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
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...., 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.
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.