Friday, January 17, 2020

The Michael Friedsam House - 44 East 68th Street

On January 26, 1915 the executors of the Benjamin Altman estate met in the offices of B. Altman & Co. to announce the bequests of the millionaire's will.  Among the executors was Alman's close friend and successor as president of B. Altman & Co., Michael Friedsam.  Afterward an oil portrait of Friedsam was unveiled in the executive offices, painted by Ellen E. Rand.  The New York Times commented, "The same artist painted a portrait of Benjamin Altman, which now forms part of the Altman collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art."

The portraits were by no means the only things the two intimate friends had in common.  Neither married and each had astounding art collections which focused on Dutch Old Masters.  

In 1921 Friedsam set out to erect a new home--one that would be as much a residence for himself as a venue for his artworks.  On June 23 The New York Herald announced that he had purchased the houses at Nos. 44 and 46 East 68th Street for $175,000--about $2.45 million today.  "The houses thereon are of the old fashioned four story and basement type, but if Mr. Friedsam carries through his plans they will be replaced by one big dwelling ranking as one of the finest of its kind in the city."

Friedsam's house would replace the two brownstones seen at the far left of this photo.  In the center of the frame is the opulent John D. Crimmins mansion.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Three months later, on September 25, the newspaper reported "Col. Michael Friedsam, president of B. Altman & Co., has filed plans through Frederick G. Frost, architect, for a handsome residence and art gallery at 44 and 46 East Sixty-eighth street...It will cost more than $100,000."  That figure brought the total outlay to more than $3.8 million in today's dollars.

The appellation of colonel used by the newspaper, incidentally, was the rank Friedman held with the Quartermaster's Department of the National Guard.  He had been promoted in August 1918.

The New York Times explained that the proposed house would have "adequate provision for his art collection, considered one of the best in private ownership in the city."  The article noted "the new Friedsam residence will be in one of the most exclusive sections of the city, and where many homes of prominent New Yorkers have been erected in the last decade."

The newly completed house looks no difference today.  original source unknown
Completed in 1922, the five-story Friedsam house was clad in limestone.  Frost's restrained neo-Classical design featured a rusticated base with a centered entrance flanked by Doric columns.  Stone balustrades sat below the second floor openings which sat within round arches.   The upper floor were sparsely decorated other than a prim stone band between the third and fourth floors.  The cornice wore a tall, balustraded parapet.

Just before the house was completed Friedsam made two significant additions to his collection.  On December 3, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported he had purchased Albrecht Durer's 1502 work The Saviour, and Quentin Matsys' The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.  The article noted "These, together with other works acquired by Colonel Friedsam, soon will be housed in the latter's new home in East Sixty-eighth Street, it is said, which is being designed especially for his art collection."

The velvet-lined walls of the upper stair hall (above) and the art gallery were hung with masterpieces.  original source unknown
The two acquisitions would be in fine company.  In 1917 alone Friedsam had purchased Franz Hals' Portrait of a Man, Pieter de Hooch's The Maid Servant, and Nicholaes Maes' The Lace Worker.  During World War I he spent $1,900 for an autographed copy of Childe Hassam's The Avenue of the Allies.

The Lacemaker, painted by Nicolaes Maes in 1656 hung with other masterpieces in the 68th Street house.  from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Friedsam's involvements and interests went far beyond art collecting and B. Altman & Co.  He was for years the president of the Fifth Avenue Association, a director in several banks, and was connected with the Architectural League of New York, the Museum of French Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Real Estate Board of New York, the French Institute, and many other groups and societies.  He was, as well, a commander of the French Legion of Honor and a member of ten exclusive clubs.

Michael Friedsam, from the collection of the Library of Congress
Friedsam's love of art, history and architecture was reflected in his philanthropy.  He was a contributor to the construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and supported the College of the City of New York and the Museum of the City of New York.  When Thomas Jefferson's Monticello was threatened in 1925, he joined New York businessmen who rallied to save it.  His check over over $7,000 in today's money was the first received by the fund.

The entrance hall (above) led to the impressive marble staircase.  original source unknown
On February 19, 1931 The Sun reported that Friedsam had been elected to his seventh term as president of the Fifth Avenue Association.  The article noted that he "has been confined to his home at 44 East Sixty-eighth street with a slight illness," but assured he was improving and "is expected to return to his duties soon."

The French-style study featured a portrait of Benjamin Franklin.  original source unknown.
But he did not recover and on April 8 the newspaper reported "From all sections of this country and from abroad today tributes continued to pour in for Col. Michael Friedsam, philanthropist, connoisseur of art, civic leader and merchant, who died suddenly yesterday at his home, 44 East Sixty-eighth street."  The mayor ordered that all flags on Fifth Avenue be lowered to half staff.

Among the accolades was that of Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt who called Friedsam "one of the most unselfish and useful citizens of this city and State."  Former Governor Alfred E. Smith said "The city and State of New York have lost one of their most valuable citizens."

No report of Friedsam's death overlooked his vast art collection, estimated at the time at between $10 million and $29 million.  Included in the more than 200 paintings were four Rembrandts, several Vermeers, fifty French primitives including one of Louis XI by Frouquet, and works by Goya, Velsaquez and Murillo.

The wide-spread esteem in which he was held was reflected in Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hayes's appearance at the house to offer condolences.  He was named an honorary pall bearer, as well, despite Freidsamn's Jewish religion.  According to The Times, more than 3,500 persons filed into Temple Emanu-El for the funeral.  

Friedsam's estate was roughly appraised at over $21 million.  But that figure fell far short of the actual worth.  The New York Sun explained on April 19, 1933 "the figures filed today are not an entirely accurate reflection of what he was worth.  The most obvious example of this is that a value of $2,500,000 was set upon his art collection...The collection has been roughly valued by art authorities at around $10,000,000."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum shared in the entire Friedsam collection, including "paintings, porcelains, tapestries, rugs, enamels, crystals, marbles, bronzes, antique furniture and objects of art," as worded in the will.   Friedman's niece, Alice A. Schwartz, was bequeathed "my household furniture, beds, beddings, household china, glass and housekeeping articles and utensils of every description belonging to me and all my silver plate and plated ware and all my jewelry and personal effects wherever the same may be located or stored."   Alice also received $250,000 (more than $4.1 million today); but not the house itself.  It was included in the real estate to be liquidated by the executors.

In 1936 the Dominican Academy purchased No. 44 for one dollar with the stipulation that it be used only for educational purposes.  Founded by the Dominican Sisters in 1897 as an elementary school, it grew into a private Catholic high school for girls.

Among the students in 1965 was 17-year old Patricia Genovese, described by one nun as "a fine student."  Some parents and neighbors were concerned, however, since Patricia's uncle was crime boss Vito Genovese, and her father, Mike Genovese, had been called to appear before a State Investigation Commission hearing on loan sharking a year earlier.   (He took the Fifth Amendment twenty-six times during that session.)

In the winter of 1965 the school received at least two letters and two phone calls "demanding Miss Genovese's expulsion because of her family's notoriety," according to the Long Island Star-Journal.   Then, on the first week of December, someone took matters in their own hands.

As Patricia left the school, she was abducted by two men "in their fifties," according to the FBI.  The Long Island Star-Journal reported on December 20, "Miss Genovese told police that they held her captive for several hours, but that she escaped by ramming a pencil into one man's ear."

The Dominican Academy remains in the Friesdam mansion.  Interior renovations were completed in 2018 which included updating the technology and security infrastructure.  From the street there is essentially no change to the residence since Michael Friedsam first moved in his priceless collection in 1922.

photographs by the author


  1. Here's the objects in the Met collection.!/search?q=friedsam

  2. Wonderful post, as always. It is my understanding that Friedsam was Altman's cousin, as well as friend. I'm attaching a link to a Facebook post about the house, which contains the unusual floorplans of the house.

  3. Thank you for writing about the 44 East 68 St building. It is indeed a beautiful building which has retained its beauty and has been lovingly maintained over the years. As a 1967 graduate of Dominican Academy, I feel that the mention of the "kidnapping" is inappropriate. It belongs in the world of gossip, whether true or not. Instead, the author may have mentioned that the school ranks in the top 20% of New York State's private Catholic schools. Dorota Bussey