Monday, April 14, 2014

The Lost Louis Stern Mansion -- No. 993 Fifth Avenue

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On October 10, 1884 Louis Stern spent $57,000 for the 27-foot wide lot on Fifth Avenue between 80th and 81st Streets.  The president of the Stern Brothers Department Store had by now amassed a large fortune.  The mansion he envisioned for the site would hold its own with those of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens which were rapidly rising along the Avenue across from Central Park.

Born in Germany in 1847, his family later emigrated to Albany.  Although his father took the three oldest brothers, Isaac, Bernard and Benjamin into his jewelry and watch-making business; he sent Louis to West Virginia to learn merchandising in the store of an uncle.  Feeling he had mastered the fundamentals of running a store, the 20-year old Louis proposed to his brothers that they open a store in Manhattan.

Their small shop, Stern Brothers, opened on Sixth Avenue and 22nd Street in March 1867.  Within the year they outgrew the space and leased additional floors; eventually taking over the entire building.  By the time Louis bought his Fifth Avenue building plot, the Stern brothers were among the most successful merchants in the city.  In addition he was a director of the Bank of New Amsterdam, Madison Safe Deposit Company of New York, New Amsterdam Safe Deposit Company of New York, Mutual Life Insurance Company and President of the Library Square Realty Company.

One year after the purchase, on October 24, 1885 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported “Louis Stern’s house on Fifth avenue, between Eighty-first and Eighty-second streets, will in a few months be ready for occupancy.”  The Sterns’s architect of choice, William Schickel, produced a French Gothic-inspired structure that was what contemporary newspapers would deem “an ornament” on the Avenue.  A virtual palace, its majestic stone stoop led to the bronze and glass entrance doors.  Four stories high above the basement, it featured intricate carvings, a dramatic oriel that supported a stone-balustraded balcony, and a mansard embellished with ornate dormers and cresting.

The entrance hall was floored and paneled in marble.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Entertainments in the mansion often centered around music.  On January 30, 1894 Ida Loewenstein Stern scored a social coup.  She obtained the internationally-renowned operatic soprano, Emma Calve, to sing in her drawing room. 

“Mlle. Calve’s first appearance at a private residence was made yesterday afternoon at a reception given at the house of Mrs. Louis Stern, 933Fifth avenue,” said The Evening World the following day.  “Her wonderful singing delighted a large number of prominent society people who were present.

“The reception was thoroughly enjoyable and the memory of it will long linger in the minds of the guests who had the pleasure of being present.”

Ida’s reception preceded a dinner catered by Sherry’s, during which the guests were soothed by “delightful music…furnished by the celebrated Hungarian Band.”

The marble-walled conservatory featured a stained glass ceiling and windows -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Louis took over as host from his wife on February 16, 1901 when he gave a lavish dinner in honor of Governor B. B. Odell, Jr.  The list of distinguished guests included the Lieutenant Governor, senators, generals, judges and wealthy merchants.

In reporting on the dinner, The New York Times described the dining room.  “The oval-shaped dining room of Mr. Stern’s handsome residence, where the dinner was served, is too ornate, both in architectural design and permanent embellishment, to admit of much decoration without marring rather than accentuating its beauty.  The decorations, therefore, were simple.  They consisted merely of American Beauty roses on the tables and American flags draped above the doorways.”

Following dinner Stern escorted his guests into the adjoining art gallery.  “Here, after a casual inspection of Mr. Stern’s many art treasures, they were entertained by professional musicians and elocutionists,” said The Times.

For large dinners, multiple tables were brought into the dining room.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

A year later 22-year old son Melville A. Stern would bring less-welcomed press attention.  On February 16, 1902 he and his 19-year old friend Charles L. Lawrence though it would be great fun to race their automobiles on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx.  Mounted Policemen Sturgis and Kinison were less enthusiastic.  The young men were arrested and taken to the High Bridge Station where they were later bailed out.

His son’s indiscretion was no doubt a great embarrassment to Louis, who was President of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of National History, the American Geographical Society and other such esteemed groups.

The wedding of daughter Irma to Baron Leo de Graffenried was held in the house on the evening of December 10, 1907.  “The Louis XIV ballroom, decorated with palms and lilies, was used for the occasion,” reported the New-York Tribune.  “At the eastern end of the room was an improvised chancel of lilies-of-the-valley and white roses, with a background of palms.  The halls and drawing rooms were decorated with palms and cut flowers.”

Despite the beautiful setting and the Irma’s socially-enviable match to a royal title; the wedding raised eyebrows.  There were necessarily two ceremonies because Irma was Jewish and the baron was Roman Catholic.  A week before the marriage, the Rabbi of Fifth Avenue’s Temple Emanu-El, the Rev. Dr. J. L. Magnes, was moved to use it as the topic of his lesson to the congregation.  The Tribune reported “there was something of a sensation created in the Jewish society because of the fact that Miss Irma Stern, daughter of Louis Stern, who is a trustee of the temple, is engaged to marry a Roman Catholic baron.”  The Rabbi called intermarriage “a menace to Jews.”

On July 1, 1911 the American Brewers’ Review reported that “Mrs. Hugo Reisinger of New York has received as a gift from her father, Adolphus Busch of St. Louis, a beautiful residence at 993 Fifth avenue, New York.  It was bought of Louis Stern, who some time ago refused an offer of $900,000 for it.”  The New York Times called it “the largest sale of a Fifth Avenue residence that has occurred in some time.  The house is one of the finest on the avenue.”

The $1 million price tag that Stern had put on the residence would translate to about $24 million today.  The Evening World reported that he settled for a bit less.  “He had held the property at an even million, but the price paid was under $900,000.” 

The Times commented on the Reisigners’s esteemed neighbors—Frank W. Woolworth’s mansion sat on the 80th Street corner and the mansion owned by George Ehret on the 81st.  

Unlike most rooms in the mansion, Hugo's library was decidedly masculine -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Hugo Reisinger filled the mansion with his extensive collection of art.  On the walls hung works by Whistler, Carl Melchers and Childe Hassam; as well as European artists like Menzel, Zuegel and Boecklin. 
The Reisinger ballroom doubled as art gallery.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The New York Times would say of him “As an art expert and connoisseur Hugo Reisginer had an international reputation, and he was the first to make a representative collection of modern American art for exhibit in Germany.”  The year before the family moved into the Fifth Avenue house, he exhibited his collection of 200 American paintings and “a few etchings” at the Prussian Royal Academy in Berlin, and later in Munich.

Reisinger’s purpose in the exhibition was, in his words, “to prove to German artists and art lovers that the modern American school of painting is the peer of any of its European contemporaries.”

On the other side of the coin, Reisinger wanted Americans to be acquainted with German literature.  He was actively involved in the publication of German classics of the 19th and 20th centuries in English “which he hoped would also result in creating a better understanding between the two nations,” said The Times.

Edmee Reisinger's parlor was furnished in French antiques -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Three years after moving into No. 993 Fifth Avenue Reisinger, his wife Edmee Busch Reisinger, and his mother-in-law went to Europe as they did every spring.  The trip was a combination of pleasure and business.  Their scheduled return was delayed by the war and was pushed back to October 11, 1914.  

Hugo would not make the return trip alive.  On September 19 The New York Times reported “Hugo Reisinger, art collector and merchant at 11 Broadway, is dead at Langeschwalbach, near Wiesbaden, Germany, where he was born Jan. 29, 1856.”  Reisinger was just 58 years old.

On September 7, 1916 Walter B. Reisinger was married to Elizabeth Chalmers.  The Brewers’ Journal and Barley, Malt and Hop Trades’ Reporter said “After the wedding the happy young couple will go to Sulphur Springs and California, and when they have returned from their honeymoon they will reside at No. 993 Fifth avenue, New York City.”

The war in Europe would continue to cause problems for the Reisinger family.  In 1917 The New York World reported that portions of Hugo Reisinger’s will were still held up.  “Some of his bequests, as reduced, were $41,295 each to the Royal National Museum of Berlin and the Neue Pinakothek of Munich, and $20,647 to the City of Wiesbaden for a fountain.  Other bequests were made to public institutions of Germany and America.”

A telegram from Washington said “The executors of Hugo Reisinger of New York will not be able to pay any legacies to German citizens, corporations of Government institutions during the war if such payment requires the transmission of money or credits to Germany.”

The delay of Reisinger’s intended benefactions was a minor inconvenience compared to the embarrassment Edmee would suffer through the activities of a servant.  The United States Secret Service was faced in 1917 with what the Colonist deemed, on May 16 “one of the mysteries of the European war—namely, how the Kaiser in Berlin could communicate almost daily with Count von Bernstorff, one-time German Ambassador in Washington.”

The newspaper said the puzzle was solved when Secret Service Chief William J. Flynn sent agents to No. 993 Fifth Avenue.  “The secret service agents had information that Mrs. Reisinger, whose father was Adolphus Busch, the wealthy brewer of St. Louis, had a wireless plant at her home, and that Mrs. Reisinger had often received in her home Count von Bernstorff, Dr.Heinrich Albert, Germany’s commercial attaché, and Captains Karl Boyed and Franz von Papen, naval and military attaches respectively.”

Edmee Reisinger was doubtlessly mortified when “Investigation showed that for more than a year a receiving station for radio messages had been established on the roof of the Reisinger home…This plant, it seems, was of an exceedingly costly and powerful variety, and was equipped with the so-called De Forest audian detector, which is necessary for receiving messages from such a long distance as Nauen, Germany, the site of the Emperor’s wonderful radio station."

According to Edmee, the equipment had been secreted in by her butler, Alexander Kagan.  As soon as she became aware of it she ordered it dismantled.  As for Kagan, “He recently resigned his position as butler and departed to parts unknown,” said the Colonist.

Expectedly, Edmee was forced to suffer suspicion and indignation.  Nearly a year later she was questioned for two hours by Charles De Woody, local head of the Department of Justice.  She arrived at his Park Row office wearing a dark veil over her face.  Following the session her lawyer told reporters “I do not think there is anything to be said in this matter for it is nothing more than an unpleasant incident.  Mrs. Reisinger has unfortunately been imposed upon by this man.”

The Sun would later report “To Mrs. Reisinger, whose own fortune is estimated at about $10,000,000, a clean bill of health is apparently given…as far as pro-German leanings are concerned.”

When a parade for returning American soldiers was being planned in March 1919, Edmee showed her support.  “Mrs. Hugo Reisinger reported that she was building a stand at 993 Fifth Avenue for the use of 100 wounded soldiers from Embarkation Hospital No. 3,” said The New York Times on March 20.

On August 23, the following year Edmee married Charles E. Breenough in Little Boar’s Head, New Hampshire.  The Yale Alumni Weekly announced “They are living at 993 Fifth Avenue, New York City.”

Two weeks before the wedding Edmee sold the house and her three-story garage at No. 245 West 68th Street to the C. & W. Realty Corporation.  She had no intention of moving out, however.  The New-York Tribune reported that “Simultaneously there was a lease recorded by which the new owning company leases both properties back to the seller ‘from August 9, 1920, until six months after the death of the tenant.’”  Edmee would pay $18,000 rent per year on the house and garage—about $16,500 a month today.

The New-York Tribune called the house at the time “one of the largest in the section.”

Edmee and Charles lived on in the mansion where functions continued--like the christening of granddaughter Gloria Reisinger on May 4, 1922.  But in 1924 the owner, C. & W. Realty Company, hinted at its intentions for the property when it purchased the real estate next door from George Ehret.  “It is understood that the buyers will offer the plot as an apartment site and that negotiations are not pending for a resale,” said The New York Times on December 17.

The developers would have to wait, however.  Edmee and Charles would remain in the house for another five years.  Then on September 25, 1929 The Times reported that plans had been filed for “a sixteen-story apartment house, containing simplex and duplex apartments and penthouse.”

Now only the stubborn mansion built for Mary A. King remained on the block.  The tall building at center replaced the Stern house and some neighbors.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The lavish mansion erected by Louis Stern had survived 45 years.  The upscale apartment house that replaced it and the mansion next door at No. 992 still stands.


  1. What a stunning house. The barrel vaulted glass ceiling of the conservatory and the fountain were magnificent. So sad

  2. Yea, I love it when interior pics are available! The ballroom/gallery was stunning, and I am also crazy about that conservatory

  3. The Stern Bros. department store sold articles as elegant as the furnishings of their wonderful house. I own a French satin and velvet opera cape labeled Stern Bros., New York, London, Paris, circa 1905. The bead work is fantastic. They imported only the finest of textiles.

    The interior photos here are much appreciated as is this blog.

    Many thanks once again, Mr. Miller.