Donald Trump, known for his real estate development ventures and now presidential candidacy, enjoys being in the spotlight. But before Trump was putting up luxury towers around New York City, the reclusive Wendel family drove the development of the early 20th Century Big Apple from their closed-up Fifth Avenue mansion. Julie Satow, contributor to The New York Times, dives into old accounts, records, and tidbits from periodicals dating back more than 100 years to profile the Wendel real estate dynasty in Manhattan.
The powerful tycoons, a family made up of unmarried siblings--six sisters and one brother--that all lived together in one shuttered mansion without electricity, owned more than 150 properties stretching from the Bowery to Fifth Avenue, and from Wall Street to the Upper West Side, totaling over $1 billion by today's standards. The family was known at the time as "the Weird Wendels," for their outdated Victorian outfits, lack of a telephone, and reclusive lifestyle that purposely kept them out of the public eye. But as wealthy as they were, they lived extremely simply. The brother, John G. Wendel II, is said to have forbade his sisters from marrying and having children so as not to divide up their property holdings among spouses and heirs.
The Wendels had a unique investment strategy, and they were particular about their business dealings: never mortgage a property; never sell anything; never pay for repairs; and never forget that Broadway moves uptown at a rate of 10 blocks a decade. In the early part of the 20th century, New York City was rapidly growing, but the Wendel belief in never parting with a parcel often stood in the way of progress. Among the civic headaches they caused: When the city needed a Wendel property on Dey Street to build the Hudson Terminal station, now demolished, the family declined to sell it. “Fighting off people who want to buy or seize our real estate has been a constant occupation of the family for more than 200 years,” John G. Wendel II, the lone brother and de facto patriarch, told The New York Tribune in an interview cited in his obituary in December 1914. “The city,” he added, “has been the main offender.”
But with so much property and so many hard-headed decisions behind their development strategy, the Wendels played a major role in shaping New York City. Untroubled by financial necessity, the family would sometimes allow buildings to sit vacant for decades if they couldn’t find the sort of tenant they wanted. They refused to rent to saloons, restaurants or theaters, and once held up a lease until they could verify the tenants’ first aid kits wouldn’t include more than a pint of whiskey. In other instances, the Wendels were generous, even softhearted landlords. They kept a valuable SoHo lot vacant so children from neighboring tenements could play on it.