The soot-belching locomotives that ran down the center of Park Avenue in the third quarter of the 19th century made the thoroughfare marginally fashionable at best. A mish-mash of small stores and houses crammed some blocks, while others were developed as harmonious strings of rowhouses. In 1898 developer George S. Hall hired the architectural firm of Neville & Bagge to design four five-story flat buildings with stores on the east side of Park Avenue, between 74th and 75th Street.
A mix of Romanesque Revival and Renaissance Revival styles, they were completed the following year. Like its identical neighbors, 813 Park Avenue held a store at street level. Its red brick facade featured arched openings with elaborate terra cotta keystones at the second and fourth floors. A cast metal cornice and frieze completed the design.
The building was intended for middle-class families. There were a total of nine apartments, one of which shared the ground floor with the store, and two each on the upper floors. Upon its completion in 1899, Hall sold the building to real estate operator David Israels.
The residents were not wealthy enough to be followed by the society columns. Their names appeared in newspapers for less fashionable reasons. Such was the case in July 1910 when Arthur Blower visited Oliver Herbert here. Blower had been a well-known caterer with the famous Sherry's restaurant for fifteen years. The New-York Tribune said he had "made a wide reputation as a caterer, and he was in charge of many of the large affairs given by the leaders of society." While visiting Herbert on July 13 he suffered a fatal heart attack. The newspaper said, "News of Blower's death caused deep regret at Sherry's."
At the time Oscar Larson and his wife, Tootsie, operated what The New York Times described as "a Swedish massage establishment" here. It is unclear whether they ran the business from the store space or their apartment.
By the end of World War I Park Avenue saw the rise of upscale apartment buildings that rivaled those of Madison and Fifth Avenues. The outmoded building at 813 Park Avenue was decidedly out of place, and the advent of the Great Depression did not help. In June 1932 its owners, the 813 Park Avenue Corporation, sought "a reducing in the value for 1932 tax purposes," as reported in The New York Sun.
But, oddly enough, as the rest of the block was demolished to make way for modern apartment buildings, the owners held out, refusing to sell. By the last quarter of the 20th century, the value of the address far exceeded that of the building.
In 1980, according to real estate agent Helen Downey speaking to The New York Times, "it was a shambles. The top floors seemed little more than a few boards across the rafters." The following year a group of investors, Panjandrum Realty, purchased it for $3 million.
On July 25, 1982, The New York Times wrote, "When the modest apartment house at 813 Park Avenue was just five stories tall and 25 feet wide, it was not all that noticeable. Flanked by taller and more elegant neighbors at the 74th and 75th Street corners, it seemed to recede into its midblock site. Now, however, it has been transformed into luxury-class apartments, growing six stories taller in the process."
The building had been vacant for several years before a group of investors called in the architectural firm of Weisberg, Castro Associates to renovate and enlarge it. The firm deftly designed the upper floors to mimic Neville & Bagge's original 1898 architecture. There were now a total of 12 apartments in the building.
But the investors' grand project failed. On March 2, 1986 Richard T. Lyons, writing in The New York Times, said, "The building seems jinxed, hoodooed, snakebitten, sitting there for years on Park Avenue in the Upper East Side Historic District--empty." Why the new apartments drew no interest was a conundrum. The Rev. James H. Cupit, Jr., pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection on East 74th Street said, "It's the mystery of the neighborhood. I am astounded that this piece of prime real estate has been there vacant all these years."
Dr. Gamil Ghaleb, one of the investors, lamented:
What happened to the building? I'll tell you what happened to the building. We bought the building, we fixed up the building. Eight million went into acquisition and rehabilitation, plus another $500,000 on soft costs. And it's gone!
The investment was "gone" because the property was lost in foreclosure to the bank when it proved unsellable. In 1990 a development group, 813 Associates, undertook another remodeling that would result in three "town house-style residences with a common lobby," as reported by The New York Times on October 26. The article said, "One dwelling will occupy five floors, including a basement level with a greenhouse and a small pool. The two others each have four floors. All are priced at $5 million."
At least one of the apartments sold--to music mogul Sean Combs. According to one source, he envisioned the address as a private mansion and shortly afterward, in 1999, purchased the entire building for $12 million. And then he changed his mind. In 2000 he put the building on the market, but was unable to sell for four years. Aion Partners paid $14.3 million, $3 million less than Combs's original price.
The firm soon discovered it had purchased what seemed to be a cursed property. On March 9, 2008 The New York Times journalist Josh Barbanel wrote, "No. 813 has been an unlucky address on Park Avenue for almost a quarter of a century...Since the early 1980s it has been under construction, in foreclosure, or on the market more often than not."
That year Aion hired interior designer Eric Cohler to redesign the interior spaces. And it got rid of the ill-fated address containing the lucky "13." The firm managed to have the property renumbered 807 Park Avenue.
The new address did not help. In December 2014 the Aion Partners petitioned the Landmark Preservation Commission for permission to demolish and replace the building. They tried three times, each time the proposal being rejected.
In March 2016, Aion Partners put the building back on the market for $30 million. On March 27, 2017 Curbed New York reported, "One of the Upper East Side's most troubled buildings is trying its luck again, and this time around developers are marketing it as a massive, 12-story single family mansion."
The future of the seemingly cursed holdout remains uncertain.
photographs by the author
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