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After the Hickories: William Howard Curtiss: Visionary or Failed Promoter?

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

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 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, an enterprise that 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 on 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 had 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 parklike 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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