Monday, August 25, 2014

The Lost Randolph Guggenheimer Mansion - No. 923 5th Avenue

photograph - Architecture, January 15, 1900 (copyright expired)

A young Randolph Guggenheimer arrived in New York City to attend college; but financial problems got in the way.   Decades later the New-York Tribune would remember “Compelled by force of circumstances to give up his coveted college course, he did not abandon his ambition for a professional career.”  Once he obtained employment as a clerk in a woolen house, he enrolled in the New York University law school.

After graduating and starting with a $1 a week salary as a law clerk, Guggenheimer rose quickly.  He established his own practice, then in 1883 brought his two half-brothers, Isaac and Samuel Untermeyer, into the firm, now known as Guggenheimer & Untermyer.  The young man from Virginia had more than overcome his financial difficulties—he was quickly becoming one of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens.

In 1876 Guggenheimer had married Eliza Katzenberg and the couple had two sons and a daughter.  The Guggenheimer family lived at No. 8 East 81st Street and maintained a country estate, Drexel Cottage, in Elberon, New Jersey and a mansion in Newport. 

Randolph was highly involved in civic affairs, as well.  He was chairman of the committee on legislation of the School Board, was School Commissioner for three terms, and served as Acting Mayor during the absence of Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck.

By the last decade of the 19th century Guggenheimer was engaged in real estate.  In 1896 he was responsible for the construction of two matching 12-story neoclassical buildings that engulfed the entire block bounded by Broadway, Mercer Street, Waverly Place and Washington Place.  To design the substantial structures, he turned to architect Robert Maynicke.

The millionaire lawyer was apparently pleased with the outcome.  A year later he purchased the building lot at No. 923 Fifth Avenue from Alfred Duane Pell and once again called on the services of Robert Maynicke.  Although Maynicke was best known for his designing of loft buildings, he would produce for Guggenheimer a mansion unlike any other on the avenue.

As the house rose, the wedding of daughter Adele to Philip Lewisohn took place in the 81st Street house.  The groom was wealthy in his own right, a member of the Lewisohn Importing Trading Company.  Following the ceremony a wedding breakfast for 80 guests was served.  When the newlyweds returned from an extended European honeymoon, they moved in with the Guggenheimers.

Completed in 1899, the white marble Fifth Avenue mansion cost Guggenheimer more than $200,000; or over $5 million by today’s standards.  While other millionaires were erecting Beaux Arts or neo-Georgian mansions, Maynicke produced a stunning five-story neo-Classical house of exceptional refinement. 

Building Age described the entrance as “a fair sample of the modern school…This is a comparatively narrow house.  The decorations are very elaborate.  The whole of the ground floor is taken up by the entrance.  Six Doric columns support a cornice treated in the style of the Italian Renaissance.  The doors are of wrought iron, rather elaborate in design, and the windows on each side are treated in the same way.  An iron balustrade guards each side of the steps leading from the street and at the bottom step are two electroliers on which are opaque globes.”  (The two lamps referred to by the magazine reflected Guggenheimer’s service as Acting Mayor.  Every Mayor of New York City received the honor of having mayoral lamps placed outside his home for life.)

Mayoral lamps flank the entrance steps.  The elegance of the architecture is somewhat offset by the POST NO BILLS sign on the adjoining wall -- photograph from Architecture, January 15, 1900 (copyright expired)

While Building Age focused on the elaborate first floor, the true scene-stealer was the fifth floor loggia below the balustraded cornice.  Here two marble columns flanked two sets of exquisite paired caryatids—a cultured touch found nowhere else along the park.

Inside were 33 rooms.  The New York Times described “extensive use of rare marbles, both on its fa├žade and its interior.  In the stair hall is a slab of rare violet-grained marble.  The house also contains an elevator, one of the first ever installed in a private house in this city.”

The location was perfect for Guggenheimer, who was a great lover of horses.  The New-York Tribune reported later “A daily early morning gallop in Central Park was his favorite exercise and almost the only relaxation in his busy life.” 

Guggenheimer’s busy life included not only his real estate dealings, civic functions, legal business and his several club memberships; he was actively involved in philanthropies.  “One of his keenest pleasures was derived from the annual dinner that he gave to the newsboys of the city, and he contributed on an equally generous scale to the support of many charitable institutions,” said the New-York Tribune on September 13, 1907.

On Tuesday September 10, 1907 the Guggenheimer family returned from an extended European trip, going directly to Drexel Cottage.  Randolph seemed in good health, but three days later the New-York Tribune reported “While at the luncheon table, however, he was suddenly stricken with apoplexy.”  Doctors were summoned, but the massive stroke proved fatal.  “All efforts failed to restore him, and he died soon after midnight,” said the Tribune.

The Lewisohns lived on with Eliza Guggenheimer in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  Adele and Philip had two children, Virginia (who went by her middle name Fay) and Randolph.  Like his father-in-law, Philip Lewisohn became actively involved in real estate.  In addition to his importing business, he became president and treasurer of the New York Library Realty Company and the West Fortieth and Forty-first Street Realty Company.  One of his best-known structures was the 1913 Lewisohn Building.

In mid-November 1917 Lewisohn underwent a appendectomy at the German Hospital.  A week later, on November 20, he died in the Fifth Avenue mansion at the age of 56.  On November 29 The Sun noted “While the estimate of the estate is mentioned only as ‘above $10,000,’ in each real and personal property, it is believed that Mr. Lewisohn’s extensive real estate holdings will bring the actual value to a high figure.  Practically everything is left to the family.”

Eliza and son Charles don the best in Edwardian outfits -- photograph Library of Congress

Eliza, Adele and the two children lived on at No. 923 Fifth Avenue.  In 1919 Fay’s engagement to William Burton was announced.  Two years later one of the most peculiar occurrences at the Guggenheimer household came to pass.

In the spring of 1921 the Guggenheimer butler answered the door to find a young man on the stoop who identified himself as the song writer and publisher Irving Berlin.  He asked to use the telephone and the butler admitted him to the house.  Later, reported the New-York Tribune, he “returned and tried to borrow money from Mrs. Guggenheimer’s butler.”

On May 1 the Tribune reported “Irving Berlin…was in Yorkville Police Court yesterday to press a complaint against Max Greenberg, nineteen years old, who, it is alleged, has been using Berlin’s name.

“It was bad enough, Mr. Berlin said, to have his name used by a man who signed checks in restaurants and started flirtations with young women in distant states, but when it came to asking a butler, in the name of Irving Berlin, to lend him money, Mr. Berlin thought that some charge involving a cruel and unusual punishment ought to lie against the defendant.”

The aging Eliza Guggenheimer fell ill in November 1927.  After an illness of four weeks, she died in the house on December 9.  Her estate of over $1 million was divided equally among the three children.  “Seven servants are provided for in the testament,” reported The New York Times on December 14.

Adele would not remain much longer in the mansion.  On May 1, 1928 The New York Times reported that the furnishings were to be sold at auction later that week.  The following month the newspaper reported that Nicholas C. Partos, President of the Partos Realty Company and the Cornel Drug Stores Company had purchased the house, which was on the market for $450,000.

The entire first floor facade was treated as an entrance -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

While the Partos family did move in, it appears that the Guggenheimers rethought selling.  They retained possession of the home and instead leased it to Partos.  Born in Budapest, Partos had come to the United States in 1903.  He landed a job in a drug store earning $3 a week.  The ambitious chemist eventually borrowed money to purchase the shop and by 1912 was one of the leading manufacturers of pharmaceuticals in the country, with branches worldwide.

On the evening of January 10, 1930 Partos and his wife returned home from the theater shortly before midnight.  Their daughter and the servant staff were asleep.  Mrs. Partos removed her diamonds and laid them on a table upstairs, rather than secure them in the safe.

Around 3:30 a.m. Partos arose to open the bedroom window.  He then walked to the door leading to an adjoining room and opened it.  “Dr. Partos said he was confronted by ‘a man more than six feet tall, weighing about 200 pounds, who had a silk handkerchief over his features and a small crowbar in one hand,’” reported The New York Times the following day.

The shocked crook demanded “Throw up your hands!” but Partos, instead struck him in the chest.  The pair were quickly involved in a tussle, with several blows exchanged and Partos ripping the mask from the burglar’s face.  The 48-year old millionaire, who weighed just 135 pounds, held his own with the burly thief.

“The noise awakened Mrs. Partos, who was asleep, and her cries for help, as well as those of 13-year old Irene Partos on the floor overhead, and the servants, brought a squad of police from the East Sixty-seventh Street station,” said The Times.  They were too late, however.  The burglar escaped, rushing down the stairs and through the front door.  He bounded over the stone wall into Central Park and disappeared. 

“About the time the police arrived Dr. and Mrs. Partos made a quick inventory of the jewelry, of which Mrs. Partos has a fine collection,” said the newspaper.  The safe was locked and the diamonds on the table were still there.  Partos estimated that his scuffle with the intruder prevented the loss of $250,000 in jewelry.

Nicholas C. Partos’ world came crashing down in April 1932 when he was convicted of fraud.  The 51-year old “who at one time was credited with having amassed a fortune of several millions through real estate and other investments,” according to The Times, was charged with selling worthless stocks to investors.  The newspaper said that following the verdict “more than 100 men and women…began a demonstration in the corridor outside the courtroom, the men cheering and the women vigorously applauding.”

By now many of the grand mansions of Fifth Avenue had been razed for modern apartment buildings.  The five residences between 73rd and 74th Streets, including No. 923 however, still survived.  But on November 30, 1937 The New York Times reported that the end of the line for the Guggenheimer house as a private home had come.  “The house, one of the dwindling number of private dwellings on the avenue, has been held by the Guggenheimer family for nearly forty years,” it said.  Now the Laval Realty Corporation, which was leasing the building, announced it would divide it into apartments of one to three rooms each.

The five mansions would survive until 1945.  Then, on September 2, 1945, The Times wrote “The wave of demolitions of old New York residences during boom days, which subsided during the depression but was spreading out again when the war intervened, appears about to sweep over many strongholds of private homes in the new era of construction activity now in prospect…Five private houses which escaped the northward march of builders previously, and which were linked with New York’s social history, will make way for the new building, which will be an eighteen-story edifice with apartments ranging in size from three to six rooms, with many terrace, balcony and penthouse suites.”

The five neighboring houses would survive until 1945.  No. 922 at the corner is already boarded up. -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

Among the row was No. 923 Fifth Avenue, sold by Charles Gugenheimer to the Tischman Realty & Construction Company.   The two mayoral lampposts still stood on either side of the entrance steps.  It would take five years for the houses to be demolished and the new apartment building completed.  But by the end of 1950 Sylvan Bien’s mid-century modern apartment building was completed. 

The public spaces had been decorated by Dorothy Draper and the lobby was furnished in 18th century antiques.  Still standing today, the white brick building took the address of the Guggenheimer mansion, No. 923 Fifth Avenue, where once marble goddesses stared across Central Park from the loggia.


  1. The law firm Guggenheimer & Untermyer went out of business in 1985.

  2. What a depressing way to start the week, seeing that characterless brick monstrosity sitting on that 5th avenue site.

  3. And as it is said - holy-crapola! Just noticed the Greek caryatids at the top. OMGosh! Wow...

  4. Really sad to see the kind of shape those five mansions are in, and on 5th Ave. Why? I need to find a time machine.

  5. Unfortunately aside from maybe a mantel or lighting fixture, one just knows that the demolition starting in 1945 of these 5 townhouses meant everything else was torn out to fill the dumpsters and then carted to a Jersey land fill. I bet the caryatids were jack hammered followed by the cutting and scrapping of those magnificent iron and glass entrance grilles. How did that mediocre apartment tower ever get built on Fifth Ave? RT

  6. I had forgotten about this mansion. I remember seeing photos of it many years ago. I don't know which brought more of a smile to my face.....the POST NO BILLS next to that magnificent entrance or those looming caryatids!


  7. Tom, I mourn the loss of this beauty and wonder if you have ever included 925 and 926 5th Ave in your blog. They are really pretty. Thanks.

    1. I have not included those two in the blog yet. So many buildings, so little time!