Alice Green Hoffman is often described as an eccentric New York socialite, but her life was more complex than that. In 1920, at the age of 57, she controlled a real estate portfolio that included holdings in Paris, New York City, Connecticut, and Carteret County, NC. She regularly dealt with the highest ranks of business and government players in those locales. She never hesitated to call on her connections and expected attention and results.
Where did this wealth come from? How did these character traits take form, this attitude of entitlement? An understanding of the life and times of her Grandfather Theron R. Butler and his influence helps explain her life.
Butler Family History
According to a Butler Family History[i], compiled and published in 1919 by Henry Langdon Butler, the first Butler of the line from which Theron R. Butler descends left Sandwich, Kent, England, on the ship “Hercules” on June 9, 1637. That hearty and adventurous soul was one Nicholas Butler. The ship’s manifest identified 80 passengers, including Nicholas, his wife, Joice, three children and five servants. They arrived in New England two months later and built a home on a land grant Nicholas received in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
The Family History sketches the story of the expanding Butler clan and eventually arrives at the 10th generation, when Theron Rudd Butler, the youngest son of Charles and Mary Thompson Butler, was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on March 9, 1813. As a young man, he left New York and moved to Ohio, where, in 1839, he married Mary Beach. Their daughter, also named Mary, was born on December 6, 1840. Mary Butler, in 1860, married Albert W. Green of Ohio. This union produced three daughters: Alice Green (1862-1953), Grace Green (1865-1938), and Mary Butler Green (1872-1947).
Mrs. Mary Butler Green preferred living in New York City and resided with her parents in their five-story home at 433 Fifth Ave. between 38th and 39th Streets. Albert Green spent much of his time attending to business in Ohio. He was part owner of the Green-Joyce Department Store chain.
Alice, along with her sisters, spent formative years living in the Butler home on Fifth Ave., being raised by Mr. and Mrs. Butler and her sister. This was especially so after Alice’s mother died in 1872, after her daughter Mary’s birth. The U.S. census of 1880 shows Albert Green and his three daughters along with Theron and Marie Butler and her sister Helena living at 433 Fifth Ave., along with three servants.
The record does not reveal when Theron Butler moved from Ohio to New York, perhaps after his wife Mary Beach died in 1845 and after he married his second wife Marie E. Miller some years later. However, it is clear that by time the Green sisters are born— under his roof—he is well established, an influential citizen and successful businessman.
New York City 1860 – 1890
During the second half of the 19th century, New York City was as dynamic as it has ever been, and its citizenry represented the full spectrum of the human condition.[ii] Governance was in the hands of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed was its head. They used city finances to enrich themselves while at the same time, through a vast network of ward organizations and patronage, kept the city running. The Erie Canal, railroads, telegraph and telephone made New York the trade and industrial hub of the United States. Half the populations of the city were immigrants filling the tenements of lower Manhattan and the shantytowns of midtown. This constant arrival of new immigrants provided the cheap labor needed for new industries and major construction projects taking place throughout the city—public and private buildings, railroads, water and sewer systems, subways, and bridges. These conditions produced wealth and privilege for some while many faced low pay in dirty, dangerous work, crowded unsanitary living arrangements, limited opportunities, and the day-to-day struggle to pay rent or buy food. Orphanages and religious agencies worked to accommodate the thousands of abandoned and parentless children. The city was visited by a series of epidemics—tuberculosis, cholera, influenza, measles, and typhoid—with the impact not sparing any social class but weighing heaviest on the poor.
In this caldron the Butler-Green family thrived.
The Green sisters received much of their parental nurturing from their Butler grandparents, who generously shared their home, wealth, social standing, and ideals. The Butlers were storybook doting grandparents.
As early as the 1860s, Fifth Avenue was a developed thoroughfare as far north as the 50th Streets, with a mixed streetscape of residential, public, social, and retail establishments. The Butler family carriages and horses were kept in a stable located a block east on 38th Street. When the girls were young, Mr. Butler also kept a dairy cow at the stable. One of the servants would milk the cow every morning and bring the milk to the Butler kitchen before breakfast each day.[iii]
The prospects fluency in a foreign language, particularly French, were considered in the selection process when hiring servants, to expose the girls on a regular basis to the languages of Europe. Music lessons, both singing and piano were provided. Piano production in the US reached it peak during the last half of the 19th century, and a piano was a fixture in all proper homes. Educational opportunities extended beyond the home. Primary instruction was provided at the Williams School, located a few streets north on Fifth Ave. In her late teens, Alice attended Miss Porter’s School for Girls, a prestigious finishing school in Farmington, Connecticut, for four years.
When Alice was eight and in poor health, she had an extended stay with her father’s parents at their farm near Warren, Ohio. This exposure to outdoor activities and the farm had a positive effect on her health and started a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors.
The entire Butler household typically left the city in the heat of July and August, summering in Maine. The Profile House resort in the White Mountains was a favorite destination.
The wide-ranging interests of Theron Butler, many of which he brought home with him, exposed the girls to the better elements of the gilded age. The girls became aware of the family’s various business ventures, the politics of the day, the ins and outs of how business and government worked, and the important decision-makers around town. The home was a center for art and music, charitable activities and, of course, proper society.
New York Public Library Digital Collection
In addition to real estate, Theron Butler had extensive investment holdings in the form of stocks, bonds and mortgages. His holdings included railroads, utilities, toll roads, canals, and interests in textile mills in southern states. These securities were considered passive holdings, while he was actively involved with several businesses.
The annual meeting of the New York, Lake Erie and Western Railroad Company was held November 29, 1881. Along with other business, shareholders elected Theron R. Butler to the Board of Directors.[iv] He was a member of the board from the railroad’s founding in 1878 through 1884. The trust executor sold Butler’s stock holdings in this railroad in 1914 for $1,050,000. Adjusting for inflation, that would be $14,500,000 in today’s purchasing power.
A report in The New York Times of February 15, 1883, identified Theron R. Butler as the president of the Sixth-Avenue Line.[v] During this time, public commuter transportation was evolving in New York City. Surface railroads that ran on tracks at street level had existed for several decades. They started out as horse-drawn omnibuses, in some cases converting to steam engine power. In the late 1870s, as congestion of the city’s main thoroughfares grew intolerable, enterprising businessmen built elevated tracks to run steam- powered trains.
As innovations tend to be, these were very controversial, and legislation was passed that forbad them from the better paths of town. Fifth Ave. was never to be cast in the shadow and danger of elevated tracks. These streetcar lines, whether street level or elevated, were private monopolies run with the intent of maximizing profits for the owners. The rapidly expanding population meant that the cars were nearly always filled to capacity, assuring steady profits. A report in the Grange Library Museum News of September 1, 1881, included the following note: “Theron R. Butler is one of the principal street railroad monopolists of New York city.”
Depicted below are the holdings of the Theron Butler trust as of 1909.
Railroads, streetcars, toll roads . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 690,000
Gas utility, publishing, printing, insurance . . . . . . . $ 63,000
Bonds and Mortgages
In Manhattan and Bronx . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$ 664,000
Manhattan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$ 617,000
Paintings and Statuary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 264,000
An accounting of the estate as of 1919, produced by United States Trust Company of New York, gave a total value of $3,313,000. In today’s economics, that equates to $52,860,000.
A music room, library, and personal art collection were additions to enhance the grandeur of a gilded era home. Over the years, Theron assembled a notable collection, including over 50 works by both American and European artists such as Marie-Francois Firmin-Girard (1838-1921), William Bouguereau (1825-1905), Charles Baugniet (1814-1886), Jehan Vibert (1840-1902), Eduardo Zamacois (1841-1871), Felix Ziem (1821-1911), Vicente Palmaroli (1834-1896), Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), Jean-Baptiste-Camille Coret (1796-1875), Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891).
Firmin-Girard LE QUAI AUX FLEURS acquired from the artists in 1876 for $22,500 (over $480,00 today)[vi]
To aid the Baptist Home For The Aged, Butler opened his home and art collection for public exhibition. “The pictures of Theron R. Butler...have been arranged for public exhibition in the drawing-rooms of the dwelling No. 433 Fifth-avenue.” [vii]
Mrs. Theron R. Butler is included in a list of “collections of great merit” in the 1889 issue of Art Attractions of New York, published by the National Academy of Design. [viii]
In 1910, Theron Butler’s estate executors auctioned the Butler collection. Today much of the collection is on exhibit in Art Museums around the country.
The Butlers appear in the Society pages with frequency.
Under the heading “Society Topics of the Week” was the note that a “Tuesday Tea was given by Mrs. Theron Butler to introduce Miss Mary Butler Green.” The list of Teas was preceded by the following paragraph that paints a grand picture of life on the avenue, Fifth Avenue, in 1891.
"There seems to be a general disposition to enjoy the winter’s gayeties to the utmost and to start the ball rolling at the liveliest of paces. The week has been gay from start to finish, and the up-town fashionable avenues and streets have presented a picture dear to the lover of urban scenes, with throngs of handsome women and men richly costumed promenading at late afternoon, and with a creaseless movement of equipages during the afternoon and evening hours. All is and has been for the past few days glitter and gayety, and the cool, crisp air has made the first events of the season all the more enjoyable."[ix]
Society Page Editor
After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Theron R. Butler took an active part in Republican politics in New York City to assure the transition of executive branch power to Vice President Andrew Johnson.
At the meeting advertised above, The New York Times reported that Theron Butler was elected a vice president of the New York National Union organization.
That same year, The New York Times reported:
Union electors of the Eleventh Assembly District of New York City organized a Marshall O. Roberts Club with THERON R. BUTLER as president to lead the effort. Resolutions were adopted naming MARSHALL O. ROBERTS and MURRAY HOFFMAN as the candidates of the club for Mayor and Corporation Counsel, The club agreed to meet nightly, till Mr. ROBERTS is elected . . .
The New York Times of July 1874 reported that President Ulysses Grant appointed Clifton B. Fisk, Henry H. Sibley, and Theron R. Butler to the Board of Indian Commissioners.[x] Congress, on April 10, 1869, authorized President Grant to organize this board of not more than ten persons "to be selected by him from men eminent for their intelligence and philanthropy, to serve without pecuniary compensation.[xi]
Impact on the Green Sisters
The Butler and Green family fortunes provided income and property to the Green sisters—Alice, Mary, and Grace—from their late teens and for the remainder of their lives. They did not own these assets and property directly, but shared them through trusts stipulated in the wills of Theron R. Butler and Albert Green respectively. At its peak in early 1920s, the Theron Butler trust was valued in today’s economics at $55,000,000 and the Green trust at a lesser amount but still in the millions.
Being born into, and raised in a home with seemingly limitless financial where-with-all exposed Alice to all the advantages the guided age could bring. Alice’s later life indicates that she absorbed the world of Grandfather Butler and made it her own. She approached life with the same wide-ranging interest that Theron did, perhaps not always as successfully as Grandpa, but with the same jump-in-with-both-feet attitude and willingness to take on many challenges simultaneously.
Post Author: Walt Zaenker
[i] Tales of Our Kinsfolk, Our Butler Ancestors, by Henry Langdon Butler, published in New York, 1919
[ii] This paragraph based on material from Lights and Shadows of New York Life, by James D. McCabe, Jr., first published in 1872.
[iii] Alice Green Hoffman papers, collection #127, Joyner Library, ECU, Greenville, NC
[iv] The New York Times, business section, Wednesday, November 30, 1881
[v] The New York Times, Tuesday, February 1883
[vi] Sothebys auction catalogue, 2014, 19th century European art
[vii] The New York Times, Saturday, November 24, 1877
[viii] National Academy Notes, No.9 (1889), published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art
[ix] The NewYork Times, Sunday, December 13, 1891
[x] The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, 1874, page 378
[xi] United States Statutes at Large, XVI, 40.