Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The 1911 Percy Rivington Pyne House - No. 680 Park Avenue

Percy R. Pyne's magnificent home (left) lines up harmoniously with its two neighbors -- photo by Alice Lum
In the opening years of the 20th century, the New York Central Railroad begrudgingly submerged the railroad tracks that ran down the center of Park Avenue into Grand Central Terminal.  Closely following the progress of the covered tracks came mansions of New York’s wealthy.

By now Victorian tastes in architecture were passé and, while Beaux Arts mansions were still appearing, the nationwide interest in Colonial Revival prompted millionaires like Andrew Carnegie and Edward Berwind to build clean-lined, brick-and-limestone homes in the neo-Georgian style.

When fabulously wealthy financier Percy Rivington Pyne and his wife, Maud, purchased the plot of land on the corner of Park Avenue and East 68th Street, this was the look they were after.

The Pynes commissioned the foremost architects of the day, McKim, Mead & White, to design their home in 1906. They then waited until the tracks in front of their lot were successfully covered over before construction began in 1909.

Completed two years later, No. 680 Park Avenue sat on a rusticated limestone base. Charles F. McKim used red brick with white limestone trim to create a dignified and refined residence. The tall windows at the second story, capped with keystoned limestone lentils, sit in slightly-recessed arched alcoves. Above the cornice a stone balustrade protects copper-clad dormers protruding from the steep slate-covered roof.
photo by Alice Lum
By 1926 the rest of the block stretching to 69th Street was filled with architecturally-cohesive mansions, creating what the AIA Guide to New York City would later call “a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.”

photo by Alice Lum
Inside marble pillars, warm wooden paneling and frescoed ceilings spoke of the owners’ wealth and social position.

The Pyne’s rubbed shoulders with the cream of Manhattan society.  On February 5, 1917, the couple preceded Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s large dance at her home with a dinner at Sherry’s for all the guests.  A ballroom there was transformed into a Parisian street with small cafes constructed along the “sidewalks.” Guests were served in the cafes while wandering musicians, hurdy-gurdies and street bands roamed among them. Dining in the picturesque setting were socialites like Mr. and Mrs. August Belmont, the Vanderbilts, Theodore Roosevelt and his wife, and the Havemeyers.

That same year young Mary Pyne descended the grand staircase at No. 680 on her way to her wedding to Lt. Colonel Oliver Dwight Filley.   Later that day the house was filled with relatives and close friends for the reception.

photo by Americas Society
Percy Pyne died in 1929 and while Maud Howland Pyne lived until 1952, the house was sold in 1947 to the Chinese Delegation to the United Nations. The Delegation almost immediately resold the property to the Soviet Mission to the United States.

When the Soviets took over the mansion in 1948, the calm and cultured reserve that had been the hallmark of the Pyne house for so many decades came to an abrupt end. The Mission was repeatedly the scene of protests on the street, often calling for the intervention of police.

photo by Alice Lum
On July 11, 1951 the Soviet Union filed two “sharp official complaints” with the United States Government accusing Hungarian-American protestors of “hooligan acts” outside the Mission. The police found no evidence of hooligan acts.

Two years later the doors were thrown open to the public for “expressions of condolences” upon the death of Joseph Stalin. Here United Nations delegates arrived to pay respects in a room filled with flowers and a single portrait of the deceased Premier.

Hungarian sympathizers were back in October 1956 as the anti-Communist rebellion raged in Hungary. Hundreds of demonstrators clogged 68th Street and Park Avenue in front of the mansion.

But none of the demonstrations or other distractions could match the 25-day visit of Premier Nikita Khruschev in 1960. Here the Premier met with Fidel Castro, throwing his arms around the “beaming” Cuban dictator on the entrance steps. On September 21 Khruschev appeared on the balcony over the entrance way to rant to the crowds assembled below. Turning the balcony into what The New York Times called “an impromptu Soviet forum,” the Premier hurled insults, sang a portion of the “Internationale,” and tackled issues from China to the arms race.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev made an impromptu press conference from this balcony in 1960 -- photo by Alice Lum
The Soviet Mission moved out in May of 1964 to larger headquarters. The Pyne mansion, along with the two houses to the north, was sold to Sommer Brothers Realty and Construction Company, a concern intent on demolishing the historic structures for a 31-story apartment building.

Concerned citizens cried out against the plan and the recently-founded Landmarks Preservation Commission deemed the homes “worthy of preservation.” New York City’s proposed landmark preservation legislation, however, was still sitting on the desks of the City Council and the Commission had no legal authority to protect historic properties.

While preservationists watched helplessly, interior demolition began on Nos. 680 and 684 Park Avenue.

Then suddenly, on January 14, 1965 it was reported that an anonymous purchaser had bought up the grand residences and demanded a halt to the demolition. Margaret Rockefeller Strong, the granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller and now the Marquesa de Cuevas, refused to stand by and watch the homes destroyed; even at her personal outlay of $2 million.

The Marquesa donated No. 680 to the Center for Inter-American Relations (now the Americas Society) and sold the other properties to sympathetic buyers.

In 1966 the architectural firm of Walker O. Cain & Associates were commissioned to oversee restoration of the damaged interiors. The exterior had, thankfully, escaped the demolition unscathed. Eighteen months later the ripped-out plank floors and exquisite marble mantles were traced down, reinstalled and the restoration was complete.

The restoration required the finding and re-installation of discarded floors and architectural details -- photo kseniaandbruno.com
When the house was dedicated in 1967, among the 500 guests was Mrs. C. Suydam Cutting, who fifty years earlier had walked down the grand staircase for the last time as Mary Pyne.

The Americas Society remains in No. 680 Park Avenue, maintaining it with the dignity and care it deserves.  One of the first structures to be included on the New York City Landmark’s list, in was designed in 1970.

The near loss of No. 680 and its neighbors helped to heighten awareness of endangered landmarks.

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