Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The 1896 August Zinsser Mansion -- No. 12-14 W. 68th Street

The entrance was placed on the residence's side, through a gateway, rather than on 68th Street. -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1895 August Zinsser was a highly successful and creative chemist.  With his brother, William, he had patented an improved process of aerating beer in 1875.  By now he was the head of his own profitable chemical company, Zinsser & Co., Inc., of which his sons Fred and August, Jr., were partners; and lived in a mansion on Tenth Avenue at 58th Street.

Developers Wagner & Wallace were busy at the same time.  As the Upper West Side rapidly expanded with comfortable homes and businesses, the partners erected rows of fashionable speculative homes.  In 1895 they purchased the nearly the entire southern side of West 68th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  Within a year at least six commodious townhouses designed by George F. Pelham, from No. 16 through No. 26, would be completed.

At the eastern end of the row another house quite unlike the others was rising that year.  No. 14 was designed by Louis Thouvard in the Queen Anne style.  Two stories of red brick sat on a base of rough-cut brownstone.  Terra cotta panels, haughty dormers and brick quoins on the upper floors distinguished the residence from its neighbors.  With its entrance on the side, the mansion turned its shoulder to the street not to be aloof; but to take advantage of the Central Park views across the vacant lot next door.  Inside, the house boasted the expected amenities of an upper-class home, including a “French Drawing Room, ” 10 bedrooms, and a “smoking room,” as mentioned in the New-York Tribune later.

photo by Alice Lum
Although most historians today credit August Zinsser with the purchase of the lots and construction of the house; The New York Times disagreed at the time.  On November 29, 1896 it reported on the week’s real estate sales, noting “Newly finished dwellings were not much in favor, only three being disposed of, inclusive of 10 and 14 West Sixty-eighth Street, by the builders, Wagner & Wallace, at about $30,000 each.”  The highly disparate styles used for No. 14 and the rest of the block cast doubt on The Times’ accuracy.  In either case, August Zinsser soon moved into the imposing Queen Anne residence. 

Two years later Zinsser gave up his view of Central Park.  The New York Times reported on June 4, 1898 that he sold the plot in front of his home to the Second Church of Christ, Scientist.  The church had purchased the opposite corner on Central Park West and 68th Street just two weeks earlier.  “It is announced that church edifices will be erected on both sites in the new future,” said the newspaper.

Indeed a daunting stone church was erected, reducing Zinsser’s front yard to a narrow pathway.  But perhaps through a pre-arrangement with the buyer the new church building did not elbow the property line.  Instead a wide, shady courtyard separated the structure from Zinsser’s fence, preventing what would have been a claustrophobic situation for the Zinsser mansion.

A stately brick and iron fence protected the yard -- Express Gazette Journal, January 1922 (copyright expired) 

Perhaps Zinsser’s sale of the Central Park-facing lot was motivated by his intentions to leave the city.  That same year he applied to the Secretary of State to move his firm to Hastings-on-the-Hudson in Westchester County.  A year later he sold the residence to the president of the Otis Elevator Company, William Delevan Baldwin.

Despite the loss of the Central Park-facing lot; an entrance courtyard remained. photo by Alice Lum

Before long the wealthy businessman and his family (there were eight of them in the house along with a staff of six servants) would receive a macabre scare.  On Sunday morning, August 25, 1901, Francois Gaubaubet, a French waiter employed in a downtown club, was found dead in his home at No. 40 West 65th Street. 

The New York Times reported on the events that followed the discovery of a body nearby. “Just before he was found dead, a man, very much excited, rushed into the West Sixty-eighth Street Station and told Sergeant Burns that a man had died suddenly at 14 West Sixty-eighth Street.”  In his excited confusion, the man sent police to the Baldwin house where the family was apparently spending a quiet Sunday morning.

“Policeman Fitzgerald was sent to that house and startled the occupants of the house when he asked about a man who had died there.”

Interesting terra cotta patterns relieve the heavy stonework  photo by Alice Lum

In addition to his presidency of Otis Elevator, Baldwin was Vice-President of the Catskill & Tannersville Railroad Company, and a director of the National Surety Company and the New York & Long Island Railroad Company. 

In 1908 son Martin Sullivan Baldwin married Hazel Talmage Smith in what the New-York Tribune deemed “a noteworthy November wedding.”  It would seem that the Baldwins intended to dispose of the 68th Street house that same year.  Earlier, on May 31, auctioneer J. Hatfield Morton advertised an auction of the “entire superb appointments” of the Baldwin house.  Saying that the sale was on account of the owner’s “departure for Paris,” he listed 80 oil paintings by prominent European and American artists, magnificent chandeliers, “fine Persian Rugs, Carpets and Draperies throughout,” and even “old wines.”

Apparently the Baldwins had to redecorate from scratch because when they returned from Europe in time for Martin’s wedding they remained in the 68th Street house for another decade.  They maintained a 42-acre country estate in Greenwich, Connecticut as well.

When William Baldwin’s limousine needed repairs the first week of May 1916 it was taken to a repair shop in Long Island City.  A few days later one of the company’s drivers headed to Manhattan to deliver the automobile.  He brought along two friends for the ride—A. W. Wagner another employee, and Alva Jensen a carriage maker.  Just as the limo reached Columbus Circle a “low, gray racing car shot past, coming from the east,” according to The New York Times on May 10.

Showing off for his friends, Mura decided to overtake the speeding car.  It was a bad decision.  “The chase led up Broadway to Sixty-second Street and east to Central Park West,” reported the newspaper.  Just feet from the Baldwin residence disaster occurred.  “At Sixty-eighth Street the racer swung around the corner and started west, and the heavy limousine, trying to make a sharp turn and follow it, struck a fire hydrant and was overturned.”

Mura was thrown out of the vehicle; but his riders were trapped underneath.  Policemen and civilians lifted the car off the two men.  Tragically Jensen died later than night and Wagner remained unconscious with serious internal injuries and a broken arm.

The following year the United States entered World War I.  Roland D. Baldwin left West 68th Street to join the Marine Corps.  By 1918 he had attained the rank of Sergeant and was serving in Europe on the front lines.  On June 20 he was one of 51 other sergeants reported wounded in action.

The mansion’s life as a single-family home would soon come to an end.  On March 1, 1919 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the Baldwins sold the house to Walter Russel.  The periodical noted that he was “a member of the syndicate which owns the Hotel des Artistes abutting in 67th st.  The building will be altered into small suites, and will be connected with the larger structure.”

Following the conversion the house was acquired by the Jared Flagg Corp., presided over by I. C. Reina.  Jared Flagg was, incidentally, the father of architect Ernest Flagg.  On August 31, 1921 American Architect and Architecture reported that Ernest Flagg had designed a “four-story brick and concrete dwelling” on the property, costing $25,000.  Again, current historians disagree.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission lists the architect of the addition as Edwin C. Georgi.

The new brick addition at No. 12 made no attempt to architecturally meld with the original house -- photo by Alice Lum

Retired actor and singer Victor Maurel took an apartment in the building, and other spaces were leased as musical studios or small offices. 

Musical studios like this took space in the former mansion -- Pacific Coast Musical Review, October 1, 1921 (copyright expired) 

By 1953 when the combined buildings known as 12-14 West 68th Street were sold to Saul Singer, they held 30 apartments.   It was purchased 12 years later by Thomas Haines for $140,000.  According to his second wife, Polly Cleveland, "The two buildings were a rent controlled slum, with apartments renting for as little as $15 a month."  Because Haines's wife at the time, Adrian Rappin, was an artist, the couple cut a skylight into the gable of Apartment 11 on the top floor, to convert to an artist studio.

photo by Alice Lum
 Adrian Rappin died in May 1985.  Polly Cleveland, whom Tom married in 1986, recalled that the apartments were often rented on a short-term basis to actors and actresses (like Michael Nouri, for instance).   

When the building was put on the market in 2009 for $22 million there were just seven apartments, according to Cleveland.  It was sold that year for less than half the asking price, at $10.6 million.  Today a studio apartment in August Zinsser’s handsome Queen Anne mansion rents for over $2,000 per month.


  1. Is the building on East 68th St or West 68th St?

  2. I lived in #12 from 1978-83. It was decidedly less posh than 14, a tiny studio apartment with a landlord who didn't think he had to heat the place during the day. Also, the landlord, who lived in #14, was definitely not the Austrian government, I can't remember his name right now, though.

  3. I have evidence that the curator Samuel Adams Green -- who gave Andy Warhol his first museum show, in fall of 1965 -- moved into the top-floor loft apartment of 14 West 68th in fall of 1964, and lived there at least until 1975 (as shown in period telephone directories, and also in photos of a party he gave there for Warhol in November of 1964, when he had yet to move in his furniture -- and in an unpublished interview with Green.)

  4. Just ran across this article with some more interesting backstories on the building, including Al Pacino's time as the building's Super:
    West Side Rag » An ‘Accidental’ Upper West Side Landlord Traveled a Rocky Road to a Windfall; A Young Al Pacino Was His Super!

  5. You missed the most important thing about the house, it was moved there from 58th St and Tenth Ave