Fifth Avenue & 90th Street

20 Aug

In my last post I mentioned the Fifth Avenue mansion of department store impresario A.T. Stewart, erected on the corner of 34th Street & Fifth Avenue.  Completed in 1870, the three-story French Second Empire style home stood just opposite Caroline Astor’s residence – basically ground-zero for New York’s high society.  Thirty years later that social center had moved about twenty blocks north, chased out by encroaching commerce.  In 1896 Caroline Astor, refusing to retire from public life, moved into her new mansion on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street.  The northern limit of fashionable society seemed to hold at about the  East 70s.

So it was quite a leap in 1898 when Andrew Carnegie purchased the two-block lot on Fifth Avenue between 90th and 92nd Street.  The area, which had been known as Prospect Hill, was dubbed “The Highlands,” because of its remote location.  It was exactly the type of space that Carnegie was looking for.  A self-professed hater of “ostentatious living,” he requested that his architects build him, “The most modest, plainest and most roomy house in New York.”  The end result was his Georgian style, 64 room mansion, set within a yard of almost 30,000 square feet (Caroline Astor’s yard by contrast held about 100).  The mansion stood between 91st and 92nd Street, with the lot north of 92nd Street intentionally left undeveloped, so as not to spoil the view.

But Carnegie didn’t purchase the lot just south of his house, and for years, in what must have been one of the more jarring contrasts in the city, it housed a row of billboards and a tiny run-down lemonade stand.  Maybe Carnegie stopped by for a drink from time to time.  Maybe he stared out his window and dreamed about the day that he could tear it down.  His chance came in 1917, when a sign was posted on the property, “For sale – without restrictions.”  The “without restrictions,” was particularly troubling, meaning that the new buyer could erect whatever type of building they liked.  Carnegie purchased the lot for over $1.7 million, ensuring that his property wouldn’t be encroached on by a tall apartment building.  It remained undeveloped for seven years after his death, in 1919.

At that point the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest came looking for a new location.  The church, standing on Fifth Avenue and 45th Street, had been founded by Civil War veterans in 1865 as a memorial to all those killed in that “terrible conflict.”  Carnegie’s widow Louise agreed to sell the lot across the street, at the discounted price of $1 million, with the stipulation that the land would be used (through 1975) exclusively for a Christian church, of a height no greater than 75 feet (okay, I have to admit this story might be apocryphal, but it’s a good one).  The first service was held there in 1929, although the intention was to continue carving the facade to match the church’s Neo-Gothic style.  The stock market crash of that same year forced a change of plans however – without decorative carvings, the streamlined and slab-like  exterior took on a modernistic, Art Deco appearance that was highly admired.

In the early seventies the Carnegie Corporation donated the Carnegie mansion and property to the Smithsonian; since 1976 it’s housed the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.  Prior to that, Louise – who was over twenty years younger than Andrew – lived in the house until her death in 1946.  You gotta wonder how lonely she got there: just her and 64 rooms.  Although she still spent her summers in Skibo Castle, which by the looks of it is even roomier.  Skibo Castle is in the actual Highlands, in Scotland, a bit more remote than Fifth Avenue and 90th Street.   A summer there might have you longing for the cramped and cozy NYC life, full of lemonade and churches.

(Originally posted May 14th, 2010 on


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