The rise and fall of the 1856 “House of Mansions”

It looked like a palace: a four-story structure of fawn-colored brick with rounded towers, long slender windows, and Gothic touches above entryways and on the roof.

Built on Fifth Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets in 1856, the “House of Mansions,” as its developer called it, was actually 11 separate homes deemed “a striking architectural novelty” by the New-York Tribune.

Designed to lure the wealthy and fashionable to the underdeveloped neighborhood of Murray Hill, each independent mansion featured 12 to 18 rooms and “unparalleled views” of the outer boroughs, an ad enthusiastically stated.

The House of Mansions was spectacular to behold.

But it was also a spectacular failure—too ahead of its time in expecting the rich to leave their freestanding houses around Washington and Madison Squares to colonize this upper end of Fifth Avenue.

It’s easy to see why developer George Higgins bought the land and had premier architect Alexander Jackson Davis design the House of Mansions.

The massive Croton Distributing Reservoir (above, in 1879) was across the street; its high granite walls became a trendy spot for ladies to promenade in their fancy crinoline frocks in the pre–Civil War city.

Behind the Croton Reservoir was the Crystal Palace, an exhibition hall (above, in 1854) with an observatory tower. Both were very popular destinations.

And in a city rapidly filling up with brownstones that spread “like a cold chocolate sauce,” across Manhattan, Higgins may have thought his unusual dwellings would attract those who eschewed cookie-cutter housing.

He was wrong. In 1860, the House of Mansions was no longer.

Rutgers Female Institute, the first institute of higher learning for women in New York, renovated the 11 homes and turned them into classrooms, as reported in the New York Times on June 18 of that year.

The college didn’t last, either, decamping for a new site in Harlem.

In the 1880s—as the wealthy finally did move into Upper Fifth Avenue—the former House of Mansions (above, in 1885) was partially demolished, and the remaining buildings altered. Eventually, in stages, the castle vanished.

No trace of this ambitious, auspicious housing development remains on the block today.

[Photos: NYPL Digital Collections]

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9 Responses to “The rise and fall of the 1856 “House of Mansions””

  1. Lady G. Says:

    It always amazes me how different NYC looked in the past. All the open land and then these beautiful buildings coming and going.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      That was supposed to be one of the selling points, fresh air, space. Too bad no one wanted to buy one!

  2. Wesley Greenbaum Says:

    it was not demolished all at once in 1885, as this article says. It came down in sections through the years. First the 2 northernmost houses were altered for the Bank of Banks while the demolition of the middle section took place. By 1892, one house still remained, #481 Fifth Avenue, a narrow remnant of the original grand concept. Complete with its anachronistic front yard, it remained until demolished in 1914 for the new building erected for Rogers Peet & Company.

  3. VirginiaLB Says:

    Thank you for preserving all these wonderful NYC places, if only digitally. Gone but not forgotten, thanks to your blog.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you VirginiaLB!

  5. Tom Hakala Says:

    A story similar to Villard Houses (5 residences) on Madison which still exist and are currently a part of the Palace Hotel. The fun part is that you can actually go into the hotel and see some of the rooms of the Villard Houses.

  6. [Blog Glück] Oktober 2019 – Seitenglueck Says:

    […] York City 1901 super interessant und so wunderschön! Außerdem fand ich den Beitrag zum Fail der „House of Mansions“ super. Die 5th Avenue entwickelte war Mitte und Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts noch nicht bereit dafür, […]

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