George Fisher Baker: Gilded Age Tycoon Loved MB
”The richest, most powerful banker in history”
During the late 19th Century — and probably even today — the 1.6-mille Ocean Avenue section of Monmouth Beach was known as “Millionaire’s Row.” Beginning in the early 1870s, the first of many magnificent seaside mansions were built along our coast to house these elite families.
Located where the Shore’s Condominium now stands was a massive house called the “Sea Verge.” Built in the mid-1880s, it was once the seaside residence of the financier titan, George Fisher Baker. Time magazine called him “the richest, most powerful and most taciturn commercial banker in U.S. history.”
His house was designed by Bruce Price, a New York architect whose work would inspire Frank Lloyd Wright. It was torn down in the early 1960s. During the time he was making Monmouth Beach into a high-class resort, Baker was among the richest men in the country with a reported net worth in excess of $200 million.
The Ocean Avenue house wasn’t his only holding in Monmouth Beach. A quick review of an 1889 Wolverton’s Atlas shows that he owned a great many prime pieces of real estate, including virtually all of the area encompassing today’s Anderson Street, Johnson Street, and Robbins Street.
In addition to being a major land investor and developer of Monmouth Beach (including a golf course), Baker was a co-founder of the First National Bank of New York (today’s Citibank) in 1863. He would serve as bank president beginning in 1877 and chairman of the board in 1909.
Born in Troy, NY in March 1840, Baker had massive holdings in banking, insurance, utilities, real estate, and railroads. Starting out as a bank clerk in 1856, he had controlling interests in more than 80 companies upon his death. But despite his massive wealth and influence, Baker was one to shy away from publicity. “His aversion to being interviewed was deeper than the Atlantic,” according to Forbes.
Also known for his fabulous philanthropic efforts, Baker donated much of his fortune to various causes before his death in May 1931 in New York City. In 1924, he endowed the Harvard School of Business by donating $5 million to build the campus along the Charles River. He also gave $2 million to Cornell University in New York and another $1 million to construct the Baker Memorial Library at Dartmouth University in Rhode Island. He also funded Baker Field at Columbia University in New York.
Baker was also president of the Central Railroad of New Jersey, which controlled the Long Branch & Sea Shore Railroad and helped to make our area a suitable spot for the high society. The trains, which also served a thriving fishing business, stopped running in town in 1946.
In later years, Baker’s “Shingle Style” home was owned by the brother of Diamond Jim Brady, the industrial tycoon know for his gargantuan appetite. Summer visitors to the house included Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who would go on to become Pope Pius the 12th in March 1939, and the legendary Cuban band leader, Xavier Cugat.