In the summer of 1999, I was out for a morning walk in the Village and I came upon an old stone building that stopped me, and then drew me up a narrow grass walk to its front door. The door was bronze and a young woman was emerging, pushing back the hood of her cape, revealing a beautiful but profoundly sad face. We were strangers and didn’t speak. But I spent months trying to find out who she was, and who built her home.
First, the stone building. In 1900, Cass Gilbert was already a famous American architect, renowned for designing the Minnesota State Capitol, and newly arrived in New York City to solidify his reputation. Also working in the city, Andrew O’Connor was a sculptor who specialized in monuments and portrait busts. He was a student of Daniel Chester French, remembered now for the Lincoln Memorial. When French was too busy to accept a commission, he would recommend O’Connor.That year, O’Connor had just completed a monument to an Irish engineer, John Wolfe Ambrose, and his bronzes were being cast at New York’s Roman Bronze Works, where another young artist, Frederic Remington, was having his work done as well.
Three years earlier, in November of 1897, Mary Hise Norton had married Henry E. Loney. Mary was the daughter of Eckstein Norton, a Kentucky country store clerk who had prospered as an investment banker and railroad president, “a conservative, dignified and widely respected financier” who founded E. Norton & Co. in New York.
The wedding was the largest of the year. Mr. & Mrs. Andrew Carnegie were among the guests at Staten Island’s St. John’s Protestant Episcopal Church. The newlyweds made their residence in the city, and, like the bride’s father-in-law, William Loney, and their friends the Roosevelts, they summered upstate in the Village of Skaneateles, “occupying the Mrs. T.Y. Avery place on Genesee Street” (a white house now number 91, west of the Presbyterian Church and across the street from St. James Episcopal).
But in the fall of 1899, instead of returning to New York City, Mary and Henry Loney moved to Asheville, North Carolina. Perhaps Mary, who had lost a child in the first year of her marriage, needed a milder climate. Perhaps she had contracted tuberculosis in New York City. For whatever reason, the move was not enough. Mary Norton Loney died “very suddenly” on Saturday, March 17, 1900, in Asheville. She was 24 years old, and had been married less than three years.
You can imagine her family’s grief. Or you can see it, frozen in the bronze door of her tomb. And if you kneel and look in the lower right-hand corner, you will see neatly etched, “Made by O’Connor – Cass Gilbert Architect – MDCCCC – Cire Perdue Cast – Roman Bronze Works, N.Y.” A leading architect and sculptor, accepting a commission from a wealthy family. Nothing but the best for this young lady, laid to rest in Skaneateles, where she and her husband spent their only two summers together.
Cass Gilbert went on to design more state capitols, the Palace of Fine Arts at the St. Louis World’s Fair (1904), the U.S. Customs House in New York City (1907), the Woolworth Building (1910-13) which was the nation’s tallest for 16 years, and the U.S. Supreme Court (1935).
Andrew O’Connor soon left New York for Paris, abandoning a wife and son, and taking his model, Jesse Phoebe Brown, who was pregnant with his child. He worked in Paris for 11 years before returning to the USA. Today, his work can be seen at the Tate in London, in the U.S. Capitol (a statue of General Lew Wallace, Civil War hero and author of Ben Hur), and in the cities of Baltimore (Lafayette on horseback), Springfield, Illinois, (Lincoln) and Chicago (Theodore Roosevelt).
But what of the woman in the door? The image is that of Jesse, who modeled for the sculpture shortly after meeting O’Connor, a model in love with her artist, portraying a woman dying too young. The image has a life of its own now, and haunts me, especially in the early morning, when the sun shines full on the door and the woman appears to step out into eternity.
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There are epilogues:
Henry E. Loney, the widower, remarried quietly in 1902, to Miss Henrietta de Rivera of New York, after a brief courtship, with only family members present. His new bride was “noted for her vivacity and for her musical talents.”
In 1934, the bodies of Mary Norton Loney and the son she lost were removed from the tomb in Lake View Cemetery and sent to the Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island, perhaps to join that of her husband. Today, her Cass Gilbert tomb stands empty.
I’ve also learned that Eckstein Norton was given his first name to honor his mother’s mother, Nancy Eckstein Hise. Her daughter, Mary Hise, married William Norton and gave birth to nine children; Eckstein Norton was their fifth son. In like fashion, it would seem, Eckstein Norton named his daughter after his mother, Mary, her grandmother. And the elder Mary Hise Norton’s memory survives in quite another way. She was a quilter, and today one of her quilts, now in the collection of the Smithsonian, hangs in the U.S. Embassy in Oslo, Norway.
Mary Hise Norton and Mary Norton Loney , the Kentucky country girl who quilted, her New York City grand-daughter who became a socialite, each with a very different but enduring monument.