Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Last of the Vanderbilt Row - No. 647 Fifth Avenue

The last remaining Vanderbilt-erected townhouse in the area now houses Versace -- photo by Alice Lum

In 1901 John Jacob Astor shocked New York’s millionaires when he purchased and destroyed the great brownstone mansions at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street and began constructing the 19-story St. Regis Hotel. This section of Fifth Avenue, the most exclusive residential neighborhood in the city, had been vigorously protected from commercial encroachment for decades.

As the hotel began rising, William Rockefeller began buying up the adjoining houses – a total of five by 1904 – in an effort to protect the area.  The Vanderbilts, whose houses lined the western side of Fifth Avenue from 51st Street to 57th Street, were equally protective.

In 1900, the former site of the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum became available, just to the south on the east side of Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets and diagonally opposite the home of George W. Vanderbilt.  The Vanderbilts rushed in to seize the property thereby preventing further development –already a syndicate represented by J. Stewart Chisholm had shown interest in building an apartment hotel on the site.

The lot at the corner of 52nd Street was sold to Morton Plant, where he erected his elegant stone mansion, completed in 1905. At the southern end of the block the grand limestone Union Club – one of the most exclusive in the city – rose, completed that same year. And between these two imposing structures George W. Vanderbilt had matching townhouses designed by architects Hunt & Hunt.  Richard H. and Joseph H. Hunt were the sons of architect Richard Morris Hunt, responsible for many of the great mansions of the late 19th Century in Manhattan.

The Evening Post gave a rather dry mention that “George W. Vanderbilt will erect two five-story American basement dwellings, at Nos. 645 and 647 Fifth Avenue, adjoining the new Union Clubhouse now nearing completion at the corner of Fifty-first Street, on the old Catholic Orphan Asylum block. These buildings will be connected so as to form a double house, with a frontage of 75 feet and a depth of 90 feet, and the front will be of white marble. The cost will be in the neighborhood of $500,000.”

The plans filed with the Building Department gave a slightly lower cost at an estimated $100,000.

The New York Times was more interested in the Vanderbilt plans, noting on September 7, 1902 that “The two new dwellings will be built so that they may be connected and converted into a double house. What disposition Mr. Vanderbilt intends to make of these residences could not be learned yesterday.” However the newspaper stressed that in the recording of deeds, “significant statements were made that no apartment house or hotel would ever be erected on the property.”

The Hunt brothers created a long, Louis XV style palace completed in 1905. Graceful arched openings lined the first floor under a stone balcony supported by great, paired brackets. Two-story pilasters separated the windows of the second and third floors and a rich cornice crowned the whole. The ground floor stonework was vermiculated; intricately carved to appear worm-eaten.
In 1911 the Marble Twins sat snugly between the Plant Mansion, to the left, and the imposing Union Club on the corner.  To the extreme right is St. Patrick's Cathedral.  photo NYPL Collection

No. 647 immediately became the home of staggeringly wealthy Robert Goelet and his wife Elsie Whelen Goelet.

Although the Goelets were still in residence, in March of 1907 The Times reported that William D. Sloane had leased No. 647 for “a long term of years.” Sloane, who was married to Emily Vanderbilt, the sister of George W. and William K., had purchased No. 645 soon after construction was completed. The Sloanes’ daughter Lila and her husband William B. Osgood Field occupied that house.

Whether Sloane ever intended to move into No. 647 is unclear; however the Goelets continued living there.

The Goelet Family lived in No. 647, to the left -- photo Museum of the City of New York
The Goelet family had amassed a fortune in real estate and the house became the setting of elaborate entertainments. On January 26, 1910 Elsie gave a dinner for over 60 guests, followed by the production of George Bernard Shaw’s How He Lied to Her Husband.

Dinner guests were seated at several large “flower decorated” tables in the dining room while and orchestra played. Afterwards they moved to the drawing room where the stage from the Waldorf Astoria hotel had been installed, creating a mini-theater.

Ten couples were asked to stay after the performance for a small supper.

In 1911 Fifth Avenue was widened, resulting in the necessary renovations to the two houses. Plans were filed with the Building Department with Hunt & Hunt called in again to do the minor changes at a cost of $12,000.

Suddenly in January 1914, Elsie Goelet left No. 647 Fifth Avenue with her retinue of servants for Daytona, Florida. She shocked New York society by filing for divorce on the grounds of “extreme cruelty” and “other misbehavior and wickedness repugnant to and in violation of his marriage covenant.”

Within the month Goelet, who was worth about $25 million at the time, temporarily closed the Fifth Avenue house and took his remaining servants to one of his country estates.

A year later on April 21, 1915, the tangled web of ownership of No. 647 was straightened out after the death of William D. Sloane. The Times reported that “The filing of a deed yesterday in the Register’s Office…shows that Mr. [William K.] Vanderbilt has been the owner of the large residence at 647 Fifth Avenue since [September 6, 1904]."  Goelet was still occupying the house and the Fields were still in residence next door.
The ornately carved Corinthian capitals of the pilasters show remarkably little pollution damage -- photo by Alice Lum

Meanwhile, things were changing in the Fifth Avenue neighborhood. Despite all the efforts of the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, commercial encroachment was inevitable.  In November 1916, art dealers Gimpel & Wildenstein leased No. 647, paying $36,000 per year.

Gimpel & Wildenstein were world-class dealers with another store at 57 Rue La Bodie in Paris. They dealt in “High-class old paintings, tapestries, works of art and Eighteenth-Century furniture,” according to an advertisement.  By "high-class old paintings," it referred to artists like Rembrandt and Corot.  The firm made adroit alterations to the building to accommodate its business, including removing the ambitious cornice in 1917 and adding a floor.  The total cost for refurbishing the house, along with furnishings and lighting, was $140,000.

The neighborhood and the building were perfect for the dealers. In his “Fifth Avenue: The Best Address,” Jerry E. Patterson noted that Rene Gimpel wrote in his diary “Three windows facing the street; here that’s a lot,” referring to the multimillionaires who strolled past.

Crowds push past the Marble Twins in the bustling 1920s -- photo NYPL Collection
The house remained substantially unchanged until 1938 when a New York Times headline announced “Old Mansion Bows to 5th Avenue Trade.” The article told of “alterations…which will transform that structure into a dignified but architecturally attractive commercial building.”

The American Express Company had hired Paul Verpilleux to renovate the structure. The graceful sidewalk level was obliterated, replaced with wide plate glass show windows and the elegant stone balcony was replaced with a shallow version with a wrought-iron railing.

In 1945 the matching house at No. 645 was demolished by Best & Co., leaving just half of what Hunt & Hunt had called “The Marble Twins.”

American Express eventually moved out of No. 647 and in 1995 Gianni Versace signed a 20-year lease on the building which would become its flagship store. Architects Laboratorio Associati were commissioned to initiate a $6 to $7 million renovation that included replacing the 1917 first floor and the long-lost stone balcony.
The marble balcony with its double scrolled brackets was reproduced in the restoration, as was the vermiculated rusticated stonework -- photo by Alice Lum
On a street that was once lined with the mansions of the Vanderbilt family, No. 647 is the sole survivor. Overshadowed by the magnificence of the Morton Plant house next door, it is often overlooked; but it is nonetheless a handsome reminder of last days of this portion of Fifth Avenue as a residential neighborhood.


  1. Good post, close-up of the old version (pre-retail) would have made the subtle transformation clearer. Interesting that the smaller buildings survived, while the larger Vanderbilt trophies were felled.