Friday, March 18, 2011

The William Starr Miller House - 1048 5th Avenue (Neue Galerie)

The William Starr Miller residence today - photo by razr

By the time William Starr Miller retired from the legal profession, the neighborhood around his elegant brownstone residence at 39 Fifth Avenue, between 10th and 11th Streets, was becoming less and less exclusive.  Apartment buildings were replacing the staid old homes of New York’s elite as the wealthy moved further and further uptown.

Miller, who remained an active industrialist and real estate operator, commissioned Carrere & Hasting in 1912 to design his new home at 1048 Fifth Avenue at the southeast corner of East 86th Street across from Central Park.  The firm, which had just completed the magnificent white marble New York Public Library, created a surprising red brick and limestone Louis XIII palace that would easily be at home in Paris’s Place des Vosges.

Possibly following the lead of Andrew Carnegie’s 64-room brick and limestone English Georgia residence completed in 1903, the architects' choice of styles and materials was unusual nevertheless.  On an avenue lined with marble and limestone chateaux and palazzos, many of them dripping with scrolled brackets, swags and garlands, Starr’s mansion was quietly restrained in comparison.

Facing 86th Street, the house sat on a rusticated base, the central three bays projecting from the bulk of the structure. A high slate mansard roof with tall stone-framed dormers sat behind a limestone balustrade.

As the mansion neared completion The New York Times commented on the atypical choice of style and materials on December 7, 1913.  “There is a dignity and simplicity far more pleasing than some of the excruciatingly ornate creations on the avenue,” the newspaper said.  “The use of red brick with limestone adds a cheerful touch of color suggestive of early Colonial to the Miller house.”  The New York Times added that the new house would be “of more than ordinary importance.”

By 1921, the newspaper had changed its opinion of the mansion.  It reported that Starr’s 33-year old daughter, Edith Starr Miller, had quietly married the divorced 60-year old Lord Queenborough in “the big dull red and gray house.”

In 1922 the house was still surrounded by older brownstone row houses -- NYPL Collection

If The New York Times found the exterior big and dull, the interiors were sumptuous.  The library and drawing room were oak-paneled, the dining room hung with tapestries, and the second floor music room spacious.

The quiet wedding in the music room of 1048 5th Avenue did  produce a lasting marriage.  In 1932 Edith sued the baron for separation on grounds of “cruelty, inhuman treatment and abandonment.”  The following year she died at age of 45 in Paris.

William Starr Miller died in the mansion on September 14, 1935, followed by his wife nine years later.  The house was opened in November 1944 for buyers to preview the art and furnishings as preparations were made to auction off the Miller estate.  A month earlier the mansion had been sold to one of the most socially-prominent names in New York.

On October 44 The New York Times reported “Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose historic and palatial home at 640 Fifth Avenue recently was acquired by the William Waldorf Astor estate, has purchased the large stone house at 1048 Fifth Avenue, southeast corner of Eighty-sixth Street.”

Grace Vanderbilt, widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt III, was accustomed to the much larger home to the south.  She referred to the Miller mansion as “the gardener’s cottage.”  Cottage or not, Mrs. Vanderbilt made the house the center of lavish entertainments, charity events and glittering balls.

Here on the night of January 8, 1953, the leader of New York and Newport society died of pneumonia.

The house, for half a century the place of dinner parties and balls for the cream of New York society, was purchased by YIVO Institute for Jewish research.  The institute converted the mansion to offices.  However because funds were tight, rather than strip out the architectural detailing the institute simply covered them over.

Cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder conceived of a museum in the 1990s to house his collection of German and Austrian modern art.  He partnered with his friend, art dealer Serge Sabarsky whose collection was comparable.  The two quietly purchased the Miller mansion from YIVO in 1994 and initiated a four-year renovation and restoration of the structure.

Architect Annabelle Selldorf was given the task of sensitively bringing the mansion back to life and creating an art museum. The marble pilasters in the former music room re-emerged as did the oak paneling and carved ornamentation.

photo by Gryffindor

Sabarsky died before the project was completed; yet today the Neue Galerie is home to paintings by such artists Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Paul Klee. In 2006, Klimt’s painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was put on exhibition, Lauder having purchased it for a reported $135 million.

The exquisite home remains remarkably intact, an elegant survivor of Upper Fifth Avenue's golden age.

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