Monday, April 15, 2024

The Lost John Innes Kane Mansion - 1 West 49th Street


image from "Charles Follen McKim, A Study of his Life and Work, 1913 (copyright expired)

Born on July 29, 1850, John Innes Kane was the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor I.  His maternal grandmother was Dorothea Astor.  Kane married Annie Cottenet Schermerhorn on December 12, 1878, her wedding gown designed personally by Parisian couturier Charles Frederick Worth.  Kane was among the social class known as "gentlemen," meaning he lived on inherited wealth.  Rather than work, he was interested, according to The New York Times, "in scientific matters, especially those dealing with discovery and exploration."

In the spring of 1904, Kane purchased "the old Matthiessen residence," as described by The Sun, at the northwest corner of 49th Street and Fifth Avenue.  Weeks later, on April 9, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported he had purchased the abutting four-story houses at 612 and 614 Fifth Avenue.  The article said, "It is understood that Mr. Kane...will erect for his own occupancy a large modern dwelling on the site."

Four months later, on August 6, the journal reported, "McKim, Mead & White...have completed plans for a residence for John Innes Kane."  Saying the four-story mansion would be clad in limestone, the article noted, "It is estimated to cost $200,000."  The figure would translate to about $7 million in 2024.

According to his biographer, Charles McKim, who was a personal friend of Kane, took the reins in designing the residence.  In his 1913 Charles Follen McKim, A Study of His Life and Work, Alfred Hoyt Granger mentioned, "He builded for his friends many beautiful houses, of which the most beautiful in my judgment is the Kane house on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-ninth Street."  The Sun, however, attributed the design to Stanford White, saying "Mr. White saw that the Italian renaissance was the style best suited to her [i.e. Annie Kane's] ideas."

At a time when many Manhattan millionaires were erecting frothy Beaux Arts confections, the Kane mansion's Italian Renaissance design was subtle.  On June 2, 1907, The Sun explained, "When Mr. and Mrs. Kane gave the order for the house they made but one condition with the architects.  They wanted the house to be the plainest in New York."  The journalist presumed, "This desire was probably inspired by the house they had lived in for many years previously."  (That was Annie's parents' mansion at 49 West 23rd Street.)  

The entrance of the mansion opened onto West 49th Street.  The Architectural Review, 1907

The Sun said, "It is considered a rarely pure specimen of Italian renaissance, even to the hatchment that hangs over the entrance."  While the exterior was Italian, the Kanes "decided that [the interiors] should be English."  Mrs. Frank Millet was commissioned to scour Europe for the appropriate furnishings.  "The furniture selected by Mrs. Millet was exclusively English of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries," said the article.

Two views of the entrance hall.  The Architectural Review, January 1919 (copyright expired)

The ground floor held the "dining rooms and the library," while two large drawing rooms were on the second.  The bedrooms were located on the third floor.

In 1904, the same year ground was broken for their townhouse, the Kanes' cottage, Breakwater, in Bar Harbor, Maine was completed.  It was designed by Fred L. Savage in the Tudor Revival style.  The couple also maintained a residence in Lenox, Massachusetts that Annie inherited from her father.

The Kane cottage in Bar Harbor.  image via

Because Kane had no business responsibilities, he and Annie had unlimited leisure time and the ability to travel extensively.  On October 15, 1911, The New York Times reported, "Mr. and Mrs. John Innes Kane will be leaving shortly for Europe, and will later proceed to Egypt, where they will be joined by a party of eleven of their friends, who will be their guests on a long trip up the historic river."  Seven months later, on June 9, 1912, The Sun announced, "Mr. and Mrs. John Innes Kane, who passed part of the winter in Egypt, returned from Europe recently.  They will go to Bar Harbor for the summer."

A sitting room (above) and a breakfast room had seemingly identical ceilings.  from the collection of the Columbia University Libraries.

John Kane did not enjoy his limestone palazzo for especially long.  Early in the summer of 1912, he fell ill while at Bar Harbor.  His condition worsened over the months.  Finally, on February 2, 1913, The New York Times wrote, "John Innes Kane, a member of one of New York's oldest families and a great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, died yesterday at his residence, 1 West Forty-ninth Street, from pneumonia."  Kane was 62 years old.  In reporting his death, the newspaper added, "His forty-ninth Street residence attracted immediate attention, when completed in 1909 [sic], because of its attractive simplicity."

from the collection of the Columbia University Libraries.

Following her period of mourning, Annie Kane resumed her seasonal routine.  On October 10, 1915, for instance, The Sun reported, "Mrs. John Innes Kane has arrived at Lenox from Bar Harbor, where she has been passing the summer.  She will return to 1 West Forty-ninth street about the middle of next month."

Annie's significant fortune was increased upon the death of her sister, Fannie Schermerhorn Bridgham in 1919.  On November 10, 1920, The New York Times reported that Annie had inherited $590,538--just over $9 million in today's money.

Disaster struck while Annie was at Bar Harbor in August 1921.  A crew of workmen were in the 49th Street townhouse, one of whom was on the second floor on August 23 when he heard something fall in the library.  He opened the door to discover, as worded by The New York Times, "the library was a furnace."  His opening of the door caused a backdraft, which "spurted out so quickly that the workman was hardly able to close the door without catching fire himself."

Crowds crammed Fifth Avenue as flames burst through the windows of the mansion.  Although the fire spread to the dining room, McKim, Mead & White was credited for saving the residence.  "The rooms were fireproofed so perfectly that the firemen were able to confine the flames, and, although everything in the library was burned, some of the furniture in the dining room was saved," said The New York Times.  The solid construction was also reflected in the fact that there was relatively little water damage.  "Another remarkable feature of the fire was that the thousands of gallons of water pumped into the burning rooms did not seep through to the ceilings of the floors below, but cascaded down a marble stairway," said the article.

Tragically, "priceless portraits and heirlooms of the Schermerhorn and Kane families" were destroyed.  The Evening World reported, "The fire was extinguished in a quarter of an hour, but in that time the two rooms had been gutted, the great carved ceilings reduced almost to charcoal, family portraits, marbles, tapestries and bric-a-brac burned to a cinder or blackened beyond repair."

The twin beds in this bedroom cleverly shared a single canopy.  from the collection of the Columbia University Libraries.

Annie Cottenet Kane died at the age of 69 "after a long illness," according to The New York Times, on July 24, 1926.  Her will divided her extensive estate among "worthy charities and other organizations."  The New York Orthopaedic Dispensary and Hospital received $1 million to found the Annie C. Kane Fellowships to provide fellowships to young surgeons, for instance, and Columbia University received two $500,000 bequests, one in memory of Annie's father William C. Schermerhorn.

The Kane mansion would not survive much longer.  Two years after Annie's death, John D. Rockefeller Jr. set in motion the ambitious 22-acre Rockefeller Center project.  In 1933, Raymond Hood's La Maison Francaise was completed on the site of the mansion.

photograph by Epicogenius

no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

1 comment:

  1. Most certainly a remarkably dignified and elegant residential structure, which I did not know much about before this great post.