Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Sumptuous Wedding Present - the 1906 Payne Whitney House

The Payne Whitney Mansion - photo by Richard Foy
When, on February 6, 1902, financier Payne Whitney married Helen Hay, the daughter of John Hay, Secretary of State to President McKinley, the couple received extravagant wedding gifts. One of these gifts was the steam yacht which they used to cruise the northern waters abroad on their honeymoon.

Yet all the wedding presents dimmed in comparison to that of Whitney’s uncle, Civil War hero and fabulously wealthy Colonel Oliver H. Payne. While the newlyweds were away on their honeymoon, The New York Times reported that “it was announced that among the presents which the couple would receive was a mansion, yet to be erected.”

On March 7, a month after the wedding, Colonel Payne purchased the lot on 5th Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets from Henry H. Cook for around $525,000. “The mansion to be erected thereon will undoubtedly cost as much more, so that the total value of the wedding present will be not less than $1,000,000,” said The Times.

When Whitney and his bride returned to New York in the Fall, plans began taking shape for the new home. McKim, Mead & White, the foremost architects in America at the time, received the commission with Stanford White taking charge of the project. “The house will be six stories in height, with a front of marble and granite,” said The Times.

photo by Richard Foy
Drawing inspiration from Venetian palaces, White designed a high Italian renaissance palazzo of breathtaking beauty. Andrew S. Dolkart, in his “Touring the Upper East Side, Walks in Five Historic Districts,” noted “The beautifully proportioned bow-fronted residence, one of White’s masterpieces, is ornamented with especially elegant carved detail. Features of note include the marble entranceway, heavy wrought-iron doors, and the loggia on the south elevation. The sumptuous interiors were filled with antique columns, woodwork, and other objects collected by White during his European travels.”

Indeed, as was his custom, White scoured the globe for antique architectural items and inspiration for the house. While he was doing so, Christie's Auction House in London put up for auction a damaged statue of a youth owned by an Italian collector, Stefano Bardini. Calling it in the “School of Michael Angelo,” the auction house was unable to sell the statue. Subsequently Stanford White purchased it in Rome where it had been returned, being told it was a “recently excavated antiquity.”

This, White believed, would serve nicely as an interior fountain sculpture for No. 972 5th Avenue.

Mrs. Whitney’s favorite room was the reception room, which she dubbed “The Venetian Room.” Here White lavished mirrored walls with gilt fittings, a lattice-work cove with vining porcelain flowers, antique Italian portraits in gilt frames and a herringbone parquet floor. Guests were ushered into this room, having passed the marble statue of a boy under the foyer rotunda, to await Mrs. Whitney.

Work on the Venetian Room began in April 1906 as the house was nearing completion. Two months later White was gunned down by Harry Thaw at the Roof Garden of Madison Square Garden, never to see the Whitey House completed.

The couple was active socially as well as philanthropically and Helen Whitney’s tongue-in-cheek sense of humor often filled the house with the unexpected. In January 1916 she hosted a food bazaar for the benefit of the Social Service Department of the New York Hospital. Not only were her self-written cookbooks for sale at 50 cents each, but in the gold-and-red drawing room filled with antique statuary and tapestries there were kennels of puppies and kittens, crates of Japanese chickens and Leghorns and a baby pig. The Times noted that “The little pig was the object of much merriment during the session, and was called 'the pig in the parlor.'”

By 1920 the couple had two children, John and Joan, and lived contentedly in their sumptuous mansion with 13 servants.

Payne Whitney died in 1927 at 51 years of age, bequeathing more than $20 million to the New York Hospital. Helen Hay Whitney remained in the house until her death in 1944. Mrs. Whitney so loved her Venetian Room, that she had made her son promise to remove it from the house upon her death. Before the mansion was sold in 1949, John Hay Whitney had the reception room dismantled and put into storage.

In the meantime, the nude marble statue under the rotunda went largely unnoticed.

In 1952 the French government purchased the Whitney mansion to house the cultural services of the French Embassy. Over the decades, thousands of visitors and guests crowded into the area under the rotunda for cultural events and exhibitions. No one ever paid attention to the curly-haired, damaged statue in the fountain that Stanford White found interesting.

Then in October 1995 the little armless Italian sculpture got the attention he deserved. For the premier of an exhibition of French decorative arts, the lower floors were especially brightly lit. The fountain, normally in shadows, was unusually illuminated. Among the guests was Dr. Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt – a consultant for Renaissance art to the Vatican Museums and an authority on 16th century Italian sculpture.

Before long the art world was buzzing about Dr. Brandt’s possible discovery– a very early Michelangelo. The statue was visited and examined by a series of experts including Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Nicholas Penny, chief curator for the Italian Renaissance at the National Gallery in London.

The overlooked fountain statue, possibly by Michelangelo, in the mansion rotunda -- photo
In 1997, Mrs. John Hay Whitney returned The Venetian Room to No. 972 5th Avenue, donating the room and funding its restoration and installation.

Years later the art authorities have not yet come to agreement on the statue – which may be best for the statue’s future in the Whitney mansion, with museums in New York, Paris and Rome all eager for a just-found Michelangelo.

And while the debate continues, Stanford White’s magnificent Italian renaissance creation stands out on Fifth Avenue as what the Landmarks Preservation Commission called “one of the last reminders of the Age of Elegance.”


  1. would be interesting if it was an early Michelangelo....beautiful (former) home...