Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Archer Milton Huntington House -- No. 1083 Fifth Avenue

photo by Alice Lum
Things weren’t going well for Arabella Worsham in the early 1880s. Her gambling husband, John, disappeared leaving her to raise their son Archer alone—a daunting and dangerous responsibility for a single woman at the time.

And then things turned around.

Like a story from an improbable Victorian novel, Arabella caught the eye of 44-year old Collis P. Huntington. Huntington, who had started life as a country boy in Litchfield County, Connecticut, had worked the California gold fields selling hardware to miners until he had enough money to build the Central Pacific Railroad – the first railroad connecting California with the East.

By the time the man whom The New York Times described as “powerfully built” met Arabella he was President of several railroads and among the wealthiest men in the United States.  When the couple married in 1882, Archer was 12 years old. Although his step-father never officially adopted the boy, Archer Worsham became Archer Milton Huntington.

At his impressionable age, the young boy entered a life surrounded by art and culture. The Huntington mansion at No. 2 East 57th Street was “a monument to American architecture and art,” as Archer would later describe it. In addition to Huntington’s private art collection, the rooms in which the boy lived “were all highly decorated by artists whose reputations were great,” as he described them decades later.

While Collis P. Huntington ran railroads from his offices in the Mills Building on Broad Street, Arabella took young Archer on tours of Europe where he marveled at the great museums. The seed was planted that would grow into a life-long mission of creating and funding art collections and museums.

Although his step-father attempted to involve young Archer in the business, the world of industry did not have the appeal that art and culture did.

On August 13, 1900 Huntington and Arabella were spending time at the luxurious Pine Knot Camp in the Adirondacks. Just after 11:00 pm the millionaire was fatally stricken with cerebral apoplexy. The now 28-year old Archer Milton Huntington was suddenly a multimillionaire.

In May of 1902 The Times reported that Huntington purchased from H. D. Robbins the adjoining mansion at No. 1081 Fifth Avenue between 89th and 90th Streets.  In order to protect the light and air behind the properties, he purchased the land directly to the rear as well, for $150,000 more.

Within weeks he would add Nos. 1082 and 1083 to the group; purchasing them from George Edgar who had built the homes the year before. Huntington would sell No. 1082 to Charles S. Phillips of C. D. Barney & Co. in 1908.

Huntington and his wife Helen, moved into No. 1083 and leased out the other properties. Catered to by the 14 live-in servants, Huntington had time to devote to his passion: art. He donated the land for the group of museums to be called Audubon Terrace,at Broadway and 155th Street in 1904. It would be just the beginning. That same year he founded the Hispanic Society of American to advance “the study of the Spanish and Portuguese languages, literature, and history, and advancement of the study of the countries wherein Spanish and Portuguese are…spoken.”

While Huntington was busy establishing and donating museums he also set to work remodeling his home. The decorator Ogden Codman, Jr. was extremely popular among the moneyed set and Huntington commissioned him to renovate No. 1083. Although Codman had been born in Boston, he grew up in Paris and his love for all things French was deep-rooted.

Codman transformed the mansion into a Parisian row house - photo by Alice Lum

In 1913 he began transforming the façade into a limestone-clad 18th century French townhouse. A four-story bowed front with a rusticated base culminated in a deep balcony behind a stone balustrade at the fifth floor. A stately mansard roof with copper trim composed the sixth floor. Tall French doors above the entrance were finished with a segmental arched pediment.

Codman made use of Huntington’s vacant plot behind the property to enlarge the house with an addition creating an L-shape that extended to East 89th Street. The second floor was dedicated solely to entertaining. The Huntingtons’ living quarters were on the third floor and the top two floors were outfitted as servants’ rooms – enough to accommodate 25 servants.

In time Archer Huntington’s involvement with the arts turned into an involvement with an artist; the sculptress Anna Hyatt whose powerful bronze statue of Joan of Arc in Central Park had been dedicated in 1915. In 1923 the Huntingtons divorced and Archer married Anna Hyatt. Part of the fifth floor was outfitted with a large skylight and remodeled as a studio for the artist and a five-room suite was arranged for her on the fourth floor.

Huntington was busy building museums, editing and writing books such as his “Note Book in Northern Spain,” and was a member of no fewer than eight societies such as the American Geographical Society, American Numismatic Society and the New York Zoological Society; and more than seven social clubs.

By 1940 Archer Milton Huntington had built or helped establish the Museum of the American Indian, The Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, The Hispanic Museum, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, and an art museum in Austin, Texas among others. On June 12 of that year he announced that he was donating his home to the National Academy of Design, of which his wife was a member, for its new headquarters. The Academy was founded in 1825 and was one of the oldest organizations of artists in the United States.  The Academy offered free instruction in painting, sculpture, drawing and other artistic areas to students between 15 and 30 years of age.

The Huntingtons moved to their 27.5-acre country estate,” Pleasance,” in what is now Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. After Archer Huntington died in 1955 Anna Hyatt Huntington kept a small apartment and studio in the Academy until her death at the age of 97 on October 4, 1973.

In 1997 the organization changed its name to the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts; a title more descriptive of its functions. Fully 8,000 works of art are displayed in the permanent collection.

A year later the architectural firm Buttrick White & Burtis initiated restoration and renovation of the mansion, including a new roof, masonry repairs and updating of the heating and air conditioning systems.

The Museum's alterations sensitively melt into the architecture -- photo by Alice Lum

The outward appearance of Archer Milton Huntington’s stately mansion is essentially unchanged since Ogden Codman, Jr. revamped it in 1914. While the three other homes purchased by Huntington in 1902 have been demolished and replaced with a sterile white brick apartment building, No. 1083 elegantly survives.


  1. In the 1960's, my mother came across the Bronx estate. It appeared to be nice city land by the water. There were no signs indicating it was private property. My brothers used to run around with our dogs and play on the small beach. A super 8mm film she made in 1964 is on Youtube. Use search within Youtube for: Super 8mm - Harpers at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx - 1964 Thanks to this site I now know about the location. As of 2012 it appears about the same, at least on Google earth. We used to access it at Bay Shore Ave and Watt Ave., right by the water.

  2. That building is too old but looking very nice.I'm impressed by this building design.

  3. The National Academy museum does NOT have 8,000 work s on display; it has 8,000 works in its collection.