Monday, October 28, 2019

The Lost Draper-Sage House - 604 Fifth Avenue

The presence of advertising on the garden wall in 1920 foretells the coming construction of a small business building.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In February 1881 William Perkins Draper purchased two lots on the west side of Fifth Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets, abutting the recently-erected St. Nicholas Church.  That the neighborhood was becoming increasingly fashionable was reflected in the price he paid for the vacant land--the equivalent of $3.67 million today.  It was further evidenced when within the month he refused an offer of $155,000 for the plots.  It could have resulted in a quick profit of a quarter of a million in today's dollars.   Instead, reported the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide on March 19, the plots "are to be immediately improved by the erection of a magnificent dwelling to cover both lots."

In fact, that magnificent dwelling would not entirely engulf both lots.   Space for an ample garden between the Draper and Ogden Goelet mansion, construction of which was begun the following year, was set aside.   The 20-foot garden plot was the width of most routine rowhouses.

Draper was married to the former Helen How.  He had made his fortune in the shipping business in Boston.  Now retired he dabbled in architecture with his father-in-law, occasionally designing structures under the name of How & Draper.  

No. 604 Fifth Avenue was faced in red brick and trimmed in limestone.   The asymmetrical design featured an angled bay at the second floor which provided a balcony to the third.  A corner tower with a tall pyramidal roof interrupted the tall, slate-shingled mansard.  Delicate iron cresting crowned the roof.

Draper and Helen had two children, Lucie and William, Jr.  They maintained two summer homes; one in Connecticut and another, The Boulder, in Bar Harbor, Maine.  Unlike other society couples, the Drapers did little entertaining.  The Sun later remarked that Draper "was very retiring in his nature, and participated little in social or club affairs."

Interestingly, it appears that the Drapers' next door neighbors coveted their garden; and were willing to pay for it.  On April 17, 1888 the New-York Tribune reported that the Drapers had sold the property to Ogden Goelet for $50,500--a significant $1.38 million today.

from the collection of the New York Public Library.
The family was at the Bar Harbor residence in July 1894 when Draper suffered what newspapers called "a stroke of paralysis."  It was a massive stroke, resulting in his death a week later.  In reporting his death on July 31 The Sun mentioned "In 1881 Mr. Draper built his handsome residence at 604 Fifth Avenue."

Helen and the children remained in No. 604.  It was the scene of a notable event eleven years later when Lucie How Draper was married to pianist Ernest Schelling on May 3, 1905.   Two weeks earlier the Musical Courier had announced "Paderewski, who was Schelling's teacher, is to be best man at the ceremony."

As it turned out, the illustrious pianist and composer could not make it and Casimir de Coppet stepped in at the last minute.  The Musical Courier explained that although "Madame Paderewski was among the wedding guests," the composer's "physical condition prevented him from attending the nuptials."

Following the ceremony a wedding breakfast was held.  Two days later The Sun reported that the newlyweds were off "on a preliminary wedding journey.  They will pass the summer with Mrs. Draper at her country places in Connecticut and at Bar Harbor."  The article added "Mr. Schelling was much disappointed that Ignace Paderewsky was unable to attend him as best man as arranged."

Helen died at The Boulders on October 2, 1906.  Lucie and William retained possession of the Fifth Avenue house for two years.  The vacant residence presented an opportunity to Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, widow of Russell Sage.  Her mansion two blocks to the north (on the site of the today's Rockefeller Center Channel Gardens) was becoming surrounded by stores and offices.

On January 21, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported on rumors that she "is likely to vacate in the near future the premises No. 632 Fifth avenue, as business has got a firm foothold in the block front on which the house stands."  The article added "It is also said that she has made overtures to purchase No. 604 Fifth avenue."

Four days later the Record & Guide confirmed that Margaret had purchased the property.  The $400,000 price tag would translate to about $11.3 million today.  

It was a down-sizing of sorts and on January 14, 1909 the New-York Tribune reported "Owing to her expected removal at an early date from her present home, No. 632 Fifth avenue, to a smaller house, No. 604 Fifth avenue, Mrs. Russell Sage has asked the Emma Willard make other arrangements for the care of the Emma Willard memorials which she collected at great expense for the association and has heretofore kept in her house."

On December 29, 1912 the New York Herald commented on the immediate neighborhood.  "Mrs. Sage can look down on the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas from some of her windows.  Across the way there are wonderful little luxurious shops."  The article said "A varied feast is set before Mrs. Sage from the windows of her home.  The church and the world compete for her favor."

Margaret O. Sage - from the collection of the Library of Congress

Margaret had definite opinions and interests.   It was a time of social enlightenment and reform—when privileged citizens were realizing that  helping the needy improve their conditions was far more productive than doling charity.  Olivia Sage felt that it was the duty of the “leisured women” to do their part in uplifting the poor and oppressed.

Margaret's country home was at Lawrence Beach, Long Island.   She celebrated her 90th birthday there on September 8, 1918.  In reporting on the event, the New-York Tribune marveled that she "still takes an active interest in her many various charities."

Back in the Fifth Avenue house a month later, on October 31, Margaret became ill.  She died three days later "from complications brought about by old age," said the New-York Tribune.  At the time of her death she had given away more than $30 million "for charitable and educational purposes and for the betterment of society," said the newspaper.

Among her most notable works was the creation of the Sage Foundation in 1907.  Her gift of $10.6 million was intended for "the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States."

As she had wished, her funeral was a quiet, private affair within the house.  The pastor of St. Nicholas Church next door officiated.  

On November 15, 1918 The New York Times reported "It would be difficult to dispose of a great estate more sagaciously and justly than Mrs. Russell Sage has done by her will.  She leaves some forty millions for educational, philanthropic and charitable purposes."

An auction sale announcement was plastered across the facade in January 1920.  photo from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
The Sage estate retained possession of the property for two years, leasing it temporarily to the Cornelius Vanderbilts.  Then on January 11, 1920 the New-York Tribune reported that the house had been sold at auction.  The Sun identified the winning bidder as Charles Thorley, society florist, who paid $441,000; about $1.8 million in today's dollars.  The newspaper said "It is understood that Mr. Thorley will open up a florist establishment on the property."

He had opened his first flower shop on 14th Street in 1874 at the age of 16.  The teen astutely watched floral fashions and made the trendiest blossoms available to young men hoping to impress their sweethearts.   His became the go-to spot for the perfect bouquets.  By now he had decorated the mansions of New York's elite for weddings, funerals, dinners and balls for years.  His was the only shop used by the J. P. Morgan family, for instance.  

Five years later Thorley leased the property to William Childs, a partner in the Childs restaurant chain.   He hired modernist architect William Van Alen to design a five story replacement building; a striking, starkly modern presence in the Fifth Avenue district.

The former garden between the Goelet mansion and the new Childs restaurant building was occupied by a two-story store when this photo was taken.  photo by Wurts Bros from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Repeatedly renovated and remodeled, the Van Alen structure is nearly unrecognizable today.

The scalloped roofline of Van Alen's building peeks above full-height signage.


  1. The Van Alen structure looks like it might still be there, fairly intact, under the signage. It was a great sculpture of a building.

  2. arent I seeing 6 stories?

    1. I'm not sure what you're mistaking for a 6th floor, but there are just five.