Posts Tagged ‘Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion’

This 1899 Gilded Age fairy-tale mansion on Fifth Avenue has had only 4 owners

March 21, 2022

New Yorkers have always used real estate to showcase their wealth and position. But in Gilded Age Manhattan, the one-upmanship reached crazy new heights—with rich Fifth Avenoodles, as they were mockingly called by the general public, constantly outdoing their neighbors by building more ostentatious mansions fronting Central Park.

2 East 79th Street

Industrialist Isaac D. Fletcher seemed to have this competitive mindset. When he commissioned his new mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street in 1897, he supposedly wanted the house to rival William K. and Alva Vanderbilt’s 1882 “petit chateau” on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.

Completed in 1899, Fletcher’s palace at 2 East 79th Street managed to outshine even the venerable Vanderbilt chateau. Designed by premier Gilded Age architect C.P.H. Gilbert, it’s been described as an eclectic French Renaissance manor house, a Loire Valley Gothic chateau, and a fairy tale-like castle—complete with lots of gargoyles, grotesques, and whimsical creatures carved in stone on the house’s two facades.

The Fletcher Mansion, New York City, 1899 by Jean-Francois Raffaelli

Like other new money mansion dwellers on Upper Fifth Avenue, Fletcher was a titan of industry. After moving to New York as a young man, he became president the New York Coal Tar Company; later he headed a manufacturing concern, according to a 1977 Historic Preservation Commission report. He lived in 2 East 79th Street with his wife, Mary, and a staff of eight servants. As members of his class did, he visited the Metropolitan Opera house and sailed to Europe.

An avid art collector, the wide, open rooms of Fletcher’s mansion must have made it possible to display his collection of Old Masters, which he bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art along with the house when he died in 1917.

The mansion in 1940, with the former Brokaw Mansion across 79th Street

The Met accepted the artwork but a year later flipped the mansion to its second owner, businessman Harry F. Sinclair. An oil baron, Sinclair was already living on Fifth Avenue at 72nd Street, according to the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide in 1918.

The owner of the St. Louis Browns and a Kentucky Derby-winning horse, Sinclair became embroiled in the Teapot Dome bribery scandals of the 1920s. Though “he was not convicted of any criminal charges, he did serve a brief prison sentence for contempt of court,” per the HPC report.

The facade from East 79th Street, 1975

After the scandal died down in 1930, Sinclair sold 2 East 79th Street to its third owner, Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant—a scion of the Stuyvesant family described by the New York Times in 1953 as the last direct descendent of Peter Stuyvesant, the 17th century governor general of New Amsterdam. The price, per the Times: $450,000.

Stuyvesant, a bachelor, lived in the mansion with his unmarried sister, Anne. After she died in 1938, this surviving brother occupied the house alone, save for a staff of servants. The Times described him as a recluse, spending his time walking around his Upper East Side neighborhood or visiting the Stuyvesant family vault at St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue and 10th Street.

“For the last 30 years or more, Mr. Stuyvesant had led an extraordinary secluded life,” according to the article. “He followed no profession. His only recreation seems to have been an hour’s stroll each day through the streets near his home. He had no family or social life. Occasionally he traded in real estate anonymously through brokers and lawyers and thus helped to build up the millions he inherited.”

After Stuyvesant died in 1953, felled by the August heat while on a neighborhood stroll, he joined his relatives in the family vault.

The fourth owner of 2 East 79th Street has occupied the mansion since 1955. The Ukrainian Institute—a nonprofit dedicated to showcasing the art, literature, and music of Ukraine—has maintained this Gilded Age palace and opens to the public the rooms where Fletcher displayed his art, where Sinclair worked on his defense in court, and where Augustus Stuyvesant waited out his days.

War in Ukraine dominates the headlines right now, but the Institute offers a respite: a place to view exhibits (free of charge, though donations are accepted) and see the preserved interior of one of the city’s last Gilded Age mansions.

[Third image: Metropolitan Museum of Art; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; fifth image: MCNY, 2013.3.2.732]

A Gilded Age mansion goes down in the 1960s

June 16, 2016

Wealthy clothier Isaac Vail Brokaw lived a more under-the-radar life than his fellow stupendously rich New Yorkers in the late 19th century.

Brokawmansionbain

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.

Brokaw1927mcnyBrokaw’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.

Brokawmansion1960sBy 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.

BrokawmansionIEEE

In 1964, the Brokaw mansion was headed toward the same fate. But it wasn’t going down without a fight.

BrokawmansionprotestNYPAPNewspaper 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.

Brokawmansion2016The 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]