This massive stone mansion stood for just 26 years on Fifth Avenue

When railroad baron H.H. Cook decided to build himself a New York City mansion, he didn’t try to squeeze into a plot of land on Fifth Avenue in the 50s—an area that had been colonized by several Vanderbilt heirs and other Gilded Age moneymakers.

The H.H. Cook mansion in 1891, with few neighbors

Instead, he went to the then-hinterlands of Manhattan, purchasing the entire block from Fifth to Madison between 78th and 79th Streets. There he oversaw construction of his monumental stone house, which was completed on the corner of Fifth and 78th Street in 1883.

The cost of this exuberant, somewhat incongruous (are chimneys coming out of the dormer windows?) marble and sandstone home: $500,000, a hefty sum at the time, even for a millionaire.

The mansion circa 1900

He seemed determined to make the most of his investment. “Mr. Cook was very much interested in the building of the mansion, and it was his wish to make it one of the finest in the city,” stated the New York Times in 1909.

“Every detail of its construction was carefully looked after, and the building was done by ‘day’s work’—that is, there was no general contract to have it done at a certain time or at a certain cost, but the progress of the work was watched and if any particular feature did not please the owner it was taken out or altered.”

The Cook mansion became something of a monument at the time, and it likely lured other rich New Yorkers out of Murray Hill and other posh enclaves to this upper stretch of Fifth Avenue. By the 20th century, even Mrs. Astor relocated there, along with Andrew Carnegie.

Wurts Bros. photo showing many neighbors now

Cook wouldn’t live in his mansion very long, though. “After occupying it for 20 years, Cook became tired of the large place,” according to a 1930 New York Times article. He began construction on a smaller, more up-to-date one next door but never moved in; he was spending much of his time at his Berkshires estate in Massachusetts.

He died in 1905. Four years later, tobacco scion James B. Duke purchased the mansion, intending to renovate it. Duke changed his mind and had it bulldozed that year, constructing a more elegant mansion that still anchors the corner today, below. (It’s now owned by NYU.)

The James B. Duke mansion replaced Cook’s house, seen in 1938

“‘They don’t put buildings up that way now,” a watchman at the house said to a New York Times reporter, who wrote an elegy to the mansion in 1909 as it was “being taken to pieces and the material turned over to the second-hand men.”

Though Cook’s mansion only stood for a mere 26 years, his influence on the block lasts to this day. When he bought all the lots back in the early 1880s, he decided to sell them off only to developers intending to build single-family homes. “Cook’s Block” became known as one of the most restricted in Manhattan. Thanks to his foresight, the newest building fronting Fifth Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets is the Duke place, completed in 1912.

[First image: Digital Culture; second image: MCNY 93.1.1.16686; third image: MCNY X2010.7.2.25117; fourth image: NYPL]

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8 Responses to “This massive stone mansion stood for just 26 years on Fifth Avenue”

  1. Larry Gertner Says:

    That is one ugly pile of stones.

  2. serphsup04 Says:

    Sent from my T-Mobile 5G Device

  3. Chris Says:

    My wedding reception with 1.0 was held at Cook’s Berkshire mansion. MUCH lovelier than this one!

  4. Tom B Says:

    I see the entrance is on E. 78th St, but retains the 5th Ave address, just like the building to the South, 969 5th Ave. Why did these buildings not use a Fifth Ave entrance?
    The building to the East, 3 E.78th St installed some windows on it’s West side at the very top when comparing old/new pictures. Notice the alley size gap between the two buildings. Very expensive vacant land.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      That’s a good question about the entrances—many homes/buildings do that; the entrance is on a side street but they make sure the address is on the posh Avenue. I used to work at 4 Times Square…which had its actual entrance on 42nd Street between Seventh and Sixth.

  5. 411batterymemorialpark Says:

    The film Duplex 2003 tries to describe generationally New York diversity. Somehow each building demands new arrivals.

  6. IFA Graduate Says:

    The Duke Mansion is still there in good shape. It houses NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts (Graduate Art History School).

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