Monday, July 4, 2016

The Lost Duveen Brothers Bldg -- No. 720 Fifth Avenue

At the time this photograph was taken, the Duveen Brothers building was already scheduled for demolition -- from the collection of the Library of Congress

In 1879 George Kemp had come a long way since he arrived in New York from Ireland with his family at the age of five.  Active in real estate development, The New York Times would later note “He erected many fine buildings upon the real estate that he owned.”  He was also the proprietor of the Buckingham Hotel; but his great fortune was made in Lanman & Kemp, a perfumery nationally-known for its Florida Water and Eau de Cologne.  Florida Water was so popular (today we would call it a “body splash”) that baseball teams used it as a refresher during hot games.

Kemp hired Tiffany & Wheeler to decorate his new five-story, 50-foot mansion at No. 720 Fifth Avenue, at the northwest corner of 56th Street.  It was the firm's first residential commission and the scope of the project was such that work began in August 1879 and was not completed until April 1881.

On November 3, 1893 The Evening World reported that “The condition of millionaire George Kemp, who has been seriously ill at his home…was reported as more comfortable this morning.”  But three weeks later he was dead.   “He leaves a wife and four children to lament his loss,” wrote The New York Times.

Julia Kemp remained in the mansion.  As the wedding of her son, Arthur, to Belle Neilson neared in April, she became ill.  On May 2, 1897 The Times reported “At the time of the wedding Mrs. Kemp’s illness became alarming, and Mrs. Neilson suggested that the reception be postponed.  Mrs. Kemp was unwilling, however, that any alterations should mar the wedding ceremonies as first planned, and the reception was not changed.”  The stress of the social event was too much.  Hours after the reception at the Neilson mansion at No. 100 Fifth Avenue, Julie Kemp died.

The Kemp mansion was leased to the Edwin Gould family.  In 1899 the millionaire commissioned architect Robert T. Lyons to do $4,000 in “improvements” to the house, including “the construction of an elevator plant.”

The Goulds would stay at No. 720 at least through 1908; but by then the Avenue was changing.  High-end dressmakers and art dealers were among the businesses which were taking over what had been Manhattan’s most exclusive residential neighborhood.   Among the most respected of these was Duveen Brothers, which had earlier commissioned McKim, Mead & White to alter an impressive French Second Empire mansion at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 31st Street.

Duveen Brothers' gallery at No. 302 Fifth Avenue (left) was in a brownstone renovated by McKim, Mead & White.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Dealers in fine art, Duveen Brothers was founded in London by Joel Joseph Duveen in the 1870s.  Around 1880 his brother, Henry J. Duveen, arrived in New York to open a small art shop on John Street where he sold “antique silverware, ivory carvings, rare porcelains, period furniture and Oriental rugs,” according to The New York Times.  Shortly afterwards the brothers opened a branch shop in Paris.

Duveen Brothers, now co-partnered by Henry and Joseph Duveen, followed the trend up Fifth Avenue.  On January 7, 1911 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the Kemp Estate had leased No. 720 Fifth Avenue to the art dealers “for a term of twenty years.”

Later that year, in September, Horace Trumbauer filed plans for the “five-story and basement brick and stone store” to replace the old Kemp house.    The Philadelphia architect, in fact, worked with Parisian architect Rene Sergent in designing the Duveen Brothers store and headquarters.  Sergent had designed the firm’s Parisian store in 1907 following the form of a Petit Trianon.

For the New York store, the architects took inspiration from Ange-Jacques Gabriel’s 1774 Hotel de la Marine on the Place de la Concorde in Paris.  The completed structure cost $400,000 (more than $10 million in 2016).  It was grand, indeed, and announced that while Fifth Avenue may be changing, it was no less exclusive.

The Hotel de la Marine in Paris provided inspiration for the Duveen Building.  photo by Moonik

A rusticated limestone base supported an impressive Corinthian order punctuated by French windows, stone balconies and spandrel panels of carved swags.  The classical pediment was filled with a massive sculptural grouping.  The perfect proportions of the Hotel de la Marine stopped here.  The attic story and a rather ungainly mansard level gave the appearance of an afterthought.

In 1912 construction still continued.  The sculptural grouping has yet to be placed within the pediment and scaffolds hang from the rooftop.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The patrons who entered No. 720 Fifth Avenue were among the foremost art collectors in the world.  The Duveens sold masterpieces to Henry Frick, Henry E. Huntington, William C. Whitney, J. Pierrepont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Benjamin Altman, among others.  Not long after opening the new location, Joseph Duveen sold Van Dyck’s portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria to William Randolph Hearst for $375,000—nearly the cost of the Fifth Avenue building.

According to historian David F. Burg in his The Great Depression, “by 1914 [Joseph Duveen] held a virtual monopoly on the transatlantic trade in works by Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Thomas Gainsborough, Johannes Vermeer, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and other great masters.”

A tragic incident occurred that year when a large consignment of paintings for Duveen Brothers was loaded onto the steamship Mississippi in Le Havre.  Shortly after sailing, a fire was discovered in the hold.  The ship pulled into Brest where a careful inspection showed that the vessel had not been damaged; however the cargo was not so lucky.

The Evening World reported on December 4, “Included were both paintings and antique objects of art.  The cases containing them were badly charred and the paintings suffered when the hold was filled with salt water.”

Joseph Duveen was reticent to release details of the $800,000 loss.  “He intimated that among them were some famous paintings but refused to reveal their names or the identity of the artists.”  The Evening World reported that the artwork was insured by Lloyds of London “but this is regarded as secondary to the fact that the objects destroyed cannot be replaced.”
The extent of the Duveen Brothers’ financial resources was made clear the following year.  When J. P. Morgan died in 1913, his extensive and invaluable collection of Chinese porcelains and ceramics had been on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 20 years.  Called “the finest assemblage of Oriental porcelains the world had even seen,” the collection had become too large for the Morgan mansion.

The Museum was no doubt stunned and devastated when, in February 1915, J. P. Morgan, Jr. sold the entire collection to Duveen Brothers for $3.9 million.  “They propose to sell it in single pieces and small groups,” reported The Times.

Edward Robinson, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, lamented “The Museum and the public are losing something which can never be duplicated, for the Morgan collection is pre-eminent among the world’s great ones.”

Following Henry J. Duveen’s death at the age of 64 on January 15, 1919, Joseph continued the business.  In 1921 the gallery received international attention when it exhibited Thomas Gainsborough’s famous portrait known as The Blue Boy.

Joseph Duveen was internationally recognized as an authority on Old Masters.  In 1920 he made a comment about a portrait of Lucrezia Crivelli entitled, La Belle Ferroniere, by Leonard da Vinci.  The painting had been purchased by Mrs. Andree Hahn, a niece of the Marquis de Chambure and the wife of American aviator Capt. Harry J. Hahn who had been on General Pershing’s staff.

Duveen dismissed it as a forgery, calling it “a copy, hundreds of which have been made of this and other Leonardo subjects and offered in the market as genuine.  Leonardo never made a replica of his works.  His original La Belle Ferroniere is in the Louvre.”

Mrs. Hahn was enraged.  She sued Joseph Duveen in November 1921 for half a million dollars redress.   Duveen, however, was unconcerned.  He thanked the process server “most cordially when she thrust the documents in his hands,” according to The New York Herald on November 5.  The artwork was sent for forensic authentication based on fingerprints in the paint.

By 1922 all traces of the old mansion district were gone.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
Just weeks after the end of World War II Duveen Brothers staged a patriotic exhibition entitled “Soldiers and Sailors in American Wars” to benefit the Soldiers and Sailors Club.  The collection of military portraits on loan ranged from the 18th century through the 20th.   The New York Times described it on November 17, 1945 saying “The long span begins back in the days of the French and Indian Wars and includes, among the paintings of men identified with the recent World War, Kenneth Frazier’s portrait of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.”

In a sort of déjà vu of 1911, on August 21, 1951, The New York Times reported “One of the world’s most famous and influential art firms, Duveen Brothers, is moving its paintings by da Vinci, Rubens and other immortals into a celebrated town house at 18 East Seventy-ninth Street in the heart of the elite residential section.” 

Considering that the firm had infiltrated the elite Fifth Avenue residential neighborhood four decades earlier, a Duveen spokesman’s explanation for vacating No. 740 Fifth Avenue was ironic.  The neighborhood, he told reporters, “is growing too commercial.”

photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In October 1952 Emery Roth & Sons designed the $1.25 million, 15-story replacement office building which survives today.


  1. one of the greatest losses in NYC history

  2. There is apparently a scale model of the building at the school of architecture at Columbia University. But what is frustrating is that the interior of the building, photographs of the galleries and stairs etc, and plans of the layout, have not been published.