Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Fisk-Harkness House -- No. 12 East 53rd St.

photo by Alice Lum
In 1871 when Charles Moran purchased the building lot at No. 12 East 53rd Street the march of millionaires up Fifth Avenue would take a few years to reach this far north.  Along the block between Fifth and Madison Avenues, brownstone row houses were being erected by developers; but many of them were still intended for the comfortable merchant class; not the fabulously wealthy residents that would soon arrive.

Moran’s site was a bit grander, however.  At 37-1/2 feet wide and 100 feet deep, it was significantly broader than the standard 25-foot width of building lots.   For his architect Moran went straight to the top.  He hired architect Griffith Thomas, whom the American Institute of Architects would years later deem “the most fashionable architect of his generation.”
The resulting mansion rose four stories over an English basement.  Clad in brownstone it had the expected steep, broad stoop and flat roof emblematic of New York residential architecture of the period.
Six years after Moran’s house was completed Harvey Edward Fisk graduated from Princeton University in 1877.  He entered the banking firm founded by his father, Fisk & Hatch, which was reorganized at Harvey Fisk & Sons in 1885.  By the turn of the century the successful banker was a partner in Fisk & Robinson, an investment banking firm.
And things had changed along East 53rd Street off Fifth Avenue.
The avenue and its side streets were now lined with the mansions and clubs of New York’s wealthiest citizens—the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers sharing their neighborhood with the exclusive Union and University Clubs.    It was the sort of area that attracted wealthy bankers like Harvey Edward Fisk.
In 1905 No. 12 was owned by Walter G. Oakman, the Chairman of the Board of the Guaranty Trust Company.  He sold the house to Fisk, and promptly moved three blocks north to No. 1 East 56th Street.    Manhattan’s millionaires were routinely razing the outdated Victorian brownstones or remodeling them into unrecognizable, now-fashionable residences.  Fisk would follow the trend.
He commissioned architect Raleigh C. Gildersleeve to completely renovate the old house.    Gildersleeve was responsible for the neo-Tudor and Collegiate Gothic buildings of Princeton University where Fisk had studied.  Whether the connection had any influence on the choice of architects or the design is uncertain; but the result was Gildersleeve at his best.

Gildersleeve's attention to small details included carved heraldic shields, barely noticeable to the passerby -- photo by Alice Lum

Completed in 1906 at a cost of $25,000 (nearly half a million dollars today) the transformation was remarkable.  Gildersleeve did away with the outdated stoop and opted for an up-to-date American basement with the home’s entrance at street level.  The elimination of the stoop made it possible to move the façade forward 8-1/2 feet, and a 19-foot extension was added to the rear where the former Moran stables had stood—the residence was now a full 27-1/2 feet deeper than before.
The limestone façade rose five stories; a striking neo-Tudor Gothic palace that announced Harvey Fisk’s place among New York’s privileged class.   Diamond-paned windows, buttresses and drip moldings created a palace reminiscent of Anne Boleyn.
photo by Alice Lum
The extreme depth of the building allowed for three large rooms on the ground floor—a reception room, followed by the music room and the formal dining room to the rear.  The walls were hung with artwork and tapestries, and the rooms filled with antique furnishings.

Just four years later, on October 17, 1908 The New York Times surprised many with the announcement of the sale of the mansion.  “The sale of one of the finest residences in the Fifth Avenue section added a feature of unusual interest to yesterday’s real estate dealings,” it said.
The newspaper revealed that “The buyer is William L. Harkness, a cousin of Edward S. Harness of the Standard Oil Company.  Mr. Harkness lives at Glen Cove, L.I., and has acquired the Fifty-third Street house with a view to making it his permanent home in this city.”
Fisk had been forced to sell by financial setbacks.  The price he got from Harkness, no doubt, helped greatly relieve his money problems.  For the house, including the furnishings, artwork, antiques and tapestries, Harkness paid a staggering $400,000—an unprecedented sum for a house.
A contemplative carved head stares upward from beneath the stone balustrade of an upper balcony -- photo by Alice Lum
Considering his interest in Standard Oil, the residence was conveniently close to the Rockefeller houses across the Fifth Avenue on West 54th Street.  Like the Rockefellers, Harkness traveled back to Ohio for business and pleasure.  In August 1911 Harkness entertained to New York guests named Harding on his $100,000 steam yacht Gunilda on Lake Superior.  Also on board were Edith Harkness and the children, Louise 9 years old and her brother Billy, 5.   The pleasure trip became less pleasurable when the yacht went aground in the fog.

The Sun reported that the party was stranded on board the yacht while Harkness and two crew members went ashore and made their way to a small fishing village for help.  “The passengers were badly shaken up and were frightened, thinking that the vessel was about to sink,” the newspaper said.
The 195-foot craft was rescued by a team of wreckers.
Most Harkness entertainments were more successful.  In December 1916 they included a stream of receptions, dinners and other entertainments in celebration of Louise’s debut.   On December 7 there was an afternoon reception in the mansion followed by an “informal dinner.”  (One is left to wonder how informal that dinner was.)  Afterwards, Edith took her guests to the Republic Theatre to see “Good Gracious Annabel,” and then to the Club de Vingt for supper and dancing.
A week later the Harknesses hosted a large dinner dance at the Colony Club for Louise with 150 guests invited to dinner and another 60 arriving afterward for the dance.
Three years later on May 10, 1919, William L. Harkness died in the 53rd Street house.  His funeral was held on the first floor here three days later.   Edith was the principal beneficiary of the vast estate—over $700 million by today’s standards.  She retained the Manhattan house, the Glen Cove estate, Dosoris, and the yacht.  The two children divided the rest of the estate, held in trust until they reached 24 years of age.  There were “no public bequests.”
By now the Fifth Avenue neighborhood was once again changing.   In the Manhattan tradition of ever-expanding northward, the grand mansions built only a generation earlier were being razed or converted for commercial use as millionaires fled further up the avenue along Central Park.   On November 20, 1921 the New-York Tribune announced “The fine large home of Mrs. William L. Harkness is the latest to be taken over for trade in the new upper Fifth Avenue art colony…The property has been bought by Proctor & Co., interior decorators and dealers in furniture, fabrics, draperies and Oriental rugs.”

The house as it appeared when Edith Harkness sold it in 1921 -- New-York Tribune October 27, 1921 (copyright expired)
Thirteen years after her husband had bought the house for $400,000, Edith Harkness sold it for the same price—a reflection of the change in the neighborhood.  The 32-year old Proctor & Co. had been doing business from Nos. 3 and 5 West 36th Street since 1906, and it announced that “extensive alterations” were planned for the Harkness mansion.

Among those alterations was a show window punched into the ground floor.

The interior decorators would not stay long, however.  Just three years later it sold the house to the Automobile Club of America.   The club functioned not only as an instrument to promote good thoroughfares, improved road signs, traffic regulations and the marketing of the automobile for recreational purposes; but as a social club as well.  The organization’s Women’s Committee redecorated the former residence.
The primary intention of the club was reflected in the “touring, supply and map departments.”  But the house was outfitted with the expected clubhouse features as well.  On the second floor was a restaurant; the third floor offered a library, sitting room, lounge and card rooms; there were baths, locker rooms and dressing rooms on the fourth floor; and executive offices above.
When the Automobile Club of America was in the building, the large show window had already been cut into the facade -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Social events were common here.  On December 3, 1927 the Junior League of the Union Hospital held a “bridge and dance” for the benefit of the institution here.  A month later on January 6, 1928 The Times reported that “Beginning tomorrow, a series of four tea-dances will be held at the Automobile Club of America, 12 East Fifty-third Street…There will be tables of bridge.”
The Great Depression took its toll on the Automobile Club of America and in 1932 it was forced to dissolve.   The Mutual Life Insurance Company acquired the building in foreclosure that year.

photo by Alice Lum
The mansion apparently sat vacant for six years until the Symons Galleries leased it from Mutual Life in 1938.  The firm dealt in European antiques and had been founded by Henry Symons in 1913.  After being “extensively renovated for its new tenant,” according to The New York Times, the building opened for business in May 1938.

Rooms throughout the former house were dedicated to the display of tapestries, porcelains, bronzes, paintings, and Renaissance jewelry.   The gallery announced that “French and English eighteenth-century furniture will predominate.”  At least some of the original Gildersleeve interiors still survived.  Two rooms were devoted to Jacobean and French antiques and the newspaper reported that the “former is a carved oak room with the original stone mantel.” 
In a striking example of misinformation, The Times added that “The building was designed in the Renaissance style by the late Stanford White.”
With the expiration of the Symons lease the building was offered for sale and in December 1948 the national advertising agency, Maxon, Inc., purchased the building.  The New York Times announced that “The advertising concern plans to occupy the entire building as offices for its New York staff.”
While glass and steel skyscrapers replaced the limestone and marble mansions along 53rd Street, the Fisk house at No. 12 miraculously survived.  In 1964 it was purchased by the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising.   Founded in 1939, the school offers specialized education “focused on the business side of fashion.”   The once-magnificent interiors were partitioned into classrooms and suspended acoustical ceilings were hung over Tudor-style plasterwork.
In order to modernize and optimize the space, the school commissioned architectural firm Butler Rogers Baskett to renovate the interiors.  In what LIM’s website calls a “gut renovation,” the last vestiges of Raleigh Gildersleeve’s 1906 detailing were obliterated.

The mere existence of the mansion in the Midtown neighborhood of glass and steel skyscrapers is miraculous -- photo by Alice Lum
The exterior, however, is amazingly intact on a block where no trace of the once exclusive residential neighborhood remains.  The singularity of the mansion’s architecture is matched only by the miracle of its survival.


  1. The Gunilda was not salvaged. Harkness refused to pay for a tugboat to get it off the rocks and it sank. It is still down there, at the bottom of the lake, in a remarkably good state of preservation. There is a documentary about this called 'Drowning in Dreams'.

    1. Interesting! Thanks for the information

  2. Amazing building! Remarkably, the door is designed in Portuguese Manueline style, and I believe that´s the only example you can find of this type of architecture in all NYC.

    1. Worked there for Maxon Inc. from 1956 to 1959 but probably was too young to appreciate the beauty of the building. My office was on the first floor by thr huge window overlooking 53 street. I ll never forget how wonderful it was.