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The Adriance Era At Underclyffe Manor

Barons of Broadway #3

Welcome to the third installment of our series, ‘Barons of Broadway,’ where we immerse ourselves in the lavish world of the elite who once dominated the riverfront estates of Upper Nyack. From the 1880s to the 1920s, affluent barons flocked to Upper Nyack, transforming its farmlands into majestic riverfront estates. The allure of serene retreats close to the city attracted these ultra-wealthy individuals, who eagerly acquired properties from willing farmers.

These barons hailed from diverse backgrounds – real estate tycoons, quarry owners, oil magnates, Wall Street financiers, and even aviation innovators. Their grand summer residences adorned Broadway, bearing names like Larchdell, Undercliff, and Widewater. Here unfolds the captivating tale of Underclyffe Manor.

The Adriances Begin a New Chapter

The Adriances, a wealthy industrialist family, made an unexpected entrance into the narrative when they acquired Underclyffe in 1917. Plagued by a headline-grabbing scandal in New York society, the couple’s tenure at Underclyffe was short-lived. Jean Adriance, the second wife of industrialist Benjamin Adriance, resolved to demolish the “old” Underclyffe estate house at 649 North Broadway and replace it with a classic brick neo-Georgian manor. However, before they could inhabit the new abode, Colonel Benjamin Adriance passed away. Following his demise in 1919, Jean assumed control of his business affairs, raised a new son, and oversaw the final construction to ensure that a new generation would host Nyack’s summer society during the roaring 20s.

Photo of Underclyffe Manor(now named River Cliff) in 2020. The house has undergone a number of changes and additions since the Adriance era but the central part of the house is much like the house finished in 1920.

Colonel Benjamin Adriance: A Man of Many Accomplishments

Colonel Benjamin Adriance, born in 1849 in Greenwich Village, commenced his career as a messenger boy in the U.S. Navy in 1863, later serving as a ‘powder monkey’ for the U.S. Navy. He then became an active member of the U.S. Grant Post, Grand Army of the Republic, earning the rank of colonel. Post-war, he became one of the earliest graduates of Cooper Union’s mechanical engineering course, subsequently consulting on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Adriance Machine Works factory in Brooklyn. The building contains apartments today..

In 1888, he established his own business in Brooklyn, the Adriance Machine Works, specializing in automatic tin can and bottle capping machinery. Additionally, he served as President of Savage Arms Company, a gunmaker in Utica, and the New York Ticket Company. He maintained residences in Woodcliff Lakes, NJ, and spent winters in Miami.

Scandal & Sensation

Scandal gripped the Adriance household when Benjamin’s wife, Nellie, succumbed to cancer in 1910. Benjamin’s affair with his wife’s nurse, Jean Purdy, which began in 1908 and culminated in marriage four days after Nellie’s demise, caused irreparable damage to family relations. Jean, a Scottish immigrant, married at age 15 to a physically deformed mechanic, with whom she had two children before she obtained a divorce in 1903.

In 1912, two years after their marriage, Jean’s first husband called into question her marriage to Benjamin, asserting that their divorce was never finalized. Her first husband, sensing an opportunity to exploit Benjamin’s wealth, sued Benjamin for $100,000 for alienation of his wife’s affection.

Courtroom sketch of Benjamin and Jean Adriance and her first husband James Berney in the New York Herald.

In November of 1912, the trial became daily news fodder in New York City plastering details of their relationship on page one. The court battle included hysterics, a fistfight, and protestations of love. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, called the trial “one of the most dramatic scenes ever enacted in a courtroom when her first husband claimed he still loved her.” Despite hiring the best of lawyers, Adriance lost the case on a technicality. The judge ruled that divorce papers had never been properly delivered to the first husband. The court ordered Adriance to pay $2,500, later lowered to $1 on appeal.  After the trial, Benjamin and Jean left immediately for a tour of Europe. The two continued to live as husband and wife and raised a son.

A “New “ Underclyffe Is Born

Amidst the scandal’s aftermath, the couple acquired the Tucker estate, Underclyffe, in 1917. For reasons perhaps related to personal preference, Jean opted to demolish Underclyffe and erect a new structure. They chose to build a large, classically balanced neo-Georgian structure with expansive windows, a stark contrast to the previous asymmetrical, darker Queen Anne style of Tucker’s Underclyffe. The three-story brick edifice boasted a solarium with a marble fountain and an Odell pipe organ in the grand central entrance hall. While Underclyffe Manor has undergone modifications over time, its Broadway-facing façade remains reminiscent of its 1920s appearance.

A view of Underclyffe Manor in 2000 is similar to the house that Jean Adriance built. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

Jean Adriance

In 1919, Benjamin Adriance passed away in their Miami home during the construction of their Upper Nyack residence. The newly built house, christened Underclyffe Manor, became Jean Adriance’s summer abode. She assumed a prominent role in Nyack high society as a member and host of the Nyack Garden Club, cultivating flowers, tending to dogs, and amassing a collection of paintings while managing Adriance’s Brooklyn business and raising her son, Benjamin Adriance. In 1927, she remarried an old acquaintance, Frederick J. Dole. Jean Adriance Dole passed away in 1930, leaving behind a contested will that underwent probate until 1936, ultimately leaving little for her heirs to inherit.

The Legacy of Underclyffe Manor

Imagine the destruction of the original Underclyffe.

The legacy of Underclyffe Manor remains a testament to the Adriance family’s wealth and influence, despite the demolition of the original Victorian-era estate. Though preservation took a back seat to their desires, Underclyffe Manor continues to stand, surpassing its predecessor by seven decades. Through subsequent ownership changes, including those of an aviation pioneer, a real estate mogul, and a renowned physician, the mansion’s story unfolds, awaiting exploration in future articles.

Mike Hays is a 38-year resident of the Nyacks. He worked for McGraw-Hill Education in New York City for many years. Hays serves as President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, and Vice-President of the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center. Married to Bernie Richey, he enjoys cycling and winters in Florida. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

Editor’s note: This article is sponsored by Sun River Health. Sun River Health is a network of 43 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) providing primary, dental, pediatric, OB-GYN, and behavioral health care to over 245,000 patients annually.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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