Thursday, August 11, 2011

Back from the Edge -- The 1869 House at No. 631 Park Avenue

photo by Alice Lum
Towards the end of the Civil War, respectable homes for middle class families were appearing along Park Avenue.  The soot-belching trains that ran directly down the center of the avenue, however, prevented the thoroughfare from becoming “fashionable” despite its proximity to Fifth and Madison Avenues.

In 1869 a row of nearly-identical brownstone clad residences went up on the East side of Park Avenue between 65th and 66th Street. Unassuming and prim, they featured straight-forward brownstone frames around the windows, capped with clean-lined lintels. The four-story dwellings rose to dignified bracketed cornices.

In 1898 Otto Finder was living in No. 631.  Finder owned horse-drawn delivery wagons. Early that winter while one of Finder’s deliverymen was away from the cart, its horse became spooked and ran with the cart at break-neck speeds up Fifth Avenue. At the intersection of 59th Street, it ran headlong into an east-bound trolley, killing one of the Belt Line car’s horses.

Cornelius Vanderbilt was eventually persuaded to lower his tracks to Grand Central Terminal below ground and cover them over, creating a pleasant boulevard and vastly improving the property values of the neighborhood. By the time the project was completed around the beginning of World War I, however, it was too late for No. 631.

The ground floor of the house had already been converted for commercial purposes and in 1903 it housed a grocery store. The 22-year old Herbert Ignatz Spitz worked here, as did his father, when he lost his mind outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, attacking Police Officer Verity.   Spitz smashed a quart bottle against the policeman’s face, knocking out most of his teeth, then shrieked and pulled out a knife and attempted to kill the officer.

Three officers were finally able to subdue Spitz who was taken, howling, to the Bellevue Pavilion for the Insane.

The little grocery store doubled as a polling place on election days. Here on voting day in November 1914 Anna Constable worked all day long distributing suffrage literature provided by the Women’s Political Union.

The upward change in the area was obvious when the wealthy Eglinton Hunt Montgomery took up residency upstairs in the 1920s. The son of Henry Englinton Montgomery, one of the governing body of the New York State Exchange, he was living here when he married Ruth Wilmerding in St. George’s Church on Stuyvesant Square in 1928.   The New York Times reported that the church was “filled with a large, representative gathering of society.”

The marriage didn’t last.

In 1937 No. 631 Park Avenue was converted to apartments above the store – one spacious apartment per floor. Throughout the late 1940s into the 1950s, the commercial space was once again a grocery. The Grand Royal Food Market, owned by Alfred Heiman, catered to the upper-class Park Avenue clientele, selling expensive steaks, squab chickens and hard-to-find herbs.

The late 20th century was not kind to the old building.  By 1991 when a dry cleaning establishment was housed on the ground floor and a foot care doctor was working from upstairs, all of the Victorian detailing had been stripped away. A thick coating of stucco was slathered over the façade and the first story was veneered in a hard, black plastic sheeting.

In the exclusive Park Avenue neighborhood, No. 631 was an eyesore and an embarrassment.

Then on January 27, 1995, the building was purchased for $2.09 million. In cash.

The once-matching brownstone next door can be see to the right -- photo by Alice Lum
The buyers commissioned Avideh B. Ghafari to completely renovate and redesign the house – returning it to a single-family home. Construction was completed in 2002, turning the ugly duckling at No. 631 into a type of swan.

With the original mid-Victorian design long lost, Ghafari used white limestone to face the building in an Italian-inspired, dignified approach. Above a rusticated base, two of the second-floor windows define the design with classic surrounds and closed pediments.

photo by Alice Lum
The renovation was apparently successful --  a year later the property sold for $33.75 million.

photo by Alice Lum
Sadly none of the original architectural fabric of No. 631 Park Avenue remains. Yet the successful attempt to reclaim a vintage structure while respecting its history and surroundings is laudable.


  1. yes, sadly, the original facade is gone, but good to have it still standing and it does look quite nice...

  2. I agree. When old buildings are rehabilitated the results are sometimes worse than the existing eyesore! This one was handled tastefully.