Posts Tagged ‘Fifth Avenue mansions’

A Gilded Age mansion traded for a pearl necklace

November 23, 2020

In 1905, Fifth Avenue gained a new mansion. Businessman and baseball team owner Morton F. Plant, the son of a railroad, steamship, and hotel baron, commissioned a marble and limestone showstopper at the southeast corner of 52nd Street.

When Plant moved in to the five-story Italian Renaissance-inspired mansion facing 52nd Street (above and below left) with his first wife, Nellie, he should have felt satisfied with his decision to build it here.

After all, his neighbors were among the wealthiest New Yorkers, including several Vanderbilts, who occupied their own mansions across the street. (Plant bought the land from William K. Vanderbilt; previously it was the site of an orphan asylum, according to a 2019 Bloomberg article by Jack Forster.)

Within a few years, though, Plant apparently realized he’d made a mistake.

An increasing number of businesses were creeping up to his stretch of Fifth Avenue (like the St. Regis Hotel and Gotham Hotels at 55th Street), ruining the exclusive, residential vibe.

One of those new Fifth Avenue businesses was the American outpost for Cartier, the French jewelers. In 1909, Pierre Cartier launched his first store at 712 Fifth Avenue, near 56th Street, wrote Christopher Gray in The New York Times in 2001.

Business was good for Cartier, which organized workshops in the city to meet the demand for their jewelry, states Forster. (Selling the Hope diamond in 1910 also helped from a PR standpoint, raising the jeweler’s Manhattan profile.)

But back to Plant (at right) and his mansion, which was increasingly out of character on a more commercialized Fifth Avenue. In 1914 he’d remarried a much younger woman, Maisie (above center). The two found themselves left behind as neighbors moved away and businesses replaced them. 

“By 1917, life on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street (at left, in 1900) had long since become untenable for Plant,” wrote Forster. “The ongoing encroachment of businesses, combined with the removal of virtually all the families who’d once colonized the Avenue below Central Park to new addresses north of 59th Street, had left the Plants isolated both physically and socially. Plant had already begun work, the year before, on a new and even bigger residence, on 86th Street and Fifth Avenue (below right).”  

Paying for two Fifth Avenue mansions, however, was quite costly, even for a scion of wealth. But then, Maisie caught a look at a Cartier pearl necklace. “It’s really two necklaces: a double strand of enormous, natural South Sea pearls; the smaller is a strand of 55 pearls and the larger, of 73,” wrote Forster. The necklace’s value: $1 million.

“When Maisie Plant fell in love with the natural, oriental pearl necklace, Pierre Cartier sensed an opportunity,” states a 2016 article by Business Insider. “Pierre, the savvy businessman, proposed the deal of a lifetime: He offered to trade the double-strand necklace of the rare pearls —and $100—for the Plants’ New York City home.” (The house was assessed at $925,000.)

In July 1917, an article appeared in the Real Estate Record and Guide announcing the sale of the Plant mansion on 52nd Street to Cartier for “$100 and other valuable considerations,” according to Forster. (At left, in 1975)

It’s an unusual deal, but definitely a win-win. Plant unloaded his first mansion by trading it in to Cartier for a necklace his wife desired, then moved uptown in a more luxurious house on the city’s new Millionaires’ Mile. (Cartier also absorbed the elegant residence next door at 4 East 52nd Street, the Holbrook House.)

Cartier has occupied Plant’s mansion on 52nd Street ever since. The exterior looks very much the same as it did in Plank’s day, though the interior has been altered somewhat.

I tried to get in to take a look around but the line to enter was too long; I’d forgotten it’s jewelry-buying season—when Cartier wraps the building up in a big red bow to celebrate the holidays.

But I did spot this modest plaque marking the mansion’s past as a short-lived residence built on a street destined to become a commercial corridor. 

Morton Plant died in 1918, shortly after moving into his 86th Street mansion. When Maisie passed away in 1957, the mansion was bulldozed and her pearls went to auction, where they were sold for $181,000.

Where are they today? No one knows. But a portrait of Maisie wearing them (above portrait) hangs in the Cartier store today, wrote Forster.

[Top photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.221; second photo: NYPL; third image: by Claudia Munro Kerr based on portrait by Alphonse Junger; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth photo: MCNY x2010.11.4753; sixth photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; seventh photo: MCNY 2013.3.1.366]

 

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.