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.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Fire in 1932 Devastated the Bolton Priory in Pelham Manor

It was 10:35 a.m. on a lazy summer morning during the depths of the Great Depression, Tuesday, July 19, 1932.  Jerry de Marco, a gardener employed by the owners of Bolton Priory, was walking through one of the many showplace gardens on the estate when something caught his eye:  wisps of smoke that seemed to be seeping from beneath shingles on the roof of the main wing of the mansion.  de Marco raced to the chief caretaker of the estate, Jules Martin, to report what he saw.  

Martin wasted no time.  He telephoned the Pelham Manor volunteer fire department which responded promptly.  Upon arrival, however, the firefighters found that the mansion was set so far back from the road that the nearest hydrant was nearly 1,500 feet away.  Additionally, when they arrived, the fire already had broken through several parts of the roof.  Things seemed bleak for the historic home built by Rev. Robert Bolton (the founder of Christ Church) and his family beginning in 1838.

Soon firefighters from New Rochelle arrived and joined the battle to halt the blaze.  A local woman who lived on Roosevelt Avenue promptly organized a group of young boys to form a "salvage unit."  The group scurried to and fro removing valuable paintings, antiques, and furnishings from the mansion, stacking them in one of the gardens.

Although it took hours for the firemen to control the blaze, the Bolton Priory was saved.  The roof and third floor suffered major damage estimated at about $25,000.  Water damage to other parts of the structure caused an additional $75,000 of damages.  Investigation traced the origin of the fire to a short circuit of electrical wiring in the servants' quarters on the third floor of the home.

The Bolton Priory was rebuilt although, later, much of the land surrounding the great mansion was subdivided, sold, and developed into the nearby neighborhoods we know today.  It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on June 28, 1974.  See National Register of Historic Places: New York – Westchester County (visited Mar. 15, 2015).  Bolton Priory also was added to the Westchester County Inventory of Historic Places on January 5, 1988 and to the New York Register of Historic Places on June 23, 1980.

Pelham Priory by William Rickerby Miller (1818-1893).
Watercolor on Paper, 1856.

Pelham Priory by William Rickerby Miller (1818-1893).
Watercolor on Paper, 1856.

"Fire Rages Through Upper Story Of Historic Bolton Priory; Loss May Total $100,000; Will Be Rebuilt

Hundreds of Pelhamites sorrowfully watched flames take toll on Tuesday morning [July 19, 1932] in the historic old Bolton Priory, situated on Pelhamdale Avenue and the Shore road in Pelham Manor.  The landmark which for nearly a century has been one of the outstanding show places of southern Westchester County is the home of Commander and Mrs. Frederick Hobbs Allen, distinguished citizens and social leaders of international importance.  Damage by fire and water may total $100,000.  It has been reported by members of the Allen family that the damage will be repaired.  The roof and third story of the main wing of the building were destroyed by the blaze and many valuable works of art and antique furniture damaged.

Pelham Manor volunteer department aided by New Rochelle firemen worked for several hours battling the blaze which had gained great headway before their arrival.  

The fire was discovered by Jerry de Marco, a gardener employed on the estate.  He was passing through one of the gardens when he saw smoke seeping through the shingles of the roof of the south wing of the building at 10:35 o'clock.  He summoned Jules Martin, caretaker of the estate, who telephoned the alarm to Pelham Manor fire headquarters.

When Deputy Chief Arthur Fawcett and the Pelham Manor volunteer firemen arrived the blaze had broken through in several places on the roof.  A call for assistance was sent to New Rochelle fire department.  Deputy Chief Oscar Grab responded with two companies.

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Chief John J. Brennan of Pelham Manor who had been off duty, was summoned and when he arrived he found that the Manor volunteers with the New Rochelle firemen had the situation well in hand.

The priory building is situated several hundred feet from Pelhamdale avenue on which the nearest fire hydrant is located so it was several minutes before a stream of water could be thrown on the blaze.  Pelham Manor firemen laid 1,500 feet of hose from Pelhamdale avenue and the New Rochelle firemen stretched about the same length of hose from a hydrant on the Shore road.

All morning and part of the afternoon the firemen battled the stubborn blaze that was caused, Chief Brennan stated, by a short circuit in electric wiring in the servants' quarters on the third floor.  He estimated the damage to the building at $25,000.00.  However, contents of the Priory and valuable antiques destroyed and damaged by fire, smoke and water, would place the total loss in excess of $100,000.00 it is believed.

Mrs. Allen's sitting room on the first floor, for which the panelling and door were imported from an old castle in France, were said to have cost $20,000.00 alone.  These were damaged by water which dripped through the ceiling.  The Armory, next to Mrs. Allen's sitting room, also suffered from water seeping through its beamed ceiling.  The wall paper of this room was brought to this country from another castle in France.  

The main wing in which the fire did most damage is a three story stone building with a shingle roof.  At the easterly end is a stone turret from which an excellent view of the Sound can be gained.  Below this tower is a spacious reception room, and a large banquet hall.  

The east wing of the building which is constructed of brick, apparently added several years after the main wing was built, was not damaged by flames, but costly interior decorations were destroyed by water.  Numerous trnks which contained jewelry and antiques, as well as Mrs. Allen's furs which were stored in a storage room on the third floor of the building, were destroyed by the flames.

Two New Rochelle firemen were slightly injured.  Hugh Blaney of Engine 2 was treated at the New Rochelle Hospital for a laceration of the temple suffered when a falling timber struck him in the head.  Joseph Frasca, stationed at New Rochelle Headquarters, suffered a badly bruised foot when an axe slipped and struck him.

Mrs. Marion Connolly who makes her home with Miss Arabella J. Bolton of Roosevelt avenue was given great credit for her work in organizing a group of spectators, many of them young boys, into a salvage unit which carried out valuable paintings, antique furniture, the books of the noted library and other movable furnishings.  These were stacked in the beautiful gardens of the estate.  

Frederick H. Allen, Jr., who arrived shortly before 1 o'clock when the firemen had the flames well under control, said that he believes the loss was covered by insurance.  The furnishings which were carried out by volunteer wrokers were later taken to a storage warehouse until the damaged wing of the Priory is reconstructed.

The blaze could be seen for some distance on the Sound.  Yachtsmen have reported that they saw the flames burst through the roof while they were off the shore of Travers Island.

It was at first believed that the blaze was caused by sparks from a fireplace, of which there are several in the building, but investigation has revealed that there were no fires in the fireplaces.  

Commander and Mrs. Allen are at present in Newport, R. I. where they went a month ago to spend the season.  

At the time of the fire there were all domestics at work in the house.  They were engaged in housecleaning, according to report.  None of these domestics were in the main wing when the fire was discovered.

Among those who aided and helped direct the salvage of the furnishings of the home were Mrs. James F. Longley, Miss Irene Longley, Miss Justine Irving, Miss Frances Connolly, the Misses Isla and Ann Cockle and H. C. Weatherbee.

Bolton Priory was constructed in 1838 as the home of the Rev. Robert Bolton and his family who established Christ's Church, one of the oldest churches in Westchester County, which is situated at the southeasterly corner of the priory property, about five hundred yards from the Priory itself.  The old mansion is constructed of native stone, of old English architecture, and it is almost entirely covered with vines.

Washington Irving, a firm friend of the Bolton family, was a frequent visitor in the early days of the Priory and it is said that the '1838' inscription in the stone arch above the main doorway was set by the famous author himself.  Irving helped the Rev. Bolton and his sons in the setting of the stones of Christ's Church, and was also responsible for some of its architectural design.

Stained glass in the windows as well as those in Christ's Church building was made in the Bolton's stained glass window factory, the first of its kind in America, which was situated on the Shore Road several hundred yards east of Pelhamdale avenue.

During the nineteenth century the priory building was used as a school for young women.  Mrs. Allen when a girl attended the school.  At the time of her marriage to Mr. Allen her father presented the priory to the couple as a wedding gift.

The spacious grounds are among the most attractive in Westchester.  Mr. and Mrs. Allen have generously donated the use of their property on numerous occasions for charity garden parties.

These gardens on Tuesday afternoon contained a wealth of art in addition to their natural beauty.  Priceless paintings, rare books and valuable antiques  which had been carried from the building were placed in the garden, along rosebush lined walks and wooded paths.

Commander Allen, who is internationally known as a diplomat and attorney, was at one time president of the Village of Pelham Manor.  During the World Ware he was a commander of the Naval Reserve Fleet and saw 22 months active service.  He was an official observer for the U.S. Government at the Versailles Peace Conference and after the war he was one of a group of prominent Americans selected by Col. E. H. House to negotiate with the Polish Commission looking to the establishment of a Republic of Poland.  It was for this work that he was last year honored by the Polish Government with the decoration of the star of the Order of Polonia Restituta.

Last year he was a guest of the Polish government at Poznan at the unveiling of Gutson Borglum's statue of Woodrow Wilson, which was the gift of Ignace Jan Paderewski, former Premier of Poland.

France tendered him the honor of election to the Academic Diplomatique Internationale, and he recently had the honor of bearing the notification of Governor Roosevelt's election to the same order to the chief executive of New York State.

Commander Allen has also been decorated by the Belgian government.

Commander Allen is also well known as a yachtsman, and was a personal friend of the late Sir Thomas Lipton.  During the last America Cup races off Newport, Commander Allen was a member of the official reception committee appointed by the Mayor of Newport.  

The Allens being prominent in social and diplomatic circles, Bolton Priory was frequently the scene of many receptions to important national and international figures."

Source:  Fire Rages Through Upper Story Of Historic Bolton Priory; Loss May Total $100,000; Will Be Rebuilt, The Pelham Sun, Jul. 22, 1932, Vol. 23, No. 18, p. 1, cols. 3-5 & p. 8, cols. 6-7.  

Scene Showing blaze at Bolton Priory in Pelham Manor on
Tuesday morning; Firemen of Pelham Manor and New Rochelle
battle flames in main wing of building for several hours."
Jul. 22, 1932, Vol. 23, No. 18, p. 1, cols. 3-5.

'Bolton Priory' at Pelham Manor Burns Causing Loss of $100,000

'Bolton Priory,' the Pelham Manor, N. Y., residence of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick H. Allen of 'The Mount,' this city, was practically destroyed by fire Tuesday, causing a loss of $100,000.  The entire roof of the historic mansion collapsed, and the damage to the walls and furnishing was great.  Mr. and Mrs. Allen, who had ordered the home closed prior to coming here late this week for the season, were in the White Mountains for a few days, and only servants were in the house at the time.  Defective wiring is believed to have caused the fire. 

It was some time before Pelham firemen were able to play their hose on the burning house, situated in the midst of a 40-acre estate.  Two thousand feet of hose were needed to span the distance between the house and the road.  Firemen from New Rochelle were summoned to assist in the attempt to save the structure, which bears over its front door the date 1832, inscribed in bricks presented by Washington Irving.

Frederic Stevens - Allen, a son said re-construction probably would begin immediately.  Most of the valuable pictures, tapestries and furnishings were carried from the house by servants, and the damage was confined to the walls and heavier articles of furniture.

The foundations of 'Bolton Priory,' one of the most famous residences in Westchester, ,were laid in 1832 by Rev. Robert Bolton, who later constructed Christ Church, and the house was completed in 1838.  During the last century it was used as a school for young women.  One of the students was Adele Livingston Stevens, who in 1892 was married to Mr. Allen.  Her father presented the priory to the couple as a wedding gift."

Source:  F. H. ALLEN RESIDENCE DESTROYED BY FIRE -- 'Bolton Priory' at Pelham Manor Burns Causing Loss of $100,000, Newport Mercury and Weekly News [Newport, RI], Jul. 22, 1932, Vol. CLXXV, No. 7,  p. 1, col. 4 (NOTE:  Paid subscription required to access link).

Wants Tax Value of Building Which Was Damaged by Fire Lowered; Board Can Take No Action Now.

Frederick H. Allen of Bolton Priory, which was partially destroyed last month by fire, has requested a reduction of the village assessment on the Priory building.  The request was made in a letter which was read at the village board meeting in Pelham Manor Monday night.

In making his request for a reduction, Mr. Allen called attention to the fact that builders in charge of the reconstruction of the historic mansion did not beleive the family would be able to take up their residence in the Priory again before Christmas and probably not before Spring.

Village Attorney Edgar C. Beecroft informed the board that at any rate, the building would be assessed on its condition as of November 1 rather than  of any date prior to the fire.  The request was referred to Mr. Beecroft."

Source:  FREDERICK H. ALLEN ASKS REDUCTION IN PRIORY VALUATION -- Wants Tax Value of Building Which Was Damaged by Fire Lowered; Board Can Take No Action Now, The Pelham Sun, Aut. 12, 1932, Vol. 23, No. 26, p. 5, col. 1.  

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I have published to the Historic Pelham Blog numerous postings that deal with the fabulous history of the Bolton Priory and the family who built it. For some examples, see:

Wed., Sep. 24, 2014:  Where Was the Bolton Family Cottage Where Stained Glass Windows Were Created?

Thu., Sep. 04, 2014:  The Closing of the Pelham Priory School for Girls in 1882 and the Departure of Head Mistress Nanette Bolton for Europe.

Fri., Aug. 29, 2014:  Announcement of Two-Day Fair in Pelham in 1842 to Raise Money to Build Christ Church.

Wed., May 14, 2014:  Noted American Novelist Margaret Deland Attended Bolton Priory School in Pelham Manor

Thu., Sep. 03, 2009:  Advertisement for the Pelham Priory School Published in 1881

Thu., Aug. 13, 2009:  History of Bolton Priory Published in 1910.

Tue., Jan. 20, 2009:  An Account of the Rev. J. L. Ver Mehr Regarding His Brief Stint as an Instructor of French and Italian at Pelham Priory in 1843

Fri., Mar. 2, 2007:  A Brief Account by American Author Margaret Deland of Her Education at Pelham Priory in the 19th Century.

Thu., Dec. 14, 2006:  Items from Bolton Priory in the Collections of The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, The New-York Historical Society.

Thu., Nov. 16, 2006:  Robert Bolton, Jr.'s Inscription to His Father Inside Book He Authored That Was Published in 1855.

Fri., Jul. 28, 2006: Image of Bolton Priory in the Town of Pelham Published in an 1859 Treatise on Landscape Gardening.

Wed., Jul. 26, 2006:  A Brief Account of Visits to Bolton Priory in the Early 1880s.

Wed., July 5, 2006: Bricks Laid by Washington Irving and Ivy from Kenilworth Castle at the Bolton Priory in Pelham Manor

Wed., March 15, 2006: A Biography of Cornelius W. Bolton Published in 1899

Wed., March 1, 2006: 1909 Real Estate Advertisement Showing Bolton Priory

Wed., Feb. 22, 2006: Doll Depicting Nanette Bolton in the Collection of The Office of The Historian of The Town of Pelham

Wed., Dec. 7, 2005: The Sale and Subdivision of the Bolton Priory Estate in the 1950s

Tue., Nov. 29, 2005: An Early, Interesting Photograph of Bolton Priory in the Village of Pelham Manor

Wed., Sep. 21, 2005: The Nanette Bolton Memorial Chapel Building at Christ Church in Pelham Manor

Tue., Aug. 23, 2005: Society Scandal: The "Strange" Story of Mrs. Adele Livingston Stevens Who Acquired the Bolton Priory in Pelham Manor

Wed., Jul. 13, 2005: 11 Priory Lane: The Rose Cottage

Fri., Jun. 10, 2005: Pelham's Most Magnificent Wedding Gift: The Bolton Priory

Tue., May 3, 2005: Colonel Frederick Hobbes Allen, An Owner of Bolton Priory in Pelham Manor

Thu., Apr. 7, 2005: Another Volume of William Jay Bolton's Sketches and Ruminations Located?

Mon., Apr. 4, 2005: Art and Poetry of William Jay Bolton of Bolton Priory in Pelham

See also Bell, Blake A., A Brief History of Bolton Priory in Pelham Manor, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No., 16, Apr. 16, 2004, p. 8, col. 2,

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