Monday, August 23, 2021

The Lost Isaac Stern Mansion - 858 Fifth Avenue


The figure leaning on the areaway wall provides proportion to the massive home.  American Architect & Building News, April 7, 1900 (copyright expired)

On October 13, 1894 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that in the first three-quarters of that year plans had been filed for 13 mansions on the Upper East Side at a total estimated cost of $2.13 million.  Within the list was "Isaac Stern's house, 5th avenue and 67th street, $150,000."  That amount would equal about $4.65 million today.

The department store mogul (he was among the three founders and the senior member of Stern Brothers on West 23rd Street) had hired the architectural firm of Schickel & Ditmars to design his residence.  They produced a striking 55-foot-wide Beaux Arts style palace faced in Indiana limestone that clearly announced its owner's wealth and position.

A wide staircase rose to the arched entrance within the rusticated base.  Directly above was a bowed oriel that provided a delightful stone-railed balcony to the columned loggia of the third floor.  The lintels and pediments of the upper openings were elaborately carved, as was the frieze that disguised the attic level.

The interiors were decorated by William Baumgarten & Company, who had earlier been responsible for William Kissam Vanderbilt's "Petite Chateau" on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.  Baumgarten brought the French motif inside.  Lena M. Cooper, writing in Architects' and Builders' Magazine, noted that the first floor salon "is in the later prior of the Louis Quinze style, in delicate shades of green."  She deemed it "very effective and dainty."  Here the panels of the doors were mirrored, 18th century paintings decorated the walls, and the fireplace mantel was "peach flower marble, with the typical scrolls, [and] finishing it [are] busts of women coiffed pompadour style, with aigrets, etc."

The reception room, or first floor salon.  Architects' & Builders' Magazine, July, 1902 (copyright expired)

The entrance hall.  Architects' & Builders' Magazine, July, 1902 (copyright expired)

The dining room, Cooper continued, "is one of superb proportions and rich colorings, carried out in Louis Quatorze style."  The "magnificent" ceiling panel was executed by Gabriel Ferier of Paris.  The room was paneled in dark oak, its carvings gilded to resemble bronze.  A 16th century tapestry hung in this room.

The upper stair landing.  Architects' & Builders' Magazine, July, 1902 (copyright expired)

Stern's library, which spanned nearly the entire width of the second floor overlooking Fifth Avenue, was in the Francis I style.  "The furnishings chose for comfort make this room most homelike and interesting," said Cooper.  "Most of Mr. Stern's collection of paintings, comprising examples of the modern French and German schools are hung here."

Two views of the "homelike" library.  Architects' & Builders' Magazine, July, 1902 (copyright expired)

Upstairs, the Sterns' bedrooms were in the Louis XV style.  Virginia Stern's suite of furniture was especially notable.  It was among the last works of Joseph-Emmanuel Zwiener, one of the 19th century's leading cabinetmakers whose clients included King Ludwig II of Bavaria and William II, King of Prussia.

When Isaac and Virginia Michels Stern celebrated their 18th anniversary on March 25, 1898 with a musicale, the Standard Union noted, "The ballroom of the residence, a pure copy of the Louise XVI time, in white and gold, was furnished for the occasion with a platform, and here Josef Hofmann and the Kneisel Quartet...gave selections of music."  The musicale was only the beginning.  Afterward supper was served, "the small tables being arranged in the dining room and hallways and in the Japanese smoking room."  After that was "informal" dancing.

The anniversary party was held in this room.  Architects' & Builders' Magazine, July, 1902 (copyright expired)

The couple had two daughters, May Valentine and Lucille Michels, and a son, Robert B.   The first to wed was Mary, who was married to Arthur Harold Haho in the mansion on April 28, 1904.  It was an unexpectedly understated affair.  The Globe and Commercial Advertiser reported, "The witnesses of the ceremony will be few, but a large reception is to follow."

A much more elaborate wedding took place seven months later when Lucile was married to Gustav A. Wertheim on November 24, 1904.  The groom was 28 years old and the bride 20.  The New York Times reported, "The ceremony was performed in the large main hall, the walls of which were hung and banked with white roses, chrysanthemums, ferns and vines."  

As was common, a wedding breakfast (they were not "breakfasts" as we use the term today) was served after the ceremony.  It was held in the picture gallery.  The New York Times added, "The whole house was decorated with quantities of flowers.  The walls beside the wide, winding marble stairway were hung with trails of red Liberty roses and smilax."  Even the exterior was decorated, the outside staircase banked on each side with pots of yellow and white chrysanthemums and palms.

In April 1906, almost immediately after the San Francisco earthquake and fire, William Jackson Dingee purchased the Stern mansion.  Dingee was among the largest real estate owners in Oakland, California.  

On May 2, 1909 the New-York Tribune reported Dingee had sold the residence to the City Investing Company, which "quickly resold" it to Thomas Fortune Ryan.  In reporting on the sale, The New York Times said, "The house, generally speaking, comes within the class of 'million-dollar' mansions...Sitting between Sixty-seventh and Sixty-eighth Streets, Mr. Ryan's new home will be in the heart of the fashionable upper Fifth Avenue colony."  The article added that the mansion "has long been famous for the magnificence of its interior."

Ryan had made his massive fortune in tobacco, insurance and surface railroads.  He and his wife, the former Ida Mary Barry, had seven children.   After being in the mansion a year, Ryan purchased the art gallery adjoining the Charles T. Yerkes house next door.  (Yerkes, who had erected it in 1904, died the following year.)  The Binghamton, New York newspaper the Press and Sun-Bulletin reported, "It is understood that Mr. Ryan intends to tear down the long, low brownstone building...transforming the site into a garden."

It was not the only purchase Ryan made to provide more elbow room.  He purchased the house at 3 East 67th Street and demolished it "so as to protect the light of his home," explained The New York Times.   As it turned out, that vacant lot became more useful than providing light.  On September 12, 1912 The New York Times reported that Ryan had commissioned the esteemed architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings to erect a art gallery on the site.

"The addition will be two stories high and will have a handsome façade of marble in ornamental design with a loggia above the ground floor adorned with two massive Ionic columns, topped with a bronze cornice and a corrugated tile mansard roof," said the article.  The building, which cost $100,000, was to house "Mr. Ryan's collection of paintings and art treasures," as well as private offices for himself and his secretary, a small conservatory.  Thomas Fortune Ryan was an ardent Roman Catholic.  There was also a private chapel decorated by artist James Wall Finn.

Yet another upgrade Ryan did to the Stern mansion was the replacement of the stone-balustraded areaway railing with one of bronze.  It proved to be a frustrating decision when the railing became a tempting target for young vandals.  On April 25, 1913 the Star-Gazette reported that passersby noticed two 16-year-old boys "at work with a hammer and chisel and pocketing bronze bits as they broke them off."  The boys were arrested, but Assistant District Attorney Follette said that "in the last three years over $2,000 worth of bronze railing had been stolen from the Ryan home."

On Ryan's 66th birthday, October 17, 1917, Ida suffered a fatal heart attack.  Society was understandably shocked when he married Mary Townsend Lord Cuyler 12 days later.  The Ryans' other homes were Oak Ridge, in Virginia, a country estate in Suffern, New York, and a residence in Washington D.C.

Thomas Ryan died on November 23, 1928, the tenth wealthiest man in America at the time.  The New York Times remarked, "In a list of the half dozen greatest financiers in the history of this country, Thomas Fortune Ryan's name would rank near the top."  The Press and Sun-Bulletin reported, "The financier's fortune was variously estimated at from $300,000,000 to $500,000,000."

The funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue mansion on November 26, followed by a mass in the Church of St. Jean Baptiste which Ryan had built.  Allan A. Ryan had not spoken to his father since his marriage to Mary.  He was in Europe at the time, but was on his way home.  Also absent from the funeral was Mary Ryan.  The New York Times reported, "She was too ill to leave her home in Oak Ridge, Va."

Mary Cuyler Ryan died at the Oak Ridge estate on July 3, 1937.   The following year, in February, an auction of the Ryan furniture and artwork was held at the Plaza Art Galleries.  The extensive collection took several days to sell.

Architects' & Builders' Magazine, July, 1902 (copyright expired)

The Stern-Ryan mansion next became home to Ferdinand M. Linsler and his wife, Elizabeth Doring Linsler.  Born in Germany, Linsler was a "well-known real estate agent," according to The Times Record.  Although he had operated his business from Midtown, he now moved his office into the mansion.  He and Elizabeth had two daughters, Florence and Emma, and a son, Ferdinand A.

The Stern-Ryan house and the George Gould mansion next door would survive until 1961.  Photograph by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Linsler died in 1940.  Ferdinand lived on with his mother at 858 Fifth Avenue.  A bachelor, he died in the mansion on July 19, 1948.  Elizabeth died the following year.  Her funeral was held in the house on October 22, 1949.

In 1949 the mansion and the former George J. Gould residence were demolished to make away for two 10-story apartment buildings designed by Robert L. Bien.

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1 comment:

  1. What an interesting block, from the magnificent but lesser known Stern mansion to the great personal art collections and private galleries of Yerkes and Ryan to the addition of the classically elegant Gould mansion on the corner. If only, if only, one or more of these architecturally beautiful structures had survived long enough, or at least past 1961, to have transitioned to institutional or museum usage.