Updated: Mar 9, 2022
By Bart Boehlert
With HBO's The Gilded Age currently receiving rave reviews and high ratings, many are acquainting themselves with the homes, history, and architecture of the era. The period marked a time of transition in New York society, one that left an indelible mark on the city's development.
At the turn of the last century, as stores and hotels began to populate Fifth Avenue in Midtown, wealthy New Yorkers moved from that neighborhood farther up Fifth into palatial mansions designed by the top architects of the day. Eventually though, most of these were demolished and replaced by apartment buildings. A few still remain like the French Gothic Isaac Fletcher house (2 East 79th Street) designed by C. P. H. Gilbert, which is owned by the Ukrainian Institute of America, and the Felix Warburg house (1109 Fifth Avenue), also designed by Gilbert, which is the home of the Jewish Museum.
Brown Harris Stevens is offering a remarkable Gilded Age mansion at 991 Fifth Avenue across the street from Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $52 million. Located just down the road from the fictional home of Gilded Age characters Bertha and George Russell, the home's location and grand interiors would likely suit the discerning tastes of the Russels themselves.
“It’s 25 feet wide and has a 100-feet sweep of interior space from the windows in front to the windows in back,“ notes the listing agent Paula Del Nunzio, describing the great expanse of the house. “Plus, anywhere else in a New York townhouse, you are on a side street. Here you step out on to big, wide Fifth Avenue.”
In 1900, Mary Augusta King, a wealthy widow, commissioned architects James R. Turner and William G. Killian to build a lavish Beaux-Arts style mansion at 991 Fifth Avenue next door to Frank Woolworth’s now-demolished mansion, which was at the corner of East 80th Street. The first three floors of 991 bow out, creating a romantic stone balustrade balcony on the fourth floor. Rusticated limestone lines the exterior of the first floor while the middle three floors are red brick, decorated with carved limestone detailing. The building is topped with a European mansard roof and three handsome copper-clad dormer windows.
Mary Augusta King lived there with five servants and indeed today there still are five servants’ rooms on the top floor of the house. After she passed away in 1905, the house was sold to the banker David Crawford Clark, who asked the cultivated Ogden Codman, Jr.--the architect and interior designer who wrote with Edith Wharton the seminal The Decoration of Houses--to redesign its interiors.
Later William Ellis Corey, president of the U.S. Steel Corporation, owned the house, and in 1939 it was sold to the American Irish Historical Society, which is selling the property now. “The decision to place the building on the market has been made in order to best enable the Society to pursue its cultural and scholarly mission in a sustainable way,” said a spokeswoman for the Society.
The American Irish Historical Society was founded in 1897 in Boston to celebrate the achievements and contributions of the Irish in America, and moved to New York City in 1904. Among its members have been Teddy Roosevelt, who became a Society president. The Society has hosted concerts, readings and lectures, and houses a library of over 10,000 volumes of books and newspapers, making it the largest private collection of Irish and Irish American history and literature in the United States.
In 2006, architect Joseph Pell Lombardi oversaw significant renovations to the building, updating the electrical and plumbing, and restoring masonry. Still remaining in the five-story house are classical interiors recalling a bygone era with large parlors for entertaining, classical columns, wood-carved walls, sweeping staircases, skylights, leaded glass windows, and wrought-iron grille doors. Its next owner will enjoy a grand and gracious home rarely found in Manhattan as well as an elegant piece of New York history.