Charles F. Noyes, the man who would become the dean of American real estate and a major American philanthropist, was born in Norwich, Connecticut, on July 19, 1878 – a time when Manhattan’s skyline still hugged the earth. But at least for a time Charles would hold a real estate record for engineering the highest price ever paid for a property – the majestic building that still towers above the rest of the New York skyline, the Empire State Building.
Charles was the son of Carrie and Charles Dennison Noyes, co-publisher of the nation’s sixth oldest newspaper, the Norwich Daily Bulletin. His life story in business and in philanthropy begins with his own determination to succeed where others might fail. When he was just 10 years old, he battled the blizzard of 1888 to make sure that customers on his newspaper route would get their papers despite the storm’s monstrous snowdrifts. He even had to throw some newspapers into second floor windows, because the snow had drifted to that height.
At age 12, he started his own penny newspaper, and at 14 he invested his earnings to start a newsstand concession on a popular steam ship line. He grew this business until 1905, when real estate became his calling.
Upon completing Norwich Free Academy, Charles envisioned creating a niche in New York City real and entered into a partnership with his football acquaintance, Irving P. Lovejoy, in 1898 at 61 Beekman Street. Primarily Mr. Noyes wore out shoe leather as he went after properties that others didn’t want to broker and used his ingenuity and creativity to close deals. Five years later, Mr. Noyes married his first wife, Eleanora Halsted, and a year later became father to a daughter, named after her mother but called Lorna.
Described as a “husky six-footer with an amusing personality,” Mr. Noyes became the sole owner of his real estate company, naming it the Charles F. Noyes Co., in 1905. He conceived of a burgeoning industry in New York when there was barely a real estate market there. He believed that well-selected New York real estate was a prime investment long before that phenomenon revealed its truth.
Sadly, his wife contracted pneumonia in 1920 and died.
Several years later, Mr. Noyes brokered a deal in which he convinced a millionaire friend to purchase Sheepshead Bay Race Track property and sell lots to individuals to build homes. Mr. Noyes’s business sheepshead bay racetrackteam made films that showcased the property and enlisted none other than Irving Berlin to pen a song, “Down at Sheepshead Bay,” to promote the sale. As a result, more than 4,500 bidders sought Sheepshead Bay property; after two days all 1,100 lots were sold.
In another historic move, Mr. Noyes is credited for developing New York’s insurance district by enticing some of the largest companies of the day, Aetna Life and Traveler’s, to move north of the overcrowded area bounded by South William Street and Maiden Lane. Afterward, John and William Streets became the center of the insurance world.
In 1926, Mr. Noyes married Jessie Cooke Smith, the widow of the founder of Djer-Kiss cosmetics, Rowland Holbrook Smith, and mother of three. The family lived in Jessie’s home in Park Slope, Brooklyn. There, the new Mrs. Noyes nurtured not only her family but pursued extensive civic duties, particularly in her position as vice president of the Brooklyn YWCA.
The beauty of the Noyes marriage partnership was the influence that each had on the other. Mrs. Noyes certainly learned something about real estate from Charles – she was instrumental in convincing him to purchase a former speakeasy on East 55th Street and convert it into the family’s home. She also persuaded him to purchase a Huntington Bay, Long Island, estate that would be the center of Noyes family life and business activities for decades to come.
Charles was deeply moved by Jessie’s convictions to support the rights of women and minorities.