Monday, August 18, 2014

The Lost Pickhardt Mansion -- 5th Avenue and 74th Street

Alfred Duane Pell enlarged the already-massive house by annexing No. 2 East 74th Street -- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

In July 1907 C. F. Carter wrote an article in The Scrap Book entitled “Palaces of Unrest.”  In it he said “On Fifth Avenue, at the southeast corner of Seventy-Fourth Street, stands a palace which is a monument to blighted hopes.”

Carter was referring to the massive brownstone mansion of Wilhelm Pickhardt.  Born in Berghauser, Germany on October 22, 1834, Pickhardt studied architecture.  But at the age of 21, following the death of his father, he sailed to America.  Instead of taking up architecture, he became a member of F. Bredt & Co., a firm that imported dye stuffs, colors and chemicals. 

After briefly returning to Germany, Pickhardt founded the New York City firm of William Pickhardt & Kuttroff, which also imported chemicals and dye stuffs.  He married Beresford Strong, of Wicklow, Ireland and the couple would have five children--four boys and a girl.

Ambitious and creative, he also dabbled with inventing and won patents in 1879 for a “new and improved air heating and cooking apparatus,” and a “ventilating and sewing connection for houses.” 

By now the man who C. F. Carter said came “from a very humble beginning” had amassed a significant fortune.  The family lived in a fine home; but apparently not all was idyllic in the Pickhardt household.  The same year that the two patents were granted the New-York Tribune reported on a search for “Sidney and Adrian Pickhardt, sons of William Pickhardt, who ran away from No. 735 Madison-ave. yesterday.”

The following year, in October 1880, Pickhardt purchased the 60 by 125 foot plot of land at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 74th Street for a staggering $217,500—over $5 million today.  The choice of location was impressively far-sighted.  Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens were still erecting their palaces and chateaus 20 blocks to the south; and the land across from Central Park was mostly undeveloped or occupied by comparatively modest brownstone rowhouses.

“It was the dream of his life to have a palatial home of Fifth Avenue,” remarked Carter over two decades later.  The New York Times would remark that it “was intended to eclipse the marble palace of A. T. Stewart.”

Plans were filed by architect Henry G. Harrison in July 1881 “for a six-story stone front dwelling.”  The estimated cost to erect his gargantuan mansion at the time was $290,000.  But there would be problems for both owner and architect.  Fifteen years later The Times said “In building it, Mr. Pickhardt was rather finicky, changing his plans and his builder from time to time, and expending vast sums to suit his varying whims.”

The excavation for the lower levels demanded by Pickhard was unheard of.  “As much as $100,000 was spent in work below the level of the street in concreting the ground to a depth of several feet, and in building massive foundations, which reach more than forty feet below grade,” reported The New York Times. 

At the same time construction began on the family’s private stables at Nos. 120 to 124 East 75th Street.  Pickhard had purchased that land in December 1881 for $40,000. 

Harrison was sent abroad “at Mr. Pickhardt’s expense and made a tour of the principal European cities, intent on adding to his knowledge of house building,” said The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide in 1895.  But Pickhardt’s whims and changes were too much for Harrison.

“Finally, after many changes in the original designs and repeated tearing down and rebuilding, the architect was compelled to abandon the work in utter despair,” said The Guide, “and was succeeded by a German builder who subsequently died during a visit to Europe.”

The plans for a six-story mansion had, by 1888, been changed four-stories.  Considering the many alterations and many architects--upwards of a dozen by some estimates--after seven years of construction the overall appearance of the still uncompleted Renaissance Revival structure was not unpleasing.  Still, the split staircase and double-height portico gave the Fifth Avenue fa├žade as much the appearance of a library or academy as a private home.

The massive home smacked of a civic or educational institution -- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

Wilhelm transferred the property to his son Carl in March that year and construction was suspended a few months later.  The Record & Guide considered “The building of the house had been a hobby with the owner for so many years that it is possible that he lost interest in it when the structure was all but finished, and turning his attention to a new but it is to be hoped a less expensive hobby, tired of his former one.”

C. F. Carter had a different opinion as to why construction came to a halt.  “Unfortunately, the secret processes upon which the prosperity of the firm depended were discovered by rival manufacturers.  There came a long period of litigation, during which the firm’s profits were tied up…Being without funds, the palace, which had already cost a million dollars, was left to stand unfinished.”

In the meantime, the family lived on East 82nd Street and enjoyed its 25,000 acre estate in the Adirondacks at Schroon Lake, New York.  In 1882 Pickhardt imported deer from Germany with the intention of cross-breeding them with American deer.  There was question as to whether the two species would pair.  “The American deer is wild and undomesticated, while the German species is comparatively ‘civilized,'” said The Times.  Pickhardt also maintained the Wilbrook Stud Farm on the estate, where “he took great interest in the breeding of fine horses,” according to the New-York Tribune later.

In 1895, fifteen years after his Fifth Avenue project was begun, Wilhelm Pickhardt was not well and the unfinished mansion was put on the auction block.  Paint, Oil and Drug Review said “He had been in bad health for a year and a half as a result of an attack of the grip, combined with Bright’s disease and dysentery.”  Pickhardt sailed to Carlsbad, Germany “to take the water-cure.”  Before reaching his destination Pickhardt died suddenly on June 24 in Cologne. 

On January 17, 1895 auctioneer George R. Read advertised the “Peremptory Sale of the Superb 5th Av. Cor. Property” with “Magnificent extended view over the finest part of Central Park” as well as the “very elegant stable and lot” on East 75th Street.  Little was said of the brownstone mansion with its elaborate interiors including a $50,000 organ.  There was good reason for this.  Called by many “Pickhardt’s Folly,” The New York Times noted that the house was a “disadvantage” to the property.

“The Pickhardt house is unfinished and has many whimsical devices which are no more satisfactory to the average buyer than they were to the original owner.  To tear it down would cost much; to finish it in a manner to satisfy a purchaser would cost much more.”  But a few days before the auction, The Times tried to bolster potential sales.  It said the property “includes the large mansion…built by Mr. William Pickhardt, but never occupied.  The dwelling has been very unjustly termed a ‘freak’ house.  It is nothing of the kind.  It has many features which are exceedingly good, and not much outlay would be needed to make the mansion fit for the wealthiest and most fastidious occupant.”

Luckily for George Read, there was just such a person.  Although, as The Record & Guide said “Previous to the offering of the property there were many wiseacres who declared it would be found impossible to dispose of so valuable a parcel at public sale,” the mansion and lot were sold for $472,500—less than half of what the structure alone had cost to date.  The New York Times noted, however, that “The house itself…does not figure in the total, as it did not in the estimates of the value of the property.”

Two weeks after the sale The New York Times put to rest the “great deal of curiosity” regarding the new owner.  “It seems that the…purchaser was Mr. A. Duane Pell, who will put the mansion in habitable condition at a cost of about $150,000.”  The newspaper said “after the necessary changes are made, [the total cost] will foot up the sum of $622,500.”

The 40-year old bachelor was, according to the New York Evening Telegram, “a member of one of the oldest families in the city, being a descendent of John Pell, the first landlord of Pelham Manor.”  Pell’s widowed father, George Washington Pell, was a wealthy, retired merchant. 

Astoundingly, the massive mansion was not large enough for Alfred Duane Pell.   He was an avid collector of antique china and silver and envisioned his home as a de facto museum.  On February 20, 1895 The New York Times noted “In the Fifth Avenue mansion he will have an opportunity of displaying his collection to advantage, as the building will be adapted to the purpose.”  He set an army of construction workers loose inside the mansion; then, in March 1896 purchased the two adjoining Fifth Avenue properties for $425,000. 

As construction continued, Pell moved in along with his elderly father.  In July 1896 the 77-year old George W. Pell died in the house.  Alfred continued expanding and purchased the mansion directly behind.  On June 6, 1897 The New York Times noted “About a year and a half ago Mr. Pell purchased the spacious mansion on Fifth Avenue and Seventy-fourth Street, built by Mr. William Pickhardt.  This is one of the largest and most beautiful houses in the city, and by a recent purchase of the adjoining house, 2 East Seventy-fourth Street, with the Fifth Avenue mansion, the structure when completed will be considerably larger than the Cornelius Vanderbilt house, at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-eighth Street.”

That summer Pell surprised New York society when he proposed to Cornelia Livingston Crosby.  “He is a man of marked positiveness of character, and although he has been considered by match-making mammas one of the most eligible parties in the city, it was not thought that he would ever marry,” said The Times.  The newspaper approved of the match.  “She is a woman of much strength of character and rare cultivation, shares Mr. Pell’s artistic tastes and the engagement is considered an eminently suitable one in every way.”

In announcing the engagement the Milwaukee Journal spoke not only of Pell’s large fortune, but of the house.  “Mr. Pell has moved his now vast collection to his new home, and a while ago it was reported that the house and collection would be bequeathed to the city for a museum.  Mr. Pell’s marriage will probably cause some change in these plans.”

Cornelia and Alfred not only shared an interest in collecting silver and china; but a bloodline as well.  “The Crosbys are related to the Schuyler, Clarkson, De Peyster, Nicoll and Livingston families of New York,” said The Milwaukee Journal.  The Pells were descended in part from the Livingstons.

Alfred and Cornelia Pell spent their time entertaining and traveling.  On May 26, 1899 The Times reported “In town there have been the series of receptions given by Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Duane Pell at their residence on Fifth Avenue, opposite the Park.  There will be one more before the close of the season.”

A year later the newspaper mentioned that they “are at Temple Grove, Saratoga.  Mr. and Mrs. Pell intend later in the year making a trip to Europe and a visit to the Far East.”   Their extensive travels necessarily included collecting; and before long the collection was taxing even the cavernous rooms of No. 929 Fifth Avenue.

On November 16, 1902—just before Alfred Duane Pell was somewhat unexpectedly to be ordained an Episcopalian priest—The Times said “Mr. Pell purchased the great Pichardt [sic] residence, on Upper Fifth Avenue, and in it to-day nearly every room is devoted to the china collection.  Mr. Pell has complained that he has hardly room and has thought of purchasing another house as an annex to his museum.”

The newspaper noted that each year the couple traveled with the specific purpose of adding to their collection.  “Mr. Pell belongs to but one large club, the New York Athletic, but he never practices gymnastics in the rooms where his china is placed on exhibition.” 

The Pells’ free-wheeling schedule of entertainments and traveling was slightly impeded following Alfred’s ordination.  He offered his services as pastor to the Church of the Resurrection without a salary in 1902.  Nevertheless, the house was still the frequent scene of receptions and teas; often for the Colonial Dames of America of which Cornelia was a member.

After over two decades in their hulking mansion, the Pells prepared to move on in 1916.  On June 24, 1916 The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that Harry Fischel had purchased the mansion and “will erect on this corner a twelve-story high-class apartment house from plans by Warren & Wetmore.”  The Times reported the sale price at $750,000
 Within months Wilhelm Pickhardt’s “monument to blighted hopes” was gone.

Warren & Wetmore's 1917 apartment building survives today -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York


  1. Fascinating little known mansion and what became of the enormous and much talked about Pell china collections? Dispersed no doubt?

    1. I appears that most or all of it was donated to the Smithsonian

    2. He donated much of his collection to major US museums, including the Met, Philadelphia, the Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland and the Wadsworth Atheneum in addition to the Smithsonian. He had a great eye.

  2. I don't know if Wilhelm was a relive of mine, but it is an interesting piece of history.