Wealthy clothier Isaac Vail Brokaw lived a more under-the-radar life than his fellow stupendously rich New Yorkers in the late 19th century.
But Brokaw did have at least one thing in common with Gilded Age titans with names like Frick, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie: he too built himself a sumptuous mansion on Fifth Avenue.
Brokaw’s French Renaissance palace, modeled after a 16th century chateau in France’s Loire Valley, went up in 1887 at 1 East 79th Street.
It had all the trappings of a multimillionaire’s home from the Age of Elegance: four stories, stained glass windows, a staff of seven, even its own moat.
“Its grandiose entrance hall is of Italian marble and mosaic and huge murals line the walls,” wrote the New York Times decades after it was built.
“The ceilings are paneled in stone and wood and no two of them are alike. The library has a seven‐foot‐tall safe concealed behind a panel opened by pressing a hidden catch in the moulding,” the Times continued.
By 1911, three more modest mansions adjoined the chateau, built by Brokaw for his two sons and daughter.
After he died, squabbling family members occupied all four Brokaw mansions. Three were eventually sold off to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers between the 1940s and early 1960s, which used them as office space.
Gilded Age chateaus with skyrocketing upkeep costs had long since gone out of favor; dozens of the more than 70 mansions constructed along Fifth Avenue in its Millionaires’ Mile heyday had been razed in favor of stately apartment houses.
In 1964, the Brokaw mansion was headed toward the same fate. But it wasn’t going down without a fight.
Newspaper editorials denounced the demolition. More than 100 people (including Ed Koch, then a city councilman) attended a rally in front of the original chateau to persuade officials to protect this remnant of a fast disappearing older city.
“However, in spite of the best efforts of preservation campaigns, demolition scaffolding went up on February 5, 1965,” reports The New York Preservation Archives Project.
The wreckers came the next day. A year later, the Brokaw mansion’s successor, a 26-story apartment co-op, was completed.
It stands today, across 79th Street from one of the last remaining Gilded Age palaces—the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion, occupied by the Ukrainian Institute of America.
[Top photo: 1920s, LOC; second photo: 1927, MCNY; third photo: Getty Images, 1960s; fourth photo: 1960s, IEEE; fifth photo: The New York Preservation Archives Project]