Clark’s Folly

The breathtaking changes along Manhattan’s streets and across its skyline in 1927 were reflected in the New Yorker’s frequent accounts of venerable landmarks giving way to new skyscrapers.

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The Feb. 26, 1927 cover (left) is by an unknown artist. The March 5, 1927 cover is by Ilonka Karasz.

We’ll skip ahead for a moment to the March 5 issue in which the “Talk of the Town” editors reflected on the upcoming demolition of the William A. Clark house on Fifth Avenue and 77th Street, just 16 years after its completion in 1911. The editors noted that the empty house received many curious visitors in its last days, including the silent film star Charlie Chaplin:

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CURB APPEAL…This newspaper account of Clark’s planned mansion noted that it would be the largest and costliest house in America, and would take three years to complete. In fact, it took 13 years to finish the job, in 1911. Just 16 years later it would be demolished. (1889victorianrestoration.blogspot.com)

Clark was an enormously wealthy Montana entrepreneur (copper and railroads) and politician. His New York mansion, dubbed “Clark’s Folly,” took almost as long to complete–13 years–as its actual lifespan–16 years. In today’s dollars the house would cost nearly $200 million. It included imported marble from Italy, oak from England’s Sherwood Forest, and sections of whole rooms from old French Châteaus.

Clark-family-home-1907

According to Wikipedia, the second floor featured a 36-foot-high rotunda, used as the statuary room. This opened onto a conservatory of solid brass and glass, 30 ft. high and 22 ft. wide. Across the rotunda was the marble-paneled main picture gallery that was 95 ft. long and two stories high. An organ loft housed the largest chamber organ in America.

The nine-story house contained 121 rooms, 31 bathrooms, four art galleries, a swimming pool and Turkish baths. High-tech for its times, with electricity and central air conditioning, it required seven tons of coal per day, brought in by a private subway line.

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PARTING SHOTS…Interiors of Clark’s “Folly” included the largest chamber organ in America (left), an immense dining room (upper right) and a two-story art gallery, a section shown below, right. The photos were taken just prior to demolition. Although some interior appointments were saved, the organ was apparently torn apart and dumped into a swamp in Queens. (Wikipedia)

After Clark died in 1925, his daughter, Huguette, and her mother, Anna, moved to 907 Fifth Avenue and the mansion was sold to developer Anthony Compagana for $3 million (more than $40 million today). Compagana had it torn down, replacing it with a luxury apartment building.

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The demolition of “Clark’s Folly” (left) in 1927. A large sign on the mansion advertises modern apartments to come. (New York Historical Society). At right, the building that replaced it, 960 Fifth Avenue. (Museum of the City of New York).

A footnote: Clark’s daughter and heiress, Huguette, would go on to own a $24 million Connecticut country estate and a $100 million estate in Santa Barbara, but would keep them uninhabited. Briefly married from 1928 to 1930, she became reclusive, holed up in her apartments at 907 Fifth Avenue until she moved to a series of hospital rooms beginning in the 1980s.

Huguette Clark in an Indian costume with her father, W.A. Clark, c. 1912.
HAPPIER TIMES…Huguette Clark with her father, William A. Clark, circa 1912. (EmptyMansionsBook.com)

Huguette died at age 104 in 2011. You can read more about her strange and fascinating life in Bill Dedman’s Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.

Architecture’s Middle Finger

Continuing the theme of the changing skyline, the Feb. 26 New Yorker featured this advertisement for the new Drake Hotel at Park Avenue and 56th Street:

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The hotel was built in 1926 by the real estate organization of Bing and Bing, 21 stories with 495 rooms. Like Clark’s Folly, it was innovative for its time, with automatic refrigeration and spacious rooms and suites.

It saw plenty of famous guests, from silent star Lillian Gish (she lived there for three years) to ’60s and ’70s rock bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who.

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The Drake Hotel, demolished in 2007. (skyscrapercity)

Razed in 2007, the Drake Hotel was replaced by 432 Park Avenue. At 96 stories and 1,400 feet, 432 Park it is the tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere.

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432 Park Avenue (Wikipedia)

Completed in 2015, the supertall 432 Park was designed for the superrich. The building has been maligned by many who find it not only ugly but also a stark representation of the city’s increasing cost of living and conspicuous displays of wealth. One blogger suggested that the building was giving the city “the finger.”

Even Fortune magazine’s Joshua Brown (“Meet the house that inequality built: 432 Park Avenue,” Nov. 24, 2014) noted “in a building so tall and imposing, with over 400,000 square feet of usable interior space, there are only 104 units for people to live in. 432 Park Avenue is, in short, a monument to the epic rise of the global super-wealthy. It is the house that historic inequality built.”

After reading about 432 Park, it seems appropriate that I spotted this advertisement in the New Yorker’s March 5, 1927 issue:

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Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis was set in a futuristic urban dystopia where the upper classes lived high above the toiling masses. Hmmm.

Next Time: World of Tomorrow…

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Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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