Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Worst Trade Ever: Selling a NYC Mansion for a Pearl Necklace, 1917

From Daytonian in Manhattan:

The House that a Necklace Bought -- The Morton Plant Mansion
At the turn of the last century Fifth Avenue in midtown was known as "Millionaires' Row."  Block after block of mansions, each attempting to outdo the other, lined the avenue from the 30s north to Cornelius Vanderbilt's mansion at 57th Street.  In 1902 William K. Vanderbilt offered the corner lot at 52nd Street and 5th Avenue for sale.  Morton F. Plant, the son of railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant, purchased the land, agreeing to Vanderbilt's stipulation that it could not be used for commercial purposes for 25 years.

Plant commissioned English-born architect Robert W. Gibson to design his residence.  Construction would take three years to complete but the results would be dazzling.  Gibson produced a marble and granite Italian Renaissance mansion; one of the most tasteful and elegant on the avenue.
With its entrance on 52nd Street, Plant's house turned its shoulder to the many Vanderbilt family houses that clustered around it.  Over the doorway a magnificent balcony projected under a classic pediment.  An ambitious stone balastrade surmounted the cornice, under which a richly ornate frieze was pierced by four-paned windows.  The Plants established themselves as major players in the Fifth Avenue neighborhood.

In the meantime, things were changing downtown.  Mrs. Caroline Astor's celebrated brownstone at 5th Avenue and 34th Street had been replaced in 1893 by the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.  By the time Morton and Nellie Plant moved into their new home, wealthy residents of the Murray Hill area in the 30s were already beginning to flee northward.

Morton was a yachtsman and owner of baseball teams in his spare time.  He and his wife hosted elegant dinner parties and social events in their mansion until 1913.  On August 8 of that year Nellie Plant, Morton's wife of 26 years, died.  Shortly thereafter the 61 year old Plant met the 31 year old Mae Caldwell Manwaring -- wife of Selden B. Manwaring.

In May of 1914, not ten months after the death of his wife, Plant announced his engagement to Mae who had obtained a divorce the previous month.  One month after the announcement the couple was married at Plant's immense Groton, Connecticut mansion.  Mae was, reportedly, pleased with her wedding gift of $8 million.

By 1917, with the country in the grips of World War I, Morton and Mae (she preferred to be called Maisie) became concerned about the stores and hotels that were creeping closer and closer to their neighborhood.  Despite the restrictions in his contract with Vanderbilt, Plant began building a French Renaissance palace at 5th Avenue and 86th Street, designed by Guy Lowell. 

In the meantime Maisie Plant was window shopping.  At Cartier's she fell in love with a double-stranded Oriental pearl necklace with a $1 million price tag (equal to about $16 million today).

Before the advent of cultured pearls, flawless pearls were more valuable than diamonds and in Edwardian New York a woman's social status was often measured by the length of her pearl ropes.  Plant called on Cartier and, in agreement with Vanderbilt, sold his Italian palazzo to Cartier for $100 and the necklace....MORE
Hat Tip to and headline stolen from Two Nerdy History Girls

As best as I can figure that property would go for at least $50 million.
The New York Times threw some doubt on the story back in 2001:
...The ''string of pearls'' story is now a favorite anecdote for a long-lost chapter in Fifth Avenue history, even though there is something a little off about it. Plant leased the house to Cartier in 1916, a year before the supposed trade; and he bought a house site on 86th and Fifth a year before that....