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655 Park Avenue

East blockfront between 67th & 68th Streets

655 Park Avenue

By Carter B. Horsley

This Georgian-style cooperative apartment building is not only shorter than most of its era on Park Avenue, but it is also decidedly different in its plan with two low-rise bays projected to the street line framing a large and very handsomely fenced court.

The distinct impression is that this is a palace.

The courtyard, moreover, is not the entrance as logic might have dictated but merely a lovely, landscaped garden. The building is entered on the sidestreets.

Two leading residential specialists, James. E. R. Carpenter and Mott B. Schmidt, were the architects of this impressive building and the intent of their clients was, surprisingly, not to create an imposing structure.

Andrew Alpern devotes an entire chapter in his fine book, "Historic Manhattan Apartment Houses," (Dover Publications Inc., 1996), to the "Battle for Suitable Scale at 655 Avenue."

He recounts that although great apartment houses are now treasured landmarks, "In 1919, however, many Upper East Siders looked upon the proliferating multiple dwellings merely as casters of long shadows and intruders upon an otherwise gracious neighborhood of private residences. So great was the perceived threat, in fact, that a group of the area's property owners banded together to prevent he development site at Park Avenue and East 67th Street form being 'improved' with yet another bourgeois behemoth of a towering tenement. The impetus for this circling of the gilded wagons was Hahnemann Hospital's need for more space....The hospital had been in the forefront of the homeopathic medical movement of the nineteenth century and had prospered, along with the nearby Presbyterian Hospital at East 70th Street and Lenox Hill Hospital (originally the German Hospital) at East 77th Street and Park Avenue....Needing larger quarters, it acquired an essentially vacant 30,000-square-foot site at East 106th Street and Fifth Avenue. In 1919, it simultaneously began construction of a new building and put its Park Avenue property up for sale. In reaction to this move, under the aegis of Douglas Elliman a syndicate was formed by owners of nearby mansions. Percy Pyne, William Sloane, George Blumenthal, Arthur Curtis James, Harold Pratt and several others purchased the hospital site in joint venture and attempted to find similarly prosperous people who might be willing to construct private houses on the site. It quickly became apparent that the potential for new mansions in the neighborhood was minimal, so the syndicate devised a scheme that would provide apartment accommodations while still preserving the ambience of the members' private-house enclave....The social well-placed architectural firm of Delano & Aldrich had been hired to design a building that would retain the scale and character of a private house, and that would provide house-like apartments of grand proportions....the building they devised...was actually three separate structures grouped around a central entrance courtyard facing park Avenue (arcaded on three sides and protected by a manned gatehouse.) Each of the three buildings had four quadruplex maisonette apartments (all with private elevators), stacked two upon two....In designing this residential complex, the architects were clearly emulating the similar 1885 project of McKim, Mead & White for Henry Villard at Madison Avenue and East 50th Street, in which six private houses were clustered around an entranced courtyard in a way that gave the impression of a single grand mansion of palatial proportions....By January of....[1923], however, it was obvious that even this compromise mansion/apartment plan was not viable, and the neighborhood syndicate sold the ten-vacant property to Dwight P. Robinson & Company for multifamily cooperative occupancy. Nonetheless, the protective sellers retained the last word by imposing a height restrictions that effectively barred the construction of yet another of the 15-story apartment houses that they considered to be so objectionable."

As finally built in 1924, 655 contained about 50 apartments. The projecting bays on the avenue are 8 and 7 stories tall at 67th and 68th Streets, respectively, because of the avenue's hill at this location and rest of the building, to the east, is three stories taller.

William K. Vanderbilt Jr., bought one of the maisonettes and other early residents included Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, the author of "The Iconography of New York," a 7-volume book on the history of the city, Congressman Hamilton Fish, and Carman H. Messmore of Knoedler's, the art gallery.

Several of the syndicate's mansions have survived across the avenue, all now official landmarks.

655 Park Avenue sidestreet entrance

Building's sidestreet entrance

The canopied entrance has a step and the building has a doorman and a concierge but no garage and no sun deck.

Tall apartment buildings are no longer considered with such contempt. What is extraordinary is not that the syndicate's rich and powerful members were not successful in getting mansions as neighbors, but that the resulting elegant building plan was not itself emulated as it is very handsome indeed. The answer, of course, lies in the high value of prime New York real estate. It did not use all of its zoning potential and few developers are shy enough to not seek the permitted maximum.

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