The Fifth Avenue mansion of a millionaire who built houses for the poor

In 1905, former steel magnate Henry Phipps donated $1 million to construct cleaner, more spacious apartments—”model tenements” as they were known at the time—for poor and working-class New Yorkers.

Henry Phipps’ Fifth Avenue home

At about the same time, he had embarked on another ambitious house-building project: that of his own new Fifth Avenue mansion. It would be across the street from the five-story townhouse he moved into at 6 East 87th Street after relocating to New York City from Pittsburgh a few years earlier, according to Christopher Gray in the New York Times.

The mansion appears to have been completed first. Described by Gray as “a low, broad Renaissance design of marble with a wide garden and driveway,” the magnificent house at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 87th Street sat just four blocks from the colossal mansion of his former partner at Union Iron Mills, Andrew Carnegie.

Like Carnegie’s mansion, Phipps’ house resisted the hideous architectural flourishes of some of the other Gilded Age palaces on Fifth Avenue, such as the ghastly mansion built by mining millionaire and senator William A. Clark ten blocks south at 77th Street.

The mansion’s second floor hallway

Facing away from Fifth, the Phipps house was surrounded by a gated low brick fence, behind which was a circular driveway. The mansion conveyed a sense of elegance but also privacy—perfect for Phipps, a low-key philanthropist who began funding research on tuberculosis after earning a reported $40-$50 million from the 1901 sale of Union Iron Mills, which became U.S. Steel.

Henry Phipps and his wife, Anna, 1910-1915

Not long after the mansion was done, the first of Phipps’ model tenements, 325-335 East 31st Street, was move-in ready. Roughly 800 residents occupying 150 new, airy apartments enjoyed steam heat, hot water, laundry facilities, tub baths, and rooms with windows that opened to the outside. The new flats even had a hedged roof garden, where kids could play.

“Henry Phipps, the millionaire philanthropist whose name has been so prominently associated with the war against tuberculosis, built the tenement as a place of comfortable living and of education,” wrote the New York Times in 1911.

Phipps Houses, East 31st Street, east of Second Avenue

In 1907, another Phipps model tenement went up on West 63rd Street (below), in the impoverished, mostly African-American neighborhood of San Juan Hill. In 1911, a third Phipps building was completed a block away on West 64th Street, according to Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham: A History of New York City From 1898-1919.

Other Phipps model tenements were planned, but nothing was built until 1931, when the company “put up Phipps Garden Apartments in Sunnyside, Queens, an intelligent and idealistic complex,” wrote Gray. “Rather than trying to solve the housing problem of the inner city—which was the goal in 1905—the Sunnyside apartments sought to draw its residents to an entirely new environment.”

Phipps Model Tenements, 235-247 West 63rd Street

After that, Phipps’ model tenement movement unfortunately fizzled out. As other idealistic builders of model tenements discovered, it seems that middle class folks ended up moving in. Inevitably the rent on a flat would become out of reach for the poor, who are forced back into dank, dark tenements, a Times article from 1912 explains. The nonprofit Phipps Houses still exists, providing affordable housing and other services to low-income New Yorkers.

Phipps house in 1927, destined for the wrecking ball

Phipps’ Fifth Avenue mansion didn’t last very long either. In 1930, the highly respected philanthropist died at 91. His obituary says of his mansion, “it gave way to the apartment house builder four years ago.”

[First image: X2010.7.1.966; second image: MCNY, X2010.11.4949; third image, MCNY: X2010.7.1.969; fourth image: Bain Collection/LOC; fifth image: MCNY, X2010.7.1.417; sixth image, MCNY X2010.7.1.8533; seventh image: MCNY, X2010.11.4947]

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15 Responses to “The Fifth Avenue mansion of a millionaire who built houses for the poor”

  1. Joe R Says:

    Famous jazz pianist/composer Thelonious Monk lived much of his life in one of those W 63rd Street houses.

  2. Thomas Comiskey Says:

    Perhaps the most famous resident of the Phipps Houses on West 63rd Street was Jazz Giant Thelonious Monk. His baby grand Steinway stretched from the lining room into the kitchen. In his Phipps apartment Monk schooled the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis in his complex melodies, chords and rhythms.

  3. Beth Says:

    Henry Phipps was the father of Jay Phipps, the man who built the English-style Westbury House (aka Old Westbury Gardens) on Long Island. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he left provisions in his will to maintain the mansion and property. It’s still open to visitors today. It’s beautiful, one of my favorite places to go.

  4. Greg Says:

    Call me tacky, but I prefer Clark’s delightful rococo acid trip.

  5. velovixen Says:

    Very Interestng. Phipps seemed to understand that light, air and aesthetic touches are not frivolties: They actually make people’s lives better.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      His model tenements on 31st Street look similar to others built in the city at the time, with big windows and wide courtyards for residents that provide healthy light and air into each room. A few that still stand include a row on East 79th Street between York Avenue and the East River, and another stretch on York Avenue past the Queensboro Bridge entrance.

  6. Glenn MacDonald Says:

    I love it that you send me ephemeral NY! What a trip that Phipps actually had his own pet project of building “upscale” tenements for the poor. Apparently TOO upscale ’cause the middle incomers squeezed out the poor! I will be coming to Portland sometime the first week of September, after I fulfill my agreement to water the garden here at the ADU property. I will take you up on your offer to use you car and I will stay at mom’s place. She seemed happy that I’m coming. I think maybe I can install one of those stand-alone AC units in her bedroom without violating any of the condo regulations. She says sometimes her “system” of cooling down the bedroom doesn’t work and then she can’t sleep. We’ll see. Anyway, I can run errands for you too since I will have your car! Also I can cook and clean for mom. She said her bedroom is “dusty”. I’ll get out the bucket and go to town on that place. She also said I could help her get rid of stuff! So this is good. Thank you for the offer of your car and of course we can coordinate when you need to use it. I’ve heard about notaries who will come to your house! I’ll check into Portland notaries who do that and we can arrange (hopefully) to get one to meet you at mom’s next week. I’ll see what it costs-I’m glad to pay for it, especially to make this process easier for you, and to just get it done. Here’s hoping mom can get an appt with ANY nephrologist at that clinic. Thanks for spearheading THAT after- action scheduling! Mom alluded to opening a can of whup-ass on the poor workers at the clinic- I chose not to point out that your more diplomatic approach was having better results. Anyway, that’s all the news that’s fit to print, ark ark. Thanks again for the “new york stories”! Love, G

  7. Bob Pigott Says:

    Esther,

    Do you recall attending a talk/slide show at the current offices of Phipps Houses?

    Bob

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Of course! I was hoping you would see this post, another chance to write about this generous and modest New Yorker.

  8. Steve Says:

    Your posts are just a joy to read! So many of us (now Ex-pat’s love to read about the history of the homeland!)

    A question, do you know where the Sunnyside Apt’s were?
    We had family in Sunnyside (41st.off of Greenpoint Ave.) and was naturally curious!

    Thank you again for your dedication and passion!

  9. terranova47 Says:

    Moved to NYC after his complicity in the cause of the Johnstown Flood of 1889

  10. Chester Says:

    Oh, to have such money to burn. $cost of building and fitments / 21 years = $ridiculous. But I suppose unique in that he outlived his home, whereas many others didn’t live long enough to ‘enjoy’ their folly.

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