I recently finished reading Love, Fiercely, a wonderful new book by Jean Zimmerman, that is aptly subtitled “A Gilded Age Romance,” as I instantly fell in love with its remarkable protagonists and their families. Having focused, professionally and personally, on New York history for so many years, I was delighted to see a new book about Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, the man behind The Iconography of Manhattan Island and his wife, Edith Phelps Stokes, nee Minturn. Newton Phelps Stokes’ six-volume oeuvre, arguably the most important body of work on New York City, is a sweeping graphic and historic documentation of the city’s heritage. Edith Phelps Stokes spearheaded the establishment of kindergarten education and legal adoption procedures—neither of which existed in her time.
I was well aware that the Iconography of Manhattan Island was a monumental work, but I learned that everything about the Stokes’ was monumental. Edith posed for a sixty-five-foot high statue on a thirty-five-foot pedestal sculpted by Daniel Chester French representing the Republic at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. Meant to rival the Statue of Liberty, the sculpture made a name for French—and brought attention to his beautiful young model. The commanding seven-foot tall portrait of the newly married Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes by John Singer Sargent has intrigued visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than 75 years. Sargent’s unconventional portrayal of the couple caused a stir when it was first shown in New York in 1898. Edith, a vibrant young woman in simple street clothing instead of the requisite fine gowns worn by Sargent’s other subjects, was said to represent the “new woman.” She stands in the forefront while her husband remains behind her in shadow.
Newton Phelps Stokes cast a shadow of his own: as an architect, he designed St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University and other notable buildings in New York, but he was committed to tenement housing reform and not only designed low-cost housing, he led a movement to provide low-cost housing to New Yorkers. Edith shared her husband’s commitment to public service and worked in a settlement house.
His family’s great wealth enabled Newton to indulge in expensive hobbies. His most extraordinary extravagance was purchasing an ancient great house in England that he had dismantled and reassembled in Connecticut. By the time the stately home was completed, Stokes had begun pursuing a project that would dwarf its cost and, eventually, drain much of his wealth. Newton became increasingly interested in New York City maps, views, prints, and history and set out to compile a one-volume reference of sources. The seemingly straightforward project escalated to six enormous volumes that he published from 1915 to 1928. The immense cost of acquiring maps and illustrations for the books and hiring the best historians, engravers, and printers depleted a good portion of his fortune.
The Phelps Stokes’ were contemporaries of Edith Wharton. Like Wharton, they both came from a distinguished and wealthy old American families. Unlike the upperclass world peopled in Wharton’s novels, however, Newton and Edith Phelps Stokes’ forebears have a long history of dedication to public service; they founded institutions for the poor, advocated immigrant welfare, opposed slavery, and supported other unpopular progressive reforms. The Phelps Stokes Fund was established by Newton’s sister Caroline in 1911 to provide education and financial assistance for Africans and African Americans, Native Americans, and indigent whites— a cause unheard of in their day—and continues to do charitable work today.
Love, Fiercely introduced me to other remarkable stories about this impressive family. I found myself intrigued by the fact that Newton’s brother Graham, an ardent reformer who directed a settlement house, married a young Jewish immigrant socialist. Also, Josephine Shaw Lowell, Edith’s aunt, a young Civil War widow, was appointed head of the New York State Board of Charities by Governor Samuel Tilden, a post never before held by a woman.
Readers familiar with Edith Wharton’s novels visualize a narrow, stifling upper-class life that was proscribed and closed, with no individual choice, the theme of most of her work. The preponderance of such late-nineteenth century literature about New York reinforces the image of upper-class women as invisible and dependent and more recent feminist studies focus mostly on prostitution and other more sensational aspects of women’s history in this era. The Phelps Stokes’ were the antithesis of Wharton’s characters and thus Jean Zimmerman has created a book that is monumental in its own way. She unveils a nineteenth-century upper-class world that challenges Wharton’s and highlights the great achievements of people of wealth who reached beyond noblesse oblige to genuine public service.
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