A bit about the Rockefellers’ history in Greenwich

American financier William Rockefeller (1841 - 1922), circa 1915. (Photo by Paul Thompson/FPG/Getty Images)

American financier William Rockefeller (1841 – 1922), circa 1915. (Photo by Paul Thompson/FPG/Getty Images)

In Sunday’s Greenwich Time, you’ll see a story about the Rockefeller family’s holdings in Greenwich shrinking after a string of recent transactions. It’s not always possible to include as much history in these stories as I’d like, so I figured I would add a little bit about the Rockefeller-Greenwich connection here on the blog, using excerpts from my book, The Gilded Age on Connecticut’s Gold Coast, which was published earlier this week.

The Rockefellers first began buying up property in Greenwich back in the 1870s, when John D.’s brother, William A. Rockefeller started cobbling together separate estates to form a solid string of states.

His family’s property eventually grew to more than four hundred acres, making the Rockefellers among the top landowners in Greenwich, something that didn’t necessarily please everyone in a town overwhelmed with the growing pains of an agrarian society stretching into a new life as a playground for the wealthy.

But it didn’t go over entirely well with the locals.

When Rockefeller purchased thirty-seven acres from David Husted, a descendant of one of Greenwich’s original founding families, for $25,000 in the fall of 1903, the New York Times wrote that “Greenwich people generally deplore the sale, for it is another farm to lose its individuality in the large estate, as many others have done before.”

It was the second time Rockefeller had purchased land from Husted. In 1880, Rockefeller paid $15,000 for a forty-three-acre plot, which he named Deer Park and turned into a sanctuary of lakes, brooks and open land with stables for horses.

William Rockefeller lived in Greenwich for several years but eventually moved to Tarrytown after disagreements about property taxes on his Greenwich land. While he changed his address, he continued to own the massive Greenwich estate before passing it on to his sons William G. Rockefeller and Percy Rockefeller, each of whom built a permanent home in central Greenwich.

Here’s a bit about his sons:

William G. Rockefeller, the third child of William Rockefeller and the elder of the two sons, was born in 1870, about the same time that his father began collecting land in Greenwich. After attending Yale, he went to work in the family business, eventually becoming treasurer of the Standard Oil Company of New York, and in 1895 married Elsie Stillman, an heiress whose father was also a tycoon, serving as president of National City Bank…

At first, the couple continued living in Manhattan, where they had both been raised, claiming an address on Madison Avenue, where the Stillman family had gifted them a home. But after a decade, William G. Rockefeller announced plans to renovate his father’s home on Lake Avenue in Greenwich. He divided the house in half, separating the sections and inserting a three-story structure in its middle to create a roomier home suitable for full-time use by one of America’s wealthiest families.

Even after this renovation, the home was considered modest for a man of Rockefeller’s standing. The 1986 book The Great Estates: Greenwich, Connecticut, 1880–1930, assembled by the Junior League of Greenwich, describes the house as “comfortable, rather than elegant” and goes on to paint a picture of a house that was “in general, roomy and homey, with wallpapered plaster walls and comfortable furniture, not antiques but of good quality.”

But the estate as a whole was expansive, containing everything a wealthy Gilded Age family may need, including a separate building for laundry, a three-story stable (which also housed two families of servants) and an outdoor tennis court, which was joined by a new indoor court for Elsie in 1930, eight years after her husband’s death.

A 1900 New York Times article describing a newly acquired part of the Rockefeller property noted that the estate “commanded an extensive view of Long Island Sound, the Catskill Mountains and the lower end of the Green Mountain range,” making the grounds a unique prize in their own right.

In many ways, the property was very unique, but it was also just one in a set of Rockefeller houses in town.

William’s younger brother, Percy, also graduated from Yale and married into the Stillman family, wedding Elsie’s sister Isabel. Like his brother’s wedding six years earlier, the ceremony was a significant social event in the high-society circle. After a yearlong engagement, the couple was married in April 1901, also at St. Bartholomew Church in Manhattan…

Brothers Percy and William had similar love stories, but their Greenwich estates could not be more different. A 1908 article from the New York Times noted that “William G. and Percy Rockefeller own adjacent residences which are in sharp contrast to each other. William G. Rockefeller lives in an old-fashioned farmhouse, and Percy Rockefeller in a sixty-four room mansion, said to be the finest in Fairfield County.”

Percy’s mansion, which cost $500,000 to construct in 1907 (roughly $12 million today), was the subject of much speculation as it was being built, including a substantial amount of interest in the unique heating and cooling features.

In an effort to ensure that the house was absolutely fireproof, the walls were constructed of more than eight hundred tons of hollow terra-cotta blocks, with not a stitch of wood used in the construction. The eight-inch-thick wall of hollow blocks on the outside was separated from a second four-inch-thick wall by a four-inch gap, creating a confined air space in between, which helped keep the house warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer…

In 1923, Percy Rockefeller was the third-largest taxpayer in the town of Greenwich in terms of real estate, with an assessment of $675,950 worth of property, or $9.24 million in today’s dollars. That same year, his brother William’s estate had the fifth-highest taxes in towns, being assessed at $546,383, or $7.47 million in today’s currency.

But both Rockefeller homes were torn down in the 1930s, as changing tastes and the beginning of America’s Great Depression rendered great estates like these impractical and dated. The ornate trappings at Percy Rockefeller’s Owenoke Farm were auctioned off, sending Oriental rugs and antique walnut furniture out of the house, which was destroyed with dynamite. Though neither home survived, the Rockefeller’s real estate legacy in Greenwich was far from over.

Read all about the most recent developments in Friday’s Greenwich Time.

Maggie Gordon