A Gilded Age mansion traded for a pearl necklace

In 1905, Fifth Avenue gained a new mansion. Businessman and baseball team owner Morton F. Plant, the son of a railroad, steamship, and hotel baron, commissioned a marble and limestone showstopper at the southeast corner of 52nd Street.

When Plant moved in to the five-story Italian Renaissance-inspired mansion facing 52nd Street (above and below left) with his first wife, Nellie, he should have felt satisfied with his decision to build it here.

After all, his neighbors were among the wealthiest New Yorkers, including several Vanderbilts, who occupied their own mansions across the street. (Plant bought the land from William K. Vanderbilt; previously it was the site of an orphan asylum, according to a 2019 Bloomberg article by Jack Forster.)

Within a few years, though, Plant apparently realized he’d made a mistake.

An increasing number of businesses were creeping up to his stretch of Fifth Avenue (like the St. Regis Hotel and Gotham Hotels at 55th Street), ruining the exclusive, residential vibe.

One of those new Fifth Avenue businesses was the American outpost for Cartier, the French jewelers. In 1909, Pierre Cartier launched his first store at 712 Fifth Avenue, near 56th Street, wrote Christopher Gray in The New York Times in 2001.

Business was good for Cartier, which organized workshops in the city to meet the demand for their jewelry, states Forster. (Selling the Hope diamond in 1910 also helped from a PR standpoint, raising the jeweler’s Manhattan profile.)

But back to Plant (at right) and his mansion, which was increasingly out of character on a more commercialized Fifth Avenue. In 1914 he’d remarried a much younger woman, Maisie (above center). The two found themselves left behind as neighbors moved away and businesses replaced them. 

“By 1917, life on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street (at left, in 1900) had long since become untenable for Plant,” wrote Forster. “The ongoing encroachment of businesses, combined with the removal of virtually all the families who’d once colonized the Avenue below Central Park to new addresses north of 59th Street, had left the Plants isolated both physically and socially. Plant had already begun work, the year before, on a new and even bigger residence, on 86th Street and Fifth Avenue (below right).”  

Paying for two Fifth Avenue mansions, however, was quite costly, even for a scion of wealth. But then, Maisie caught a look at a Cartier pearl necklace. “It’s really two necklaces: a double strand of enormous, natural South Sea pearls; the smaller is a strand of 55 pearls and the larger, of 73,” wrote Forster. The necklace’s value: $1 million.

“When Maisie Plant fell in love with the natural, oriental pearl necklace, Pierre Cartier sensed an opportunity,” states a 2016 article by Business Insider. “Pierre, the savvy businessman, proposed the deal of a lifetime: He offered to trade the double-strand necklace of the rare pearls —and $100—for the Plants’ New York City home.” (The house was assessed at $925,000.)

In July 1917, an article appeared in the Real Estate Record and Guide announcing the sale of the Plant mansion on 52nd Street to Cartier for “$100 and other valuable considerations,” according to Forster. (At left, in 1975)

It’s an unusual deal, but definitely a win-win. Plant unloaded his first mansion by trading it in to Cartier for a necklace his wife desired, then moved uptown in a more luxurious house on the city’s new Millionaires’ Mile. (Cartier also absorbed the elegant residence next door at 4 East 52nd Street, the Holbrook House.)

Cartier has occupied Plant’s mansion on 52nd Street ever since. The exterior looks very much the same as it did in Plank’s day, though the interior has been altered somewhat.

I tried to get in to take a look around but the line to enter was too long; I’d forgotten it’s jewelry-buying season—when Cartier wraps the building up in a big red bow to celebrate the holidays.

But I did spot this modest plaque marking the mansion’s past as a short-lived residence built on a street destined to become a commercial corridor. 

Morton Plant died in 1918, shortly after moving into his 86th Street mansion. When Maisie passed away in 1957, the mansion was bulldozed and her pearls went to auction, where they were sold for $181,000.

Where are they today? No one knows. But a portrait of Maisie wearing them (above portrait) hangs in the Cartier store today, wrote Forster.

[Top photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.221; second photo: NYPL; third image: by Claudia Munro Kerr based on portrait by Alphonse Junger; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth photo: MCNY x2010.11.4753; sixth photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; seventh photo: MCNY 2013.3.1.366]

 

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7 Responses to “A Gilded Age mansion traded for a pearl necklace”

  1. john44c56be40ee Says:

    The 2nd photograph looks like a Berenice Abbott photograph from her WPA work in the 1930’s, although I can’t quite tell if the dress of the people in the photograph predates that time.

  2. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    Seems like a buxom doll, business must have been very grand, eh?

  3. Shelly Says:

    Great article!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you! It’s a story that touches on a lot of New York history topics: Gilded Age, Fifth Avenue mansions, commerce, etc.

  4. Tom B Says:

    Morton Plant’s father Henry, was big in Tampa. He built a hotel that is now the site of the University of Tampa.
    The Pearl Necklace didn’t hold its value.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, I wish I had more room to go into Henry Plant, an interesting character who opened up Florida to tourism, you could say. Morton Plant himself was a dedicated philanthropist who founded Connecticut College and endowed other institutions in CT and Florida too, I believe.

  5. countrypaul Says:

    Fascinating history. You do great work!

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