Manhattan History – Goelet-Rhinelander-Schermer-Horn-Bixby

Values present in the golden earth of Manhattan have been created by masses, not by individuals; by time and pressure rather than intelligent action of the human will. Sometimes the rise has been slow, like the gradual lifting of the earth’s floor; at other times it has been almost volcanic in its swift intensity. But through the whole long process the individuals and families profiting most by increasing land values have been lucky beneficiaries of growth rather than its compelling agents. This goes even for John Jacob Astor, the ablest and most picturesque of all the beneficiaries. New York City would be about as it is if he had never left Baden. The great city dwarfs all its citizens.

With this understanding some accounts of the larger fortunes based on Manhattan real estate fall into place in the pattern of history. Although they were founded no doubt on thrift and acumen, although other and less virtuous factors entered into some of them, they are demonstrably the fruits of what the historians loosely call American institutions. They exist in their present size because they have been protected directly by the courts and the police and indirectly by the press and public opinion. Given a good start in a fortunate purchase, about all that one of these fortunate families had to do was to live within its income and provide itself with heirs. Not too many heirs of course, for too much dividing would weaken the estate.

Take the Goelets for example. Peter Goelet was an importer of hardware and cutlery with a shop in Hanover Square. He profited at his trade during the Revolution and later became interested in local shipping, with a wharf and yard on Exchange Slip for the accommodation of market boats. In 1796, when the Council considered filling in the slip, Goelet objected on the ground of his fixed investment and be-cause he had leased certain holdings there to owners of market boats dependent for their livelihood on this trade and location. Thirteen years later the wharfage rights were surrendered and the slip was filled in, to the landlord’s considerable benefit.

This shrewd merchant died worth $400,000, part of his estate being a farm north of present Fourteenth Street, with frontage on Bloomingdale Road, present Broadway. His sons followed his habit of buying ahead of the crowd, becoming early purchasers of up-town lots. The most important purchase was of eighty lots in various cross streets above Forty-second Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. These cost about $600 a lot, or $48,000 in all. In 1911 Myers estimated their value at $15,000,000. The ironmonger’s farm had become the center of the city with the opening of Fifth Avenue and the movement of the better class re-tail trade northward along that channel. For years the heavy rentals from these properties received almost miserly care from a bachelor descendant, who left his two nephews in such excellent position that they were worth about $80,000,000 each when they died about the turn of the last century, not all of it in land. Ten years later the combined fortunes of the four heirs of Ogden and Robert Goelet were rated at $200,000,000.

A daughter of Ogden Goelet married the Duke of Roxburghe. From ironmonger to duke in five generations! The golden earth of Manhattan has sprouted many a coronet. As the curate said at his lord’s table, “Blessed be rent.”

The Rhinelanders, with $100,000,000 or so, descend from William and Frederick Rhinelander, who kept a bakery shop on William Street before the Revolution. By the time of the Revolution they had a sugar factory, and sugar is always one of the chief beneficiaries of war. Prospering, the Rhinelanders went into the shipping and commission business.

Up and coming men, these Rhinelanders. They took a ninety-nine year lease from Trinity, and later bought the fee of what is now choice business property. But in spite of all this the Rhinelanders would not be nearly as rich as they are, except for a fortune from the Rutgers family through marriage. Mrs. William Rhinelander descended from Anthony Rutgers, who obtained a seventy-acre grant on Fresh Water Pond and kept hold of it. The Rutgers lands, in all branches of the family, were a very considerable feature of the map of New York City at the time the plan of 1807 was formulated, for they started buying outlying lands before the Revolution and kept at it rather conservatively. Indeed, if all the Rutgers lands had been held they would approach the Astor lands in value today. When William Rhinelander died in 1907 his estate totaled $50,000,000.

Another important holding of a family of Dutch stock is that of the Schermerhorns, descended from one Peter Schermerhorn, who is described as a shipchandler when he first attracted attention at the time of the Revolution. His son, Peter, became active in real estate, and at his death in 1852 left, among other properties, a large tract which he had bought about. forty years before and leased out along the lines popularized by his contemporary, John Jacob Astor. This tract extended from Sixty-fourth to Seventy-fifth Street between Third Avenue and the East River. Peter was one of three brothers, each of whom was rated at $500,000 in 1845. But the Schermerhorns have not an unbroken record for solvency. One of them died recently flat broke, although his will, made in happier times, devised $100,000,000.

A large landed estate of later origin, whose growth has been entirely in a single century is that of the Bixbys. In the 1830’s John M. Bixby was a young lawyer without briefs or capital. For two hundred dollars, for which he signed a note, he bought a Murray Hill farm running from Fifth to Sixth Avenue between Thirty-ninth and Fortieth streets, with adjacent tracts. Interviewed some thirty-five years later, he said:

It looked as if I should starve at the law. . . . I took his advice [the seller’s] and gave him my note for $200 for the farm. I felt very nervous about giving my note for such a large amount and once offered to sell the farm back to him for the note. But after two or three renewals of the note New York had grown so fast northward that I was able to sell a small portion for more than enough to pay the note and interest and taxes. The rest of the farm was then free and clear, and if I had kept it all I should now be worth about $7,000,000. As it is I have sold parcels of it that have brought me more than $1,500,000 in cash and I value what I have left at two to three times as much, all made out of nothing by giving a note for $200 almost against my will and when I was practically not worth a dollar.

Mr. Bixby gave this modest but illuminating interview about 1867-68, when the larger gains of his property were still in the future. He died in 1876, but his family continued to hold the property for many years. The value of the land he bought for $200 must be close to $15,000,000 today. Considering all the circumstances of his purchase and early possession, John M. Bixby can be considered the luckiest beneficiary of the social and economic forces which have made Manhattan one of the world’s great trading centers.