Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Last of the Washington Square Millionaires


Sleighing in New York by Thomas Benecke, 1855
(Print Collection, New York Public Library; bequest of Amos F. Eno)

In 1915 when Amos F. Eno died, he was recalled as an eighteenth-century millionaire philanthropist struggling to hold onto the vestiges of the antebellum city in which he came of age. 

The Great War had begun one year earlier and suffragists regularly picketed the White House.  As a creature of the past, Eno didn’t like it.  He was so out of date that it was hard to imagine that once upon a time the old man’s name perched on the tip of everyone’s tongue.  

A “peculiar expression of static citizenry,” as the New York Times described him, he objected to progress and advancement.  What a perverse outlook in light of the fact that he and his father, Amos R. Eno, contributed mightily to the modernization of Manhattan.

The Enos were real estate developers who owned property all over town, including large swaths of what would become the Flatiron and Financial Districts. They constructed dozens of houses, hotels, and apartment buildings that altered the streetscape of the city. 

Born in 1834, Amos F. Eno joined New York’s Seventh Infantry Regiment as a private in 1862.  He returned from the war a colonel, moved in with his father, and resumed his bachelor’s existence.  The two men inhabited an early nineteenth-century brownstone mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street. 

Amos F. Eno and his father lived in this brownstone mansion
at 32 Fifth Avenue, designed by Detlef Lienau in 1834.*

Amos F. liked to walk around Washington Square, three blocks south of his home, where he met vagrants and bestowed upon them money, food, and clothing. His philosophy was to give charity only when not asked.

At the other side of the economic spectrum, his neighbors included the so-called Washington Square millionaires – men like Robert de Forest, a descendant of French Huguenots, esteemed legal counsel to railroads and utilities, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Amos F. Eno (1834-1915)

As society moved uptown to ever more expansive and ornate mansions, the denizens of Washington Square stayed put, as if trapped in a painting by John Singer Sargent.  Inevitably, they would have to head north to restaurants, libraries, and clubs. 

When he died at the age of 81, Amos F. left much of his vast fortune to Columbia University and the General Society for Mechanics and Tradesmen.**  New York University, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor also received bequests.  Evidently none of these institutions had ever tapped on his shoulder and asked for money. 

Members of the Eno family angrily contested the will.  Their lawyers argued that Amos F. loathed Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler and never would have left the school well over $10 million. Furthermore, suspicious circumstances surrounded the drafting of the most recent will.  Nonetheless, a panel of judges ruled against the family in 1922.  Fortunately, everyone survived even though they had portrayed themselves as destitute.

New York Supreme Court
In the Matter of Amos F. Eno 

A rather private man, Amos F. would have abhorred the detailed descriptions of his comings and goings that appeared in the court transcripts – 156 pages of friends’, family’s, and servants’ candid testimony about his bad temper, bad leg, and bad manners.  Miss Polly Morgan recounted her week-long visit to his home in 1914.

She drove downtown with him one day when he remained at his office an hour and a half. He spoke to her about his business. He told her that he wished he had no business to do; that he would like to simplify his affairs; that the men in his office were good for nothing . . .

Miss Morgan testified that with respect to dropping his food, and with respect to the condition of his clothing, Mr. Eno “did not look as elegant as he had in previous years.”

Miss Morgan undertook to joke with Mr. Eno. She asked him about his friends, the Democrats, and said “How is your Mr. Bryan getting on, Uncle Mo? And how do you like him?” He said, “Bryan is no good. He is the leader of the suffragettes.”

Amos F. may have been a mean old man, but at least he claimed one great passion.  That was his collection of early American prints, many exceedingly rare and valuable.  To the New York Public Library he left 192 framed and 138 unframed images – a major gift.  Some speculated that the prints had appreciated at a greater rate than his real estate holdings. 

The prints resonated deep inside of Amos F.  He liked the way that they evoked landscapes and streetscapes long passed into history.  They took him back to a place of memory and happiness. 

“He was very much an old New Yorker,” an admirer said.

New York from Brooklyn Heights by A. W. Graham, 1834
(Print Collection, New York Public Library; bequest of Amos F. Eno)



*Courtesy of daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com 
**The size of Eno’s fortune has been estimated between $10 million and $30 million.


Left-click on images to enlarge them.

1 comment:

  1. It's extraordinary that this man is so obscure. I had never heard of him, and I worked at Columbia!
    I love the "frozen in a John Singer Sargent" notion. My second favorite painter (after James Tissot.)

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