Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The 1903 Joseph Pulitzer Mansion -- No. 11 East 73rd Street

photo by cityrealty.com

In 1899, after two small fires had started in Joseph Pulitzer’s mansion on East 55th Street within a year, Fire Chief Binns gave the publisher a stern warning. “I told Mr. Pulitzer that his house was a dangerous one for fires and that if ever a fire got headway his family would have to jump from the windows inside of fifteen minutes after it started should they then be inside and no other means of escape be at hand.”

On January 9, 1900 the chief’s warnings became fact. Although Pulitzer and his son Joseph, Jr. were away at Lakewood, New Jersey and the eldest son was away at Harvard, the rest of the family and 19 servants were at home. At 7:30 in the morning smoke was seen billowing from lower windows.

By the time those inside could be alerted, fire and smoke were rising quickly upwards in the mansion. Mrs. Pulitzer, barefoot, and her three children narrowly escaped down the main stairway in their bedclothes. The houseman, James Kane, ripped a curtain from a doorway to throw over Mrs. Pulitizer’s shoulders.

Within minutes the house was in smoldering ruins and two servants, Mrs. S. S. Morgan Jellet, the companion of Mrs. Pulitzer, and Elizabeth Montgomery, the governess, were dead.

The family temporarily leased the Sloane Mansion at 9 East 72d Street and Pulitzer set about acquiring a new home. And he had specific ideas for it.

On April 12 the publisher purchased four plots of land on the north side of 73rd Street between 5th and Madison Avenues: No. 7 from Mrs. Clarence Brooks, No. 9 from Mrs. W. K. Major, No. 11 from James Lenox Banks and No. 11A from Leo Schlesinger. Together they formed a plot 76 by 100 feet “on which Mr. Pulitzer will erect a mansion which, it is said, will be one of the handsomest in the city,” reported The New York Times.

Pulitzer had lost a priceless collection of silver, art and antiques in the fire. He directed architect Stanford White to produce a fireproof house. He also gave explicit instructions to shun the ostentatious displays so prevalent in other contemporary mansions. It was to be a simple house with “no ballroom, no music room, or picture gallery under any disguise…no French rooms, designed or decorated to require French furniture…I want an American home for comfort and use and not for show or entertainment.”

Joseph Pulitzer was almost completely blind while working with Stanford White, making him a cranky and difficult client -- photo National Parks Service

By now Pulitzer was almost completely blind. White fabricated scale models of proposed designs so his client could run his fingers over the surface to determine what the home would look like. After a few rejections, a design was settled upon.

Melding features of the Palazzo Persaro in Venice with others from the Palazzo Rezzonico, White produced a dignified Italian Renaissance palace with galleries of arched windows, balconies and Doric, Corinthian and Ionic columns. The home was completed in 1903 and whether by Mrs. Pulitzer’s urgings or the architect’s, Pulitzer got a music room and a French salon, like it or not.

In deference to the publisher’s sensitivity to noise as his eyesight failed, his personal rooms were soundproofed. His circular breakfast room was centered within the house, far from intruding street noises. The only window was constructed of glass blocks and light was provided by a sealed skylight.

An acoustics expert from Harvard University was consulted regarding Pulitzer’s bedroom. Ball bearings were installed beneath the floor to prevent vibration, the windows were three-panes thick and the walls heavily insulated.

It didn’t work. Despite White himself testing the sound-proofing of the bedroom by having workers pound on the walls and shout, Pulitzer complained he could not sleep for the noise. White accused his client of trying to drive him mad.

Frustrated, Pulitzer commissioned architects Foster, Gade & Graham in 1904 to build a new bedroom annex to the rear of the house. After the first night, he announced that he was kept awake all night by the noises seeping into the room.

White returned, discerned that the outside noises were entering the room from the fireplace and had thousands of silk threads stretched across the flue opening. The room was finally quiet.

The cost of Pulitzer’s house, not including the price of the land, was $369,000; around $8.7 million in today’s dollars. The wrought iron entrance doors led to a monumental staircase in the wide entrance hall. A custom-built electro-pneumatic Aeolian organ filled the house with music from an ornate cabinet of pipes at the top of the stair hall. The 50-foot ballroom with five elegant French doors faced the street on the second floor.

An elaborate pipe organ cabinet stands at the top of the staircase next to a large stained glass widow -- photo nyago.com

Eight years after moving in, Joseph Pulitzer died on October 29, 1911. The family almost immediately left the house; however the magnificent mansion sat unsold and uninhabited. On January 6 and 7 of 1928 the house was thrown open to the public to view the tapestries, Oriental rugs, bronzes, porcelains and antique French furniture that the family would put at auction by the American Art Galleries. The sale netted $69,428 including one Gobelin silk tapestry that sold for over $12,000.

In 1930, out of desperation, Pulitzer’s sons leased the property to a group of investors who planned to demolish the house and erect an apartment building. Their plans were foiled by the Great Depression, however, and in 1934 Henry Mandel signed a two-decade lease. The real estate developer hired architect James E. Casale to covert the mansion to apartments.

Casale deftly drew up plans that would transform the home without destroying the façade nor most of the interior detailing. Even the squash court and basement swimming pool would became apartments. But Mandel did not go forward with the plans and returned the property to the Pulitzer boys. The sons approved the plans and Casale’s designs were implemented in 1937, creating 17 apartments within the mansion.

The now-renovated building was sold to the William Waldorf Astor Estate as an investment property. Three decades later in 1952 the estate sold the magnificent mansion for what The Times called “improvement of the site with a modern apartment building.”

A change of heart intervened and rather than destroying Stanford White’s limestone Renaissance palace, the owners converted it to cooperative apartments.  Pulitizer's magnificent mansion remains divided into high-class coops; while from the street it remains essentially unchanged since the grouchy publisher took moved in in 1903.


  1. Hi Tom. I told you I'd be following! Great story: fascinating, well written, well researched, and with great historical photographs. Thanks for posting it.

  2. So glad they didn't destroy it. I was fortunate enough to photograph it

  3. "...in 1952 the estate sold the magnificent mansion for what The Times called “improvement of the site with a modern apartment building.”

    I find it difficult to imagine that anyone could contemplate destroying one of the greatest architectural masterpieces in America. I have walked passed this treasure for fifty years and still find I must always pause for a few moments to admire its faultless lines and indescribable aesthetic perfection.

    I was inside this splendid mansion many years ago to inspect one of the magnificent duplex apartments (that even included a Juliette balcony), with an eye towards making a purchase. But at that time the mansion lacked a full time doorman which my lifestyle and personal needs required so I moved on with my residential search. Perhaps an error on my part, in retrospect.

    The apartments in the Pulitzer Mansion rarely come on the market now and always go for a King's ransom. And well they should. After all, quality is always remembered and appreciated long after price is forgotten.

    Though the "Barbarians" of New York succeeded in tearing down and destroying the magnificent and irreplaceable Penn Station many years ago, a national disgrace that this huge historic edifice was not protected by law, and thus an architectural tragedy of the highest order, we must thank the gods that Fate intervened to rescue the Pulitzer mansion from the wrecker's iron ball.

    Thank you for publishing this wonderful trip down Memory Lane.

    1. very interesting input! thanks for taking the time to share.

    2. Interesting fact. The apartment you looked at must have been the top floor as that is the residence that best fits your brief description. The first tenant of that wonderful aerie, after the building was divided into apartments in the 1930's, was Roy Chapman Andrews and his second wife, the deliciously named Billie Christmas. Andrews had just become Director of the American Museum of Natural History. But his fame (which was considerable) derived from his giant and well-funded expeditions into Central Asia to find the origins of man (instead he dug up lots of dinosaur bones and was the first to find dinosaur eggs). His current notoriety is based on the common belief that he was the model for Indiana Jones. In fact his whip is one of treasures of New York's Explorer's Club.

      (The apartment and accompanying terrace is described in Andrew's autobiography, Under a Lucky Star.)

  4. Catching up on this post as it is about a building designed by my FAVORITE architect! Would luv to see what it is like inside now - anyone have a link to current floorplan layouts for sharing?

  5. Is the organ or any of the parts still in the building?

  6. Looking at pics on streeteasy showing past sales it has a pic of the organ. Looks beautiful.

    1. Yes, the very elaborate organ case survives but sadly the organ itself was removed, when and by whom is unknown (although clearly before 11 E 73 became a co-op in 1952).

    2. There is some information about the original organ here: http://www.nycago.org/Organs/NYC/html/ResPulitzerJ.html Wondering what happened to it...