Friday, May 13, 2011

The 1900 Philip Lehman House -- No. 7 West 54th Street

A frescoed ceiling can be glimpsed through the second story French doors -- photo by beyond my Ken
As the 20th Century approached, the mansions of the very wealthy spilled from 5th Avenue in midtown onto the side streets. When the massive St. Luke’s Hospital was demolished after the facility moved to Amsterdam Avenue in 1896, valuable real estate became available.

Among the fashionable, upper-class homes that were erected along the north side of West 54th Street was No. 7 in the popular Beaux Arts style, directly across the street from the substantial brownstone mansion of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. at No. 4.

The residence was commissioned by financier Philip Lehman whose father, Emanuel, had co-founded Lehman Brothers in the 1850s. By the time Philip hired architect John H. Duncan to design his new home Lehman Brothers was one of the world’s most important banking firms.

As the street developed, the residences of other high-level bankers rose alongside the Lehman house including James Goodwin of J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

Duncan produced a rusticated, 4-story limestone structure with a tall, nearly-vertical slate covered mansard roof, completed in 1900. Two deep copper-framed oculi, or round windows, pierced the mansard above the carved fourth-floor window surrounds. A bowed stone balcony connected the tall French doors of the second floor, and elaborate carved festoons and cartouches filled the spaces between the second and third stories.

On August 17, 1901 The American Architect published its photograph of the new residence
Carrie Lehman died in the house on November 10, 1937 at the age of 72. After Philip’s death a decade later, his son Robert took up residency. Robert had the mansion redecorated in the 1960s and focused much of his attention and passion on enlarging the family’s art collection which already included works by painters such as Rembrandt, Goya, Durer, Renoir, Ingres and El Greco.

Lehman’s keen eye and adept negotiating skills resulted in a treasury of over 3,000 works of art; one of the most extensive and exceptional collections in the United States. The home became his private gallery and his wish was that it be dismantled and reconstructed as a wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in which to house his collection. In 1962 the house was opened to the public for one week to view what The New York Times called “one of the last great privately held art collections in the world.” The $25 entrance fee was donated to the Institute of Fine Arts, a graduate school of New York University.

When Robert Lehman died in 1969 his will bequeathed the artwork to the Metropolitan Museum with the caveat that it must always remain together.

Rather than move the entire mansion, the Metropolitan Museum dismantled several of its room which were installed as part of the Robert Lehman Wing which opened in 1975.

The Lehman House was purchased by the 7 West 54th Street Realty Corp. in 1974 and went through a series of owners until 2006 when it was purchased by Zimmer Lucas Partners for renovation into offices and entertaining spaces. The hedge fund firm commissioned architect Belmont Freeman Architects to restore the house as much as possible to its appearance during Robert Lehman’s ownership. The architects not only restored the limestone fa├žade, but brokered a deal between the Metropolitan Museum and the new owners to return architectural artifacts which the museum was holding in storage. In addition, the Met allowed the firm to take casts of other architectural details for replication purposes.

The Lehman House in 2011
A modern glass penthouse addition, invisible from the street, was constructed and high-tech systems were installed throughout the property.

Today the Lehman House is one in a row of five surviving turn-of-the-century residences on West 54th Street; a rare and remarkable glimpse back to a time when millionaires and their families lived on 5th Avenue’s side streets.

non-credited photographs taken by the author


  1. Although I was familiar with the Lehman Wing at the Met Muse, the story of its creation, and the continuing controversy in terms of exhibition, I don't think I had seen where it was housed previously. What a treat.

  2. Aways enjoy your posts!