renaissance Revival store-and-loft building that stands today. The ornately-carved ornamentation on its arched lintels, still visible today, represented a more decorative alternative to other palazzo style buildings which had simpler molded surrounds. Add to this the building’s caramel-colored Dorchester sandstone and you have a “conspicuous architectural break” still noticeable today. Mary Mason Jones would approve.
— Carol Cofone
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