|I've Wondered for Years — Part 2 of 3 — 1027 Fifth Ave
by John Foreman
Some pretty fancy houses have been rising in America of late, not just "purpose built" either, but often simply "on spec." I doubt any is as profoundly luxurious as 1027 Fifth Avenue, a white marble, Fifth Avenue forty-footer finished in 1903 by a high class speculative builder named Benjamin Williams. 1027 Fifth was marketed to the tippy top of New York's luxury real estate market, people who could have built anything they wanted, but were disinclined to bother.
Williams' architect was a firm called Van Vleck & Goldsmith, a not-very-long-lived partnership (1897 to 1913) whose opus ranged from the Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbie, Arizona, to the YMCA in Montclair, New Jersey, to 1027 Fifth Avenue. Beaux-Ats trained, McKim Mead & White alumnus Goldwin Goldsmith left his partner to teach at the University of Kansas, then at the University of Texas, ultimately becoming an icon of American architectural education. Joseph Van Vleck had a lower profile, designing his own appealing house in Montclair, New Jersey, and probably many others which, unfortunately, escaped my admittedly cursory search.
|The first resident of 1027 Fifth was not the ebullient fellow below, but George C. Clark (1845-1919), principal in the private banking firm of Clark, Dodge & Co., 51 Wall Street. Mr. Clark appears to have been one of those smart, steady, "sound" men who labor diligently, earn great sums, contribute to the community (in Clark's case, as treasurer of the Brearley School, president of the American Society for the Control of Cancer, etc., etc.), belong to half a dozen good clubs and, as my father used to say, die with a tie on.
Mrs. Pratt, nee Florence Gibb (d. 1935) was the suffragette daughter of John Gibb, Brooklyn's grandest department store owner — or more correctly, the owner of Brooklyn's grandest department store, Frederick Loeser & Co. (defunct in 1952).
An informed reader describes her husband, accurately I think, as suffering from a type of real estate related Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. In 1902 Pratt built a grand country house called the Braes in Glen Cove, Long Island, bordering a complex of estates that belonged to his siblings.
In 1908, he commissioned another palazzo on Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn, also near family members. In 1912, the Braes, though barely a decade old, was pulled down and replaced by a perfectly titanic Jacobean manse, seen in the image below, designed by the same architect who did the first one, as well as the Clinton Avenue townhouse.
Two years later Pratt abandoned the townhouse and moved to an apartment in Manhattan at 640 Park Avenue. Not for long, however, for in 1916 he relocated to another apartment at 907 Fifth. When he left that one 3 years later, his landlord couldn't find anybody who wanted something so big and was forced to subdivide. Upon Mr. Clark's death in 1919 Pratt bought 1027 Fifth, and stayed there until his wife's death in 1935.
The longest held of Herbert Pratt's many houses — not forgetting his Good Hope Plantation in South Carolina or Pine Tree Point in the Adirondacks — was the Braes, that apotheosis of the Long Island country place, where he died in 1945 at the age of 73. Since 1947 it's been a naval architectural school called the Webb Institute.
|Back in 1935, the death of Pratt's wife, in combination with his own residential wanderlust, presented Marymount with an opportunity they couldn't refuse. True, Depression era prices, even on Fifth Avenue, were somewhere south of Uruguay, but Depression era economics also made 1935-36 Marymount's worst fiscal year since founding. In an act of faith, confidence and economic daring they bought the Pratt house anyway, the purpose being to open a Junior College to supplement the 4-year college in Tarrytown and the grade school at 1028 Fifth. "Shoestring" is a good adjective to describe initial conversion efforts, like the daunting prospect of bashing through party walls to connect 1027 to 1028. This was postponed by placing a ladder between the two roofs so that students and staff could crawl across. The Junior College of 1936 eventually became Marymount Manhattan College, now located on East 71st Street off Third Avenue.|
|A broad marble hall leads from your basic iron-doored entry anteroom to a central marble stairhall. Although the workmanship is A+, bear in mind these finishes aren't custom work. 1027 Fifth Avenue was a builder's gamble on how much he could spend and still make a profit. Aesthetically, the house is a marble-clad echo, inside and out, of the Chicago World's Columbian Eposition of ten years previous. The reception room, located immediately to the left of the street entrance, is usually a less formal, more intimate space. However, the front room in a 40-foot wide house with a side entrance has got to be almost 30 by 30 feet, not what you'd call intimate.|
|Judging from the "Father Knows Best" furniture, the crucifix on the wall and the absence of paintings, I'd guess the vintage view below was taken shortly after Marymount moved in.|
|The great ornament of the central hall — indeed of the entire house — is the sumptuous main stair.|
|Recent design projects at 1027 Fifth have been the work of Stanford White's great-grandson, Sam White. Among these is a new meeting room in the rear portion of the first floor. I suspect a breakfast room was originally configured in this space. An adjacent dumbwaiter is currently preserved on the site of what I'd guess was a small serving pantry.|
|As I say, the great ornament of the house is the main stair.|
|The first flight leads to another broad central hall on 2, with dining room in the rear and drawing room in the front overlooking the Avenue. Many years ago, I lived in Tuxedo Park in a house with a phone room which, ever since, has been my personal measure of a high class house.|
|The door to the dining room is at the rear of the second floor hall, next to a small winter garden. That's Mother Butler, Marymount's founder, over the fireplace. The swing door to a skinny serving pantry, originally connected by dumbwaiter to a vanished basement kitchen, is behind bookcases at the far end of the room.|
|Let's peek at the back stair, return to the dining room, then continue to the landing.|
|The drawing room overlooking the Avenue has been divided in two, though not irrevocably.|
|There is an elevator — the door was stuck; we couldn't see it — but why ride when you can walk up something so lovely.|
|I assume an owners' suite, with his and her beds and baths, was at the back of the landing on 3, and a library overlooking the Avenue was in the front. There's a missing wall in the larger of the two bedrooms (probably hers) and one of the en suite bathrooms has been, um, disrespected, but the original plan is basically intact.|
|Of the library in front, not a trace remains. The space has been combined with the library on the 3rd floor of 1026 Fifth Avenue, the third of the Marymount mansions, about which more next week. The two former libraries are now the school auditorium with a stage at the 1027 end.|
|Children and guests were on 4, their original bedrooms converted to classroom use. A few old baths survive in various states of deconstruction.|
|The servants' rooms on 5 have been combined into classrooms, plus a new science lab.|
|A steel stair leads to a gym, completed in 1984 on the roofs of 1027 and 1026 Fifth Avenue. It is happily invisible from the street.|
|It's time for my traditional walk downstairs, accompanied by a few "deep thoughts from John." I am not — well, more correctly, am no longer — a religious fellow, but I am often struck by the commitment of religious people to improve the human condition. Mother Butler founded 14 schools for women, in an era when women's education was considered unimportant, if not suspect. My own daughter's fine education has enabled her to enjoy a life of far reaching possibilities, while girls in other parts of the world have acid thrown in their faces, are kidnapped, or have their schools blown up. Marymount is a K through 12, Catholic day school that "seeks to educate young women who continue to question, risk and grow — young women who care, serve and lead — young women prepared to challenge, shape and change the world." Ambitious, perhaps, but so was Mother Butler. The link is www.marymountnyc.org|
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