NYTimes City Room: Descendants of Old Money Look Back at a Benefit It Wrought

Oct 15, 2012 |

On October 11, 2012 University Settlement invited descendants of the founders of the Settlement to our historic home on Eldridge Street. They were joined by author Jean Zimmerman, who spoke about her book, "Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance" which chronicles the building's famous architect, Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, and his wife Edith Minturn. Today, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places and we were honored to invite the descendants of the founders of the building back to the space for an evening of champagne and discussion!

View photos from this event online!

Read about this event in The New York Times City Room blog!

Descendants of Old Money Look
Back at a Benefit It Wrought

By James Barron
October 12, 2012

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

From left, Michael H. Zisser, University Settlement Society of New York's chief executive, with two of the descendants of the settlement house's benefactors: Mary McFadden, descendant of R. Fulton Cutting, and Margaret Fitzgerald, great-great-granddaughter of James Stillman.

Mary R. Morgan said she was seeing it for the first time: the building on the Lower East Side that $15,000 of her great-grandfather's money had gone into, back in 1899 - a sum that would have the purchasing power of $420,000 in today's dollars, according to the web site

That was big money, but Ms. Morgan's middle initial stands for Rockefeller - her great grandfather was John D. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil. The $15,000 went to University Settlement Society of New York to help cover the overrun that had doubled the cost of its five-story building at 184 Eldridge Street, at Rivington Street.

What he and other members of the 1 percent of the day paid for became a centerpiece in an immigrant neighborhood where languages like Russian and Polish filled the air - and where extended families were jammed into squalid tenements. University Settlement brought in some people from old-money New York who might never have ventured to the Lower East Side: Eleanor Roosevelt taught dance at University Settlement in the days when "Franklin Roosevelt was courting her," said Michael H. Zisser, the society's chief executive.

Dr. Zisser discovered a document in the society's files with the names of those who had contributed "subscriptions" to pay off the shortfall, which came to $75,065.20 ($2.1 million in 2012). On the list were old-New York names, like that of August Belmont, the financier and subway builder. He gave $1,000 ($28,000 in 2012).

Some corporate contributors were on the list, among them Lehman Brothers, whose collapse in 2008 sent the financial markets into a panic, and Lazard Frères. Each gave $1,000. Other $1,000 donors included R.R. Bowker, who controlled the company that publishes Books in Print, and Otto H. Kahn, a financier and benefactor of the Metropolitan Opera.

And then there were Mr. Morgan and the others, all women, who gathered at University Settlement on Thursday: descendants of donors from 1899. The University Settlement had invited them for a reception with Champagne. The plan was to take a group photograph. "Please come camera-ready," one of the organizers told them by e-mail. One of the descendants replied, "You mean extra blush and two Xanax?"

The descendants who took their places for the photograph included the fashion designer Mary McFadden, who said that R. Fulton Cutting - the third donor below Rockefeller on the list - was her grandfather.

"Well, probably great-great-grandfather," she said, laughing. "They've been here since the beginning of time. Of course, I'm 20 years old." For the record, Cutting, a Gilded Age aristocrat, was the good-government-minded president of the Citizens Union. He gave $1,000.

Ms. McFadden chatted with Margaret Fitzgerald, a great-great-granddaughter of James Stillman, a banker and railroad magnate who donated $500 ($14,000), and Mrs. Fitzgerald's daughter, Sarah Stillman Fitzgerald. Nearby here Maude Davis, the granddaughter of John H. Davis, who gave $500 in 1899, and Stephanie Stokes, a designer and descendant of Anson Phelps Stokes, a mining and railroad magnate who gave $250 in 1899 ($6,990 in 2012).

It was Anson Phelps Stokes's son, the architect Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, who designed the University Settlement building as his first commission. The author Jean Zimmerman wrote that he worked with John Mead Howells and that the building "rose grandly and improbably above the swirl of street life below."

And the overrun? "The additional expense seemed not to pose any difficultly for the Settlement's wealthy donors," Ms. Zimmerman wrote in "Love, Fiercely," a biography of Stokes and the woman he married, "Edith Minturn. Ms. Zimmerman quoted the Settlement's founder, Stephen Coit, as saying it had become the "most fashionable charity in the city."

Dr. Zisser said the University Settlement carried on, even as the neighborhood around it changed. "New York is more of an immigrant city than it was then," he said. "We do adult literacy classes. We did them 125 years ago. The difference was that you were going to forget your old language, not to squelch what you brought with you, to make sure you can survive in New York."

Still, he said, the neighborhood had changed. On University Settlement's block, he said, are "a Chinese church, a Spanish church and a mosque under construction." And not long ago, he said, he saw an ad in a real-estate section for a $2 million apartment nearby, "right next to a Housing Authority site."


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