Saturday, June 5, 2021

The William W. Tompkins House - 68 Fifth Avenue


As Manhattan's wealthiest citizens were increasingly lured away from the Bond Street district to Fifth Avenue, millionaire John H. Cornell erected an upscale, 25-foot wide residence at 68 Fifth Avenue, just south of 13th Street.  Its patrician Greek Revival design featured a columned portico perched upon the brownstone stoop and floor-to-ceiling parlor windows that opened onto a full-width cast iron balcony.

As construction neared completion around 1840, Cornell sold the house to flour and grain merchant Nathaniel H. Wolfe.  He and his wife, Almira, had one son, Frederick.  Wolfe was the principal of N. H. Wolfe & Co. and, like so many other well-to-do businessmen, was hit hard by the Financial Panic of 1857.  With his business in bankruptcy, he sold 68 Fifth Avenue to Thomas E. Foster, a merchant doing business at 65 Beaver Street.

Foster and his family stayed in the house for just over a decade, selling it around 1868 to Andrew Carrigan and his wife, Catharine.  Born in Ireland in 1809, he arrived in New York around 1821 "when he was a mere lad," according to the New York Herald years later.  He started out as a provision merchant.  Like his contemporary, John Jacob Astor, his decision to switch to real estate resulted in his amassing a fortune.

Andrew Carrigan (original source unknown)

The Carrigans had five children.  Andrew never forgot his roots and reportedly employed only Irish-born servants.  He was the president of the Irish Emigrant Society and and around 1870 was appointed a State Commissioner of Emigration.  He had been intimate friends with a fellow Irishman, Archbishop John Hughes who died in 1864.

On September 7, 1872 the New York Herald reported, "Andrew Carrigan, a well-known businessman of this city, has just died at his residence in Fifth avenue."  Carrigan was 68-years old.  The newspaper noted, "He applied a great deal of his time and money to the relieving of emigrants from some of the hardships which they formerly suffered at and after the moment of first landing."

The funeral was held in the residence two days later, after which, according to The New York Times, "An immense cortège followed the remains to the Church of St. Francis Xavier."  The honorary pallbearers were some of the wealthiest businessmen of the city, including Alexander T. Stewart, William F. Havemeyer, James O'Neill, and Thurman Weed.  Carrigan's remains were later interred in the family vault in St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Catharine Carrigan remained in the Fifth Avenue house until 1882 when she sold it and the private stable that December to William Wright Tompkins for $44,000--about $1.14 million today.

Tompkins had married Mary Helena Kingsland in 1871.  Both came from impressive families.  Tompkin's grandfather, Daniel D. Tompkins, had been Governor of New York between 1807 and 1817, and United States Vice President under President James Monroe.  Mary's father, Ambrose Cornelius Kingsland, had made his fortune in the sperm oil business and served as Mayor of New York from 1851 to 1853.  (It was Ambrose Kingsland who initiated the legislation that resulted in the construction of Central Park.)

William and Mary had one son, Philip Kingsland Tompkins, born in 1871.  He died in 1890 and the emotional trauma stayed with Mary for years.  On September 23, 1898 The New York Times mentioned, "the death some years ago of an only son has deterred Mrs. Tompkins from entertaining."

Among the couple's favorite charities was St. Luke's Hospital.  Mary gave an annual gift of $500 (nearly $15,000 today) for "the support of beds," and in 1893 gave an additional $350 "for patients who, upon leaving the Hospital, may need assistance;" $150 "for the purchase of glasses for patients attending the Eye Clinic;" and a donation of a memorial bed in the Children's Ward, "to be known as 'Philip's Bed.'"

At the time William and Mary had two country homes, one in Lakewood, New Jersey and the other in Lenox, Massachusetts.  They added a third in September 1898.  The New York Times reported, "Mr. William W. Thompkins, who has just purchased the Ashurst place at Newport, has now a number of country houses in which he and his wife pass but little of their time."  The article noted, "Mrs. Tompkins was a Miss Kingsland, and the Tompkins city residence is one of the few fine old houses still remaining on Fifth Avenue below Twenty-third Street."

Indeed, all of the Tompkins' wealthy neighbors had moved northward by now, as commercial buildings crowded in along the formerly elegant blocks.  But William and Mary Kingsland ignored the changes and quietly lived on in their time capsule.

The Tompkins received a shock when they arrived in Newport for the 1907 summer season.  According to The New York Times on June 30, 1907, "Mr. Tompkins was not pleased to find that during his absence last Winter a new business block had been erected nearly opposite his cottage."  It seems that while Tompkins could abide businesses crowding around his city residence, invasion of his summer estate was too much.  He promptly purchased the property directly across the avenue from his estate.  The article explained, "hearing that the Muenchinger cottage was likely to be sold for business purposes, [he] decided to purchase the place himself to prevent any further encroachments of business upon that part of Bellevue Avenue."

William W. Tompkins died in the Fifth Avenue house in 1911.  Mary lived on with her servants, ignoring the bustle outside her doors.  She never entertained, at least not lavishly, but newspapers nevertheless followed her movements.  On October 10, 1930, for instance, The New York Sun reported, "Mrs. William W. Tompkins has left [Newport] for New York."

Finally, on February 23, 1934 The New York Sun reported, "Mrs. Mary Kingsland Tompkins, the widow of William Wright Tompkins and the last surviving daughter of Ambrose C. Kingsland...died at her residence, 68 Fifth avenue, yesterday.  She was in her ninety-third year."

Mary Kingsland Tompkins' house was an anachronism along the block at the time of her death.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Mary Tompkins had bequeathed the Newport estate to the Redwood Library along with funds to demolish it and erect a new library building and park-like grounds.  The Fifth Avenue house was left to St. Luke's Hospital, which sold it in April 1937 to Joseph Durst.  He announced plans "to demolish the structure at once and erect a one-story and basement business building."

Those plans never came to pass and instead a renovation completed in 1940 removed the stoop and remodeled the exterior of the lower two floors.  The first and second floors now held a restaurant, the Cafe Bruno, while the Department of Buildings demanded that the upper floors "remain vacant."

Although the lower two floors were changed for Cafe Bruno, even Mary Tompkins' shutters were preserved on the upper floors.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

The restaurant's life span was extremely short.  On October 7, 1941 The New York Sun reported that a night club called The Avenue had opened in the space, saying "it is a pleasant addition to the café life of Manhattan."  The article added, "The Avenue is on the premises of the ill-fated Café Bruno, which closed after a comparatively brief existence."

Patrons enjoyed food and liquor "at reasonable prices," as well as floor shows.  The New York Sun wrote:

Cy Walters entertains at the piano with interesting improvisations on the classics, Aileen Cook, who has earned a wide personal following, provides the comedy with her sophisticated songs, which are gay and witty and quite to the point.  Rica De Sierra, a young Latin singer, who appeared with great success at the Hotel St. Moritz last year, sings the romantic Spanish songs with proper fervor.

The club also featured the Oscar Day orchestra for dancing.

Despite its favorable press, The Avenue, too, closed within a year.  With war raging in Europe and servicemen arriving in New York on leave, the Music Box Canteen opened in the space in 1942.  On November 5 The New York Sun said the canteen "provides service men with a place for relaxation, entertainment, dancing and refreshments every day from 3 P.M. to midnight."

from the collection of the Seymour B. Durst Old York Library of Columbia University.

The Music Box Canteen operated throughout the war years.  On December 23, 1944 The New York Sun reported, "More than 1,000 presents will be distributed to service men and women and merchant seamen who visit the Music Box Canteen, 68 Fifth avenue, on Christmas Day.  A turkey buffet dinner is planned and also special entertainment."

A war-time postcard depicts the merriment inside the Music Box Canteen, while a sign on the wall warns that "silence ashore" means "safety at sea."

After the Music Box Canteen closed, a renovation in 1946 transformed that space to a cabaret-restaurant and two apartments per floor on the upper floors.  A succession of commercial tenants included The Gondolier Restaurant in the late 1950's (which offered tickets to an off-Broadway play plus a pre-theater Italian dinner for $4.75), followed by the 68 Restaurant.  In 1963 that restaurant moved directly across the avenue (retaining the name) and Gordon's Graphic Circle Gallery moved in.

The gallery was relatively short-lived, and the space was once again an Italian restaurant, Delfino's, run by bothers Enzo and Vincent Delfino, by 1966.  The New York Times' food critic John Canaday described it on September 27, 1974 as "a vigorously Italian restaurant."

By the first years of the 1980's the Parsons School of Design acquired the property for its Office of Continuing Education.  The New School for Social Research took over a few years later.  On December 19, 1984 The Villager reported on the school's plans for renovation and consolidation, saying, "Jack Krauskops, vice-president of the school, explained that the plans involve tearing down 68 Fifth Avenue and constructing a new twelve story building."

But, as had been the case nearly half a century earlier, the plans were never carried out.  Instead, in 1994 a renovation resulted in school offices throughout the building.  And so, today the venerable building sits squeezed in between the commercial structures had failed to ruffle William and Mary Kingsland Tompkins; its domestic origins still easily recognized.

photographs by the author
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  1. More fascinating history of NYC. I read this nearly every day.

    Did you already report on the corner building (bottom photo)? Looks like it has an impressive facade while in reality being only 25 feet or so deep.

    1. I photographed it weeks ago and haven't gotten to it yet. (So many buildings.) But be patient. It will be showing up soon!


  2. FROM READER JOAN MAZZONELLI: My maternal grandparents (and grand aunt and uncle) operated a green grocers, Esposito Bros. at 444 6th Ave. and a restaurant, Luigi's at 6th Ave. There was some family contention and my grandparents left those businesses.

    My grandmother, Lilliana Esposito, then opened Lilliana's Restaurant at 68 Fifth sometime in the mid '40's. I've got some postcards for the place.
    My mother Gloria worked there occasionally as the cashier and hat check. She was in her early 20's when she met my father, Rudy Mazzonelli. On his return from WWII, he worked at Lilliana's as a busboy. His brother-in-law was a waiter there and got him the job.
    My parents had their wedding reception at Lilliana's in July 1949 - so there's a few photos of the place as well as a postcard or two.
    Later my grandmother, Lily, gave the restaurant up (circa1953) and my father took it over as The Gondolier. His family was from Trentino near Venice so he wanted to use that Italian background as abackdrop for the restaurant. His silent partner in the business was Gil Rainiere (?). But the business didn't work out as desired and closed (circa 1955-56). There's a postcard and and a single salt shaker in the form of a gondola.

  3. May I add that it had a short but highly successful tenure as a disco between, approximately 1978 and 1980 named “The Blue Parrot “.
    Thank you,
    D. Goodwin (