Saturday, November 12, 2011

Stanford White's 1901 Henry B. Hollins House -- 12-14 West 56th Street

photo by Alice Lum
The years following the Civil War saw New York’s wealthy citizens inching northward along Fifth Avenue.  As the turn of the century approached, the avenue below 59th Street was lined with the mansions of the Vanderbilt family and their social equals.  Wide brownstone rowhouses on the side streets, originally built for middle-class families, were either razed and replaced with fashionable residences, or  remodeled and updated for their new, moneyed owners.

West 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues would become known as Bankers’ Row as financiers like Henry Seligman, E. Hayward Ferry and Arthur Lehman of Lehman Brothers built elegant residences.   Here Harry Bowly Hollins would join the crowd.

Hollins was a close personal friend of J. P. Morgan.  A respected banker and broker, he founded the investment firm of H. B. Hollins & Co.  In 1899 he purchased the still-undeveloped lot at 12-14 West 56th Street and his business partner and close friend Frederick Edey purchased the adjoining lot at No. 10; their planned homes would fill the last two empty lots on the block.

A snag due to an 1881 prohibition on construction as far as the lot line for twenty years forced Edey to wait two years to begin building.  In the meantime Hollins steamed ahead.   The foremost architectural firm in the country at the time was McKim, Mead & White and Hollins went right to the top.  Stanford White would take on the project, designing a cutting-edge neo-Georgian brick and limestone home.

The choice of the refined Georgian design was somewhat surprising.  While the Centennial had awakened interest in things colonial; New York’s upper class was still building Italian palazzi and French chateaux.  It would still be a few years before society embraced the style with such mansions as the Andrew Carnegie or Paul Tuckerman homes.  The Architectural Record recognized the trend and commented that “It is because McKim, Mead & White have been consciously seeking to naturalize certain European architectural forms in this country that they place their work in vital connection with the one living American architectural tradition.”

Completed in 1901, White’s structure was understated elegance.   The entrance was centered in the rusticated limestone first floor, above which three stories of brownish-red brick supported a stone cornice and balustrade.  White left a narrow courtyard between the Hollins house and the proposed Edey mansion.  

Miniature evergreens and vines grace the balconies five years after the house was completed -- Architectural Record July 1906
The Hollins property extended to West 55th Street where an existing stable still stood—previously owned by Robert Bonner for his famous trotting horses.  Hollins and his wife, the former Evelina Knapp, moved in with their children, Marion, John, Harry and McKim.   Mrs. Hollins did not fit the mold of the socialite whose soul interests were gossip and teas; she was a member of the Archaeological Institute of America and a keen collector of fine art.

The 56th Street mansion was used throughout the New York social season.  During the summer and early autumn months the Hollins lived and entertained in their Islip, Long Island estate Meadow Farm.

Things were going well for the family – or at least it seemed so to New York society and the banking industry—until October 1913 when the Hollins family quietly moved into the fashionable Hotel Gotham.   Hollins leased the mansion, fully furnished and including Mrs. Hollins’ valuable paintings and rare works of art, to Mrs. John Astor.  Mrs. Astor, the mother of Vincent Astor, agreed to pay $25,000 rent for the winter which included use of the adjoining 55th Street stables.

The stables, in the meantime, were sold to a developer who intended to erect a “large apartment hotel” there; with the agreement that demolition would not start until Mrs. Astor’s lease expired.

A month later an attorney affixed a court order to the brass gates of Hollins’ grand Wall Street office.  The New York Times reported that “Then it was publicly known that one of the most highly regarded houses in Wall Street had collapsed.”

The scandal was no doubt crushing to the family which was referred to by The Times as “notable in New York’s society life.”    They left Manhattan and moved permanently into the Long Island home.   In January 1915 Mrs. Hollins’ collection of art and antiques from the 56th Street house were auctioned off by the Anderson Galleries.  Included were paintings by Thomas Lawrence, Joshua Reynolds, Caravaggio and Romney.  The two-day auction netted $84,481.

Six months earlier the Calumet Club had met to vote on moving north from the clubhouse at Fifth Avenue and 29th Street where they had been for a quarter of a century.   The Hollins house was suggested as a possibility; certainly taking over the mansion would preclude the expense of building.   Before 1915 the house was purchased for $400,000 and the club was opened in the new location.

The house was conveniently within what was becoming the new club district.   The Brickbuilder magazine noted in January 1916 that “The clubs in New York have been steadily moving farther and farther north, and while the University Club was for many years a solitary outpost at 54th street and Fifth avenue, it is now no farther north than many of the others.  The pleasant new building of the Calumet Club is on 56th street, just west of Fifth avenue.”

The club had been formed in 1879 by twenty young men from distinguished families.  They named it after the calumet, a tobacco pipe that the American Indians used in peace treaties.  Membership was limited to 300.

In 1924 architect J. E. R. Carpenter was commissioned to renovate the building.  He added a two-story extension in the courtyard, set back behind a one-story arched entrance.  The original centered entrance and portico were replaced by a window that deftly blended with the others.
Carpenter's addition included a new entrance, replacing the original centered doorway -- photo by Alice Lum
Despite being one of the oldest social organizations in the city, the Great Depression proved too much to withstand.  On May 31, 1935 the club was disbanded and the clubhouse closed.   In September the Hollins house was sold at foreclosure and became home to the antiques dealer Charles of London.

For the next decade commercial tenants would come and go, with the house sitting empty for periods.  The Salvation Army acquired it in 1943 to be used as a servicemen’s canteen during World War II.

Over the door a handsome cast iron ornament simulates a leaded fan light -- photo by Alice Lum
Finally in 1947 the government of Argentina purchased the mansion, renovating it as the Argentine Consulate.    The Hollins mansion remains astonishingly preserved; one of the few residences in the area to survive without significant commercial alteration.  The handsome Georgian house was designated a New York City landmark in 1984.

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