Monday, April 7, 2014

The Lost Henry Phipps Mansion -- 5th Avenue and 87th Street

The newly-completed mansion in 1909 -- photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
When he was a child in Pittsburgh, few would suspect that Henry Phipps would rise to become one of the richest and most powerful men in America.  The son of an immigrant shoe maker, Henry was reared in a gritty and deprived neighborhood.  His life would turn around when he partnered with Andrew Carnegie to found a steelworks at the time when bridges, railroads, and changing construction techniques demanded tons of steel.

As their fortunes grew, both Phipps and Carnegie donated generously to the poorer class from which they themselves came.  While Carnegie built free libraries so young men could access learning; Phipps erected and endowed a hospital for “consumptives” in Philadelphia; the largest facility for tuberculosis patients in the world.  He paid for an agricultural college in India where the poor “could be taught means to prevent the terrible famines that every few years devastate the land and claim thousands of victims by starvation,” said the San Francisco Call. 

And, despite Phipps's close friendship with his partner (he named his son Henry Carnegie Phipps), a moral disagreement between the men ended with an expensive compromise.  Carnegie’s libraries were closed on Sundays.  Phipps believed they should be opened—at least during certain hours.  So in 1890 he announced a gift of $20,000 to the Carnegie Library in Allegheny, Pennsylvania for the purchase of books “with the stipulation that the reading rooms be open from noon until 8 p.m.” on Sundays.

Both Carnegie and Phipps moved to New York City at the turn of the century and in 1901 the Carnegie Steel Company was purchased by J. P. Morgan for $480 million—approximately $13.6 billion today.  The New York Times later estimated Phipps’s share in the sale as $100 million.

In 1899 Andrew Carnegie commissioned Babb, Cook & Willard to design an immense neo-Georgian mansion across from Central Park and rather north of the homes of other millionaires.  His free-standing house would encompass the entire block from 90th to 91st Street, surrounded by lawns, gardens and a high decorative fence.

On January 9, 1901 The New York Times reported that Phipps had purchased “a large plot at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighty-seventh Street, only three blocks distant from the site on which his business associate, Andrew Carnegie, is erecting a magnificent mansion.”  Phipps had paid Perry Belmont $500,000 for the plot.  But he was not done yet.

He simultaneously purchased the two adjoining building lots on Fifth Avenue from E. H. Van Ingen & Co. for $200,000.  He could now build on a site that measured 100 by 175 feet.

Ten days later the Deseret Evening News reported that “Mr. Phipps will at once begin construction of a mansion to cost $1,500,000.”  That amount would translate to about $40 million today, not including the cost of the land.

Phipps recognized that the area around his building site would draw Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens.  Already Perry Belmont had approved plans by Whitney Warren for his new mansion on Fifth Avenue at the corner of 92nd Street; and William D. Sloane had recently purchased land from Carnegie on 91st Street where he would build two mansions for his married daughters.  Five months later Phipps purchased six lots on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 96th Street as “an investment;” and the two old buildings at Nos. 7 and 9 East 87th Street.  The New York Times said he purchased those two properties “to protect his new residence on the adjoining Fifth Avenue corner.  There is little doubt that they will ultimately be replaced by modern dwellings of a design agreeable to Mr. Phipps, and the transaction, together with several others of similar character recently closed, are significant, as foreshadowing the fate of all flats and antique dwellings on lots along the border of the upper Fifth Avenue colony.”

Phipps chose the architectural firm of Trowbridge & Livingston to design the mansion.  Like Carnegie’s residence, it would take years to complete.  On February 12, 1905 The San Francisco Call said “his new home, now being built, on the corner of Fifth avenue and Eighty-seventh street, will be when finished one of the handsomest houses in America…It is in Italian renaissance style of architecture.”

Four stories tall, while successfully appearing to be three, the stately home sat far back from 87th Street and was approached by a semi-circular carriage drive.  To the east a one-story wing called the “Orangerie” served as the conservatory.  Interestingly, Phipps imported English architect Alfred C. Bossom to design the interiors which may have been a surprising contrast to the formal Italian fa├žade.  The San Francisco Call said “For the furnishing of this superb house the fittings and furniture of an Indian palace were bought outright by Mr. Phipps during a sojourn in India several years ago.”

On April 2, 1905 The New York Times published a sketch of the house, showing a wooden fence surrounding the property.  That would not last.  In 1909 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that Henry Phipps had hired architect P. J. Mack to design a “brick wall” at a cost of $100.  The stately enclosure would mimic the parapet and rooftop balustrade of the mansion.

One of Henry Phipps's Indian acquisitions sits in the staircase hall.  A stained glass skylight illuminates the stairwell.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Earlier that year Phipps had spent $1 million to establish a fund for the construction of improved tenement houses for working class families.  The multimillionaire saw the conditions which the lower classes endured and set out to improve them.  “Mr. Phipps’ project, when pushed to the logical conclusion which he has in mind, has for its object the complete regeneration of the housing and sanitary conditions of fully three-fourths of the population living on Manhattan Island.  For notwithstanding the fact that the present intent of the movement being inaugurated by his gift is the alleviation of the miseries of the very poor in the abolishment of the dark warrens where they are forced to live under c conditions all but intolerable, the general effect of the bettering of such conditions must ultimately bring with it an improvement in the housing facilities of every family that lives in a flat or apartment house,” explained The San Francisco Call.

Phipps' interest in things Indian is reflected in the unique coffered ceiling --   photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Phipps and his family eventually moved into the mansion that cost him, in total, around $2.5 million.  Almost immediately it was the scene of meetings and benefits for philanthropic causes.  On November 10, 1909 The Sun reported that the Tuberculosis Preventorium for Children was organized in a meeting held in house.  “The plan of the new institution is to take from the tenements children who have been infected with tuberculosis and restore them to normal health before it is too late,” said the newspaper.

The "Orangerie" sat at the eastern edge of the property.  Above it, a rooftop pergola offered evening respite from summer's stifling heat -- photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
A year earlier Phipps gave $500,000 to start a psychiatric clinic at Johns Hopkins University to study mental diseases, and in 1909 gave $3 million to the University of Pennsylvania for tuberculosis research and treatment.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was common for real estate to  be put in the wife's name; thus ensuring financial stability in the case of the husband’s death.  It was surprising, therefore, that it was not until April 21, 1915 that the title to the mansion was transferred to Anne C. Phipps.  The Pittsburgh Press remarked that “Mrs. Henry Phipps is today the owner of the $2,000,000 residence at the corner of Fifth ave. and Eighty-seventh st.  The deed to the property is on file today and shows that Mrs. Phipps paid her husband the nominal consideration of $100 for the large corner plot, with its costly marble house.”  The newspaper added “The Phipps house is one of the show places of the finest part of the residential section of New York’s leading avenue.”

Henry Phipps, who wore his beard similarly to his friend and former partner Andrew Carnegie, and his wife Anna -- photo from the collection of the Library of Congress
Somewhat shockingly, that same year construction began on a 12-story apartment house abutting the Phipps property on 87th Street.  It signaled the beginning of a disturbing trend which would soon pick up steam.

On September 30, 1916 Phipps hired Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer to design the family’s country estate at Great Neck, Long Island.  Situated on 89 acres, it would sit directly opposite Deepdale, the estate of William K. Vanderbilt, Jr.

A double-decker bus passes the Fifth Avenue side by the Phipps mansion on a still-tranquil Fifth Avenue -- photo from the collection of the Library of Congress
The Phipps family had not lived in their marble mansion for a full decade when, on April 8, 1917, The New York Times reported that Daniel Guggenheim had purchased it.  The Philadelphia-born industrialist and his wife had just purchased Howard Gould’s sprawling country estate Castle Gould on Long Island Sound.

Aggressive and determined, Guggenheim enlarged his family’s mining and smelting holdings.  At the time of the purchase he and J. P. Morgan were pushing the neutral United States to enter World War I.  And after the country did enter what was termed The Great War, change continued in Guggenheim’s new neighborhood.

photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On January 26, 1919 The New York Times reported on “the most surprising feature of the realty market last week” which was “that Fifth Avenue was to have another tall apartment house right in the heart of the choicest residential section north of Fifty-ninth Street.  To those who had hoped that this thoroughfare would not again be invaded by apartment house construction for some time to come, the fact that the site selected for immediate improvement was in the Astor mansion block and that the high building will overtop the home of the late Colonel John Jacob Astor, now owned by Vincent Astor, came with the suddenness of a shock.”

The newspaper remembered “It was only a few years ago that the conservative minded residents and owners on the avenue were somewhat dismayed when a bold owner put up a twelve-story house adjoining the marble residence of Henry Phipps…Apartment construction on upper Fifth Avenue would appear to be as ruthless as that of commercial buildings in former home centres prior to the enactment of the zoning law.”

Demolition workers remove the interiors of the Phipps Mansion in 1927 -- photograph by William J. Roege from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
“Ruthless” was a well-chosen adjective.  As the 1920s dawned developers scrambled to purchase and demolish the marble and granite palaces of Manhattan’s millionaires.  The lavish homes with their costly materials were built to last for over a century; but survived only a fraction of that time.  Less than two decades after the finishing touches were put on the Phipps mansion it was gone.  Construction on the new apartment house designed by J. E. R. Carpenter was begun in 1927 and finished a year later.



  1. I think this is the apartment house that replaced the Phipps mansion:

  2. NY:
    As a side note I believe the family careful disassembled the marble facade and had it stored for decades in Greenvale Long Island where it sat unused. Dont know what became of the materials but it was widely reported on up until about 2 decades ago. Would you know the outcome of this story? Also, I think some interior elements and the dining room paneling was also preserved and used in the Phipps family home on Long Island.

    1. As of 2009, the Old Long Island website (which has tons of great images and is always a fun read), in 1930 the various parts of the facade were sent by Mrs. Phipps to her daughter Amy's estate "Templeton" at Brookville, where they still sit on a back lot slowly eroding away. I'd be interested to know about any interior sections that might have been saved as well.

  3. Dignified and handsome and light too. The stairwell was disassembled and used by daughter Amy Phipps Guest in her Long Island home, Templeton. Still there. The Dining Room was moved to son J. S. Phipps's Westbury House - now Old Westbury Gardens. Was the ballroom moved there too?

  4. One of my favorites of all the great New York City homes.

    Understated elegance with surprising design twists. It was exquisite.


  5. He sounds like a better man than some of the hyper-rich today -- and with better taste, too.

  6. These Fifth Avenue mansions were gorgeous but so short lived.The reasons for which mansions become obsolete in Manhattan are numerous and varied.First was the income tax after 1913.There was also the fact that the uber-wealthy Society spent most of their time in the country houses or travelling abroad on the new huge ocean liners.Newport, Palm Beach, Long Island with their resorts were very attractive.Of course the automobile changed things too, wealthy people had alot more mobility.You also had the "servant problem", you just couldnt get good help anymore.The costs of maintaining a large city residence were high.You needed a small army of servants which had wages .They werent as safe as the apartments.
    Of course the grand apartment houses made a huge impact.Once the exlcusive residential(low-rise) sections of the city were invaded by these large structures the Avenues became very crowded, traffic increases exponentially.Developers started putting up palatial apartments with 15-20 rooms, which had high ceilings, fireplaces and layouts superior to that of a townhome.You had duplex apartments, maisonettes, and in the 20s penthouses, or roof apartments how they called them.They also offered numerous staff rooms, storage space.Many of them were simplexes, meaning you didnt have to go up and down the numerous flights of stairs all day long.Developers paid the mansion owners huge sums of money for their property, many times including a large apartment in the future building.
    Also the social life had changed, wealthy people didnt entertain at home anymore, social clubs and hotels had better facilities for these activities.Ballrooms became unfashionable.The Gilded Age parties became less ostentatious, one didnt need an art gallery or music rooms, or reception rooms anymore.
    And of course zoning laws changed.And here the geography of Manhattan Island is culpable too.Land was far too valuable to occupy a city plot with a single family residence.There was also the mentality, as in NYC people always embraced the new construction.Apartments were cutting edge, they had more light, a properly trained staff who made sure when you returned home from Newport the apartment was ready .If the building had a problem the live-in superintendent solved the problem.Also wealthy people started having less and less children.One didnt need 8 bedrooms anymore, 4-5 were sufficient and plenty of apartments provided that.Apartments had more bathrooms, more closet space, no stairs, and endless corridors.And i could keep on going.
    In the end the single family residence never had a chance.The economy of an apartment was too superior.