Wednesday, April 22, 2015
The vintage view below, taken in 1907, shows construction of the north wing of the Metropolitan Museum across the street from the Marymount houses. Omigod. Could Ben Williams really not have known this was going to happen? 1026 Fifth appears sandwiched between a pair of white marble mansions, the northerly being Williams' 1027 Fifth, the southerly Ogden Codman's house for Gen. Lloyd Bryce at 1025 Fifth. The museum expansion may have delayed the sale of 1026 Fifth but, as we all know in real estate, everything gets sold eventually.
In 1906, three years after its completion, 1026 was sold at last to Mr. & Mrs. William M. Kingsland, an elderly couple (he was 86; she was 78) fleeing their home of 50 years on lower Fifth Avenue. Grand houses and grand people had once surrounded them on Fifth and 17th Street, at least until the late 1880s. In the next horrible decade, their dignified neighborhood of solemn brownstones was invaded by towering lofts, snarled commercial traffic and shouting crowds. Poor Mr. Kingsland died before the move, rather like one of those ancient houseplants that will not survive repotting. His widow Mary carried on in tranquil upper Fifth (if you discount the construction across the street) for 13 more years.
Of course I recognized the name Kingsland, a family whose roots in New York and close-in New Jersey go back to the beginning of the 18th century. The most prominent - and probably the richest - was Ambrose C. Kingsland (1804-1878), sperm oil king and mayor of New York from 1851 to 1853, seen in the image below. Kingsland was the city's first elected official to urge creation of a great uptown park, a cause that culminated in Central Park. I thought at first he might be William M. Kingsland's father, although a quick comparison of pertinent dates put that notion in the toilet. Hizzoner turns out instead to have been our Mr. Kingsland's uncle.
William M. Kingsland was a name I recognized as well. Twenty-five years ago, while researching my book on the Vanderbilts ('The Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age; Architectural Aspirations 1879-1901') I met a man with the same name. Will Kingsland and I spent a very enjoyable afternoon in the main lounge of the University Club deciphering the elegant scrawls of what Will called "the people we know and love" which appeared in a guest book from the William K. Vanderbilt estate at Oakdale, Long Island. The modern day Will lived in a vast inherited coop on Fifth Avenue, so he told me, and kept a private art collection in a diminutive coop on East 72nd Street. He was short, had an underbite, a none too clean looking mustache, greasy hair, shabby clothes, thick glasses and was sprinkled with dandruff like a sugar doughnut. It was the brilliance of this man that in spite of the above he projected an air of utter aristocratic confidence. Imagine my surprise, and that of very many other people, when, upon his sudden death in 2006 at the age of 62, he turned out not to have been living in the great coop, but rather in the little apartment with the art collection. That art collection also turned out not to be his, but to have been stolen. Indeed, Will had stolen his own persona. Born Melvyn Kohn to working people in the Bronx, he had legally changed his name at the age of 17 to William Milliken Vanderbilt Kingsland, probably on the assumption that no one would bother to check. But, I digress. The house in the image below is Bel Air, the Lenox, Massachusetts summer place where Mary Kingsland, 91-year old widow of the real William M., breathed her last in 1919. She left $75,000 to her companion; $25,000 to the butler; her chauffeur got to keep the limousine she had apparently just bought; and everything else went to schools and charities. Estimates on the value of her estate kept climbing, from $7 million, to $9 million, to over $10 million. She was a veritable Michael Jackson, growing richer the longer she was dead. The cause was interesting; a penchant of the deceased to open bank accounts in fictitious names, accounts that just kept popping up.
1026 Fifth is limestone clad, has thirty-two rooms and thirty-six and a half feet of frontage on Fifth Avenue. Its elegant neighbor to the south, Codman's 1025 Fifth, was demolished in 1954 so that a new mid-block, "mid-century modern" apartment house could have an entrance and an address on Fifth Avenue. Want my opinion? They should tear down the apartment house and put the old 1025 back.
The next (and last) private residential owner of 1026 was Dunlevy Milbank (1878-1959), who bought the house from Mary Kingsland's estate in 1919. Milbank and his brother Jeremiah were grandsons of the Jeremiah Milbank who financed Gail Borden's method of condensing milk. A ground floor investment in Borden Inc., plus subsequent profits from a family held investment banking firm, made the Milbank family rich, and enabled the Milbank brothers to become famous philanthropists. Jeremiah Milbank (1887-1972) devoted millions to physical rehabilitation, a novel concept in the early 20th century. His brother Dunlevy became the chief benefactor of the Children's Aid Society, founded in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace. The Dunlevy Milbank Center in Harlem was originally his gift. These men sat on boards, directed corporations and managed family investments, but they are remembered for what they gave away.
Today you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of private houses that face the park on Fifth Avenue. The transformation from a quiet street of single family houses to a trafficked thoroughfare lined with apartment towers took time, but by 1950 the transition was virtually complete. That was the year Mr. & Mrs. Milbank bowed to the inevitable, sold 1026 to the Catholic school next door, and moved to 39 East 68th St., where Mrs. Milbank had been born in 1885. 39 East 68th most decidedly does not look like the Neo-Grec brownstone it must have been in 1876, when her father gave it to her mother as a wedding gift. Today's limestone facade looks to me like early 20th century work, but by whom and/or when, I have no idea. Marymount Junior College, which opened in 1936 at 1027 Fifth, had relocated to its own East 71st Street building by 1950. However, Marymount's lower school still needed space. Enrollment was increasing, and programs expanding.
1026 Fifth Avenue and its sister to the north at 1027 were designed for, and marketed to, prosperous people who didn't cook for themselves, had families and servants, owned good furniture and entertained with regularity. I dislike the term "lifestyle," fraught as it is with odd connotations and smug misunderstanding. That said, Mr. Williams's spec houses clearly reflect an understanding of his buyers' way of life. The main hall at 1026, looking toward the front entrance on Fifth Avenue, is seen in the image below. The door to the left of the main entrance leads to your typical ladies' dressing room with powder room attached. That's where we'll head next. The door on the right goes to a subdivided office, which was either the gents' or, more likely, a small reception room. Note the partition on the right hand side of the image below. It has created a skinny office out of a portion of the main hall and, in the process, has obscured an ornate fireplace that faced the stairs.
Here's the little office on the other side of the front door....
...and here's a closer look at that partition and the office behind it.
If I lived here, I'd use the beautifully paneled room at the back of the first floor as my study. That assumes there was a reception room up front, reception rooms being requisite for visits and interviews that didn't merit the drawing room upstairs. I'm speculating on obscure points here, and probably losing my audience, so let me briefly note the excellently preserved vintage bathroom off the study (if indeed it was a study), and move on.
There's no disputing Goldsmith and Van Vleck's knack with a staircase.
Over the years, Marymount's chapel has migrated among their three Fifth Avenue Graces. At present it overlooks the Avenue from the former 2nd floor drawing room of 1026. The white fields on the walls were undoubtedly covered originally with some kind of fancy stuff, and a fireplace, now inexplicably missing, would have been against the south wall. Otherwise, the room is mostly intact.
Like the main hall below, the second floor landing has been partitioned to create a small, slightly misshapen, sumptuously paneled office out of floor space originally intended for luxurious impact. Once again, a partition blocks the view of a fireplace intended to balance the stairs on the opposite wall.
A grand dining room, lit by an expansive north facing bay, is in a typical location at the rear of the second floor.
A door on the dining room's east wall leads to a duplexed serving pantry with dumb waiter. Back stairs connected the pantry to a vanished basement kitchen two levels down.
The third floor had the owners' bedrooms in back and a library in front overlooking Fifth Avenue.
Those mirrored niches on either side of the fireplace have shelf anchors on the lateral returns, identifying them as bookcases. The library at 1026 was combined with the library at 1027 by means of blowing out the wall between them. For a while, this double room was the school chapel. It appears to serve today as a combination auditorium and theatre.
The rest of the third floor was laid out as a pair of owner bedroom suites, typical for this sort of house. His smaller bedroom with en suite bath is in the middle; her larger bedroom with adjoining dressing room/boudoir and bath was in the back. Her room was always better, in this case by virtue of two exposures, plus the adjoining dressing room. The linoleum floor, modern lighting and removal of both the dressing room wall and the original fireplace make it difficult to recognize the luxury that was.
Floors 4 and 5 housed bedrooms divided between guests, children and servants, depending on how much there were of each.
Behind the window on the left in the avenue facing 4th floor bedroom below, lies a tale. In 1954, as wreckers demolished the house next door to build a breezeway entrance to the new apartment house called 1025 Fifth, an enormous chimney dislodged itself from the old 1025's southern party wall and crashed through the wall of 1026. A class of 5th graders ran screaming into the hallway, but no one was hurt. Quite a drama. In a classic case of lemons made into lemonade, Marymount converted the ten-foot gash in the masonry into a new window. While they were about it, they added a window to the floor above. Most of the plan on 4 is intact, with even a few surviving bathrooms. A large bedroom in the rear still has an original wardrobe closet.
Modern classrooms have replaced the warren of little maids' rooms on 5. A new steel stair leads to the rooftop gym, added in 1984, which straddles the roofs of 1026 and 1027.
Having gone up, it's time to go down. Before we step outdoors, let's take a quick look at the main floor connection between 1026 and 1027. Marymount's second purchase on Fifth Avenue (number 1027) was made in the depression year of 1936. The economics of the time forbade convenient access between 1027 and the school's original house at 1028. Staff and students were compelled to travel from one house to the other via a ladder on the roof. Today all three houses have interior connections on each floor.
This week, forty-eight years ago, Mrs. Dunlevy Milbank, nee Katherine Fowler died at 39 East 68th St., the family house she and her husband had shared for the last 9 years of his life. "Mrs. Milbank had been confined to a wheel chair in recent years because of arthritis," reported The New York Times on April 13, 1967, "but that did not interrupt her custom of visiting Europe regularly. Last year she flew to London, Copenhagen and Rome in a five-month tour." Mrs. Milbank was a philanthropist in her own right, although not on her husband's scale. She died at age 82.