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Townhouse For(bes) Sale

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

On the corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street in Greenwich Village stand two disparate, easily ignored buildings: an eight-story neoclassical behemoth and a humble brick-front townhouse.

But as different as they may appear, 60 Fifth Avenue (the behemoth, now an NYU facility) and 11 West 12th Street (the townhouse, now on the market as a “new” $28.5 million mansion) were until very recently more than mere neighbors. They seemed in fact to be physically conjoined, their union testament to the relentless pace of New York development.

And along the way, they were occupied—individually and together—by tony residents with names straight from Who’s Who.

In 1846, wealthy merchants William Way and Samuel Barry began building magnificent townhomes at No. 11 and No. 13 (demolished in the 1950s) on West 12th, directly across from the new Gothic Revival First Presbyterian Church.

At No. 60, at the time the site of a gracious mansion, lived Robert Minturn, of Grinnell, Minturn & Company—one of the 19th-century’s leading shipping companies. Among other achievements, Minturn was the owner of Donald McKay’s legendary clipper ship Flying Cloud, whose record 89-day run from New York to San Francisco stood until 1989.

After Minturn’s death, Civil War general Daniel Butterfield (author of the melancholy bugle tune “Taps”) occupied the property. There in 1889 he entertained the Austrian minister, the Chevalier de Severa, in what the New York Times called “one of the most elaborate home dinners given this season.”

At No. 11, the well-respected gentleman and naval officer William Meredith moved in. But in the rapidly growing city, even Fifth Avenue wasn’t safe. Meredith was beaten and robbed of his gold watch in front of the Presbyterian church by “organized highwaymen” following a raucous “chowder party”—a 19th century free-for-all, effectively a drunken brawl—that even the uniformed police were unwilling to stop, according to the Sun.

Crime wasn’t the only thing arriving on lower Fifth Avenue. Business, especially publishers, built offices along Fifth. And as wealthy homeowners moved uptown, the still respectable area began to attract new tenants.

No. 11 was traded between several wealthy landlords and leased by physician Dr. John Winters Brannan and his wife. He was the chairman of the board of trustees of both Bellevue and Allied Hospitals, noted for urging President McKinley to reform conditions at Camp Wikoff in Montauk (where Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were quarantined) during the Spanish-American War. Meanwhile, Mrs. Brannan hosted suffragette meetings and the Women’s Metropolitan Golf Association at the address. No. 60 also saw a number of renters.

Tobacco and railroad magnate Thomas Fortune Ryan purchased No. 11 in 1901, adding it to his portfolio of buildings in the area, which included No. 60. Ryan hoped to stop the flow of businesses into the area and preserve the residential character of the boulevard.

But even he couldn’t stay the inevitable, and in 1915 the Macmillan company purchased Ryan’s holdings along Fifth Avenue and 12th Street.

In what the Times called “doom for lower Fifth Avenue,” Macmillan razed No. 60 and replaced it with a modern office building. However, the company kept No. 11 (although they stripped the façade) and connected it to the new development through the garage and the upper floors.

In 1962, Forbes magazine purchased the buildings, and owner-editor Malcolm Forbes, along with his collection of Fabergé eggs, moved in. With Mulholland & Olson interiors updated by Mario Buatta, No. 11 was once again at the center of society. Forbes hosted business magnates and celebrity guests, including Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Thatcher and the Reagans.

Forbes died in 1990, and his company sold their Fifth Avenue offices to NYU in 2010 for $65 million. In 2014, the magazine relocated to New Jersey.

The townhouse finally hit the market in 2011 with an asking price of $15.2 million. In 2012, it sold to developers Todd Cohen and Terrence Lowenberg of Icon Realty Management. The two have since given the 9,600-square-foot, five-bedroom home a complete makeover under the supervision of interior designer Paris Forino. During the renovation No. 11 was finally separated from No. 60. There is little historic character left in the home today, which now features a soaring great room with a 40-foot ceiling, a mezzanine lounge, marble bathrooms, a home theater and roof terrace overlooking the Presbyterian church. The renovation also gave the home a youthful, luxurious and contemporary look that may not appeal to everyone.

“What the developer did with the renovation was very daring and very expensive,” says Leonard Steinberg of Compass, marketing the home with partner Kyle Blackmon. “But at this price point, we find people are happy to rip something out and start over.”


This piece was originally published in Avenue’s October 2018 issue.


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