Mark Twain in
Buffalo, NY - Table of Contents
472 Delaware Street
An Exerpt from Scribblin' For a Livin': Mark Twain's Pivotal Period in Buffalo
Reprinted with permission
By Thomas J. Reigstad
Published by Prometheus Books
'My Findings Contradict Some of the Prevailing Myths about Twain’s Buffalo Period'
Another excerpt from
Scribblin' For a Livin': Mark Twain's Pivotal Period in Buffalo
Almost an hour later, McWilliams pulled up the sleigh in front of a handsome house at 472 Delaware Street [PHOTOS], Buffalo’s most desirable residential boulevard. A landlady, someone the Langdons had hired to pose in this cameo role, emerged from the house and approached the carriage stepping stone at curbside. Twain [PHOTOS] later sketchily remembered her as being named Mrs. Howells, Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Thompson, or Mrs. Jenkins. Before Twain had much of a chance to tell her that Slee made a mistake, that he could not afford such opulent lodgings, the “land-lady” virtually evaporated and Olivia and Twain were surrounded by Mr. and Mrs. Langdon and Twain’s sister Pamela and her daughter, Annie. Jervis Langdon handed Twain a carved box of teakwood containing the deed to the house.
Once inside the gorgeous house, made to feel homey with floral arrangements everywhere, crystal chandeliers shimmering in gaslight in the parlors and dining room, and smells of a late hot supper being prepared, Twain learned the extent of the Langdons’ wedding gift.
Along with buying the newly decorated and furnished house and attached stable, the Langdons also had hired a cook, maid, and coachman; had purchased a horse, sleigh, and carriage “with their monogram on the panel”; had written a substantial start-up check; and had provided an ample supply of food and coal for their beloved daughter and new son-in-law. Twain was bedazzled by the lovely rooms outfitted in satin curtains and upholstered furnishings in a variety of color themes. He was especially taken by the blue drawing room and red study.
As reported by Mary Fairbanks, he declared the entire practical joke and surprise wedding present “a first class swindle.” Mark Twain, from the dusty little river town of Hannibal, Missouri, had now really, truly arrived in Buffalo and Victorian America’s upper crust. That first night before going to sleep in their bewitchingly beautiful new home, Twain and Olivia [PHOTOS] were asked by coachman Patrick McAleer what his orders were for the next day.
The next morning, Friday, the Tifft Hotel contingent paid a visit to 472 Delaware. The Beechers and the Fairbankses marveled at the lovely interior decorating. Reverend Beecher christened the house by rolling around on a carpet in order “to take the feather edge off.” Then, with the small group of well-wishers together in the drawing room, Beecher led them in singing “Heaven is My Home.”
As the full impact of the Langdons’ largesse began to sink in, Twain announced, “Mr. Langdon, whenever you are in Buffalo, if it’s twice a year, come right here. Bring your bag and stay overnight if you want to. It shan’t cost you a cent!” The genial gathering erupted in laughter. Twain played with that gag for a few days. A newspaper carrier remembered a temporary sign posted on the front entrance at 472 Delaware that read “Mark Twain lives here and my father-in-law pays the rent.”
Delaware Street, known to locals as “the Avenue,” was already established as one of the grand American boulevards. Within the next ten to twenty years, most of Buffalo’s sixty millionaires lived in mansions on Delaware. In August of 1869, the Buffalo Express praised Delaware as a broad and beautiful thoroughfare with abundant shade trees and well-tended gardens, “making it an avenue with one of the city’s pleasantest drives imaginable.”
By 1870, a wide, grassy median divided Delaware Street into two parallel east- and west-side strips. The median was beautified by elm, giant horse chestnut, and maple trees, and it featured hitching posts and carriage stones so that passing buggies could stop and allow visitors to inspect the ornate gardens in front of the homes of Buffalo’s elite. Years later, French writer Andre Maurois, while visiting as a university instructor, admired Delaware Street’s “seas of verdure” from his hotel window, a view which reminded him of his “house at Neuilly and the green waves of the Bois de Boulogne.”
Residents of Delaware Street in 1870 lived on a typical nineteenth-century urban street of fashion, members of an elite “socially one-dimensional community” in James Howard Kunstler’s terms, where hordes of “immigrants were providing a pool of domestic servants at bargain rates - maids, cooks, squads of gardeners, handymen, laundresses - some of whom lived in the house. The home itself became a kind of factory for the production of comfort.” Seeing to Twain and Olivia’s comforts were three live-in domestics hired by the Langdons: twenty-four-year-old Irishman Patrick McAleer, the coachman; Ellen White, twenty-nine, a cook and housekeeper also from Ireland who had been a family servant for the Langdons; and a young maid named Harriet. McAleer ended up serving Twain and his family for over two decades.
With the number of expensive mansions being erected each year, Delaware Street was a source of civic pride. It was Buffalo’s “street of palaces” at the nexus of old and new money in a booming city. Most of Buffalo’s leading merchants in 1870 operated “on the dock,” conducting their thriving enterprises from offices at the Lake Erie waterfront Central Wharf. And many of those merchants, dealing in grain storage, leather, lumber, and coal, lived in exquisite houses along Delaware Street. At number 472, Twain and Olivia rubbed shoulders with Buffalo’s best and brightest professionals, established moneyed class, and newly rich entrepreneurs. Their parklike street lined with a double row of trees spoke of affluence and influence.
At 434 Delaware, the elegant William Dorsheimer house, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson with a distinctly French influence for the prominent local lawyer, was under construction. And at 414, an enormous Second Empire-style dwelling was nearly complete and boasted twelve bay windows and two curved flights of marble stairs. The house was being built at a cost of $200,000 for Charles F. Sternberg, millionaire owner of an Ohio Street grain elevator with an office at the Central Wharf.14 Plush interior details included heavy, carved black walnut, oak, and mahogany wainscoting and moldings and fourteen-foot-high ceilings on the first floor. Still another mansion was being built in 1870 at 506 Delaware for Chillion M. Farrar, who owned two found-ries that manufactured locomotive boilers, metal tanks, and propellers. Farrar’s expensive house featured mahogany and walnut paneling and walls covered not with paper but with dark red brocades and tapestries.
This was Mr. Twain’s neighborhood. Accounts of early life at 472 Delaware by Twain and his wife describe it in storybook terms. It was a “palace,” with Olivia a “queen” and “princess.” The house was “bewitchingly furnished.” Twain told his Hartford friend, Rev. Joe Twichell, that he felt like “little Sammy in Fairy Land.” Perhaps most revealing was Twain’s reference to their honeymoon house as “our Aladdin’s palace” in which they were “roosting in the closing chapter of a popular novel.” Since childhood, Twain had known the story of Aladdin’s magic lamp in The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. In December of 1867, while courting Olivia, he wrote Mary Fairbanks despairingly that he likely lacked the social standing and wherewithal to win Olivia’s hand: “I can’t turn an inkstand into Aladdin’s lamp.” Almost one year later, his prospects improved, Twain assured Olivia that their mutual love was as secret “as though it were shut within the fabled copper vessel of Arabian story.” And the Arabian Nights tales motif was fresh on Twain’s newly wed mind from having just published The Innocents Abroad, [PHOTOS] where in one span of ten chapters (from chapters 8 to 18), he makes four allusions to the tales, Aladdin, or Aladdin’s palace.
Just one month after describing 472 Delaware as “Aladdin’s palace,” Twain seemed poised to launch a new phase of his writing career from his newfound lofty, secure social and financial standing. He planned to contribute a column to the New York City-based Galaxy magazine, which offered an opportunity to produce “higher-class writing - stuff I hate to shovel into a daily newspaper.” It appears as though Twain was looking at his sumptuous 472 Delaware honey-moon dwelling as a symbol of his ability to move beyond the newspaper grind toward artistic, literary writing. He had, indeed, married into a comfort level enabling him to convert his inkstand into Aladdin’s lamp.
The 472 Delaware Street mansion was fairly new and possibly built by Henry M. Kinne, who had owned the house with his wife, Elizabeth, from 1864 to 1869, before Twain moved in. Kinne had built nine stores on Main Street, three more on Prime Street, three grain elevators, and four private dwellings. Another possible builder of Twain’s home was architect George M. Allison, who designed several costly dwellings on Delaware Street in the 1860s and 1870s, including the Sternberg house.
Four seventy-two was the second house on the west side of Delaware north of Virginia, two-and-a-half stories solidly constructed of bright-red bricks larger than standard size. Starting at the rear, the attached two-story brick barn, or carriage house, was almost as spectacular as the house itself. The carriage house was connected to the house proper because the lot was only about 139 feet deep.
With walls two feet thick, a concrete floor eight inches thick, like iron, made not out of typical porous cement but of crushed marble so that horse urine would not soak through, and a loft supported by heavy beams where bales of hay were stored, the carriage house was built to last. The loft also had two or three rooms, and the floor was made of very white, white pine two-and-a-half inches thick. On the ground floor, the carriage was parked on one side. A huge garage door opened to Holloway Alley, a private road behind Twain’s house that paralleled Delaware Street and extended behind other homes on the block from Virginia to Allen Streets.
Inside the carriage house, on the opposite side of the coach-storage area, was a stable with six horse stalls. Early on, the extensive carriage house might have served as a livery for some neighborhood residents. On the stable side, there was a metal circular stairway to the loft, in the style of late nineteenth-century fire stations, to prevent horses from wandering upstairs. A passageway from the stable to the buggy section was nine feet high so that horses would not hit their heads. The carriage house was equipped with gas and water, and the six horse-stall windows were barred.
The main house had thirteen rooms in addition to the kitchen and laundry. It had a mansard roof and an elegant Italianate design, with some Second Empire influences. Bay windows seven feet high projected from the first and second floors on the north and south sides of the house. Windows throughout were tall and arched. The overhanging eaves were supported by decorative brackets, and arched doorways were framed by an elaborate entranceway trimmed by ten-foot-long pieces of hand-carved dark-walnut rope molding.
Inside the doors, striking features included a lovely vestibule and grand staircase with a carved newel post containing inlays of contrasting wood. Beneath the staircase, which ascended to the third floor, was a comfortable window seat. Flanking the long front hall were spacious rooms.
The largest set of rooms was to the right of the hall (the north side of the building) and included one of the showpieces of Olivia’s design handiwork, the drawing room. As with the upstairs master bedroom, Olivia had chosen a blue satin decorating motif for the drawing room. Twain and his wife often proudly displayed this room to visitors, temporarily removing the furniture covers to achieve full effect. The drawing room boasted a long pier-glass mirror between its two windows and heavy blue satin curtains draped from cornices to the floor. Olivia placed two of her favorite objects in the drawing room: a blue enameled clock that rivaled anything she had seen in New York City and a statuette called Peace, a wedding present. Also on the north side of the main floor, pocket doors of heavy black walnut opened from the drawing room to the library; from the rear of the drawing room, more doors led into the dining room.
The library served as the true family room for Twain and Olivia. When guests called, servant Harriet or Ellen invariably brought them into the library, referred to as a “little sanctum.”24 Olivia had outfitted it in scarlet upholstery. Among the furnishings was a big rocking chair, a sofa lounge that was “awful short” to recline on, a library table, and an inlaid chess table at which the newlyweds sat and played cribbage and “cutthroat euchre.” They also spent evenings there, with Twain reading poetry aloud until bedtime at ten o’clock. Perhaps Olivia’s favorite wedding present, the Madonna painting from Alice Hooker Day and her husband, John, hung above the intricately carved cherry fireplace and mantelpiece in the library. The fireplace included an attractive insert of mosaic tile. Olivia wrote the Days that the Madonna artwork watched over them and pleasantly spoke to her and Twain “of you two friends away off in Hartford.”25 A few of the books that formed part of Twain’s library collection at that time included copies of Short Studies on Great Subjects (1868) by James A. Froude, inscribed by Olivia in Elmira in 1869 and Twain in Buffalo in 1870; The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858) by Oliver Wendell Holmes, which Twain had already read twice and annotated and which Olivia and Twain thought of as their “courting book”;26 The Poetical Works of Jean Ingelow (1863), from which Olivia copied the poem “We Two” in her commonplace book in February of 1870; and What I Know of Farming (1871) by Horace Greeley with an inscription to Twain by Greeley that read: “To Mark Twain, Esq., Ed. Buffalo Express, who knows even less of MY farming than does Horace Greeley. N. York.” Twain’s library also likely included History of the Hawaiian or Sandwich Islands by James Jackson Jarves and 1001 Nights: Arabian Tales.
The dining room, the last of the three large rooms on the north side of the downstairs and the only one that led directly from the front hall, was stocked with a custom-built sideboard, long table and chairs, and another wedding gift—a full-length mirror in an elegant rosewood frame. The dining table was covered with a fringed red cloth. Olivia installed trains of ivy around the dining room window.
To the left of the front hall, on the south side of the house, there was a big, bright parlor broadened by bay windows and with an ample fireplace and full pier-type mirror mounted on one wall.
Downstairs rooms were enhanced by stylish wainscoting of black walnut and curly maple. According to the last owner of the house, hidden tongue-and-groove compartments were found in the early 1960s in some of the wainscoting where panels slid up waist high, revealing long-dried-out, empty, flat pint bottles of whiskey. Twelve-foot-high ceilings were accented by handcrafted embellishments. Some had beveled corners and, above the windows, specially designed cornices with faces and heads hand carved of mahogany. Other cornices to which valances were attached over parlor windows were framed to casings; in the center of each casing was a shield with the letter T for Twain. The tall windows downstairs were sur-rounded inside by sets of impressive wooden shutters.
Each room at 472 Delaware had a lovely fireplace and ornate mantelpiece, sometimes of carved cherry, as in the library, or of rich, dark walnut with burled veneer inlays, as was the case in another room. Most of the other dozen or so fireplaces and mantelpieces were Italianate marble style. Some of the marble fireplaces had slate mantels. Each marble fireplace boasted a custom-designed keystone in shapes such as date clusters, palm leaves, bison heads, elaborate floral patterns, female human heads, and shields [PHOTOS].
A handsome black-walnut balustrade accompanied the main stairway up to the second-floor hall, where a small sitting room was positioned at the front of the building facing a hooded window directly above the entrance to the house.
Rooms of varying sizes branched off the second-floor hall. The largest room was Olivia’s blue-satin bedroom masterpiece. Its low bed was canopied and curtained in pale-blue satin and featured the quilt made by Mother Langdon out of Olivia’s blue dress, Twain’s favorite. Master-bedroom chairs were also done up in blue satin. Another of Olivia’s second-floor creations also spoke from the heart. She had designed a scarlet-appointed den for Twain to write in. Eventually, he settled into a routine of working in his “perfect gem of a little study,” rain or shine, from eleven in the morning to three in the afternoon. A small bedroom served months later as the baby’s nursery.
Although the third floor was occupied by servants and had a separate back stairwell down to the kitchen, pantry, and cellar, Twain had an idea for remodeling a section of the top story. In May of 1870, just three months after moving in at 472 Delaware, Jervis Langdon sent an additional check for $1,000. Olivia wanted to use the money to pay off debts. Twain, however, hoped to use the windfall to build a dream “sky parlor” for a billiard room on the third floor. Years later, he fulfilled that vision when he built such a specialized playroom upstairs in his Hartford, Connecticut, mansion. Although the billiard-sky-parlor renovation never happened at 472 Delaware Street, Twain may have optimistically gone ahead and ordered a pool table in Buffalo in case the room was built. A substantial billiard table made of bird’s-eye maple and some rosewood with walnut, with liners of heavy oak and ivory diamond inserts on the ends and sides, manufactured by Braun Brothers on Genesee Street in Buffalo, somehow found its way to the Langdon home in Elmira sometime after 1869 (Frederick and Adam Braun’s company operated from 1869 to 1880). The Langdons were not billiards players, but Twain alludes to the table, which wound up in the third- floor playroom of his in-laws’ mansion on the corner of Main and Church Streets and remained there until the house was torn down in the 1930s.29
By all accounts, 472 Delaware was a palatial dwelling. Elements of its exquisite interior lasted well into the twentieth century. Those who occupied or toured the building as late as the 1950s and 1960s vividly recall details such as the rich Honduras mahogany and walnut woodwork; the unusually high ceilings; the bright, large rooms with tall bay windows and impressive shutters; the natural hardwood floors; and the grand “stairway and balustrade to the second floor from the front foyer and marble fireplaces.”