Monday, July 20, 2020

The Lost Brokaw Mansions - 984 and 985 Fifth Avenue

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

Isaac Vail Brokaw was a partner with his brother in the Brokaw Brothers clothing firm.  By 1887 he was among the wealthiest men in the city and hired architects Charles Frederick Rose and Howard Colton Stone, partners in Rose & Stone, to design a massive French Renaissance-style chateau on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street.

An Edwardian mother walks her son, in knickers, across the street in front of the Brokaw mansion, while a driver steers from the right side of the car down Fifth Avenue.  Directly behind the mansion are the twin residences of Howard and Irving Brokaw, erected in 1905. -- photo Library of Congress
Brokaw and his wife, the former Elvira Gould, had seven children, three of whom had died by the turn of the century.  Surviving were daughter Elvira and sons George Tuttle, Howard Crosby and Isaac Irving (who went by his middle name).  As they grew up and married, Isaac began providing them homes as well.  In 1905 Charles F. Rose was brought back to  matching French Gothic mansions at Nos. 984 and 985 Fifth Avenue for Howard and Irving abutting the Brokaw residence.  (There was no need to build a home for George, the eldest, since it was understood he would inherit the family mansion at No. 1 East 79th Street.)  Each of the sumptuous mansions cost $344,536.26 to erect--more than $10 million today.  

The next year, on May 29, The New York Tribune reported on the rising mansions.  “The two houses which Mr. and Mrs. Isaac V. Brokaw are having built in Fifth avenue between 79th and 80th Streets, adjoining their own home, will be occupied by their sons and daughters-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Howard C. Brokaw and Mr. and Mrs. Irving Brokaw.  The houses are of gray granite, are of the French chateau style and six stories high.  It will probably be a year before they are ready for occupancy.”

Faced in limestone, each of the 30-room, carbon copy mansions sat above a broad set of stone steps flanked by high, solid wing walls.  The entrances sat within grand arches.  The second floor openings were decorated with Gothic style carvings and flowery crockets.  The third and fourth floors were relatively unadorned; however the top two floors made up for that with two-story dormers which exploded in finials and carved decoration.

The Brokaws' neighbors were Hugh A. Murray in the vintage brownstone at left, Wm. B. Leeds in the striking mansion at No. 987, and William J. Curtis at No. 986.  from Fifth Avenue New York City, 1911 (copyright expired)
Howard and his wife, the former Edna Goadby Loew moved into No. 984 with their toddler daughter, Julia Eloise; while Irving and his wife, Lucile Nave, took No. 985.  While it might have seemed to high society that the houses were lavish gifts from their father, they were not.  Isaac V. Brokaw retained ownership of the properties and, it could be suggested, additional control of his sons.  (In fact, both had massive personal fortunes and could have built their own city mansions had they so chosen.)

Howard and Edna added to their family when Edna Loew was born on November 14, 1908, and Marguerite (known familiarly as Peggy) arrived on January 11, 1913.   

Irving and Lucile, too, had a toddler when they moved in.  Barbara Lucile was born in December 1903.  And like the Howard Brokaws, the couple would have two more daughters, Minna Elvira, born in 1906, and Lucile, born in 1915.

Interestingly, Irving Brokaw was both a world-class figure skater and hockey player.  As early as 1899 he competed in the world's hockey championship in Vienna.

Among the casually-posed St. Nicholas Hockey Club in 1898 was Irving Brokaw, wearing number 3. The Illustrated American, February 12, 1898 
Entertainments in both houses were often lavish.  On January 25, 1913, for instance, The New York Press reported "Mr. and Mrs. Irving Brokaw gave a dance last evening in their home No. 985 Fifth avenue.  There was general dancing throughout the evening, interrupted by supper and then more dancing."  The guest list included familiar names in high society like Oelrich, Lorillard, Mills, Drexel and Burden.

Isaac Vail Brokaw died on September 29, 1913, leaving an estate in the neighborhood of $325 million today.   Each of the sons received about $4 million plus "a life enjoyment" of their Fifth Avenue residences.  Even in death their father retained possession.

Both sons would erect lavish country estates.  In 1915 Howard hired Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer to design the family's sprawling mansion The Chimneys in Brookville, Long Island.  

The Chimneys.  from 1916 real estate brochure Long Island, copyright expired
The Fifth Avenue houses were, of course, opened only during the winter seasons.  But even then No. 984 was often closed.  The Howard Brokaws began spending much of their time during the cold months in the newly-popular Palm Beach, Florida.  Society columnist could hardly keep up with their movements.

On March 14, 1922, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "Mr. and Mrs. Howard C. Brokaw, of 984 Fifth Avenue, have returned from a month's visit at Palm Beach."  And on May 12 The New York Herald announced that the family "have gone to the Chimneys, their country place in Brookville, L. I.  They will sail on the Olympic June 24."

The family had to be back from Europe by the fall and the beginning of Julia's debutante season.  On December 17, 1922 The New York Herald reported "Mr. and Mrs. Howard C. Brokaw of 984 Fifth avenue are arranging a series of entertainments for their debutante daughter, Miss Julia Brokaw for whom they are giving a dinner next Thursday night."  That dinner was preceded by a large afternoon reception and followed by a theater party," reported The New York Times.  

Julia's cousin, Barbara, had been introduced to society the previous season.  On December 30, 1921 The New York Herald had announced "Mr. and Mrs. Irving Brokaw of 985 Fifth avenue gave one of the largest dances of the season to introduce their daughter, Miss Barbara Brokaw."  The guest list, which engulfed a full column in the newspaper, was too large even for the Brokaw ballroom and was held in the Ritz-Carlton.

Barbara Brokaw shows off a sporty costume in 1922. New-York Tribune, January 26, 1922 (copyright expired) 

Brokaw girls received the best of educations.  The New York Evening Post commented on May 29 that Mimi's debut that upcoming season "should have small thrill" for the young woman.  "Ever since she finished her studies at an exclusive school in Paris, where she spent the past winter, she has been plunged into a regular whirlpool of social activity."  

The article went on, "First the was presented at the second court of the season at Buckingham Palace, being among the very few Americans who attained this distinction this season...Now we learn she has deserted London for the gayeties of life in Paris, where she and her sister, Barbara, assisted at the Russian charity fete held recently at the home of the Duc and Duchesse de Talleyrand, the latter formerly Anna Gould."

The Irving Brokaw's summer estate was in Oyster Bay, Long Island.  In 1926 the couple hired Walker & Gillette to design a new, lavish residence, Frost Mill Lodge, in Mill Neck on the North Shore of Long Island.

Frost Mill Lodge  from "Mill Neck Long Island, N.Y." brochure, (copyright expired)
Mimi Brokaw was married to Richard Derby Tucker in the fashionable St. Thomas's Church on Fifth Avenue on February 16, 1927.  The Saratogian promised "The wedding will be one of the largest and most attractive society events of the New York season."

A year later, almost to the day, Barbara's St. Thomas's Church wedding to Leonard J. Cushing took place on February 4, 1928.  Lucile had transformed the church.  Brooklyn Life said "Around the chancel were placed tall cedar trees, cybotium ferns and palms, and at the foot of the steps leading to the altar were two large boxwood trees, banked with calla lilies."

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

On January 27, 1931 butler John P. Darby opened the door of No. 984 to find a "suave young man" who said he had a message for Howard Brokaw which he had to deliver personally.  Darby admitted the stranger and ushered him "through the spacious foyer where the armor of some of the Huguenot ancestors of the Brokaws still stands," said the Courier Express, a Buffalo, New York newspaper.  

Howard and Edna (who was wearing "a dinner dress decked with diamonds and other gems") were playing backgammon in the library.  "But before the butler reached the library," reported The New York Sun, "he felt something sinister in the small of his back.  It was the muzzle of a revolver, and at the same time Darby heard a voice in his ear say softly: 'Keep quiet, and nothing will happen to you.'"

With the muzzle of the pistol poking his back, the butler politely ushered the man into the library and presented him.  Howard looked up to see a gun pointed at him.  The intruder said "Sorry to disturb you.  But I'm desperate and in need of money.  Stick up your hands and no harm will come to you."

Edna screamed.  The gunman told her "Don't get frightened, lady.  I'm a gentleman, and I'll only take what I can lay hands on easy."  

Howard helplessly obeyed, giving him his wallet containing $175 (nearly $3,000 today) and his platinum watch.  The robber then forced the Brokaws and their butler into the master bathroom and locked the door.  

He then "stripped the place of what jewels and cash he could find," said the Courier Express.  The "amount of the nervous young gunman's haul" was estimated at about $20,000, or about $336,000 today.

He was apparently unaware that mansions like this one had "house telephones" connected to the servants' quarters.  Howard alerted a maid, who summoned the police.  But the robber had disappeared by the time they arrived.  

The New York Sun called the crime "unique in its audacity."  Edna was traumatized.  Two days later she was reportedly "in a highly nervous state, confined to her room with a physician in attendance."

At the end of the summer season of 1933 the New York Evening Post reported "Miss Lucile Brokaw, one of the most beautiful of New York's young fashionables, returned from Europe about three weeks ago.  She and her mother had been traveling by motor through Spain, France and other countries and, since Miss Brokaw Speaks French and Spanish fluently, it proved a very exciting trip."  The article added "Prior to making her debut last year she attended Mme. Boissier's School in Paris and Miss Hewlitt's School here."

On June 1, 1935 Irving and Lucile hosted a dinner party at Frost Mill Lodge during which they announced Lucile's engagement to James D. P. Bishop.  The couple was married that fall.

Not long afterward Lucile Brokaw fell ill.  After an extended sickness she died in No. 985 on September 12, 1937 at the age of 51.  It is possible that her death may have prompted Irving to initially plan to sell their home.  Four months later, on January 29, 1938 The New York Sun reported "French eighteenth century furniture from the Irving Brokaw residence at 985 Fifth avenue...will be dispersed at publish sale at the Parke-Bernet Galleries."

photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
But if he did entertain such plans, they faded.  Irving Brokaw was still living in the house when he died in Palm Beach, Florida on March 18, 1939 at the age of 69.  The following year No. 985 was converted to spacious apartments, one on the first floor, two each on floors two through five, and four on the sixth.

In the meantime, Marguerite Brokaw was married to Charles Crocker on January 27, 1938 in the mansion in which she grew up next door.  Although the New York Post called it a "simple service," it was followed by "a large reception with dancing to Alexander Haas' Hungarian orchestra."

Her uncle, George Tuthill Brokaw, had died of a heart attack in 1935.  His widow, Frances, remarried in 1936 and the year of Barbara's marriage the massive Isaac V. Brokaw mansion was left vacant.  In 1946 the Institute of Radio Engineers purchased No. 1 East 79th Street, expanding into Elvira's mansion next door at No. 7 East 79th Street in 1954, and finally into the Howard Brokaw house in 1961.

Although the Isaac Vail Brokaw mansion had been designated a landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, on September 17, 1964 The New York Times reported that it and flanking Brokaw mansions were to be demolished "to make way for a new commercial building."  The article noted that the LPC "said it would protest the move although it lacked the legal power to stop it."

In one of Manhattan's most regrettable cases of historical and architectural apathy, the three structures were demolished, replaced by a high rise apartment building.

The Irving Brokaw mansion survived until 1969 when it, too, fell to the wrecking ball for a less-than-attractive apartment building.


  1. The Institute of Radio Engineers—which changed its name to the Institute of Electrical Engineers, ultimate the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the IEEE, moved to be near the UN.

    The gorgeous buildings—as a teenager, I lived at 82nd Street and Madison Avenue and walked by these gorgeous buildings every day—were surrounded by a "moat" of a lawn. They were replaced by a banal highrise which at the time billed itself as the tallest co-op in NYC. (Of course, it was soon to lose that title to taller buildings.)

    Despite lots of public pushback, picketing, etc., the buildings were torn down. From this evil, and many others, came the Landmarks Law, with a bit of teeth to make such actions less likely in the future.

    But they *were* gorgeous buildings!

  2. Unfortunately the developers were so anxious to avoid interference by the Landmarks Commission, demolition started abruptly one weekend and by Monday much of the interior spaces were brutally demolished. A reckless and thoughtless act of architectural vandalism by the Campagna Construction Co. Hopefully their family name remains forever tied to the word cowards. Although their actions gave rise to stronger landmarks laws, the city streetscape is poorer for that loss today.