Saturday, May 7, 2011

Hardenbergh's 1897 Twins at Nos. 15 and 13 West 54th STreet

Today No. 13 houses a restaurant while offices occupy No. 15
As midtown Manhattan developed, comfortable upper-class homes rose on the side streets that branched off 5th Avenue. When St. Luke’s Hospital (which had extended far down 54th and 55th street from 5th Avenue) was demolished in 1896, wealthy businessman William Murray purchased the plots at Nos. 13 and 15 West 54th.

Murray commissioned the noted architect Henry J. Hardenberg to design two tasteful residences on the site. The architect, who had designed numerous well-known structures in the city including the Waldorf and the Astoria Hotels and the Dakota apartment building, designed near matching homes in a Renaissance-inspired style.

Cased in limestone with oriel windows, heavy carvings and sweeping, paired staircases, the homes were both grand and picturesque. While the two homes, completed in 1897, were nearly mirror images, No. 13 was slightly higher.

Menacing grotesque heads ornament the oriel window brackets
The wealthy and socially-prominent widow of stock broker Walter S. Neilson, Jessie, purchased No. 13, living here until 1901 when she rented it fully-furnished to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. on September 25. Rockefeller was to be married to Abbie Green Aldrich within two weeks and the house was appropriate for the new couple both in location and prestige. The groom-to-be signed a three-year lease on the house which was conveniently across the street from his father’s home at 4 West 54th Street.

West 54th Street became an enclave of the financially powerful. Among the Rockfellers’ neighbors were Philip Lehman, head of Lehman Brothers, and James J. Goodwin, one of the principals of J. P. Morgan.

Five years later John D. Rockefeller, Sr. purchased the No. 13 from Mrs. Neilson and, in 1909, he resold it to his son who was still living there.

In the meantime James B. Dickson, president of the insurance firm Johnson & Higgins, and his wife, Harriet, had purchased the house next door in 1906. Mrs. Higgins would live on here for nearly half a century until her death on March 3, 1953.

The Rockefellers moved across the street to No. 10 West 54th Street as World War I was drawing to an end in 1918 and the house at No. 13 was rented to businessman Howard Maxwell.

Eventually Maxwell moved permanently to his Glen Cove, Long Island estate “Maxwellton,” however the Rockefeller family retained possession of the house for three decades. Nelson, the son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., used it for offices and for high-level business luncheons. Upon Harriet Higgins’ death, Nelson purchased No. 15 and renovated it as the Museum of Primitive Art which opened in 1957.

A passageway was carved into the rear of No. 13, connecting it to No. 22 West 55th Street where Nelson, now Governor of New York, maintained offices. It was in No. 13, in 1979, that Nelson Rockefeller died of a heart attacked.

Shortly after Rockefeller’s death, both houses were sold to Bernard H. Mendik.

Rockefeller’s Museum of Primitive art was closed in 1976 and its collection transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. No. 13 was, until 2005, home to the Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit.

Today the homes house offices and a restaurant, their charming outward appearances essentially unchanged since their completion in 1897.

photographs taken by the author

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