Posts Tagged ‘Fifth Avenue mansions’

The rise and fall of the 1856 “House of Mansions”

October 14, 2019

It looked like a palace: a four-story structure of fawn-colored brick with rounded towers, long slender windows, and Gothic touches above entryways and on the roof.

Built on Fifth Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets in 1856, the “House of Mansions,” as its developer called it, was actually 11 separate homes deemed “a striking architectural novelty” by the New-York Tribune.

Designed to lure the wealthy and fashionable to the underdeveloped neighborhood of Murray Hill, each independent mansion featured 12 to 18 rooms and “unparalleled views” of the outer boroughs, an ad enthusiastically stated.

The House of Mansions was spectacular to behold.

But it was also a spectacular failure—too ahead of its time in expecting the rich to leave their freestanding houses around Washington and Madison Squares to colonize this upper end of Fifth Avenue.

It’s easy to see why developer George Higgins bought the land and had premier architect Alexander Jackson Davis design the House of Mansions.

The massive Croton Distributing Reservoir (above, in 1879) was across the street; its high granite walls became a trendy spot for ladies to promenade in their fancy crinoline frocks in the pre–Civil War city.

Behind the Croton Reservoir was the Crystal Palace, an exhibition hall (above, in 1854) with an observatory tower. Both were very popular destinations.

And in a city rapidly filling up with brownstones that spread “like a cold chocolate sauce,” across Manhattan, Higgins may have thought his unusual dwellings would attract those who eschewed cookie-cutter housing.

He was wrong. In 1860, the House of Mansions was no longer.

Rutgers Female Institute, the first institute of higher learning for women in New York, renovated the 11 homes and turned them into classrooms, as reported in the New York Times on June 18 of that year.

The college didn’t last, either, decamping for a new site in Harlem.

In the 1880s—as the wealthy finally did move into Upper Fifth Avenue—the former House of Mansions (above, in 1885) was partially demolished, and the remaining buildings altered. Eventually, in stages, the castle vanished.

No trace of this ambitious, auspicious housing development remains on the block today.

[Photos: NYPL Digital Collections]

Fifth Avenue’s heroic Civil War monument

November 14, 2013

A vintage postcard depicts the equestrian statue of William Tecumseh Sherman and Winged Victory at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street at Central Park.

In 1906, and Fifth Avenue is still a millionaire’s row lined with great Gilded Age mansions.

Generalshermanmonument

“The sculpture of General William Tecumseh Sherman is one of the finest sculptures by the talented American sculptor and New York City resident Augustus St.Gaudens,” notes the Central Park Conservatory website.

“In 1892 St. Gaudens modeled a bust of the general who lived in New York after the Civil War. He then created the equestrian sculpture in Paris, France, completing it in 1903.”

Here is another postcard view of the corner, at the entrance to the park.

The mansion that gave Carnegie Hill its name

November 26, 2011

Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills made him a huge fortune in the 19th century.

Still, he found “‘ostentatious living’ profoundly distasteful and the conduct of most New York millionaires strictly irresponsible.”

So in 1903, he decamped from his brownstone on Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, on Millionaires’ Row, and moved into a home he built 30 blocks north—practically the country at that time.

He wanted “the most modest, plainest and roomiest house in New York” with land for his wife to garden.

The Georgian mansion he commissioned was a palace compared to most New Yorkers’ homes—but it reflected his view that “the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts…. Without wealth there can be no Maecenas.”

The four-story, 64-room mansion at Fifth and 91st Street was a technological marvel with a steel frame, elevator, central heating (sucking down two tons of coal on a winter day) and a primitive form of air conditioning.

Carnegie lived here for 16 years with his wife, daughter, and 20 servants. Every morning an organist arrived, so he could wake up to his favorite tunes.

He contemplated his philanthropy in his library overlooking Fifth Avenue, as a neighborhood built up around him.

The mansion is still there, but now houses the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum.

Easter Sunday on Fifth Avenue in 1900

April 2, 2010

Churchgoers pour out of what might be a church in the lower left corner of this photo.

Fifth Avenue looks so genteel here. It had yet to be turned into a shopping strip with massive office buildings; at the turn of the last century, it was a ritzy stretch of single-family mansions. 

Check out the horse and carriage traffic. In just a few years, cars will be king.