Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Big Old Houses: A Park Avenue Story

A Park Avenue Story
by John Foreman


I once had a real estate customer call me a "Park Avenue kind of a guy," which flattered the pants off me (not literally). Park Avenue, notwithstanding elite implications, rests on a sooty and cinder-y foundation, to wit: the railroad tracks. There were trains on Manhattan way before the Vanderbilts. The New York and Haerlem Railroad was incorporated in 1831. By 1834 it had managed to lay surface tracks all the way up 4th Avenue to Yorkville. Through Murray Hill, however, the tracks were sunk in an open cut that stretched from 32nd to 41st Streets. Decked and landscaped in the early 1850s, this section of formerly humble 4th Avenue was renamed Park Avenue and soon became a stylish residential street. The next time you take a cab through the Park Avenue tunnel, you can reflect on the fact that in 1834 it was a tunnel for trains.

Dirty smokey locomotives were banished in stages from the lower reaches of built-up Manhattan, until they made a final stand at 42nd Street. In 1871 the Vanderbilts hired John Snook of the wonderfully named architectural firm of Snook & Trench to design the terminal building below. In a stroke of marketing genius, Commodore Vanderbilt named it Grand Central, although in 1871 it was neither.
Burgeoning business on the New York Central rapidly overwhelmed Snook's terminal, and in 1899 it was so radically enlarged by architect Bradford Gilbert that it looked like an entirely new building.
Whereas chic residences lined Park Avenue south of Grand Central, a hideous open railyard extended north of it all the way to 50th Street. Unsurprisingly, the railyard exerted a dampening effect on local real estate development which, until then, was defined in the public mind by an assortment of factories, warehouse facilities and modest multiple dwellings.
The paint was hardly dry on Gilbert's Grand Central before it was torn down and replaced in 1913 by the present structure, designed by the talented and often unacknowledged firm of Reed & Stem in collaboration with Warren & Wetmore. Both the new terminal building and the railyard behind it were components of larger plan called Terminal City, inspired by the City Beautiful Movement.
The railyard was soon decked and the air space above it filled with architecturally complimentary buildings, especially luxury apartment houses.
In 1928 Warren & Wetmore's New York Central Building opened on the line of 46th Street. It immediately became a Park Avenue icon, at least until construction of the Pan Am (now MetLife) Building in 1963. Perhaps God will forgive architects Emery Roth & Sons, Pietro Belluschi, and Walter Gropius for Pan Am, but I'd say it's touch and go.
The Montana, built in 1912, was an early contender in the Park Avenue luxe apartment steeplechase. The Seagram's Building occupies the site today.
McKim Mead & White's 277 Park, built in 1925, covered the entire Park-Lex block and featured a glam central courtyard. The mindset that conceived the Pam Am Building managed the complete destruction of residential Park Avenue all the way to 57th Street, replacing it with today's glass towers. A single holdout remains: 417 Park on the southeast corner of 55th.
The view below looks up Park from the New York Central Building. The Prisoner of Zenda spire is the distance belongs to the Ritz Tower, opened in 1925. Everything else in this view is gone.
Planning started on Schultze & Weaver's Waldorf Astoria in early money-is-no-object 1929. It opened to a world of breadlines in 1931.
Below, we're looking south on Park from 80th. Except for a barely visible sliver of vanished mansion on the extreme right, this view hasn't changed much in 90 years.
The two images below look south on Park from 85th, in about 1900 and again in the mid-1920s. They illustrate just how great and how fast the changeover was.
Besides builders of luxury apartment houses, a scattering of society types was also scouting out lots on previously unheralded 4th Avenue. Among the earliest — by virtue of Social Second Sight, inside information, or both — was Percy Rivington Pyne (1857-1929), grandson of the founder and later a director of the First National City Bank of New York (today's Citibank). In 1909 Pyne hired McKim Mead & White to design this highly fashionable and beautifully detailed Federal Revival house on the northwest corner of Park and 68th Street. He moved in with wife and 5 children in 1911. Nor was Pyne alone in what seemed to some at the time a very odd fascination with old 4th Avenue. By 1912, however, even The New York Times was marveling that on Park Avenue, the "usual order of things is to be reversed, and ....the costly dwelling will crowd out the store."
In 1917, six years after the Pynes took occupancy at 680, Morgan partner Henry Pomeroy Davison (1867-1922) moved into a slightly grander manse at 690 Park, designed by Walker & Gillette and located at the north end of the blockfront.
Two years after that, furniture and decorating czar William Sloane (1873-1922) moved into 686 Park, designed by his Yale classmate William Delano, principal in the distinguished firm of Delano & Aldrich. This beautifully restrained Federal Revival house originally had side windows overlooking the Pynes' garden.
Too bad about those garden view windows, however, because in 1926 Mr. Pyne again hired the office of McKim Mead & White to build 684 Park as a gift for his daughter and her husband Oliver Filley (1883-1961). The new house blocked the Sloanes' south-facing windows, which couldn't have been a happy event, even if by that time Mr. Sloane was dead.
And so they survive today, the famous Pyne Davison Houses, not without assorted kicks and bruises, but survivors still.
The first big change at 680 Park was the elimination in 1926 of the private garden. Some would argue that 684 Park, which replaced that garden, is the most beautiful house of the four. Well, maybe yes, maybe no.
Princeton educated, socially connected Percy Pyne died 2 months before the Stock Market Crash, with the inconvenient result that his estate was assessed for tax purposes on the basis of its pre-Crash value.

Percy Pyne.
The family took a heavy hit, but was hardly impoverished. Pyne's widow kept the house until 1947, when she sold it to the Chinese government for their new U.N. headquarters. Perhaps the darkening revolution in China influenced a decision to resell the house almost immediately to the Soviet Union, which used it for the same purpose.

Whatever excitement took place inside the Soviet mission was mostly kept under wraps, with a few exceptions. In 1954, Stalin's villainous show trial prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinskiy, mysteriously dropped dead at the breakfast table while a guest at the mission. Before you could say KGB, the body was bundled onto an airplane that quickly vanished in the direction of Moscow.

Most people assumed he was assassinated. In 1960, visiting Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev invited visiting premier Fidel Castro to the mission for cigars, dinner and nose thumbing at the neighborhood. The irrepressible Krushchev held forth one afternoon from the balcony over the front door, haranguing the crowd with predictions that the West would soon be toast, and banging his show on the railing for emphasis.
A less amusing villain was real estate developer Sigmund Sommer who, in 1965, bought 680 Park from the Russians, along with the Filley house next door and a third manse at 49 East 68th St. He then began demolition in advance of construction of yet another dreadful white brick apartment house. Paneling and fireplaces were piling up in the dumpsters when representatives of the Marquesa de Cuevas, nee Margaret Rockefeller Strong, plopped a $2 million check on Sommer's desk and told him to stop. He did, thus assuring the Marquesa a place at the table with St. Peter, and saving Sigmund Sommer from an eternity in Purgatory.
The Marquesa transferred 680 to her cousin, David Rockefeller, who donated it to the Center for Inter-American Relations, now called the Americas Society. The other two houses were sold, the Filley house to the Spanish government for a cultural institute, and East 68th Street to the American Foundation on Automation and Employment. Both buyers remain in possession today. A noble effort was made to retrieve disassembled architectural fabric from 680 Park. Several important public rooms were subsequently restored, if not quite to original Pyne condition, then to something pretty close.
684 Park, as noted above, was built by Percy Pyne for his daughter Mary and her husband Oliver Dwight Filley (1883-1961). Filley sounds a dashing chap. He was seeking his fortune in the Rhodesian mining industry when the First World War broke out. The 31-year-old Filley dashed to London (America hadn't yet entered the war) and joined the Royal Flying Corp.

On July 6, 1915, while flying a critical reconnaissance mission, his plane was attacked by a quartet of Red Barons, all of whom he drove off by means of fancy flying and dead-eyed shooting, after which he safely landed the badly damaged plane, his co-observer dead in the cockpit with him. For his conspicuous gallantry he was first awarded the Military Cross, and two years later the hand in marriage of 22-year-old heiress Mary Pyne. Since 1965 the Filley house has been the home of the Spanish Cultural Institute, renamed the Queen Sophia Spanish Cultural Institute in 2003 in the wake of royal patronage.
Filley was a clubman, a foxhunter and a broker, a sort of John Held Jr. apotheosis. He spent his weeks in New York and his weekends at Upton Pyne cottage, a glamorously (in 1930) mansionized former coachman's house on his father-in-law's estate at Bernardsville, New Jersey.
William and Francis Crocker Sloane's 686 Park was more beautiful before the Filley house was built. Mr. Sloane was president of his family's firm, W. & J. Sloane, at least until America entered the war. From 1917 until he died in 1922, he labored night and day as Chairman of the War Work Council, his specific focus being the Red Cross. Sloane abandoned his own affairs and literally worked himself to death. A thousand people attended his funeral at Madison Avenue Presbyterian. He was only 49.
The Pyne Davison Houses, elegant as they are, have about them today an air of slight dilapidation. OK, maintenance costs are a bitch, especially for old houses. That's no excuse, however, for insensitive maintenance policies. Better to leave the ratty old windows alone than replace them with clumsy new ones. Am I the only one to notice that the original 6 over 6 windows on the 3rd floor of 686 Park have been replaced by totally inappropriate 9 over 9's? The new windows are wrong, wrong, wrong, and as soon as somebody at Landmarks wakes up, they'll be gone, gone, gone. Motivated by good intentions or not, they represent precisely the sort of minor — and often slow to accumulate — mutilations that eventually ruin fine old buildings.
Since 1958, the Sloane house has been home to the Italian Cultural Institute, an appropriate neighbor for the Spanish Institute next door.
The Sloanes had a beautiful country place near Mt. Kisco, designed by Delano & Aldrich in 1907 and called Merestead. It's the property of Westchester County today; "Big Old House" visited it at the beginning of June, 2013.
Henry Davison's 690 Park was designed by the society firm of Walker & Gillette. Stewart Walker's wife was the daughter of Tuxedo grandee Grenville Kane, a connection that led to 5 major house commissions in Tuxedo Park. These were in addition to 16 big places the firm did on Long Island, among them Planting Fields, visited by BOH last October. The firm was equally versatile in the commercial market, notable local examples being the Fuller Building at 57th and Madison, plus a dozen Neo-Classical Manhattan banks.
Henry Davison.
Henry Davison was from small town in Pennsylvania, never went to college, and began working at a local bank when he was still in his teens. A relative got him a bookkeeping job in far off Bridgeport, Connecticut.

There he met and evidently impressed the famed impresario, P.T. Barnum, who introduced him to a daughter of prominent Bridgeporter named Kate Trubee, whom he married and moved with to New York. He rose inexorably in the Manhattan banking world, eventually becoming a partner at J.P. Morgan.

Like his neighbor Sloane, Davison threw himself into war work, in his case as Chairman of the Red Cross. This was essentially a fund raising post, and Davison dazzled. He also burned out young, dying of a brain tumor in 1922 at the age of 54. After selling 690 Park to a General Electric Corp. vice president, Mrs. Davison moved to a 14-room coop at 856 Fifth. The Italian consulate has owned the building since the 1950s.

Walker & Gillette also designed Davison's Lattington, Long Island country place, called Peacock Point (now demolished). I don't have any interiors of 690 Park, but I have a feeling they looked a lot like Peacock Point's.
And so they stand today, with more than a few bruises perhaps, but at least they're all still with us.
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