Much of the 1920 book is centered on Mary Jones’s remarkable row of stone houses on Fifth Avenue, from 57th to 58th Street. But almost absent from Wharton’s writings is Mary’s sister Rebecca Jones, who built an equally impressive row just two blocks south.
The father of Rebecca, born in 1801, and Mary, born the year before, was John Mason, a founder of the New York and Harlem Railroad, which first ran in 1832. Rebecca married Isaac Colford Jones Jr., and Mary his cousin, also named Isaac Jones.
Rebecca and Mary early exhibited a taste for domestic proximity, occupying neighboring rowhouses on Chambers Street. No. 122, Mary’s place, supposedly had the first bathtub in New York; Rebecca’s ablutionary activities are not documented.
Later, three Jones families, including Rebecca and Mary’s, occupied three adjoining houses from 732 to 736 Broadway, in which the entertaining rooms could be opened to one another.
It is not clear where the sisters lived after 1854, when a nasty fight over their father’s estate, much of it property in New York City, was resolved. They were awarded two city blocks, each running from Fifth to Park, where streets had just recently been cut through. Rebecca’s domain was between 55th and 56th, Mary’s between 57th and 58th. These are where their architectural aspirations played out shortly after Wharton’s birth in 1862.
Mary started first, her architect, Robert Mook, filing plans in 1867 for what became Marble Row, a sparkling-white series of houses in the Parisian style facing Fifth from 57th to 58th. These houses take up a great deal of real estate in both the book and movie “Age of Innocence.”
Rebecca followed in 1869, when she had her architect, Detlef Lienau, design a similar row of eight houses for the 55th-to-56th-Street block, completed in 1871. These were more chaste than Mary’s, in part because of their olive-colored Ohio stone, but they, too, had the character of something on a Parisian boulevard.
Both rows were a departure from the lugubrious brownstone that Wharton denounced, along with contemporary New York and “its untended streets and the narrow houses so lacking in external dignity” compared to Rome and Paris, as she wrote in her 1934 memoir “A Backward Glance.”
In an 1879 issue of The Real Estate Record and Guide, the architect Henry Hardenbergh called Rebecca Jones’s effort “one of the best blocks in the city.” He certainly felt qualified to judge; at the time of the Jones commission he was working for Lienau.
Although Rebecca’s block looks austere in retrospect, the 1881 guidebook New York Illustrated praised the row for “the happy union of lightness with the idea of mass and dignity,” which gave the buildings “a genial, homelike aspect.”
The warm green of Ohio stone can be beautiful, but Wharton recoiled when she saw it. In a posthumous article published in Harper’s Weekly in 1938 she derided Rebecca’s houses as “a block of palegreenish limestone houses (almost uglier than the brownstone ones).” Although she depicted her Great-Aunt Mary as visionary in settling on then-desolate upper Fifth Avenue, she gave her Great-Aunt Rebecca no such credit.
But Rebecca was every bit as busy as her sister holding court uptown. The Daily Graphic described her 1873 invitation to the city’s debutantes for a “rose-bud party,” apparently an innovation, at her house on the 55th Street corner, No. 705. The guests were to meet “a select company of gentlemen,” and each young woman was to receive a bouquet of rosebuds.
Rebecca was “quite celebrated in social circles for the elegance and novelty of her entertainments,” The Evening Telegram said in 1874. Two years later, the paper described Rebecca and Mary as “at the head of the ultra fashionable Saratoga clique.”
Rebecca kept the corner house but rented out the others, several to her relatives; her row, too, was a Jones family affair. She enjoyed this domestic togetherness for only eight years, dying in 1879.
Reflecting on her social significance in 1880, The New York Sun said, with a hint of reproach, that in her house “many luxuries and delicacies, as well as many European forms of entertainment, were introduced which had been unknown to the thrift and simplicity of our grandfathers.”
At the turn of the century, Rebecca’s house was taken by the railroad entrepreneur Edward H. Harriman, and according to The New York Sun, its glory days continued: “Financiers galore walked up the short flight of steps at the side of the dwelling seeking a few minutes conference with ‘the Little Giant,’ ” the newspaper reported in 1910.
The Jones sisters’ trendsetting rowhouses gradually dwindled to nothing before the advance of development. Rebecca’s name was soon eclipsed, but Mary’s reputation has waxed in recent years. This is certainly Wharton’s doing, as she leads the reader of “The Age of Innocence” past “the one-story saloons, the wooden greenhouses in ragged gardens, the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene,” to Mrs. Mingott’s white marble outpost. But every time Wharton passed the saloons, the ragged gardens and the goats, she must also have passed Rebecca’s houses, a row that she barely noted.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 4, 2014
An earlier version of a headline with this article misspelled the author’s surname. She is Edith Wharton, not Warton.