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 avenues 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
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,
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 Koblers 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 Hearsts 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
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.