Monday, October 24, 2022

The Lost Thomas Fortune Ryan Art Gallery - 3 East 67th Street


Architecture magazine, August 1915 (copyright expired)

On May 2, 1909 the New York Times reported on Thomas Fortune Ryan's purchase of the former Isaac Stern mansion at 858 Fifth Avenue, just north of 67th Street.  "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," said the article.

Ryan had made his massive fortune in tobacco, insurance and surface railroads.  He and his wife, the former Ida Mary Barry, had seven children.  Like Charles T. Yerkes, Henry Marquand, and Henry Clay Frick, Ryan was an art patron and notable collector.  His impressive collection ranged from Renaissance period statuary to modern artwork, Chinese cloisonne, tapestries, and rare books.

Thomas Fortune Ryan, from the collection of the Library of Congress

On September 14, 1912, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Henry C. Frick planned to erect "a fine residence" nearby on Fifth Avenue at 70th Street.  In the same sentence, the writer noted that Thomas F. Ryan would be enlarging his mansion.  "The extension will face on 67th street and will have a marble facade with Ionic columns and a mansard roof."  Ryan had purchased and demolished the townhouse of Mrs. Edward R. Ladew at 6 East 67th Street as the site.  "His own residence at 858 Fifth Avenue had become too small for his collection," explained The New York Times.  Like J. Pierpont Morgan, Jr.'s 1906 extension to his Madison Avenue mansion, Ryan's was "intended principally as an art gallery, but will also contain a private office and a conservatory," said the article. 

The Ryan mansion, with its walled garden, sits to the left of the George J. Gould mansion on the corner.  The Ryan art gallery can be seen on 67th Street, behind the Gould residence.  Photograph by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Designed by the architectural firm of Carrere & Hastings, whose magnificent New York Public Library building had been completed a year earlier, the gallery's construction cost would be $100,000--nearly $2.9 million in 2022.

Thomas Hastings was the head architect on the project.  The two-story structure featured a Palladian balcony with allegorical spandrel carvings by A. Stirling Calder--Imagination (on the left) and Beauty. 

Writing in the December 1919 issue of Art & Life, Marie Danforth described both the collection and the gallery.  She said that in "a long panelled [sic] room with vaulted ceiling frescoed in soft polychrome decoration supported by fluted columns, each object is given the setting that its distinction merits.  On the dark-toned side walls between the pillars the very important marble reliefs, in which art object the collection is especially rich, have place."  The marbles were Renaissance pieces, including Mino da Fiesole's Madonna and Child, originally in the Chapel of the Villa Gonfienti, and Giovanni Dalmata's 1475 Madonna and Child.  Of the latter, Danford said, "This is placed against a background of gold mosaic."

On the wall of the "alcove" was a 16th century bronze crucifix, under which sat a marble Pieta from the 15th to 16th century.  The intricate ceiling was strikingly polychromed.  photo from Art & Life, December 1919 (copyright expired)

The critic gave a detailed description of the Renaissance sculpture and tapestries, his "remarkably fine" collection of Limoges enamels, his "important collection" of Chinese enamels and bronzes, Greek and Etruscan bronzes, early Italian faience, and more.  But she noted that more recent artists were represented, as well.  "One of the most treasured later marbles in the Ryan collection is a Child's Head by Houdon, while Mr. Ryan's examples of Rodin's sculpture, exceeding in number those in other private collections in America, denote his appreciation of that great French master."

The marble staircase.  photo from Art & Life, December 1919 (copyright expired)

Indeed, Ryan so appreciated the work of Auguste Rodin that in the spring of 1910, he gave $25,000 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art specifically for the purchase of Rodin works.  (On May 2, 1912 the Museum opened its Rodin gallery.)  The artist and patron had met in 1907, introduced by Rodin's mistress, Clarie de Choiseul (it is unclear how Ryan knew Choiseul).  Ryan sat for a bust, then went on to purchase nine works, one of which he donated to the Metropolitan Museum.

The French stained glass window was created in the 16th century by Valentin Bouch.  Above the mantle is a Flemish tapestry from the same period. photo from Art & Life, December 1919 (copyright expired)

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

Thomas Fortune Ryan died on November 23, 1928, the tenth wealthiest man in America at the time.  Mary Ryan sold his collection at the American Art Association Anderson Galleries five years later, The New York Times reporting that the Depression Era sale totaled $409,354 (more than $8.5 million in 2022).  The gallery building would sit empty and unused for years.  

A portion of a ceiling fresco.  photo from Art & Life, December 1919 (copyright expired)

Mary Ryan died on July 3, 1937.  The Fifth Avenue mansion became home to Ferdinand M. Linsler and his wife, Elizabeth Doring.  And on December 6, 1937, The New York Times reported, "The Italian Renaissance art Gallery which the late Thomas Fortune Ryan built to house his art treasures, and which has stood dark at 3 East Sixty-seventh Street for a number of years, has been turned over to the Municipal Art Committee."  The newspaper noted, "In this building Mr. Ryan assembled one of the most notable one-man museums in the world," adding that it had been "known by some as the American Louvre."

The city's Municipal Art Committee had previously used a converted brownstone house off Sixth Avenue, but that structure was condemned for the extension of the Sixth Avenue subway.  The trustees of the Ryan estate were "now in a position to offer a magnificent stone gallery off Fifth Avenue," said the article.  The first exhibition of the Municipal Art Committee was scheduled for December 15.  The New York Times said, "it will be a group affair in which four self-organized groups will show their work at no cost to themselves."  The magnificent Ryan gallery building was a sorely-needed venue.  "The committee has on file applications from almost 1,000 artists who want to exhibit in the new gallery," said the article.

photo from Art & Life, December 1919 (copyright expired)

Typical of the exhibitions held here was the 31st exhibition "by resident artists," according to The New York Times, which opened on June 19, 1938.  The newspaper said, "As in previous exhibitions, it will consist of the work of four groups of artists.  One of the groups is made up of Japanese-Americans...another group is made up of sculptors."

The works of promising artists continued to be shown here for over a decade.  Then, on January 14, 1949, The New York Times reported that plans for a $3 million apartment house to occupy the corner of Fifth Avenue and 67th Street had been filed.  The Sylvan Bien designed building, which survives, replaced the former Thomas Ryan and George J. Gould mansions, and the Ryan art gallery.

image via

many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for prompting this post has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

1 comment:

  1. What a travesty. To see what replaced the two townhouses and the art gallery.