Green Hall and the Witch of Wall Street

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on August 20, 2015.

Hetty Green (1834 - 1916) Source: Men of Wealth (1941)

Hetty Green (1834 – 1916)
Source: Men of Wealth (1941)

It’s unknown whether Hetty Green approved of the $500,000 gift her heirs gave to Wellesley College for the construction of an administration building now appropriately known as Green Hall. She was, after all, by most accounts, the “World’s Greatest Miser.”

At the time of her death in 1916, she was worth an estimated $100 million to $200 million (the equivalent of $2 billion to $4 billion in 2015). Yet Hetty Green had refused to live a life of opulence and grandeur. While many of America’s most successful capitalists and industrialists were constructing their Fifth Avenue and Newport mansions, she was renting a small apartment in Brooklyn and later, Hoboken. While these men dressed in the finest suits, she was wearing the same tired, old black dress. While they rode to their offices in chauffeured carriages, she was taking the ferry and streetcar.

Green’s connection to Wellesley is a mere footnote in this story. In fact, there’s no reason to believe she ever visited the town. But it’s certain that those Wellesley residents involved in finance knew about Hetty Green. For that matter, probably so did everyone else. Stories about “The Witch of Wall Street” were everywhere.

How could journalists avoid writing about her? For one thing, the fact that a woman was able to succeed in a financial world dominated entirely by men was newsworthy. Women just weren’t active in the banking and railroad industries, nor did they own significant holdings in industrial and mining companies, acquire ownership of entire city blocks, or give loans to major US cities when they ran into fiscal trouble.

But throw in her eccentric behavior and you’ve got literary gold. How could someone so rich live such a parsimonious life? No one was truly able to believe that any multimillionaire was perfectly content living among the common folk and avoiding the luxuries of the Gilded Age.

It was because of this perception — that Hetty Green was a dour old lady — that she became known as “The Witch of Wall Street.” The fact that she dressed like a witch made the moniker that much more appropriate.

What the public didn’t know was that much of her lifestyle could be attributed to her Quaker background. Quite simply, she was taught to value hard work, simple pleasures, and modest behavior.

There were, however, certain aspects of her life that proved Green was, well, just plain cheap. The most notorious and widely reported example was the way she tried to avoid medical fees. In the days before health insurance, doctors charged their patients according to their income. If you were wealthy, you received a large markup on your bill. So in order to evade these extra fees, Green dressed her two children in tattered clothing and — using fake names in order to avoid recognition — took them to free health clinics.

Problems arose, however, when her son, Ned, developed chronic leg pain, the result of a sledding accident. Unwilling to consult with the best doctors in the city for fear that she would be recognized and therefore be forced to pay a premium, Green was never able to find proper treatment for Ned’s leg, which eventually weakened to the point where it required amputation and the fitting of a cork prosthetic.

Despite the negative attention Hetty Green received because of her thriftiness — miserliness if you want to call it that — numerous organizations and educational institutions gladly accepted gifts from her estate in the decades following her death. The largest donation went to Wellesley College.

Why Wellesley? Well, this requires a little bit of background. For some years, Ned Green had unofficially adopted a number of young women — wards they were called — who he and his wife brought on their trips around the world and for whom they bought lavish gifts including horses and cars. (Obviously, Ned didn’t inherit his mother’s approach toward money matters.) In addition, he also financed their education, sending many of them to Wellesley College.

It was through this connection that the college was able to acquire a gift in order to construct the second of three buildings that would form the new academic center as the institution recovered from the disastrous fire that destroyed its main building, College Hall, in 1914. Green Hall was completed in 1931.

Pre-1956 view of the Academic Quad at Wellesley College. Green Hall is the building from which Galen Stone Tower rises.

Pre-1956 view of the Academic Quad at Wellesley College. Green Hall is the building from which Galen Stone Tower rises.

The building is an ironic memorial to Hetty Green. Designed in the Collegiate Gothic style, it is full of embellishments, the most notable of which is the 182-foot-tall Galen Stone Tower, arguably the most distinctive architectural feature on the entire campus.

Nevertheless, it is the only building or monument in the world named after Hetty Green and is therefore perhaps the most lasting reminder of the fascinating life of “The Witch of Wall Street.”