Saturday, December 18, 2010


We are all survivors, to one extent or another. The same applies to our houses. A person's house is probably the single most eloquent and meaningful symbol of what that person is all about - aesthetically, culturally, economically, socially, you name it. Ever since the 17th Century one Manhattan neighborhood after another has been wiped out of human consciousness, but there are always brick and mortar survivors. Here are a couple of unheralded favorites in my Upper East Side neighborhood.

Image 1 - In 1900 the Vanderbilt family owned 8 houses on Fifth Avenue in the 50s. Local wags called that stretch of the Avenue "Vanderbilt Alley." By the eve of the Stock Market Crash, all of them were gone but one. Emily Vanderbilt Sloan White was among those who fled the commercial invasion, in her case to this fine limestone house between 66th and 67th Streets. When Mrs. White arrived, the block was a quiet stretch of private houses, much as Fifth Avenue in the 50s had formerly been. Vanderbilt Alley was a neighborhood of family members, and up here Mrs. White enjoyed an approximation of those good old days. The house next to her on the south belonged to her nephew, J. Watson Webb. The one next to him was that of his maternal grandparents, Henry and Louisine Havemeyer. This upper crust family coziness crumbled soon enough to the northward march of real estate development, this time in the form of apartment towers. The building on the right of the photo, on the site of the Webb and Havemeyer houses, is called 1 East 66th St. It is a favorite of New York society types and a beautifully run building, although not one of great architectural interest. Mrs. White's house was for many years the Yugoslavian Mission to the UN. The Serbian government occupies it today.

Image 2 - Most of Fifth Avenue in the 60s and 70s is a long wall of post-World War II rental buildings, converted in subsequent years to coops. Sandwiched in the middle of the block between 73rd and 74th Streets is this pair of unheralded old houses. They are not among the greatest of Fifth Avenue palaces by any means, but they are gracious and luxurious in a low profile sort of a way. I don't know why they appeal to me so much, but they do. The one on the right has always been a private house; its neighbor to the left was recently converted back to single family use.

Images 3 and 4 - All of Fifth Avenue from Central Park South to 90th Street used to look almost exactly like this virtually intact block between 78th and 79th Sts, and Fifth and Madison Avenues. How it is that one entire block could survive like this is truly a mystery. It is also a mystery why it has been specifically excluded from the Upper East Side Historic District. That magnificent Louis XVI style free-standing palace on the corner of 78th and Fifth is the James B. Duke house, now the property of New York University. The Gothic chateau of the late Rutherford Stuyvesant on the 79th St. corner is now a Ukranian cultural institute. The Payne Whitney house, in between them and next door to the Duke place, belongs to the French government. The house between it and the old Stuyvesant place is one of those mysterious private mansions on Fifth Avenue that nobody knows anything about and almost nobody even notices.

Image 5 - I love the fact that this little brownstone on East 60th St between Park and Lexington is still here. Well, it's "little" only in comparison to the ginormous skyscrapers hemming it in on both sides. When built, it was a brownstone of some pretense, part of a terrace of identical house stretching in either direction, It would have sported a wide stone staircase up to big iron and glass doors, beyond which was a hushed and darkened interior of plush furniture, potted palms and deep tone mahogany. Despite radical alterations, it remains a provocative glimpse of an otherwise vanished past.


  1. John, I stumbled onto your work and it is excellent! I am fascinated with this subject like so many others. The info you seek regarding images 3 & 4 on 5th between 78th and 79th is contained in the book "The Great Houses of New York" by Michael C. Kathrens, where he identifies the 79th St. corner house as built for Isaac Fletcher. It is the same block I was fascinated by that started my search years ago. It concerns me that it was not included in the Historic District.
    It is the most historic in that the mystery mansion was built for Henry Cook, who owned the entire block and put iron clad restrictions on the deeds as he sold them off that only 1st class single family houses could be built there. Both the French owned one, which was a gift to his nephew, Payne Whitney, by Oliver Hazard Perry(whose Esopus Estate you detailed so well) and the mysterious one, for Henry Cook himself, were done by Stanford White. I found this in a book by Samuel G. White, "The Houses of McKim, Mead & White". Please keep up the good work! MFG

  2. PS The Henry Cook mansion was just recently or may still be on the market, listed for $49 million. From the pictures I have seen it appears to be largely unmolested inside and is a time capsule of Stanford White design and that time period of gracious living. Since I cannot afford it, I hope someone that appreciates it and will honor it as the work of art it is, will be the ultimate owner. MFG

  3. PPS Clearly I meant Oliver Hazard PAYNE in the first remark above, as Payne Whitney's indulgent uncle. Thank you. MFG

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