Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The 1891 J. Hampden Robb House - 23 Park Avenue

The J. Hampden Robb House 1891 -- NYPL Collection

By the time James Hampden Robb commissioned Stanford White to design his home at 23 Park Avenue, he had already been a cotton broker, a New York State Assemblyman and a State Senator. At the time, in 1888, he was busy with the functions of Commissioner of the Parks Department.

Park Avenue and the streets leading off it were lined with substantial brownstone homes of about a decade earlier. White's design for the Robb mansion would be strikingly different. He created a five-story Renaissance-inspired palazzo of iron spot brick with exuberant terra cotta trim on a high brownstone base.

The pillared entrance portico was mimicked in the stone balcony directly above.  A finely crafted cast iron balcony and two story oriel window on the south side added to the visual appeal.

Robb and his wife, Cornelia Van Rensselaer Thayer Robb, moved into their newly completed home in 1891.  The couple filled their home with rare art and antiques, 16th century Persian rugs, Gobelin tapestries, and paintings by Rubens, Van Dyke and Emmanuel.

While Robb was aggressively involved in the Democratic Party, he invested equal passion into his Parks position.  He steadfastly refused to allow any incursion of commerce onto park property set aside for public recreation. “Only by eternal vigilance can the parks be maintained and developed as they ought to be, for there is never a time when someone is not trying to ‘work’ something to his own personal advantage and to the detriment of the public," he said.

During his Senate years he had fought for the appropriation to establish the State reservation of Niagara Falls, speaking fervently of “the preservation of the beauties and the breathing places of the State.”  When he was offered the position of Assistant Secretary of State by President Grover Cleveland, Robb politely declined..

Twenty years after its completion, J. Hampton Robb died in the house January 21, 1911. Cornelia Robb remained in the house for another year; then sold most of the furnishings at a highly publicized auction at the Plaza Hotel in April of 1912.

Among the items sold were a 7 by 12 foot Persian carpet that brought $22,000 (about three quarters of a million today) and a 16th century terra cotta Madonna and Child purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art..

By now Park Avenue was changing. One by one the grand mansions were falling, to be replaced by office buildings. Cornelia Robb leased her Italian mansion as a boarding house and moved northward.

Photo CityRealty.com

Were it not for the Advertising Club of New York, the Robb House, too, would eventually have been demolished. The organization acquired the house in 1923 as its clubhouse and architect Fred F. French was hired to renovate it for the club’s purposes. A local clergyman made a plea to the Club’s membership. “Save as much of White as possible. He had a wonderful sense of proportion. There is something about a house where he had a free hand that gives you a special feeling of comfort. That’s why I say…that I would rather have a Stanford White house than a painting by Rembrandt.”

Renovations were completed within the year later, at a cost of $250,000, and the club opened on January 6, 1924. Heeding the appeal of the minister, French kept much of White’s interiors intact.

The clubhouse was enlarged after a fire damaged the structure in 1946.  The abutting house to the rear, at No. 103 East 35th Street, was incorporated as an extension of the Robb mansion.  Here, two years later, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt gave an impassioned plea for help for delinquent boys.

The Advertising Club 1977, photo Anita Pinas, courtesy Murray Hill Neighborhood Assoc.

The house, considered by many to be one of Stanford White’s finest residential designs, was converted to co-op apartments in 1977. Although landmark status was not designated until 1998, the conversion left the exterior untouched, as well as many of the surviving interior details.

Author James Trager wrote in his 1990 “Park Avenue, Street of Dreams,” “Although Park Avenue has little to match the most glorious Fifth Avenue relics (none of them any longer private residents), it once had many splendid private dwellings and still has some quite respectable survivors. The oldest of the best is 23 Park…This is the only true Stanford White house on Park Avenue and one of the few anywhere.”

Photo Lamb Realty NYC

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