Thursday, August 24, 2017

A bit of history of Park Avenue

Looking up from Park Avenue and 87th Street. 8:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, August 24, 2017. Yesterday was a beautiful summer day in New York, after the rains that came the night before brought by winds that swept away the mugginess.

Today we’re running a piece I wrote for the August issue of Quest (on newsstands now). The issue’s editorial theme is the annual Quest 400 list. It’s a helluva lot longer than 400 list the Mrs. Astor had for her ballroom 140 years ago ... on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street where the Empire State Building stands today.

My piece is a bit of history of Park Avenue. Did you know that it was originally (still is actually) the railroad tracks that ran directly north and out of town? Mr. Vanderbilt’s railroad. As much as people loved the “new” steam engine transportation, no one wanted to live by the railroad tracks. Smart thinking people changed all that over time, and when they did what had long been Fourth Avenue on the grid, became Park Avenue. And the rest is history, especially some of the most interesting – houses and families.

Back in the early days of the new country, after the grid was put in place in New York, in the second decade of the 19th century Park Avenue was called Fourth Avenue. Third, Lex, Fourth, Madison, Fifth Avenues.  Fourth was the avenue that carried the tracks of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York and Harlem Railroad. It ran on street level and through an open cut on Murray Hill to the area of 42nd Street. The section that ran through Murray Hill was later covered with grates and grass between 34th and 40th Streets suggesting a park. By the early 1860s, that section of the avenue was dubbed Park Avenue.

The railroad had entered daily life of New Yorkers, but living with it was no picnic. Besides the steam, there was the soot and the endless noise whenever it passed by.  The public demanded that something be done about it despite Mr. Vanderbilt’s objections.
Looking south along Fourth Avenue and 56th Street.
When Grand Central Depot (forerunner of Grand Central Terminal) opened in the 1870s, the railroad tracks on Fourth Avenue were covered over by pavement.  By 1888, the tracks above 47th Street north to 97th Street were covered over. That single change of covering the tracks and creating the Park Avenue Tunnel – which ends at the Park Avenue Viaduct on 97th Street – was enough for developers and individuals to build brownstone houses (and stores). These houses began the transformation of the avenue from poor and rundown to what we see today.   
A rare shot of Park Avenue in the 1890s, taken when the street south of Grand Central was the fancy part.
By the beginning of the new century, rail travel had increased dramatically. Steam locomotives moving through the tunnels under Park Avenue were still pumping steam and noise into the streets as well as increasing the dangers for the passengers: the steam from the engines took very poor visibility to dangerous levels.

One morning in 1902, an express train coming from White Plains smashed into a passenger train waiting to enter the Park Avenue tunnel causing fifteen deaths and many injuries. The public clamor demanded a change. Solution: the locomotives were electrified to travel the tunnels. Electrification also solved the lingering problem of the tunnel covers: Park Avenue became desirable residential property to compete with Madison and Fifth Avenues where the rich had long been ensconced.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, private mansion-building flourished along Park Avenue north of 60th Street. By the 1920s, luxury apartment buildings, beginning first in the '40s, were moving up the avenue and taking many of the mansions away in demolition. A century later, there are only a handful left. The following are three prominent examples which remain intact — although no longer private residences — and one whose architectural ghost remains to remind.
Percy Rivington Pyne.
In 1906, Percy Rivington Pyne, banker and financier, purchased the lots on the southwest and northwest corners of 68th Street and Park Avenue with the intention of building a mansion on the northwest corner. He also bought the south corner so that he could choose who his neighbor might be. He did all this specifically to avoid an apartment house towering over his future residence.

Pyne hired McKim, Mead and White to draw up plans, and waited until 1909 when the Park Avenue tracks were successfully covered over (no more steam and soot belching). The house, number 680 Park Avenue, was completed two years later — red brick with white limestone trim on a rusticated limestone base.

Pyne’s choices were a success. Soon he gained neighbors in William Sloane, Henry P. Davison of J.P. Morgan, Arthur Curtiss James and George Blumenthal who built houses nearby to enhance the block.

Percy Pyne (Jr.) was a grandson of Moses Taylor (Jr.), forgotten today but in his day a super major financial power in New York throughout the 19th century. Son of Moses Taylor Sr. who was the agent for John Jacob Astor I with his now legendary real estate acquisitions. The younger Moses through that connection established himself as a merchant, banker, investor and real estate owner.
The Percy Rivington Pyne house, today.
Young Moses Taylor came of age as New York City was about to become a leading force as a major financial, shipping, and industrial center in the country, as well as the world. In the Panic of 1837, John Jacob Astor was able to acquire the City Bank of New York, putting the young man (he was 31) in charge. When Moses Taylor died in 1882 (his grandson Percy was 25), he left an estate of $70 million (several billion in today’s currency) to his wife and children. Percy had graduated from Princeton and gone to work for his grandfather, eventually becoming a director of the National City Bank and the Erie Lackawanna Railroad, among positions he held.

Percy Rivington Pyne died in 1929 at 72. His widow remained in residence in the big house until 1947 when she sold it to the Chinese Delegation to the UN. Shortly thereafter it was was sold again, to the Soviet Mission to the US. The house became a center for public controversy soon thereafter. Protests against Soviet Union. In 1956 when the Hungarians were rebelling against their Soviet invaders, there was a huge demonstration that clogged the block.

Nikita Khrushchev giving “an impromptu Soviet forum” from the balcony in 1960.
Then in 1960, Nikita Khruschev came to New York and stayed there. He met with Fidel Castro in that house, arousing even more controversy. One morning Mr. Khruschev appeared on the balcony over the front entrance to talk to the crowd that had assembled out of curiosity. According to the New York Times, the Soviet Premier sang the “Internationale” and spoke to the crowd about foreign policy and the arms race. 

In 1964, having built a much larger mission on East 66th Street, the Soviets sold the house to a real estate developer who also bought two adjacent houses with the intention of tearing them all down and building a 31 story apartment house. The recently formed Landmarks Preservation Conservancy proposed legislation to prevent it. However, the developers had immediately begun interior demolition on nos. 680 and 684.

Then in January of 1965, the Marquesa de Cuevas, born Margaret Rockefeller Strong, daughter of Elizabeth Rockefeller Strong, and granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, bought the residences and ended the demolition. The Marquesa donated 680 Park to the Center for Inter-American Relations (now the Americas Society). The other properties were sold to buyers sympathetic to her cause.
Narrowly escaped the wrecking ball in the 1960s.
The Harold Pratt House.  Eventually Pyne sold the lot on the southeast side of Park and 68th Street to Harold Pratt, the youngest of oil mogul Charles Pratt’s eight children. Charles Pratt’s fortune came from the oil business. When he merged his company with Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, he made himself and all of his children very rich. Harold Pratt’s purchase of Pyne’s lot was added to the lot on the south (between 67th and 68th) that he’d bought as well, making his plot 100 feet wide by 40 feet deep. William Adams Delano was hired to design the house.  His firm, Delano & Aldrich was at the same time involved in designing and building both the Knickerbocker and the Colony Club buildings.

Delano’s inspiration was the English Regency style.  The main entrance was place just off the avenue on East 68th Street since the lot itself was on an avenue incline.  The family moved in early 1920.
Harold Pratt residence.
It was a well lived in house by the Pratt family. Mrs. Pratt was an active philanthropist and hostess. All three children grew up in the house where dances and dinner parties were frequent.

Harriet Pratt speaking at the dedication of the Harding Laboratory at the New York Botanical Garden on Oct. 24, 1956.
In the early 1920s, Mr. Pratt had become a member of the fledgling Council on Foreign Relations which was founded in 1921 with the charter of affording “Continuous conference on international questions affecting the United States, by bringing together experts on statecraft, finance, industry, education and science.”

Mr. Pratt died of pneumonia in 1939 at age 62. His widow Harriet continued to live in the house (they also occupied a large estate in Glen Cove – where he had died) until 1945 when she gifted the mansion to the CFR as a memorial to her husband, stipulating that it be known as the Harold Pratt House. On April 6, 1945, it was dedicated in the presence of Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Jr.

The Redmond Houses.  In April, 1912, a man named Geraldyn Redmond and his sister-in-law, Countess de Langiers Villars had bought six Victorian townhouses that ran from 69th Street north on Park Avenue. The intention was to build “a large dwelling on the site. It would be two houses built as one, and looking as one but with two different entrances.

Although an unfamiliar name in New York today, a century ago, they were, like the Pynes and the Bakers and the Pratts, established members of Society as it was. Mr. Redmond had a banking firm as well as having inherited a lucrative linen business. His wife was a Livingston by birth, a direct descendant of Robert Livingston who received the grant from Queen Anne in the late 17th Century for what became 160,000 acres of what is now a significant part of Columbia County. Mrs. Redmond’s sister was married to the French Count.
Redmond House, 1915.
McKim, Mead and White were hired to design the double five story stone residence. By the beginning of the New Year (1913) construction had begun and was completed by the end of 1914 when Mr. and Mrs. Redmond and their three sons, and the Countess sister moved into their respective residences. Then Mrs. Redmond died suddenly a little more than a year later, in June 1916. Two years later, Mr. Redmond died suddenly “of paralysis” at age 64.

After Mr. Redmond’s death, in June 1920, his heirs decided to lease the house to Moses Taylor III and his family, Mr. Taylor being a cousin of Mr. Pyne across the avenue. Two years later, the house was leased to William Rhinelander Stewart. Like his lessors and his neighbors, Mr. Stewart was descended from some of the oldest land owning families in New York, and a member of Society. At the time, he shared the house with his son William Jr. – one of the most famous members of the Café Society that was forming in the city’s nightlife. Stewart’s daughter Anita was married to the Prince Miguel de Braganza, eldest son of the Pretender to the Throne of Portugal.
William Rhinelander Stewart Jr. with and Elsa Maxwell and Cole Porter, c. 1934.
Then on June 1927, the New York Times reported that the exclusive Union Cub was moving from its clubhouse on 51st Street and Fifth Avenue to Park Avenue and 69th Street, having paid the Redmond heirs $1.265 million for their houses at 701 and 705 Park Avenue. Delano & Aldrich were hired to design the club. Construction would be delayed until the houses’ leases expired.

The obvious resemblance of the Union Club to the Redmond mansions was not lost on Stanford White’s son, the architect Lawrence Grant White. He reportedly sent a note to Messrs. Delano and Aldrich suggesting that an inscription be carved over the Club’s entrance: “Conceived by the Genius of McKim, Mead & White. Destroyed by the Fury of Delano & Aldrich.”
The Union Club.
The Baker House. In April 1915, a banker named Francis Palmer purchased a corner lot on the northeast corner of 93rd and Park. Until a couple years before, the lot had been occupied by a Greek Revival mansion built in 1847 for General Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812. At that time, it was the highest elevation of Park Avenue, which was still countryside of farms and summer homes for New Yorkers escaping the city’s stifling heat downtown.

The Scott house’s design which was similar to that of Scott’s hero, President Andrew Jackson, and was named The Hermitage, after Jackson’s estate in Nashville. Completed in 1847, ironically General Scott never occupied the new house, the property was nevertheless always known as his house until Mr. Palmer bought it (from the Ursuline nuns who occupied it as a girl’s school).
General Winfield Scott mansion.
The year after Palmer’s purchase, 1916, he hired Delano & Aldrich to design his house. Construction began in 1917 and the red brick house trimmed in white marble was completed in 1918. Palmer also purchased the adjacent lot and created a large garden concealed from the street by a tall brick wall.

Eight years later, in 1926, the house was purchased by George F. Baker Jr., son of the Chairman of the First National Bank (now known, many mergers later as Citi). Baker  purchased the adjacent lot and hired Delano and Aldrich to build a large ballroom overlooking the garden, and a connecting house for his father (who died before the house was completed).
George F. Baker House, 1930.
The ballroom wing was finished for the debut of the Bakers’ daughter Florence (later Mrs. T. Suffern Tailer) in 1932. Two years later, in 1934, the younger Baker daughter Edith married John Mortimer Schiff were married there in a wedding described in the New York Times as the marriage uniting “two members of the families long prominent in the philanthropic and financial worlds.”

Their father George Baker Jr. died suddenly in 1937 from peritonitis while on his yacht in the Hawaiian Islands. His widow within a few years closed off the main house and ballroom wing and turned staff quarters above the garage into a pied a terre while spending the majority of her time at the Baker estate in Long Island.
George F. Baker House, today.
When the White House was being restored during the Truman Administration, Mrs. Baker donated two chandeliers from the ballroom to the White House – each containing 80 carved crystal prisms. In 1958, she sold the house to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia which had been established during the Revolution in 1920. The Church remains owners of the house. The house which George Baker Jr. had built for his father who did not live to see its completion, is owned by Richard Jenrette, the Wall Street investment banker who has a collection of beautiful, perfectly restored and maintained homes.
George F. Baker, Jr. with his father at Harvard Business School Commencement, 1926.

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