A “wonderfully gaudy” Fifth Avenue chateau for a Gilded Age financier’s large family

Many of the Gilded Age mansions built on or around Fifth Avenue carried unhappy backstories. Residents of these marble and limestone palaces navigated disappointing marriages and disappearing fortunes. Intended to be monuments to wealth and grandeur, their homes were often reduced to rubble within a few generations.

But the still-extant mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street is the rare home on Millionaire Mile built for a close-knit clan that valued art and philanthropy. Within these ecclesiastical-like walls lived two parents who modeled for their children what it meant to give back.

The story of the mansion, at 1109 Fifth Avenue, begins with Felix Moritz Warburg. Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1871 into a family of bankers, Warburg immigrated to America in 1894 and became a partner in the banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb & Co.

“He established a reputation as a financier, bon vivant, art collector, philanthropist, and leader within the Jewish community,” noted the Expanded Carnegie Hill Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

Warburg was also becoming a family man. A year later he married Frieda Schiff (below, in 1894), daughter of Jacob Schiff, the philanthropist and financier who was a senior partner in the firm.

In the next eight years, the Warburgs would have five children—one girl and four boys. Though they lived in a posh townhouse on East 72nd Street, they needed a larger space to fit their growing family (as well as Felix Warburg’s growing art collection).

So amid the Panic of 1907, Warburg bought a corner lot at Fifth and 92nd Street a block from Andrew Carnegie’s mansion on 91st Street. Warburg admired the style of the 1899 Fletcher-Sinclair mansion at Fifth Avenue and 79th Street (today’s Ukrainian Institute), and he commissioned that mansion’s architect, C. P. H. Gilbert, to create a similar residence for his family.

Gilbert was already at work designing a home for Felix Warburg’s brother, Paul. It probably wasn’t difficult for Felix to ask the highly acclaimed architect to create one for him as well.

Jacob Schiff, however, tried to dissuade Felix and Frieda from going with such a showy, fanciful style, thinking it might foment envy and encourage anti-semitism, according to Ron Chernow’s The Warburgs. But Schiff’s objection didn’t change the Warburgs’ plans.

In 1908, the Warburg mansion was completed (above, early 1900s): a massive French Gothic home with its main entrance on 92nd Street and a lawn along the side. It was not dissimilar to the many ostentatious chateaus wealthy New Yorkers were building at the time.

“Made of Indiana limestone, with steep slate mansard roofs and ogee-arched windows with crocketed gables, this wonderfully gaudy edifice fit into the row of extravagant mansions that lined Fifth Avenue in the aftermath of the Gilded Age,” wrote Chernow.

Inside, the house (above, around 1940) reflected the family’s interests. A second floor room and conservatory were filled with Felix Warburg’s art collection, which included works by Botticelli and etchings by Rembrandt, Durer, and Cranach, noted Chernow. The third floor contained an office for Felix and a space for Frieda to host friends for tea.

The children’s rooms were on the fourth floor, where “a miniature electric railroad snaked from room to room,” noted the 1981 report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission declaring the mansion to be a historic landmark. The fifth floor contained squash courts, and the sixth floor was given over to the 13 live-in servants.

While their “bright, smart-alecky, irreverent children,” as Chernow described them, grew up and began adult lives, the Warburgs became deeper involved in philanthropic efforts. The scope of these efforts is almost impossible to describe.

Felix Warburg (above) became “involved with hospitals, aid to children, to the blind, and to the immigrant poor, ” stated the 1981 LPC report. “He organized 75 separate charities into the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, and served as its president and later chairman of the board.”

Warburg also established the first children’s courts in New York City, brought nurses into public schools, funded playgrounds and settlement houses, and lent his financial support to museums while helping to establish Juilliard School of Music.

His philanthropy extended overseas as well. “During World War I when Central Europe endured desperate privations, Warburg became a founder and chairman of the Joint Distribution Committee, of which he remained head until 1932,” per the 1981 report.

After the Nazis seized power, Warburg helped thousands of Jewish residents flee, according to a Time article from 1937. Ultimately, he gave millions to assist Jewish causes around the world.

The Warburgs’ biggest and most personal act of charity was also the one that kept their mansion from meeting the wrecking ball.

Both Felix and Frieda served on the board of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Seven years after Felix died in his Fifth Avenue home in 1937—he had a heart attack at age 66—Frieda decided to donate the home to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“Thirty-nine years after its erection as a private home for a German-born banker, the Warburg Mansion opened to the public as the Jewish Museum in 1947,” states the website for the Jewish Museum.

Considering the Warburgs’ deep involvement in educational and cultural philanthropy, not to mention Jewish causes, we can assume that they both would enthusiastically approve of the ongoing use of their magnificent former family home.

[Third image: Metmuseum.org; fourth photo: NYPL; fifth photo: NYC Department of Records & Information Services; fifth photo: househistree.com]

Tags: , , , , , ,

11 Responses to “A “wonderfully gaudy” Fifth Avenue chateau for a Gilded Age financier’s large family”

  1. beth Says:

    what a wonderful, happy history at last, this family really understood both the power and responsibility of money


    What a wonderful backstory to a beautiful museum!

  3. Toni Rorapaugh Says:

    Was the philanthropic Warburg the model for Little Orphan Annie’s Daddy Warbucks?

  4. Father John Mericantante Says:

    I have been in the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue many times but not until your in-depth explanation did I know how and why we have been so blessed to have that gilded age mansion still here for us to enjoy! Thank you so much for sharing its history! And what a generous and God loving Family to have done so much for others in so many ways! Blessings on their Memory!

  5. Claudia Jackman Says:

    It looks like there was an addition to the building. When did that happen?

  6. Nan Says:

    The proud Jew, Felix, would have taken back the building had he known the woke Judaica which would fill his beloved treasure of a home and museum.

  7. James Devereaux Says:

    The Warburgs saved that amazing home.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: