Construction of Cardinal Raffaele Riario’s palazzo in Rome took nearly 25 years to complete. Finished in 1513, it was the first Renaissance-style building, a magnificent palace. Four years later it was seized by Pope Leo X to be used as the papal chancellery, renamed Palazzo della Cancelleria. It was the sort of place worthy of popes and kings.
And Otto Kahn.
Kahn had made his enormous fortune in the banking trade. When he purchased land from Andrew Carnegie at No. 1 East 91st Street in 1913 for his new home, he was among the stragglers in the northward migration of the wealthy.
The commission was given to J. Armstrong Steinhouse, with mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert as associate. They were given instructions to build a grand home, Kahn commenting that “it is a sin to keep money idle.” The architects used the Cancelleria as their model and produced for Kahn an 80-room mansion. On February 18, 1917 The New York Times commented on the war-time construction. “The Kahn house is nearing completion and is a noteworthy addition to the magnificent residences north of Fifth-ninth Street. Although incomplete, Mr. Kahn has given it a decoration of merit in flying the American flag from one of the upper windows overlooking Fifth Avenue.”
The Kahn Mansion towards end of construction
The house, constructed of imported French limestone, was completed in 1918 and, like the Cancelleria, surrounded a magnificent stone-ballustraded courtyard. A private drive, guarded 24 hours a day, provided Kahn and his elite guests the ability to come and go unprovoked by gawking curiosity seekers. The gilded ballroom, oak-paneled library and gracious reception room were intended to impress. The music room, where friends George Gershwin and Enrico Caruso would give intimate recitals, had parquet floors and an Adams-style ceiling. There were accommodations for 40 servants; although the Kahns kept a live-in staff of only 14.
The Architectural Review admired the new residence, deeming it “a remarkable example of well-balanced re-adjustment in those aesthetic elements that are found in architecture of the early sixteenth century in Italy,” and saying that “it ranks as the foremost of its kind in this country.”
The Music Room -- photo burdenkahnmansion.org
Kahn and his wife, Adelaide, filled the home with Renaissance paintings, antique furnishings, priceless chandeliers and tapestries. Patrons of the arts, especially the Metropolitan Opera, the Kahns sometimes opened their home to the public to exhibit their collections.
On March 29, 1934 Otto Kahn lunched in the private dining room of his firm, Kuhn, Loeb & Co. Soon thereafter he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 67.
Not long afterwards, Addie Kahn sold the mansion to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an exclusive Roman Catholic school for girls. Later the school acquired the James Burden Jr. mansion next door and connected the two structures.
In 1974 Otto Kahn’s 91st Street palace was designated a New York City landmark. The Landmarks Preservation Commission called it “the finest Italian Renaissance style mansion in New York City” and that “its restrained dignity is an appropriate expression of Kahn’s personality and of his philanthropic and artistic interests.”
In 1994 the Sacred Heart School cleaned and restored the exterior which looks today as it did upon its completion in 1918.