Friday, September 17, 2010

The 1908 Edward Harkness House - 1 East 75th Street

from the collection of the New York Public Library

When Stephen V. Harkness died in 1888 his widow, Anna, was left with a substantial fortune. Harkness was an Ohio businessman who invested in John D. Rockefeller’s fledgling Standard Oil Company. It was a wise investment.

Anna’s youngest son, Edward, moved to New York to manage the family business. A graduate of Yale University, he was quiet and unassuming, preferring not to involve himself with the New York social circle. When he announced his engagement to Mary Stillman, his mother offered her wedding gift: a new home.

On June 22, 1907, The New York Times announced that “Plans have been filed for the new five-story residence to be built by Edward S. Harkness at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Seventy-fifth Street…The house will cost $250,000 according to the estimate of Architects Hale and Rogers.”

The “Rogers” of Hale and Rogers mentioned by The Times was James Gamble Rogers. Rogers had just arrived in New York and was just starting his career. The commission would lay the foundation for Rogers’ successful career.

The lot he was given to work with was oddly shaped, a mere 32 feet wide and 100 feet long. To preclude the problem of a restrictive site that would create a very long, very dark and very narrow house, Rogers simply turned the structure to the side, creating an entrance on 75th Street rather than 5th Avenue.

Harkness then approached Stuart Duncan who had completed his large home at No. 1 East 75th Street in 1904.  He explained that Duncan would need to change his address.  Because of the orientation of Harkness' planned home, he needed the No. 1 address.  Duncan complied and his residence suddenly became No. 3 East 75th.

While many other millionaires in the early 1900s were constructing French chateaux frosted with exuberant decoration, Harkness preferred a more understated style. The home would be Italian Renaissance, reserved and stately. Rather than waste space on a ballroom which would rarely be used, the architect was instructed to focus on the library and music room.

The house consisted of seven floors – two floors being below street level. To reduce the appearance of ostentation, Rogers set the top floor back, disguising it behind an ornate stone balustrade thereby giving the impression of four floors rather than five.

The elaborate wrought-iron fence that surrounds the sidewalk moat is considered one of the finest examples of cast iron in the city. It was modeled after the fence encircling the Scalegari tombs of Verona.

The Architectural Record was impressed. Calling it “free from excess and exaggeration,” it added “if there is any façade on upper Fifth Avenue which gives an effect of quiet elegance by worthier architectural means it has not been our good fortune to come across it.”

In his Gilded Mansions: Grand Architecture and High Society, Wayne Craven wrote “The impressiveness of a mansion such as this lies not so much in its lavishness as in its monumentality and sensitivity to the true and basic principles of classical design. Although constructed of expensive material, Tennessee marble, that is about the only concession to ostentation visible in the exterior.”

To ensure the couple’s privacy, Rogers raised the street floor windows just above eye level. Inside polished wood rather than Caen stone or marble gave the house a more homey feeling. The main staircase was constructed of Cassis marble, ornamented by a continuous heavy bronze balustrade. A leaded glass dome lit the stairway.

Throughout the house leaded glass windows were designed for the east side where regular glass windows would have provided a view onto the wall of the neighboring house. In the basement Rogers designed an innovative refrigerated room. When temperatures outside fell, an exterior door would be opened and the electricity to the room turned off, allowing nature to cool refrigerate the space.

photo via The Commonwealth Fund
The second floor consisted of three rooms, the library, the music room and the gallery. The gallery connected the other two and was, according to the Architectural Record, “perhaps the most beautiful room in the house.” The frescoed ceiling depicted classical Greek and Roman scenes. A Carrara marble fountain with a bronze figure of Pan was centered in the space.

The Music Room.  photo via The Commonwealth Fund

The paneling and coffered ceiling of the library were of rosewood.  The music room was the most ornate on the second floor with sophisticated woodwork, four chandeliers and a Venetian-inspired ceiling.

On the third floor were the Harknesses’ private rooms. Mrs. Harkness’ boudoir and bath spanned the entire Fifth Avenue side while the master bedroom faced 75th Street. There were five guestrooms on the fourth floor, along with the valet’s room and a sewing room. The fifth floor was devoted to quarters for their eight servants – all Swedish -- and a laundry. The servants’ rooms were tiled with simple oaken doors in stark contrast to the amenities of the lower floors.

Entertainments in the Harkness house consisted of relatively intimate dinner parties and recitals. Rather than concerning themselves with lavish balls, the Harknesses focused on philanthropies; Edward no doubt following the lead of his mother, Anna, who was deeply involved with numerous charities. He felt it was “imperative for the wealthy to give back to society through generous benefactions.”

photo via the Commonwealth fund
Anna Harkness founded The Commonwealth Fund in 1918, a foundation with the broad intention to “enhance the common good.” Mrs. Harkness felt that providing health care, especially to low-income and minority groups, children and the elderly was a desperately needed cause.

When Edward died on January 30, 1940 at the age of 66, his will directed that his estate would go to charitable and educational institutions upon the death of his wife.  Mary Harkness died on June 7, 1950 in the white marble palazzo that had been the couple’s wedding gift.

The Harkness fortune of $60 million was distributed to charities. The collection of art masterpieces were bequethed to the Metropolitcan Museum of Art, including works such as a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral, and Hans Holbein the Younger’s Portrait of a Member of the Wedigh Family.

The Harkness House was donated to The Commonwealth Fund, which occupies it today. Only minimal changes have been made to the interiors to accommodate administrative offices. Rogers’ white marble façade remains untouched; a stately monument to unselfish wealth.


  1. The lot on which the mansion sits is actually 35 feet on Fifth Avenue and 115 feet on 75th Street.Not 32*100 like you mentioned.At least that is what the tax map says...

  2. Worked there for 11 years and I still miss the place. Loved working in such a beautiful and peaceful environment.