William Howard Curtiss: Visionary or Failed Promoter?

Mar 8, 2013

The executors of the C.V.S. Roosevelt Jr. estate were enmeshed in a long dispute over his will, but upon its resolution, William Howard Curtiss of Ralston Ave., South Orange purchased the grand house and its land in March 1902. It is interesting to surmise his motives.

Curtiss was a financier of sorts who had just had a series of well-publicized failed business ventures. A former private secretary to John D. Rockefeller in the 1890s, (and before that an oil merchant, then a broker), Curtiss went on in 1900 to be the treasurer of the Third Avenue Elevated Railway in Manhattan, which went bankrupt despite his efforts to raise capital. He was a promoter of a Colorado silver mine which failed in 1901, and in 1902 took the role of an aggrieved stockholder suing U.S. Steel over the conversion of $200 million ($5 billion today) in bonds.

After these harsh losses no doubt W. H. Curtiss was tired of the financial world and wanted a change when he purchased the Roosevelt property from the estate’s executors for $60,000. Perhaps he saw real estate as a safe investment, or he wished to protect whatever wealth he had by buying land (in his wife, Lillie’s, name), or he did have a vision of how to develop the hillside into homes, including perhaps a home for himself in the old mansion. His real estate brochure for Roosevelt Park extolls the park-like land and “the benefits of railroad, trolley, telephones, telegraph, express and livery service” as well as a new school and delivery service from New York stores.

Yet, despite Curtiss’ connections with influential New Yorkers, real estate was not his forte either. He made only four sales in the two years before he sold the property to T.B. Ackerson in 1904.

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