Mine Host McCann and the Woolworth Clan

Charles E. F. McCann, son of the proprietor of the esteemed refreshment house

Some time back, we recounted here the testimony of Mr. Patrick H. McCann before the Fassett investigating committee in 1890. McCann told how his lease on the Mount St. Vincent Hotel (later renamed McGown’s Pass Tavern) was not being renewed because he had refused to give freebies to Mayor Hugh Grant and Tammany “Boss” Richard Croker.

We felt pity for the unfortunate and ethical Mr. McCann, and wondered what became of him. Library and Google searches only led us to biographies of Mr. Croker, with McCann as a little footnote.

Particularly pitiful was the fact that McCann and Croker were quasi in-laws: they had married the sisters Maria and Elizabeth Frazer, so it looked as though McCann’s proprietorship of the Central Park refreshment house was a bit of family charity on the part of Boss Croker.

Helena Woolworth McCann, portrait c. 1936

Now it turns out that our pity was misplaced. Patrick and Maria had a fine son, Charles E. F. McCann, who carved out a fine career for himself as a lawyer, and an even finer career for himself in society. He married Helena (Lena) Woolworth, eldest daughter of five-and-ten tycoon Franklin W. Woolworth.

In the early 1900s, old Woolworth built the McCanns a fine mansion on East 80th Street, along with two flanking mansions for the other two families of Woolworth descendants, the Huttons and the Donahues.

Thus, “Mine Host McCann” was not only the great-uncle of the Poor Little Rich Girl herself, Barbara Hutton, but the great-uncle of the even more notorious party-boy Jimmy Donahue.

Woolworth mansions, unchanged for a century. The McCann house is in the middle. Photo from New-York Historical Society.

Unlike the Huttons and Donahues, the McCann’s were fairly sedate, noted mostly for their Long Island estate, “Sunken Orchard,” and their daughter Helena’s marriage to the polo-playing Englishman, Winston Guest. The three Woolworth piles on East 80th Street survive to this day.

For the past few years the McCann mansion has been for sale, for the record-setting price of ninety million dollars. Estate agents Brown Harris Stevens advise us that you can also rent the place for a measly $165,000 per month.

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Andrew McGown, 85, killed while crossing the railroad tracks (1870)

Fifteen years after his son Benson was crushed to death while driving an express wagon at Third Avenue and 83rd Street, Andrew McGowan (b. 1785) died while crossing the New Haven Railroad tracks near his house at East 127th Street.

This death notice seems to be the first time that the spelling “McGown’s Pass” appears in print. But that’s nothing next to our Herald hack’s fuzziness about both the location of the Pass (he thinks it is at Third Avenue) and the person for whom it was named (it sounds here as though it was named for Andrew McGown, Sr.). Finally, the obituary writer might have mentioned Major Andrew McGowan’s service in the War of 1812, and told us why the Pass was significant in that regard. This at least would put it all into context, instead of leaving us with a story about a deaf old man past his sell-by date.

From the New York Herald, March 5, 1870:

An Aged Knickerbocker the Victim—Censure of the New Haven Railroad Company

Mr. Andrew McGown was born in this city nearly eighty-five years ago, as were also his father and his grandfather. It was after the elder McGown that “McGown’s Pass,” located in the rocks about 100th Street and Third avenue, and well remembered by the oldest inhabitants, was named. The McGowns were among the first settlers of Manhattan Island, and were well known to the old Knickerbocker families. For some years past Andrew McGown has been quite deaf, and it was with difficulty that he could hear unless addressed in an unusually loud tone of voice. On Tuesday last Mr. McGown attempted to cross Fourth Avenue at 128th street in advance of an approaching train of cars belonging to the New Haven Railroad Company. The engineer, seeing the danger, blew the alarm whistle, which, unfortunately, Mr. McGown did not hear, and in a moment or two afterwards the locomotive struck and threw him aside with great violence. The shock to his nervous system was so severe that death ensued some hours subsequently at the residence of the deceased, 127th street near Fourth avenue. Coroner Keenan gave the matter a thorough investigation, and the evidence of several witnesses being submitted to the jury they returned the following
“That Andrew McGown came to his death by being struck by a locomotive of a New Haven train at the crossing of 128th street and Fourth avenue on Tuesday, march 1, 1870. We exculpate the engineer, but censure the company for the rate of speed at which their trains are usually run and for not placing a flagman at this and other crossings.”

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The Greenhouses and Their Enemies

Central Park Greenhouses near McGowan's Pass, circa 1901

Like most late-19th Century improvements to Central Park, the new greenhouses had their foes. Almost as soon as they were announced, captious critics denounced them and called upon civic-minded burghers to firebomb them; or at least, to plot their destruction.

In the case of the greenhouses, this took a long time. They were finally razed in 1937 and replaced with an open-air “conservatory garden” connected by neither steps nor catwalk to the hill and East Drive up above. By the mid-1930s the spoilsports had also torn down The Central Park Casino (replacing it with a playground no one went to). And of course Mount St. Vincent’s Hotel (aka McGown’s Pass Tavern) was also gone by now. That joyously genteel roadhouse; that fabulously baroque pile of carpenter-gothic nonsense; that steady friend to the horseman, to the Sunday carriage-driver, to the gilded youth racing in their sleighs: the bluenoses and “Reform” goo-goos managed to abolish that lovely creation two decades earlier. Probably the only lasting achievement of “Boy Mayor” John Purroy Mitchel, certainly his most memorable (apart from killing himself during flight training a few months after leaving office).

How could anyone hate a greenhouse? you might well ask. With great vitriol! is the answer, as witnessed by a New York Times editorial from March 1898. Just a few snippets:

The Park and the Greenhouse
The proposal to erect a huge greenhouse near McGown’s Pass Tavern in Central Park is inconsiderate, superfluous, and absurd.*** There is no room anywhere in the Park for a greenhouse 250 feet one way and 270 the other by 50 feet high. *** One of the most offensive and injurious erections now in the Park is the towering Summer hotel which occupies a commanding site in the immediate neighborhood of the proposed greenhouses. A proposal for removing that would be much more to the purpose than a proposition to add to it what, in its place and with its surroundings, would necessarily be another monstrosity.

The editorialist then rants that there is no need for greenhouses in Central Park, as someone is about to build a Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Mr. Calvert Vaux, the writer authoritatively insists, would not have approved.

Move on to October 1899. Again in the Times, a letter-writer, “L.P.,” complains about recent erroneous reports that the greenhouses are complete and awaiting visitors ready to “avail themselves of the privilege of seeing the beautiful tropical plants and trees they may contain.”

Partly deceived and partly curious, I went over there two or three days ago, quite a long distance, on my wheel, as far as the Tavern, and then, near the dilapidated remains of the old greenhouse, I inquired the way of a workman and walked down long, steep paths, until at last the glass vision burst upon my sight…

The ground is all plowed up and wet, the greenhouses far from finished. A pleasant “man with a hose” informs our whimsical correspondent that the greenhouses will not be ready before November. “L.P.” finally makes his or her meandering way to the point of the narrative, which is that the flowers in the Park are being neglected while work continues on the mysterious and unpopular greenhouses.

The Parks Department took note of all this sniffiness about the new greenhouses. In their 1901 report they tell us, defensively, that flowers are better than ever:

There were very beautiful floral displays in the parks during the early part of May and June. A number of narcissuses and daffodils were introduced in the fall of 1900, all of which flowered beautifully, forming one continuous mass of flowers on the east side along the drive from Eight-sixth to One Hundred and Second street, and north of McGowan’s Pass Tavern to the bridge near the Harlem Meer, as well as throughout the Ramble and north of the South Drive near Fifty-ninth street…

McGowan’s Pass Tavern, says the Parks Department. Even they weren’t having any of this “McGown’s” nonsense.

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The Old Post Road; or, Second Avenue at 43rd Street

The Old Post Road, or Second Avenue at 42nd or 43rd Street in 1861, Looking North

The old Post Road of Colonial times traveled up the East Side from the foot of Manhattan before cutting west, entering what is now Central Park at 92nd Street, where it became, more or less, the current route of East Drive and McGowan’s Pass, before heading on up north.

Here we see it in 1861, just north of 42nd Street. By this point the Post Road had long been subsumed into Second Avenue.

This drawing is very funny in itself—the girl with the hoop; the stately family and couples strolling down the moonscape; the big house now “beached” onto a high, rocky island after repeated gradings of the unpaved road. The artist, Napoleon Sarony, was a veteran comic illustrator who would shortly move into photography, in which career he would make many timeless portraits of celebrated persons, such as Oscar Wilde and General Sherman.

The dips in the avenue are still there, though ever-more-flattened, as this accompanying screen-grab from Googlemaps shows. We look almost in vain for some surviving building, and then we see it: this one tenement (red arrow) at the corner of 44th and Second, still fresh and lonely in 1861.

Second Avenue at 44th Street; the surviving tenement from the 1861 picture.

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Steps to the Conservatory Greenhouses

Some time back we came across a trove of 1890s photographs showing the wide wooden steps leading down from Mount St. Vincent’s Hotel (or McGown’s Pass Tavern) to the Conservatory Gardens. We can’t find them anymore, but this 1900 wintertime picture is also useful.

From the 1870s to 1930s there were various greenhouses in the area. The most elaborate ones are these, built in the late 1890s. The Parks Department couldn’t or wouldn’t maintain them, so eventually they came down.

Conservatory Garden Steps, Looking East to the Greenhouse, c. 1900.

They were just off Fifth Avenue. If you were on East Drive in the Park, however, you could descend to them via a nice set of steps from the high mount.

There is nothing like this today. Apart from a steep and uninviting path to the east of McGowan’s Pass, it is very difficult to find your way from East Drive to the flower gardens that now replace the old Conservatory.

Steps to Mount St. Vincent buildings from the greenhouses, 105th St near Fifth Avenue.

POSTSCRIPT: Here is a photo of the steps as they looked in the 1870s. You can see a corner of the original greenhouse, which was decrepit by the time it was replaced by the spiffy buildings of 1899. (This comes from Central Park by Edward J. Levine, one of the better histories of the Park.) The steps date at least from the 1860s, and the catwalk up above appears on maps of the 1870s, where it is a mysterious V-shaped structure.

It is unclear whether these structures were rebuilt in the 1880s (after the old Mount St. Vincent buildings burned down and were replaced by the ornate new roadhouse), or whether new steps were constructed to go along with the new greenhouses.

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Sketch of Proposed Fortifications, 1814

A watercolor from the summer of 1814, right after the British shelled Stonington, Connecticut, and the New Yorkers suddenly realized an invasion might come via Long Island Sound. This rough watercolor drawing shows how fortifications might be set up along the old Post Road.

We are looking north-northeast. On the right is an approximation of what would become Fort Clinton (to the east of present East Drive in Central Park, though really it should be slightly farther to the east and north). Down in the distance we see a preliminary idea of the southernmost fortification at Nutter’s Battery.

McGowan's Pass, looking north, with proposed fortifications, 1814.

This was probably drawn by James Renwick, Sr., father of the architect of the gothic battlements of the Smithsonian Institution as well as Grace Episcopal Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and many other notable public buildings.

Renwick was conceiving it at sunset, no doubt, with a lot of red light, and late-summer shadows pointing away from the west. They should probably be pointing to the two- or three-o’clock, rather than the four-o’clock, position. But this is a plan and an “artist’s conception,” not an observation.

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An Untimely Death from 1855

Coroner GAMBLE yesterday held an inquest on the body of BENSON McGOWAN, aged 22 years, of One Hundred and Twenty-seventh street, near Third-avenue, who came by his death from accidental causes as follows: While deceased, who was express wagon driver, was driving through Eighty-third-street, his horses took fright and ran away at a terrible pace, turning into the Third-avenue. As they turned the corner of Eighty-second street and Third-avenue, McGOWAN let drop the reins, and in endeavoring to regain them he passed from the wagon on to the pole, when the horses ran against a pile of bricks, throwing him between the horses and wagon, where he became entangled in the whiffletrees and was dragged nearly to the corner of Eighty-first-street, where he became disengaged from the wagon. He was then taken up insensible by some citizens and conveyed to the drug store of Dr. SCHERFER, where he died in about half a hour. Verdict, “Accidental death.”
(New York Times, August 6, 1855)

Given his home address on East 127th Street, this unfortunate young man seems to be the son of Andrew McGowan, Jr. (1785-1870); and a younger brother to the future city judge Henry Post McGown. The deceased also had an uncle named S. Benson McGowan (or McGown), an assistant alderman and founder of the Third Avenue Railway (now the M101 bus, more or less); as well as a cousin, S. Benson McGown, Jr., who won an appointment to West Point around this time.

If the news brief treats young Benson’s grotesque death as a joke, it’s because it comes from the NYTimes’s city news page, which in those days was a collection of people-are-funny newsbriefs taken from the police blotter. You can interpret this various ways. It could be that 1850s New York City was a jolly, lighthearted place, where the people laughed at death. Or perhaps—given the enormous influx from Liverpool and Queenstown in recent decades—the journalistic idiom had become heavily larded with a kind of Irish and English gallows humor. Finally, it might just be that black comedy was just the current fad (Exhibit A: Herman Melville).

Anyway, young McGowan’s untimely death was swallowed up among similar snippets:

An Irish laborer, of the age of 18 years, named THOMAS DAVIS, yesterday morning at three o’clock, while drunk, fell over the pier at the foot of Roosevelt-street into the water, whence, after considerable of a ducking, he was rescued by Officer McGuire. In view of the water having mixed with the rum which he had imbibed, he was let off of the charge of drunkenness.

A boy of 14 years of age, named Jeremiah Sanicone, was arrested on suspicion of stealing a gold watch of the value of $60. The boy asserts that he found the watch hanging up in the water-closet of a store in Cortlandt-street, and that he sold it to a Jew. Committed for examination.

A nymph of the pave, named MARY DUGAN, while engaged in the demolition of the window glass at her boarding-house, in Water-street, cut the arm seriously. She was taken to the New-York Hospital, where her wounds were dressed.

We have to imagine that 32-year-old Henry Post McGowan, the future judge, would have been appalled by this frivolous treatment of his brother’s death, and the suggestion that he was no more than a common laborer. Perhaps this is why he and his family soon began to insist on the spelling, “McGown.”

In Trow’s City Directory for 1860, Henry still turns up as “McGowan, Henry P., lawyer,” with office at 80 Nassau Street. He is right above Hugh McGowan, laborer. Move on to the 1865 directory and we find him a couple doors down the street as “Henry P. McGown, lawyer,” now at 76 Nassau. The Directory, alas, now lists him right after Frank McGown, laborer.

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Garbled Junk History, 1907

Farther up, the old Post Road passed Legget’s Black Horse Tavern on its west side, this was the advance post of the British, September 15, 1776, the day before the battle of Harlem. It stood at the seventh milestone (Ninety-sixth Street). Still farther, and slightly to the northwest on the east side of the road, was McGown’s Tavern, built on the height which overlooked the pass to which it gave its name. The Academy of Mount St. Vincent was built around its walls: it was long used as a Central Park restuarant, and was finally burned down.

A fantastical bit of junk history, from an article called The Physical Evolution of New York City, by one John Austin Stevens, published in the American Historical Magazine, 1907 (discovered via Google).

Joseph Jefferson in his smash role as "Rip van Winkle"

The easy use of the name “Legget’s Black Horse Tavern” should put us on guard right away, since it had been mentioned in Edward Hagaman Hall’s McGown’s Pass and its Vicinity just a year or two earlier, when Hall identified Legget’s as the old Black Horse Tavern that the McGowns owned, and which was nearly across the road from their house.

Our scribe claims that the tavern was at the line of 96th St, rather than slightly south of the McGown house, as it clearly appears in the Christopher Colles map of 1789. The author says there was also a “McGown’s Tavern” doing business, less than a half-mile up the road; and this tavern was later taken over by an academy and restaurant, which then burned down.

To clarify: Legget’s public house was at about the line of of 102nd Street, not 96th. This property was owned by the McGown or McGowan family; and there is no record of them maintaining a rival “McGown’s Tavern” in their farmhouse across the road!

Somehow it seems astonishing than anyone who lived so much closer to this history would get it all wrong. But of course that’s the way of it; look at the rubbish written about World War Two. This is the sort of inaccurate pop-history-by-the-yard that was common in early 20th century writings of Central Park, and regurgitated a century later on such sites as the Central Park Conservancy’s.

As a general rule, anything that refers to the Pass or the property as “McGown’s” may be regarded automatically as suspect; inasmuch as court cases, maps, newspapers and Trow’s City Directory almost invariably use the “McGowan” spelling throughout the 19th Century; and the British and American maps of the 1700s always said McGowan’s, M’Gowan’s, or McGowen’s. Hall and others said “McGown” merely out of courtesy to members of the Judge Henry P. McGown family, who preferred that spelling.

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The Museum and Restaurant in 1869, from Harlem Meer

Sculpture Museum and Stetson's Mount St. Vincent's Hotel, late 1860s, seen from the north.

From Clarence Cook’s Description of the Central Park, a limited-edition book published in 1869. Engraving by the painter Albert Fitch Bellows. A very rare depiction of the region soon after the Meer was built.

“…the visitor observes with pleasure that this building which, not a great while ago, was a forlorn barracks, has been made by the hand of care and taste to assume a very agreeable appearance, a truly domestic air, to which its irregular shape and rambling rooms are found quite conducive.”

1875 map detail, showing the remnant of the old Post road poking out of the "Harlem Lake."

The front of the “museum” (the former Mount St. Vincent’s chapel) faces directly toward Fifth Avenue, so we must be looking down from a spot near Fifth Avenue, just below 110th Street.

It looks as though the museum is festooned with opening-day pennants, but that’s just the line of the roof with some finials poking up from the far side.

Go back just a few years, to the pre-Meer days in this nice colored litho. Here we are looking south from Sixth Avenue and 110th. This would be between 1863 and 1865 when the buildings on the hill were still that “forlorn barracks” (i.e., Civil War hospital and soldiers home).

The line of 1814 earthworks from Nutter’s Battery over to Fort Clinton is very distinct. The north-south road in the middle, running past the fortifications, is approximately the old Post Road (Kingsbridge Road). This roadway has been widened and graded for Central Park, but it won’t last long because it’s about to be dug up for the west end of the Meer!

Just to the left of the little tree in the center of the picture we see the remains of the old barrier gate (McGowan’s Pass gatehouse) from 1814.

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“I don’t think the British are EVER coming!”

View from Fort Fish at McGowan’s Pass looking towards Haerlem, as artist J. J. Holland inscribes it. You can see Nutter’s Battery in the distance on the left and Fort Clinton on the right, as well as about a dozen toy soldiers in blue tailcoats and shakos. Only thing really missing here is, well, the Pass itself.

This must be about September 1814. Another image lifted from the New-York Historical Society, which labels this a depiction of “McGown’s Pass,” the artist’s own title notwithstanding.

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