Friday, November 13, 2015

Generations of East 72nd Street, Part I

The William H. Vanderbilt twin mansions at 640 and 642 Fifth Avenue and 2 West 52nd Street (between 51st and 52nd Streets) were actually three houses. The first (on left) was the home of Mr. Vanderbilt; the second, 642, were the houses of two of his daughters Margaret Vanderbilt Shepard and Emily Vanderbilt Sloane. The limestone chateau just beyond on the northwest corner of 52nd Street (where 666 Fifth Avenue stands today), belonged to Vanderbilt's son Willie K. and his wife Alva. William H. died less than three years after they moved in. His widow and mother of his children, Louisa Kissim, remained in her house until her death in 1896. Her house was inherited by her son George, who 9 years later rented it to Pittsburgh steel man Henry Clay Frick on a 10-year lease for $100,000. All houses were completed at roughly the same time between 1881 and 1883. The last occupant of 640 was Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III whose husband, as grandson of Louisa and William H. inherited the house by default. It was that Grace Wilson Vanderbilt who entertained on a grand scale, more than a million guests over the next four decades. She had to vacate after her husband's death in 1945 as he had previously sold the property to the William Waldorf Astor estate with rights to occupancy until death. So Grace Vanderbilt had to move to "something smaller," the William Starr Miller mansion on 86th and Fifth, now the Neue Galerie.
Friday, November 13, 2015. Damp, overcast but mild temperatures, yesterday in New York.

Today we are running a piece I wrote for the November issue of Quest magazine on the real estate history of the houses and apartments on East 72nd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. The block development first began on barren corner at the end of the 1870s by Charles Tiffany who built a triple mansion on the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Madison Avenue.

Houses to me besides being shelters for Mother Nature's storms, also provide fodder of endless stories on the lives of the people therein. This is my brief history of one prominent and still important block of Manhattan.

Real estate remains a hot topic in contemporary conversation especially because of the past thirty years of rising prices. The interest in the subject is almost entirely devoted to that, and occasionally architecture. My interest is more personal and based on nothing but curiosity, and the writer’s sense of drama that exists in every dwelling of every man and woman.

When walking around the Upper East Side where I have lived whenever I’ve lived in New York since the mid-1960s, I often pass buildings where people I know, or have known, live or lived. The sense memory kicks in, and the lives involved return to my consciousness and my memory’s eye and ear. Houses are always stories, often dramas, comedies, tragedies and, to borrow from Luigi Pirandello Six Characters in Search of an Author.

When Pope Francis paid a visit to the city this year, his brief stay aroused my curiosity. It was in a house at number 20 East 72nd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. East 72nd Street has always been one of the better streets on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Its proximity to the Park which had an entrance for carriages, horses and passenger vehicles (like, cars) increased its desirability. As it was developed for residential living in the last quarter of the 19th century its architectural substantiveness was established, and has largely remained more than a century later.
The scene on 72nd Street between Fifth and Madison during Pope Francis's stay.
A daytime view during the Pope's stay taken from the northeast corner of 72nd and Fifth Avenue.
Fifteen years after the Civil War ended, in 1880, New York had entered what Mark Twain famously referred to as the Gilded Age. Great fortunes had been made or were on the make, as the Industrial Revolution was transforming America from an agricultural to an industrial country. New York was booming and on the move.

In the late 1870s, early 1880s, the Vanderbilts, after the death of the Commodore, were the richest family in the world. After the old man passed away, William H., the Commodore’s principal heir built a great double mansion occupying the entire block between 51st and 52nd Street on the west side of Fifth Avenue. Soon after, in 1883 his son William K. and wife Alva built the first limestone chateau on the southwestern corner of 52nd Street. Their “housewarming” established them in Mrs. Astor’s society whether the dowager liked it or not. Willie K.’s brother Cornelius II also built a chateau on the northwest corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, later expanding it so that it occupied the entire block to 58th Street (where Bergdorf Goodman stands today). Along the avenue on both east and west side above 42nd Street, the city was moving north.
Farther up the Avenue at 57th Street, William H's son Cornelius II built his chateau, which was expanded to cover the entire block of what is now occupied by Bergdorf Goodman and Van Cleef and Arpels. The house was sold by Vanderbilt's widow in 1927. It was in this house that Gloria Vanderbilt's father, Wendy Vanderbilt's grandfather, as well as Cornelius Vanderbilt II and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (founder of the Whitney Museum) grew up. It was sold by his widow in 1927 for $7 million, demolished and replaced by Bergdorf Goodman.
The Caroline Astor and John Jacob Astor IV mansion on 65th and Fifth, 840 and 841, was completed in 1896, a vast double French Renaissance chateau designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Mrs. Astor shared the double house with her son John J. (Jack) and his wife Ava and two children William Vincent and Alice. When Mrs. Astor died in October 1908, the entire house passed to her son who turned the two residences into one. Astor died on the Titanic and his son Vincent inherited the house who occupied it with his first wife Helen Huntington. in 1926, the property was sold to Temple Emanu-El and the house was demolished to make way for the synagogue.
By the time the Vanderbilt palaces had reached 58th Street, the Central Park, just one block north, had begun to flourish into its majestic self that we know today. Up until that time, this had been the “outskirts” of Manhattan. Fifth Avenue east had been farmland or barren, rocky, hilly land.

The land which we now call the Upper East Side was divided by Fourth Avenue. The east and west sides of the avenue were separated by a large gully through which ran the tracks Commodore Vanderbilt’s New York and Harlem Railroad to and from the 42nd Street terminal up into New England. It was all smoke and soot. In the early 1870s, however, the avenue was covered, piece by piece until it was transformed and re-named Park Avenue. The entire area real estate-wise took on a different outlook. Madison and Park Avenues, as well as Fifth – and their cross-streets became a new destination for the prosperous New Yorkers as well as the Old Guard. 
Park Avenue, known as Fourth Avenue until the late 19th century, was cut with railroad tracks, as seen in this 1905 photo looking south from 56th Street.
Its early residents were the newer New York elite, names which today might be regarded as Old Guard but were then mainly the new tycoons and business titans. The Old Guard with their roots in the Knickerbocker families naturally preferred or hoped to remain. Enter the Gilded Age.

In 1880, East 72nd Street from Central Park east was still largely undeveloped land. It had been part of the Lenox Farm -- 30 acres acquired in 1819 by a businessman named Robert Lenox for $6,920. It was believed that Lenox had overpaid as it was land still “way out of town,” although favorable to wealthy New Yorkers -- in the 1820s/30s -- when wanted to get away from the city (which was way downtown). Robert Lenox, a man of vision, died a wealthy man 20 years later in  1839, leaving the property to his son James, an intensely private and active collector of books and art.

In 1870, James Lenox – who lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street where and near the major part of the city’s elite still lived – hired the architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a library on a plot of the land on the avenue way “uptown” between 70th and 71st Street.  The Lenox Library was a stately building overlooking the Park housing Assyrian antiquities and paintings by Constable, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Turner and Raeburn alongside American works by Frederick Church, Cole, Morse, Copley and Inman. Although it was a library, it was nevertheless mainly private, rarely open to the public and even then very selectively as to who could enter.
The Lenox Library on Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st Street. Built on part of the Lenox Farm, the Library was completed in about 1872 when that part of the city. The land surrounding and behind was still mainly barren despite this huge private library.
James Lenox died in 1880, leaving the remaining “farm” acreage – which had already been subdivided by the grid – to his heirs including the library which had grown over the years, and needed to expand. The family eventually decided to merge it with the newly a-building New York Public Library building on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. The land was sold to Henry Clay Frick who hired Carrere & Hastings to design a house for him and his extensive art collection. Nevertheless, despite paying for it, Frick was not allow to begin work on the new property until the new library building was completed and its contents transferred.

James Lenox had already previously donated land on Lexington Avenue and 66th and 67th Street to the New York Presbyterian hospital as well as the 7th Regiment Armory. The new era of real estate development had begun with those contributions.
The Frick mansion under construction, looking south from the northwest corner, October 2, 1913.
In the 19th century, the wide avenues and wide cross streets were most appealing residential locations for the rich and their large houses. Seventy-second street, one block north of the Lenox Library, with its vista of the Central Park entrance was a highly favorable location.

In 1880, Charles Lewis Tiffany who owned the highly successful silver and diamond jewelry establishment on Union Square (which was then considered “uptown”), purchased the lot on the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and 72nd Street.

Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Company.
His son Louis Comfort Tiffany, creator the famous Tiffany lamps.
Until that time, most of the block, north and south, running west to Fifth, was undeveloped. In fact, that same year – 1880 – John D. Rockefeller Sr. purchased a double lot on the northeast corner of 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue with the intention of building a mansion. Rockefeller, however, later purchased  the West 54th Street mansion of Arabella Huntington – where the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art is located today – and sold his 72nd Street plot on which stands the cooperative apartment house 910 Fifth Avenue today.

Charles Tiffany’s purchase came with a plan. Tiffany was a rich man. He was annually selling $6 million (more than $100 million in today’s currency) in diamonds with their “revolutionary” six-prong setting at his Union Square store. He had a sufficiently large and comfortable residence 30 blocks south down the avenue from 72nd. After his children – he had two sons and two daughters – reached adulthood and started their own lives, Tiffany wanted something where his entire family could be together – separately – under one roof.

His eldest son Louis Comfort Tiffany was the artist in the family. He had started out as a painter but in 1875, in his late 20s he became interested in glassmaking. In 1879, the year before his father bought the corner lot of 72nd and Madison, he formed Louis Comfort Tiffany and Associated American Artists.

The elder Tiffany had kept his son away from the family business where his clientele was interested in diamonds and pearls rather than Louis’ glass creations. Nevertheless Louis’ business thrived and he was an important figure in architectural and decorative arts movements of the time. By his early 30s he was his own man, a success. In 1881 he did the interior design of the Mark Twain house in Hartford (still intact). The following year, President Chester Alan Arthur hired him to redecorate the White House which he found “charmless.” The result was a strong departure from the original Federal style including screens and glass accessories and an opalescent floor-to-ceiling glass screen in the Entrance Hall (Teddy Roosevelt had the screen and all the Victorian additions removed (and destroyed) in a redecorating his White House in 1902.
The White House reception room built by Louis Comfort Tiffany for President Chester Alan Arthur, built in 1882. Twenty years later, another President -- Theodore Roosevelt-- moved in and had all the Tiffany work removed.
Charles Tiffany in his shop on Union Square with a client.
In 1881, Charles Tiffany hired the rising young architect – a contemporary of his son Louis -- Stanford White -- to design a new house for the corner of 72nd and Madison. White and Louis Tiffany were contemporaries. They had recently worked together on the decoration of the newly built Seventh Regiment Armory (now the Park Avenue Armory) on 66th Street and Park Avenue. Charles Tiffany presented White with a preliminary sketch of what he wanted. It was mammoth, Romanesque, with arches and turrets, gables and balconies.  A departure from all that was around.

Design work began in 1882 but would not be completed until 1885. White created a monumental five story building with an interior courtyard large enough for a horse and carriage to enter and turn around. There were three separate residences within, each with its own entrance on the courtyard, totaling 57 rooms. When the plans were completed, only two of the four siblings would live there. Charles Tiffany and his wife would occupy the first and second floors, with their daughter Annie Olivia Mitchell and her husband and family on the third floor, and Louis and his family on the fourth, as well as the enormous fifth floor attic for Louis’ studio. The structure was set on a one and a half story basement (visible, with windows on the street and avenue), which was faced with dark North River bluestone.
The Tiffany Mansion on 72nd Street and Madison Avenue, northwest corner, designed by Stanford White in 1881 for Charles Tiffany, and completed in 1885. It was one of the first houses in the area, housing three families on the four floors, as well as Louis Comfort Tiffany's studio on the 5th floor.
The upper part of the house was covered by thin, flat bricks of a light brownish/yellowish color speckled with black. White created these bricks with craftsmen from a brickmaking company in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. They were subsequently known as “Tiffany bricks.” He additionally softened the heavy medieval feeling of his client’s original sketch by adding triple Palladian windows to the steep black tile gables and including “Colonial” features. On the intersection corner of the house, rising three stories, was a turret reaching up to a gable roof of a silvery black tile.

The house soon became the object of much attention. New York had never seen anything like it, for it resembled a European castle as if transplanted on a Manhattan street corner. An English literary critic, Edmund Gosse, traveling across America gave it the stamp of approval, calling it the “most beautiful modern domestic building” he’d ever seen, referring to “a sort of vastness, as if it had grown like a mountain.”
Louis Comfort's studio in the house on East 72nd Street with ceilings as high as 50 feet.
Louis Tiffany was in charge of the interior decoration of his father’s (and his) new house. He brought in Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John LaFarge to contribute, as well as the architect. The vast interior spaces were complete with “gargantuan” fireplaces, surrounded by a constellations of hanging lamps of multicolored materials.

When finished, the enormous structure dominated the surrounding land which was nearly empty. Its final cost, more than $500,000 (or more than $200 million in today’s dollars). Ironically, Charles Tiffany’s plan to bring (part of) his grown up family together under one roof failed. Whatever the drama – presuming there was one, when it was completed and ready for occupancy, Charles Tiffany was not pleased. He was not pleased with his son Louis’ interior design of the parents’ apartment. His own ideal had been thwarted by the new. Whatever he said about it to his son is not known, but he decided that he and Mrs. Tiffany would remain in his house 30 blocks south.
The Tiffany look -- Louis Tiffany's apartment.
In 1885, the Tiffany mansion was occupied by son and daughter and their respective families. Henry Villard, a Bavarian immigrant who first came to America as a journalist covering the Civil War, and later made and lost a fortune in railroads, leased the first two floors. Villard also built a house designed by Stanford White on Madison Avenue and 51st Street, which was completed about the same time as the Tiffany house. It was about that time that Villard’s first fortune faltered and although the house (which today is part of the Palace Hotel) is still known as the Villard Houses (south wing and north wing), he and his family soon moved on up to East 72nd Street.
The Villard Houses on Madison Avenue and 51st Street.
Louis Comfort Tiffany died in 1933 one month before his 85th birthday. He had lived in his unique mansion for almost a half century. Three years later, the house was sold to a developer and demolished to make way for the Rosario Candela designed 19 East 72nd Street apartment house which today remains one of the top most desirable apartment buildings on the Upper East Side. While Candela’s replacement of Stanford White’s masterpiece is a noble one, the loss of Tiffany’s unique mansion remains a lamentable loss to the city’s architectural history.
Louis Tiffany died in 1936 after living in the house for almost 50 years. In 1938 it was demolished to make way for the Rosario Candela designed co-op, 19 East 72nd Street.
Coming Tomorrow: Part II

By 1890, New York was largest city in the country with a population of more than 1.5 million. As it was expanding real estate was escalating. By the mid-1890s, the block of East 72nd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues ...

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