Monday, September 9, 2019

The Lost Jacob H. Schiff Mansion - 965-967 Fifth Avenue

photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Following the death of builder Terrence Farley, sons John T. and James A. Farley continued the business as T. Farley's Sons.  By the turn of the last century they had established a reputation for extremely high-end residences.

On June 16, 1900 The Engineering Record reported that the brothers had filed plans for another.  The 51-foot wide mansion near the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 78th Street had been designed by Freeman & Thain.  The construction costs were projected at a staggering $200,000--more than $6 million today.

The architects released this rendering, completed with well-dressed pedestrians and a policeman.  Real Estate Record & Guide, March 9, 1901 (copyright expired)

The mansion was completed seven months later.  An advertisement on January 26, 1901 offered the "Magnificent New Residence" for sale and touted its "highest class fireproof construction."  The Real Estate Record & Guide described it as "An Epoch Making Mansion" and said it was "one of the most remarkable now being constructed in this city."

The Farley brothers, said the article, had conceived of "erecting a mansion in all respects equal to those built specially for the millionaire owners, and delivering it finished and complete to the opulent buyer."  The location was among the most exclusive at the time.  The residence sat just north of the gargantuan Senator William A. Clark house still under construction at the southern corner of the block.  And just north, at the northeast corner of 78th Street, was the Henry Cook mansion and a block further north was Isaac D. Fletcher's stunning French Gothic style chateau.

The Record & Guide described the interiors as "palatial in area."  The dining room was 25-by-38 feet with a conservatory branching off; the library was 23-by-28 feet, and the bedrooms from 20-by-23 feet to 18-by-19.6 feet.    The "drawing room hall" was 15-by-44 feet with an orchestra gallery at one end.  Also on the first floor were the morning room, dining room, and an "entresol," or mezzanine, and a pantry fitted out with dumbwaiters to the service area below.

The service rooms in the basement included the "chef's, butler's and housekeeper's rooms, and immense kitchen and offices."  They were discreetly hidden from the billiard room, which encompassed the entire front of this level.

Each of the family bedrooms had its own bathroom and dressing room and were arranged "around a large open hall."  The "isolated" servants' quarters included 15 sleeping rooms, sewing rooms and bathrooms.

A stained glass dome illuminated the great marble staircase and the walls of the main hall and staircase were paneled "with veined statuary marble."  The dining room was paneled in crotch mahogany, deemed by the Record & Guide as "especially fine."  The fireplaces were of "baronial proportions."

The Schiff drawing room was in the Louis XV style.  The tapestry panels, based on Boucher, were executed specifically for this room in Williamsbridge, New York.  Real Estate Record & Guide July 1, 1905 (copyright expired)

The mansion was sold to Jacob Henry Schiff on April 29.  The millionaire banker paid $450,000 for the house, or about $13.7 million today.   The New-York Tribune noted "This is said to be one of the most expensive dwelling houses ever built in the city by a builder on speculation."

On the same day they purchased No. 967, Schiff and his wife, the former Therese Loeb, "conveyed as a gift" the lot at No. 932 Fifth Avenue to their son, Mortimer Leo Schiff," according to the New-York Tribune.  The gift was a wedding present. Mortimer married Adele Gertrude Neustadt on April 30, 1901.   Jacob and Therese's only other child, Frieda, had married Felix Warburg on March 19, 1895.  

The New York Times shot a passing barb at Schiff, his fortune and his massive purchase.  "Mr. Schiff looked at the property, said he thought it would answer his purposes very nicely, and there was no more ado over the rest of the transaction than there would have been had the subject of it been a box of cigars."

The Schiffs hired the firm of William Baumgarten & Co. to complete the interior decoration.  The Record & Guide said on July 1, 1905, "The proprietor of this house, following the example of other rich men, has wished to have the interior of his dwelling a faithful reproduction of one or more of the authentic historic styles--a task which the decorator was well qualified to perform.  The apartments are all examples of 'period' design and furnishing; and the occupants of the house have loyally supported the designer by not intruding on the incongruous decorations and conveniences."  Therefore, the only items the Schiffs brought from their former home were the bronze depiction of the children by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and the portraits of Jacob and Therese.

Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens created the bronze bas relief of Mortimer and Frieda in 1885.

Jacob Schiff was born in Frankfort-on-the-Main, Germany on January 10, 1847 and arrived in New York at the age of 18.  He got a job as a bank clerk.  Unhappy with his "meagre education," as worded by The New York Times later, he returned to Europe to study finance.  Upon his return in 1875 he married Therese Loeb, daughter of Solomon Loeb, head of the banking house of Kuhn, Loeb & Co.  Schiff was taken into his father-in-law's firm.

Upon Loeb's retirement in 1885 Schiff was made head of the business.  "From that time on the firm not only held its place as one of the great banking houses, but so expanded its business that it became known all over the world," said The Times.

Schiff was known as much for his banking firm as for his generosity.   On January 9, 1902, just months the after Schffs moved into the new home, The New York Times reported that he had donated a plot on 123rd Street, just each of Broadway, as the site of a new Jewish Theological Seminary.  Along with the gift of the land, he gave the funds for "commodious college buildings, a library, and synagogue."

The Schiffs were host to impressive guests from the financial, social and philanthropic worlds.  On May 19, 1903 the Daily Standard Union reported "Baron Von Reinbaben, the Prussian Minister of Finance, who is making a short visit to this country to study economic conditions here, was the guest of honor at a dinner given last evening by Jacob H. Schiff at his home."

Music was often a major feature of Schiff entertainments.  On December 14, 1913 The New York Times reported "Henriette Bach, the violinist, will give two recitals on Dec. 15 and Jan. 5, at the home of Mrs. Jacob H. Schiff, 965 Fifth Avenue.”

At the far right a sliver of the massive William Clark mansion is seen.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
As war spread throughout Europe, Jacob Schiff made a statement that may have astonished many millionaires.  At a meeting of the Jewish War Relief fund in his home on November 19, 1917 he asserted “No man should seek to increase his personal fortune for the period of the war.  The duty of every American at this time is to devote his whole thought and effort to the needs of the Government and to the needs of those who have been made to suffer through the war.”  He called bankers and industrialists who worked to amass additional wealth “unpatriotic” when “thousands of young men are offering their lives in sacrifice for the ideals of America, and when other thousands, many old men, women and little children, are dying of starvation.”

Earlier that year, on January 10, Schiff had celebrated his 70th birthday.  He did so quietly, avoiding fuss and publicity.  The Sun reported he spent the day "with his family in seclusion, while messages of congratulations from noted persons in all parts of the world poured into his downtown office at Kuhn, Loeb & Co."  Among the greetings was one from President Woodrow Wilson.  The Sun noted "One of the ways in which Mr. Schiff celebrated his birthday was to give $100,000 to the American Red Cross."

It was typical of Schiff's generosity.  He had given the same amount to the Red Cross in February, 1916 and that same year he donated $100,000 "for the starving Jews in the war zone," $50,000 for "the perpetuation of Yiddish classics," and $5,000 for the relief of men made blind by the war.

In March 1920 Jacob Schiff's health began to fail.  The New York Times reported that he had been "worn by the exertions which he insisted upon putting forth in the last few years on behalf of war sufferers and his many philanthropies."  He had kept his condition--a combination of arteriosclerosis and aortitis uremia--a secret as long as possible so he could continue his work.  

The front pages of newspapers nationwide ran banner headlines on September 26, 1920 reporting on Schiff's death.  The New York Times reported on his impressive career and selfless life, and published scores of letters and accolades from across the country.  The newspaper ran an editorial which said in part, "Most men of action, as they review their careers, are wont to point to some crowning work as their chief title to distinction.  Mr. Schiff's life was full of crowning works, insomuch that we are at a loss to say whether it is by the number of the magnitude of his achievements, by the boldness or the success of his undertakings, that he rose to so high a place in the world of affairs."

from the collection of the New York Public Library
An estimated 1,500 persons attended the funeral within the Temple Emanu-El on September 28.  The New York Times reported "Thousands of Jews flocked from the east side and other parts of the city to the Schiff residence at Seventy-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue and to the Temple Emanu-El.  A large body of policemen on foot and mounted held the crowds to the sidewalks during the funeral services, while traffic was diverted away from Fifth Avenue."

Before his death Schiff had directed that there be no eulogy and the services be simple and without flowers.  Among those in the synagogue were Governor Alfred E. Smith; Mayor John Francis Hylan; Bernard M. Baruch; Supreme Court Justices Irving Lehman, M. Warley Platzek and Mitchell L. Erlanger; John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Cornelius N. Bliss.  Jewish-owned shops and businesses throughout the city were closed.

Schiff's estate was estimated at $50 million, according to The New York Herald, more in the neighborhood of $627 million today.  As expected he left generous gifts to dozens of charities.

Therese remained, now alone with her staff, in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  The quiet residential thoroughfare was greatly changing as apartment buildings replaced private homes in the 1920's.   A 15-story apartment building occupied the corner property next door and in 1927 demolition began on the former Lewis R. Morris mansion two doors to the south.  Henrietta L. Butler had lived at No. 64, between the Morris and Schiff residences.  But her death left that mansion's survival in jeopardy as well.

On April 5, 1927 the New York Evening Post reported that Therese had purchased the Butler house.  The article called it a “protective real estate purchase” and said “as a result [Mrs. Schiff] will be able, if she so desires, to prevent any additional large apartment house operations in the block.”

Terese Loeb Schiff died on the morning of February 26, 1933.   The New York Times commented "After Mr. Schiff's death Mrs. Schiff led a retired life, emerging only from time to time to take part in welfare enterprises in which she and her husband had been interested.  She continued to contribute to these causes to the last.  Modest and retiring, she was content to devote her remaining years to quiet philanthropy."

Since Jacob's death she had donated massive amounts of money to organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, to which she gave 480 acres near Morristown, New Jersey as a "permanent reservation and meeting place." Other contributions included $150,000 toward the building fund of the Montefiore Hospital; and $500,000 to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.  Of her more than $5.5 million estate, she left $605,000 to charities.

A three-day auction of the Schiff furnishings was held in December 1933.  The auction announcement began “The distinguished source of this property at once bespeaks its quality.”  Included were “fine furniture, tapestries, silver, and objects of art; the paintings comprise works of Barbizon School and American artists and Old Masters.”  Among the 100 paintings were Van Dyke’s The Mandolin Player, Ruben’s Briseis Restored to Achilles and George Inness’s Twilight in Florida.  There were works by other renowned artists like Corot, Lely and Romney.

Peter Paul Rubens's Briseis Restored to Achilles hung in the Schiff mansion.  

For the next four years the mansion sat vacant.  Then, despite what their mother than fought to prevent, the Schiff heirs sold it to developers.  On June 11 1937 The New York Times reported that "The imposing residence of the late Jacob H. Schiff, one of a rapidly dwindling group of large private dwellings on Fifth Avenue, has been sold along with adjoining property to a realty group which will raze the mansion and erect in its stead an eighteen-story apartment building."  That building survives.

At the far left a portion of the James B. Duke mansion, which survives, can be seen.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York


  1. The Schiffs, Loebs and Warburgs brought a great deal of culture, learning and the visual arts to Fifth Ave. What a shame that the mansion didn't survive.

  2. Another great, well researched and informative post on a one of the lesser known lost mansions and the family that lived there. MS

  3. Always look forward to "Lost Mondays" posts and really like this one after reading Chernow's The Warburgs. The 1st 300 pp are really a bio of Jacob Schiff, an amazing man in an amazing time. This house is mentioned several times in the book so I was delighted to see it! Thanks for a great post!

  4. I loved the book "Our Crowd", the story of those families. And also "The Rest of Us". Great post.