Saturday, August 20, 2011

Stanford White's 1907 Henry Cook House - No. 973 Fifth Avenue

Henry Cook's house, at left, melds seamlessly with Payne Whitney's bow-fronted mansion next door.
Henry H. Cook made his fortune in railroads and banking.  When he began planning to build his enormous mansion in 1880 at the north corner of 5th Avenue and 78th Street across from Central Park he had no intentions of commercial interlopers in his neighborhood.

That year Cook purchased the entire block from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue, between 78th and 79th Streets for $500,000 and laid out stringent building restrictions: no structure other than a private home could be built on what was known as the Cook Block. The restrictions survive today.

Henry H. Cook's massive stone mansion at 78th Street and Fifth Avenue was replaced in 1912 by the James B. Duke house.  Cook would begin his new house on the empty lot behind it -- American Architect and Building News (copyright expired)
Cook commissioned architect William Wheeler Smith to design his great stone palace, completed in 1883. In 1898 the block would be balanced by the erection of Isaac D. Fletcher’s great French chateau on the 79th Street corner as Cook’s dream of filling his block with elegant mansions took shape.

In 1902, perhaps deciding to downsize as he grew older and with his daughters grown, Cook called upon the esteemed firm of McKim, Mead and White--at the time the foremost architects in America-- to design an elegant townhouse next to the Fletcher mansion. Stanford White took charge of the project, designing alongside it a nearly-matching bow-front residence for the wealthy Payne Whitney.

Whitney produced two Italian Renaissance palazzi that flowed together so harmoniously that they are often mistaken for a single residence. White skillfully disguised the six stories above ground to appear as four. Elegant double wooden entrance doors were slightly recessed in a rusticated base above three broad steps. Paired Corinthian columns separated the second floor windows, mimicked in pilasters at the third and fourth stories. A deep cornice supported by paired brackets swept the roof line.

Cook was known internationally for his art collection of paintings and statues.  Yet he would never see them displayed in his new Italian-style home.

On October 10, 1905 the 83-year old multimillionaire died while the grand house was still being built. He willed the unfinished house to his daughter, Mrs. Carlos De Heredia. Each of the four daughters were to receive an income of $15,000 for six years, after which they would inherit about $2.5 million in cash. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was bequeathed “much of the testator’s art treasures as the Museum may select for exhibition purposes.”

Like Cook, the architect would not live to see the finished product. A year after Cook’s death, Harry Thaw was enraged with jealousy over Stanford White’s physical affair with Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit, and fatally shot the architect on the roof garden of Madison Square Garden.

The Cook and Whitney houses were completed in 1907. By 1912 James B. Duke had demolished the original Cook mansion to erect his own white marble mansion that survives today.

A baronial stone fireplace dominates the entrance hall -- photo Brown Harris Stevens
Cook’s daughter sold the house to the socially-prominent Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Fuller Feder. A year after their daughter Odette’s debut, a glittering reception was held on December 26, 1921 for her wedding to the dashing British Royal Air Force Major J. Ronald McCrindle.  (Eight years later Odette filed for divorce.)

Mrs. Feder continued to entertain lavishly in the house until her husband’s death on May 11, 1944. 
She sold the mansion in 1948 to the Church of the Latter Day Saints.  Here prospective missionaries were schooled in the art of conversion.

Rich paneling and a beamed ceiling enhance the library -- photo Brown Harris Stevens
While other great mansions along Central Park were being converted to museums or condominiums, the Cook house remained intact. In 1977 it was purchased by highly-successful businessman Victor Shafferman for $600,000. Shafferman died in 2009 leaving No. 973 Fifth Avenue with much of the original interior detailing: plaster moldings, marble mantles and paneled rooms.

photo Brown Harris Stevens
In 2011 the 15,000 square foot private residence was put on the market for $49 million. The remarkable home which neither Henry Cook nor Stanford White lived to see completed is a rare intact survivor of the Gilded Age of Upper Fifth Avenue.

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