666 Park Avenue or 871 Fifth Avenue?

871 Fifth Avenue
The infamous “871 Fifth Avenue” home just after Whitney’s renovation.

ABC’s supernatural series “666 Park Avenue” revolved around a posh apartment complex owned and ruled by a devil of a man. This is not the first posh location to be suspected of infernal influence. In the 1900s, one of the most “cursed” New York City mansions was located at #871 Fifth Avenue. Unlike the series, there was no evil mastermind behind the events. What resided at this address was believed to be inhuman and insatiable, and no owner was safe.

 

History

Despite the home’s fame, its origins remain suspicious. Various accounts provide conflicting stories on what happened and who owned it.

The original house was much smaller in comparison to the fine mansion that would eventually exist. The first account states it was built by Howard G. Seward. Unfortunately, a falling timber killed a workman while they worked on the home’s foundation. This was early in what would be a problematic construction.

The worker’s wife was believed to be part gypsy, or part Sicilian, but she proclaimed Seward would never live there because it was a house of sorrow. Her words were prophetic. Seward hanged himself from one of the home’s rafters six months later. The house sat empty for months, while neighbors discussed the strange goings-on. Already, there was talk of strange lights and sounds in the empty place.

The second account states the building was made by sugar magnate Robert L. Stuart, who died shortly after it was constructed. Stuart suffered septicemia for 3 weeks before he succumbed to the affliction. It should be mentioned that his residence, as listed in his obituary, was give as #154 Fifth Avenue. It was not #871. It remains unknown if this was simply an old address system, or if this version of the story is untrue.

Regardless of who the originator was, the house then went from the late owner’s widow to the Barber family.

 

The Barber Legacy

Mr. Amzi Barber was a wealthy asphalt magnate in the city. He fell in love with the original house’s location, but wanted far more for his family. He had an ostentatious mansion built atop it. His career skyrocketed until they moved into the home. Suddenly, Barbar became entangled in scandal after scandal. He lost much of his wealth due to charges of corruption and dishonesty. One woman sued him on mysterious grounds that were never fully established to the press. It became too much for Mr. Barber. He became an alcoholic and fled the city. The family relinquished ownership of the home, but it didn’t save them from hardship.

The dubious luck just moved to another family member. His only son, L. D. Langdon Barber died abruptly within a few years.  Three years later, Barber himself would also die. His son’s widow then threw herself out of the window of their mansion in Washington, DC. Three weeks later, Mrs. Barber suddenly died on a train in 1912. It seemed to be the end of a dark and troublesome history for a family of New Englanders. After the Barber family owned the mansion, it was next purchased by William C. Whitney.

 

The William C. Whitney House

Whitney served as the Secretary of the Navy under President Cleveland. His first wife died years earlier and Whitney had emerged from grief to find love again. He spent a whopping $6 million remodeling the house for his fiancée, the widow Mrs. Randolph. The home was to be a wedding gift to her.

What a home he made. The house was featured in many architecture and interior decoration catalogs and magazines. The esteemed construction had very little in the way of modern furnishings. Perhaps it was the perfect storm of dubious antiquities, a hall of items with their own bad memories, which created the ill luck. Stanford White, a star architect in the city, was credited with working miracles in the home.

The chimneypieces were taken from several Old Italian palaces. The rarest and most expensive paintings were purchased in Europe and hung in the house. Just one of the silver hanging lamps was an Italian piece from the Fifteenth Century. The panels of the ballroom were taken from the chateau of Phoebus d’Albert, of Bordeaux, France. There were Chinese carpets, bronze fireplace fixtures, and countless other rich furnishings.

He brought his friends in to view the completed house before they were married. His bride-to-be was spending time at Biltmore while he made the final preparations. They went riding the morning after their marriage, but there are two differing accounts of what happened.

The first states her horse became suddenly spooked and threw her. She broke her neck in the fall. Whitney was able to care for her for a few months, but death was inevitable. The second version stated she tried to ride under a bridge that was too low. She hit her skull against it and died later on.

He couldn’t bare the home after her death. He sealed the house and abandoned it. After he mourned his loss for some time, he brought his stepdaughter, Adelaide Randolph, to the house of sorrow. He lavished such love and attention on his stepchildren that his own children grew bitter and resentful.

His daughter went so far as to marry to get away from him. She fell in love with Almeric Paget, a young Englishman. Whitney didn’t want her to marry him, but he soon developed a horrible affliction of the stomach. No one was certain what caused it, or what the ailment was. Some doctors said he’d suffered a burst appendix, while others claimed it was an abdominal infection called peritonitis. There were some people who even suspected poisoning or murder. Whatever the cause, he died in 1904.

 

James Henry Smith

The mansion then went to a family friend named James Henry Smith, known as “Silent Smith” to friends. He had just married Mrs. Rhinelander Stewart, and they went to Japan on their honeymoon. Smith died while on his honeymoon.

 

White’s Death

Stanford White was a brilliant architect for the rich and famous in New York, just a couple of his high-end clients were Astors and Vanderbilts. He was the one to manage and oversee the renovations at Whitney’s house. He’d managed to find all the European pieces from old palaces for the home. Unfortunately, the man credited with “making a home a palace,” seemed to be afflicted by the house’s malign influence.

His death was not at the hand of robbers or simple murders. White was murdered by millionaire Harry Thaw in 1906. Thaw believed White was having an affair with his wife.

 

The End is the Beginning

The home seemed doomed, but it came back into possession by Harry Payne Whitney. The eldest son of W. C. Whitney married Gertrude Vanderbilt in 1896. The couple’s occupation of the home actually seemed to end the misfortune that had plagued the building and all other occupants.

The William C. Whitney home was razed in the 1940s. Its priceless antiquities stripped, its gilded halls torn down, and today few recall the grandeur, or the curse, that once lived at 871 Fifth Avenue.

 

 

 

 

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