Saturday, June 15, 2019

Then and Now: Archer Milton Huntington House, NYC

Fifth Avenue at East 89th Street, Manhattan

Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, NYC,
Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue, NYC ca. 1960.
I found the above photo of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from around 1960 and it piqued my interest. The photo likely was taken to celebrate the opening of the museum and publicize it. The star of the photo, of course, is the Guggenheim itself. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the museum beginning in 1943 and it opened on October 21, 1959. So, the Guggenheim itself hasn't really changed much since 1959 and that would be the end of this article if that was all we were looking at. However, what interested me about the photo wasn't the Guggenheim itself - I mean, it's the Guggenheim, we all know what the Guggenheim looks like. Instead, it is the buildings to the left of the Guggenheim. The photographer obviously did not intend them as his subject, and they are not nearly as famous as the Guggenheim, but they have some real style to them. So, I decided to do a comparison of East 89th Street on Fifth Avenue from 1960 to 2017.

Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, NYC,
View down Fifth Avenue toward the Guggenheim at 89th Street (Google Street View).
A quick look at the site now reveals that the wonderful French-themed buildings on the northeast corner of Fifth and 89th Street are gone. Or, at least most of them are gone - one of them, which is seen at the very left edge of the original photo, survives. The building beyond the Guggenheim at 1067 Fifth Avenue (built in 1917) with its distinctive water tank structure also is unchanged. So, the one change since the 1950s is that one building on the northeast corner of 89th and Fifth Avenue. Let's see what we can dig up about that site.

Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, NYC,
The surviving structure is 1083 Fifth Avenue, NYC (Google Street View).
The surviving structure is 1083 Fifth Avenue. It was the home of sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington and philanthropist Archer M. Huntington. The house's story (and those of neighboring 1081 and 1082 Fifth Avenue, which have since been replaced by the newer building on the corner) goes back to the 19th Century. Collis P. Huntington was a railroad tycoon (he owned the Central Pacific Railroad, which was the only railroad to the West Coast) who married a young woman, Arabella Worsham. She had a 12-year-old son, Archer. When Huntington suddenly passed away while on an outing with Arabella in the Adirondacks in 1900, she inherited everything. As was the custom in those days, everything passed to Archer, who turned into a dilettante. Archer bought 1080 and 1081 Fifth Avenue in 1902, and 1082 and 1083 shortly thereafter. Now possessing half the block, Archer got married and moved into 1083. He hired decorator Ogden Codman, Jr. to renovate 1083, a renovation which eventually extended to the other buildings. In 1923, Archer divorced his first wife and married the sculptress Anna Hyatt. He and Anna eventually moved to the country and they donated 1083 (now called the Archer Milton Huntington House) to the National Academy of Design. Archer passed away in 1955 and Anna in 1973. At some point after Archer's death, Anna sold off the other two plots (1082 had been sold off in 1908), perhaps to settle the estate, and just kept an apartment at 1083. The new owners built 45-unit co-op 1080 Fifth Avenue, which opened in 1961.

Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, NYC,
1080 Fifth Avenue, with 1083 to the left.
Since the rather generic-looking 1080 Fifth Avenue opened in 1961, the original photograph at the top must have been taken in 1959 or 1960. This was after the Guggenheim opened but before the two houses on the corner were demolished. It is hard to imagine the city allowing the destruction of those mansions after the institution of preservation laws. However, those laws did not come into effect until the demolition of Penn Station in 1964. So, Anna sold them off just in time for the properties to meet the wrecking ball. And, the photographer unknowingly captured a fleeting moment when both the Guggenheim and the mansions on the corner coexisted. It turns out that there aren't a tremendous number of good photos floating around showing them both.

Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, NYC,
The Guggenheim Museum looking north from Fifth Avenue, with 1080 Fifth Avenue beyond it on the left and 1083 barely visible at the extreme left (Google Street View).
Anyway, this is not a polemic or diatribe about preserving old buildings. The "original" buildings on the site which were removed for the construction of 1080 Fifth Avenue were just faux-French renovations anyway. That is not to say that they were worthy of demolition or ugly, because they weren't. However, we aren't exactly talking about Independence Hall in Philadephia, either. What's gone is gone, and we can all draw our own conclusions about what is gone and whether we are sad about that or not. On the other hand, what's interesting is how a city evolves, and the corner of 89th and Fifth Avenue is a good illustration of the evolution of a city.

Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, NYC,
Arabella Huntington (at left) and Collis Huntington, a few years before their marriage in 1882 (The Hispanic Museum and Library).
I hope you enjoyed this entry in my "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Please visit some of my other pages where we explore the changing neighborhoods of New York and elsewhere!


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