Monday, July 15, 2013

The Lost Josiah Fiske Mansion -- No. 884 5th Avenue

Behind the mansion can be seen a portion of the conservatory and the elaborate carriage house.  Next door, separated by a private "alley" is the John Sloane house. -- photo Bryon Company from the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By 1850, 29-year-old year old Josiah M. Fiske had developed a prosperous flour business in Boston.  That year, hoping for even greater successes, he moved to New York City and established the firm of Josiah M. Fiske & Co.     The flour and grain firm had offices at No. 18 South Street and when Fiske took his brother-in-law, Edward M. Smith as a partner, it became Smith, Fiske & Co.  The New York Times would later remark that “its members made large fortunes.”
By 1875, Fiske was among the wealthiest of New York’s merchants.  At a time when the city’s millionaires were still erecting grand brownstone homes on Fifth Avenue south of 59th Street—the neighborhood known as “Millionaire’s Row”—Josiah Fiske broke ranks.  The massive new Lenox Library filled the Fifth Avenue block from 70th to 71st Streets facing Central Park.  Fiske purchased the corner lot to the south, at No. 884 Fifth Avenue, and began building.
Another Upper Fifth Avenue pioneer, Jabez Bostwick, was simultaneously building his mansion at the corner of 61st Street.   The two independent-minded tycoons would now sit in their luxurious mansions and wait for society to come to them—as it eventually would.
Fiske’s property stretched 33 feet along 5th Avenue and 175 feet down 70th Street.   The completed house was a riot of styles and angles that challenged the viewer’s eye to pause on any particular feature.  Venetian-style arches, borrowed from Ruskinian Gothic, coexisted with a mansard roof, a conical-capped open corner turret, and balconies of differing styles.   The conservatory shared a rear garden.  Behind it all a three-story carriage house was a near doll-house version of the mansion.
Fiske and his wife, the former Martha T. Smith, moved in with their staff of servants.   Like all socialites, Martha was active in charities and gave of her time and money.   Her gifts were both large and, then again, not so great—she annually  donated “a box of cut flowers for Christmas” to the New York Society for the Relief of the Ruptured and Crippled.   Around 1882 Josiah retired from active business life, although he kept busy with directorships in the American Exchange Bank, the Central Trust Company, the New-York Guarantee and Indemnity Company; and with his memberships in the Union League Club and the New-England Society.

The sprawling Lenox Library sits on the opposite side of East 70th Street from the Fiske house (seen at right) -- photo State Historical Society of Colorado

In 1886 the Fiskes began construction of their Newport estate, Honeysuckle Lodge, deemed by the New-York Tribune to be a “palatial summer house.”   By now, back home in Manhattan, the northward-moving tide of millionaires was arriving.  Next door to the Fiskes was the imposing home of John Sloane, separated by a ten-foot private alleyway on the Fiske property.  Only the southern corner of the block remained to be developed.
With Josiah Fiske’s retirement, Edward Smith was the principal partner.  He gave trusted employee George Whitfield Collord additional responsibility.  Collord (frustratingly, his name is spelled both “Collord” and “Collard” in newspapers of the time and in documents today) was in his 30s, unmarried, and lived in Brooklyn with his mother and five sisters.    It was a lifestyle much different from that at No. 884 Fifth Avenue.
In 1891 Josiah Fiske showed symptoms of heart disease, “though he was loath to admit it, his general health being so good,” said The New York Times.  A year later, at around 10 a.m. on December 23, 1892 the 70-year old left the Fifth Avenue house with his nephew, William Blodgett.  The pair was headed downtown for a directors’ meeting at the American Exchange National Bank.    At the bank, Fiske climbed the short flight if iron stairs to the main banking office, then headed toward the office of President Coe in the rear.
“As he reached the note teller’s window,” reported The Times the following day, “which is at the foot of four or five stairs leading to the President’s office, he reeled and would have fallen had not his nephew caught him in his arms.”
The bank staff assumed that Fiske had simply fainted, however they called for Dr. Symonds of the nearby Equitable Life Insurance Company and for Mrs. Fiske.  Symonds arrived within three or four minutes.  “An examination of a few seconds told him that Mr. Fiske was dead.  He imparted the sad news to those about.”
Martha arrived just a few moments after the coroner had left.  Friends of the family took care of the grieving widow and attended to the removal of the body to the Fifth Avenue mansion.
Martha Fiske stayed on in the hulking house on Fifth Avenue.  Her philanthropic nature made her the victim of a swindle in 1897 when she fell for the a con-man’s line.  Seventeen-year old Thomas Nolan knocked on the door of 884 Fifth Avenue and explained that he was collecting Christmas money for poor messenger boys.  The kindly widow donated $5 (equivalent to $100 in today’s dollars).
Before being discovered the teen had collected money from some of the wealthiest families in town, including Mrs. Seth Low, C. P. Huntington, Woodbury G. Langdon and others.   Nolan found himself in Yorkville Court on November 30, 1897 and Martha Fiske was out $5.00.
On December 11, 1901 a small wedding took place in the parlor of No. 884 Fifth Avenue with only about twenty relatives and intimate friends present.  A week later, on December 17, the New-York Tribune wrote “A marriage notice appeared in The Tribune on the following day, but exited no unusual interest until yesterday, when the identity of the contracting parties became known.”
The “contracting parties” were Martha T. Fiske and George W. Collord.  The Tribune reported “The bride is seventy-three years old, and is reputed to be worth between $2,000,000 and $3,000,000…The bridegroom is fifty-three years old.”
With Edward Smith’s death a few years earlier, Collord had become a member of Smith, Fiske & Co.  Now the somewhat unlikely newlyweds would make their homes in the Fifth Avenue and Newport mansions.
Upscale neighborhoods in New York City were quiet during the summer months.  Residents closed their homes and traveled to their summer estates.  Even the fashionable churches were closed for three months—there being too few congregants in town to make services worthwhile.  It was also an opportune time to have repairs done on the houses, with no one at home to be disturbed by the hammering and sawing.
In August 1903, while Martha and George were in Newport, the Fifth Avenue house was surrounded in scaffolding so workmen could repair the stonework.  The Sloane house next door was also shuttered while the family was summering at Lenox.
Around 3:00 on the afternoon of August 31 a woman noticed a man going up the 35-foot ladder that led to the scaffolding over Martha’s conservatory.  Suspicious, she reported the man to Policeman Devine.  The policeman enlisted the aid of Detective Devlin who was nearby and the two scaled the ladder.
At the top of the scaffolding they noticed that a window of the Sloane house was open.  While the patrolman stood watch, Detective Devlin entered the Sloane mansion.  In every room the contents of bureau drawers had been dumped on the floor.  He quietly moved down the hall until he reached a door slightly ajar.
The New-York Tribune reported “Opening it noiselessly, he saw [the thief] bending down over a jewel box.  So absorbed was the man in his work that he did not hear the detective enter, and until Devlin pressed a revolver to the burglar’s temple he thought he was alone in the house.”
When Gustave Allicker arrived with the policemen at the East 67th Street police station, his pockets were found to be filled with solid silver items including a stamp box, bill clips and a sponge holder.   A “burglar protective company” was put on guard at the Fiske house scaffolding.
Martha continued her generous philanthropies.  Among her gifts were the Fiske Dormitory at Barnard College and $10,000 towards the erection of buildings for the Newport and Army and Navy Young Men’s Christian Association.
In 1908 George and Martha chose to spend the winter season abroad, rather than in the Fifth Avenue house.  On January 23 she died suddenly while in the Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo.   The 80-year old woman left an estate of several million dollars.  About half a million was bequeathed to the Presbyterian Hospital of New York, the New York Hospital of New York, Barnard College, the Newport Hospital and the Cambridge Home for the Aged.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art received fifteen paintings in memory of Josiah M. Fiske.  “The paintings are generally by well known and popular masters of the last part of the nineteen century,” explained the New-York Tribune.
The Newport and Fifth Avenue properties were still owned by the Josiah M. Fiske Estate and with Martha’s passing, were offered for sale.  The Newport estate was purchased by T. Suffern Tailer in 1909.  On July 13, 1910 The New York Times remarked that “There are two Fifth Avenue houses which have been in the market and are worth the sum mentioned.  They are the Josiah M. Fiske house, on the southeast corner of Seventieth Street, and which has been held at $1,000,000, and the Mrs Mary I. Burden house on the southeast corner of Seventy-second Street, worth about the same.”
A Victorian confection, the Fiske mansion was decidedly out of style in 1910.  The house sat unsold for two years until April 9, 1912 when it was sold at a reduced price of $750,000.  The New York Times called it “one of the oldest private houses north of Fifty-ninth Street,” and said “it has been purchased by a prominent western capitalist who intends, it is understood, to improve the corner with a high-class modern residence.”  Instead, the western capitalist resold it that very day “to other interests.”
In the meantime, George W. Collord had moved to 260 West 73rd Street where he died on March 16, 1914.  A month later banker C. Ledyard Blair purchased the old Fiske mansion and immediately demolished it.  He contracted architect Thomas Hastings of Carrere & Hastings to design a new residence for the site.  As it rose in September 1914 The New-York Tribune called it “a five story dwelling house of marble and limestone façade, relieved by Ionic columns and a balcony.”
Blair’s marble mansion lived a shorter life than the brownstone residence of Josiah Fiske.  In 1928 it was replaced by a 14-story apartment building designed by Rosario Candela, which survives today.


  1. I find Fiske's life story fascinating. I'm glad you have highlighted his home.

  2. Very interesting, thanks for posting it.