Real Estate

From Vanderbilts to Communists

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Election meddling, chemical weapons, assassination attempts, kompromat: le Carré couldn’t make this stuff up. But there’s no better time to reexamine a Fifth Avenue mansion that was a cornerstone of Cold War–era intrigue, as well as the New York home of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito.

That property is 854 Fifth Avenue, a six-story Beaux Arts holdout on 67th Street. Today, the Warren & Wetmore–designed, intricately decorated, two-elevator, eight-bathroom and 32-room townhouse is the last Gilded Age mansion on Fifth Avenue, and currently serves as the Permanent Serbian Mission to the UN.

When the edifice was landmarked in 1969, the city called its interiors a “superb example of the French Classic Style of Louis XV.” But the years have not treated the building kindly. Inside, furniture is piled nearly half way to the 17-foot ceilings of the grand dining room. Paint and plaster hangs from the ceilings in a good many of the rooms. The historic wood inlay is chipped, and Cyrillic graffiti covers the basement. Opaque bulletproof windows block the views of Central Park in the library. And even in the better preserved rooms—the parlor, ballroom, music room and entrance hall, with its grand staircase—a close look reveals decades of abuse that only a skilled hand could restore.

All that might make the $50 million price tag with Tristan Harper of Douglas Elliman sound rather steep—particularly with the estimated $20 million needed to restore the property. But that gore is glory in the eyes of a well-heeled history lover.

In 1899, a fire engulfed No. 854 and the neighboring brownstone at 2 East 67th Street, destroying both properties and killing thirteen. It was suspected that the properties, both owned by Wallace Andrews, president of the New York Steam Heating Company, were destroyed by arson—an unknown person had tried to bomb Andrews’ home shortly before the fire, and a person in possession of the late Mrs. Andrews’ $3,000 necklace was arrested afterward.

In 1903, the site was sold to R. Livingston Beeckman, a stockbroker, polo player and, later, the governor of Rhode Island. Beeckman built the current mansion and installed its white marble balustrades, decorative wood paneling looted from French chateaux, and oversize Romantic murals. Even today, the property boasts the original elevator mechanics, wood-cabinet icebox and gigantic cast-iron stove (which is still used by the Serbians today).

Henry White and Emily Thorn Vanderbilt Sloane White, granddaughter of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, moved to the house in 1925, shortly before the Vanderbilt family mansion on 57th and Fifth was demolished to make way for the Bergdorf Goodman department store. During their time, the house was known for hosting New York aristocracy’s most coveted fetes in the intimate Versailles-inspired ballroom.

But after White’s death, in 1946, the building was sold to the Republic of Yugoslavia for $300,000. Ballrooms gave way to offices, and the generous upper-floor rooms became a claustrophobic Faraday cage where meetings could be had without fear of eavesdropping. After an assassination attempt at the Waldorf Astoria, Tito began bunkering down in the fortified house during his visits to the UN, drawing large crowds of anticommunist protestors.

Those years were full of history. In 1961, Tito and the leaders of Egypt, Ghana, India and Indonesia drafted plans for the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in one of the front parlor rooms.

In 1975, a bomb was set off in a basement stairwell, damaging the first floor and shattering windows, in a bungled assassination attempt. Two years later, three armed Croatian nationalists invaded the mission, shooting one man in the stomach and tossing leaflets from the upper-story windows onto Fifth Avenue.

But whoever purchases the property, it is unlikely that it will remain as it is now. Tristan says a potential buyer would likely gut the worn-out interiors, adding modern amenities like a gym, a movie theater and even a swimming pool. Even a buyer interested in preservation would likely have to temporarily remove the historic details to add modern infrastructure like air-conditioning.

“The architect of a potential buyer even suggested adding an infinity pool to the roof,” Harper said. “The façade is landmarked, but inside the buyer can do whatever they want. Some people have told me they would preserve everything, but the truth is a lot of this is pretty but impractical.”

Fortunately, potential buyers, who we are told include four of Forbes’ top billionaires, needn’t fear attacks from revolutionaries—though the closing process may be just as formidable.

Following drawn-out negotiations among the former Yugoslav republics, it was decided that some 50 properties acquired by Tito would be sold off. That means that Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia (along with the U.S. State Department) must approve the sale of No. 854. Diplomatic immunity, please!


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