The Hilariously Tragic Tale of the Cartier Mansion
It was a stunning reversal of fortune—one of New York’s greatest palaces traded for a soon-to-be-worthless necklace.
Stand where 52nd Street crosses Fifth Avenue and look around. On three of the intersection’s four corners sit cuboid monuments to retail banality. This patch of Fifth Avenue, for all its global reputation as a luxury shopping mecca, is architecturally unattractive.
The northeast corner is home to Salvatore Ferragamo, unremarkable except during the holidays when its facade is festooned with a red LED-light ribbon and bow. The northwest corner hosts a multi-story Zara, an anchor of 666 Fifth Avenue of Kushner Realty infamy. To the southwest is Nike’s new flagship store, sheathed in rippling black glass.
But turn to the southeast and you’ll find something different. Like a gilded age fever dream, the Cartier store at 653 Fifth Avenue disrupts the 21st century streetscape with its five floors of intricately detailed limestone. A literal jewel-box of a building, Cartier’s New York “temple” is one of the only survivors of what was once an unbroken chain of mansions on what was commonly known as “Vanderbilt Row.”
This uncommon survivor, home to Cartier since 1917, was completed in 1905 for Morton Freeman Plant, heir to his father’s southern railroad and steamship empire. A portrait of Morton’s second wife, Maisie Plant, still hangs in the store. How this mansion became a jewelry store is a tale which over a century has evolved into legend. It involves a million-dollar pearl necklace, Vanderbilt snobbery, and Florida rail development.
To set the scene, imagine yourself standing where 52nd Street crosses Fifth Avenue, but the year is 1904. To the northeast is an empty lot where once stood the Langham Hotel. It, along with most of the neighboring plots of land, was purchased by the Vanderbilts in an attempt to exorcise commercial properties from their pocket of exclusivity. To the northwest is the extravagant chateau of William Kissam Vanderbilt, completed in 1882.
The southwest corner is consumed all the way to 51st Street by the “Triple Palace” of William Henry Vanderbilt. And across from the Triple Palace, on the southeast corner of the intersection, construction is underway on a new mansion, this one built by Morton Freeman Plant. The Vanderbilts sold this parcel to Plant under the explicit agreement that he would keep it as a residential property for at least 25 years.
Such an agreement wouldn’t have been necessary just a few years prior, but commercial encroachment into their exclusive pocket of Manhattan had forced the Vanderbilts’ hand. In effect, they became real estate barons on a hyper-local scale, buying up neighboring properties in an attempt to control their fate and preserve the area’s character.
“It is an expensive luxury to live in Fifth Avenue and keep business encroachments at a distance,” the New York Times declared in a lengthy 1904 article profiling the family’s attempts to safeguard their interests. “To protect that part of Fifth Avenue in the immediate vicinity of their residences from undesirable forms of structures has already cost various members of the Vanderbilt family nearly $4,000,000.”
Morton Plant was deemed worthy of purchasing a plot from the Vanderbilts, and work quickly got underway on construction of his stately new mansion. Its entrance would face 52nd Street, with a high fence and deep basement “moat” providing the home with an acceptable level of privacy. Plant moved in with his second wife, Nellie (nee Capron) and son Henry in 1905.
The Plants and their new neighbors, the Vanderbilts, had more in common than simply being wealthy. Both families inherited their millions from fathers who built their fortunes on rail and shipping development. The Vanderbilts’ patriarch, “the Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, established the New York Central Railroad which connected the city to all points north. Plant’s father, Henry Bradley Plant, made his money in the opportunistic ashes of the postbellum South, building and expanding rail lines across Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.
Henry Bradley Plant was born to a farming family in southern Connecticut in 1819. Despite his grandmother’s wish to send him to Yale to study as a minister, Henry instead set off in 1837 to work as a captain’s boy aboard a fleet of steamboats running between New Haven and New York City. He was soon promoted to be in charge of the company’s “express shipment” arm, a relatively new concept at the time whereby packages could be shipped quickly and safely from point to point. Young Plant managed the express business into a financial success for the company.
By 1853, Plant was married with a son, and had moved to New York to work full-time in the express shipping business. His wife, Ellen Elizabeth Blackstone Plant, was just 32 that year when she began suffering from an affliction of the lungs. Doctors encouraged the family to go to Florida for the winter, hoping the warmth and tropical air might help her. It took eight days to get from New York to Jacksonville by steamship, first to Charleston, then to Savannah, and finally to Florida itself. (Flights today take just over two hours.)
Jacksonville in 1853 was “a settlement of a few shanties,” according to an 1898 biography of Plant, and Florida was altogether a wilderness little explored by Northern industrialists. It had only become a state in 1845 and its population consisted largely of enslaved Africans working sugar plantations in the panhandle and a remaining community of Seminole Natives down in the southern reaches of the peninsula. Roads, where they existed, were dirt paths scratched through dense swamp and pine forest.
Arriving in Jacksonville, Plant and his wife found little in the way of the northern urbanity or convenience they were accustomed to. The town boasted just one hotel, which was “so badly kept that the gentleman was cautioned against going to it.” They instead took a dugout canoe across the St. John’s River and stayed at “Strawberry Mills,” the stately plantation home of John S. Sammis seven miles from town.
Florida’s climate agreed with Mrs. Plant such that her cough was completely gone within months. The couple returned to the South in the Fall of 1854, with Henry heading the southern division of the Adams Express Company, a southern shipping outfit based in New York. Plant expanded the company’s reach, securing deals with local rail and steamship companies across South.
In 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, the New York-based owners of the Adams Express Company feared for their financial interests in the South. They sold the business to Henry Plant, who reincorporated in Augusta, Georgia, as the Southern Express Company. Plant, at age 42, was now in charge of his own shipping empire.
After his wife died in 1862, Plant focused his efforts on keeping his company afloat through the war. It was named the official mode of shipment for the government of the Confederacy, and when orders were handed down by President Jefferson Davis that all non-Confederate citizens must evacuate the South, the Northerner Plant was allowed to stay to keep and run his business. He emerged from the war in a position of strength and greatly expanded influence.
Plant used earnings from his Southern Express Company to buy regional railway systems as they floundered and went bankrupt during the 1870s financial crisis. He purchased his first railroad, a coastal route based in Savannah running up into South Carolina, in 1879. By 1882, he formed the Plant Investment Company with plans to buy, lease, or build rail lines all the way down to Florida. There was one problem: Florida maintained a decades-old law, backed by local boating interests, which forbade any railroads from crossing its border.
Henry Plant, in 1879, attempted to drive his new rail network southward, from Savannah through Waycross, Georgia, and on to Jacksonville. But Florida wouldn’t let him in. Undeterred, Plant purchased the East Florida Railroad, headquartered in Jacksonville, and built it north. When his Georgian railroad and Floridian railroad met on opposite sides of the St. Mary’s River, Plant constructed a “pier” for each. The two piers just happened to meet in the middle of the river, forming a bridge. By this trick, Plant forced Florida onto the national rail network.
It had been nearly three decades since Plant first visited Jacksonville with his wife, arriving by steamship and navigating by canoe. Relatively little had changed for much of southern Florida in all that time. Plant believed that it could be developed as a prosperous destination for all Americans seeking lush gardens and good air. “It seemed to me,” he recollected in 1898, “that all South Florida needed for a successful future was a little spirit and energy, which could be fostered by transportation facilities.”
Tampa, on a large bay on Florida’s west coast, was a sleepy fishing village of some 700 people when Plant decided to make it the coastal terminus of his new Floridian rail line in the 1880s. Completed in 1884, the new rail line connected tiny Tampa to the inland port town of Sanford, south of modern Orlando, from which passengers could take steamships up the St John’s River to Jacksonville. A separate Rail line between Jacksonville and Sanford was completed in 1886, officially connecting Tampa to the rest of the nation.
“Tampa at once began to spread itself, and ever since has been fairly bounding along the road to greatness. It has now a population of about ten thousand, and is rapidly increasing.” Within a decade, the city was a veritable boomtown, exporting phosphate, cigars, and citrus fruits, and providing high-speed steamship service to Key West, Havana, and points beyond.
To bolster his presence in Tampa, Plant constructed an immense $2,000,000 hotel near the town’s train station. A reporter for the New York Times, touring Florida in 1889, wrote of the partially-completed building: “The part that is finished is covered with domes and towers, and is big enough itself to accommodate a great many visitors.”
Plant had remarried in 1873, to New Yorker Margaret Josephine Loughman, who was 25 years his junior. She helped design and furnish the interiors of the hotel, turning it into a beacon of comfort. No traveler to Florida would ever again struggle to find appropriate accommodation the way Henry and his late wife had when they arrived in Jacksonville by steamship in 1853.
Henry Bradley Plant spent the remaining decade of his life expanding and strengthening his rail empire. Though he maintained a home at 586 Fifth Avenue in New York, “to say that Mr. Plant resided anywhere for any length of time would be misleading,” stated the New York Times in his 1899 front-page obituary. “For he had a traveling residence in his private [train] car, ’No. 100,’ and this abode was more his real home than the Fifth Avenue structure.
Henry and his son Morton Freeman Plant were relative strangers to one another. While Henry built his railroad empire in the South, Morton was educated in Connecticut and began working for the Southern Express Company in 1868, joining its Memphis office when he was just 16 years old. He became Vice President of the Plant System railroads in 1884.
By most accounts, Morton was a savvy businessman, devoted yachtsman, and longtime philanthropist. Like many sons-of-industrialists in the Gilded Age, Morton was more interested in living a comfortable life than in running a business. Following his father’s death, Morton took control of the Plant fortune and orchestrated the company’s sale to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1902.
Wasting little time, Morton began to make moves up the social ladder. He constructed a palatial country estate, “Branford House,” near New London, Connecticut, and began looking for a site on Fifth Avenue on which to build a proper city home for himself and his wife Nellie. He found such a site on the southeast corner of 52nd Street, an empty plot fastidiously owned and guarded by the Vanderbilt family against any unsuitable neighbors. Plant, heir to one of the nation’s more storied railroad empires, was a welcome addition to the block. He purchased the land, promising to keep it as a residential structure for at least 25 years.
Plant enlisted architect Robert W. Gibson to design for him a stately mansion, rising five stories above a sunken basement. Its entrance on 52nd Street featured an arched doorway large enough to allow a carriage to pull inside. The facade was festooned with richly carved details, including four multi-story columns topped by a triangular pediment as well as an elaborately decorated cornice and fifth floor.
The home was completed in 1905 and the Plants quickly became ensconced in Fifth Avenue society. Morton took pleasure in yachting, belonging to the New York, Indian Harbor, and Larchmont Yacht Clubs, among others. He was owner or part-owner of two baseball teams and he gifted more than $1,000,000 cash for the founding of a women’s college in Connecticut after Wesleyan ceased admitting female students in 1909.
In the summer of 1913, Morton’s wife, Nellie Plant, fell ill with typhoid fever. When she died at their Connecticut estate that August, half of her obituary was dedicated to the fact that Morton’s schooner yacht “The Elena,” had just won the Astor Cup at Newport.
Just nine months later, a notice appeared in the New York Times announcing that Morton F. Plant was to be married again, this time to recently-divorced Mae Cadwell Manwaring of Hartford, Connecticut. Mae had only been granted a divorce from her husband Selden the previous month, citing “intolerable cruelty.” Rumors swirled that Plant had paid Mr. Manwaring $8,000,000 to agree to the divorce. The new couple was wed at Branford House on June 17, 1914. He was 62, she was 33.
Maisie Plant moved into the Fifth Avenue mansion her new husband had built ten years prior, but by this time, the neighborhood was losing the battle against commercialism. The area so jealously and expensively protected by a generation of Vanderbilts was increasingly unrecognizable, with shops and hotels popping up on almost every block.
One by one, wealthy neighbors were decamping, selling their mansions to developers and moving uptown. The Plants likewise acquired a large plot of land at the northeast corner of 86th Street and Fifth Avenue, commencing construction of a large but relatively reserved new home. Work began in November 1915.
This is where the story of the old Plant Mansion begins to get hazy, morphing into legend. The most commonly-told version of the tale is that the jeweler Cartier had an exquisite double-strand of perfectly round and balanced natural pearl necklaces on display in its shop window at 712 Fifth Avenue. They were offered for sale at over one million dollars. Maisie Plant, a regular Cartier customer, saw the pearls and coveted them.
Seated next to Pierre Cartier at a dinner party, Maisie Plant struck up a conversation with him about the pearls. Cartier was on the hunt for a worthy new location for his jewelry business’s New York headquarters. The Plants were already planning to move uptown, so their home was available. A pseudo-barter deal was sealed: Cartier would pay the Plants $100 plus the two pearl necklaces in exchange for the Plants’ soon-to-be-vacant home on Fifth Avenue.
That’s the legend. But there are some questionable aspects to this story. The New York Times reported in October 1916 that the Plants had sold their home to the Vanderbilts for $1,000,000, who then leased it to Cartier for $50,000 per year. But then in July 1917, there was a real estate notice in which Cartier is listed as having purchased the home from Plant. Might the Vanderbilt sale have been called off? Why no mention of the pearl necklace exchange?
Pearls at the time were more valuable than diamonds. The import, sale, and theft of expensive strands was endlessly reported in contemporary newspapers, and a woman’s wealth and standing in society was judged by the length and quality of her pearls. Cartier had spent years painstakingly collecting 128 large and perfectly round pearls, which they turned into two strands of 55 and 73, each with a 3.5-carat diamond on its platinum clasp. Surely, if he had traded such a necklace for Plant’s Fifth Avenue mansion, it would be a major news story.
Morton Plant died in 1918, and Maisie went on to remarry twice more. When she died in 1956, her “dust-filled house of romantic memories” at 86th Street was emptied and demolished, its contents auctioned off the following year. Two of the items which sold: a pair of remarkable pearl necklaces by Cartier.
The auction booklet noted, “[These strands] constitute two of the most magnificent necklaces of Oriental pearls ever to be offered at public sale. They were assembled by Messrs. Cartier over a period of years prior to 1916, at which time the necklaces were considered the finest in their collection. At this period the late owner (then Mrs. Plant) owned and occupied the present Cartier building on Fifth Avenue, and, being desirous of moving further uptown, entered into an arrangement with Messrs. Cartier by which the land and building were exchanged for the two necklaces, which were valued at a figure of over one million dollars in the transaction.”
In the 40 years since the Maisie acquired her strands from Cartier, the pearl industry had been turned on its head. As early as 1900, Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto Kokichi developed a process by which pearls could be induced to grow within mollusks. These “cultured” pearls were declared by the Academy of Science in Paris to be no different than “natural” pearls. “Pearls are pearls,” they concluded in 1921, “whether produced by the Japanese method of artificially stimulating their production in oysters or found in the usual manner.”
Mikimoto’s pearls could be produced, perfectly round and market-ready, in as little as ten years. With such speed and reliability, he began to flood the market by 1928, and the value of pearls, once more costly than diamonds, plummeted. Maisie Plant’s perfect double strand, which reportedly once paid for a million-dollar mansion, were sold at auction by Parke-Bernet Galleries in 1957. They brought just $165,000 and have not been seen since.
The story cropped up in a 1989 interview with Ralph Destino, then the chairman of Cartier’s American division. “It seems Morton F. Plant, a turn-of-the-century tycoon, fell for Maisey, a bubbly 19-year-old whirlwind,” the Times recounted. “Mr. Plant built her a Fifth Avenue mansion across from Grace Vanderbilt, her idol.” Maisie was 33 years old when she married Morton Plant in 1914, and his home on Fifth Avenue was already nearly a decade old by that time. So Mr. Destino’s story is obviously a romanticized version of events.
“Then, as Mr. Destino tells it, a glorious Cartier pearl necklace came to town on a world tour.” News reports of expensive jewels arriving in New York were plentiful in the 1910s. A pearl necklace worth $600,000 was shown by Dreicer & Co. in 1915. The same company is noted as importing “the richest string of pearls in the world” in February 1916, its fifty perfect beads worth $1,000,000. But any mention in the press of Cartier possessing such a specimen, giving it a world tour, much less trading it for a notable Fifth Avenue mansion is difficult or impossible to find.
The story of the pearl necklace has endured, however. It may well be true, beneath the patina of a century of retelling. It certainly adds a bit of mystique to the Cartier store, and indeed to Fifth Avenue, the notion that such a building could be purchased for jewels. Whatever the truth of the tale may be, if you enter the Cartier store today, look for the portrait of Maisie Plant which hangs in an alcove above one of the display cases. She sits in a blue chair, wearing a blue dress, a perfect double strand of pearls hanging from her neck.
Morton F. Plant’s home on Fifth Avenue remains a testament to a bygone era. It is a beautiful piece of architecture, to be sure. But it is also a home built on Vanderbilt land with Florida railroad money, sold to a jeweler for some pearls. Its story blended into legend, it survives as a reminder of the strange magnificence that was the Gilded Age.