A Village Resident: Robert de Forest and NYU
Today’s entry is written by Aleksandr Gelfand, an archives assistant at the New York University Archives and student in the Archives and Public History Program at NYU.
In March of 1922, Elmer Ellsworth Brown, Chancellor of New York University, wrote a letter to Robert de Forest, a prominent lawyer and social reformer, asking him to join the Council of the University. De Forest was a perfect candidate for that governing body. A long-time resident of Greenwich Village, he grew up alongside the recently created University.
By the time he received the offer from Chancellor Brown, de Forest was already in charge of a large number of organizations and had to decline the offer. In his reply de Forest noted:
“My standard of directors’ responsibility involves fair knowledge of corporate affairs and ability to render real service. I cannot extend my duties in these particulars. What with the Art Museum, the Art Commission, the Sage Foundation, the Charity Organization Society and the American Federation of Arts, not to speak of other things or other relations, partly business and partly trust, my full time and energy is more than absorbed. I must not increase duties of this kind however I would otherwise like to do so.”
Although de Forest did not directly become involved in helping with the governance of NYU, he and his family had an extensive involvement with that institution of higher learning and the community where it is located, Greenwich Village. Today, on his 165th birthday, we take a look back at his life.
Robert de Forest was born on April 25, 1848, on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village to an old New York family. His ancestor, Jesse de Forest, was the original leader of a group of Walloon emigrants who were given permission to settle in the newly established city of New Amsterdam, the future New York.
As a child, de Forest played in the shadows of a barely two-decade old New York University, then known as the University of the City of New York, in Washington Square Park. Many years later, de Forest was able to recall being able to ride his high seated bicycle up an almost empty Broadway due to a lack of traffic.
Robert de Forest attended Yale University and Columbia University, becoming a lawyer in 1872. His association with New York University began through his wife, Emily Johnston. Her grandfather, John Johnston, was one of the original founders of NYU in 1831. Johnston had constructed two of the row houses, numbers 6 and 7, on Washington Square North; the latter became his permanent home. In the early years of the institution, 7 Washington Square North became the center of social life for friends of the University. Johnston himself frequently made contributions to ease financial strains in its formative years. His son, John Taylor Johnston, an 1839 graduate, went on to serve as head of the University Council from 1872 to 1886. When Robert de Forest married Emily Johnston, they moved into 7 Washington Square North, just blocks from where he was born, and would remain there for the rest of their lives. Decades later, when asked why he had remained in the Village when everyone else had moved uptown, de Forest responded:
“I have lived in Washington Square and in its neighborhood continuously for nearly half a century. I expect to live there for the rest of my life. Occasionally some of my friends ask me why. Why don’t I move up into the millionaire district, now located east of Central Park? I answer: ‘Because I want a permanent home in New York. …’
“I have known times when the residential quality of Washington Square was threatened. When I first went to live there a foundling asylum was located on the north side. Later on business invaded the streets extending between Broadway and the easterly frontage of the Square. But the love of the residents for their old family homes and the desire of newcomers for a like permanency of home feeling have averted their dangers…”
At the end of the 19th century, as the area around the original Greenwich Village location increasingly became overcrowded, Henry MacCracken, the new Chancellor of the University, began looking for additional space further uptown. A prime location was discovered in the Bronx in 1891 where the estate belonging to H.W.T. Mali, consul general for Belgium, was for sale. As chance would have it, Mali had earlier been a part-time student of the University, and his nephew Pierre was married to a sister of Emily de Forest. These facts may have made Mali more disposed to sell his estate to NYU in separate parcels, allowing the University Council to obtain mortgages and purchase the lots over the following three years.
As the new campus was rapidly coming into its own, Chancellor MacCracken continued to be on the lookout to augment its size. The chance came in the early 1900s when the Schwab estate, the property to the south of the Mali estate, came on the market. Looking for a wealthy benefactor to help the University acquire this land, MacCracken approached Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, the recent widow of financial tycoon Russell Sage. Robert de Forest, a personal friend, advisor and lawyer to Mrs. Sage, became a negotiator between the two parties.
In his initial extant communication, de Forest suggested they discuss Mrs. Sage giving the University a “moderate amount” to help in acquiring the property. Chancellor MacCracken instantly took de Forest up on the offer and in a letter sent out the next day, de Forest officially confirmed Mrs. Sage’s willingness to assist:
“Mrs. Sage is ready to give up to $300,000 to acquire the Schwab property, or such of it as the University requires for its use, and I wish by this letter to put you in a position to act on this understanding. She would not wish to have the matter pressed by the University to the detriment of making the best terms.”
The acquisition of the property assured, MacCracken wrote to Mrs. Sage:
“It is with a profound gratitude that I am just now assured that a contract on favorable terms will be completed tomorrow (October 18, the 76th anniversary of the organization, 1830, of New York University) which will make our Site at University Heights the most glorious possessed by any University in the World.”
The final price negotiated by the University for the estate was $295,250, well within the amount offered by Mrs. Sage.
Robert de Forest remained on friendly terms with the University in his neighborhood over the rest of his life. He attended the ninetieth anniversary of its founding in 1921 as the representative of the Johnston family. In 1927, in his capacity as president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he offered to the University a large Edgar Allan Poe Memorial statue that the museum was no longer able to display. NYU had already had a bust of Poe in their Hall of Fame at the University Heights campus and decided to reject the offer.
de Forest died on May 6, 1931, only a few weeks after New York University celebrated its centennial. His funeral took place at the First Presbyterian Church at Fifth Avenue and Eleventh Street in a neighborhood that he had referred to as an oasis amid a crowded metropolis.