Before Donald Trump’s moniker was stamped all over New York City, there was another super-rich surname that dominated Manhattan real estate, and another bizarre story attached to it.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the Wendels were one of the most powerful real estate families in New York, owning 150 properties in Manhattan, worth about $1 billion today. But they certainly didn’t act the part. The six Wendel siblings—five of whom were women—lived together in a mansion on 5th Avenue and barely ever set foot outside the house. The four-story, 40-room red brick brownstone became known as the “House of Mystery,” where “the Weird Wendels” lived like hermits.
John G. Wendel, the one male, was eccentric at best, tyrannical at worst. He refused to allow his sisters to marry, worried that any children they had would dilute the family fortune. He gave them few opportunities to socialize with others, and lived like a recluse stuck in his ways. The house, built in 1856, was lit by gaslight up through the 1920s, eschewing modern amenities like electricity or telephone. Decades went by without any updates made to the musty furniture or decor, or the Wendels’ clothing—they wore outdated Victorian garb and traversed the city in an old carriage instead of a car on the rare occasion they went out.
The last of the Wendel siblings, Ella, passed away in 1931. She left the Wendel home to Drew University requesting it remain as a memorial to the family in its current state (such that it was). The university maintains a memorial room on campus, but the prized site on 5th Avenue was razed in 1934 and gave way to commercial properties like the rest of the formerly residential avenue.
Today there are a few reminders of the Wendel empire, outside a vault at Trinity Cemetery in lower Manhattan, and a bronze plaque the size of a door at the site of the former Wendel home on 5th Avenue.
Know Before You Go
Right on the sidewalk.