Spotlight on Sylvia Wilks: Greenwich Heiress, Recluse & Philanthropist

By Leslie Albamonte
Sylvia Wilks

Sylvia Ann Howland Green Wilks (1871-1951) was the daughter of tycoon Hetty Green, aka “The Witch of Wall Street,” the richest woman in America during the Gilded Age. In 1909 Sylvia was married to Matthew Astor Wilks (1844–1926), great grandson of America’s first millionaire John Jacob Astor; she was 32 and he was 63. When her brother died in 1935, she inherited his estate, which made her the sole heir to her mother’s $100 million fortune.

Hetty Green  Matthew Astor Wilks Sylvia Green Wilks
Fig. 1 Hetty Green, Matthew Astor Wilks, Sylvia Green Wilks (L to R) Hetty Green, Matthew Astor Wilks, Sylvia Green Wilks.
Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection

After her husband died, and with no children, Sylvia Wilks lived a quiet and solitary life traveling back and forth between her New York City apartment and her home in Greenwich. Like her mother, Sylvia was known to be very eccentric and a recluse, and is noted for always wearing black. Wilks purchased multiple properties in Greenwich but preferred her home at 48 Maple Avenue. Early 20th Century Greenwich Real Estate firm owner Thomas N. Cooke handled the business for Wilks’s local properties and residences from 1934-1948. The Greenwich Historical Society has recently processed around 50 cubic feet of Cooke’s donated files, some of which document correspondence and business between Cooke and Wilks. Cooke served in a somewhat secretarial role for Wilks, receiving and paying statements, documenting visitors to her residence, and delivering charitable donations on her behalf.

Sylvia Wilks  Red Cross thank you letter
Fig 2. Thank you from Red Cross

Wilkes died in 1951 with an estate worth about $95,000,000 (approximately $990 million in 2021 dollars). Her will, found in a cabinet drawer under three bars of soap, provided just $5000 to a cousin and the remaining millions to 63 charities, including colleges, libraries, hospitals and churches.

On March 22, 1952, nearly one year after Wilks’s death, the contents of her property on Maple Avenue were auctioned off, with over 400 curious people arriving to get a peek into her house. The New York Times described her residence as “Comfort Found Lacking” and with no real items of value.

Wilks Estate Auction 48 Maple Avenue Greenwich CT
Fig 3. Wilks_Estate_Auction_Notice Greenwich Time, March 19, 1952, page 19

In 1952 The Second Congregational Church purchased the property at 48 Maple Avenue for $51,200 and renamed the house The Mead Parrish House, after the original builder and a member of one of Greenwich founding families, Solomon Mead. The Church had approached Mr. Cooke and Mrs. Wilks in 1944 about purchasing the property, but Wilkes was not yet ready to entertain that possibility as she was fond of the convenient location and had spent a considerable amount of time and money in “putting the house in shape.”

48 Maple Avenue Greenwich  1952
Greenwich Historical Society. Edson & Edson Collection. 48 Maple Avenue [scanned from negative, 1.75″x2.5″]
Second Congregational Church
Fig. 5. Inquiry from Second_Congregational Church re Wilks Property. Inquiry from Second Congregational Church re purchase of Sylvia Wilks property at 48 Maple Avenue.
Thomas N. Cooke Collection, Greenwich Historical Society
Thomas N. Cooke representing Sylvia Wilks
Fig. 6. Response to Second Congregational Church. Caption: Response to Second Congregational Church from Thomas N. Cooke, representing Sylvia Wilks. Thomas N. Cooke Collection, Greenwich Historical Society

Today, the former home holds offices for the church, provides space for meetings and activities, and will soon be welcoming a new Greenwich non-profit coffee shop, Coffee for Good Café. Read more about the efforts of Coffee for Good’s goals to train and employ people with disabilities.

The processing and description of the Thomas N. Cooke Collection was made possible through an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant and is helping the Historical Society to organize, describe and make accessible a treasure trove of material related to people, businesses and organizations that have helped to shape the development of the Town of Greenwich.

By Leslie Albamonte

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