The Swank Fifties And Above
( Originally Published 1930's )
EVEN before business completed the conquest of the Thirty-fourth and Forty-second Street stretch on Fifth Avenue, a marathon of the rich pushed the fashionable residence section north of the latter cross street. A list of 1888 residents shows these famous names from Forty-second to Fifty-ninth: Russell Sage, Chauncey M. Depew, Jay Gould, E. R. Seligman, Ogden Goelet, Roswell P. Flower, Edward S. Jaffrey, D. Ogden Mills, Henry M. Flagler, Collis P. Huntington, William Rockefeller, R. Fulton Cutting, William C. Whitney, Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt, William E. Vanderbilt, and the senior Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Vanderbilt family at one period had four houses in this section, and General Cornelius Vanderbilt still lives on the northwest corner of Fifty-first Street, in one of the four private houses on upper Fifth Avenue below Fifty-ninth Street. Three of the other Vanderbilt houses were sold in 1925-27, to make way for business.
Another plutocratic tidal wave moving up Fifth Avenue opposite the Park developed in the middle nineties, with the return of prosperity and high tariffs. This was the heyday of the Park's availability as a late afternoon parade ground for the well groomed, horse-drawn turnouts in which the ladies of the neighborhood showed themselves elaborately gowned to an approving world.
The Horse Age was on the point of passing, the devil had entered the Park in the shape of a horseless carriage soon evicted by the police; but the damage had been done, the seed of progress sown, and today only an occasional eccentric old lady takes the air in Central Park behind a high-stepping pair of horses, coachman and mistress blandly disregarding monoxide fumes and the roaring horns of impatient motorists.
Andrew Carnegie, ever a shrewd man at a bargain, bought and built on upper Fifth Avenue at Nintieth Street before the rush really got started. Near the Plaza at Fifty-ninth Street, the Avenue across from the Park already had some notable houses. John Jacob Astor had forsaken the Thirty-fourth Street section to build an $800,000 mansion at Sixty-fifth Street in 1894, a marble palace occupying more ground than any other private residence in the city. Between Sixty-fifth and Nintieth, when the gold rush of the late nineties began, were many vacant lots, including several choice corners, some institutions (notably the Metropolitan Museum) in Central Park, and such buildings as had been constructed were not of a quality to stand long in the face of a boom backed by real money —a drive by men of prompt decision and long purses.
In 1901 Jacob H. Schiff bought for $450,000, Number 967 Fifth Avenue, the most expensive house ever built for sale up to that time in New York City. Another bold speculation in house building, Number 987, went for around $250,000 to W. B. Leeds, the Tin Plate King, who later bought a lot still vacant farther up the Avenue. James B. Duke bought a new six-story dwelling at Eighty-second Street. Perry Belmont bought the northeast corner of Ninety-second Street, 100 by 200 feet, for $300,000 in 1901, when Henry Phipps was building his mansion on Eighty-seventh Street. Hardly a block on upper Fifth Avenue failed to show some change of character or owners or both in 1901—1902. In the latter year Archer M. Hunting-ton bought 1080—1081 Fifth Avenue, two new six-story dwellings, and adapted them to his use.
Perhaps the most gorgeous of all the Fifth Avenue residences of its day was the seven-story granite mansion of the former Senator from Montana, William A. Clark, the copper king. Built about 1901 at a cost of $6,000,000 on the northeast corner of Seventy-seventh Street, this house contained 121 rooms, 31 bathrooms, a theater, swimming pool, four art salons, 26 servants' rooms and several dining rooms. It was sold and razed to make room for an apartment house in 1927, at which time the land—77 by 200 by 102 feet— was assessed for $1,000,000.
All these and many other building operations were preceded by sales at high figures, more than doubling the top prices which prevailed just before the collapse of the post-war boom in 1873. Fifth Avenue had "come back"; not only that, but had gone ahead into values hitherto undreamed of, attracting a class of residents so well fortified in wealth that distress sales have since been few in that area.
Proceeding north along the Avenue, comparative prices of various pieces in different years run:
Ninth Street. The Henry Brevoort mansion, S. E. corner of 9th Street and Fifth Avenue, 92 x 126, bought by Henry C. de Rham for $57,000 in 1850.
Twelfth Street. N. E. corner of 12th Street sold for $160,000 in 1890; for $225,000 in 1901.
Nineteenth Street. N. E. corner of 19th Street, two dwellings and building in rear sold for $400,000 in 1899.
S. W. corner of 19th Street sold for $225,000 in 1899; for $750,000 in 1900.
Thirty-third to Thirty-fourth Street. West side (Empire State Bldg.) sold for $11,650,000 in 1920; for $12,225,000 in 1921; for almost $17,000,000 in 1929. Assessed valuation of land and building, $20,-000,000 in 1930; $34,000,000 in 1933; $30,000,000 in 1934. The 83,860 square feet in this site is a very small fraction of the Thompson Farm, which William B. Astor bought in 1826 for $25,000.
Forty-fourth Street. S. E. corner reported sold for $950,000 in 1902; the N. E. corner, sold for $9,000,-000 in 1931, contained a thirty-six-story building.
Fifty-second Street. S. E. corner (part of a block originally sold by the city for $1) sold in 1902 for about $1,000,000. Two lots on N. E. corner sold for $50,000 in 1869, and were sold again with two more added in 1903 for $1,325,000.
Fifty-fourth Street. In 1901 the S. E. corner sold for $300,000; the N. E. corner sold for $2,450,000 in 1921. In 1927, the land was assessed for $1,600,000 and sold (an unfinished building on it) for $3,000,000 at the Gould auction. This price of $432 a square foot was a record.
Fifty-fifth Street. S. W. corner (Hotel Gotham; part of the St. Luke's Hospital site previously sold by the city for $1) sold in 1901 for $575,000. Reported sold in 1920 for $4,000,000, land value about $2,000,000.
Fifty-ninth Street. N. E. corner (the Sherry Netherland) lot, worth $5,000 to $7,000 in 1858, was sold, with new hotel in course of construction, in 1927 for about $10,000,000.
S. W. Corner (Plaza Hotel) site sold in 1883 for $875,000; in 1902 for $3,000,000, which was practically the price of the vacant ground—a rise of 300 per cent in nineteen years.
Eighty-seventh Street. N. E. corner sold in 1901 for about $300,000; in 1927, with two lots on Eighty-seventh Street added, sold for more than $2,000,000.
Eighty-eighth Street. S. E. corner (vacant lots) sold at auction in 1899 for $121,000; and sold in 1901 for $196,000. In 1927 these lots, built on, had an assessed valuation of $2,000,000.
Ninety-seventh Street. N. E. corner, 100 by 200 feet, sold to Benjamin Stern in 1900 for $210,000; sold again as vacant ground next year for a reported price of $345,000, more than sixty per cent profit in a year.
One hundred fourth to One hundred fifth Street. Bought for $325,000 in 1899; in 1901 for about $400,-000, and two months later for a reported price of $500,000.
Lots farther north on Fifth Avenue beyond the Park in a region now largely occupied by Negroes sold for from $600 to $1,500 in 1858. As "immigrant property" first for Germans and then for Jews, these were subject to another set of conditions than the park-side property and never rose to such large figures.
Thus far business, having trailed the fashionable residences as far as Central Park (Fifty-ninth Street) seems disposed to go no farther north on that line. Hotels of the more exclusive sort have invaded the once purely residential section, but stores remain be-low Fifty-ninth Street. How long this freedom from business invasion can be maintained under the present zoning restrictions is a question. In other cities—notably in Edinburgh and Boston—the finest streets for shops are opposite parks. With the automobile a decisive factor in high-class trade, the surplus parking space afforded by such a street might even seem to be an advantage. But the fact is that the shopping district south of the Park shows a tendency to spread east and west. Fifty-seventh Street from Park Avenue to Broadway, with its advantage of breadth, has forged ahead swiftly though unevenly. Sixth Avenue near the Park has improved considerably since the elevated spur was cleared away. But perhaps the strongest candidate for such honors as there be in trade is Park Avenue, which is the street par excellence for fashionable apartment houses as Fifth Avenue leads in fashionable private homes. Since the new Waldorf Astoria opened in 1930, traffic on Park Avenue up to its Fiftieth Street site has increased about 50 per cent, rewarding those farsighted storekeepers who early took stand there. Something may have to be done to Park Avenue above the emergence of the New York Central tracks at Ninety-sixth Street; if so, Park might become actually a through street and repeat in higher latitudes the advance which came to its lower reaches after the New York Central tracks were put underground there.
However, a new influence appears to be at work among the well-to-do, whose favor for certain localities has initiated all the shifts uptown. The days of splurge-in-town, as expressed in Fifth Avenue mansions and Park Avenue's elaborate apartments, seem to be over, competitive building for show purposes having been transferred to suburban areas, where new palaces arise in controllable environments. In town it is no longer quite in taste to build marble palaces, however much money one may have. Instead one lives in a hotel, in an old house in the Sixties east of the Park, a modest enough place to look at though perhaps full of Clarkian pomp inside, or in some outlying quarter with a view like Sutton Place or Beekman Hill. Probably no more booms will be built based on what Veblen called the conspicuous display of waste; but what the landlords of the most precious parts of town lose in one way they may pick up in another by the process of covering their golden earth more closely with tall buildings, packing their public in many layers. Business, too, shows this trend away from concentration.
"Swank" is a new word describing accurately a mod-ern mood with direct effect upon as solid an interest as real estate. It stands for the style effects and fashion chases of the new rich, as pursued by affluent ladies and their daughters and nieces, the debutantes and "subdebs" of an emancipated era.
In the golden 1920's the favorite nesting place of these excellent buyers was Park Avenue, where apartment-house living reached something like social elegance. The vogue for mansions on Fifth Avenue had passed; but two blocks east there had arisen super-apartment houses subject to rigid social selection, for the reason that it became available for residences rather late and was held under unified control, the New York Central Railroad, whose tracks lie below the surface, being the ground landlord. Therefore the "swank" set took naturally to Park Avenue; and the "swank" shops followed them uptown.
Toward the end of the boom period, it was evident that Fifth Avenue below Fiftieth Street was losing its piquancy. Oh, yes, there were excellent establishments below Fiftieth, even below Forty-second Street; but they were good in the old sense not in the new sense, the "swank" sense. If you had a going trade among the best families, a carriage and chauffeur trade if you please, you could still do well as far south as Thirty-fourth Street; but if you had only a brilliant idea in merchandising, a keen sense of what was wanted in clothes or pictures or drapes or what not by the young people and their elders who were determined to look young and act young, then you took counsel of courage and went north of Fiftieth.
One immediate result of this pursuit of "swanky" folk by "swanky" shops was to bring Fifty-seventh Street forward, since its greater width gave it the advantage over the other cross streets in that area. From Madison to Sixth Avenue, Fifty-seventh is now a made street in the retail sense. On either end of that sector, Fifty-seventh is still fighting ground; but "swank" is gaining both east and west, and the revival of prosperity will probably be felt in both directions. While Fifty-seventh has no such bastions of transport as Forty-second has with its Grand Central and Times Square, Fifty-seventh is nearer the homes of the long purses and quick buyers. Fifty-seventh has that dynamic imponderable tone; Forty-second hasn't. Under the changing conditions of merchandising, it is quite possible for a street to have too many passers-by for its own good; that all depends on who. the passers-by are. Milady likes to spend her money without having to battle street crowds. The removal of the upper Sixth Avenue elevated has helped Fifty-seventh Street, and the Avenue itself near the Park; and on the east, Fifty-seventh leads straight into the recently renovated and now fashionable Sutton Place district.
Another influence flowing from the same causes is the development of Madison Avenue as the abode of specialty shops in the latitudes of the Fifties. Swagger shops now dominate that street to Fifty-ninth, and there are indications that this trend may continue well into the sixties, in answer to the retail pressure toward the abodes of the socially prominent, since the middle Sixties from Fifth Avenue to Park are now the most favored residence area in the Social Register.
Respectability still appears to have a cash value in the great city, in spite of superficial criticism to the contrary; not long after the side-streets in the now "roaring Forties" took to "roaring," they began to be deserted by business houses seeking trade among the more stable and less noisy elements. One is tempted to say that the "roaring Forties" roar mostly at night, and those firms which live by daylight sales slipped away elsewhere. But the case is not quite so simple as that, as one could observe in the late speakeasy era of our national existence. Almost anyone could crash into a "speak" in the Parties; but a stranger approaching a "speak" in the Fifties had to carry excellent credentials and prove the right of entry.
So also does respectability dominate other land values. The coming of the Waldorf-Astoria to Park Avenue at Fiftieth Street doubled pedestrian traffic in that neighborhood, thereby inducing certain chary tenants to move farther north, where the hotel's influence is not felt as yet. Less desirable tenants filled the quarters thus vacated, and a Park Avenue address in certain blocks is no longer considered helpful in assisting Madame Plutocrat to make her way into higher social circles. The contrary, in fact.