Books logo

Fifth Avenue

The Best Address

By Jerry E. Patterson, Rizzoli International Publications, 1998, pp. 224. $40.

By Carter B. Horsley

A broad and sweeping, but quite manageable history of the world-famous boulevard that separates the east and west side of Manhattan's grid streets, this handsome, well illustrated volume is a fine introduction to the changing tastes of the city's well-to-do and how ephemeral many of its most magnificent edifices, such as the Henry Phipps mansion on the northeast corner at 87th Street, were.

Photograph of Henry Phipps mansion on northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 87th Street

While it does not break much new ground, it is well written, sober, fair and often witty and its selection of 74 historical photographs excellent although the book is a bit pricey considering its relatively small size and lack of color photographs. {There are several older books available about Fifth Avenue, the most interesting of which is "Fifth Avenue, Start to Finish in Historic Block-by-Block Photographs" (Dover Publications Inc., 1994), which includes photographs by the Burton Welles of almost the entire avenue in 1911 with excellent commentary added by architectural historian Christopher Gray.)

What this book accomplishes well is historical perspective especially for readers whose memory is only a few decades long and may have been somewhat puzzled by the avenue's international celebrity.

The book is organized geographically, starting to Washington Square. Such a scheme makes sense as Manhattan's development has traditionally moved northward.

The base of Fifth Avenue is what is now Washington Square Park had been a cemetery and then part of the Henry Brevoort farm and properties belonging to Robert Richard Randall, "a successful pirate in the Caribbean," who gave it to a charity called Sailors' Snug Harbor. When the Avenue was "laid" out by city officials in 1824, this area was two or three miles of the "city," which then had a population of about 100,000. Henry Brevoort's Dutch ancestors had been in New York since the 1630's and he kept a pet bear chained in his front yard and sold vegetables and rare birds at the corner of Tenth Street and what is now Fifth Avenue.

"The years of the American Revolution had left the city battered and poor," Patterson observed:

"Troops, British and American by turns, had roamed its streets; battles had been fought in its suburbs. Its citizens had bet on the wrong side: most of them were strongly Tory in sentiment and a quarter of them and left with the British troops when they finally evacuated the city in 1789. Nevertheless, against expectations, the city began to grow explosively in population and wealth in the early nineteenth century, mainly on account of its natural advantages as a port. It passed Philadelphia to become the most populous city in the new republic. ...Some fine mansions lined lower Broadway, but most new Yorkers were miserably housed in cramped two- or three-story buildings densely packed along streets that horrified visitors with their mud and litter....

"As they have throughout their history, New Yorkers viewed any changes proposed by the city government with suspicion and indignation. They set dogs on the surveying terms and pelted with vegetables, as the commissioners reported in pained terms, and brought lawsuits against the city, beginning one of New York's longest-lasting traditions. The commissioners decided on a gridiron plan for the new city, with "rectilinear and rectangular " streets. Their reasoning was that straight-sided and right-angled houses were the cheapest to build and the most convenient to live in, and also the easiest to locate and to describe in legal documents," Patterson continued.

One of the more outraged citizens was Brevoort, who, Patterson noted, was related to the Astors, already one of the city's richest families. Brevoort objected to a street crossing part of his property and as a result 11th Street does still does not go through Broadway to Forth Avenue. Grace Episcopal Church would later be built on the property and its architect, James Renwick Jr., was a grandson of Brevoort. At his death at the age of 94 in 1841, Brevoort was one of the city's wealthiest citizens and he then owned 11 acres north of Washington Square Park, which by then was the most desirable residential section in the city, Patterson wrote. Brevoort's son built a free-standing house on the northwest corner of Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue in 1834 "perhaps designed (no positive evidence exists) by Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis, masters of the Greek Revival style. The house was sold to the de Rham family who lived in it until 1921, four years before it was replaced by the Fifth Avenue Hotel that itself was subsequently converted into apartments.

The Brevoort legacy was enhanced by the opening in 1851 of the Brevoort Hotel, the avenue's first, on the northeast corner at Eighth Street. The five-story hotel, which would cater to the "better-heeled creative figures of the early twentieth century," as Patterson puts it, "was modernized in 1946, only to be demolished in 1953" and replaced by a large apartment building called, appropriately, the Brevoort.

"Fifth Avenue was planned on a gracious scale long before most European cities had cleaned up the medieval narrowness and crookedness of their streets - decades, for instance, before Baron Haussmann transformed Paris. Fifth Avenue was one hundred feet wide....Later the city permitted property owners to encroach fifteen feet on the sidewalks for stoops, yards, and porticoes. Residents took full advantage of this stipulation and, to the annoyance of city officials, added all sorts of ornamentations to the fronts of their houses. This created a fruitful source of argument that continued for the next eighty years until finally, in 1908, all encroachments were ordered removed by the powerful City Board of Estimate and the roadway was widened to accommodate the increasing automobile traffic." Patterson wrote.

Patterson suggests that although one early account maintained that over a 100,000 people had been buried in the cemetery that became Washington Square, "recent scholarly enquiry into this subject estimates the number of bodies at about twenty-five thousand," adding that the potter's field had also been used for public executions. Burials on the site ended about 1826 and it became a parade ground and officially opened as a park in 1828.

Around 1830, Patterson maintained, "a great sea change took place in the thinking and ambitions of the well-to-do: Suddenly, it became unfashionable to live between shops and warehouses and saloons - of which New York had more than its share - enduring noise from the streets, and there was a marked migration 'uptown.' By 1837, of 140 pews at Grace Church, then at Broadway and Rector Street, at least 95 belonged to people who had moved above Canal Street....The famous row of austerely elegant houses in the Greek revival style, still in part standing on the north side of Washington Square, dates from the 1830's and was the first built in the new neighborhood of Lower Fifth Avenue....The first householders in Washington Square dealt in whale oil, iron, tobacco and sugar....The lots on which they stood were ninety feet deep, and the spaces behind the houses extending to Eighth Street were gardens with flowerbeds and trellises. These trellises figure in many books and reminiscences of the time, which usually dwell on their flowery and attractive appearance. Delicacy prevented the authors from saying that they masked the path to the outdoor privies, which even such first-class dwellings still depended on, and provided protection for necessary trips in bad weather."

Patterson obviously has done a lot of homework, noting, for example, that awnings were ubiquitous and that those on Washington Square were uniformly green-and-white striped.

"When the merchant gentry moved uptown, their institutions, especially schools and churches, soon followed. At 1 Fifth Avenue was a seminary for young ladies run by the Misses Lucy and Mary Green, who came from an established New York family. Their faculty of young men teachers included at various times Elihu Root, later U. S. secretary of state and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; John Bigelow, later minister to France; and John Fiske, who became America's chief exponent of Darwin's new theory of evolution. Winston Churchill's mother, Jennie Jerome, was a student at one time," Patterson recounts.

In 1831, the University of the City of New York, which would become New York University, opened on the east side of Washington Square and, according to Patterson, was "strongly Presbyterian" and "convicts from the state prison at Sing Sing...were employed in cutting stone" for its construction, leading to a riot in 1834 in the square by professional stonemasons. The Gothic-style institution had trouble attracting students, he continued, and "was obliged to rent out apartments in its building, mostly to artists and architects," adding that "Even the chapel was subdivided into rooms for rent" and that the building was demolished in 1894.

One of its graduates, John Taylor Johnston, who was an executive at the Central Railroad of New Jersey, would become the founding president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in 1856 built the first marble mansion in the city at 8 Fifth Avenue at Eighth Street in which he housed his important painting collection that included major works by Thomas Cole, Frederick Edwin church and Winslow Homer. He eventually opened a galley for his collection in a stable behind his house, then had to sell most of it during a Depression in the 1870's, but recovered and the next decade had his house redecorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Johnston was not only an important art collector in this area as James Lenox, an heir to a real estate fortune and a great bibliophile, lived at 53 Fifth Avenue and owned the first work by J. M. W. Turner in the United States. August Belmont, another collector, lived further north on the avenue and Patterson wrote that "this neighborhood contained more art treasures than any city of nineteenth-century America."

Even so, there were still 32 vacant lots in 1841 between Washington Square and 23rd Streets.

"Church congregations seem to have been quite unsentimental about their church buildings...The First Presbyterian Church, formerly on Wall Street, rose on the west side of the avenue between Eleventh and Twelfth streets and opened for services in 1846....The Episcopal Church of the Ascension at Tenth Street was built in 1841, designed by Richard Upjohn. In 1888-89 the church was extensively redecorated. The finest American artists of the time did some of their best work there: Stanford White, the architect, designed a new chancel; Augustus St. Gaudens, the sculptor, adorned it with angelic figures; and Maitland Armstrong, a stained-glass artist who lived on Tenth Street (see The City Review article on the famous but now demolished Tenth Street Studio Building), provided mosaics. The most important work was the magnificent painting of the Ascension by John La Farge," Patterson wrote.

The era was a church-going age and Patterson observed that "city authorities strongly backed the spirit of the times....The regulations allowed churches to put chains across streets during services in order to prevent the passing of noisy carriages and stagecoaches."

By the middle of the 19th Century, horsecar lines operated on Second, Third, Sixth and Eighth Avenues and finally on Fifth. These lines, or buses, ran on rails. "During the Civil War, when specie payment was suspended, there was no small change and fares were paid on postage stamps, which in hot weather stuck to everything. You pulled a string attached to the driver's leg when you wanted to be set down. The floors were covered in straw in bad weather to absorb mud and snow; the cars were notoriously smelly and uncomfortable," Patterson wrote.

All was not wretched, however, as gas lamps extended up Fifth Avenue to 18th Street by 1847, although after the Civil War the streetscapes began to be forested with telegraph poles and Patterson notes that "the rich had buzzer systems installed in their houses so that a telegraph boy could be quickly summoned to pick up messages." "This invention, and a little later the telephone, brought the business city, once miles away, close to Fifth Avenue. The area began to lose its bucolic atmosphere," Patterson remarked, without making any snide references to the cell phone phenomenon of the late 1990's that began to make pedestrian souls a bit unsafe for all the preoccupied callers.

By the time Delmonico's, the famous restaurant, moved uptown from William Street to Fifth Avenue and 14th Street, promenading on the avenue was becoming popular and "New York society was gradually making Fifth Avenue the 'social spine' of New York, Patterson wrote.

In 1889, a temporary "triumphal arch in the Roman style ingeniously made of wood painted to simulate marble" was designed by Stanford White and erected in the middle of the avenue about 100 feet north of Washington Square Park to commemorate the centennial of the inauguration of President George Washington. "New Yorkers were dazzled by the majestic white edifice, which gave Fifth Avenue a worthy entrance, and there was a demand for a permanent arch in marble," Patterson wrote. The new arch, also designed by White, was completed, just inside the avenue's entrance to the park, in 1892, "a year in which New York civic pride, usually in short supply, exploded: the glorious four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America saw the move of Columbia University to Morningside Heights ('The Acropolis of America'), the laying of the cornerstone of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the unveiling of the statue of Christopher Columbus at the southwest corner of Central Park." Patterson, of course, neglects to mention that at about the same time Chicago was holding its great and immensely influential -exposition that set off the "City Beautiful" and Beaux-Arts movement in this country.

Lower Fifth Avenue, Patterson observed, was still low-rise "as it was thought the light soil south of Fourteenth Street would not sustain" the weight of tall apartment buildings, which would come in another two decades or so. The population, however, was changing with the invasion after 1900 of "Bohemians" "people in the arts, or trying to be in the arts, and their patrons, many of whom were distinctly upper-class (the heiresses Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, or example)." "The Bohemians," Patterson wrote, "made Lower Fifth Avenue part of Greenwich Village, which rapidly expanded eastward, crossing Sixth Avenue and gradually including the entire area between the Hudson River and Broadway. Old residents of Lower Fifth Avenue thought of Greenwich Village, when they thought of it at all, as a distant neighborhood where the servants lived and did the shopping. Greenwich Village was never more than middle class, while from the beginning, Lower Fifth Avenue was distinctly upper class....The residents of Lower Fifth Avenue certainly never thought of themselves as living in Greenwich Village....The conservative old Brevoort Hotel began a new role as a center of Bohemia: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Isadora Duncan, Eugene O'Neill, and John Dos Passos were constantly to be found in its famous basement café. Actors at the Provincetown Theater of MacDougal Street used to save up for a month to have one good meal at the Brevoort. Theodore Dreiser, who lived in many addresses in the Village and was involved with any number of women, sometimes concurrently, used to take the reigning favorite to lunch at the Brevoort, where he was in terror of being seen by other girl friends passing by the large widows facing on Fifth Avenue. Nathaniel West, author of Miss Lonelyhearts, lived there from 1935 to 1936, as did James T. Farrell while he was writing The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan."

Mabel Dodge held court in her apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue for the likes of Emma Goldman, the anarchist, Alfred Stieglitz, the great photographer and even greater art dealer, and John Reed, the journalist whom Warren Beatty portrayed in his fine film, Reds. Dodge's celebrated circle, Patterson is sharp to point out, "is portrayed in a handsome enamel mural now decorating a wall in the Sheridan Square subway station."

Patterson's book is full of fine anecdotes:

"One of the first and most rousing manifestations of the new Bohemia was 'The Republic of Washington Square' in 1916. Gertrude Drick, an artist from Texas who was studying with John Sloan, organized a party to go to the top of the arch: herself, Sloan, the artist Marcel Duchamp, and the actors Forrest Mann, Charles Ellis, and Betty Turner. There is a door and a stairway in the arch and an enclosed space at the top. The party was armed with Chinese lanterns, red balloons, food, much drink, and hotwater bottles. Drick read a declaration proclaiming 'the free and independent republic of Washington Square'; the revolutionaries fired off toy pistols, let loose the balloons, and spent the night eating and drinking while an admiring crowd gathered below. John Sloan recorded the event in an etching titled The Arch Conspirators. It was never entirely clear what they were rebelling against, but the incident became part of the legend of Greenwich Village."

In 1911, there were still 24 private residences between Washington Square Park and 14th Street, but tall apartment buildings and commercial structures were beginning to dramatically change the avenue's character.

Madison Square Park opened in 1847. In the 18th Century, it had been a potter's field and it had been used for an arsenal and barracks that in 1825 became the House of Refuge for the Society for the Protection of Juvenile Delinquents. The "house" burnt down in 1939 and the area was used as a playing field by the newly organized Knickerbocker Base Ball Club.

By the 1880's, Madison Square was "considered the most attractive part of the city," Patterson maintained. "By the last quarter of the century there were more than a hundred clubs in New York City with a total membership of over fifty thousand...Preeminent was the Union Club, founded in 1836. In 1855 it moved to Fifth Avenue and Twenty-first Street from Broadway, another sign of the abandonment of that avenue for the more stylish Fifth Avenue. The new Union Club, which cost around three hundred thousand dollars, was described as the first building in New York designed exclusively as a club house. In the 1870's, the Union, with membership limited to one thousand, was generally supposed to be the richest club in the world....The Union Club was followed into the neighborhood by the Athenaeum, Manhattan, Lotos, Travelers' and Arcadian Clubs....On the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighteenth Street the Chickering Piano Company opened Chickering Hall in 1875....It was here in 1876 that Alexander Graham Bell gave a demonstration of his telephone during which his select audience heard the hymn In The Sweet Bye and Bye sung in New Brunswick, New Jersey, transmitted over thirty-two miles of telegraph wires to Chickering Hall."

"In 1853 a major amusement spot, Franconi's Hippodrome, opened on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street, where Broadway intersected Fifth Avenue. This huge arena seated about six thousand people with room for three thousand standees. The structure was rather an immense tent than a building. Pageants with elephants and camels, chariot races, and gladiatorial contests in keeping with the Roman name were staged there for two seasons, but the enterprise was not a financial success. The building was torn down in 1856, when the site was taken for the Fifth Avenue Hotel, One of the legendary hotels in American history, the Fifth Avenue received its first guests in 1859. A white marble building six stories tall, it had a remarkable six hundred rooms, holding about eight hundred guests...It boasted a 'vertical railroad,' or elevator, the first installed in a hotel in the United States (though preceded by elevators in a few office buildings)....The elevator was a great instrument of change in the perception of guests; in the past, rooms on the lower floors had been the most desirable because easier to reach. The upper floors were always cheaper; at the top and least desirable were the servants' rooms. Before the advent of the elevator the idea of an inviting view was an advantage in living accommodations was almost unknown....The sheer number of hotels in the city staggered Europeans and Americans both; by 1870 New York had at least six hundred."

Patterson recalled that Daniel H. Burnham's 1902 triangular office tower at 23rd Street (the Flatiron Building) was once called "a stingy piece of pie" and that Madison Square soon became the city's garment center until the Fifth Avenue Association "got busy lobbying, and...managed by skillful use of zoning laws to relocate the garment center farther north and west....Madison Square, however, never recovered either as a residential area or as clubland. By World War I, Fifth Avenue shops in the vicinity of Madison Square included Park & Tilford, for fancy groceries; Mark Cross, for harness and leather goods; Brentano's, for books; Peck & Peck, for hosiery; and E. B. Meyrowitz, for optical ware....On the east side of the square, on the blockfront between East Twenty-sixth and Twenty-seventh streets, stood first a railroad station for the New York Central line, then, between 1879 and 1889, the first Madison Square Garden, where circuses, concerts, pageants, and horse shows were held. In 1890 a grand building by McKim, Mead & White in the Venetian Renaissance style, opened with a restaurant, a roof garden, and a concert hall as well as a coliseum, all surmounted by a tower with its infamous Diana."

Patterson notes that the garden was demolished in 1925, but neglects to say that it was replaced by a great skyscraper for the New York Insurance Company and that it was the scene of the shooting of Stanford White, the architect, a well-told tale.

"In 1892, two temporary arches were erected over Fifth Avenue, one at Twenty-second Street, designed by Stanford White, the other at Fifty-ninth Street, as a setting for a great parade celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. Between Twenty-second and Thirty-fourth streets the imaginative White erected one hundred poles, each sixty feet high, topped with eagles and other patriotic devices, and lighted by Venetian lights to for a stunning setting for the celebrations....The eyes of all New York and even of the entire United States were on Madison Square in 1899, when Commodore George Dewey, naval hero of the Spanish-American War and victor in the battle with the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, was honored by a great parade up Fifth Avenue....An extraordinary arch more than a hundred feet tall made of 'staff,' a mixture of wood shavings and plaster painted white that well simulated marble, spanned Fifth avenue just above Twenty-third Street. Modeled, at least distantly, on the Arch of Titus in Rome and resembling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the design was modified to include naval references: a chariot drawn by four seahorses called Naval Victory and sculptures of previous American naval heroes such as John Paul Jones....A year later the staff was flaking rapidly, and the triumphal arch was a peeling eyesore. It was then given to the city of Charleston, planning an international exposition for 1902. Some of the sculptured figures were used in the fairgrounds, and then, surprisingly, the city of Charleston managed to lose the arch, which has never reappeared....In 1918, at the end of World War I, John F. Hyland, who had risen from the position of motorman on one of the elevated rail lines in the city to major as the protégé of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and was not regarded as one of New York's most able chief executives promoted a Victory Arch to honor the city's war dead, which was executed in temporary materials at a cost of eighty thousand dollars by Thomas Hastings, architect with John M. Carrère of the New York Public Library. Like the Dewey Triumphal and Memorial Arch, it was modeled on a Roman Arch, Constantine's..... Again, a permanent marble version was to be built, but advocates could agree neither on an architect nor a design, and the temporary arch had to be destroyed."

In 1856, William B. Astor Jr. and his brother, John Jacob Astor III, built adjoining townhouses on the northeast corner of 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue. The latter's house had a mansard roof, "an innovation that immediately became popular with New Yorkers," according to Patterson. On the northwest corner of 34th Street, Alexander Turney Stewart, the great retailer, built a marble "palace" in 1864 replacing the townhouse of Dr. Samuel B. Townsend, who held patents on Sarsaparilla medicines. Stewart's house had 55 rooms, many lined with marble and with ceilings almost 19 feet high, and an art collection that included Rosa Bonheur's "The Horse Fair," which was later bought by Cornelius Vanderbilt II for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of Stewart's widow's nieces would marry Stanford White. The Stewart house eventually would be sold to the Manhattan Club, but its maintenance proved to be too high and the club moved and the building was eventually demolished after the turn of the century and replaced by a bank, Patterson wrote.

Much of Fifth Avenue between the 1850's and 1880's was filled with brownstones and Patterson observed that many foreigners, including Anthony Trollope found them boring. "The interiors of the brownstones were much more favorably appraised by Europeans: they were warm, they were well furnished, and they had conveniences such as gas lighting, piped-in water, and bathrooms. In the comforts of technology of technology they were far ahead of European dwellings. However, they were overcrowded with furniture, increasingly so after the Civil War, when the overstuffed taste that can best be described as horror vacui flourished," Patterson remarked. While Victorian taste might have been overly decorative, Patterson does not comment on the great rococo furniture designs of John Henry Belter, New York's finest furniture maker who specialized in superbly crafted and very ornate laminated rosewood furniture.

Patterson gives a lengthy account of the grandeur of the Waldorf Hotel, designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh, who would later design the Plaza Hotel. The Waldorf was launched in 1893 at 34th Street, noting that "it had the good fortune to open just at the time when it became fashionable to entertain away from home." Two floors at the hotel were reserved only for male guests, who included B. C. Forbes, founder of Forbes magazine who had a regular poker club with Henry Clay Frick, who would later build his own magnificent mansion with even more magnificent art collection further up the avenue, and "Colonel E. J. R. Green, son and heir of Hetty Green, the investor known unflatteringly as the Witch of Wall Street." Patterson added. The Astoria Hotel was built in 1897 to designs also by Hardenbergh and the hotels, built by different factions of the Astor family, would be merged and the wide hall connecting the two "quickly became a favorite strolling - and strutting - place for New York society; wags called the hall Peacock Alley."

Benjamin Altman moved his dry-goods store from Sixth Avenue and 19th Street to a palatial new building, designed by Trowbridge & Livingston, completed in 1906 on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. When it opened, however, it did not have the corner frontage, which was occupied by M. Knoedler & Co., the famous art dealer, which would not relocate until 1914. "The restraint exercised in the Altman store was partly intended to placate nearby residents, who were opposed to all stores on Fifth Avenue, even more modeled on an Italian Renaissance palace like Altman's. The owner and the architects were very respectful of these sensibilities; the name of the store did not even appear on the façade for decades," Patterson wrote, adding that "Chauffeurs could park motorcars on East Thirty-fifth Street, and there was a bell system by which they could be summoned to the front door when the lady had completed her shopping." Patterson correctly observed that the store's closing in 1989 was "mourning," although he does not mention that both Altman and his successor chief executive at the store, bequeathed their very important Old Masters collections to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that were the cornerstones, along the Havemeyer and Bache collections, of that museum's Old Masters collection.

"By the late 1880's," Patterson continued, "the reservoir at West Forty-second Street, once the pride of New Yorkers, was as decayed as some of its Egyptian inspirations; furthermore, it was no longer needed as a source for clean water. The plot, measuring 455 by 420 feet, was coveted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New-York Historical Society and other institutions looking for a prime site, and by a small band of citizens who wanted it for another institution that New York City needed badly, a public library." The library folk won out, of course, and the great new library had a pair of lion statues that would become known as Patience and Fortitude. "The names were not intended to be complimentary: quite a few New Yorkers thought the lions much too tame; they were unkindly described as 'mealy mouthed' and 'squash-faced,' neither majestic enough for the great building nor fierce enough for New York taste," Patterson amusedly observed.

In 1935, the S. H. Kress and Company store opened on the avenue and four years later its rival, Woolworth's, opened on a former site of the Union Club. "Kress was the first store to put show windows on the second floor so that passengers on the top of double-decker buses would have something to see," Patterson wrote. Both famous stores would eventually close, and the Kress name is now best known for the incredible collection of Italian Renaissance paintings that the Kress family amassed and donated to 21 museums in the United States including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, a fact overlooked by Patterson.

Patterson gives a full account of the development of Millionaire's Row and the fairly regular moves of various institutions and churches up the avenue as well as the rich history of the hotels around the southwest corner of Central Park and the park itself.

Interestingly, the "gilded age" of "Millionaire's Row" on Upper Fifth Avenue was both short-lived and not complete. Patterson, who has written for Town & Country magazine, reported that by World War I there were seven vacant lots between 71st and 75th Streets alone, adding that virtually none of the famous mansions were lived in by two generations of the same family.

Richard Morris Hunt designed this double house for Mrs. William B. Astor and her son,
John Jacob Astor, on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue at 65th Street in 1895

He illustrates many of them including the famous Astor house at 65th Street, shown above, and the interior of Mrs. Astor's ballroom, shown below.

The art gallery of the Astor House that was also used for balls

To his credit, Patterson does not stop his story of this illustrious street at the north end of Central Park. "...elevated trains reached Harlem in the 1880's. The two decades that followed were a golden age for an increased population, largely Jewish and immigrant, many of them moving up, in every sense of the word, from the Lower East Side....In 1917 there were eighty thousand Jews in Harlem. They were not there for long: by 1930 there were only about five thousand, the neighborhood having become largely resettled by blacks emigrating from the South and the Caribbean....The steady decline of Harlem after World War II did not spare Fifth Avenue, which saw its one-family brownstones degenerate into rooming houses and its better shops close. Almost the only building above 110th Street has been for public housing." Patterson's book is not without a few errors, but they are not very critical and his perspective is good, although one wishes this history was hot quite so abbreviated and more comprehensive. Nevertheless, it is entertaining and definitely will be of interest to New Yorkers. "It is essential New York, beginning with a marble arch in an old patrician square and ending six and a half miles north in abandoned buildings and used car lots. But the glamour is stronger than ever, a stroll on the Avenue is as tonic as ever it had been, and, for millions, New York is the finest street and the best address in the world," Patterson concludes.

It has suffered great losses and egregious remodelings and an often ineffective regulation of peddlers. Patterson neglects to mention the loss of the great Mercury statues above the traffic lights, nor the invasion of commuter buses, or the end of two-way traffic, but nonetheless his tales are definitely worth reading.

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

See essay on Fifth Avenue that is part of The Midtown Book in The City Review

Click here to order the book from

See recommended list of books on New York City


The Home Page of The City Review