By Eloise L. Morgan, Village Historian, Village of Bronxville
Feb. 15, 2017: In the course of designing dozens of private homes, apartments, public buildings, and other structures for Bronxville between 1890 and 1922, architect William Augustus Bates may well have written letters, kept his books, or even made preliminary sketches at his elegant mahogany secretary desk that the estate of his niece Frances Bates Wells recently donated to the Village of Bronxville.
Mrs. Wells, who grew up in Bronxville and graduated with the high school class of 1938, was the daughter of William Bates's younger brother, Col. Charles Francis Bates. In late January, her estate made a long-term loan of Bates's beautiful 19th-century drop-front secretary desk to the village, where it will be permanently displayed in the mayor's office at village hall.
"My mother treasured the desk," said Katherine Wells Power, who traveled to Bronxville from Dallas to oversee its delivery. "My sisters and I believe that our mother and her Uncle Will would have wanted the desk to be returned to Bronxville. Even though it was in Texas for more than 65 years, it fits into the mayor's office like it was always there." Katherine and her sisters, Marianne Wells, Nancy Wells Warder, and Sarah Wells Macias, previously donated William Bates's sketchbooks and a 1917 studio photograph portrait of the architect to the Bronxville History Center.
The Bates family ties to Bronxville go back to the beginning of Lawrence Park. William A. Bates was from William Lawrence's hometown, Monroe, MI, where the two families had been friends. As Lawrence began developing Lawrence Park on the old Prescott farm, he engaged Bates to design the first houses. At the time, William's younger brother, Charles, was a law student at Columbia University. Their aunt, Miss Frances Austin, who had raised the two boys after their mother died when they were children, moved to Lawrence Park as the first three homes were being built in 1890, and by 1891, Charles had become a resident of Bronxville. Miss Austin managed the Prescott Manor House (now 8 Prescott Avenue) as an inn and social center during the new park's earliest years.
When he began work in Lawrence Park, the 37-year-old Bates already had an extensive architectural practice. Between 1881 and 1887, he had designed a resort hotel complex in the White Mountains, much of which survives in the Jackson Falls (NH) Historic District. Between 1882 and 1891, he had also designed suburban houses in Cheyenne City, Wyoming Territory; Detroit, MI; Canton, OH; Mount Desert, ME; Short Hills, NJ; Quogue, NY; Flushing, NY; and Tuxedo Park, NY; as well as an inn at Ridgefield, CT.
For more than three decades, Bates, alone or with partners, put a lasting stamp on the face of Bronxville, designing more than 50 private homes, several apartment buildings, townhouse groups, and several multi-use residential/retail buildings, as well as the Hotel Gramatan, the original village hall, and school and church buildings. He worked in a variety of styles, including Queen Anne, Tudor Revival, Arts and Crafts, and Colonial Revival, but is best remembered locally for his elaborate Shingle Style houses on the Lawrence Park hilltop.
Although William Bates never married and never owned a house in Bronxville, the architect maintained an active social life in the village. Articles and social notes published in the Bronxville Review reflect a man who often entertained friends for dinner or bridge at the Hotel Gramatan, exhibited architectural drawings in local art shows, and enjoyed performing in amateur community plays. For many years he maintained offices and apartments in New York City, but he often lodged at the Hotel Gramatan, sometimes for months at a time, and was considered a permanent resident of the hotel when he died.
Bates's desk is believed to have been in Bronxville from at least the late 1910s through 1950. It was likely among the furnishings in the rooms he maintained at the Hotel Gramatan in his later years. He died in 1922 at 7 Lookout Avenue, the home of his brother, Charles, to whom he left his furniture and other possessions. Two years later, Charles purchased 33 Park Avenue, where he lived with his extended family, including daughter Frances. In 1950, several years after Charles's death, his family—with Will's furniture—moved to Texas.
Expressing gratitude for the generous donation, Bronxville Mayor Mary Marvin said, "This lovely antique desk blends beautifully with the style and décor of village hall. As the desk of our most important early architect, William Bates, it is a perfect gift that both honors our history and beautifies our present." She noted that village hall also displays a fine collection of original oil paintings created by turn-of-the-20th-century Lawrence Park artists whom Bates would have known. The art collection is on long-term loan from The Bronxville Historical Conservancy.
Upon William A. Bates's death, a Bronxville Review editorial saluted his personal and professional contributions to the village: "Much of the beauty which Bronxville boasts will remain as a monument to the genius of Mr. Bates as the architect of many of our most important buildings, but his friends will remember more the unfailing gentleness, patience and courtesy to all which were so characteristic of this American gentlemen of the finest type."
Pictured here (L to R): Katherine Power, Bronxville Mayor Mary Marvin, and Village Historian Eloise L. Morgan pose at Bronxville Village Hall with architect William A. Bates's 19th-century secretary desk.
Photo courtesy Eloise L. Morgan, Village Historian, Village of Bronxville