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Trophy Mansion

Friday, February 3, 2017
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In a time of proliferating new trophy apartments in supertall, superswanky towers, period trophy mansions—designed a century ago with unapologetic lavishness—are a comparative rarity.


The stately limestone residence at 50 East 69th Street, an early member of an exclusive enclave in World War I–era Lenox Hill, is one such private home. Built for Otto L. Dommerich, senior partner of a thriving cotton factoring firm, the 44-foot-wide house has been occupied by institutions since 1944. Now, as it celebrates its centennial, the Dommerich house is on the market for $72 million, a sale price that would shatter the record $53 million paid for the Harkness mansion in 2006.


“It’s highly likely it will revert to private use,” said Paula Del Nunzio of Brown Harris Stevens, the building’s listing agent. “It has the extraordinary aspect of being very remarkable architecturally, yet it still feels comfortable and hospitable.”


Designed by Henry C. Pelton—the architect, with Charles Collens, of Riverside Church—the Dommerich house, between Park and Madison Avenues, is right at home on a street flush with the works of major early 20th-century architects: C.P.H. Gilbert, Carrère and Hastings, and Walker & Gillette.


Behind the Dommerich mansion’s front, done in a neo–French Classic style, a grand spiral staircase corkscrews up seven levels to a vivid stained-glass dome. Seen from above, the curving marble stairs resemble a nautilus shell.


With 21,000 square feet above grade, the house is uncommonly spacious and bright.


It has 3 elevators and 14 intricate marble fireplaces, no two alike, as well as space to accommodate 7 bedrooms. There are two terraces. One of them, accessed from a solarium on the top floor, could be connected by a future owner to a sixth-floor roof space below, which offers views of Fifth Avenue and Central Park.


From its inception, the Dommerich mansion was part of an elite enclave of private residences in Lenox Hill that stubbornly resisted the trend toward apartment buildings. Indeed, so many fine houses were built by financiers and their wealthy associates around 69th Street and Park Avenue in the 1910s that the New York Herald dubbed the area a Bankers Colony. “Were East Sixty-ninth Street in Paris, it might be named the Place of the Bankers,” the paper suggested.


In 1910, the Union Theological Seminary, which had occupied the full block on the west side of Park Avenue from 69th to 70th Streets, pulled up stakes and moved to its current location in Morningside Heights. The northern half of the blockfront was soon occupied by the Italian Renaissance–style mansion of George Blumenthal, an investment banking partner at Lazard Frères.


On the southern half, railroad magnate Arthur Curtiss James, former commodore of the New York Yacht Club, laid out an estimated $1 million to build and furnish an elaborate English Renaissance–style mansion of Knoxville gray marble. A perspicacious investor, he ultimately emerged as the nation’s largest individual owner of railroad shares.


To protect his real estate investment, he quietly assembled a large parcel on the southwest corner of 69th Street and Park Avenue, opposite his mansion. In this way, he was able to choose neighbors with the inclination and means to build elegant private houses rather than more of the bulky apartment houses that had been rising along Park.


James sold the prime corner lot to Henry P. Davison, a partner of J.P. Morgan. Davison spent about $200,000 to build a six-story neo-Federal mansion of red Flemish bond brick above a rusticated limestone base. Next door at 52 East 69th Street, also on one of the James lots, Davison had a matching neo-Georgian façade put on an 1881 row house. Davison then sold the home to Harvey D. Gibson, president of the Liberty National Bank.


Directly to the west, Dommerich built his limestone edifice on the site of a pair of brownstones, Nos. 48 and 50, that he had purchased from James. No. 48 had previously been occupied by John H. V. Arnold, a New York surrogate who resigned abruptly and holed up inside the house rather than face a hearing over corruption charges. Dommerich, a director of 12 insurance companies who would amass a fortune of more than $3.8 million, decorated his home with tapestries, oil paintings and no fewer than three floor rugs made of skinned big-game cats, fangs bared.


In 1928, rumors swirled that a house at 34 East 69th, which had been built in 1880 for a city controller and Tammany Hall politician named John Kelly, was about to be sold. The buyers, the scuttlebutt went, planned to put up a tall apartment house. To forestall such an incursion, several owners of adjoining houses swooped in and bought the Kelly residence on the sly, flipping it to a new buyer with the restriction that a private home would be maintained on the site.


The James mansion was torn down in 1959 to make way for a 19-story apartment building. But the Gibson house and the Davison mansion, which was sold in 1955 to the government of Italy for its use as a consulate, survive.


Much of the rest of the block is also still lined with fine, low-rise structures that recall the Bankers Colony era. No. 42, a medieval-style limestone house built in 1921 for Arthur Sachs, grandson of a Goldman, Sachs founder, houses the Jewish National Fund. No. 29, a townhouse with a 1919 limestone façade, was sold in 2015 for $22.5 million by Architectural Digest A.D. 100 designer Juan Pablo Molyneux to an anonymous LLC. No. 33, a 1912 limestone residence, was previously the home of Dr. Mathilde Krim, the founding chairman of amfAR, and Arthur Krim, the former chairman of United Artists and Orion Pictures. The couple hosted President John F. Kennedy’s private birthday party there in 1962 after Marilyn Monroe serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” at the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue. The Dommerich mansion was sold in 1944 to the Henry George School of Social Science. From the 1980s until last year, it was home to the Center for Specialty Care, an outpatient surgical facility.


If the next owner returns the mansion to use as a private home, the change will recall the local trend of a hundred years ago, when an institution at 69th and Park gave way to private residences and James, the railroad titan, sold off the Dommerich site and adjacent ones for “abodes,” as the Herald put it, “of persons congenial to him as neighbors.”


John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in March 2017. The book is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection.




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