Storied Mansions (Video)

Back in the early days of the new country, after the grid was put in place in New York, in the second decade of the 19th century, Park Avenue was called Fourth Avenue. Fourth was the avenue that carried the tracks of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York and Harlem Railroad. The railroad had entered daily life of New Yorkers, but living with it was no picnic. Besides the steam, there was the soot and the endless noise whenever it passed. The public demanded that something be done about it despite Mr. Vanderbilt’s objections.

By the 1870s, the railroad tracks on Fourth Avenue were covered. Then, in 1888, the tracks above 47th Street north to 97th Street were covered. That single change of covering the tracks and creating the Park Avenue Tunnel—which ends at the Park Avenue Viaduct on 97th Street—was enough for developers and individuals to build brownstone houses (and stores).

In the first two decades of the 20th century, private mansion-buildings flourished along Park Avenue north of 60th Street. A century later, there are only a handful left. The following are three prominent examples which remain intact (although no longer private residences) and one whose architectural ghost remains to remind.

 In 1906, Percy Rivington Pyne, banker and financier, purchased the lots on the southwest and northwest corners of 68th Street and Park Avenue to build a mansion on the northwest corner. He also bought the south corner of 68th so that he could choose who his neighbor might be and avoid an apartment house towering over his residence. Harold Pratt would become his southern neighbor.

Pyne hired McKim, Mead and White to design, and waited until 1909 when the Park Avenue tracks were successfully covered over. The house, number 680 Park Avenue, was completed two years later.

Percy Rivington Pyne died in 1929, at 72. In 1947 his widow sold the house to the Chinese Delegation to the U.N. Shortly thereafter it was sold again to the Soviet Mission to the U.S. The house became a center for public controversy soon thereafter.

In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev came to New York and stayed there. One morning Mr. Khrushchev appeared on the balcony over the front entrance to talk to the crowd that had assembled out of curiosity. According to the New York Times, the Soviet Premier sang the “Internationale” and spoke to the crowd about foreign policy and the arms race.

In 1964, having built a much larger mansion on East 66th Street, the Soviets sold the house to a real estate developer whose intention was to build a 31-story apartment house.

The developers had immediately begun interior demolition on nos. 680 and 684 when in January of 1965, the Marquesa de Cuevas, a granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, bought the properties. The Marquesa donated 680 Park to the Center for Inter-American Relations (now the Americas Society). The other properties were sold to buyers sympathetic to her cause.

The Harold Pratt House. Harold Pratt was the youngest son of oil mogul Charles Pratt whose fortune came from the family company’s merger with Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. William Adams Delano was hired to design the house. The family moved in early 1920.

Mr. Pratt had become a member of the fledgling Council on Foreign Relations, which was founded in 1921 with the charter of affording “Continuous conference on international questions affecting the United States, by bringing together experts on statecraft, finance, industry, education and science.”

Mr. Pratt died of pneumonia in 1939 at age 62. His widow Harriet continued to live in the house until 1945 when she gifted the mansion to the CFR as a memorial to her husband, stipulating that it be known as the Harold Pratt House.

The Redmond Houses. In April 1912, a man named Geraldyn Redmond and his sister-in-law, Countess de Langiers Villars had bought six Victorian townhouses that ran from 69th Street north on Park Avenue. The intention was to build “a large dwelling on the site.” It would be two houses built as one, and looking as one, but with two different entrances.

Although an unfamiliar name in New York today, the Redmonds were, like the Pynes, the Bakers, and the Pratts, established members of Society. Mr. Redmond had a banking firm as well as having inherited a lucrative linen business. His wife was a direct descendant of Robert Livingston who received the grant from Queen Anne in the late 17th Century for what became 160,000 acres of what is now a significant part of Columbia County.

McKim, Mead and White were hired to design the double five-story stone residence. Construction was completed by the end of 1914, when Mr. and Mrs. Redmond and their three sons and the Countess’ sister moved into their respective residences. Then Mrs. Redmond died suddenly a little more than a year later, in June 1916. Two years later, Mr. Redmond died suddenly “of paralysis” at age 64.

After Mr. Redmond’s death in June 1920, his heirs decided to lease the house. Then on June 1927, the exclusive Union Club bought the property from the Redmond heirs for $1.265 million. Delano & Aldrich were hired to design the club. Construction would be delayed until the houses’ leases expired.

In April 1915, a banker named Francis Palmer purchased a house on the northeast corner of 93rd and Park which had been built in 1847 for General Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812. The following year, the house was demolished and Palmer hired Delano & Aldrich todesign his house. Construction began in 1917 and completed in 1918.

Eight years later, in 1926, the house was purchased by George F. Baker Jr., son of the Chairman of the First National Bank (now known, many mergers later as Citi), purchased the adjacent lot and hired Delano & Aldrich to build a large ballroom overlooking the garden, and a connecting house for his father (who died before the house was completed).

Their father George Baker Jr. died suddenly in 1937 from peritonitis while on his yacht in the Hawaiian islands. His widow within a few years closed off the main house and ballroom wing and turned staff quarters above the garage into a pied-à-terre while spending the majority of her time at the Baker estate in Long Island. In 1958, she sold the house to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which had been established during the Revolution in 1920. The church remains owner of the house.