Huguette Clark_Huguette Clark’s ‘Worthless’ Girlhood Home
Huguette Clark_Huguette Clark’s ‘Worthless’ Girlhood Home_ SINCE Huguette Clark’s death last month, many eyes have zeroed in on her sumptuous suite of apartments at 907 Fifth Avenue, one of the most elegant buildings in New York.
Born to a vast fortune, Miss Clark grew up in an equally splendid but far different home. That was the 1911 mansion of her father, William A. Clark, only five blocks north. There, he sought to create the most magnificent dwelling in New York, costing perhaps $7 million but, by his own reckoning, essentially worthless on the day it was finished.
Mr. Clark earned millions upon millions in copper mining out West, and after stints as a prospector, farmer and United States senator, he arrived in New York in the 1890s, when the choicest patches on Fifth Avenue were going, going, almost gone. So Mr. Clark had to be very satisfied with the northeast corner of Fifth and 77th Street; he told The New York Times in 1899 that he was building mainly because one of his daughters lived in the city.
He had 77 feet on Fifth Avenue, but 250 feet on the side street, more than any other rich man on Fifth opposite the park, except for Andrew Carnegie. Mr. Clark could have hired any architect he wanted, but he retained Lord, Hewlett & Hull, at that time not known for much in particular. Later court records from a dispute over fees indicate that they in turn retained Kenneth Murchison, a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts.
The Beaux-Arts affiliation was good, because Mr. Clark wanted French and plenty of it. This he got, especially after he sent the plans over to Henri Deglane, a well-known instructor at the school, for extra whipped cream. Around 1905, the mansion really began to take shape, combining elements of French-style buildings in the city, like the New York Yacht Club. The Fifth Avenue front was large for a New York house, three great bays of granite topped by a truly outrageous dormer so big it might have been labeled a dormitory.
But it was on 77th Street that the architects built up steam: a long, tumultuous facade rising to an even more elaborate dormer arrangement, set against an Alpine-steep mansard roof. The truly spectacular feature was a colossal four-sided tower with a three-story-high inward-curving arch topped by an open pergola. It had the unreality of an unbuildable student project at the école.
The mansion had 25 guest bedrooms; a 17-foot-high banquet hall paneled in oak supposedly from Sherwood Forest; a sculpture hall 36 feet high — such things are hardly surprising for a man with an income of $12 million per year at a time when a doctor could expect to earn about $2,000 and a lawyer, $1,500, according to The Times.
However, the claim of 35 servants’ rooms does seem like a stretch; even Andrew Carnegie, with a larger house, had only 21, and the 1920 census found a staff of nine tending to Mr. Clark and his family of three, including Huguette, 14.
Our millionaires tend to suffer in the hands of architectural critics, and Montgomery Schuyler, in a column titled “Architectural Aberrations” in The Architectural Record, found the Clark house inexcusable, “an appropriate residence for the late P. T. Barnum.” Everything was wrong: the tower was “meaningless and fatuous”; the rich, rounded rustication on the ground floor suggested the prototype of “a log house”; the French style had long been out of fashion.
In general this dessert was just too rich: “A certified check to the amount of all this stone carving hung on the outer wall would serve every artistic purposed attained by the carving itself,” Mr. Schuyler wrote.
The editor of The Architect called the place “The House of a Thousand Cartouches” and regretted the “dolorous and ponderous granite” chosen. These opinions have been parroted many times but, upon contemplation, this is a pretty neat house. If Carrère & Hastings had designed it for an establishment client, its profligacy would certainly have been forgiven, perhaps lionized.
The man The Times called a “cool, calculating fighter” died in his house in 1925, with Huguette in attendance. She and her mother, Anna, short on sentiment, sold it in 1927, and the mansion made way for the apartment house now known as 960 Fifth Avenue.
Together, they decamped to 907 Fifth Avenue, where the annual rental for a full-floor apartment was about $30,000. The historian Andrew Alpern says that at her death, Huguette Clark owned three apartments in the building, two of which constituted a full floor.
Estimates of the value of her holdings at 907 are difficult to establish, since the configuration and condition of what her estate owns are unknown. But Jonathan Miller, the president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel, says that, extrapolating from the sales of other Fifth Avenue apartments, and with “a slew of caveats,” the price would probably be above $40 million.
How much does the value of real estate fluctuate in New York? Consider that in 1911, Mr. Clark brought suit for a reduction in the assessed valuation of his house, then $3 million. The court agreed with him that few, if any, could buy such grandeur, determining that the house of a thousand cartouches by itself had no market value.nytimes