Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Isaac D. Fletcher Mansion - 2 East 79th Street and 5th Avenue

In the 1880's great brownstone mansions lined fashionable Fifth Avenue.  Standing out from the row of chocolate-colored homes, however, was the white limestone chateau of William K. Vanderbilt at 660 Fifth Avenue, designed by Richard Morris Hunt.  Vanderbilt's wife, the former Alva Erskine Smith, wanted her home to be noticed, and indeed it was.

As the century drew to a close, other marble and limestone mansions were erected, firmly establishing brownstone as a building material passe.  In 1898 banker and railroad tycoon Isaac Dudley Fletcher commissioned architect C. P. H. Gilbert to design a house at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue that would rival even Alva Vanderbilt's "Petite Chateau."  Gilbert, who trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was being noticed among society, having already designed large residences for prosperous Brooklynites and a few Riverside Drive mansions.  In time he would be known as the architect of mansions, designing over one hundred homes in New York City, some of them true palaces, like the De Lamar House (now the Polish Consulate).

Upon its completion, the Fletchers commissioned Jean-Francois Raffaelli to paint a portrait their house.  collection of the Metropolitan Museu of Art
Gilbert designed an asymmetrical French Gothic limestone chateau exploding spiky turrets on the eaveline, ornate dormers and wide connected chimneys.  Fletcher and his wife Mary, along with their staff of eight servants, lived in the house until his death in 1917.   By the terms of his will the mansion was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with 251 objects of art from the couple's extensive collection which included works by artists such as Gainesborough, Rembrandt and Rubens--a windfall to the museum worth $2 million at the time. 

A year later, in order to create The Fletcher Fund for adding prints and drawings to the collection, the Metropolitan Museum sold the mansion to Sinclair Oil founder Harry F. Sinclair.  Sinclair and his wife Elizabeth left the house virtually untouched, other than having the Estey Organ Company install a three-manual, automatic roll player pipe organ in 1922.  One can imagine that the staid dinner parties hosted by the Fletchers were in sharp contrast to the pre-Depression era bashes reportedly thrown by the Sinclairs.

The Teapot Dome Scandal brought Harry Sinclair's carefree lifestyle to an end.  His trial, which began in October of 1927 ended up in the Supreme Court two years later.  While Sinclair was acquitted of the more serious charges, he was convicted of contempt of court, fined and sentenced to six months in prison (Sinclair had hired detectives to keep tabs on every jury member).

After his release, Sinclair attempted to continue his life as before.  His reputation was ruined, however, and in 1930 he sold No. 2 and moved west where he lived until his death in Pasadena in 1956.

Gilbert's astounding detail carved children upholding a bronze figure upholding a complex Gothic element. photograph by the author
It was Augustus Van Horn Stuyvesant, the last surviving descendant of Peter Stuyvesant to carry the surname, who purchased the former Fletcher mansion.  A reclusive bachelor, he moved in with his unmarried sister, Anne, thereby beginning the strangest period in the history of the house.  The pair, heirs to one of the most venerated names in New York, spent their time cloistered in the home, hidden away from the bustling world outside.

In 1938 Anne died, leaving Augustus Van Horn Stuyvesant alone in the cavernous mansion.  Preferring not to entertain nor to be entertained by others, he lived out his life with his servants.  According to Fortune Magazine in 1939 he "eats utterly alone at the big dining room table...served by Vernon, the butler, and an assisting footman."

When Stuyvesant died in 1953 the great house sat quietly vacant for two years.  An auction of the Stuyvesant furniture, carpets and artwork left it eerily empty.  Then in 1955 the Ukranian Institute of America purchased that house as their headquarters.  The Institute promotes the history, art, music and culture of the Ukraine and regularly hosts concerts, exhibitions and lectures.  Few people realize that the Ukranian Institute is open to the public.

With very few alterations, the great limestone chateau looks very much as it did that day in 1898 when Isaac and Mary Fletcher first walked in.

non-credited photographs taken by the author


  1. yeah keep 'em coming

  2. Cass Gilbert did NOT design the Plant Mansion---he designed the house directly behind it. The error began in a badly worded listing for the two houses in a 1976 architectural guide to New York. If one reads the listing carefully, it becomes clear, but the error has been perpetuated and compounded ever since. The Plant msnions was designed by Robert Gibson, an English architect.

    1. Thanks for catching that slip-up. The architect's information is correct in the posting on the Morton Plant Mansion: But was inexcusably wrong in this one. Thanks again!

  3. What house is pictured below the painting?

    1. that is the Fletcher mansion seen from the end (Fifth Avenue) elevation

  4. Does the public get access to tour the whole mansion or just lower level? Thank you!