Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

"The Dogwoods," Known as the Old Black Mansion on Esplanade, Was Razed for Property Development in 1931

Robert C. Black, a member of the well-known Fifth Avenue jeweler Black Starr & Frost, lived with his wife, Mary Witherbee Black, in a splendid mansion that stood on a large tract (sometimes described as six acres and, sometimes, eight) where the homes between 958 and 1000 Esplanade now stand.  The couple moved to Pelham Manor in the 1870s and originally lived in the home that still stands at 1057 Esplanade, an example of the "Esplanade Villa" style of home offered  in the early days of the development efforts of the Pelham Manor and Huguenot Heights Association. 

Robert and Mary Black built their splendid home in about 1886.  They called it "The Dogwoods."  In 1892, the couple hired noted architect Clarence S. Luce of New York City to enlarge the home by adding two wings.  The western wing addition was two stories high with the upper story being devoted to a "music-room" about 40 feet in length and 20 feet in width.  The room was used as a ballroom and became the center of the Pelham Manor social scene for decades..  The room included a musician's gallery and "a superb mantel reaching nearly from floor to roof with an immense brick open fireplace and tiled hearth."  

At the time the home was enlarged, Real Estate Record and Builders Guide published an article that included a photograph of the home under construction and an architect's rendering of the music room.  (Both images appear below.)  The article further noted:  


The Esplanade is lined with pretty cottages and attractive villas, the majority of which are the all-year-round homes of their owners.  By far the largest and most costly of these is the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Black, which is shown below.  This structure was recently enlarged by the addition of two wings, from plans by Clarence S. Luce of New York.  The western wing is two stories high, the upper portion being devoted to a music-room, about 40 feet in length and about 20 feet in width.  This is just about completed, and its distinguishing features are a musicians' gallery and a superb manel reaching nearly from floor to roof, with an immense brick open fireplace and tiled hearth.  It is to be decorated in white and gold and furnished artistically.  The building occupies a total frontage of 135 feet and there are numerous reception-rooms on the first floor, which connect with the music-room by a grand stairway."

Source:  "PELHAM MANOR, PELHAM HEIGHTS AND VICINITY.  A Delightful Suburban Section Described. -- With Eleven Illustrations" in Real Estate Record and Builders Guide Supplement, Dec. 17, 1892, Vol. L, No. 1292, pp. 1-8.

"Residence of Mr. Robert C. Black (From photograph before completion.)"
in Real Estate Record and Builders Guide Supplement, Dec. 17, 1892, 
Vol. L, No. 1292, p. 3.  NOTE:  Click Image to Enlarge.

"Music Room in residence of Mr. Robert C. Black."
in Real Estate Record and Builders Guide Supplement, Dec. 17, 1892, 
Vol. L, No. 1292, p. 4.  NOTE:  Click Image to Enlarge.

After the Death of Robert C. Black, The Dogwoods passed to his son, R. Clifford Black.  With the onset of the Great Depression and the death of R. Clifford Black, the property taxes on the magnificent home and its surrounding six-acre lot became burdensome.  

R. Clifford Black died on January 26, 1931.  Within months, the estate of R. Clifford Black announced that the home would be razed and the six-acre tract would be broken into smaller lots for the development of twenty smaller residences.  Plans also were announced to auction much of the contents of the home, including a magnificent "pipe organ which graced the huge ballroom where 200 or more guests have danced at many of the Manor's brightest social events."

By late September, 1931, the Black Mansion was being razed.  One of the last remaining grand mansions of Pelham Manor would be no more.  The matter was not, however, over.

Detail of 1914 Map Showing Location of
"The Dogwoods," Listing It as "Mary G. W. Black."
Eastchester, Vol. I, p. 129 (NY, NY:  G.W. Bromley & Co., 1914).
NOTE:  Click Image to Enlarge.

Twice in 1931, as the mansion was being torn down, attorneys for the Black family presented plans to develop the property to the Planning Commission of Pelham Manor led by William B. Randall.  On both occasions, the development plans were rejected by the Planning Commission.  See PLAN FOR TEN ACRE DEVELOPMENT IN MANOR APPROVED; MARINER IS SPONSOR -- Planning Commission Rejects Plan for Improvement of Black Estate Property Again; New Development Projected Between Pelhamdale Avenue and Pelham Country Club, The Pelham Sun, Nov. 20, 1931, Vol. 22, No. 35, p. 1, cols. 1-2.  

According to one account, the Planning Commission of Pelham Manor concluded that the proposed plan to build twenty smaller residences on the former Black estate "was not in keeping with the high priced residential district in which the mansion" was located.  See Black Development Plan Is Rejected; To Raze Mansion, The Pelham Sun, Aug. 21, 1931, Vol. 22, No. 21, p. 1, cols. 7-8.

The battle raged for a number of years.  A member of the Black family and heir of Mary G. W. Black and R. Clifford Black named Witherbee Black was involved in the plans for developing the six-acre tract.  Among other things, Witherbee Black requested the Village of Pelham Manor to make changes to applicable zoning ordinances to permit the construction of multiplex houses on the property.  Village residents rose up in protest and created a taxpayers' activist organization named the Pelham Manor Property Owner's Association.  See Property Owners Rally To Support New Pelham Manor Taxpayers' Ass'n -- Many Offers of Financial Support Received by Joseph Carreau, Chairman of Organization Committee; Incorporation Meeting Monday; Public Session to be Held Next Week, The Pelham Sun, Dec. 29, 1936, Vol. 27, No. 39, p. 1, col. 1.    

The Pelham Manor Property Owner's Association and the Planning Commission of Pelham Manor battled valiantly, but the property eventually was subdivided and about twenty or twenty one beautiful homes relatively large for the size of their lots were constructed.    

"Pelham Manor

Esplanade Landmark Must Make Way for New Development

In the razing of the old Black mansion on Esplanade, Pelham Manor, to make way for a development of the six-acre tract upon which the mansion stands, the village will see its most ambitious development in five years.

It was reported today that the venture by the owners of the property will also entail auctioning many valuable furnishings of the home, including the large pipe organ which graced the huge ballroom where 200 or more guests have danced at many of the Manor's brightest social events.  

It is expected the work of tearing down the 45-year-old home, valued at $75,000, will be started within two weeks, after its contents have been removed.

Two streets will be cut through the six acres, according to the plans of the developers, and the property will be divided into 20 building lots.  In real estate circles, it is spoken of as close to a million dollar development, in view of the type of homes which must necessarily be built to conform to zoning law provisions, by the buyers of the lots.  

The property is owned and will be developed by the estate of the late R. Clifford Black.  The Black family have been prominent through several generations in the social life and physical growth of the village.  

Originally 80 acres were held by the family, extending over the land now traversed by Esplanade, one of the village's most beautiful thoroughfares.  Mary G. W. Black gave the land now occupied by the Manor Club and her father was the donor of the land to the Huguenot Memorial Church, which is the site of the church edifice now standing at the corner of the Boston Post Road and Pelhamdale Avenue."

Source:  BLACK MANSION TO BE RAZED, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Aug. 17, 1931, p. 9, col. 1.  

"Black Development Plan Is Rejected; To Raze Mansion
Black Estate to Develop Six Acre Tract in Pelham Manor; Mariner Also Plans Development of Another Large Parcel of Property; Mansion Was Scene of Many Important Social Gatherings.

Plans which included the razing of the famous old Black Mansion on the Esplanade and the development of the six acre estate with the construction of a group of twenty small residences have been rejected by the Planning Commission of Pelham Manor, The Pelham Sun learned this week.  William B. Randall, former village president, chairman of the Planning Commission announced that the proposed plan was not in keeping with the high priced residential district in which the mansion is located.

Witherbee Black, heir of the estate of Mrs. Mary G. W. Black and R. Clifford Black, who is responsible for the proposed development was asked to submit a more favorable plan.  Mr. Randall expressed an opinion that the property could be properly developed along the lines of the existing residential district of Pelham Manor, without loss to the owner.  

Announcement of the development of the Black property on the Esplanade was followed this week by a report that another Black tract is soon to be subdivided and developed by Guy C. Mariner.  this property is situated opposite the Black Mansion on Pelhamdale avenue and extends to the Pelham Country Club golf course.  Mariner who was responsible for the Bonmar addition plans to include the Black property in this section.  The Black mansion which was for many years the home of Mrs. Mary W. G. Black, widow of Robert C. Black, is fifty years old.  It was one of the show places of Westchester County and its spacious rooms were the rendezvous of the elite of Westchester.  Mrs. Black was a prominent figure in the Westchester County social swirl, and the leader in the benevolent activities of the Pelhams.  The large ballroom was frequently the scene of receptions to distinguished figures of the United States and Europe.

The handsome furnishings of the building have been removed and will soon be sold at public auction.  A massive pipe organ is still in the music room of the house.  It was at this console that the best musicians were heard in receptions before the music lovers of Westchester society.

The Black estate once covered the greater portion of Pelham Manor.  It extended from the 

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Esplanade across the property which is now the Pelham Country Club, and across the branch line of the New Haven Railroad.  Another large section on Prospect Hill was held by Mrs. Black.  In 1874 when there were only ten homes in Pelham Manor, Silas Witherbee, father of Mrs. Black financed the development company which laid out the village.  At the failure of this company Witherbee took over the property and it was purchased by his daughter who had faith in the rising community.  She immediately moved to Pelham and began the career which has had much to do with the development of the village, its social life and charity activities.  

Mrs. Black took an active part in the organization of the Manor Club, and was one of the charter members of the Pelham Home for Children.  She was a member of the Huguenot Memorial Church and donated part of the property on which the church now stands.  

Robert C. Black, husband of Pelham Manor's dominant figure, died in 1907.  Mrs. Black continued to maintain her residence here until she died in 1928.  The property was bequeathed to her two sons R. Clifford Black and Witherbee Black.  The former died early this year. 

The furniture which includes several handsome antique pieces will be sold at public auction at the Neptune Storage Warehouse in New Rochelle early in September.  

Charles D. Fiske, president of Fish & Marvin, who are agents for the property announced that the work of razing the mansion will be started next week.

The plans for the new residential development included the construction of two streets from the Esplanade to Pelhamdale avenue.  The property will be divided into twenty building lots.

In his rejection Mr. Randall expressed an opinion that the property could be developed in large tracts and suggested that a winding road be laid out across the property instead of the two short streets.  He expressed the hope that the several splendid trees now on the property be preserved in the development."

Source:  Black Development Plan Is Rejected; To Raze MansionThe Pelham Sun, Aug. 21, 1931, Vol. 22, No. 21, p. 1, cols. 7-8 & p. 4, cols. 1-2.

Famous Old Social Center of Pelham Manor Will Be Removed to Make Way for Residential Development.

The most brilliant page in the social history of the Pelhams was turned on Monday when work of the razing of the Black mansion on the Esplanade was begun.  The handsome old residence which was at one time the social stronghold of the late Mary G. W. Black, is being removed to make way for a modern residential development.  Witherbee Black and the Estate of R. Clifford Black is responsible for the new development.  

Application for approval of the plan for the new development has been rejected by the Planning Commission."

Source:  BLACK MANSION IS BEING RAZED, The Pelham Sun, Sep. 25, 1931, Vol. 22, No. 26, p. 1, col. 3.  

*          *          *          *         *

I have written about "The Dogwoods" and members of the Black Family on a number of occasions.  For more, see:

Wed., Apr. 13, 2005:  "The Dogwoods" - The Estate of Robert Clifford Black of Pelham Manor.

Thu., Jan. 29, 2015:  R. Clifford Black of Black, Starr & Frost Bought the Martin J. Condon Mansion in 1913.

Fri., Aug. 01, 2014:  Obituary and Photograph of R. Clifford Black, a Prominent Pelham Manor Resident in the Early 20th Century.

Wed., Jun. 27, 2007:  Dissolution of Firm of Black, Starr & Frost and Reconstitution of the Firm as Corporation After Robert Clifford Black's Death.

Thu., Sep. 28, 2006:  A Brief Biography of Mary Grace Witherbee Black of Pelham Manor

Tue., Apr. 11, 2006:  April 20, 1875 Marriage Certificate of Robert C. Black and Mary Grace Witherbee Black

Thu., Feb. 9, 2006:  Cortlandt W. Starr of Black Starr & Frost

Thu., Jun. 7, 2005:  Obituaries of Robert C. Black and His Wife, Mary Grace Witherbee Black

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