The stories behind the buildings, statues and other points of interest that make Manhattan fascinating.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
The Isaac D. Fletcher Mansion - 79th Street and 5th Avenue
In the 1890s great brownstone mansions, each a full block wide, lined fashionable Fifth Avenue. Standing out from the row of chocolate-colored homes, however, was the white French chateau of William K. Vanderbilt at 660 5th Avenue. Vanderbilt's wife wanted her home to be noticed, and indeed it was.
One person who noticed it was wealthy railroad investor and banker Isaac Dudley Fletcher. In 1898 he summoned architect C.P.H. Gilbert to design him a house at 79th Street and 5th Avenue based on Vanderbilt's mansion. Gilbert, who trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was up-and-coming at the time, having already designed large residences for prosperous Brooklynites and a few Riverside Drive mansions. In time he would be known as the architect of mansions, designing over 100 such homes in New York City like the De Lamar House (now the Polish Consulate).
The result is an asymmetrical French Gothic limestone chateau exploding spiky turrets on the eaveline, ornate dormers and wide connected chimneys. Fletcher and his wife Mary, along with their staff of eight servants, lived in the house until his death in 1917. By the terms of his will the mansion was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with 251 objects of art from the Fletcher's extensive collection that included artists such as Gainesborough, Rembrandt and Rubens. Included in the $2 million legacy was the Impressionist painting of the mansion by Jean-Francois Raffaelli, commissioned by Fletcher.
A year later, in order to create The Fletcher Fund for adding prints and drawings to the collection, the Metropolitan Museum sold the mansion to Sinclair Oil founder Harry F. Sinclair. Sinclair and his wife Elizabeth left the house virtually untouched, other than having the Estey Organ Company install a three-manual, automatic roll player pipe organ in 1922. One can imagine that the staid dinner parties hosted by the Fletchers were in sharp contrast to the pre-Depression era bashes thrown by the Sinclairs.
The Teapot Dome Scandal brought Harry Sinclair's carefree lifestyle to an end. His trial, which began in October of 1927 ended up in the Supreme Court two years later. While Sinclair was acquited of the more serious charges, he was convicted of contempt of court, fined and sentenced to six months in prison (Sinclair had hired detectives to keep tabs on every jury member).
After his release, Sinclair attempted to continue his life as before. His reputation was ruined, however, and in 1930 he sold the French chateau and moved west where he lived until his death in Pasadena in 1956.
It was Augustus Van Horn Stuyvesant, the last surviving descendant of Peter Stuyvesant to carry the surname, who purchased the Fletcher house. A reclusive bachelor, he moved in with his unmarried sister, Anne, thereby beginning the strangest period in the history of the house. The pair, heirs to one of the most venerated names in New York, spent their time cloistered in the home, hidden away from the bustling world outside.
In 1938 Anne died, leaving Augustus Van Horn Stuyvesant alone in the cavernous mansion. Preferring not to entertain nor to be entertained by others, he lived out his life with his servants. According to Fortune Magazine in 1939 he "eats utterly alone at the big dining room table...served by Vernon, the butler, and an assisting footman."
When Stuyvesant died in 1953 the great house sat quietly vacant for two years. An auction of the Stuyvesant furniture, carpets and artwork left it eerily empty. Then in 1955 the Ukranian Institute of America purchased that house as their headquarters. The Institute promotes the history, art, music and culture of the Ukraine and regularly hosts concerts, exhibitions and lectures. Few people realize that the Ukranian Institute is open to the public.
With very few alterations, the great limestone chateau looks very much as it did that day in 1898 when Isaac and Mary Fletcher first walked in.