Selling 5th Avenue & 42nd Street In 1858 For “Moderate Terms”
From Its Windows One Could See The Hudson and East Rivers, Staten Island, Long Island, The Palisades and Westchester!
This Gothic style structure stood on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The view is from an 1858 real estate advertising broadside print. On the southwest corner you can see a portion of the retaining wall of the massive Croton Distributing Reservoir which supplied New York’s drinking water. The main branch of the New York Public Library now occupies the site of the reservoir.
Though the structure appears to be one large building, it is actually 11 separate buildings. It was nicknamed The House of Mansions.
The buildings were designed by famed architect Alexander Jackson Davis and built by merchant George Higgins in 1856 as a speculative real estate investment. The buildings boasted amazing views of distant vistas including Long Island, the Palisades and Westchester.
All 11 buildings are for sale the ad proclaims for “moderate terms.”
This block should recommend itself to all patriotic citizens, lovers of architecture, “the protector, preserver, and promulgator of all other arts,: as well as to those who would purchase from its superior, practical, scientific construction, of brick hollow walls,and solid partitions ;—most of what appear as good buildings, (fine and imposing we grant them), being constructed with wood-battened, faced brick, unbonded walls, and hollow wood partitions, —a most incendiary practice, constituting the worst manner of building, and against which there is no protection from the laws:—few building for their own or others security, but rather for outward gaudy show and speculation.
This block contains eleven independent dwellings. differing in size, price and amount of accommodation. They have from twelve to eighteen rooms each. The pile is altogether unique in its character and plan, the eleven dwellings being combined as in one palace, or massive edifice, thereby exhibiting a unity in mass, not before attempted, though often desired by critics -—the usual mode of building in cities, from the number of dissentient proprietors,— being frittered in the extreme, one house five or six stories in the heavy Roman style, and the next adjoining, one or two stories, in no style at all, and the two contrasting most oppositely in size and cost, making both, however costly the one, poor and mean, and the chagrined, unwilling owner loth to occupy his house, ‘‘neighbored by those of baser quality.’’
For the esthetic, or artistic expression of this block of buildings, and its value in this respect we leave to the mercy of the critics. We shall hold it worthy of imitation for city building architecturally considered : and may we not esteem it as conducive to domestic comfort as well? From the “strength found in union” in its continued terrace plantation, and varied yet elegant perspective from its windows; unobstructed light, air and ventilation; absence of street front areas: neatly kept walks, and terrace railing.
The prominent noticeable points in this row of buildings, are, the durable fire brick. of pleasing cheerful tint of color, without paint; the stair vestibule, or rotunda connecting the parlors with more elegance and variety than a third more private room would do. From its dome light, and stairs of unusual size and ease. The large and cheerful windows, balconies, bays, oriels, and terraced walks. Its crowning parapet, and convenient distribution of offices, closets, pantries, bath rooms and chambers. Almost all tastes are consulted in respect to entry vestibules, reception rooms, passages through anti-chambers, or by-passages, spacious or more confined, for summer air, or furnace heat; for light, cheerful kitchens, store rooms, and the rear alley of sees for servants and market stores.
The view from the windows and summit is unrivaled, commanding the whole island with its surroundings: the Hudson and East rivers, Staten Island, the Palisades, and far into Westchester county, and over Long Island. The water in the Croton Reservoir, like an artificial poo! or lake, of oriental magnificence, is seen from the upper windows, a bright mirror, reflecting the gay promenade surrounding. It will not suffer, in whole or part, by an inspection. Its liberal owner offers it to the Public, until it is made private by occupancy. – apply at central house
It is unknown how much Higgins initially paid for the land or the cost of the eleven buildings he put on the site, but it is likely he lost money on the deal.
The buildings were finally purchased in 1860 by the trustees of a school, the Rutgers Female Institute for very moderate terms – just $60,000. The Institute altered and enlarged the buildings for their use. The Rutgers Institute remained at the location until 1870 when they sold the property for $117,000.
In 1883 the property was purchased for $200,000 and demolished. The Astor Trust Building (1917) and other twentieth century office buildings now occupy the site.