The Astors Grow Up With The Island
( Originally Published 1930's )
WHENEVER anyone wishes to point to a moral or a barb, in connection with great wealth, he has a go at the Astor fortune. It is a fair mark for either attention. While it had its birth in what were once supreme American virtues—thrift, hard work, adventurous energy, and stubborn shrewdness—some of the Astor gains were compassed by acts barely inside the law, which might have been outside the law if done by less influential persons. But since that sort of thing can be said of nearly every great American fortune, the question is: why should the Astors be singled out for barbs more than the others? The answer cuts deep into American psychology and economics.
The public seems to forgive business buccaneers all their sins under certain circumstances. If a fortune seems to be going through the traditional liquidation—"shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations"—the rest of us shrug our shoulders, shirts or no shirts. That shift of fortune does not restrict our opportunities; in-deed, liquidation furnishes material for the luck of rising men. Or, if the heirs of great wealth prove that they are good sports, dashing at this or that for our amusement, as Reggie Vanderbilt used to do with motor cars and as the Whitneys do now with race horses, they seem to be rather jolly entertainers and showmen, well worth the price of admission. Or, a rich family can stay serious and rise in popular favor if it spends part of its income doing good in the grand manner and seeing that the public gets the right light on the case through judicious publicity, which seems to be the Rockefeller manner.
The Astors, fortunately for their heirs and unfortunately for their popularity, hung tenaciously to John Jacob's purchases and added to them. No shirtsleeves for them. Secondly, the descendants, growing richer and richer from leased properties more often improved by others than by themselves, gave the public neither free bread nor circuses. Their philanthropies were modest; their public appearances few and heavy. They lived well, some of them even splendidly, but they were too respectable and conventional to stir the imagination of the plebs. Taking in rents with the tiresome haughtiness of commonplace folk, they wasted no substance on sporting cars, tallyhos, racing stables, or press agents.
Then, to turn sullen disapproval into active resentment, came the almost incomprehensible William Waldorf Astor, great-grandson of old John Jacob and founder of the English line in which appears by marriage the irrepressible Virginia-born Nancy, member of the House of Commons. It was not enough for William Waldorf Astor to be rich; he also desired to be powerful, to make for himself a career. Not quite that, either; what he wanted was to be accepted at his own valuation and to command a career by right of birth and wealth. Entering politics without ever learning that patience is part of the game, he could not endure setbacks, took to high-handed ranting against his tenants-at-will, the American people, and betook himself into voluntary exile in England, where commoners knew how to treat a gentleman. There he bought a magazine in which he occasionally roared against America and occasionally boasted of the earning power of John Jacob's bargains. The Great War brought him opportunity to buy a peerage, as far as peerages can be bought; that is to say, he subscribed largely to war loans, and as he had done his bit for his party theretofore, he became Baron Astor of Hever. Whatever else this bold but maladroit person may have been, the memory of his course still poisons public opinion on the subject of the Astors. The present head of the American house, Vincent Astor, the yachtsman host of President Roosevelt, must often wish that his first cousin once removed had been either less bold or more wise. Vincent's drive to make the Astor name mean something more to his fellow citizens than ground rents and long-term leases and a cold pride, is one of the minor dramas of these shifting times.
Old John Jacob, the founder of the fortune, was born in Baden in 1763. The year lives in American history as that of the Treaty of Paris, at the end of the Seven Years' War between France and Great Britain, by which France ceded Canada to the victor. It was to pay her American war costs that Britain applied to America taxes enough to rouse the resentment culminating in the American Revolution. Therefore, the commissioners who negotiated the Peace of Paris may be said to have been preparing the scene for the American triumphs of a babe then cradled at Walldorf near Heidelberg, and doing their bit to let his not-so-able successors live rather well down to the fifth generation at least.
First of the Astors to come to America was Heinrich, elder brother of John Jacob. Heinrich approached the Astor heritage as a sutler in the mercenary army hired in Germany to assist the British in holding Americans for the Crown. "Hessian" is the common word of reproach; but by no means all of those German lads came from Hesse. There were Baden regiments sold into American service by their Grand Duke; the soldiers had nothing to say about it, and many of them deserted at the first opportunity to take up farms in the back country and father large families. Some excellent "Hessian" blood now moves in quantity in the veins of the American body politic. Heinrich did not desert; but neither did he go home with the rest of the "Hessians," most of whom were captured before the end of the war. Instead he took to butchering in New York, opened a meat market in Bowery Lane, and prospered.
While his elder brother was soldiering in America, young John Jacob said "Auf Wiedersehen" to Walldorf, and hied himself to London, to work four years for an uncle in the musical instrument line. In 1784 he arrived in America with seven flutes as his capital. Music had spoiled him for the meat trade, which he dedined his brother's invitation to enter, and likewise for the baked-goods trade, which he tried and dropped. Then, as his third business adventure, he connected with furs, beating out skins with his own hands in a modest Gold Street establishment. The fur trade was the oldest in New York; men had been dealing in furs here since 1611; yet along came this German boy to seize the largest prizes both in wealth and fame, in the oldest trade in town.
After learning his trade of Robert Bowne, John Jacob borrowed capital of the butcher brother and set up shop with Cornelius Heyer as a partner and later with a Mr. Smith. His next step was to open a small shop, in 1786, at 81 Queen Street, now Pearl Street, where his thrifty wife sold musical instruments while her husband was away fur-buying. An early advertisement read:
Jacob Astor at No. 81 Queen Street, "has just imported an excellent assortment of Piano Fortes, which he wlll sell on reasonable terms. He also buys and sells for cash all kinds of furs."
His first real estate purchase (1789) consisted of two lots on the Bowery Lane for £250, or about $625. In 1790 he bought a house and lot at Number 40 Little Dock Street (now Water Street). The money came from furs rather than "Piano Fortes," for this strong, round-faced, pleasant young German was among the first to revive, after the Revolution, the old trade with China. He sent over furs and took his pay in merchandise. A born trader, willing to dabble in any-thing, he inserted this typical advertisement in the New York Gazette on June 3, 1794:
John Jacob Astor, No. 149 Broadway, corner of Crown St., gives Cash for all kinds of Furs; and has for sale a quantity of Hatters Fur. Also to let on Leases, several pleasantly situated Lots of ground, in the Bowery, a little north of the Bull's Head tavern.
Leases! There you have it, John Jacob! The lease is the key to your fortune. Buy and sell, of course, but when you get hold of something better than usual, lease. You can afford to wait. "Piano Fortes," in the hands of an industrious wife, can keep your house; the fur trade can give you capital. The golden earth is yours as long as you keep tight hold of the long-lease idea, which you brought to America from England. Make the dead hand hold your property tight while the living work for you. The farmers in their fields, the masons on their scaffolds, mothers in childbed are working for you, as long as you buy Manhattan land and lease it.
Though he had a tidy sum tucked away after ten years of American endeavor, John Jacob Astor was not yet through with his program for making the wild life of the continent pay him dividends. His fur operations increased; he began to think in continental terms. The opportunity was, as we see now, wide open; but he perceived the opening more clearly than anyone else and acted more decisively. In 1794-95, Great Britain at last vacated the Northwest Territory, thereby throwing one of the world's great fur supplies open to American exploitation. Astor leaped into that field. At the close of the century he was worth $250,000, a large fortune for that period. Eight years later, in 1808, he organized the American Fur Company, which competed vigorously with other firms through agents and trappers in the Rocky Mountain section, now open to Americans through the Louisiana Purchase. In 1810, sending ships around the Horn, he established the famous post at Astoria, Oregon, where his company came into opposition with the far-grasping Hudson's Bay Company and the Northwest Fur Company, also a British concern.
Astoria cost John Jacob heavily, and was finally wrenched from him by treachery or the pusillanimous fears of a weak partner; but it was a gallant commercial effort, with a real meaning in American history, an influence on our present possession of Washington and Oregon. In this struggle Astor showed at his best. He was in the prime of manhood, a hard fighter and a good loser, a general "fit to command an army of 500,000 men," as one admirer said. The man's capacity for work, and his further capacity for absorbing culture, were tremendous; yet he is reported as spending only half the time in his countinghouse. The rest of the day he passed either reading or chatting with friends at his princely house on Broadway, where he was attended by Chinese servants brought back on his trading ships. On fine days he walked here and there through the town, inspecting his properties and keeping his sharp eyes open for bargains.
The City Plan of 1811 had been very kind to John Jacob, particularly in providing for the continuation of Broadway along the line of the old Bloomingdale Road north to Fourteenth Street, a change in the original plan made after he remonstrated with the planners. This meant that his recently purchased farms along that route would be bisected by the city's chief thoroughfare. Also the spacing of the avenues bade fair to profit him, as against all advice he had bought tracts in the rocky midrib section of the island. Consequently he could have spent more than he did on Astoria without damaging his credit materially. As early as 1800 Astor adopted the policy of utilizing his mercantile gains in the purchase of lands just beyond the city limits. He gradually sold this land as the price advanced, in order that more extensive tracts somewhat farther out might be bought with the proceeds.
To the despair of his friends who insisted that they would never be worth anything he was forever buying up swamps and rocky fields . , . and occasionally to finance purchases of this character he would sell perfectly sound residence lots in the settled portions of the city. For instance, he once sold a house in Wall St. for $8,000. The purchaser was very pleased with the deal. . . . "Why," he exulted . . . "in a few years this lot will bring half as much again as its present value." "Very true," replied Astor . . . "but now, Sir, you shall see what I will do with the money you have paid me. With $8,000 I will buy 80 lots above Canal St. By the time your lot is worth $12,000, my lots will be worth $80,000." Which was exactly what happened.'
Even at that early stage, however, John Jacob's property was not all outlying, speculative land. With his fur profits he had bought a good many pieces which even then produced substantial revenues under his long-lease system. On the west side of Broadway he enjoyed, under a long and ridiculously favorable lease from Trinity Church, possession of the famous Richmond Hill property associated with the name of Aaron Burr. How Astor came into the Richmond Hill is a bit of Manhattan land history with far-reaching connotations.
In 1768 Trinity leased to Abraham Mortier, for ninety-nine years at $269 a year, one-third of the famous Anneke Jans farm, good for 456 lots later on. Then it was picturesque hill and swamp country, where Mortier built on a commanding elevation a swagger country place which he named Richmond Hill. In 1791 Burr, a rising politician, initiated a legislative investigation of Trinity's business affairs. In the post-Revolution period Trinity was naturally unpopular, being rich and Episcopal, with the reputation of having been a nest of Tories during the long British occupation of the city during the fighting years. At the moment its income from rents was restricted by law to $12,000 a year. The point of Burr's investigation was how the $12,000 was being spent. Nothing came of the investigation, except that Burr later had an opportunity to take over the Mortier lease. Aaron Burr became a made man financially, by this one deal, if he had been content to ride along with the Mortier lease and his shares in the newly formed Bank of the Manhattan Company, which owed its existence to his legal shrewdness and political power.
Men as clever as Burr can be defeated only by themselves. Aaron, always in need of ready money to pursue his ambitions, promptly mortgaged the Mortier lease to his bank, in which John Jacob held 1,000 shares. Again in need of money, to make a quick break for Europe after his treason trial, Burr sold the lease to Astor for $32,000, Astor to pay the bank's claim, which he promptly did, and also (according to Burr) agreeing to let Burr regain the property by paying principal and interest within twenty years. Astor immediately began leasing out lots. In 1817 the value of the property had appreciated so rapidly that Burr is reported to have tendered payment which Astor declined to receive; but he subsequently settled with Burr for $100,000. Astor's complete investment in this valuable lease figures at a top of $160,000, providing Burr actually received the $100,000 as reported, which has been denied. After Burr was cleared out, the lease still had fifty years to run, at ground rent of less than a dollar per year per lot.
In considering the ethics of this clouded transaction, one point is clear. Astor was considered to have paid a good price for the Burr equity in the first instance, and brought it into quick revenue production by shrewd, sharp moves. Moreover, in the later settlement, whatever it was, Burr was hardly the man to let anyone off easily if he had considered that he had a sure case at law and that the increment greatly exceeded the sum offered. The great value of the lease, of course, developed in the latter half of the term. With Burr finally out of the way, a new stage in the development of the property began.
In order to make way for the razing of Richmond Hill itself, the old house was moved down the hill fifty-five feet to the corner of present Varick and Charlton streets, a feat which attracted the attention of the whole town. And no wonder, for the sixty-by-fifty-foot dwelling, containing 130,000 brick, was lowered to its new-location in forty-five minutes, "without the slightest injury to the house or fixtures." There the building was opened "with fireworks" in 1822, as a "public house, with a Music Room, Reading Room, newspapers, gardens, wines, liquors, etc." Evidently a high-class refuge for the bibulous literati, in the days when New York preferred to take its liquor sitting down, without the need of legislation to make it do so, and before it had become so inured to a shortage of seats that it learned to resent liquor legislation in restraint of bars. The whole recasting of the Richmond Hill property, from the adventure of moving the historic mansion to its revival for use in a grand and profit-able manner, shows that John Jacob Astor at fifty-nine could still take a chance in the same hearty way in which he gambled with fortune in his youth.
By 1825, when the opening of the Erie Canal definitely sealed New York City's preeminence as a port by giving it through water connections with the Great Lakes and the prairies, John Jacob Astor was already one of America's richer citizens. Of all New York's inhabitants, he was best placed for benefits under the new dispensation of commerce. As New York City grew, so grew the Astor rent roll, since many of his early twenty-one-year leases matured during the boom period between 1825 and 1837 and were renewed at higher rates. Also he shrewdly sold developed properties to buy more acreage along the line of the city's population march. Another Astor activity, from 1807 on, was buying water lots in areas to be filled in, an entrancing speculation, since the lots so covered with water were cheap yet multiplied in value once they were filled, the materials coming chiefly from the leveling of elevations. John Jacob seemed always to be aware, a little before anyone else, where improvements of that sort would be undertaken.
One of these "under-water" transactions occupies much space in the chronicles of the time. It seems that Astor, after buying the Clinton farm, sold the under-water lots to the government in 1812 for $10,000. The government filled the lots and built there Fort Gansevoort. In 1829 Mr. Astor, nothing daunted by fort or government, applied to the Common Council for a grant of the land under water between the Great Kill Road and Twelfth Street. Part of this stretch seemed to come under the head of fort property; the rest of it was considered by the Corporation to to be required for public purposes. The result was a polite refusal of Astor's petition followed by the city's attempting to oust the government and get the property for itself. There the matter hung for three years, until Astor moved on Washington, secured cession of the fort property, and beat the city neatly.
Long before his death in 1848 old John Jacob was rated as America's richest man. He passed his seven-ties comfortably in his great library in the house at Hell Gate, apparently giving more of his time to literature and writers than to business and realtors. In f834 he retired from the fur business. Also, he left the details of his building operations to his capable son, William Backhouse. It was William B. who advertised in October, 1833, for bids on the Park Hotel (the name was soon changed to the Astor House, famous hostelry in its day) to be located on the Broadway frontage between Barclay and Vesey streets. Mayor Hone says this "Palais Royal" would require $50,000 to $60,000 capital. It took far more than that in the end; when completed the Astor House ranked for years as America's most important hotel.
There is a saying that young men go in for profits, and old men for mortgages. While John Jacob kept to the end of his life a good deal of his early courage, nevertheless in his declining years he leaned toward mortgages. By 1837 he had enough mortgages in hand to foreclose on more than sixty parcels in the panic of that year. Bitter resentment arose against him as the heavy hand of Astor clamped down on one property after another; but he held to his policy. Probably he was not fully aware of the public feeling against him, as he was seventy-four years old, living in seclusion and surrounded by intimates naturally desirous of keeping criticism from him. But the fact that he announced on July 28, 1838, that he had added a codicil to his will endowing a public library may indicate that he knew enough of the situation to realize that it was time to placate the gods of public opinion.
The first figure announced for this gift was $350,000; in 1839 this was increased to $400,000—$120,000 for books, $75,000 for a building, the rest to be in-vested for the gradual increase of the library. If assuaging public feeling through philanthropy was part of his library plan, it succeeded, the gift being held by the press to be evidence of "an enlightened and liberal spirit, which does him immortal honor." No one who uses the splendid facilities of the New York Public Library, enlarged by subsequent bequests by others, will be disposed to dispute that tribute. The gifts of philanthropists, when well conceived and executed, have a way of healing old wounds, individual losses being somewhat forgotten in the glow of public benefits, even though these may have been the result of only a fraction of gains questioned by contemporaries. Probably the Astor library gift was only one-tenth of John Jacob's profits from his foreclosures; yet it initiated a library movement of great value to the city and, by example, to the rest of the country. The losses to others would be soon forgotten by all except themselves, with the return of prosperity; the library would remain.
That his gesture took library form is evidence of the old gentleman's genuine feeling for books and authors. Unlike many rich book collectors, he read largely; and, unlike many plutocrats who enjoy talking to authors, he actually eased life's burdens for some of the literati. At his great house on the East River near Hell Gate (Eighty-eighth Street) John Jacob Astor played a friendly Maecenas to at least two famous authors, Fitz-Greene Halleck and Washington Irving. Halleck, whose urgings finally brought his host into the mood for the library donation, lived at the Hell Gate mansion for some time, and Irving did likewise for at least five months while he was writing his Astoria from John Jacob's letters. Irving left a pleasant pen picture of the mansion and its way of life in a letter written to his brother Peter at Havre in 1835:
. . . For upward of a month past I have been quartered at Hell Gate with Mr. Astor and I have not had so quiet and delightful a nest since I have been in America. He has a spacious and well built house, with a lawn in front of it, and a garden in rear. The lawn sweeps down to the water edge, and full in front of the house is the little strait of Hellgate, which forms a constantly moving picture. Here the old gentle-man keeps a kind of bachelor hall. Halleck, the poet, lives with him but goes to town every morning and comes out to dinner. The only other member of his family is one of his grand-children, a very fine boy of 14 years of age [Charles Astor Bristed]. . . . I cannot tell you how sweet and delightful I have found this retreat; pure air, agreeable scenery; a spacious house, profound quiet and perfect command of my time and myself.
During the last ten years of his life, as the freight of the West came pouring into New York and as population kept gaining, all John Jacob Astor had to do was sit quietly at home among his books and grow richer by the minute. When at last he died, in his eighty-fifth year, he was worth $20,000,000 to $30,000,000, the largest American fortune accumulated up to that time and one superbly placed as regards both stability and futurity. No inheritance tax of any potency reduced this estate; it passed on to his heirs without forced diminution, and remained for them solidly rooted in golden earth.
A success story on a grand scale is this of the lad from Walldorf with just enough sharp dealing in it to commend the Astor method to an American keen on following the main chance. In addition to popularizing the long-lease system, John Jacob fixed a pattern of wealth accumulation which lasted a full century. The typical "self-made" man of his century made his start by trading in tangibles; prospering, he invested in real estate and then, subject to the conditions prevailing in any given community, nailed his real estate down with long leases. Goods and lands, tangibles, realities. Not many gambles in evidences of debt; few stock holdings except bank stock, which one needed to tap credit at will, or stock in ferry or other rudimentary transport companies, which one sometimes felt constrained to take to encourage development in a favorable direction. Always, too, this sort of man paid keen attention to and exercised a subtle control of the political situation affecting his property. On these pegs hung the great American fortunes down to the days of railroad expansion and rise of the stock market, which made fashionable and sometimes profitable dealings in evidences of debt on a scale more imposing and dangerous than ever had been possible in Astor's day.
John Jacob's death-year was also the year of the discovery of gold in California, one immediate effect of which was to inaugurate on the side of the continent a boom of practical value to his heirs. America be-came one economically and politically from one ocean to another. The frontier would move westward from the Mississippi valley and eastward from the Pacific until at last all arable free land would be appropriated. But the Astors had their land in the one location where all succeeding activities in interior America would inevitably add value to the family's holdings in the continent's great port and mart—the city growing swiftly on Manhattan's golden earth.
Important transactions of John Jacob Astor's, in addition to those cited above, are as follows:
The Cosine farm, extending from Broadway west to the Hudson between Fifty-third and Fifty-seventh streets. Inherited by John Cosine in 1809, in the following eight years it went through a "miserable tangle of judgments, mortgages, foreclosure sales and trustee-ships" as a result of which Astor, who is described as "worming his way into the property," emerged with the title at a cost of only $23,000. Worth $6,000,000 in 1905 (Hendrick), and $18,000,000 in 1920 (A. D. Howden Smith).
The Eden farm, from Forty-second to Forty-sixth Street on Broadway, extending northwest to the Hudson. Inherited by Medcef Eden in 1797. Astor acquired one-third interest in an outstanding mortgage, foreclosed, and took over at $25,000 land worth $20,000,000 in 1905 and $50,000,000 in 1929. For twenty years his title was contested in courts by Eden's English heirs, who were bought off finally for $9,000. Hendrick says that in 1905 the Astors still owned the sites of 300 houses on the Eden Farm and those of two large hotels.
The John Semlar farm and ropewalk, bought for $20,000, contained the bulk of Astor's East side holdings. Worth, in 1929, $16,000,000 to 20,000,000 (A. D. Howden Smith).
The Clinton farm in Greenwich Village, an estate of Governor Clinton. Half was purchased for $75,000, and the holding increased to two-thirds in the settlement of a mortgage on the other half. Annual income estimated at $1,000,000 in 1929, which, if correct, would place the current value of the property at perhaps $15,000,000.
Sample foreclosures in the 1837 panic years: Astor acquired by this means, for $2,000, a block in Harlem worth $1,000,000 in 1905 and $2,000,000 in 1929. As mortgagee Astor bid in lots for $5,600 which later came to be worth $600,000. In this case the court compelled him to pay a bonus to the mortgagor.
In all his transactions it is reckoned that John Jacob Astor invested $2,000,000 in Manhattan real estate, which had grown into $20,000,000 by his death in 1848. The bulk of this passed to his capable son, who was already worth $5,000,000 two years before his father's death. William B. had inherited $500,000 from his butcher uncle, Heinrich, and, following in his father's footsteps, he made in 1826 a most fortunate investment in the Thompson farm on either side of the Fifth Avenue extension from Thirty-second to Thirty-sixth Street. Also his father had given him—deeded for one dollar—the Astor House. There were other heirs, as John Jacob fathered several daughters and one imbecile son, John Jacob II, but the bulk of the property came to William B., who managed the whole with such astuteness that, at his death in 1875, he was worth $100,000,000.
Competent authorities have since estimated the value of the family holdings, now split into several groups, at $250,000,000 in 1890 and $450,000,000 in 1905. When John Jacob Astor III died in 1890, William Waldorf Astor, his heir, received properties estimated at $150,000,000, which doubled in value in the next fifteen years. John Jacob Astor IV, father of the chief American representative of the family, Vincent, inherited $65,000,000 in 1892 from his father, William Astor, and was rated at $100,000,000 in 1905. As the family sold more property of late years than it did earlier, perhaps because of the pressure of inheritance taxes, and also because the real estate is split into several family groups, no close estimate of Astor wealth in Manhattan land can be made at present. It may be even less than the 1905 figure of $450,000,000, since only $46,000,000 worth of the William Waldorf holdings, worth $250,000,000 in 1905, remained vested in the English branch in 1919.
A very quiet living Astor of whom the public had never heard was Henry, grandson of the first John Jacob. Henry became estranged from his relatives as the result of a love marriage with a farmer's daughter, and lived quietly with her in seclusion at West Copake, Long Island, on the proceeds of a trust fund established in 1869. Certainly no man can have contributed less to the economic stress and strain on Manhattan than this patient and, I hope, philosophic suburbanite. Al-though a decidedly minor figure in a wealthy clan; yet at his death in 1918, at the age of eighty-six, Henry Astor owned sixty three- and four-story dwellings, thirty-eight tenement houses, thirty-three leased parcels of built-on land, three theatres, and seven factory buildings, which sold for $5,159,075.
Something has already been said of the later Astors, their palatial residences on Fifth Avenue, their hotel building operations and the exodus of the termagant William Waldorf Astor to England to found a baronial family there. The American branch continued under the headship of Colonel John Jacob Astor, fourth of the name, until the latter's death in the Titanic disaster in April, 1912, when he was succeeded by his son, Vincent.
On the modern map of Manhattan the name of its greatest landlord is perpetuated in two places. One of these can be readily dismissed. Astor Court, leading off Thirty-fourth Street, is a short opening which held the Astor stables and now at one point houses diners who like to eat where the horses of the great once munched their oats. The other, Astor Place, has more meaning in connection with the family. John Jacob purchased for $45,000 three choicely landscaped acres in that location in 1803 from Jacob Sperry, who from 1782 had conducted there a successful nursery and greenhouse. In 1804, Astor advertised it for rent as "that beautiful and highly improved piece of land . . . situated in the Bowery Lane . . . on which is a great variety of fruit of the best quality. . . ." After Astor Place had been created by the opening of Lafayette Street through to present Fourth Avenue in 1825, the district improved so much in tone that William B. resided there in a "noble mansion .. . one of the finest houses in the city," as Mayor Hone wrote in his diary on returning genially from one of William B.'s dinners. About 1845, also, John Jacob Astor erected a notable house in Astor Place for his daughter, Mrs. Walter Langdon, on a spacious lot 250 feet square at the corner of Lafayette and the Place. This house passed to Mrs. Langdon's daughter, Mrs. Wilks. After only thirty years of life, it was torn down, in 1875, fashion having fled that section for Fifth Avenue north of Twenty-third Street.
Astor Place is, however, a short thoroughfare, and rather less important than it was; for a family so influential on the cartography of the island, the Astors were modest in perpetuating their name on the map. They were content to take the cash and let the credit go. However, the name in various forms appears in other boroughs and elsewhere in this and other States.