The World of Fifth Avenue, Part II

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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.

Thursday, February 3, 2022.  Sunny and warmer yesterday in New York with temps reaching up to the low 40s.

Part II. Growing New York. Back to the block on Fifth Avenue between 79th and 81st Streets. The Brokaw Houses.

Isaac Brokaw first went into business in the 1870s with the cloth importing firm of Wilson G. Hunt & Co. Then, still in his 20s, he organized a clothing firm with his brother William, calling it Brokaw Brothers. The “Who’s Who” entry noted that the firm “has long been a leading one in that business.” A major factor in their success was the Civil War for which the Brokaws provided  military garb and uniforms.

By the late 1880s, Brokaw was enormously successful and  a rich man. He acquired a large empty lot on the corner of 79th Street and Fifth Avenue and built his mansion. Brokaw and wife Elvira moved into the mansion in 1890 with their daughter Elvira, and three sons, George, Howard, and Irving. To run the house, there was a houseman and helper, a butler, two footmen, two cooks, a chamber maid and parlor maid.

It was there, on June 10, 1896 when “the most fashionable wedding of the season” took place when Elvira married Carl Aage Vilhelm Frederick von Fischer-Hansen. The entire choir from the Madison Avenue Reformed Church sang as the bridal party descended the broad staircase, through the music room and into the parlor.

The Elvira Brokaw mansion in 1917. At this time she was remarried to William McNair.

As the children grew up and married, Isaac began providing them with homes as well. In 1905 Charles F. Rose designed matching French Gothic mansions for Howard and Irving. There was no need to build a home for George, the eldest, since it was understood he would inherit the family mansion at No. 1 East 79th Street.

Two weeks prior to daughter Elvira’s wedding, the family had a scare when a black horse pulling a couple became spooked and uncontrollably galloped down Fifth Avenue. When the horse collided with a hansom, it swerved directly toward the Brokaw mansion while the driver pulled helplessly at the reins.

The New York Times reported that “The horse headed for the Brokaw house, jumped the moat-like granite area wall, almost pulling the couple over with it. The driver was thrown from his seat and struck upon his head on the sidewalk.”

The horse hung, thrashing, from the vehicle’s shafts in the light moat. The entire Brokaw family rushed to the windows, hearing the pounding of the panicked animal’s hooves. When police arrived, they cut the animal free, allowing it to drop into the moat where it stayed. “It will require a block and tackle to remove the horse,” said The Times.

Unnerved, Brokaw had the moat covered over.

The Brokaw house at 1 East 79th with the rear sections of the sons’ houses next door on Fifth Avenue. The main house had a faux moat behind the stone fences you see in the photo with a very shallow pool of water filling it.

Irving Vail Brokaw died in 1907, leaving an estate of nearly $12.5 million (approximately $100 million in today’s dollars). Mrs. Brokaw remained in the house which, The Times said, son George “will enjoy for life after the death of his mother.” Brokaw’s daughter, Elvira Brokaw McNair inherited the lot next door at No. 7 East 79th Street and $250,000 to be used to erect her own residence. In 1911 her restrained mansion, designed by architect H. Van Buren Magonigle, completed the Brokaw complex of real estate.

After his mother’s death, George begrudgingly lived on in the house he intensely disliked — because of its size and cost of maintenance — through two marriages. His life in the mansion was forced on him by his brother and the courts.

In 1925 George had moved out and petitioned the courts to allow him to mortgage the property for $800,000 and use the money to demolish the mansion and erect a modern apartment house. George called the house “old” and complained that it was heavily taxed and “non-remunerative.”

His brother, Howard stepped in to block the move. Three years later, after uncomfortable court battles, the Appellate Division ruled that the house could not be sold nor razed without the mutual agreement of all the Brokaw siblings.

George moved back in.

The street traffic on 79th and Fifth.

On the north corner of the next block — East 80th Street and Fifth avenue — Frank W. Woolworth, the five-and-dime tycoon (the Sam Walton of his day), had built his mansion eleven years after the Brokaws in 1901, designed by C.P.H. Gilbert — one of the most prominent architects in New York.

C.P.H. Gilbert.

A few years later, when Isaac Brokaw was building houses for his sons and their families, Frank Woolworth, just inside that same 80th Street block (between Fifth and Madison), on the south side of the street, Mr. Woolworth commissioned Cass Gilbert (no relation to C.H.P.) to build three adjoining mansions for his three daughters: at number 2 East 80th for Edna (Mrs. Franklyn Hutton), the mother of Barbara Hutton, America’s Poor Little Rich Girl); and number 4 East 80th for Helena (Mrs. Charles McCann) and number 6 for  Jessie (Mrs. James) Donahue.

In 1909, on one block north on 81st and Fifth, two men, Charles R. Fleischmann and James T. Lee bought the corner lot of August Belmont, the Rothschilds’ man in New York. Belmont had originally intended to build a mansion for himself. Fleischmann and Lee had a better idea. They hired the distinguished firm of McKim, Mead and White to build a 12 story luxury apartment building in the Italian Renaissance style.

The Frank W. Woolworth house on 80th Street and Fifth Avenue, c. 1900.
The town houses F. W. Woolworth built for his three daughters (2, 4, and 6 East 80th) all are still standing. Number 2 for daughter Edna, where daughter Barbara grew up in the first ten years of life; number 4 for the eldest daughter Helena McCann; and number 6 for Jessie Woolworth Donohue.

One of the very first in New York, the marketing idea of an apartment for the rich was one of “convenience,” and considered foolish. There had been grand apartments built before for the nouveaux riches, but developer Lee envisioned something for the grandees — the Astor crowd. Convenience for them meant the worries of maintenance was left to the building management.

The public (that being the neighborhood) reaction to the project was negative. The cost including land was considered extravagant: $3 million (or several hundred millions in today’s dollars). When a-building, the site was still considered “remote.” Society living in apartments? Who would do that?

Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The builders had the vision, however. When it was finished in 1912, there were 15 apartments, including two duplexes and a maisonette. The single floor apartments were each 6250 square feet with 15 rooms. On the street side of the building were three duplex units of 5000 square feet each. The ninth and tenth floors each contained a single apartment of 8750 square feet. The building was fireproof, built entirely of limestone, with walls two feet thick; it was being built to last. There were wall safes, storage rooms in the basement, many wood-burning fireplaces, fancy cornices and excellent wood paneling; large public rooms, high ceilings and sufficient space for the live-in staff. It also was a rental, with prices ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 a month, (in the several millions annually in today’s dollars), depending on the size of the apartment.

As it neared completion, the public, or rather society’s attitude had already changed. The number “998” meant exactly what the developers had planned: exclusive and convenient luxury. Its first tenants including Elihu Root, Murry Guggenheim, of the mining family, (who took the largest apartment), Watson Dickerman, president of the New York Stock Exchange’ Levi P. Morton who had been vice-president of the United States under Benjamin Harrison, George Fearing, president of the Metropolitan Club. In its history, some of the prominent families who have also lived there include Astors and Vanderbilt.

The building’s broker, Douglas Elliman (the person) who had his doubts about the project in the beginning, found himself besieged with more than 100 offers from prospective tenants. On completion, the public attitude, or rather Society’s attitude about apartment living had reversed. The developers’ vision was confirmed: in 1912, less than 5% of the rich lived in apartment houses. By the mid-1920s, 90% of the rich in New York were living in apartment houses.

In 1953, it went co-op. More than a century later, 998 is still regarded as one of the most desirable apartment houses in New York with its apartments now selling at upwards of $20-30 million.

Fifth Avenue, circa 1920 looking north from the southwest corner of 80th and Fifth. On the northern corner is the F. W. Woolworth mansion on 80th with the first luxury apartment building, 998 Fifth on the next block.

I don’t know about Charles Fleischmann’s history but James T. Lee went on to distinguish himself by building several other luxury apartment houses in New York including 740 Park Avenue and 580 Park Avenue. History, however, will remember him (if at all) as the maternal grandfather of Jacqueline Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill.

By the 1920s, all of this was old news to the growing metropolis, and apartment houses had begun to infiltrate the wealthy corridor. In 1926 after the death of the eldest Mrs. Brokaw, Elvira, son George Brokaw, the eldest of her three sons, was left the house. He didn’t want it. He wanted to tear it down and build an apartment house. His siblings objected, much to his chagrin, and insisted he wait until everyone wanted to sell. This caused a family squabble, predictably, but George withdrew.

The Brokaw mansion in 1927.

Meanwhile, George Brokaw was very unhappy about it as the maintenance of the house and staff was very expensive and he could see the neighborhood was changing. At the time he was married to the writer Clare Boothe. They had a daughter Ann Clare Brokaw. In 1929, Clare divorced George Brokaw, and married a budding magazine titan named Henry Luce. In 1931, George married again, to a beautiful young woman named Frances Seymour with whom he had a second daughter, Frances de Villers Brokaw.

Then 1935, George died of a heart attack. The following year, Frances Brokaw remarried — to an actor named Henry Fonda, with whom she had two children — Peter and Jane. Fifteen years later in 1950, Frances took her own life by slitting her throat with a razor while a patient in a sanitarium on her 42nd birthday. Mr. Fonda had asked for a divorce just a few days before.

After George Brokaw’s death, the big house remained empty for the next ten years. In 1946 the family sold it for $200,000 for the Institute of Radio Engineers to turn into an office space. Two decades later, after having acquired the other three Brokaw houses over the years, the Institute sold the properties to a long time Manhattan real estate developer named Anthony Campagna.

There was a great deal of public objection to the idea (of an apartment house two blocks south of the Messrs. Lee and Fleischmann project at 998), at just about this time (February 1965), on a very early Saturday morning, Mr. Campagna sent in a wrecking crew and began the job. He was publicly criticized for it, and he hadn’t been given permission to be at that early Saturday morning destruction event. But it was too late, the damage had already begun.

[The New York Preservation Archives Project]

It had been three years since the demolition of the McKim, Mead and White’s Penn Station, and probably the last straw for the preservation minded citizens of New York. There had been a draft law on the desk of the Mayor to sign the Brokaw houses as “landmarks” but it was too late: the law was signed on April 19th, but the deed was done.

Demolition of the Brokaw mansion under way, 1965. Photo: Office for Metropolitan History.

Clare Boothe Luce recalled at the time of the demolition in an interview with the Herald-Tribune that “from the moment I stepped into that house until the moment I stepped out, that family never stopped quarreling about the houses.”

With the demolition came two enormous luxury apartment buildings — one facing 79th Street and the second on Fifth with a magnificent view of the park and annual rental fees of $250,000 and upwards. Several dozen tenants, numbering in the hundreds — most of whom never heard of Isaac Brokaw’s family and their mansions — were now in residence in changing times.

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