The World of Fifth Avenue, Part I

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Looking at the northeast corner of 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, circa 1915. One block up on the northeast corner of 80th Street was the mansion of five-and-dime tycoon Frank W. Woolworth. One block north on the northeast corner of Fifth and 81st, was the newly completed, first luxury apartment house (1912) of 998 Fifth, still standing and in fine fettle 103 years later. Library of Congress.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022. Cold and sunny yesterday in New York, with temps in the mid-30s. Could be worse.

Today is the birthdate of our beloved and much-missed Liz Smith who was born on this day in 1923 in Fort Worth, Texas. She came to New York in the late 1940s seeking an occupation as a writer, and it became her town forever. When I came to New York from California in 1989 seeking work as a writer, she took me under her wing. She did this for many people. Generosity was the gift she shared.

The great Liz Smith surrounded by some of her many friends and fans at Michael’s a few years back at a luncheon for Sylvia Chase, retired anchor of ABC News 20/20. Standing: DPC, Cynthia McFadden, Nancy Collins, Sylvia Chase, Rick Kaplan, David Zippel, and Jessica Velmans. (l. to r.): Jesse Kornbluth, Karen Burnes, Joe Lovett, Liz Smith, and Paige Peterson. Photo by Steve Millington.


Our recent Diaries on Fifth Avenue mansions and Mrs. Astor and Mrs. Post resonated with the fans of the current Julian Fellowes’ series on HBO, “The Gilded Age.” I was vaguely aware that the phrase was first expressed by Mark Twain as title of a book he wrote about the last quarter of the 19th century in New York when it was part of his life. He had a sharp eye for the motive of seeking wealth and its results. His use of the word “gilded” however referred to the pretense (gilded, not solid/pure) (like the real thing) expressed and presented by the very rich of the time.

A street scene from Fellowes’ “The Gilded Age” on HBO.

The Civil War was over in 1869 and a great technical revolution ensued — electricity, telephone, gasoline engine — comparable to our tech revolution in its effect on our habits and our psyches. Fifth Avenue up until that time, even up to the 1880s was almost entirely undeveloped land. It was hardly even considered real estate until the Central Park opened and at the very almost bleak beginning the walls began to go up.

After the residents of the site were forcefully removed, construction of the park commenced in 1857. Construction would continue until 1873.

The city had been growing in those decades with immigrants coming in large numbers from all over Eastern Europe as well as England and Scandinavia. By the 1880s, the die was cast: the Park was the difference. Those who lived in the bustling city nevertheless lived across from this burgeoning creation of Messrs. Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux.

By the late 1890s even Mrs. Astor had moved her ballroom (greatly enlarged to accommodate the growing “society”). By the dawn of the 20th century, Fifth Avenue had become the lane of palaces of the new millionaires. I have a photograph on my screen taken of the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street in what looks like the second decade of the 20th century. Possibly as late as 1915.

Isaac Vail Brokaw.

The house facing 79th, designed by the firm of Rose & Stone, was completed in 1890 for Isaac Vail Brokaw; a fabric and clothing manufacturer who was born in 1835 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The Brokaws were French Huguenots who emigrated to America when it was still the 13 Colonies, and some of them fought in the Revolutionary War.

Mr. Brokaw built the two adjoining mansions, also in the French Renaissance style — nos. 984 and 985 Fifth Avenue and completed in 1906 — for two of his sons Howard and Irving and their wives. He also gave his only daughter $250,000 to build herself a very large townhouse, very restrained and un-Loire-like mansion on the lot next door to her father and mother on East 79th Street. You could build a massive mansion in the city for that sum in those days.

All four Brokaw houses were still standing three quarters of a century later when I first came to live in New York after college in 1962. That’s quite a record for any edifice in Manhattan real estate above 14th Street.  This was hot property in the budding metropolis and amazingly it has remained so. Although almost all of the real estate built then has long since been demolished and replaced.

The world of Fifth Avenue at the turn of the century was all brand new with palaces being erected on the wide boulevard streaming with the most fabulous new invention for the rich: the horseless carriage.

984 and 985 Fifth Avenue. Isaac Vail Brokaw houses, ca. 1905. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
The Isaac Brokaw mansion, number 1 East 79th, next to the townhouse of his only daughter, constructed in 1913 for under $250,000.

It was probably in the early Springtime at the time this photo was taken. I’m guessing because of the leafless trees on the west side of the avenue, the open roadster traveling south, and the woman on the corner with the young boy and the dog.  It was indeed early springtime for New York society in the early 20th century.

The great economic boom after the Civil War had raised the city’s population (including the boroughs) to more than 4.5 million – half of whom had come from Eastern and Western Europe. The section of Fifth Avenue in this photograph had been newly developed out of barren, almost tree-less land of occasional farmhouses and even shacks in the last quarter of the 19th century. Mr. Brokaw’s mansion was one of the first in an area, constructed on empty land. A year later, direcly across the street from the Brokaws, behind the iron fence, was one of Brokaw’s very first neighbors, Isaac and Mary Fletcher whose mansion (which is still standing) on the southern corner of 79th completed in 1891.

The Isaac Fletcher house at No. 2 East 79th, designed by CPH Gilbert and completed in 1891.
As it looks today.

The block across the street from the Brokaws where the Fletchers built their mansion was originally owned by a businessman named Henry H. Cook who made his fortune in banking; and like many other millionaires of the day, in railroads.

Cook knew this was where the city’s rich were going to want to live, and how right he was. In 1880 he purchased the entire block between Madison and Fifth and 78th and 79th Streets and built himself a large five story mansion on the corner of 78th and Fifth in 1883 for himself. He also had made up his mind that no commercial structures or apartment houses were going to occupy his block. Ever. There was a codicil in all deeds he sold forbidding anything but the building of private-family houses forever. Furthermore, Cook expected those houses to be mansions and nothing less. Because he was already wealthy he could be choosy about whom he sold his lots to. And so it remains — architecturally at least, as you may have noticed if you’ve ever been in the neighborhood. Although many of those “private family” houses today are occupied by commercial establishments, art galleries, restaurants and non-profits that have moved into several of the original houses.

Henry H. Cook’s mansion at 78th Street and Fifth Avenue, which was replaced in 1912 by the James B. Duke house. Cook owned the entire block and this was the first house to be built on that block that ran from 78th to 79th Streets and from Fifth to Madison Avenues. More than a century later following the rules set by Mr. Cook, there are no buildings that were not first spectacular townhouses and no more than six stories.

In 1902, Cook decided he was ready for something smaller for himself, and built another mansion right behind the Fletcher house. He hired Stanford White to design a house at 973 Fifth Avenue. Shortly thereafter White was hired by Oliver Payne to design a bow-front, nearly matching mansion right next to it at 972 for his nephew and his new wife Payne Whitney and Helen Hay.

Both houses are still standing, as Cook had projected. Cook, however, died before his own new house was finished and he never saw the plans of for the Whitney house. As fate would have it, the architect White also died before completion, having been publicly assassinated in a Broadway nightclub by Harry Thaw, a wealthy and enraged psychopath who had married one of White’s former inamoratas, the “girl on the red velvet swing,” Evelyn Nesbit.

Two houses built side by side on the block of Fifth between 79th and 78th Street. The houses were commissioned separately but designed by the firm of McKim Mead and White when Stanford White was still alive. The house on the left was ordered by Henry Cook who felt he needed a “smaller” house in his old age. On the right was the house that Oliver Payne had ordered as a wedding gift for his nephew Payne Whitney and his bride Helen Hay, the daughter of President Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Hay. It was in this house that John Hay (Jock) Whitney and his older sister Helen Payson grew up.

Cook’s “new” house later has had several residents over the 20th century, including briefly, Oliver Payne; most recently private equity guru David Leuschen (and before him the late real estate speculator Victor Shafferman). Cook’s original mansion on 78th and Fifth was sold after his death to James B. Duke, of Duke Tobacco and Duke Power & Light. Duke had the house demolished and hired the Philadelphia architect to the very rich Horace Trumbauer to design a mansion. Completed in 1912, it was occupied by Duke, his wife Nanaline, and his daughter Doris. Forty years later, in 1952, long after the death of Duke and his wife, Doris Duke (who was, along with her contemporary Barbara Hutton, considered the richest girl in the world) donated the house to New York University which converted for use of its Institute of Fine Arts.

The southeast corner of 79th Street and Fifth Avenue: the Fletcher house, 973 and 972 Fifth and the northernmost corner of the James B. Duke house.
The main salon of 973 Fifth Avenue, circa 1998 when it was owned by Victor Shafferman.
As it looked in 2021 when owned by Mr. Leuschen. Michael Weinstein via Corcoran
The interior of the James B. Duke mansion at 78th Street and Fifth in 1914 as published in The New York Times.
As it looks today as The New York University Institute of Fine Arts.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the moneyed elite of New York had barely begun to move up the avenue in what had become a natural evolution from Washington Square — all because of the growth of commerce — stores, offices and hotels — in the old neighborhoods.

One of the very last holdouts in this trend had been Society’s aging empress, Caroline Astor (the Mrs. Astor) who finally abandoned her longtime brownstone mansion residence on the southwest corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1896 after her house had become surrounded by commerce. The last straw for her was her petulant nephew Waldorf Astor.

Caroline Astor’s brownstone mansion at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street next door to her disagreeable nephew Waldorf Astor’s new hotel the Waldorf, circa 1891. Mina Rees Library, The Graduate Center, CUNY.

Waldorf Astor found his aunt’s claim on social rank more than annoying (since her husband was the second son, versus his father being the first). To exact revenge he tore down his family’s brownstone on the same plot (the block between 33rd and 34th Streets), built the massive multi-storied Waldorf Hotel on it, and moved his family to London, leaving auntie Lina to stew in her own brew.

This was not Lina Astor’s idea of de rigueur, although it was probably her son Jack (John Jacob IV), Waldorf’s contemporary and cousin— who had the better idea. With mama’s approval, he built a much much grander palace, a double mansion, on 65th and Fifth, and replaced the old house with a matching grand hotel next door to the recently built Waldorf. He called his the Astoria, which soon enough was merged by the two cousins into the first Waldorf-Astoria.

Moving uptown, away from the melee of the impossible nephew’s disagreements (and the big commercial establishment next door), Mrs. Astor moved into the vast double mansions that her son J.J. (Jakie) Astor IV built on 65th Street and Fifth Avenue, leaving his mother’s imprimatur on this part of the town.

It was Mrs. Astor’s move thirty blocks north, however, not her son’s real estate vision, that was the final nod to legitimacy of what became known as the million dollar mile. This was what Henry Cook had been waiting for. The move even check-mated her once-upstart competitors, the Vanderbilts, who had several palaces from 50th to 58th Street, but who eventually a couple of decades later abandoned the old neighborhood too.

Part 2 coming tomorrow.

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