Among them was Isaac Vail Brokaw.
Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1835, Brokaw was of “Huguenot descent,” according to the 1907 “Who’s Who in New York City and State.” Brokaw went into business with the cloth importing firm of Wilson G. Hunt & Co and later organized a clothing firm with his brother which they called Brokaw Brothers. The "Who’s Who" entry noted that the firm “has long been a leading one in that business.”
Indeed, business was such that by 1887 Brokaw was among the wealthiest men in the city. That year he commissioned architects Rose & Stone to design a grand French chateau on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, across from Central Park. Three years after construction began, the great home was completed.
|The entrance was clad in Caen stone and embellished with mosaics -- photo |
© Dec 2 2008 IEEE
Inside, the grand entrance hall boasted Caen stone walls, intricate mosaics and stained glass panels. In an early and inventive use of artificial lighting, the stained glass panels were back-lit by a suspended electric globe. Elegant bronze railings swept up the staircases. The library was Elizabethan with dark paneled walls, leaded windows, a delicate plasterwork ceiling and a seven-foot tall safe disguised within the woodwork.
Author Nathan Silver would later say of it, “There was a dignity and rugged solidity in the old castle.”
Brokaw and his wife, the former Elvira Gould, lived in the mansion with their daughter, Elvira, and three sons, George, Howard, and Irving. To help the family get along were a houseman and helper, a butler, two footmen, two cooks, a chamber maid and parlor maid.
|The stained glass panels of the entrance hall were backlit by a hanging, electric globe -- photo|
© Dec 2 2008 IEEE
Here on June 10, 1896 “the most fashionable wedding of the season” took place when Elvira married Carl Aage Vilhelm Frederick von Fischer-Hansen. The entire choir from the Madison Avenue Reformed Church sang as the bridal party descended the broad staircase, through the music room and into the parlor.
The New York Times remarked that the groom, an attorney, “belongs to an ancient and noble Danish family,” and the couple left on the Normandie to honeymoon in Denmark at his family’s feudal castle. Unfortunately, his ancient and noble lineage could not keep him from a prison term in Blackwell’s Island some years later for complicity in bribing a witness.
Elvira obtained a Nevada divorce in June 1911. She married another lawyer, William McNair, in 1914. McNair managed to stay out of prison.
As the children grew up and married, Isaac began providing them homes as well. In 1905 Charles F. Rose designed matching French Gothic mansions for Howard and Irving. There was no need to build a home for George, the eldest, since it was understood he would inherit the family mansion at No. 1 East 79th Street.
|One of the pair of French Gothic mansions on Fifth Avenue behind the Isaac Brokaw house -- photo |
© Oct 4 2008 IEEE
Upon their completion, the Brokaw compound would wrap around Fifth Avenue, halfway to 80th Street.
Two weeks prior to the Tribune article the family had a scare when a black horse pulling a coupe became spooked and uncontrollably galloped down Fifth Avenue. When the horse collided with a hansom, it swerved directly toward the Brokaw mansion while the driver pulled helplessly at the reins.
The New York Times reported that “The horse headed for the Brokaw house, jumped the granite area wall, almost pulling the coupe over with it. The driver was thrown from his seat and struck upon his head on the sidewalk.”
The horse hung, thrashing, from the vehicle’s shafts in the light moat. The entire Brokaw family rushed to the windows, hearing the pounding of the panicked animal’s hooves. When police arrived, they cut the animal free, allowing it to drop into the moat where it stayed. “It will require a block and tackle to remove the horse,” said The Times.
Unnerved, Brokaw had the moat covered over.
Irving Vail Brokaw died in 1907, leaving an estate of nearly $12.5 million. Mrs. Brokaw remained in the house which, The Times said, son George “will enjoy for life after the death of his mother.” Brokaw’s daughter, Elvira Brokaw McNair inherited the lot next door at No. 7 East 79th Street and $250,000 to be used to erect her own residence. In 1911 her restrained mansion, designed by architect H. Van Buren Magonigle, completed the Brokaw complex of real estate.
|Elvira's new home stands in marked contrast to her parents' mansion -- photo |
© Dec 2 2008 IEEE
In 1925 George had moved out and petitioned the courts to allow him to mortgage the property for $800,000 and use the money to demolish the mansion and erect a modern apartment house. George called the house “old” and complained that it was heavily taxed and “non-remunerative.”
His brother, Howard stepped in to block the move. Three years later, after uncomfortable court battles, the Appellate Division ruled that the house could not be sold nor razed without the mutual agreement of all the Brokaw siblings.
George moved back in.
Seven years later, on May 29, 1935, George Tuthill Brokaw died of a heart attack. His wife, Frances Ford Seymour would marry Henry Fonda a year later and have two children, Jane and Peter.
In the meantime, the Institute of Radio Engineers had been formed in 1912 to not only address problems and needs of the wireless technology industry; but to create a system of standards and definitions, standardized methods of testing and rating radio equipment and industry symbols.
The Institute moved from space to space for three decades until it purchased the Isaac Brokaw mansion—vacant and unused since 1938--in December 1946. While the Institute paid $200,000 for the house, it took another $350,000 to renovate it as office space.
|Where Elvira Gould Brokaw received guests, the IRE installed a reception desk. Another desk found a home on the landing -- photo |
© Dec 2 2008 IEEE
Two years later McKim, Mead & White’s glorious Pennsylvania Station was bulldozed to the ground, planting the seed of historic preservation. By 1964 the Landmarks Preservation Commission had been formed, but it carried no legal power. Preservationist were frustrated by fighting battles essentially unarmed. That frustration boiled over in September that year.
The announcement shocked New York: The three houses owned by the Institute of Radio Engineers were to be demolished. Newspapers and magazines cried out against the vandalism and groups urged Mayor Wagner to give the Commission legal powers.
The battle of words continued until February 1965 when demolition workers were paid overtime to begin destruction of the mansions on a Saturday—thereby precluding the possibility of a court order to stop work.
The New York Times was unforgiving. “In weekend stealth the vulture-like work of destroying another New York landmark has begun. Wrecking crews are busy tearing down the Brokaw Mansion…and lovers of beauty can indulge once again in the macabre pleasure of attending a demolition-watching. The despoilers were so eager to get this lovely building down that they were delighted to pay premium rates to the workmen for their weekend toil.”
What George Brokaw had tried to unsuccessfully for three years to accomplish came to be. Today a modern high-rise apartment building sits where the elegant mansions of the Brokaw family once stood.
Nathan Silver, in his “Lost New York,” said “The outcry was undoubtedly what at last induced the mayor to sign the law giving the Landmarks Commission legal powers, and that fact is the most distinguished landmark quality the Brokaw mansions ever had.”