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907 Fifth Avenue

Southeast corner at 72nd Street

907 Fifth Avenue

By Carter B. Horsley

This large, lavish, Italian-Renaissance-palazzo-style apartment house occupies a prime location on the avenue at a major entrance to Central Park just south of the model sailboat pond and the great Alice-in-Wonderland statue, which is to say about as close to heaven as possible in New York.

After a facade cleaning in 1998, sparrows quickly rebuilt nests in the narrow spaces of the small balustrades beneath several third-floor windows on the building’s avenue facade, as shown below, clearly a good omen.

bird nests in the balustrades

Sparrows love to make nests inside the facade's balustrades

The 12-story building, which has a handsome, canopied entrance on 72nd Street and a center court, was built in 1916 and converted to a cooperative in 1955. It has 48 units now but when built it had only two per floor. It was designed by J. E. R. Carpenter. Robert D. Knowles and John H. Harris, the building's developers, originally commissioned Cass Gilbert as the project's architect, but then switched to Carpenter, whose design won a gold medal from the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Siegel & Green were the architects for the subdivision of many apartments in the building in the 1950s.

Sidestreet entrance to 907 Fifth Avenue

The lower four floors are rusticated. The corners have deep quoins. The cornice is quite immense. Escutcheons separate the windows on the next-to- the-top floor. The elegant building’s only major design "twist" is the broken stringcourse above the third floor, which is a bit awkward but does not distract from the pleasing, overall composition.

When the building opened, its large 28-room apartments rented for about $30,000 a year. Close to several prominent schools, The Frick Collection and world-famous boutiques on Madison Avenue, this building has a very desirable location although it is a bit removed from the subways.

This building replaced the James A. Burden mansion that was designed by R. H. Robertson and completed in 1893 and vacant land that had been owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt and used as a playing field by the Interclub Baseball League.

"Critics noted that...[Carpenter] made no effort to supply 'glazed rooms,' which were sleeping porches or sun parlors, for the simple reason that 'to the wealthy New Yorker, his townhouse or apartment is merely his winter residence and so used,'" observed Elizabeth Hawes in her fascinating book, "New York, New York How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City (1869-1930)," (Henry Holt and Company, 1993).

"Number 907 was a revolutionary building in a more significant respect," she continued. "It was the first apartment house to replace a mansion on Fifth Avenue. Dramatically, it raised a new flag of dominion on the south side of 72nd Street, on the choicest corner of an area that was graced with some of New York's most famous private houses - Tiffany's fortress, the Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo extravaganza at Madison, the Pulitzer mansion at 11 East 73rd Street, and Henry Clay Frick's palatial mansion and art gallery on Fifth between 70th and 71st Streets. The lots occupied by 907 had once been a parcel of James Lenox's farmland. In recent years, they had held a baseball field and a fine 1890's house that belonged to the Burden family, who had been trying unsuccessfully to rent it. At the first rumor that the Burden house might be replaced by a twelve-story apartment house, local homeowners had objected to the project and fought it in court, but the block was not restricted, and even the daunting presence of the Frick home had not seemed to deter ambitions. As a lawyer for the real estate speculators had explained, 'If the Strozzi Palace, or any of the other seignorial houses of Florence or Rome...were to be exactly repeated with the most beautiful part of Central Park as a background, the only possible modern adaptation of them would be to divide them - as they are today divided - into splendid apartments.' When 907 appeared, it signaled that revisionist thinking was in play in uptown real estate."

In a fine February 2002 article in Avenue magazine, architectural historian Andrew Alpern noted that The New York Times ran an editorial on the proposed building designed by Cass Gilbert that had been commissioned by James A. Burden that stated that "it will stand as a monument of commercial perversity."

View from Central Park

907 Fifth Avenue, right, view from Central Park

"An understated, almost modest 72nd Street entrance led to an impressively rich and lavishly decorated lobby. Embellished with a coffered ceiling, sculpture niches, and a graceful stone staircase, the lobby hinted at the grandeur of the apartments upstairs. These suites ranged upward in size from a 'small' simplex half-floor apartment of 12 rooms through a 17-room duplex to the largest apartment in the building - a 25-room, eight-bath apartment that occupied the entire top floor. That grand suite was taken by Standard Oil Company vice president Herbert L. Pratt, who paid an annual rent of $30,000."

A July 31, 2010 article in The New York Daily News by Erica Pearson and James Fanelli related that Huguette Clark, a 104-year-old heiress, owns a 42-room apartment in the building as well as a 52-acre estate in New Canaan, Connecticut, and an oceanfront estate known as Bellosguardo in Santa Barbara, California, but "has forsaken the lap of luxury for a non-descript hospital room somewhere in the city."  The article noted that Andre Baeyens, her grand-half nephew, told NBC's Today show that "everything stopped for her when her mother died" and that "she just wanted to be home and play with her dolls."  The article noted that she inherited her fortune from her father, "William Clark, a U. S. Senator and Montana tycoon who made a killing from copper mines, raiilroads and Las Vegas property." (7/31/10)

The building was converted to a cooperative in 1955.

The building has a concierge and a doorman, but no garage and no health club.

For more information on this building see its entry at CityRealty.com

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