Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Beaux Arts Beauty at No. 141-147 Fifth Avenue

photo corenyc.com
In 1896 Fifth Avenue between Washington Square and 23rd Street had ceased to be a fashionable residential area. Where only four decades earlier there were wide, dignified brownstones and trees, commercial loft buildings were now rising.

Robert L. Cutting had purchased his four-story mansion at No. 141 Fifth Avenue in 1854 and his next door neighbor, Clarence A. Seward, at No. 143 took possession in 1864. On April 23, 1896 the two residences were sold. The New York Times remarked “Both have been famous mansions in their day, identified with old New-York society.”

“Beginning on May 1, the present buildings will be torn down and a nine-story fire-proof store and lofts building will be erected in their stead,” the newspaper reported.

Real estate developer Henry Corn, who was active in the commercial development of lower Fifth Avenue, had purchased the mid-block houses. Rather than the nine-story building The Times predicted, he commissioned Robert Maynicke to design an 11-story Beaux-Arts building in limestone and terra-cotta.

Maynicke at the time was busy – designing scores of commercial buildings throughout the city. The new structure would cost $200,000. The Merchant Bank of New York occupied the lower floors and, while Maynicke’s design was dignified and restrained, its repeating layers of rectangular windows between pilasters provided a structure that was more monotonous than truly exceptional.

N. C.McCready purchased the building from Corn in 1897 for $462,500 and set about acquiring the corner plot to the north which he bought in 1898 for $341,000.


Ficken's taller addition can be seen in the architectural drawing by CentraRuddy

The following year McCready hired architect Henry Edwards Ficken to extend the building to the corner, instructing him that the addition was to be in “the same character” as the existing structure. Ficken perfectly melded his design with Maynicke’s structure, creating a flawless transition. The architect raised the addition by two floors and added a dramatic three-story dome at the corner. His cast-iron façade curved around the corner and he added embellishments such as balconies and round windows to make the formerly ho-hum building a show-stopper.

The building filled with various tenants – J. B. Thompson and Company taking an entire floor in 1900 and J. F. Feeley & Co., lace dealers, taking space in 1906.

Park & Tilford’s was an important tenant, selling everything from “fancy groceries” to ladies’ toilet articles. In 1911 New Yorkers were stunned when druggist Percy W. Shields was arrested for stealing more than $30,000 worth of imported perfumes from the store. The pricey French perfume called Ideal Houbigant, sold for an extravagant $10 per bottle.

McCready’s heir, Caroline A. McCready, sold No. 141-147 in June of 1912 to C. Grayson Martin for around $1.5 million. The New York Times accompanied its report of the sale with a photograph showing scores of men in straw boaters crowding the sidewalks around the building. It tagged the shot “Congestion during Noon Hour.”

Indeed, the influx of manufacturing lofts in the area was causing problems on the avenue. Just six months after the sale, real estate assessor Henry Brady said “The neighborhood is particularly objectionable for retail trade, on account of the many sweat-shops, the workers in which congregate in large crowds along Fifth Avenue from Fourteenth to Twenty-third Street.”

By the middle of the 20th Century the area had become somewhat bedraggled. No. 141-147 had lost its wonderful corner balcony and the first floor had been savagely altered. The Corinthian pilasters and delicate detailing were ripped away for modern store fronts.

In 2005, as lower Fifth Avenue experienced a revitalization, SL Green and Savanna Partners purchased the grand old building for about $60 million. The owners hired architect John Cetra of CetraRuddy to restore the façade and convert the building into 38 apartments.

In addition to adding two new floors, invisible from the street, Cetra not only brought the old building into the 20th Century, he took it back to the 19th Century. The long-vanished corner balcony was reconstructed. The missing stone and terra cotta ornamentation, including the Corinthian capitals and pilasters of the ground floor, gargoyles and urns, were reproduced in fiberglass. The handsome cupola was totally restored and 3,200 square-foot apartment installed within.

the restored three-story dome - photo by Alan Schindler
The renovation was completed in 2007, resulting in a merit award nomination for the architects for “adaptive re-use project.”

The unique dome apartment with its three terraces was advertised that year for $12 million.

Architect's illustration of the $12 million dome apartment -- by CentraRuddy
One of lower Fifth Avenue’s grand dames, No. 141-147 Fifth Avenue has come back to life.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Queen Anne Beauty -- No. 336 Convent Avenue

photo harlembespoke.blogspot.com
Although William De Forest made his fortune in the silk business as the American agent of the prestigious French firm Guanet Brothers; he was bitten by the real estate bug in the years after the Civil War. As the city expanded further north, he foresaw the potential in the vast acreage formerly occupied by the country estates of Manhattan’s wealthy.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s De Forest bought up sections of Alexander Hamilton’s estate, The Grange, and plotted streets with roomy homes for middle and upper-middle class families. De Forest’s son, William, Jr., joined in his father’s passion, building speculative housing and developing the area south of 145th Street in Harlem which would become known as Hamilton Heights.

The De Forests’ developments were well thought-out. In 1886 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide commented that the area “will certainly have a strong distinctive character of its own, though bearing more resemblance to the suburbs of London than to anything in the vicinity of New York.”

In 1890 William De Forest, Jr. commissioned architect Robert Dry to design a picturesque row of quaint Queen Anne style private homes on Convent Avenue. Dry borrowed from English Tudor and medieval designs, hinting at half-timbered walls (without using timbers) and splashing the houses with stepped gables, diminutive dormers peeking from steep tiled roofs and projecting bays.

The row culminated in its showpiece: the corner dazzler at No. 336. Completed in 1892, the façade is dominated by a corner tower with a faceted conical cap. A wide mixture of materials – fieldstone, brownstone, terra cotta, copper and tile – combine to create an exuberant and delightful visual composite.

With the extension of the New York subway system into Harlem and the opening of the Lenox Avenue station in 1904, the real estate market began declining. In October 1912 the house was sold by one real estate operator, Elias A. Cohen, to another, Ennis & Sinnott.

By the Fall of 1941 the large residence had been converted to 12 furnished rooms and two apartments. Another conversion was done in 2001, the same year that the neighborhood was landmarked. The renovation resulted in a total of seven apartments – from studios to two bedrooms.

photo JC DeNiro & Assoc
Although the interior Victorian details are gone, replaced with a sterile clean lines and little character, No. 336 Convent Avenue stands on its corner as a vivid reminder of a much different era in Hamilton Heights.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Gift from Father - No. 4 East 80th Street


The grand entrance hall -- photo Brown Harris Stevens
 Although Frank Winfield Woolworth grew up on his family’s modest potato farm in Rodman, New York; by the beginning of the 20th Century he was living in a massive Gothic mansion at the corner of 5th Avenue and 80th Street, one of the wealthiest men in America.

Woolworth commissioned mansion designer Charles P. H. Gilbert, responsible for Woolworth’s own house, to design adjoining residences for his three married daughters. Built between 1911 and 1915, the center mansion, at No. 4 East 80th Street and similar in style to Woolworth’s, was for his eldest daughter Helena Woolworth McCann.

The three sisters' houses in 1916 with Helena Woolworth McCann's house in the center - photo NYPL Collection
The wide limestone façade rose six stories, with understated embellishments of finials, tracery and two monumental dormers rising above the 6th floor roofline from the fifth floor balcony. Around the entrance were carved woodland creatures including frogs and squirrels.

Lena, as she was popularly known, and her husband, lawyer Charles E. F. McCann, lived quietly in the French Gothic mansion with their three children, Constance, Helena and Fraiser. The couple was active in charity events and divided their time between the 80th Street house and their country estate, Sunken Orchard, in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

The interiors of the Manhattan house were filled with European artworks, antiques and Helena’s well-known collection of export porcelain. The entrance hall featured intricate mosaic floors, a massive stone fireplace and a grand staircase rising five stories below a stained glass skylight. On the second floor was the 35-foot drawing room with floor-to-ceiling windows, the dining room with its large fireplace and a solarium.

Part of the second floor as it appears today -- photo Brown Harris Stevens
Helena McCann died in 1938, three years after giving her children more than $15 million. The mansion was sold in July 1943 to the Congregation of the Holy Cross, known as the Holy Cross Fathers, to become a novitiate house for young men studying for the priesthood. The order ran various Catholic institutions throughout the Midwest, including Notre Dame University.

The staircase hall with its 14-foot ceilings -- photo Brown Harris Stevens
The Holy Cross Fathers remained in the house until August of 1955 when they sold it to the Young Men’s Philanthropic League. Forty years later Lucille Roberts purchased the mansion for $6 million. The health-club doyenne commissioned architectural firm Hottenroth + Joseph to restore and renovate the home. The five-year project resulted in vintage interiors being brought back to their original grandeur, as well as adding 20th Century amenities. Roberts’ private closets featured electronic clothing racks – similar to those in a dry cleaners – which required reducing the size of an extra bedroom to accommodate the machinery. Lucille Roberts’ personal bathroom was modeled after one she approved of in the Ritz Hotel in Paris. An additional floor, invisible from street level, contained a private office with full bath and staff suite. In addition to two bedrooms on the fifth floor, a gym was added.

photo ny.curbed.com
Three years after her renovations were completed, Lucille Roberts died in 2003. In 2011 the family put the house on the market, with its 10 bedrooms 11.5 bathrooms and 3 kitchens, for $90 million.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The 1930 George Whitney House -- No. 120 East 80th Street

photo cityrealty.com
When Vincent Astor and his wife built their Regency-style stone mansion at 130 East 80th Street in 1926 the neighborhood abruptly became even more fashionable. Rapidly, similar grand homes were erected until the block between Lexington and Park Avenues was one of the loveliest in the city.

Among the wealthy who settled on the block were banker George Whitney, his wife Martha and their family. Whitney, of the J. P. Morgan Company, chose Cross and Cross to design the new home at No. 120 in 1929, the year of the stock market crash. Despite the sudden upheaval in the country’s financial conditions, the Whitneys forged on with their project.

Cross and Cross, who had established a reputation as one of the favorite architectural firms of New York’s old guard, created an exceptionally dignified and beautifully proportioned home. Constructed of red brick with white marble accents, it harkened back to the refined Federal mansions of a century earlier. A nearly-vertical slate mansard is punctured by three shallow, arched dormers and crowned with a railing that smacks of Chinese Chippendale.

A white marble, half-circular porch is supported by fluted Doric columns upon which rests a graceful black metal railing, creating a balcony on the second floor.

The Whitney’s home was completed in 1930, a year in which twenty private homes in Manhattan were demolished for every one constructed. But while office buildings and apartment houses replaced the rows of brownstones, the East 80th Street block stood firm. Mrs. Whitney’s exceptional “hidden gardens” in the rear of the house were the object of annual charity tours.

The couple, who also owned a country estate, “Home Acres,” in Old Westbury, Long Island, lived on in No. 120 with their daughters Elizabeth Beatrice, Martha Phyllis and their son George until 1954. In June of that year, George Whitney sold the home, assessed at around $190,000, to a real estate operator who planned its conversion into apartments. Yet the sale and conversion did not mean that riff raff would be moving in.

Instead, socialites like Mrs. Otto Crouse, who was heavily involved in social charity events for decades, took up residence.

photo by Jim Henderson
Today the Whitney’s formal Federal mansion looks from the sidewalk as it did in 1930. There are 38 apartments in the six-story home which still retains much of its original detailing. In designating the house a landmark in 1968, the Landmarks Designation Commission noted that the proportions, refinement of details, quality of craftsmanship and “quiet accents” combined “to produce an outstanding architectural entity.”

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A House with a Past -- No. 266 West End Avenue


photo trulia.com
As French chateaux and Italian palazzi rose on the east side of Central Park in the 1890s, the west side was filling with whimsical Queen Anne row houses overflowing with gables, turrets and stained glass bay windows. For No. 266 West End Avenue, however, architect Rudolphe Daus designed a restrained French Renaissance residence that could easily be a home with its across-the-park contemporaries.

The Mexican-born architect was trained in the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts and had worked in the studios of both Richard Morris Hunt and George B. Post. His works would include the impressive Hoffman House Hotel, the Lincoln Club and Brooklyn’s 13th Regiment Armory.

Built for wealthy wine importer Julius N. Jaros, the 28-foot wide limestone home was completed in 1896. A juliette balcony at the third floor and another, full-length pierced and carved limestone balcony on the fourth floor added dimension to the otherwise flat façade. An especially lacy dormer rose from the tiled roof and elaborate carvings extended the entrance above the second story level.

photo trulia.com
The interior was lavishly decorated with French panels, ceiling and wall paintings, and carved woodwork. Stenciled panels nestled among a beamed dining room ceiling.

photo trulia.com
Ten years later the house became the property of Peter Doelger. The son of a successful brewer, Doelger lived here with his wife Charlotte and daughter Phoebe. In 1909 teas and receptions were hosted here as Phoebe entered society as a debutante.

On the day after Christmas in 1912, Doelger had the deed to the property transferred to his wife’s name.

“Yes, I thought Mrs. Doelger would like the house so I gave it to her for Christmas,” he told reporters. At the time the house was assessed at $70,000.

As World War I was coming to a close the mansion was home to Misha E. Applebaum and his wife, Irma. Born in Russia, Applebaum made his fortune as a copper and metals merchant but became famous by founding The Humanitarian Cult. The Cult, which held meetings in the house at No. 266, was a somewhat Socialist organization that fought for a variety of social causes including the fight against capital punishment, poverty, the war, and for women’s suffrage. Instead of dues or membership fees, aspiring members were directed to pay grocers’ and butchers’ bills for impoverished families.

Irma sued Applebaum for divorce in 1917 on the grounds of mental cruelty and two years later the house was sold. Subsequently, Applebaum married singer Helen Yorke in April of 1920 and later that year, in October, the couple were poisoned with bichloride of mercury. While the new Mrs. Applebaum recovered quickly, Misha was near death for some time.

Having spent over $650,000 of his own money for The Humanitarian Cult causes, Applebaum was in serious financial condition and in 1921 began a vaudeville act in an attempt to pay off his creditors.

By the 1930s, Beverly West, the sister of Mae West, was living in the house. West End Avenue lore insists that the screen and stage siren was also living here at the time, and quite possibly it is true. Certainly the interiors were of Miss West’s taste, mirroring her Los Angeles apartment that dripped with rococo curls and nude floating cherubs.

photo trulia.com
A decade later architect Harry Hurwit sympathetically renovated the building which had, by then, been converted to apartments. In 1948 there was a doctor’s office and apartment on the first floor, an apartment on the second and two apartments each on the remaining floors.

The proposed restored entranceway -- rendering provided by Andrew J. Hickes (Rendering.net)
In 2004 plastic surgeon and filmmaker Todd Wider purchased the house for $1.2 million and began a long-term project to return it to a private residence. Amazingly, after 60 years of life as an apartment house, the interior detailing, the ceiling paintings and carved mantles, the oak staircase are all intact. When the renovation is complete the Jaros house will again have a ballroom, library and conservatories; although 21st Century touches like radiant heating, an elevator and a sauna and steam room will also be included.
The house today during renovation (left) and a detail of the proposed restored entrance -- renderings provided by Andrew J. Hickes (Rendering.net)
The charming house with an interesting past was put on the market in 2010 for $30 million.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Asch Building and the March 25, 1911 Triangle Waist Company Tragedy

The Asch (Brown) Building today.  Scores of young women flung themselves from the cornice under the arched windows of the 10th floor. - photo by Robert Guffey
Early on the morning of Saturday, March 25, 1911 Mary Herman pulled on her coat, shut the door behind her, and started off to work at the Triangle Waist Factory near Washington Square. Mary would not return home that evening.

The building to which Mary headed was the Asch Building, completed in January 1901. Built by furrier Joseph J. Asch with Ole Olsen, it was intended to be the latest in fire-proof design with an iron and steel framework clad in non-combustible terra-cotta. At only 135 feet high, fire laws allowed wooden floors and window frames. Although sprinklers were not required by law, plans did call for a fire alarm system, fire hoses on all floors, two staircases per floor and an iron fire escape clinging to the exterior wall of the light court.

Further fire precautions were added by the Buildings Department which rejected the initial plans, calling for an additional set of fire stairs and complaining that the rear fire escape “must lead to something more substantial than a skylight.”

The architect, John Woolley, however, argued against the additional staircase. Because the floors were all open, being loft manufacturing spaces, and the planned stairs were far from each other, he reasoned that the exterior fire escape counted as a third staircase. The Building Department accepted his argument.

The finished loft building was attractive in ecru-colored brick and terra-cotta. Designed in the latest Renaissance Revival style, it was embellished with ornate terra-cotta panels and wreaths. The tenth floor stood out with a series of arched windows lining up beneath a deeply-overhanging cornice.

The Triangle Waist Company – often referred to as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company – set up its factory in the top three floors of the Asch Building at Nos. 23-29 Washington Place. Here, aside from the offices on the 10th Floor, young women mostly in their teens and early 20s bent their backs over sewing machines constructing shirtwaist blouses – the high-necked, tailored garments which were the height of fashion.

The girls were poorly paid, conditions were miserable and work was hard. When the International Ladies Garment Workers Union struck in 1909, Triangle retaliated by firing 150 sympathizers. From then on owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris locked the girls in, kept the light court windows shuttered and ruled the sewing floor by fear. Sewing girls told of raising their eyes from their machines only when they were certain they would not be caught. Speaking was forbidden and restroom breaks were closely monitored. The women were all searched upon leaving the building at quiting time.  Anyone wishing to work for Blanck and Harris was required to provide her own needles and thread.

Mary Herman was working on the 9th Floor that Saturday. The girls would all be going home in ten minutes – at 4:45 pm. There was unspoken relief in the room.

Meanwhile, downstairs on the 8th Floor a pile of fabric somehow caught fire on a table. Paper patterns hanging above quickly ignited and the blaze grew. When a floor manager rushed to the fire hose in the hall, the rotten hose crumbled. The bookkeeper, Mary Loventhal, called the offices on the top floor and warned of the fire. No one thought to notify the 9th Floor where Mary Herman was working.

Most of the panicked women on the 8th Floor rushed to the elevator and stairs and escaped; however others, unable to make it to the stairs or wedge into the crowded elevators jumped to their deaths.
The remains of the 9th Floor where Mary Herman worked -- photo NYPL Collection
With the bookkeeper’s alarm from the 8th Floor, those on the top floor dashed to the stairways and all but one survived.

Meanwhile, on the 9th Floor business went on as usual. When the closing bell clanged the girls accepted their pay envelopes and headed for the coatroom. Suddenly the fire reached the floor. As the room filled with smoke, panicked girls fell over tables and machinery. As workers crammed into the stairways, a barrel of machine oil near one set of stairs suddenly exploded, blocking that exit. Mary Herman was seen rushing to a door which, to her terror, was locked.

Lillian Wilner fought with the iron shutters on a light court window, finally prying it open and desperate women packed onto the 17-inch wide iron fire escape. To their utter dismay the drop ladder at the bottom had never been installed and they were trapped on the metal escape.

As more and more women crammed onto the fire escape their combined weight and the heat of the fire caused it to collapse. The workers plunged to the pavement of the light court.
The crumpled light-court fire escape that plummeted scores of workers to their deaths -- NYPL Collection
As other women were jammed into the slowly-descending elevators, workers jumped into the elevator shafts, landing on top of the cabs. Others tried to slide down the elevator cables.

The Fire Department arrived but, according to The New York Times, the fire engines had difficulty getting near the building due to the number of bodies scattered about the sidewalk and street. “While more bodies crashed down among them they worked with desperation to run their ladders into position and spread their fire nets,” reported the newspaper.

Emergency workers examine heaped bodies on the pavement -- photo Jewish Journal
Life nets broke apart with the force of bodies falling from the upper stories and when the fire ladders were extended, they were too short to reach the floors where victims were trapped. Police Captain Dominick Henry recalled “a scene I hope I never see again. Dozens of girls were hanging from the ledges. Others, their dresses on fire, were leaping from the windows.”

It was all over within 30 minutes. Mary Herman never went home that evening. Neither did 145 other shirtwaist workers. A wave of horror accompanied the story as it swept across the nation, fostering the beginnings of strengthened fire codes, better work conditions and stronger labor unions.

Days later most of the bodies were still unidentified, burned or disfigured beyond recognition. Finally on March 31, Mayor Gaynor decided that the city would bury the final 14 unidentified victims in a lot in Evergreen Cemetery in East New York.  Five days later over 80,000 mourners filed up Fifth Avenue in a procession sponsored by the WTUL and Local 25 for the unknown victims. Hundreds of thousands of workers walked away from their jobs that afternoon to view the procession.

Blanck and Harris were indicted for manslaughter in the death of Mary Herman on April 11 for locking the factory door in violation of New York State labor laws. The jury, however, found that proving the owners knew about the locked door was impossible and the pair was acquitted. Blanck and Harris received $200,000 from their insurance claim for fire damages. Twenty-three families each received a $75 settlement from Joseph J. Asch for the lost lives.


Despite the overwhelming tragedy and loss of life, the Asch Building was actually little-damaged. The terra-cotta cladding and iron and steel framework withstood the heat and flames as the designer intended. Joseph Asch had architects Maynicke & Franke correct logistical defects including adding a new fire escape, removing the iron shutters, and constructing two large water tanks on the roof. In 1912 a modern sprinkler system was installed. After the restoration and renovations it was renamed the Greenwich Building and continued its use as a manufacturing loft.

New York University rented the 8th floor, where the fire had started, in 1915. A year later plans were announced to install the library and classrooms here. In 1918 the school took over the 9th floor and a year later expanded to the 10th – now inhabiting the three floors formerly home to the Triangle Waist Company.

By the 1920s the university had taken over the entire building. German-born philanthropist Frederick Brown purchased the structure and, on February 28, 1929, signed it over to New York University. The school renamed the building The Brown Building.

Every year, on March 25, firefighters, city officials, union leaders and fashion industry employees hold a ceremony at the Brown Building to commemorate the tragedy of March 25, 1911. A fire ladder is hoisted to the sixth floor – the extent that the ladders reached that day, too short to help those dying above – and a fire bell tolls once for each of the 146 lives lost.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Renwick's 1854 St. Stephen's Church - 151 East 28th Street

photo nyago.com
When James Renwick, Jr. designed St. Stephen’s Church in 1852, he somewhat surprisingly turned away from the Gothic Revival style he had used for his magnificent Grace Church a decade earlier. Instead he embraced the German Romanesque “Rundbogenstil” style used for the new Astor Library that same year.

Archbishop John Hughes had created the parish just six years earlier for the rapidly-developing Murray Hill area. Although the original St. Stephen’s was opened in 1849 on East 27th Street, its proximity to the Harlem Avenue railroad on Fourth Avenue proved intolerable. Land was purchased on East 28th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues and the cornerstone laid on April 17, 1853..

Completed a year later, the brownstone building made use of elongated stained glass windows in the front face to accentuate the verticality of its architecture. A parapet with a rose window and a corbelled porch visually dominated the exterior. Frescoes covered the ceiling and walls of the interior of the $40,000 church.

The archbishop attended the dedication ceremony on Sunday, March 5, 1854. Despite the $1.00 admission, each seat was filled; the only trouble occurring, according to The New York Times, when “one old lady, whose full proportions in the aisle threatened to stop the procession.”

As the streets of Murray Hill became populated with wide brownstone mansions, St. Stephen’s became a wealthy and significant parish. Despite the ordinance against opening a vault or digging a grave below 42nd Street, the Board of Aldermen gave St. Stephen’s the “privilege” of interring parishioners in the vault below the church in 1860; a significant concession.

Early on the church became a favorite among the musical community. On December 18,1865 the funeral of Italian buffo singer Augustine Rovero was held here. The church choir was augmented by the chorus and solo singers of the Italian Opera and the funeral procession was led by the orchestra of the Opera.

That same year it was decided to enlarge the church due to the ever-increasing membership. The building was extended to 29th Street, resulting in a nave 200 feet long. Constantine Brumidi, who simultaneously painted the frescoes in the Capitol Building rotunda in Washington DC, executed 43 murals, and Meyer of Munich created 100 stained glass windows.

One of Brumidi's magnificent murals over the marble altar.  Some of the Meyer & Munich windows are visible at the sides.  photo catholicmanhattan.blogspot.com
The 29th Street façade was done in brick with stone trim; however it reflected much of the Romanesque styling of the original façade.

In 1868 the altar was replaced with what The New York Times called an “elegant structure, which is one of the handsomest and most expensive in the country. It is made of statuary marble imported from Italy, and cost $30,000,” three-quarters of the original cost of the building.

While the great St. Patrick’s Cathedral, also designed by Renrick, was rising on Fifth Avenue St. Stephen’s was the foremost Roman Catholic church among New York’s wealthy. On November 28,1870 the sanctuary was filled as hundreds attended the wedding of the Spanish Minister, Senor Mauritio Lopez Roberts to Angela Terre. In attendance were the ministers of Portugal, Prussia, Russia and Italy as well as the French Charge d’Affaires and diplomats from Cuba, Washington DC and Spain.

Four years later the King Ka’akaua of Hawaii and his party worshipped here. “The music especially pleased his Majesty, and was of that brilliant character which has gained for St. Stephen’s its reputation in this repect,” reported The Times.

An awkward moment followed the service when the king attempted to wait for the church to empty so he would not have to leave through a crowd. But the parishioners, eager to get a good view of royalty, did not budge and a stalemate of unmoving bodies resulted.

Even with the dedication of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Stephen’s remained in the forefront for Catholic society. In 1882 James D. McCabe, Jr., in his “New York by Gaslight,” commented ‘The most fashionable church, as well as one of the most beautiful, is St. Stephen's...The interior is beautifully decorated with frescoes, and the altar, of pure white marble, is one of the most magnificent in the Union. The altar-piece, representing the Crucifixion, is a noble work of art, and the music the best in the city. The church will seat 400 people, and is always crowded. Father McGlynn, the rector, is one of the most gifted pulpit orators in the city."

By now, owing to the Rev. Dr. Edward McGlynn’s moving oratory and persuasive character, the membership had risen to between 25,000 and 28,000 persons and was one of the country’s most influential parishes.

All would not stay idyllic, however.

The outspoken and liberal-minded priest had made his opinions clearly heard, even though they often ran counter to the stance of the Church. He spoke out against parochial schools, saying that public schools were quite adequate, for instance.

He ignored Archbishop Corrigan’s orders to correct his behavior, and when he offended the Vatican and was summoned to Rome, he ignored the command and instead spoke out more strongly. Finally in January 1887 he was excommunicated and stripped of his priestly functions.

When a new Pastor, Rev. Arthur J. Donnelly, was assigned in McGlynn’s stead, the parishioners rebelled. The engineer, Mr. Johnson, resigned and mailed his key to Dr. McGlynn which resulted in there being no heat in the church for Sunday services that January morning. The choir director of eight years, Agatha Munier, walked out and the boys choir refused to sing. There could be no collection taken because the collectors refused to serve. “The money tables were not in their usual places just inside the entrances: no tickets for seats were sold, and the worshippers sat where they pleased,” noted The Times.

The paper reported that “Father Donnelly will remain at St. Stephen’s until quiet is restored and opposition is removed.”

Eventually quiet was restored and the opposition removed. In 1894 McGlynn was reinstated as a priest, although not at St. Stephen’s. In 1900 the funeral for the feisty priest, whom The New York Times called “the Great Agitator,” was held here. Over 30,000 people viewed the body and 110 policement were required to control the crowd.

As the 20th Century progressed, the area became more commercial and the membership declined substantially. Father Francis Cummings, who arrived in 1919, made significant renovations including electrical lighting, restoration of the exterior and stained glass and installation of a new organ.

In 1989 the church merged with Our Lady of the Scapular, changing its name to The Church of Our Lady of the Scapular and St. Stephen.

No longer the foremost Catholic church in the city, it remains a treasure of art and architecture too often overlooked.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Vincent Astor House - No. 130 East 80th Street

photo by Jim Henderson
Vincent Astor was just 20 years old in 1912 when the Titanic sunk. On board was Astor’s father, John Jacob Astor and his new wife, Madeleine, who was younger than Vincent. Through tragedy the young Harvard student became one of the richest men in the world, inheriting an estimated $200 million.


The young Vincent Astor was neither short on money nor good looks.

Two years later Astor married Helen Dinsmore Huntington and, after serving in the Navy during World War I, began planning a permanent home. Collective eyebrows and curiosities were raised when the millionaire began buying up properties on East 80th and 79th Streets, a few blocks away from the more-expected Fifth Avenue.

On January 8, 1926 The New York Times noted that “The private residence at 127 East Seventy-ninth Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues, has been purchased by Vincent Astor, it was learned yesterday, and will be added to the plot he has assembled at this point for improvement with a new residence for his own occupancy.”

The “plot he has assembled” included the home of Mrs. Louis W. Noel at No. 130 East 80th Street.

Within the year Astor had commissioned the highly-esteemed architect Mott B. Schmidt to design the new mansion on the site of the demolished Noel residence. Giving a nod to Robert Adam’s elegant London Society of Arts Building, Schmidt created a restrained Neo-Classic residence constructed of imported Roche limestone, completed in 1928.

Oozing English understated poise, its stone portico rests on two plain, Ionic pillars – reflected in the four two-story Ionic pilasters above. Simple but graceful iron fencing separates the first floor from the public sidewalk. Schmidt, in foregoing elaborate ornamentation, achieved unparalleled class.

Helen Astor was a staunch supporter of the musical arts and entertained often in the mansion, hosting charity teas for the Philharmonic and, in October 1938, giving a gala reception for Arturo Toscanini before he left New York for Europe.

With the Astors came other wealthy neighbors as three Georgian-style brick mansions abutted No. 130. Comparing the Astor mansion to these homes decades later, the AIA Guide to New York City said it was the “most subtle and most powerful of the 80th Street Quartet. Here brick Georgian gives way to travertine Regency. Taut Ionic pilasters, and an elegant relieving arch in the manner of the Brothers Adam. Schmidt was a winner.”

Helen and Vincent Astor divorced in 1940. Before long Astor married Mary Benedict Cushing, best known as Minnie. Within two years he was breaking Astor tradition – after a century and a half of accumulating Astor property, Vincent began selling it. Among the properties he liquidated was the mansion at No. 130 East 80th Street.

photo nyjl.org
In 1943 Mrs. Bertha Rainey Plum purchased the house, living here just four years. Then in 1947 it was acquired by the Junior League of New York City. By 1949 the house was ready for their move. The Times reported on May 24 of that year, “The Junior League of the City of New York once more is dwelling in marble halls…after ‘roughing it’ for nearly a year in a storage warehouse.”

The League, whose purpose according to its Mission Statement is “exclusively educational and charitable,” remains in Vincent Astor’s exceptional mansion, preserving its integrity on a block of exceptional residences.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Daniel Chester French's Nearly-Lost "Manhattan" and "Brooklyn"

Daniel Chester French's "Brooklyn" and "Manhattan" in preparation for removal 1964 -- photo Brooklyn Museum
As the 19th Century turned into the 20th, the “City Beautiful” movement swept over New York. The movement, which maintained that surrounding citizens with “civilized” buildings would in turn foster civilized behavior, resulted in grand marble, limestone and granite edifices. (A century later the feasibility of that theory is highly debatable.)

Planners for the new Manhattan Bridge, just up river from the Brooklyn Bridge, had the movement vividly in mind. The approach to the bridge on the Manhattan side was to rival anything in Europe – a grand, open plaza with a monumental archway. Architects Carrere & Hastings, who had recently designed another City Beautiful show-stopper, the New York Public Library, were given the commission to design the plaza.

In 1912 over a thousand families lost their homes when a swath of land 400 by 750 feet was leveled. A great triumphal arch would serve as the entrance to the bridge. On either side curved colonnades, like those embracing St. Peter’s Square in Rome, would welcome the traveler onto the span. Around the plaza, park-like landscaping was designed with grass, flowers and shrubbery.

The monumental approach on the Manhattan side -- postcard from author's collection
Carrere & Hastings lavished the monumental structure with sculpture by selected artists. Carl Rumsey executed the frieze of American Indians and buffalo, C. A. Heber did the large groupings on either side of the opening. Construction began in 1901 and the bridge opened in 1909.

The very non-monumental approach on the Brooklyn Side -- photo Brooklyn1.com
Meanwhile, on the Brooklyn side things were less monumental. The entrance plaza here consisted of two immense granite pylons – no arch, no colonnade, no landscaped park. Perhaps because of civic guilt, plans were put forward to add statues to the pylons two years later. Subsequently Daniel Chester French was hired to create two huge allegorical sculptures of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Although French was responsible for numerous civic sculptures, he would become most remembered for his gigantic rendering of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Monument in Washington DC. For the bridge entrance, he sculpted two seated figures in matching granite using, most likely, model Audrey Munson as his model. (Munson would appear in sculpture throughout the city, such as Civic Pride atop City Hall and the Pomona Fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel.) French attempted to capture the essence of the boroughs in stone.

"Manhattan" -- photo by Douglas Yeo
Manhattan sits haughtily with her head held high, her hand turned under on her knee. She holds a winged globe and wears a tiara. French represented Manhattan’s wealth of museums with a ruined Greek torso, its banking industry with the money chest under her foot, and its shipping industry with the bows of three ships. A peacock stands regally beside her.

"Brooklyn" -- photo Douglas Yeo
A more maternal Brooklyn has a small boy reading a book at her feet. Next to her is a church – representative of the borough of churches. She wears a laurel wreath as opposed to a tiara and at her side is a lyre.

French was able not only to capture various civic aspects of the two boroughs; but he also reflected their public impressions – Manhattan being regal and dignified, Brooklyn being homey and unpretentious.

On April 11, 1915 The New York Times reported that the statues were nearly ready for installation. Calling them “of heroic size,” the newspaper said “They are to be placed on pylons built of Victoria white granite and ornamented, so as to produce an impression of strength and dignity. The pedestals for the statues are fifteen feet high and represent a cost of $9,000 each.”

Bridge Commissioner Kracke commented that “The design of the approach and of the plaza is highly ornamental and yet is not lacking in either simplicity or dignity. In designing the approach the idea was kept in mind that the Flatbush Avenue extension would be a wide and beautiful boulevard into Brooklyn, and the approach in consequence was laid out so as not to suggest the idea of a terminal, but of an open driveway.”

“Brooklyn” and “Manhattan” sat quietly surrounded by traffic for half a century until, in 1961, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses decided that the plaza needed to be expanded to accommodate increased traffic. On June 1 he applied to the Art Commission of the City of New York to demolish the statues, calling them “ornamental and architectural masonry” that “must yield to make way for reconstruction.” A month later the Commission “grudgingly approved” the removal of the statues. At the 11th hour, the two artworks were given a reprieve and the 20-ton maidens were relocated to either side of the main entrance to the Brooklyn Museum in April 1964.

In 2003 the statues were restored by Conservation Solutions, Inc. who removed and disassembled each one into its component stones, cleaned them, filled damaged areas and re-assembled on new bases flanking the new entrance to the Museum.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Lost 1908 William A. Clark Mansion

photo NYPL Collection
William Andrews Clark was born in poverty in Pennsylvania in 1839 to Scotch-Irish parents. When he was just 17, the family traveled to Iowa as homesteaders.

Clark made up his mind early in life that he disliked poverty.

By 1895, when he moved to New York, he had amassed one of the largest fortunes in the country, controlling silver and copper mines, operating railroads, and being elected to the Montana Senate. His reputation, however, was one of deceit, unscrupulous dealings, bribery and cut-throat schemes.

Mark Twain wrote of him, “He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed's time.”

Clark’s image was further sullied when, after the death of his wife in 1893, he “sponsored” a young actress, Eugenia LaChapelle. The entertainer became pregnant in 1901 and, again, in 1903. Although Clark reported that the pair had secretly married prior to the first pregnancy, no documentation was ever found.

Upon arriving in New York, Clark embarked on plans to build the largest, most expensive home in America. He commissioned the architectural firm of Lord, Hewlett & Hull to design the mansion at 5th Avenue and 77th Street on land he had purchased from Samuel Untermyer. Repeatedly, he had the plans reworked, “as Mr. Clark has found the proposed designs not sufficient in size or in splendor,” according to The New York Times.

When the size of the art gallery was “entirely insufficient,” he purchased an adjoining lot to increase the size of the mansion. With his succession of changes and additions the estimated cost of the structure rose from $417,000 to $2.5 million.

When the Maine and New Hampshire Granite Company increased their bid for the stone work, Clark purchased an adjoining quarry, then established his own stone cutting plant. Similarly, when he felt the bids for the bronze work were exorbitant, he purchased the Henry Bannard Bronze Company and supplied copper from his own mines.

The construction of Clark’s gargantuan mansion lasted until 1908 – a full 13 years. By the time it was finished it was no longer in style and New Yorkers called the long-term project “an old man’s fad.” The Times remarked on the finished structure. “Viewed from the street the building strikes the observer as too big, too heavy, too massive, for its ground space and its residential surroundings.”

With a final cost approaching $10 million, the house rose nine stories with Turkish baths below ground level, laundry rooms on the top floor, scores of Greek marble columns, and mantelpieces costing up to $2000 each – the Numidian marble fireplace in the banquet room measured 15 feet across with life-size figures of Diana and Neptune. There were 120 rooms filled with medieval tapestries and artwork. The wood for the carved ceiling of the banquet room came from Sherwood Forest; of the 170 carved panels in the breakfast room no two were identical,

On the second floor was a rotunda, 36 feet high, of Maryland marble with eight Bresche violet columns, used as the statuary room. It opened onto a conservatory of solid brass and glass, 30 feet high and 22 feet wide. On the opposite side of the rotunda was the marble-paneled main picture gallery, 95 feet long and two stories high. An organ loft housed the largest chamber organ in America with 62 “speaking stops.”

There were 25 guests rooms, with baths, 35 servants’ rooms with men’s quarters to the east and female rooms in the western wing. Clark’s Gothic library was 90 feet long with a beamed ceiling and immense carved fireplace.

The Senator's art collection included works by Delacroix, Millet, Corot, Constable, Boucher and Daubigny. He spent $200,000 for the Gobelin tapestries owned by Prince Murat and $350,000 for those of the Earl of Coventry.
Clark's mansion boasted 121 rooms and stood just 19 years
At the time of the mansion’s completion, Clark had an annual income of $12 million and owned homes in Los Angeles, Washington DC and Butte Montana. But despite its size and its cost, the Fifth Avenue house never achieved the admiration for which its owner strove. It was immediately the object of scorn and ridicule for its ungainly ostentation.

At the age of 86 William A. Clark died in his bedroom on March 25, 1925, one of the 50 richest men in America. Two years later, in preparation for the auction of its furnishings and its demolition, the mansion was opened to the public from February 20 through March 1 with admission fees going to charity. Shortly thereafter great hulking house was demolished, just 19 years after being built.

According to Robert Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins in their “New York 1930, Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars,” "No loss was viewed in retrospect to have been greater than that of Senator William Clark's 121-room pile at Seventy-seventh Street, which was felled by the wrecker's ball in 1926 [sic],"

The New York Times gave the house a tongue-in-cheek obituary. “As for the Clark palace, it has been condemned unreasonably, indiscriminately. An echo of the architectural orgy of the Paris Exposition of 1900, its only fault is that it stops short of perfection in its kind. The inlaid gold leaf that decks its interior woodwork should have been spread upon its fantastic stonework without. Its astronomical tower should have been surmounted by an orrery with a sun of flame and planets of solid gold. It might thus have truly exemplified the senatorial mood of the eighteen-nineties, illumined by the ambitions of a doge.”

The New Republic viewed the loss with mixed remorse.  "The Clark house was a scandal even more than it was a joke ... Decent people were indignant and considered it an affront to the city and to themselves. But time has consecrated its ugliness and it is almost an act of vandalism to tear it down."

On the site of William Clark’s dream house rose a large apartment building.

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 nyc.architecture.com
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.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

The William Starr Miller House - 1048 5th Avenue (Neue Galerie)

The William Starr Miller residence today - photo by razr
By the time William Starr Miller retired from the legal profession, the neighborhood around his elegant brownstone residence at 39 5th Avenue, between 10th and 11th Streets, was becoming less and less exclusive. Apartment buildings were replacing the staid old homes of New York’s elite as the wealthy moved further and further uptown.

Miller, who remained an active industrialist and real estate operator, commissioned Carrere & Hasting in 1912 to design his new home at 1048 Fifth Avenue at the southeast corner of East 86th Street across from Central Park. The firm, which had just completed the magnificent white marble New York Public Library, created a surprising red brick and limestone Louis XIII palace that would easily be at home in Paris’s Place des Vosges.

Possibly following the lead of Andrew Carnegie’s 64-room brick and limestone English Georgia residence completed in 1903, the architects' choice of styles and materials was unusual nevertheless. On an avenue lined with white marble and limestone chateaux and palazzos, many of them dripping with scrolled brackets, swags and garlands, Starr’s mansion was quietly restrained in comparison.

Facing 86th Street, the house sat on a rusticated base, the central three bays projecting from the bulk of the structure. A high slate mansard roof with tall stone-framed dormers sat behind a limestone balustrade.

As the mansion neared completion The New York Times commented on the atypical choice of style and materials on December 7, 1913. “There is a dignity and simplicity far more pleasing than some of the excruciatingly ornate creations on the avenue,” the newspaper said. “The use of red brick with limestone adds a cheerful touch of color suggestive of early Colonial to the Miller house.” The Times added that the new house would be “of more than ordinary importance.”

By 1921 The Times had changed its opinion of the mansion. It report that Starr’s 33-year old daughter, Edith Starr Miller, had quietly married the divorced 60-year old Lord Queenborough in “the big dull red and gray house.”

In 1922 the house was still surrounded by older brownstone row houses -- NYPL Collection

If The Times found the exterior big and dull, the interiors were sumptuous. The library and drawing room were oak-paneled, the dining room hung with tapestries, and the second floor music room spacious.

The quiet wedding in the music room of No. 1048 5th Avenue did not last. In 1932 Edith sued the baron for separation on ground of “cruelty, inhuman treatment and abandonment.” The following year she died at age 45 in Paris.

William Starr Miller died in the mansion on September 14, 1935 followed by his wife nine years later. The house was opened in November 1944 for buyers to preview the art and furnishings as preparations were made to auction off the Miller estate.

A month earlier the mansion had been sold to the most socially-prominent name in New York.

On October 44 The New York Times reported “Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose historic and palatial home at 640 Fifth Avenue recently was acquired by the William Waldorf Astor estate, has purchased the large stone house at 1048 Fifth Avenue, southeast corner of Eighty-sixth Street.”

Mrs. Vanderbilt, accustomed to the much larger home to the south, referred to the Miller mansion as “the gardener’s cottage.” Cottage or not, Mrs. Vanderbilt made the house the center of lavish entertainments, charity events and glittering balls.

Here on the night of January 8, 1953, the undisputed leader of New York and Newport society died of pneumonia.

The house, for half a century the place of dinner parties and balls for the cream of New York society, was purchased by YIVO Institute for Jewish research. The institute converted the mansion to offices; however because funds were tight, rather than strip out the architectural detailing the institute simply covered them over.

Cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder conceived of a museum in the 1990s to house his collection of German and Austrian modern art. Lauder partnered with his friend, art dealer Serge Sabarsky whose collection was comparable. The two quietly purchased the Miller mansion from YIVO in 1994 and initiated a four-year renovation and restoration of the structure.

Architect Annabelle Selldorf was given the task of sensitively bringing the mansion back to life and creating an art museum. The marble pilasters in the former music room re-emerged as did the oak paneling and carved ornamentation.

photo by Gryffindor
Sabarsky died before the project was completed; yet today the Neue Galerie is home to paintings by such artists Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Paul Klee. In 2006 Klimt’s painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was put on exhibition, Lauder having purchased it for a reported $135 million.

The exquisite home remains remarkably intact, an elegant survivor of Upper Fifth Avenue's golden age.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The 1886 New York Mercantile Exchange - Nos. 2-6 Harrison Street

photo by Jim Henderson
In the middle of the 19th Century, buyers and sellers of various commodities recognized the need to organize in order to maintain quality and standards, to eliminate questionable practices and set down rules of doing business. Among the several "exchanges" was the Butter and Cheese Exchange of New York, formed in 1872 when the dairy men broke off from the Produce Exchange.

The new exchange quickly broadened its base, admitting the egg trade soon after (and changing the name to the Butter, Cheese and Egg Exchange), then including dried fruits, poultry and canned goods in 1882 when the name was changed again to the all-inclusive New York Mercantile Exchange.

Three years later, in 1885, grocers were admitted to the exchange. By now there were 801 members and as additional trades were added, the membership was limited to 1000 with an initiation fee of $500. The growth demanded a larger space to conduct business and land was purchased from theTrinity Corporation at the corner of Harrison and Hudson Streets for a new building.

Architect Thomas R. Jackson was commissioned to design the new exchange. Jackson, who had been head draftsman under Richard Upjohn, created a five-story red brick Queen Anne style building with an imposing off-set tower over the Harrison Street entrance. The finished structure cost $400,000. Rusticated granite pillars, terra-cotta Corinthian capitols on brick pilasters and carved stone ornamentation combined with gables paired stone columns on the fifth floor and picturesque dormers in the tower’s mansard cap created a visual feast.

On the evening of April 6, 1886 invited guests toured the new building. While the 7th Regiment Band played music from “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” over 800 well-dressed ladies and gentlemen alit from carriages. The New York Times remarked that “The decorator’s art was taxed to beautify the galleries with graceful hangings in velvet and spangles.” After the guests had toured the building the maple floor of the hall was given over to dancing, inciting The Times to note that “a good many feet were set in motion during the latter part of the evening.”

The upper three floors of the building were leased to other businesses for offices, the Hooven Mercantile company leasing space here in 1911.

When an investigation into possible control of egg and dairy products prices and subsequent monopolies arose in 1916, Julius D. Mahr, the President of the Exchange was aghast. “The investigation on which that allegation is made does not show the bitter competition that exists in the butter and egg business,” he stressed. “Why, those twenty men are all the time willing to cut one another’s throats. It’s a question of dog eat dog, that is by the day. Of course, after business is over, they are the best of friends at night.”

On July 5, 1922, tragedy struck at the Exchange when commission merchant Herman Ettinger spoke to friends of financial worries and debts owed him by his customers. Ettinger cleared his business for the day, telephoned a friend saying “You will never see me again,” wrote a note asking that his wife, Ella, be notified as “gently as possible,” then shot himself with a pistol in his office.

By 1939 the Exchange was the trading center for 7,500,000 cases of eggs and 3,500,000 tubs of butter every year. Business was conducted throughout most of the 20th century here; with a high-speed ticker system being installed in 1972, the year of the Exchange’s Centennial. That year The Times remarked on the wide variety of commodities being exchanged. The old building was, it said “where futures in Maine potatoes, platinum, United States silver coins, imported boneless beef and palladium are traded.”

Hudson Street facade - photo by Jim Henderson
In 1994 the New York Mercantile Exchange, by now called NYMEX, merged with COMEX and left the venerable old brick building, moving to a new trading facility and office downtown. For a period the building was home to Local 1180 of the Communications Workers of America. Today the structure has been sensitively converted into condominiums with a restaurant on the ground floor.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The 1898 Germania Bank Building - a 72-Room Private Home

The graffiti-covered Germania Bank building appears abandoned -- it isn't -- photo by Jim Henderson
Hundreds of pedestrians pass the old Germania Bank buildling on the Bowery at Spring Street every day.  Few, if any of them, have the slightest notion that it is not abandoned and forgotten.  Neither, it turns out, is the case.

In the period following the Civil War the area east of the Bowery filled with German immigrants, earning the neighborhood the nickname Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. By the 1880s there were more than 250,000 German-speaking residents and the Bowery was lined with restaurants and beer or music halls.

In December, 1896, the Germania Bank purchased three lots at the northwest corner of Bowery and Spring Streets where The Marks Arnheim merchant tailoring establishment stood. An immense custom-made men’s clothing manufacturer and salesroom, Arnheim’s was one of the largest markers of wool suits in America.

Founded in 1869, the bank had already outgrown one space and now needed to expand again. The board commissioned German-born architect Robert Maynicke to design the new headquarters. Builders Marc Eidlitz and Son, also German, broke ground on February 4, 1898.

In the wake of the Depression of 1893 and the subsequent recession in 1897, Maynicke produced a building the oozed stability and strength. Working in the popular Beaux Arts style, he eschewed the expected cartouches and scrolled brackets to create a masculine, refined stone brick façade. The rusticated first floor of Maine granite featured a series of large, arched windows with fan-like stone voussoirs.

The architect chopped off the corner of the building, creating a chamfered entranceway with polished granite Tuscan pillars. A dentil cornice above the street level was nearly matched above the fifth, and above the paired, arched windows of the sixth floor an elaborate copper cheneau crowned it all.

On December 28, 1898 the bank threw its doors open for a private reception. Several hundred invitations went out to bankers and merchants who toured the new $200,000 building.

The banking room, 38 feet by 75 feet, boasted high marble wainscoting, Sienna marble counter fronts, bronze light fixtures and gilded detailing. The floor was marble mosaic and the furniture was of Mexican mahogany.

“The offices and rooms around the vault are fitted up handsomely;” said The New York Times, “all the woodwork is of polished rock maple, and the floors and walls are tiled. There are coupon and committee rooms and a ladies’ parlor.”

The secure nature of the bank and its below-ground vaults was attractive to more than one type of customer.  In 1912 Henry Vogel and his female accomplice who posed as his wife ran an ingenious jewelry theft operation by hiring girls and placing them as servants in the homes of wealthy New Yorkers.  Once inside the homes, the girls would rob the socialites of their jewels and disappear.

On November 18 of that year, both thieves were killed in a shoot-out with police in their rooms at the Elsmere Hotel.   Two months later, on January 29, 1913, detectives opened a safe deposit box in the bank's vaults where they discovered the couple's cache of stolen jewelery

With World War I and rampant anti-German sentiment raging, the bank filed to change its name, becoming the Commonwealth Bank on April 15, 1918. Just prior to the Great Depression, Manufacturers Trust Company acquired the bank and operated the branch at No. 190 Bowery until the mid-1960s when it shuttered the bank for good.

And then the story took a twist.

Entrance doors in 1976.  Photo by Roy Colmer, NYPL Collection
In 1966 when photographer Jay Maisel looked at the old Germania Bank building, it was “knee-deep in garbage and coated in soot,” as he put it.  By now the Bowery was a dead end for drug addicts, alcoholics and the homeless and the once-proud building was swathed with graffiti.

Maisel raised the $102,000 to purchase the building – all 35,000 square feet and 72 rooms – and set about creating a monstrous single-family home in the middle of Manhattan.

The Maisels' Kitchen -- photo New York Magazine
Today Maisel still lives in the bank building with his wife and daughter. The kitchen is in the area where the cook staff once created meals for the bank officers' dining room. The original 1898 copper elevator cage, polished to its original gleam, has been restored and works again.

The original copper elevator cage -- working again.  Photo New York Magazine
The photographer uses the first three floors as his gallery (although the first floor has recently been advertised for retail space) and the main living area is on the top floor.

photo New York Magazine
The building was landmarked in 2005 and the exterior has remained essentially unaltered since it opened in 1898. The unexpected and unique single-family home was valued in 2008 at around $50 million.