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Descendants of Old Money Look Back at a Benefit It Wrought

New York Times

Published in www.newyorktimes.com.

Mary R. Morgan said she was seeing it for the first time: the building on the Lower East Side that $15,000 of her great-grandfather’s money had gone into, back in 1899 — a sum that would have the purchasing power of $420,000 in today’s dollars, according to the Web site measuringworth.com.

That was big money, but Ms. Morgan’s middle initial stands for Rockefeller — her great-grandfather was John D. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil. The $15,000 went to the University Settlement Society of New York to help cover the overrun that had doubled the cost of its five-story building at 184 Eldridge Street, at Rivington Street.

What he and other members of the 1 percent of the day paid for became a centerpiece in an immigrant neighborhood where languages like Russian and Polish filled the air — and where extended families were jammed into squalid tenements. The University Settlement brought in some people from old-money New York who might never have ventured to the Lower East Side: Eleanor Roosevelt taught dance at the University Settlement in the days when “Franklin Roosevelt was courting her,” said Michael H. Zisser, the society’s chief executive.

Dr. Zisser discovered a document in the society’s files with the names of those who had contributed “subscriptions” to pay off the shortfall, which came to $75,065.20 ($2.1 million in 2012). On the list were old-New York names, like that of August Belmont, the financier and subway builder. He gave $1,000 ($28,000 in 2012).

Some corporate contributors were on the list, among them Lehman Brothers, whose collapse in 2008 sent the financial markets into a panic, and Lazard Frères. Each gave $1,000. Other $1,000 donors included R.R. Bowker, who controlled the company that publishes Books in Print, and Otto H. Kahn, a financier and benefactor of the Metropolitan Opera.

And then there were Ms. Morgan and the others, all women, who gathered at the University Settlement on Thursday: descendants of donors from 1899. The University Settlement had invited them for a reception with Champagne. The plan was to take a group photograph. “Please come camera-ready,” one of the organizers told them by e-mail. One of the descendants replied, “You mean extra blush and two Xanax?”

The descendants who took their places for the photograph included the fashion designer Mary McFadden, who said that R. Fulton Cutting — the third donor below Rockefeller on the list — was her grandfather.

“Well, probably great-great-grandfather,” she said, laughing. “They’ve been here since the beginning of time. Of course, I’m 20 years old.” For the record, Cutting, a Gilded Age aristocrat, was the good-government-minded president of the Citizens Union. He gave $1,000.

Ms. McFadden chatted with Margaret Fitzgerald, a great-great-granddaughter of James Stillman, a banker and railroad magnate who donated $500 ($14,000), and Mrs. Fitzgerald’s daughter Sarah Stillman Fitzgerald. Nearby were Maude Davis, the granddaughter of John H. Davis, who gave $500 in 1899, and Stephanie Stokes, a designer and descendant of Anson Phelps Stokes, a mining and railroad magnate who gave $250 in 1899 ($6,990 in 2012).

It was Anson Phelps Stokes’s son, the architect Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, who designed the University Settlement building as his first commission. The author Jean Zimmerman wrote that he worked with John Mead Howells and that the building “rose grandly and improbably above the swirl of street life below.”

And the overrun? “The additional expense seemed not to pose any difficulty for the Settlement’s wealthy donors,” Ms. Zimmerman wrote in “Love, Fiercely,” a biography of Stokes and the woman he married, Edith Minturn. Ms. Zimmerman quoted the Settlement’s founder, Stephen Coit, as saying it had become the “most fashionable charity in the city.”

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