Peter Goelet Mansion, Broadway and 19th Street, 1870s

The extraordinary spectacle of a cow, storks, guinea-pigs, and other animals, feeding quietly in the busiest and most bustling part of Broadway, was one that attracted every stranger’s curiosity, and during the fine days in Summer it was no uncommon thing to see a considerable crowd gathered in front of the house gazing through the iron railing at the unwonted sight within.” — The New York Times, November 22, 1879

This is a tale about the last of the great millionaires of Old New York, a man who not only outlived William B. Astor, A.T. Stuart, and Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, but who was once the wealthiest bachelor in New York State. It’s a true story about a man with the most expensive pasture in the world and the last cow to ever graze on Broadway.

When he died in November 1879, the New York press called Peter Goelet an eccentric millionaire and a miser who hoarded his fortune and substituted his farm animals and birds for a wife and children. But to his family and neighbors, he was Uncle Peter, a kind old man who milked his cow, collected eggs from his hens, mended his own clothes, tinkered in his basement metal shop, and refused to give up the simple farming life as the city built up all around him.

The Goelet Dynasty

Our story begins around 1676, when Francois Goelette, a Huguenot refugee, arrived in New Amsterdam with his 10-year-old son, Jacobus. Shortly after their arrival, Francois was reportedly lost at sea while returning to Holland. Jacobus was raised by Frederick Philipse, the Lord of Philipse Manor (today’s Westchester County), but retained the anglicized surname. Jacobus Goelet’s grandson Peter, one of 13 siblings, was born in 1727.

Pearl Street, 1600s New York

In the 1600s, Pearl Street was the shoreline of the east side of the island. With a boom in maritime trade, the city began a process of landfill to extend the island into the East River. By 1730, the eastern edge of Lower Manhattan reached Water Street; by 1780 it extended to Front Street. South Street was the last extension in 1800. NYPL Digital Collection

Peter Goelet was an ironmonger who used his profits from the Revolutionary War to buy real estate in Manhattan. As did the Astors, the Rhinelanders, and the Lorillards, Peter obtained much of his holdings through water grants (land under shallow water), which he purchased from corrupt city administrators.

Peter also ran a successful hardware business with Peter T. Curtenius in a little wooden building under the sign of the Golden Key at 48 Hanover Square. After their partnership dissolved, Peter moved his operations to his large residence at 113-115 Pearl Street, where he sold hardware, brushes, musical instruments, and cutlery.

On April 27, 1755, Peter married Elizabeth Ratsey, the daughter of another prominent New York merchant. Their son Peter P. (Peter #2) followed in his father’s footsteps as a merchant, selling fancy hats and bonnets at his shop at 63 Water Street.

In 1799, Peter #2 married Almy Buchanan, the daughter of Thomas Buchanan, a wealthy Scotch farmer who cultivated turnips, corn, and potatoes on 13 acres of land surrounding 45th Street and Third Avenue in what was then Manhattan’s northern wilderness. It was from this property that the Goelet family obtained much of its wealth.

Peter and Almy Goulet’s son Peter (Peter #3) arrived in January 1800.

The Tiebout Farm and Mansion

Before I tell you about Peter and his golden Jersey cow, I need to mention Cornelius Tiebout, a Dutch farmer and merchant who owned about 33 acres of land just south of the Gramercy Farm.

Laborers excavate Union Square south of 18th Street in 1832

Although Cornelius Tiebout Williams tried to prevent the opening of new streets through his property, the city seized a portion of his land in 1832 for a new public square called Union Place where Fourth Avenue met Broadway. This illustration depicts laborers excavating land just south of 18th Street (Broadway is on the right and Fourth Avenue is on the left). The Goulet mansion was located just one block north of this site.

When Cornelius Tiebout died in 1785, this property passed to his widow, Mary Magdalene Tiebout. Mary got busy right away and married Edward Williams that same year. Their son, Cornelius Tiebout Williams, eventually inherited the property.

Cornelius Tiebout and Peter Stuyvesant Farms, New York, 1830

Cornelius Tiebout’s estate, Roxborough, was bounded by the Bloomingdale Road (Broadway) and the Bowery Lane to the west, 20th Street, Third Avenue, and 14th Street (shown in dark green on this 1831 map). He purchased the land on September 20, 1748, for 250 pounds and built a farmhouse on the property near today’s 18th Street and Park Avenue.

In 1830, Cornelius Williams built a large, four-story Greek Revival mansion with a carriage house and stables on the northwest tip of his property, about three blocks north of Union Place (today’s Union Square). When he died five years later, all his heirs drew lots out of a hat. A daughter, Mrs. Julia C. Miner, drew the 96 x 168 foot lot with the mansion on 19th and Broadway. Peter Goelet paid $22,500 for the property on January 1, 1844.

The Goulet Mansion

The home at #890 Broadway was considered extremely elegant in its day. It had a peak copper roof – which Peter replaced with a flat roof — cast iron balconies along the parlor-floor windows, and a large glass-enclosed conservatory that extended into the back gardens.

Peter Goelet mansion, Broadway and 19th Street

The brick and brownstone Greek Revival mansion featured a glass-enclosed conservatory that extended into the back gardens. In cold-weather months, the conservatory housed Peter’s fine collection of peacocks, pheasants and guinea hens.

The mansion was surrounded by a grassy yard and gardens, which were under the care of Thomas Crimmins, Peter’s gardener. Peter filled the yards with exotic birds from around the world — Pheasants from India, storks from Egypt, birds of paradise, cranes, and other brilliantly plumed fowl with clipped wings would feed from his hand as New Yorkers and tourists alike gazed in astonishment through the iron fence. (It was a standing joke to tell passengers on the stages that the yard was an annex to the Central Park menagerie.) In winter, the cow and the birds would take shelter in the stone Gothic Revival carriage house.

One New Yorker who loved to watch Peter’s exotic birds was Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who lived with his family one block over at 28 East 20th Street. From their third-floor back porch, where Theodore and his siblings played, Theodore could look down over the private garden and watch Peter feed his birds and milk his cow.

1891 New York Map Goelet residence

This 1891 map shows the old Goelet mansion in an island surrounded by the large buildings of dry goods merchants.

In 1849, Peter’s sister Hannah Green Gerry lost her husband, Naval officer Theodore Russell Gerry. She and her twelve-year-old son, Elbridge, and her nine-year old daughter, Almy, moved from their home at 48 Broadway into the old house at 890 Broadway with their bachelor brother and uncle. Rural life went on as normal, save for during the Draft Riots of 1863, when Eldbridge reportedly ordered the family’s coachmen to pull all the feathers from the peacocks so as not to attract attention.

In the years that followed, particularly after the Civil War, many of the city’s dry goods and specialty merchants relocated to northern Broadway in the area of Union Square. They occupied brand-new buildings that were five and six stories tall with elaborately detailed facades, grand entrances, and large show windows to capture shoppers’ attention. Still, Peter continued to demonstrate that rural living was possible within a busy metropolis. (Some say he kept the cow and the birds in defiance to the encroachment of uptown improvements.)

890 Broadway, Goelet Mansion

The Goelet mansion at 890 Broadway was constructed of brick and brownstone. Along with the Henry Parish mansion at 17th Street and the Anson Phelps mansion at 15th Street, stood out among the row houses that were constructed on Broadway in the 1840s.

The End of an Era

“[The] once fanciful windows [of the carriage house] are shattered, its ornamented timbers are rotting and crumbling away, and the door on Nineteenth street has not swung on its hinges for a half dozen years or more.” –The Lewiston Daily Sun.

Peter Goelet died in his home on November 21, 1879. Although many of the peacocks and other birds had long disappeared, the cow and the remaining birds were allowed to live out their lives in the yard (the cow was last seen around 1886). Peter also stipulated in his will that the house should not be destroyed for as long as Hannah Gerry lived. The family did not pressure Hannah to leave and she remained on with her two servants.

29 East 19th Street

This 19th-century photo of 29 East 19th Street shows an empty lot to the left where the Goelet mansion once stood. Today this building is home to Manhattan Center for Kitchen and Bath. NYPL digital collection

Hannah passed away at the age of 89 on September 13, 1895. Her daughter, Almy Gallatin, now the wife of Frederick T. Gallatin, inherited the property. By that time, the stone carriage house had fallen into ruin, the iron fence was rusty and all the gates were held fast by rusted padlocks. The window panes in the stable where Peter once kept his horses were broken and the grass where cows and chickens once grazed was gone.

In April 1897, the Goelet mansion was demolished. A year later, in June 1898, plans were filed by Mrs. Gallatin for an eight-story brick structure on the site at 892 Broadway and 27 East 19th Street. The building’s earliest tenants included Mc Gibbon & Company, Linens and Upholstery, on the first two floors; and dealers in millinery goods, lace curtains, oriental rugs, and a corsets on the upper floors. Since 1986 it has been home to the Lawrence A. Wien Center for Dance and Theater.

890-892 Broadway

Today, 890-892 Broadway is home to the Lawrence A. Wien Center for Dance and Theater and a Loews movie theater. Photo, Peggy Gavan

  1. CITYFOCUS says:

    Wonderful post! Thank you for your efforts 🙂 Stevan

  2. […] 1879: The Last Cow to Graze on Broadway North of Union Square […]

  3. Margaret says:

    Loved this. Thank you.