Manhattan History – Those Weird Wendels

OF all the families floated to affluence by rising waves of Manhattan real estate values, the Wendels were the quietest and queerest. They lived simply on the most expensive residential site in New York City, drew less fun from their fortune than a bricklayer gets out of his weekly wage, and ended by committing family suicide by apparently common consent, with the result that the bulk of their stubbornly amassed wealth goes by will to institutions in which none of the Wendels took a burning interest while alive.

Tongues wagged over these incredible Wendels for seventy-five years before the death of the last survivor. Since the fall of that pathetic leaf of the Wen-del family tree—Miss Ella in 1931—the curiosity of the public has been fed by tid-bits peppered in court proceedings brought by imposters and blood relations to the fifth degree of consanguinity. An attempt has been made to establish the old house at Thirty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue as a house of horror, with a shocking family skeleton hidden away in a closet—nothing less than an illegitimate child of incestuous origin. These revelations have made no impression on any court; the leading claimant, who said he was a son of John G. Wendel, is behind bars, but the gossip goes on. It is safe to say anything about the Wendels now, since all are dead and their champions concern themselves only with the protection of Wendel property. That is one of the penalties of race suicide.

John Gottlieb Wendel, the villain in the piece as far as it has a villain, said about 1900 that his ancestors had been poor tenants in New York two hundred years before, which was by way of contrast with the family wealth at the turn of the century, when it was estimated at $50,000,000. The family seems to have had no antiquarian or genealogical interest in itself, so the period is merely John G.’s guess. They were of German origin and Protestant leanings, so it is probable that the first Wendel reached New York about 1710 in the Palatine migration. In 1801, John G. Wendel, 1st, was a prominent furrier with real estate leanings. He and John Jacob Astor married sisters; and it was the family tradition that Wendel led Astor into real estate rather than the reverse. Unlike Astor, however, the first rich Wendel never became a public figure. Neither did his son, John D., or his grandson John G., 2nd, although the latter attracted notice by his very efforts to avoid it.

The Wendels, for well over a hundred years, grew richer and richer by following four cardinal rules of real estate procedure. These were: never to mortgage; never to sell; never to repair; and never to forget that Broadway (the crest of Broadway prices, that is) moved uptown at rate of ten blocks in ten years. Their rules for daily living were also simple: cleave to the old ways: never splurge; dodge unnecessary responsibility, but when you made a bargain stick to it. The Wendels were a family in the grasp of negatives, and so they perished.

When a family’s income rises far more swiftly than its expenditures do, it always has money to invest. When John D. Wendel died in 1859, he left $3,000,000 to his six daughters and one son, John G. Wendel, 2nd, who was the undisputed master of the house. A domestic tyrant, John G. neither married nor permitted his sisters to marry. One of them, Rebecca, did break away to become Mrs. Swope. The others were given few opportunities to meet eligible men. Two of the sisters rebelled sufficiently to rouse the tyrant and were promptly suppressed: Augusta was declared incompetent; Georgiana, put away in a sanitarium. Four outlived the tyrant, who died in 1914. Thereafter the process of accumulation went on without change under Mrs. Wendel-Swope’s direction until her death in 1930. Then remained only Miss Ella Virginia von Echtzel Wendel, to linger another year and go her way, a gentle old maid who can hardly be said to have lived at all.

Certainly Miss Ella never lived in the bustling American fashion. She was born in the old house on Fifth Avenue which remained without substantial change in furniture or design from its construction in 1854 to the day of her death in 1931. Bathrooms were added, but these were the only concessions to modernity. The house was lighted by gas; there was no electricity and no telephone; John G. objected to telephones just as he did to marriage. The Wendels owned neither automobiles nor yachts; when the sisters took the air, which was seldom, they did so in a carriage more than a hundred years old. They summered quietly at Irvington.

The domestic tyrant, John G., was not quite a business tyrant. Of course he was “set in his way” as the saying goes, but he never gouged an honest tenant and, in a quiet way, was a pioneer philanthropist. In the rear of one of his East side properties, he established the first playground in that area. On Long Island he set up an omnibus system for taking poor children to school. Evidently he was a man of some originality, for all that he prided himself on being old-fashioned, walked between his home and office, and liked to tuck his trousers into cowhide boots. He admired all the old and simple virtues except those connected with marriage and procreation; whenever he suffered a set-back or was affronted with anything new, he reacted by declaiming that a revolution was imminent.

Within his rules, Mr. Wendel was a whimsical man. His whimsies would have ruined anyone operating on a shoestring; but the family fortune was so well buttressed by reserves that he could afford to stick to his quaint decisions. His whims always seemed to be based upon principle; their oddity became apparent merely because the principles had not changed while the times had. For instance, he made it possible, by raising his rent only twice in some fifty years, for the Wright lumber yard to maintain itself on Thirty-ninth Street, close to Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera House, down to 1914. On the northwest corner of Broadway and Fiftieth Street he built a three-story garage worth $550,000 and kept it empty for years, refusing to lease for another purpose, simply because he intended it to be a garage. He would let a store lie vacant for years rather than take a lesser rental than the one he had fixed in his mind. Rather than repair a building he would allow it go to rack and ruin; realtors hated him for two reasons—he would never pay a commission above $100, no matter how large the deal, and his unwillingness to sell, build, repair, or to give long leases, held back the development of whole neighborhoods.

Toward tenants who paid their rent “on the nail,” never mentioned repairs, and were content to lease three years at a time, this odd landlord would be benevolent. He refused to rent to competitors of old tenants. On occasion, when offered a higher price on an expiring lease, he would renew the lease with the old tenant and let the latter reap the profit by re-leasing. The only reason he gave for keeping the Wright Lumber Company in its ridiculously cheap location, when besought to let it go for automobile shops, was that the Wrights had been “pretty good tenants.” It was apparently in the back of his mind that, with so many properties on his hand, he could simplify life for himself by turning a piece of property over to a reliable tenant who would pay taxes, upkeep, and rent without bothering the landlord. But if a tenant lapsed a contract, let him beware the wrath of John G. Mr. Wendel was adamant on contracts; like so many other things, they were matters of principle with him. So was his ban against liquor sales on Wendel property.

“Never sell real estate” was the family slogan, only broken in one or two instances. “The Wendels never give a deed” was his stock answer to bids, and in his old-fashioned office hung a sign, “No Property for Sale.” He carried this to absurd, uneconomic, and antisocial ends, holding properties beyond their prime and re-fusing to make way for public improvements. An act of the legislature was necessary to get out of his possession part of the land used for the Hall of Records. This property had been ceded to an ancestor Wendel “forever,” and John G. Wendel thought the state should keep its promise as a matter of principle. The money involved was a minor consideration; as a matter of fact he was well paid, but at the conclusion of the transaction he reported that a revolution was surely setting in when a state went back on its contract. In the Hudson Terminal matter, his course was equally firm and benighted. When long fought condemnation proceedings as to part of the plot now covered by the Terminal went against him, Wendel refused to take the award, preferring financial loss to condoning what he considered an injustice. It was his contention, not at all illogical, that since the Terminals were rented for profit condemnation was improper. But even if the use of the property had been altogether public, he would have objected just the same. To let go of property was treason to the family heritage.

As might have been expected from a man who so consistently denied the legitimacy of any public interest in his accumulations, he so devised the property that only one-tenth of it paid inheritance taxes following his death in 1914. Trust funds for the sisters saved the rest from the tax collector. Thereafter when a Wendel sister died the survivors came into more property. Since all the sisters were old and without heirs in the flesh, this care toward preserving the huge principal seems more elfish than sensible. In the end, too, the bulk of the estate proved to be untaxable because devised to charitable, educational, and philanthropic foundation. Through these agencies the Wendel for-tune, which even in bad times ran close to $50,000,000, may come to benefit part of the people who helped, in ways which the Wendels never quite understood, in amassing it. Unknown blood relatives, distant to the fifth degree, collected a few millions on claims in court.

The Wendel holdings are widely scattered over Manhattan, with a few pieces in Brooklyn and other parts of Long Island. The Manhattan holdings, 125 parcels, were appraised at upwards of $30,000,000 after Miss Ella’s death. Partly because John G. Wendel disapproved of tall buildings, holding six stories without elevators as good enough for anyone, and partly because of many lower East side pieces, the Wendel name is unconnected with any important structures. But if this city values its folk lore, it will ever associate the name with whatever building arises on the north-west corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-ninth Street. The old house, which stood there eighty years, will soon be making way for a department store; and crowds will press foot on what was, in the opinion of the Wendels, holy ground.

There the Wendel legend centered. There the Wendel flannels were hung out to dry, and a little Wendel dog took exercise in a yard assessed at $1,410,000. There five women lived in a Victorian nunnery of their brother’s making. Thither few came, for few had admittance; but Death kept coming at intervals and could not be denied the last word, so at long last the old Wendel place had only a caretaker for occupant. Perhaps ghosts also.

Drew Theological Seminary of Madison, New Jersey, founded by that tigerish old speculator, Daniel Drew, is one of the chief Wendel beneficiaries under the will; and in token of its appreciation is said to be preserving a certain room in the Wendel house for exhibit in its college halls. An early Victorian room.

But even Drew Theological Seminary will have a difficult time explaining the Wendels and justifying a way of life which placed property above survival. Even the most conservative Victorians earnestly strove for heirs as part of their creed that property must have individual ownership. No one knows why John Gottlieb Wendel took such excellent care of an estate which he made utterly sure would go to strangers. “Queer” does not quite explain John G. Wendel. He must also have been a little mad, and none the less so for his believing that other New Yorkers, with the craze for speed and change, tall buildings, telephones, and automobiles, were all lunatics.