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Burning of the Phelps Home

Many Paintings Destroyed

A Disastrous Fire in the Home of William Walter Phelps

The fire at the residence of Congressman William Walter Phelps, at Teaneck, N.J., which broke out Sunday evening at 6:30 o'clock, did its work with great completeness. Of the building itself there is nothing left but bare walls, and of the valuable paintings in the art gallery about half a dozen pictures are the only survivors.

Just before the fire broke out Mrs. Phelps, who, with Miss Marian, her daughter, were the only members of the family at home, noticed a very strong smell of gas, and she hurried to the house of William Bennett, Mr. Phelps's Superintendent and told him of it. Mr. Bennett went at once to the house and found the smell of gas was strongest in the vicinity of the art gallery. He started to throw open the ventilators, but as he did so there was a sharp explosion in the gallery, which is on the north side of the house and the next thing Bennett knew the whole roof of the gallery was in flames and he was lying on the floor in the gallery, stunned and bruised and with the glass from the shattered skylight falling on his feet and legs. Mrs. Phelps was in the corridor leading to the gallery and was somewhat shocked by the explosion.

The building burned with great rapidity. At first the fire was fiercest in the art gallery, and only five or six pictures were saved. Miss Marian Phelps with much bravery rushed into the burning gallery two or three times and did what she could toward saving the pictures. Neighbors and the Englewood Fire Department hurried to the scene and did all in their power to save the furniture. The fire hose on the premises was soon rendered useless. The valuable silverware was carried out by P. H. Hover and the butler. The books in the library at the east end, almost all of the furniture, bric-a-brac and pictures outside of the art gallery were saved, but the rich carpetings and hangings were mostly destroyed.

Mr. Bennett says that, in his opinion, the gas accumulated in some way just under the roof of the art gallery, and that as soon as it found an aperture through which to escape into the corridor where the chandeliers were burning it ignited, and the explosion followed. The gas-piping was so wrenched that it separated and the gas came pouring into the woodwork in a blaze. Bennett estimates the loss at between $150,000 and $200,000 outside of the pictures. Mr. Phelps had not reached home from Washington yesterday afternoon and Mrs. Phelps said that she would prefer to have him answer questions relative to the fire.

The art collection which was destroyed included a large picture of James. G. Blaine, "Damascus," by Church, which was valued at $10,000 and which was ordered by Mr. Phelps's father, but not finished until after his death: a large landscape also said to be worth $10,000, a painting by Rouzard representing an Arab and camels halted in the desert, a Russian scene by Necynskia, and many others, probably 40 altogether. The life-size three-quarter length crayon of James A. Garfield, which is said to have been the last one made of the President and which hung in his room at Elberon and was afterward presented to Mr. Phelps by Mrs. Garfield, was in the drawing room and was saved. Several articles are supposed to have been stolen during the excitement. Miss Phelps's jewel case was found empty, and it was thought yesterday that its valuable contents might be stolen. The loss will probably reach $400,000 or more. No one at the residence yesterday was able to estimate the insurance.

New York Times, New York, N.Y., April 2, 1888, page 8



The Art Treasures And Books Nearly All Destroyed -- Loss Over $100,00

The beautiful mansion of William Walker Phelps, Teaneck Grange, near Englewood, N.J., with its wealth of valuable the paintings and luxurious equipment, was totally destroyed by fire last evening. The fire began at about half past 6 o'clock in the art gallery, where many masterpieces of great painters, living and dead, were stored. A defective jet cause the escape of a large volume of gas into the gallery, and the explosive mixture of air and gas was ignited by an open grate fire. That whole portion of the house was in flames in an incredibly short time -- so short, in fact, that of all the art treasures only two paintings were saved by a servant.

The fire made rapid headway, and after leaving the newer and more valuable portion of the mansion, in ruins, spread to the older part. The attempts of neighbors and servants to combat flames were too feeble to be of any avail.

By ten o'clock the entire building was destroyed. Most of the valuable furniture was removed from the older part of the house while the fire raged in the other wings, but the loss of most of the contents of Mr. Phelps's library could not be prevented. Mr. Phelps was in Washington at the time, Mrs. Phelps and Miss Phelps being the only members of the family at home. They were taken to a place of safety in a neighbor's house, and remained there during the night. The total loss as nearly as could be ascertained, was over $100,000, but the value of rare books and paintings, which cannot be replaced, is inestimable.

A Description of the House

Mr. Phelps's house was unique, there being nothing like it in that neighborhood. It stood in the centre of all large park in the middle of that great tract of land of 1,100 acres which comprises Teaneck Grange, and extends from Hackensack to the Palisades on the Hudson. Everything on this beautiful spot, which is larger than Central Park, has been brought to the highest state of cultivation, and the place is undoubtedly not only one of the largest, but one of the prettiest country seats in the United States. The house itself was a rambling building, between 200 and 300 feet in length and ranging from one and a half to three stories in height. The new part was 100 feet long, and constructed of Palisades bluestone.

The art gallery, in which the fire began, was a lofty room, built of the same material. A large portion of the rest of the house was of Jersey brownstone, this part including the original Jersey farmhouse which Mr. Phelps bought, and to which he made additions. Between the brownstone wings was a wooden portion nearly 100 feet in length.

On the first four of the house was a library forty feet square; an office still larger, containing Mr. Phelps's law library and business papers; a large drawing-room, two or three bedrooms, a smoking-room, a dining-room, in which dinner could be served to thirty or forty guests, and the large picture gallery mentioned above. On the same level, also, in the other wings was a series of bedrooms. The whole building was crowded with books, engravings, souvenirs of travel, Eastern rugs and all manner of costly decorations likely to be gathered by a traveler of taste and means.

Gems of The Picture Gallery.

The picture gallery contained a large landscape painted by Church, of the National Academy, on a commission given by Mr. Phelps's father, as well as a number of other examples of the best American art, together with modern pictures, English, French and German, from the best artists. There was a portrait of the Emperor of Austria and one of the his Prime Ministers, both of which were presented to Mr. Phelps when he left Vienna after redesigning the office of Minister to Austria. Many other pictures in the gallery related to his life abroad. An original portrait of President Garfield, one of the best in existence, was an ornament to the collection. Another painting of note was a portrait of General Grant, seated beside Robert Bonner, driving Maud S.

New York Tribune, April 2, 1888, p. 12

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