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820 Park Avenue

Northwest corner at 75th Street

 

By Carter B. Horsley

One of the strangest buildings on Park Avenue, this eclectic apartment house was originally designed to contain multi-story apartments including a spectacular triplex for its developer, Albert J. Kobler, the publisher of the American Weekly Magazine, a Hearst publication.

The design of the 16-story building by Harry Allen Jacobs has a slightly inclined three-story roof for the northern half of the avenue’s frontage while the southern half is a rather robust Edwardian-style tower that is flush with the facade of the rest of the building although set off by balconies at its base. The asymmetrical design tops a brown brick shaft with an irregular window pattern, all above a very handsome two-and-a-half story base of variegated, tan-colored sandstone.

The shingles of the mansard-like inclined portion of the roof were originally slate, but later replaced with regular shingles.

820 Park Avenue entrance

The building has a very handsome, 2 1/2-story yellow stone base and an arched, canopied entrance.

The overall effect is neither harmonious, nor beautiful. The narrow, "split-personality" building, nevertheless, is intriguing as is its history and interiors.

The building replaced an elegant but rather spartan mansion that had been designed by John Mead Howells for Mrs. Millbank Anderson and completed in 1920. "The traditional Classical forms and detailing were so restrained that they were more a memory than a reality. The building was bloodless, lacking any of the charm or exuberance of good Classical design," remarked Andrew Alpern in his fine book, "Luxury Apartment Buildings of Manhattan, An Illustrated History," (Dover Publications, Inc., 1992).

The limestone mansion may have been bloodless but it was quite refined and subtle in both its detailing and proportions and it featured a very stunning fifth floor setback with large arched windows.

Mrs. Anderson did not move into her mansion, which remained vacant until 1924 when Mr. Kobler acquired the property and commissioned Howells to remodel and redecorate it. A year later, however, the building was demolished, Alpern recalled, adding that "Clearly, that project represented the last gasp of the old ways of living in Manhattan," Alpern wrote, referring to the era of building great private houses.

Kobler acquired an adjoining property and commissioned Harry Allan Jacobs to erect what Alpern described as "a thoroughly modern concept in apartment-house living: multiple mansions stacked one upon another for soaring status and expansive living." Jacobs had designed the Friars Club as well as lavish townhouses for Adolph Lewisohn, Herman Lehman, Adolph Zucker and Martin Beck. (His son, Robert, became a partner with architect Ely Jacques Kahn in the firm of Kahn & Jacobs that would design many office buildings in the city.)

Alpern wrote of the new design that "Perhaps in reaction to the limestone chill of the previous residence on the site, this design in aggressively warm." The "typical" apartment in the new building was a 17-room duplex, but the most spectacular was a triplex penthouse Kobler reserved for himself.

"The entrance hall had a low groin-vaulted ceiling set off with shallow stone arches and richly carved doors. A stone Gothic stairway led up from the entrance hall to the library, and down to the dining room, which had stone walls, a massive stone fireplace and a coffered ceiling produced from the Uffizi Palace. But even the massive three-story story, embellished with wrought iron from the forge of Samuel Yellin, paled beside the spectacular drawing room. Two stories high, the room was lighted by leaded and stained-glass windows and a large mutliarmed chandelier. It served as a setting for Kobler’s extensive collection of rare old French Gothic furniture and artworks, and was dominated by an exceptional 16th century carved stone fireplace, which drew the eye up to a deeply carved and polychromed ceiling. A profusion of stone arches offered views of a music alcove, the entrance hall and the great Gothic stairway. The library on the floor above included a small stone oriel window looking down upon the drawing room and its wall-hung tapestry, whose previous owners are said to have included Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey. The furniture had similarly lofty pedigrees, boasting prior tenancy in the Strozzi and Barberini palaces.

The building was erected in 1926 and converted to a cooperative in 1957 and now has 19 apartments.

According to James Trager, the author of "Park Avenue, Street of Dreams," (Atheneum, 1990), "Kobler came to New York from his native Vienna in 1906 at age twenty, worked in the textile business for eight years, and then become an advertising solicitor for the New York Globe."

"William Randolph Hearst had put him in charge of the American Weekly in 1917," Trager continued, "and Kobler was on his way to increasing circulation of the Sunday supplement from 2 million to 25 million and boosting revenues from $35,000 per year to $13,000 per page. Having bought three 75th Street row houses to enlarge his plot, Kobler engaged Harry Allan Jacobs to design a fourteen-story building for nine families who had closed their private houses and could afford rents of between $2,088 and $3,333 per month for apartments that, being on higher floors, were brighter and sunnier than most townhouses. Tenants soon included Herbert H. Lehman and Carl H. Pforzheimer - Jewish, like Kobler, but both men of higher social standing....Kobler became publisher of Hearst’s New York Mirror in 1928. A few years later he was able to settle a $500,000 debt for $150,000 in cash plus perhaps $25,000 from his $100,000 life insurance policy. He moved out of his luxurious aerie, and at the time of this death, on January 1, 1937 (he came down with the flue and died four days later), was living with his wife, Mignon, at the Madison Hotel, 10 East 58th Street. The triplex at 820 Park was shorn of its splendor and subdivided, as were most of the other apartments in the building at various times. The gray-shingled facing on the north section of the top three floors dates from 1940."

The building has a very convenient location, close to many art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and the Whitney Museum of American Art on Madison Avenue, Lenox Hill Hospital one block north on Park Avenue and a local subway station at Lexington Avenue at 77th Street. It has large apartments, some balconies, a doorman, and a concierge, but no garage, no sidewalk landscaping and no health club.

 

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