Sunday, September 12, 2004

From The New York Times: "Edith Wharton: A Manhattan Literary Giant Who Didn't Love New York" (free registration required).

(Includes pictures of Wharton's houses)

Edith Newbold Jones, as she was called at birth, was born in 1862 to George Frederic Jones and his wife, the former Lucretia Rhinelander, both from genteel families with roots in 18th century New York. In 1857 they built a brownstone at 14 West 23rd Street. The house as the family knew it is long gone, but an early photograph shows a wide, Anglo-Italianate-style brownstone mansion four stories high, with rusticated stone on the ground floor and simple window moldings on the floors above. The Jones house had a certain repose about it — it might have been designed by a master builder, or perhaps even a real architect.

Still, the young Wharton was apparently not impressed. Combined with New York's unimaginative grid plan, the relentless rows compared poorly with London, Paris and other European cities, she said in her 1933 memoir, "A Backward Glance." In her opinion, all that brownstone rendered New York "hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness."

. . .

After George Jones's death, Edith and her mother moved to a lesser row house at 28 West 25th Street. They were living there in March of 1885 when Edith married Edward Robbins Wharton, from Boston. The New York Times noted her nickname, saying that the bride had been "better known as Miss Pussy Jones," and called her one of the "Washington-square" set — apparently a reference to her long family history in New York.

After their marriage, the Whartons lived abroad, in Newport, and occasionally in New York, in a succession of buildings, including a row house at 884 Park Avenue, between 78th and 79th Street. Although she was often abroad, Wharton had to be in New York to collaborate with the architect Ogden Codman on her first important book, "The Decoration of Houses," published in 1897, a rejection of the heavy Victorian mansions of her parents' era.

. . .

Like nearly all of the other known homes of Edith Wharton in New York, 884 Park has been demolished, but the stable she used while on Park still survives, at 111 East 77th Street. It has some delicate little stone carving around the windows, but she bought the stable already completed, so it is doubtful her hand is evident in the design.

. . .

The Jones family house on 23rd Street was altered repeatedly and is now unrecognizable outside. The house at 28 West 25th Street was demolished, but anyone who seeks to recapture a touch of Edith Wharton's New York should still visit the south side of the street, west of Broadway, where she lived with her mother until her marriage in 1885.

From there the young Edith Jones looked across the street to what is now the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Sava, at 15 West 25th Street. In 1885 it was Trinity Chapel, and it was there she married. A visitor can usually peek into St. Sava on Sundays, when services are held at 10:30 a.m., and the interior has hardly changed since the Jones-Wharton wedding. Outside, the front steps sag with the weight of generations, but on her wedding day, Edith Jones would probably not have gone in through this door — only out.

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