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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Saratoga's Historic Homes: The Davidson Safe Opera

By | News

Although he never lived in it, the house at 203 Union Avenue is a testament to a man who lived both the American dream and, for a few months, the American nightmare of having his name in the newspaper daily.

 

John McBain Davidson was orphaned at an early age. Left a small inheritance, his gumption impressed his mentor, Erastus Corning, the wealthy patron of Albany. Davidson, encouraged by Corning, invested in an iron manufacturing business which would expand into the manufacturing of safes. The safe business would place Davidson as the center point of one of the biggest political scandals of the 1870s.

Davidson, an avid horse lover, had business interests in New York City. There he befriended Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall. Without competitive bidding, Tweed and his associates purchased from Davidson’s company numerous safes for the buildings owned by the City of New York. When it came time to pay for the safes, Davidson was told to endorse the checks without turning them over. He received the amount of his invoices; however, invoices showed that the city had been billed more than once for the same safe. The Tweed Ring was pocketing the additional money. At first it was believed that Davidson was involved in the false invoices but over time it was shown that he was an unfortunate victim of the scam. By the time of the Tweed’s trial in the 1870s, Davidson had learned his lesson and divested himself of the safe business.

In the late 1850s, Davidson and his partner Captain D. Hitcock began the operation of the Hudson River Day Line Steam Company. As the business expanded Davidson maintained a half interest, selling shares to Alfred Van Santvoord. The Day Line operated two boats, the Daniel Drew and the Armenia. While one ran from Albany to New York, the other ran in the opposite direction. The trip took nine hours, with riverboat passengers enjoying a restful excursion verses those who elected a loud, smoky, jolting ride on the railroad. The steamboat investment proved extremely lucrative for Davidson until after his death when his estate sold his share. It was a wise move because the automobile was soon to change travel. It was not that early autos were faster, more comfortable or safer; their true benefit was in providing greater independence once people reached their destinations.

Partly because of her business insight, Mrs. Davidson and her daughter would never be called upon to work. Among other properties, the Davidson women owned the two theaters at the corner of Forty Second Street and Seventh Avenue (Times Square) Mrs. Davidson bought the site for $55,000 in 1897. In 1913 it was appraised for over $1,500,000.

Following Davidson’s death, his daughter, Beatrice, and her mother maintained their homes in Saratoga and in New York City and traveled extensively in Europe. They spent several years in the 1890s in Berlin where Beatrice was trained to sing opera at some of the leading music schools in Europe. Early in the last century, Beatrice performed during the season at the Grand Union before leaving to perform in an opera production in Germany.

In January 1915, in the living room, thirty-four year old Beatrice married Lt. Percy Alexander Cook. Lt. Cook was British and served in the British Navy during the Boar War. A true playboy, Cook was once on an ocean going yacht that capsized. When the rescue ship approached, Percy told them to wait a minute because he had a big one on the line – he was using the opportunity to do some sport fishing.

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The house was under construction when Davidson died, which may explain two of its unique features. The grand staircase ends halfway between the second and the third floor. One explanation could be that the area was to be a stage for young Beatrice. More likely it was not finished because the remaining stairs would lead to Mr. Davidson’s pool room (the custom at the time was to have the pool table on the third floor.) The second feature is the full bathroom on the first floor – an unusual feature in Saratoga Cottages. It is probable that the bathroom was installed so that Mr. Davidson, who was an invalid in his later years, would not have to climb the stairs.

One of the claims made by many who live in Saratoga’s Victorian houses is that Lillian Russell stayed within their walls. It was after seeing the main bathroom on the second floor that, in the case of the Davidson’s home, the author imagined the story may be true; it is huge with a bathtub big enough for two (or Diamond Jim Brady), a wraparound shower, and a special basin to wash one’s feet.

The house was reportedly vacant from 1932 through 1946 and then went through a series of owners. SPAC owned the house in 1964 when there were plans to use it to house performers; instead they sold it for $12,500. By 1970 it would become the home of the American Ballet Company operated by Madame Phyllis Latin. Currently operating as a Bed & Breakfast, owners Cindy and Don Nichols have come to understand that their most frequent guests are actually friends.

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Interesting side notes on the Davidson family:

In 1908, when there were less than 200,000 cars in the United States, only a few thousand miles of paved highway, and women rarely drove, Mrs. Davidson and Beatrice, along with two other ladies, motored from New York City to Saratoga for the season.

The week before John Davidson died in 1887, the Saratoga police closed five disorderly houses in the vicinity of Spring and Henry Streets – no direct connection between their closure and Mr. Davidson’s death could be found.

At her wedding party, Beatrice cut her wedding cake using her husband’s military sword from the Boar War.

At the corruption trial for Boss Tweed, Davidson admitted that he made a 100% profit on each safe.

For the census, Percy Cook would list his profession as a poultry breeder – a fancy way of admitting he raised fighting cocks.

Beatrice and Percy would divorce in 1942.

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