Monday, March 18, 2013

The Lost J. D. Rockefeller Jr. House -- No. 10 W 54th St.

The completed house looked as much like an apartment building as a private mansion -- NYPL Collection
While other millionaires were building ostentatious mansions that spread northward along Central Park, John D. Rockefeller preferred to purchase an already aging brownstone at No. 4 West 54th Street.  A devout Baptist, he eschewed display and raised his family in a comfortable yet restrained environment.

Son John Junior would not share his father’s disdain of flamboyance.
On October 9, 1901 John D. Rockefeller, Jr. married Abby Green Aldrich in a major social event of the period.   The wedding took place in the Aldrich summer estate in Rhode Island.  Rockefeller arranged for the 500 guests to be transported there on two private steamers from Manhattan and 45 special train cars.

The newlyweds lived in the Rockefeller mansion for a few years before moving across the street to No. 31 in 1905.  He was earning a salary of $10,000 (about $200,000 today) working as one of three advisors to his father.    But as Junior’s family increased, so did his fortune.

By 1912 John and Abby had five children who taxed the size of their home.   John Senior gave his son some Manhattan property and his entire holdings in the American Linseed Company.     It was time for a larger house.

John Junior purchased the property at No. 10 West 54th Street, abutting the side garden of his childhood home.    He demolished the mansion of Colonel John J. McCook on the site and commissioned William Wells Bosworth to design a gargantuan residence, eight stories tall, that would dwarf his father’s Civil War period home next door.

The rising house dwarfs the nearby brownstown rowhouses in 1912 -- NYPL Collection
The entrance opened into a large vestibule and two reception rooms.   In an unusual move, the first floor was devoted to utilitarian purposes rather than entertaining.  Rockefeller’s office, a breakfast room and the servants’ quarters were all on this floor.  Upstairs things were a bit more impressive.

The Sun, on October 27, 1912, described the house as it neared completion.  “The second floor is planned to be one of the most attractive suites in the city.  Here will be the dining room, the drawing room and the music room, all of large dimensions, with plenty of window space.”

The newspaper took a swipe at other Standard Oil transplants from Ohio.  “Specially designed furniture and hangings are being made by the best manufacturers for this apartment, which while not intended to be as lavish or ostentatious as those in the homes of some of the Western men of means who have built homes on or near Fifth avenue will be unusually attractive.”

The floors above were devoted to the family.  The entire third floor was reserved for John and Abby, including a library.  The fourth housed the children’s bedrooms and rooms for nurses and personal attendants of the family.  The fifth floor was entirely devoted to guestrooms, as was part of the sixth.

The upper two floors were for recreation.  The seventh floor contained “as perfectly equipped a gymnasium as it is possible to have in a house of this kind,” said The Sun.  There were also a squash court and “baths of various kinds.”  The uppermost floor contained an open air playground for the children, a roof garden, and a huge open sun parlor with glass walls.  In the days before air conditioning, the family could retreat here at night to the open air sleeping pavilion.

The completed 102-foot tall house was the tallest private home ever built in New York.

John Junior's soaring house rises above his father's Civil War period brownstone -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Rockefeller’s new mansion was completed in 1912—a year when unions and capitalists were butting heads, sometimes violently.  The Labor Defense Committee and the IWW staged protests that met with rough police reaction.   Labor versus management differences would be manifested on the threshold of the new house.

In May 1914 news was reaching New York about a tragic and violent end to a miners’ strike in Ludlow, Colorado.  Workers at a company owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  had demanded in 1913 that the company obey labor laws regarding safety and cash payment of wages.   An angry Rockefeller responded by having the workers—mostly immigrants—evicted from company-owned housing.

The homeless miners erected a tent city nearby where families suffered through a severe Colorado winter.   As the standoff continued, Rockefeller ordered the National Guard to attack the settlement with machine guns and rifles and set fire to the tents.

When the smoke cleared, 22 people were dead—workers, women and children—from beatings, bullet wounds and suffocation.

In response, activist and author Upton Sinclair organized a demonstration of peaceful resistance.  Rows of “silent mourners” paraded past the Standard Oil offices and, then, showed up at the 54th Street house.

On the afternoon of May 2 five “mourners” showed up at 5:30 and walked back and forth before the mansion for four hours.  When it became obvious they were not going away, Detective Billy Ward “decided that the promenade was too short and compelled the walkers to lengthen the laps until they extended from Fifth avenue almost to Sixth avenue,” said The Sun the following day.  The detective’s ploy did not succeed; however when one demonstrator attempted to make a speak from the mansion steps, “Ward made him scoot.”

Five days later the group of five silent mourners had grown to a crowd.  On May 7 traffic police were astonished to see “hundreds” coming up Fifth Avenue headed towards the Rockefeller mansion.  Leading them was a man in the black robe of Death.  The demonstrators marched from Sixth Avenue and 50th Street.  The Sun reported that “By the time Fifth avenue was reached the crowd was so big that it cut off all traffic for between ten and twenty minutes.”

The man in the Death costume, Albert Turner, was arrested and the mob turned away before reaching the Rockefeller house.  Turner was sentenced to two months in the workhouse.

While the disturbances were taking place on West 54th Street, Rockefeller and his family were entrenched in their heavily-guarded Pocantico Hills estate.
Priceless porcelains and French furniture decorated a sitting room -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Things eventually calmed down and life returned to normal in the house that looked rather like a hotel.  Despite his reaction to the Colorado miner strike, Rockefeller, like his father, was a devoted Baptist.  On April 19, 1917 his Bible class and others—nearly 300 persons in all—attended a service in the house by the Reverand Billy Sunday.   Referring to the lure of the lights and sins of Broadway, the preacher prayed “for those who tread the ‘Gay White Way,’ and said he hoped religion might touch their hearts and turn them to better things.”
The Rockefellers filled the mansion with an extensive art collection.   David Rockefeller would later remember that “Mother loved beauty wherever she found it, but Father’s taste was restricted to the more conventional and realistic art forms.”

Unbelievably, the massive house quickly became too small for the art collection.  The house next door was purchased and an entrance cut through on three floors.  The extension was used to display, among other valuable artworks, ten 18th century Gobelin tapestries woven for Louis XIV and the early 15th century French Gothic tapestry set depicting the “Hunt of the Unicorn.”

John Rockefeller, Jr. discovered the following winter that even the Rockefeller name was not always enough to get him what he wanted.  The house was heated by a coal-powered heating plant that serviced several other homes in the neighborhood as well.  When the plant ran out of coal in January 1918 and the temperature in his house plummeted, Rockefeller sent a requisition to the Standard Oil Company for 36 oil stoves.

The answer he received was not what he expected.  “Supply exhausted.  Can’t get them for you or anybody else.”

The manager of the distributing station was more pointed.  “Rockefeller looks like anybody else to me,” he told a reporter.  “If he walked in here with an oil can he wouldn’t get it filled any quicker than the dishwasher at that restaurant down the street.”

Unfortunately, the brutal winter with its accompanying lack of coal and heaters resulted in the pipes bursting in the 54th Street mansion.  “The Rockefeller pipes froze and burst just like ordinary pipes, and the result was precisely the same as elsewhere.  Icicles and miniature glaciers became prominent features of the interior decorations of the house,” reported the New-York Tribune on January 6.

The family retreated, again, to Pocantico Hills where coal was in ample supply.

Life for the Rockefeller family was apparently happy in the big house.  On New Year’s Eve 1920 Rockefeller wrote to his father, “We spent a very happy Christmas here in New York, with the tree up in the big nursery and great mounds of presents all about the room for the different members of the family.” 
John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s prized collection of porcelains spilled over into a family dining room -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Nevertheless, the children were raised with the typical Rockefeller discipline.   Nelson would recall that he was responsible for mending his own clothes, weeding the garden and keeping detailed accounts of his 30 cent allowance.

But by now the neighborhood was not the residential enclave of millionaires it once had been.  David Rockefeller wrote in his biography “Memoirs,” “With the advent of Prohibition in the mid-1920s, nightclubs and speakeasies selling bootleg liquor also appeared, and there were rumors that a number of brothels had opened as well.  The neighborhood, once the exclusive preserve of the Vanderbilts and Astors, had become seedy and down-at-the-heels.”

John D. Rockefeller, Sr. died on May 23, 1937 just weeks before his 100th birthday.   The family homes would not survive much longer.  The following year John Rockefeller, Jr. announced plans to raze the houses as Abby Rockefeller’s vision of the Museum of Modern Art took form.

Twenty-five years after it was constructed, the towering John D. Rockefeller, Jr. house was demolished to make way for the sculpture garden of the museum.
photo by Alice Lum


  1. Eric Stott here...I once spoke to an old woman who'd been a book seller in NY in the early 20th C. She said that the Rockefeller children would come in with their governess to spend their allowance. One of the boys wanted a book that cost a little more than he had & the owner was willing to let him pay later but the governess decided that it was time for a lecture on thrift and the need to avoid getting into debt. At the end she asked "And what have you learned?" and one of the children said "That we're not as rich as the Vanderbilts!"

  2. It is interesting that the paneling in the Louis XV furnished drawing room is so restrained (relatively)and more English Neo-classic than French 18th Century- and this during an era when "period" rooms were all the rage, and for a patron for whom "price was no object".

    It is also interesting (to me, at any rate) to look at photographs of the Rockefeller triplex apartment at 740 Park Avenue during their occupancy. Many of the pieces of Famille Noir porcelain in that drawing room at 10 West 54th Street can be identified in their new settings on the East side.

  3. Some beautiful furnishings, but the rooms themselves are heavy-handed. Organist Archer Gibson used to play here for Rockefeller events and was watched over by a Goya hung directly above the organ console. The Goya went to Yves Saint-Laurent who willed it to the Louvre.

  4. Some spectacular and defintely restrained interiors considering money was no object. Beautifully furnished and only 25 years later demolished. How fast things changed in NYC during those years.

  5. Great article - they pictured this house in a PBS special on the Rockefellers and I've been trying to get more info. Thanks for your great research.

    Richard D

  6. Steve Anthony AlvaJune 23, 2016 at 2:31 PM

    And now this mansion is, I believe, Il GattoPardo Italian Restaurant; at least the lower floor.

  7. Sad to read about how ruthless the Rockefellers were to the miners and their families. I have to admit that I was pretty shocked!