If you drive along the Long Island Expressway (Interstate 495), Horace Harding is your buddy. The Horace Harding Expressway, which runs parallel to the LIE, offers a convenient way around many traffic jams. But how did the road get there? And who on earth was Horace Harding?
Construction on the road began during Mayor Jimmy Walker’s administration, with the first seven-mile stretch opening in 1928. At the time, the road was called Nassau Boulevard. The next year, the Board of Aldermen voted to rename it Horace Harding Boulevard. And therein lies a story.
Horace Harding Boulevard connected Queens Boulevard with Nassau County. A much-touted “gateway to Queens” the road was billed as a way to relieve congestion and cut travel times to Manhattan. Yet the road owes its existence to a cohort of wealthy golfers looking to make their trip to the (now defunct) Oakland Country Club easier. And Harding was the moving force behind this plan.
Harding first proposed the road in 1923. When met with official reluctance, Harding and his golfing buddies privately commissioned the necessary engineering studies and presented them to the Queens Planning Commission along with a proposed route. They then used their influence to get the road approved and built. It would be difficult to find a more obvious and crass commandeering of public funds for private ends. Plus ca change, plus ce la meme chose?
When the Long Island Expressway was built in the 1950s, Robert Moses followed the path of Horace Harding Boulevard, obliterating much of it. Nevertheless, Harding’s name still adorns the service road that runs alongside the LIE in both directions, now called the Horace Harding Expressway (it is unclear when Boulevard was dropped in favor of Expressway.)
But who the heck was Harding?
James Horace Harding was born on July 13, 1862 to a wealthy Philadelphia family (his father’s family owned the Philadelphia Inquirer). He grew up in Main Line society. My guess is that he is one of the only people ever to voluntarily adopt Horace as his name, when he could instead have been known as James.
Not much information about his early life survives (odd for the son of a publisher), but he apparently entered banking at a young age. In 1898, Harding married Dorothea Barney, daughter of Charles D. Barney, and granddaughter of Jay Cook, the so-called “financier of the Civil War.” After their marriage, Harding entered the public eye in a big way. Harding joined his father-in-law’s financial firm, Charles D. Barney and Co., where he eventually became the senior partner. He transitioned to “special partner” in 1919 to pursue other interests. The Charles D. Barney firm later merged with Edward B. Smith & Co. to become Smith, Barney & Co.
In 1923, Harding became chairman of board of American Express Company. He was also director for multiple railroads and other major corporations including the New York Municipal Railways System, American Exchange Irving Trust, Bronx Gas and Electric, American Express, Continental Can Company, Public Service Corporation of New Jersey, Southern Pacific Company, United States Industrial Alcohol, American Beet Sugar Company, and the Wabash Railway. He replaced William Rockefeller (John D.’s brother) as a director of the New Haven Railroad when the railroad was under federal investigation.
Harding was close personal friends with Henry Clay Frick and served as his financial advisor. The two men shared a passion for collecting art. In 1912, Horace and Dorothea traveled to Egypt with Frick and his family. On their way home, the two families traveled through France, and Frick purchased two large-scale works of Renaissance master painter Paulo Veronese. When Frick died in 1919, Harding served as one of his pallbearers. In his will, Frick appointed Horace Harding as one of the trustees for the Frick Collection, and of the $15 million he left in trust for the maintenance and improvement of the collection. In this trustee capacity, Harding served alongside John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Horace and Dorathea moved in high society. They were members of the Jekyll Island Club and socialized with the Vanderbilts, Mellons, Rockefellers, Goulds, and other “top two hundred” families. Together they had four children: Charles, Catherine, Laura, and William. Both boys followed their father into finance. Horace reportedly had little time for daughters, viewing them largely as strategic chess pieces to be married off for family gain.
Charles served as chair of the NYSE, a position he resigned to serve in the Navy during World War II. Upon his return he was a senior partner, and eventually chair of Smith Barney & Co. After retiring, he committed his time to the New York Botanical Gardens and the Frick Collection, where, like his father before him, Charles served as treasurer.
William was also a banker and became chair of Smith Barney after Charles stepped down. An avid pilot, William served in the air force during World War II, ultimately achieving the rank of colonel. He managed Smith Barney’s aviation portfolio and was financial advisor to forerunner companies of Martin Marietta and Boeing. He helped found the Red Bank airport in Monmouth County, New Jersey. At the request of President Eisenhower, Willaim chaired an Aviation Facilities Study Group. Their report led to the formation of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The New York Times society column breathlessly covered the 1919 debut ball at the Ritz Carleton that Dorothea hosted for Catherine. A large-type headline and accompanying story described the flowers, the guests, and the clothing in detail. Two years after her debut, Catherine married wealthy polo player Lorillard Suffern Taylor (part of the British American tobacco family and grandson of a British baroness). The marriage ended in a Reno divorce, with Catherine alleging extreme cruelty.
The next year, Dorothea gave another debut ball, this time at the Plaza Hotel for Laura. The New York Times again treated the party as important news, emphasizing that more than 500 guests attended, including the newly-engaged Catherine and her beau Lorillard Suffern Taylor.
In 1929, Harding died of influenza. His death was so sudden that Laura and Dorothea, who were in Paris for the New Year, missed his funeral (despite William’s aviation interests, there was no flying back home in those days.) But the rest of the family was there, along with notable attendees like Charles Schwab and William Nelson Cromwell (co-founder of the law firm Sullivan and Cromwell).
His daughter Laura fit less easily into the society mold. She refused her father’s attempts to marry her off to wealthy suitors, and after her father’s death, she started acting. With her mother’s encouragement and support, Laura accepted an offer from the Berkshire Players to play a bit part in their summer production of Somerset Maugham’s Caroline. She worked with James Cagney, among other luminaries.
Roughly 10 months after her father’s death from influenza, she officially became an actress. Cast in a minor role in the Chicago play Thunder in the Air, Laura played the part of a maid. Unfortunately for Laura, it did not take long for her cover to be blown. Three days into the run, headlines blared “Heiress Quits Stage as Identity is Known.” The newspapers’ reports that Laura was heir to a $7 million fortune were likely exaggerated, but Harding’s estate definitely ran into the millions, and he left his entire fortune to his family.
In the glare of the publicity, Laura left the production. Given the negative reviews the play received during its two-week Broadway run, she probably didn’t miss much. However, Laura remained involved in theatre her entire life. She and Katharine Hepburn were lovers, and Laura helped launch Hepburn’s career. For a time, Laura referred to herself as “Miss Hepburn’s husband.” When Hepburn flew to Mexico to obtain a divorce from her first husband, Laura came with her.
Four months after Harding’s death in 1929, the New York City Board of Alderman voted to rename Nassau Boulevard as Horace Harding Boulevard. In the runup to the 1939 World’s Fair, Horace Harding Boulevard was extended to Flushing Meadows Park. Robert Moses himself presided at the 1937 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the last two-mile stretch of the road, and Harding’s 5-year-old grandson did the honors by cutting the ribbon. In 1939, City Council enacted a local law to rename it World’s Fair Boulevard, but Mayor LaGuardia, a friend of Harding, vetoed the legislation.
Despite these social connections with some of the wealthiest and most famous names of the Gilded Age, Harding himself has passed into obscurity. But for the Horace Harding Expressway, his name would have disappeared from New York entirely. Few, if any, drivers using the Horace Harding Expressway have a clue who it commemorates.
Urge City to Rush Brooklyn-Queens Link with Nassau, BROOKLYN TIMES UNION (Jul. 18, 1930).
Queens Building New Traffic Link, N.Y. TIMES (Dec. 29, 1929)
Highway is Named for Horace Harding, N.Y. TIMES (May 5, 1929)
Heiress Quits Stage As Identity is Known, N.Y. TIMES (Oct. 18, 1929)
J.H. Harding Left Fortune to Family, N.Y. TIMES (Jan. 19, 1929)
“Thunder in the Air” Revives Dead Man, N.Y. TIMES (Nov. 12, 1929).
WILLIAM J. MANN, KATE: THE WOMAN WHO WAS HEPBURN 152-158 (2007).
Frick Leaves $20 Million to Pittsburgh, PITTSBURGH DAILY POST (Dec. 7, 1919)
Boro-to-Fair Link Opens, BROOKLYN DAILY EAGLE (Sept. 19, 1937)
1. The portrait of Horace Harding is from Philadelphia and notable Philadelphians (1902). The author is unknown.
2. The image of Laura Harding was originally published in The New York Herald (New York, N.Y.), 03 April 1921. The photographer was Albert Dupont Atelier.
3. Horace Harding Expressway sign image is a Creative Commons 4.0 image by Tdorante10. It shows the Horace Harding Expressway Sign at 99th Street in Rego Park, Queens.
Rebecca Bratspies is a longtime resident of Astoria Queens. When not geeking out about New York City history, she is a Professor at CUNY School of Law, where she is the founding director of the Center for Urban Environmental Reform. A scholar of environmental justice, and human rights, Rebecca has written scores of law review articles. Her most recent book is Naming New York: The Villains, Rogues and Heroes Behind New York Place Names. Her co-authored textbook Environmental Justice: Law Policy and Regulation is used in schools across the country. Bratspies is perhaps best known for her environmentally-themed comic books Mayah’s Lot, Bina’s Plant, and Troop’s Run, made in collaboration with artist Charlie LaGreca-Velasco. These widely adopted comic books bring environmental literacy to a new generation of environmental leaders. Learn more at www.Rebecca.Bratspies.com.
Author Note: I recently published Naming Gotham: the Villains, Rogues, and Heroes Behind New York Place Names. Writing the book was great fun, but I ran out of space before I ran out of people to write about. This blog post is an apology to J. Horace Harding, who did not make it into the book.