Monday, November 21, 2011

The Lost 1856 House of Mansions - Nos. 487 to 491 Fifth Avenue

George Higgins advertised "moderate terms" for his eleven unified residences in 1856 -- NYPL Collection
The idea of a row of houses pretending to be one, unified structure was not new in 1856.  The British upper class had been living in such elegant homes like the Royal Crescent in Bath since the Regency Period.  In New York Seth Green had erected the elegant, marble LaGrange Terrace on Lafayette Place in 1833.

But carpet manufacturer George Higgins’ project would be somewhat different.

The highest point in Manhattan in 1855 was Murray Hill, named after the Murray family.  The Murrays were wealthy Quaker merchants and family head Robert Murray had erected a manor house in the area in the mid-18th century.  The estate stretched approximately from what would become 33rd to 39th Street and from Lexington Avenue to nearly Fifth Avenue.

Although Fifth Avenue was already laid out by the time Higgins purchased the land between 41st and 42nd Streets and the hulking Murray Hill distributing reservoir had been erected directly across the street more than a decade earlier; the area was still mostly undeveloped and essentially rural.

But the speculative Higgins envisioned a group of eleven fashionable homes that would lure potential buyers to an area yet untested for residential use, yet abounding with clean air and delightful views.  He commissioned the well-known architect Andrew Jackson Davis to design the homes. 

Davis had made his mark designing structures in historic revival styles and just a decade earlier had produced a row of 36 gracious Greek Revival mansions on 23rd Street for Clement Moore which, too, were disguised as a single edifice.    The eleven grand residences were completed in 1856.   Melding into a castle-like whole, they featured crenelated towers, lancet windows, and two-story oriel windows with Gothic tracery.

A corner of the massive Egyptian Revival Murray Hill Reservoir can be seen across Fifth avenue -- NYPL Collection
 "The pile is altogether unique in its character and plan," said Higgins' advertisement,  "the eleven dwellings being combined as in one palace, or massive edifice, thereby exhibiting a unity in mass not before attempted, though often desired by critics."

The homes sat back from the sidewalk allowing for ample lawns and the rooms were filled with an unusual amount of daylight for the time.    The views from the upper story windows looked across the reservoir "of Oriental magnificence" and the southerly views took in the whole of Manhattan.  Interior staircases were lit by skylights and a rear alley provided servants' access.

Higgins marketed his houses as “differing in size, price and amount of accommodation”  Jackson designed each with a unique exterior elevation and individual floor plans from twelve to eighteen rooms to ensure individuality for potential Victorian homeowners. 

He promoted the “durable fire-brick” and “cheerful tint of color and variegated architecture” and promised the most fastidious home-seeker would be satisfied.  The views from the windows, he insisted, were “unrivaled.”  He called his project “The House of Mansions.” 

Atop the massive Egyptian Revival Murray Hill Reservoir was a promenade which became etremely popular for Sunday strolls.  Directly behind the reservoir, since 1853, stood the Crystal Palace erected for the World’s Fair.  The Crystal Palace still attracted thousands of New Yorkers and tourists alike every day.  So despite its somewhat remote location, the House of Mansions seemed, at least to George Higgins, to be a profitable idea.

It wasn’t.

Higgins was just a few years too early in developing his block of Fifth Avenue.  Within twenty years the mansions of New York’s wealthiest citizens – the Vanderbilts and Astors among them—would be rising along this stretch of the avenue.  But for now it was too far north.

The House of Mansions, also referred to as The Spanish Row, was a failure.  Two years after its completion there was talk of converting it into a hotel; but the idea never came to fruition.  Instead it was purchased by the Rutgers Female Institute as its new campus in June of 1860.  The Institute was the first institution of higher learning for women in the city.

It was first opened in 1839 on Madison Street, on the former estate of Colonel Henry Rutgers, a Revolutionary War officer.   After two decades of instructing well-heeled young women in “the belles-lettres, history, mathematics and philosophy,” the institute needed larger accommodations.

The House of Mansions was purchased for $60,000—a little over $1.5 million by today’s standards.  The eleven houses were renovated for the institute’s needs  “They design,” reported The New York Times, “making extensive additions in the rear of the buildings fronting on the avenue, for the purposes of a chapel, laboratory, school-rooms, painting-gallery, and observatory.”  The newspaper mentioned that the observatory “will overlook the entire island” and “two thousand dollars have already been donated for the purchase of a telescope.”  Two thousand volumes were transported from the Madison Street facility to the new library.

photo NYPL Collection
Humphrey Phelps, in his “Phelps’ Strangers and Citizens’ Guide to New York City,” praised the school.  “It has a fine library, selected with great care and excellent philosophical apparatus for illustrating the subjects of astronomy, chemistry, and other branches of science.  Its course of instruction embraces history, general philosophy, mathematics, and belles letters, by which young ladies are thoroughly prepared for the pursuit of general knowledge, for the duties of teachers, and for that moral and intellectual power so necessary to be possessed by the mothers of our republic.”

There were those, whoever, who felt that the mothers of our republic had no place in school but should, instead, be home learning to sew, cook and clean.  President of the Institute, Heney M. Pierce, was often forced to defend the idea of a school for women.  “I am fully persuaded that the time is not far distant,” he said during commencement exercises in 1867, “when it will be thought almost incredible that the question of the inferiority of woman should ever had been seriously debated.”

“If,” Pierce argued, “it is best for the young man that by a liberal education, his memory should be strengthened, his reasoning powers disciplined, his judgment matured, his mind enlarged—why is it not best for the young woman also?”

By October 24, 1860 the new space was ready and dedication ceremonies were held in the chapel.  “The chapel, together with the lobbies and adjacent rooms, was crowded to excess, the larger portion of the audience being ladies,” reported The Times.  The new facility opened with 200 registered students.

In 1861 DeBow’s Review listed the costs to the students.  For $300 per year they received “Board, including fuel, lights, and washing, and instruction in English branches.”  The tuition and board were payable quarterly in advance.   Extra courses were available for additional fees.  French, German, Italian or Latin would cost $5.00.  Oil Painting and Pastel lessons were $10.00.  For $15 to $35 a budding musician received piano lessons and an additional $15 to $20 would provide Guitar instruction.

Graduation exercises were always extravagant affairs and on June 8, 1866 The Times reported that “The young lady pupils of the Institute were dressed with uniform beauty and simplicity in dresses of snow white illusion, wreathed with emerald tulle, and wearing coronals of vernal leaves, intertwined with flowers.”   The reporter noted that the room was “crowded some time before the exercises …with the elite of Fifth-avenue and that august neighborhood.”

By the last quarter of the 19th century Fifth Avenue was no longer pastures and open fields -- New York Historical Society
A year later detractors of the institution and female education as a whole were shocked when the State Legislature conferred “the powers and privileges of a college” upon Rutgers.    The name was changed to Rutgers Female College and, immediately, plans were made to enhance and enlarge the programs.  Donations amounting to $50,000 poured in for the addition of, among other things, a full Art Department.

The new status resulted in a remarkably quick growth and the Fifth Avenue building was suddenly too small.   Only a year later the “Documents of the Senate of the State of New York” noted that “These accommodations, however, are too limited for the wants of the college under its new organization, and a new and more ample location is very desirable.

"In view of the constant upward growth of the city, also, and of the fact that the present patronage of the college is largely in the upper portion of the city, and even towards Harlem, etc., it has been deemed advisable to prepare decidedly for a removal, in the course of a few years, to some place where ample buildings may be erected, surrounded by a certain amount of grounds.”

The “course of a few years” came in June 1870 when Californian James P. Pierce, the brother of President Franklin Pierce, purchased the school property for $117,000.  Pierce held the property for only three years before turning it over to Jacob B. Tallman for $120,000.  Tallman was a trustee of the college and his involvement with the property would later result in the school suing him unsuccessfully.

By February, 1882 when Tallman sold the old House of Mansions to August Pottier for $180,000 Fifth Avenue had drastically changed.   The once-pastoral area George Higgins chose for his eleven unique homes had become the most fashionable residential neighborhood in the city and, now, was seeing the encroachment of commercial buildings. 

The French-born Pottier had established the Pottier & Stymus Manufacturing Company in 1855.  In August 1883 he obtained a $200,000 advance on the property which he used to demolish the buildings to erect what The Times would call “the present fine building thereupon” for his firm.

John Donoghue, in his 1977 “Alexander Jackson Davis, Romantic Architect, 1803-1893” was less congratulatory about the loss of the unique and charming House of Mansions, saying  “it was destroyed to make way for the ubiquitous, featureless office buildings and stores that line Fifth Avenue today.”


  1. I love your site and appreciate the work so thoughtfully done. Every detail is like a
    tour. Thank you, 'selfrun' living in the
    west, with roots of the apple....

  2. I also love your site. I giggle when I arrive at it,because I am always amazed at the output,in conjunction with the detail and quality. Since I first visited NYC in 1974 at age 16,I have also wandered many a mile(km up here in Canada) enjoying the historic urban architecture. Thank you. William McCracken,Ottawa Canada.

  3. If I could travel back in time in New York, the House of Mansions is probably the first building I'd go and see. This one and LaGrange Terrace have always especially fascinated me.

  4. As an Architect that has always been interested in historic preservation & a devotee of the Gilded Age 7 history of NY, your information & photos are always so well researched & extensive. When I'm reading, I feel as if I'm at a lecture. Keep up the fantastic work. David I. Rutter