By Carter B. Horsley
One of the world’s most magnificent
buildings, 998 Fifth Avenue was designed by McKim, Mead &
White, the architectural firm that designed the Pennsylvania Station
that was demolished in 1964.
An inflated Italian Renaissance-style
structure, the building would delight the Medicis and is widely
credited with convincing New York’s very rich that apartments
were acceptable habitats.
"At the time 998 was built, apartment
house living had not yet been widely accepted by the very wealthy,
but as The Real Estate Record noted, 998 helped to change
the 'deep-seated repugnance' that 'families of high social position'
had for apartments," noted Andrew S. Dolkart in his fine
book, "Touring the Upper East Side, Walks in Five Historic
Districts," published in 1995 by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
Although only 12 stories tall, its
rustication, yellow Sienna marble panels on the 8th and 12th floors
and large cornice topped by a pitched, cooper roof convey a marvelous
sense of monumentality. Almost square, the building has a large
inner court on which only servants and service rooms faced, but
the court was lined with stone rather than brick to improve the
When it opened as a rental in 1912, the
stood as an isolated and not necessarily popular tower along
Row on the avenue until Douglas I. Elliman, the rental agent in
his older brother’s real estate firm, Pease & Elliman,
convinced Senator Elihu Root to move from his Park Avenue home
at 71st Street by reducing his rent from $25,000 a year to $15,000.
After loss-leader Root signed up, the building filled quickly
with such residents as Murray Guggenheim, former U.S. Vice President
Levi P. Morton and a granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.
The building was developed on a site
owned by August Belmont II, the financier who was involved in
building subways, by Century Holding Company, headed by lawyers
Charles R. Fleischmann and James T. Lee. It was converted to a
cooperative in 1953. In 1974, the city’s Landmarks Preservation
Commission finally got around to designating it an official city
landmark and described it as the city’s "finest Italian
Renaissance-style apartment house."
Andrew Alpern noted in his book,
Manhattan Apartment Houses," (Dover Publications, Inc., 1996),
that the building has a "central vacuum-cleaning system,
jewelry and silver safes anchored in the walls of each apartment,
remote laundries with ventilated steam-drying devices, basement
storage rooms, refrigerated wine cellars and additional servants’
quarters...." The handsome, large marquee over the side-street
entrance still exists, although it has lost some of its decorative
elements as Alpern noted and illustrated in his book.
"The lobby was lined in Italian marble,
the halls were floored in durable Tennessee marble (like Grand
Central Terminal), and the elevators were paneled in French walnut.
Some doors throughout all apartments were framed in marble, and
each front door was fireproofed with a sheet of galvanized steel
that was painted to simulate fine wood. Ceilings measured ten
and a half feet high, except on the fifth floor, where they were
a foot higher. The interior design of 998 provided three apartments
for every two stories, which added up to six duplexes, located
in the advantaged southern corner, and eleven seventeen-room
wrote Elizabeth Hawes in her book, "New York, New York, How
the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City (1869-1930),"
Henry Holt and Company, 1993).
Stanford White, the legendary partner of
architectural firm, had been killed a few years before this project,
but the firm obviously still had plenty of genius left and William
Richardson, a partner in the firm, was responsible for this design.
The building is a very elegant
When it was erected, the Metropolitan
across Fifth Avenue was much, much smaller than its present
and attracted far fewer hordes. When Peter Kalikow, the developer
and publisher for a few years of The New York Post, erected
the adjoining, mid-block apartment tower at 1001 Fifth Avenue,
his architect, Philip Johnson, made some contextual gestures towards
998 Fifth Avenue by using a limestone facade and matching up some
of its bandcourses. That tower's base is actually quite restrained
and elegant, but its famous "billboard," propped up
roofline has been broadly scorned as a filmsy insult to the grandeur
established by 998 Fifth Avenue.
This building is not perfect, of course,
least by modern standards as it does not have a rooftop health
club and swimming pool, nor a garage, nor balconies. It does,
however, have a lot of class.
A December 12, 2007 article by Max
in The New York Observer reported that Matthew Bronfman
brought a 14-room coop in the building for about $18 million from
Anne Slater, a socialite fond of sunglasses who bought the unit
before the building went coop in 1953. (12/24/07)
On March 1, 2014, Architorney posted the following
comment to an article on cornices by Christopher Gray:
"Maintenance of a cornice is not for the faint-of-heart,
nor its reconstruction for the small-of-purse, but when done right, the
result can be spectacular. Witness the magnificent total
reconstruction of the complex classical cornice on the McKim Mead &
White masterpiece 998 Fifth Avenue at 81st Street. It was built
up originally of multiple terra-cotta elements on steel supports, but a
century of infiltrating water had rusted the steel, which expanded and
cracked the fired-clay stones. Robert Bates of Walter B. Melvin
Architects devised a stainless steel system to support newly-crafted
high-quality terra-cotta stones (replicating the originals) that were
glazed to match the beautifully cleaned and restored limestone facade
of the building. The handsome cornice was crowned with a
copper-tile roof that recreates the long-lost original."