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The House That Beer Built

Friday, May 22, 2015
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“Shall Upper Fifth Avenue Be a Street of Apartments? Time to Act!” So declared a breathlessly indignant headline in a 1919 bulletin of the Fifth Avenue Association, a group devoted to defending the row of luxurious mansions opposite Central Park against “the mercenary purposes of those who seek to line [Fifth] with huge multiple dwellings.” Among the prominent landowners who rose up to fight the association’s aim of capping building heights along the park at 75 feet was beer magnate Col. Jacob Ruppert Jr., the bon vivant owner of the New York Yankees, who sought the freedom to sell his ostentatious family manse on 93rd Street for a potential high-rise development.

Colonel Ruppert’s willingness to see the park-facing stretch of Millionaire’s Row pass into history was a telling moment in upper Fifth Avenue’s transformation, for it was the Ruppert family itself that had pioneered mansion construction in the northern reaches of the avenue a few decades earlier. In 1880, more than 20 years before Andrew Carnegie moved into his new 64-room house on East 91st Street and began exerting a magnetic pull on fashionable downtown families, Jacob Ruppert Sr., a profusely mustachioed Yorkville beer baron, bought four lots of undeveloped land on the southeast corner of 93rd and Fifth for $63,000. There, surrounded by squatters’ shacks, the occasional stable, and a smattering of frame houses, he commissioned a bulky extravagance of brick and Belleville stone topped with an iron cornice and a mansard roof of slate and tin. Built from plans by William Schickel, a German-born architect who later designed the nearby Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue, Ruppert’s residence had at its front corner a pointytipped turret, tricked out with ornament and ironwork, that to the modern eye suggests an overburdened Victorian rocket ship struggling to take flight with its ungainly architectural payload.

The press was gleeful in its derision. “It is evident that there are a great many things in the house . . . and that the house cost a great deal of money,” sniffed The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide in 1883. “But it is impossible to discern any more artistic purpose on the part of the designer than to exhibit these two facts.”

Tucked in the house’s basement, adjoining a billiards room, was an amenity that no self-respecting beer baron of Bavarian extraction should be without: a barrel-vaulted Trinkstube, or taproom, wainscoted in dark oak in the fashion of old German taverns. Protruding from one wall was what appeared to be the end of a huge barrel which in fact concealed a secret cupboard that could be opened by turning a spigot. Above the room’s Fift h Avenue window were inscribed the words “Malz und Hopfen/Gibt gute Tropfen,” German for “Malt and hops/Make good drops.”

The mansion contained multitudes. The 1900 census found the 58-year-old brewer living in its spacious confines with his wife, Anna, three grown children and 13 servants, including a Japanese valet. Another child, Cornelia, had eloped in 1895 with a celebrated violinist, Nahan Franko, whom her parents considered an unsuitable mate—no doubt giving Jacob Sr. cause to make liberal use of his Trinkstube.

“Cornelia scandalized the family by running off and marrying a musician,” said K. Jacob Ruppert, a great-great-grandson of Jacob Ruppert Sr. “Franko was a famous orchestra leader who was concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera, but he was still a musician, and he was Jewish, and he was divorced.”

When Cornelia contracted typhoid fever and died the following year, an unseemly battle ensued over the final resting place of her corpse. “Bridegroom and Father to Fight for the Dead Bride,” reported the sensationalist New York Journal with ill-concealed relish. “No Rest Even in the Tomb for Poor Cornelia Franko . . . and Now the Suit for the Ownership of Her Dead Body Is One of the Most Pathetic Romances of Greater New York.” Brewer and concertmaster had clasped hands over Cornelia’s “magnificent coffin,” the paper noted, “and bonds thus cemented should have endured. Yet when Nahan Franko called at the Fifth Avenue mansion a few days after the funeral the doors were closed to him.”

On the sly, Jacob Sr. arranged to have his daughter’s body relocated to the mausoleum of an associate at Woodlawn Cemetery. Franko fought the maneuver in court, but the brewer emerged victorious, and Cornelia’s body was ultimately placed in the Ruppert mausoleum in Valhalla, New York.

“It’s almost like the route of Eva Perón,” said K. Jacob Ruppert, who has unearthed numerous cemetery documents tracing Cornelia’s circuitous journey after death. “We’re still in touch with descendants of the Franko family, so we still giggle about it.”

When Jacob Sr. followed his daughter to Valhalla in 1915, he left behind a fortune of more than $6.3 million, with his widow receiving lifelong use of the 93rd Street mansion. Col. Jacob Ruppert Jr. formally took the reins of the family’s thriving brewery, which his father had established on Third Avenue in 1867 aft er buying timberland between 91st and 92nd Streets and clearing it with his own hands. By 1915, the brewery had expanded and could turn out two million barrels a year.

Colonel Ruppert Jr. was a man of moxie and tenacity, a former congressman who had recently become co-owner of the Yankees. One of the first players he acquired was right-hander Dan Tipple, an apt name for a brewer’s pitcher. More noteworthy was Ruppert’s purchase of one George Herman “Babe” Ruth from the Boston Red Sox after the 1919 season. Ruppert, who eventually became sole owner of the ball club, built the Yankees into a juggernaut and put up Yankee Stadium, earning a place in history as the Man Who Built the House Th at Ruth Built.

Another place where Ruppert endorsed major construction was upper Fifth Avenue, which had developed into an opulent, far-famed mansion district. In 1921, the city Board of Estimate restricted the height of new buildings to 75 feet on Fifth from 60th to 96th Streets. But a court decision in 1923, upheld the following spring, revoked the 75-foot limit, permitting buildings twice as high, and the rush to construct high-rise apartments on upper Fifth was on. In the coming years, one great mansion after another would fall.

Although Colonel Ruppert lived in the family’s 93rd Street mansion with his widowed mother as late as 1920, according to census records, the family lost no time in selling the house after her death. In 1925 the buyer flipped the mansion to a high-rise developer, and the colonel, in a sign of the times, moved directly across 93rd Street to a brand-new 14-story apartment house at 1120 Fifth Avenue.

The colonel shared his swanky new apartment with four Belgian servants, and when a reporter caught up with him in his “homey nest of 15 rooms” for an article titled “Bachelor Apartment,” the Yankees owner declared that men marry only when they are lonely or in need of a housekeeper—and that he was neither. “He likes the ladies,” the reporter noted. “He’s glad when they are married to someone else.”

George E. Ruppert, the colonel’s youngest brother, did marry, ultimately returning “home,” like some kind of well-to-do Upper East Side salmon, to 1115 Fifth Avenue, the luxury apartment house built in the mid-1920s on the very site of the razed mansion in which he and his five siblings had grown up. Designed by the prolific J. E. R. Carpenter, the same architect who designed No. 1120, 1115 Fifth remains a desirable and expensive address. Apartment 5A, a three-bedroom co-op with a 40-foot gallery, a wood-burning fireplace and Central Park views, is listed with Douglas Elliman Real Estate at $5,995,000.

As for salvaged remnants of the demolished Ruppert mansion, some intriguing vestiges have turned up, thanks to the selective sentimentality of Colonel Ruppert. He abhorred the notion of letting Ruppert relics get into the hands of strangers, so when the Fifth Avenue residence was torn down, the colonel took the family sleighs and other unwanted furnishings and burned them at Eagle’s Rest, his country estate in Garrison, New York. But as George Perry, his former personal secretary, recounted in The Sporting News shortly after the colonel’s death in 1939, a number of precious items were spared from the flames.

“Ruppert had intense love for his mother,” Perry wrote, and when he built his Garrison home, “he moved his mother’s room from the Fifth Avenue mansion in toto, with furnishings as she left when she died. That room was Jake’s shrine.”

K. Jacob Ruppert, indefatigable sleuth of his family’s history, is a periodic visitor to the colonel’s former estate, which is now a group home for needy children run by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. In all his visits, he has never discovered any remnants of the colonel’s mother’s relocated Fifth Avenue bedroom. But he has identified the ornate fireplace from the New York mansion’s dining room, complete with a pair of richly carved oak satyrs. And during a tour of the estate in the early 1990s, Mr. Ruppert experienced what he described as “a big-time epiphany” after his hosts offered to show him the group home’s “alumni room.”

“I was expecting a little office or something, and I walked in and said, ‘Oh my god, it’s the Bierstube from the old house!’” Sure enough, the Fifth Avenue taproom had been dismantled and reassembled in the Garrison house, right down to the clever cabinet disguised as a beer barrel and the florid mural painted in a wine-women-and-song theme.

Considering that virtually no remnants survive of the sprawling Ruppert brewery on Third Avenue, which was torn down after its closing in 1965 to make way for apartment buildings (one called Ruppert Towers), the relocated Trinkstube provides Ruppert descendants with a welcome opportunity for a bit of mental time travel.

“I always go to the Bierstube when I visit Eagle’s Rest,” said K. Jacob Ruppert. “I sit at the original table and chairs and I look at the original wainscoting and mural. I’m so glad they’ve preserved it.”
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