Generations of East 72nd Street

4 (660 5th Avenue)

Real estate remains a hot topic in contemporary conversation, especially because of the past 30 years of rising prices. The interest in the subject is almost entirely devoted to that and, occasionally, to architecture. My interest is more personal and based on nothing but curiosity, and the writer’s scent of drama that exists in every dwelling of every man and woman.

When walking around the Upper East Side, where I have lived (on and off) since the mid-1960s, I often pass buildings where people I know, or have known, live or lived. The sense memory kicks in, and the lives involved return to my consciousness and my memory’s eye and ear. Houses are always stories—often dramas, comedies, tragedies, and (to borrow from Luigi Pirandello): Six Characters In Search Of An Author.

When Pope Francis paid a visit to the city this year, his brief stay aroused my curiosity. It was in a house at 20 East 72nd Street between Fifth and Madison avenues. East 72nd Street has always been one of the better streets on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Its proximity to Central Park (which had an entrance for carriages, horses, and passenger vehicles) increased its desirability. As it was developed for residential living in the last quarter of the 19th century, its architectural substantiveness was established—and it has largely remained more than a century later.

After the Civil War ended, in 1880, New York had entered what Mark Twain famously referred to as the Gilded Age. Great fortunes had been made or were on the make as the Industrial Revolution was transforming America from an agricultural to an industrial country. New York was booming and on the move.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, the Vanderbilts (after the death of the Commodore, Cornelius Vanderbilt II) were the richest family in the world. After the old man passed away, the Commodore’s principal heir built a great double mansion occupying the entire block between 51st and 52nd streets on the west side of Fifth Avenue. Soon after, in 1883, his son William K. and wife, Alva, built the first limestone château on the southwestern corner of 52nd Street. Their “housewarming” established them in Mrs. Astor’s society, whether the dowager liked it or not. William K.’s brother, Cornelius II, also built a château on the northwest corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, later expanding it so that it occupied the entire block to 58th Street (where Bergdorf Goodman is today). Along Fifth Avenue, above 42nd Street on both the East Side and the West Side, the city was moving north.

By the time the Vanderbilt palaces had reached 58th Street, Central Park (which is just one block north) had begun to flourish into its majestic self that we know today. Up until that time, this had been the “outskirts” of Manhattan. To the east of Fifth Avenue had been farmland or barren, rocky, hilly land.

The land that we now call the Upper East Side was divided by Fourth Avenue. The east and west sides of the avenue were divided by a large gulley, which featured the tracks of the Commodore’s New York and Harlem Railroad (now the Metro-North Railroad Harlem Line). It was all smoke and soot. In the early 1870s, however, the avenue was covered, piece by piece, until it was transformed and renamed Park Avenue. The entire area, real estate–wise, took on a different outlook. Madison and Park avenues as well as Fifth Avenue became a new destination for the prosperous New Yorkers as well as the Old Guard.

Its early residents were the newer New York elite, names that today might be regarded as the Old Guard but were then mainly the new tycoons and business titans. The Old Guard with their roots in the Knickerbocker families naturally preferred—or hoped—to remain. Enter the Gilded Age.

In 1880, East 72nd Street was still largely undeveloped land. It had been part of the Lenox Farm: 30 acres acquired in 1819 by a businessman named Robert Lenox for $6,920. It was believed that Lenox had overpaid because the land was “way out of town,” although favorable to wealthy New Yorkers of the 1820s and 1830s when they wanted to get away from the city (which was way downtown). Lenox died a wealthy man 20 years later in 1839, leaving the property to his son, James, an intensely private and active collector of books and art.

In 1870, James—who lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, where the major part of the city’s elite still lived—hired the architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a library on a plot of the land on the avenue “way uptown” between 70th and 71st streets. The Lenox Library was a stately building overlooking Central Park, housing Assyrian antiquities and paintings by Constable, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Turner, and Raeburn alongside American works by Church, Cole, Morse, Copley, and Inman. Although it was a library, it was mainly private and rarely open to the public.

James died in 1880, leaving the remaining acreage—which had already been subdivided by the grid—to his heirs, which included the library. It had grown over the years and needed to expand. The family eventually decided to merge it with the newly built New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. The land was sold to Henry Clay Frick, who hired Carrere & Hastings to design a house for him and his extensive art collection.

James had already previously donated land on Lexington Avenue and 66th and 67th streets to the New York–Presbyterian Hospital as well as to the Seventh Regiment Armory. The new era of real estate development had begun with those contributions.

In the 19th century, the wide avenues and wide cross streets were most appealing residential locations for the rich and their large houses. With its vista of the Central Park entrance, East 72nd Street (one block north of the Lenox Library) was a highly favorable location.

8 (CLT)

In 1880, Charles Lewis Tiffany, who owned the highly successful silver and diamond jewelry establishment on Union Square, purchased the lot on the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and 72nd Street. Until that time, most of the block, north and south, was undeveloped. In fact, in that same year, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., purchased a double lot on the northeast corner of 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue with the intention of building a mansion. Rockefeller, however, later purchased the West 54th Street mansion of Arabella Huntington (where the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art is located today) and sold his 72nd Street plot (where the cooperative apartment house 910 Fifth Avenue stands today).

Tiffany’s purchase came with a plan. Tiffany was a rich man. He was annually selling $6 million (more than $100 million in today’s currency) in diamonds with their “revolutionary” six-prong setting at his Union Square store. He had a sufficiently large and comfortable residence 30 blocks south of East 72nd Street. After his children (he had two sons and two daughters) reached adulthood and started their own lives, Tiffany wanted something where his entire family could be together—but separately—under one roof.

His eldest son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, was the artist in the family. He had started out as a painter, but in 1875, when he was in his late twenties, he became interested in glassmaking. In 1879, the year before his father bought the corner lot of East 72nd Street and Madison Avenue, he formed Louis Comfort Tiffany and Associated American Artists.

Charles had kept his son away from the family business, where his clientele was interested in diamonds and pearls rather than Louis’ glass creations. Nevertheless, Louis’ business thrived and he was an important figure in architectural and decorative arts movements of the time. By his early thirties, he was his own man—a success. In 1881, he did the interior design of the Mark Twain house in Hartford, Connecticut, which is still intact. The following year, President Chester Alan Arthur hired him to redecorate the White House, which he found “charmless.” The result was a strong departure from the original Federal style, including screens and glass accessories and an opalescent floor-to-ceiling glass screen in the Entrance Hall. (President Teddy Roosevelt had the screen and all the Victorian additions removed and destroyed when redecorating the White House in 1902.)

In 1881, Charles hired the rising young architect Stanford White to design a new house for the corner of East 72nd Street and Madison Avenue. White and Louis were contemporaries. They had recently worked together on the decoration of the newly built Seventh Regiment Armory (now the Park Avenue Armory) on East 66th Street and Park Avenue. Charles presented White with a preliminary sketch of what he wanted. It was mammoth, Romanesque, with arches and turrets, gables and balconies. A departure from all that was around.

Design work began in 1882 but would not be completed until 1885. White created a monumental, five-story building with an interior courtyard large enough for a horse and carriage to enter and turn around. There were three separate residences within, each with its own entrance on the courtyard. It totaled 57 rooms. When the plans were completed, only two of the four siblings would live there. Charles and his wife would occupy the first and second floors; their daughter, Annie Olivia Mitchell, and her husband and family on the third floor; and Louis and his family on the fourth floor (plus an enormous fifth-floor attic for Louis’ studio).

The upper part of the house was cover by thin, flat bricks of a light brownish/yellowish color, speckled with black. White created these bricks with craftsmen from a brickmaking company in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. They were subsequently known as “Tiffany bricks.” He additionally softened the heavy medieval feeling of his client’s original sketch by adding triple Palladian windows to the steep, black-tile gables and including “Colonial” features.

The house soon became the object of much attention. New York had never seen anything like it, for it resembled a European castle as if transplanted on a Manhattan street corner. An English literary critic named Edmund Gosse gave it the stamp of approval, calling it the “most beautiful modern domestic building” he’d ever seen, referring to “a sort of vastness, as if it had grown like a mountain.”

Louis was in charge of the interior decoration of his father’s (and his) new house. He brought in Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John LaFarge to contribute. The vast interior spaces were complete with “gargantuan” fireplaces, surrounded by constellations of hanging lamps of multicolored materials.

When finished, the enormous structure dominated the surrounding land (which was nearly empty). Its final cost was more than $500,000 (or more than $200 million in today’s currency). Ironically, Charles’ plan to bring (part of) his grown-up family together under one roof failed. Whatever the drama—presuming there was some—Charles was not pleased when it was completed and ready for occupancy. He was not pleased with Louis’ interior design of the parents’ apartment. His own ideal had been thwarted. What he said about it to his son is unknown, but he decided that he would remain in his house, 30 blocks south.

Louis died in 1933, one month before his 85th birthday. He had lived in his unique mansion for almost a half century. Three years later, the house was sold to a developer and demolished to make way for the Rosario Candela–designed 19 East 72nd Street apartment house, which today remains one of the top most desirable apartment buildings on the Upper East Side. While Candela’s replacement of White’s masterpiece is a noble one, the loss of Tiffany’s unique mansion remains a lamentable loss to the city’s architectural history.

By 1890, New York was largest city in the country with a population of more than 1.5 million. As it was expanding, real estate was escalating. By the mid-1890s, the block of East 72nd Street between Madison and Fifth avenues reflected this expansion grandly. In 1890, James A. Burden (whose father, Henry Burden, had founded a very prosperous iron works company in Albany, New York) purchased a double lot on the southeast corner of East 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue from the Lenox estate and built a mansion that was completed in 1893. The residence was short-lived. Twenty years later, it was demolished to make way for a 12-story luxury residential building designed by J.E.R. Carpenter in the Italian Renaissance style, with two 12-room apartments on each floor. The top floor was occupied by one apartment featuring 25 rooms. These were all rentals. Herbert Pratt, a Standard Oil partner, was its first resident in 1916. He paid a rent of $30,000 per year (about $750,000 in today’s currency).

On the northern corner, John D. Rockefeller’s double lot was sold and a large house of no existing record was built. That house was replaced in 1920 by developer Fred French, who built the 12-story 910 Fifth Avenue, a limestone-covered sister building to 907 Fifth Avenue, also in the Italian Renaissance style. The building was sold in the late 1950s to two brothers: real estate investors and developers Henry and Alexander Hirsch.

In 1894, Henry T. Sloane (the furniture and carpet retailer) purchased a large lot which was mid-block, between Fifth and Madison avenues and two doors west of the Tiffany mansion. He hired the architect Carrere & Hastings to build a French-style mansion. Before construction was finished, however, it emerged that Sloane’s wife, Jessie, was having a torrid affair with Perry Belmont (son of August Belmont, who was the Rothschilds’ business agent in New York). The couple separated before it became time to occupy the house.

In January 1897, Jessie hosted a “housewarming” reception for 200 guests, inviting many prominent New Yorkers including: Ava and Jack Astor (parents of Vincent Astor); the Stanford Whites; Mamie and Stuyvesant Fish (whose new house was close to completion on East 78th Street and Madison Avenue); Mr. and Mrs. Ogden Mills; and William K. Vanderbilt (who was now divorced from Alva, who had married Belmont’s brother, Oliver). Sloane was absent.

The Sloanes’ divorce was a huge scandal of the day, made more colorful by the fact that Jessie had been a girl from Brooklyn, starstruck by New York society. Five hours after the divorce was granted in 1899, Jessie became Mrs. Perry Belmont. At her new husband’s insistence, she returned the deed to the mansion to Sloane. He rented the house to Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, and his family as well as his 17 servants. In 1901, Pulitzer vacated and the house was sold to James Stillman, one of the founders of National City Bank (now CitiBank), a widower who lived there until his death at 67 in 1918. The house was then sold to John Sanford, a businessman and horse breeder, and heir to a carpet fortune. Sanford’s son, Stephen “Laddie” Sanford, was a famous Palm Beach–based polo player as well as director of the family carpet business.

The essence of East 72nd Street that gives it the architectural and social finesse that it retains today is a result of the construction in the mid-1890s. In 1894, across the street from the Tiffany mansion, another McKim, Mead, & White design was purchased by the then newly divorced Alva Vanderbilt who had abandoned her famous château on Fifth Avenue to her ex-husband William K. Vanderbilt. It was in this new house that her daughter Consuelo, forced by her willful mother, dressed and prepared for her wedding to Lord John Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Alva, it was said, had originally wished to marry her daughter into royalty. Everything came with a price, and the Vanderbilts could provide that. She couldn’t find a suitable king or prince and so she settled on Churchill, who lived in the largest private ducal palace in England: Blenheim. For Churchill, it was the answer to the expensive upkeep of such an establishment. It was, perhaps, the most famous marriage of an American at the end of the 19th century, a financial transaction that embellished Alva’s strong sense of breeding.

Also in 1895, diagonally across from the Tiffany house on the northeast corner of East 72nd Street and Madison Avenue, a real estate heiress by the name of Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo began a’building. Waldo’s architect, Alexander Mackintosh from Kimball & Thompson, created a mansion modeled after a château in Loire. The house was completed in 1898 but Waldo, who was then a widow in her forties, never moved in. Instead, she lived most her life in a smaller house adjoining it. Its first occupants were antique dealers and interior decorators and, in the 1980s, Ralph Lauren leased it for his flagship store. Lauren was the first and only occupant of the mansion who created an interior space that is mentally harmonious with its exterior grandeur.

Also on East 72nd Street, there were three townhouses that went up in 1894–95: numbers 18, 20, and 22. The middle house, number 20, was purchased in 1894 by the newly married businessman and mayor of New York, Hugh T. Grant, as a wedding gift to his wife. The Grant marriage was solid and so was Grant’s business. But he died early, at age 52 in 1910, leaving his wife an estate in the tens of millions in today’s currency. After Mrs. Grant’s death, the house was eventually sold to the Vatican to use for their United Nations. One of the selling points, according to Alice Mason (the prominent private residence broker who sold the house for the family), was that Grant’s wife had long ago built a chapel within on the first floor.

The house next door, number 18 was purchased by Jacob Schiff as a wedding gift for his daughter Frieda and her husband, Felix Warburg, the young banker from Hamburg, Germany. The Warburgs remained in residence for less than 10 years when they moved into a palatial mansion designed and built for them by C.P.H. Gilbert on the corner of East 92nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Frieda’s father expressed his disapproval of his daughter and son-in-law’s architectural choices, noting that the opulence and grandeur of the French Renaissance style could easily be considered in poor taste—a kind of showing off that lacked the dignity that the Schiffs presented to the community. Nevertheless, a large and creative family emerged from that grandeur: songwriters, cultural impresarios, writers, and bankers. And 36 years after its building, Frieda donated the house to the Jewish Museum. Her father would have been proud.

Just across the street from these houses, in 1898, Benjamin Guggenheim (one of the heirs to the immense mining fortune of Meyer Guggenheim) and his wife (the former Florette Seligman, daughter of the prominent banker James Seligman) moved in to their newly built number 15. The house, which is still standing today, was sandwiched between the mountainous Tiffany residence and the Sloane palazzo. It replaced a 20-foot-wide brownstone of modest note.

The Guggenheim marriage, however, was one of lessening passions. Benjamin traveled to Europe frequently on business, enough so that he would have an apartment in Paris. On April 10, 1912, Benjamin was returning to New York after one of his business trips and boarded the newly launched R.M.S. Titanic. He was accompanied by his valet, his chauffeur, and his mistress (a French singer, Leontine Aubart) with her maid. Everyone was asleep when the boat struck the iceberg on April 15. Benjamin, who shared his stateroom with his valet, was awakened not by it but by Leontine and her maid (who were in the stateroom adjoining). Everyone was being helped into lifebelts and heavy sweaters. The two ladies got into lifeboat number nine. Benjamin soon realized that he was not going to be saved, but he told Leontine and the maid that he would see them later on. However, he and his valet were last seen seated in the foyer of the Grand Staircase sipping brandy and smoking cigars. His body was never found.

Florette was devastated and, within a month, she and her two daughters moved out of number 15 and into The St. Regis. Her sister-in-law, Cora Guggenheim Rothschild, moved into the house with her husband.

By the late 1920s, the gilded block of East 72nd Street had changed noticeably with the large (now cooperative) apartment buildings. However, when Ralph Lauren expanded his business several years ago, taking over the southeast corner for his women’s store, he revived the Beaux-Arts influence with a magnificent structure that is wholly compatible with the architectural styles that dominated the block from the late 19th century and onwards, maintaining and punctuating the charisma and aesthetic of the late Gilded Age.