Monday, June 27, 2011

A man's home is his castle

The Apthorp, southwest corner of West 79th Street and Broadway. The Apthorp was completed a year after 973 Fifth Avenue, by Clinton and Russell for William Waldorf Astor. 10:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, June 27, 2011. Perfect summer days; warm and mainly sunny weekend in New York.

The neighborhood. A house in his dreams. The Real Estate section of Sunday’s New York Times ran an article about one of the few remaining private mansions on Fifth Avenue, Number 973, which has just been put up for sale. The asking price on the house, which was completed in 1907, is $49 million. It was acquired by its owner, the late Victor Shafferman, in the late 70s when New York real estate was at its nadir, for $600,000.

Architecturally the two houses – 972 and 973 – appear to be almost a pair of limestone mansions. Although they were built by two different parties, they were, coincidentally under construction at the same time, between 1903 and 1906. At approximately the same time, just one block south on the northeast corner of 77th Street, Senator William Clark was constructing his massive mansion. (Clark’s last child Huguette died last month. See NYSD 6.23.11)

Messrs. McKim, Mead & White, circa 1905. Stanford White (right) had just turned 50 and looked worse for the wear.
The house on the right of 973, number 972, with the grand swell front, was the first one under construction. Col. Oliver Payne, a very rich businessman (and Standard Oil shareholder), had commissioned Stanford White to design and build a house as a wedding gift to his favorite nephew, (William) Payne Whitney who married Helen Hay, the daughter of John Hay who was Lincoln’s secretary and later Secretary of State and also Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

The entire block – 79th to 78th, from Fifth Avenue to Madison – was once owned by another rich businessman (banks, railroads) Henry Cook, who originally lived in a mansion on the corner of 78th and Fifth (where the New York University/James B. Duke house now sits). Cook decreed when he owned the block that only townhouses could be built on all of the lots, and so to this day there are no tall buildings on that block.

Both lots – 972 and 973 were vacant when Oliver Payne purchased the larger one from Cook in 1902 for $525,000 (about $16 million in today’s dollars). He hired White to design as well as decorate and furnish the house. It was a huge contract especially because of the money that would be spent on the interiors, for which White took another commission. White at that time (which would turn out to be the end of his life) was having severe financial problems as well as encroaching health problems. He had been a man with a brilliant career who worked very hard and played hard too. By age 50 it was bearing down on him in more ways than one.
Looking south at the block between 79th and 78th streets (l. to r.): The Isaac Fletcher mansion, completed in 1899; Two Stanford White-designed houses, number 973 in the center, completed in 1907; the house for Col. Oliver Payne's nephew Payne Whitney, completed in 1905; James B. Duke house designed by Horace Trumbauer, completed in 1912.
Just about the time White’s designs for the Whitney house were ready, Henry Poor decided he wanted to build a house for himself on the 973 plot. He hired a builder, not an architect, and the builder went to Stanford White inquiring if White could design the façade of 973, to be compatible with the Whitney house. He did. The Cook house was completed after the Whitney house, in 1907, but Mr. Cook died before it was finished.

White was murdered 105 years ago (June 25, 1906), and never got to see either the Whitney or the Cook house completed and occupied.

Victor Shafferman, the last owner of the Cook house at 973 Fifth was something of a Gatsy-esque figure in the New York social world, in that there were mysteries he created around his past. For a number of years he lived alone in the huge mansion where the shades were always drawn, day and night. He collected fine 18th century French furniture and art, maintained the house’s elegant appointments impeccably, but he rarely entertained.
The entrance of 973 Fifth Avenue, formerly owned by businessman Victor Shafferman. The doorway of the Payne Whitney mansion at 972 Fifth.
The wooden front doors of 973 Fifth Avenue.
Detail of doorway of the Payne Whitney mansion, now the Cultural Services building of the Embassy of France at 972 Fifth.
The main salon on the piano nobile of Victor Shafferman's house on 973 Fifth Avenue.
He liked social life in New York, however, and got around town in a chauffeur driven maroon and black Rolls Royce Phantom. He had a forthright personality but was always cordial and gentlemanly in his presence. He was also an intelligent conversationalist, informed on many subjects, especially history. He could be a bit diffident in a group but on one-to-one he liked to slip in a boastful remark about his own wealth now and then. He traveled often between New York and Canada and Europe.

Victor was also fond of telling people that he was an heir to the international CIBA-Geigy pharmaceutical fortune. Evidently this was untrue. He also said that he grew up in Switzerland, although it later came to light that he was born Palestine in 1941, and lived there until his family migrated after the war (WWII) to Canada where he went to public school.
John Dizard, Dominique Richard, and Victor Shafferman at a dinner party given by Alice Mason here in New York in 2007.
How Victor Shafferman came to build and acquire his fortune is not known to this writer although he was very successful in the New York real estate business, owning, with partners, high-end apartment houses and commercial buildings.

Several years ago he acquired Blairsden, a grand estate in Peapack, New Jersey, built for late 19th/early 20th century businessman Ledyard Blair. The 60,000 square foot mansion was designed between 1898 and 1903, by Carrere and Hastings who designed the New York Public Library. Blair lived there until the 1940s (he died in 1949), when the estate passed into the hands Sisters of St. John the Baptist who used it as a home for the elderly. However, by the time Victor acquired it, the mansion was derelict.

He set about restoring, but before it was completed, Victor died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, a month before his 68th birthday.

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