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The Properties of John Jacob Astor, a Shark Among Whales

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John Jacob Astor, the United States' first multi-millionaire, had a voracious appetite for land, but not much taste for development. His motto—"Buy and hold. Let others improve"—meant that, unlike other real estate-happy robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie and Robert Murray, Astor left few personalized buildings behind when he died, despite owning massive parcels of land throughout the city. His descendants, however, would more than pick up the slack when their times came (see: Astor, William Waldorf.)

Astor—the son of a German butcher—made himself the richest man in the country by establishing a fur-trading (and opium smuggling) connection with China in the late 18th century. However, by the time he was in his fifties, he had withdrawn from all of his ventures save one—buying up New York City real estate. He bought land almost indiscriminately, never building on it. Instead, he would lease and then, when the leases were up, either raise the rent or buy whatever his tenants had built, and then rent the buildings out. Astor's holdings were buoyed considerably by the Panic of 1837, during which he was able to buy up countless mortgages from small landowners, then foreclose at the first opportunity. "Could I begin life again," he was quoted as saying, on his deathbed, "knowing what I now know and had money to invest, I would buy every foot of land on the island of Manhattan."

There was one exception to the "Buy and hold" policy. Astor owned a brick townhouse on Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets, at the time New York's most fashionable residential district. In the 1830s, he began buying up his neighbors' mansions with the intention of building a huge hotel on the site. He commissioned architect Isaiah Rogers for the design, which architectural historian Christopher Gray described as, "Severe and granite-faced ... a doughnut, a plain one, practically unrelieved by decoration or detail." Still, the Astor House (known at the time as the Park Hotel) quickly became the country's most famous hotel—notable guests would include practically every prominent figure of the time, including Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, Jefferson Davis, and Daniel Webster, who, it was said, "would stay at no other hotel." By the late 19th century, however, the hotel had gone out of fashion. Astor's great-great-grandson Vincent had a section of it converted into offices in 1915 and allowed the rest to be demolished in 1927.

John Jacob Astor operated out of a one-story office building at 81 Prince Street, which his successor, William Backhouse Astor, maintained until the latter's death in 1875. At that point the business passed to his sons William and John Jacob Astor III, who decided it might be time for some fancier digs. They tore down 81 Prince and commissioned architect Thomas Stent to design two matching, adjacent, two-story buildings further downtown at 21 and 23 West 26th Street, which were completed by 1881. The brick, granite, and terra cotta facades of Victorian Gothic buildings remained mostly untouched until 1992, when a literary firm had a "frankly modern" rooftop addition tacked on.

John Jacob Astor IV, the great-grandson of the original John Jacob, is known as the richest person to die on the Titanic and also as the builder of the most impressive personal mansion of all the Astors. The palatial residence at Fifth Avenue and 65th Street was designed by Richard Morris Hunt in 1893 as a twin residence for John Jacob and his mother, Caroline Astor, also known as "the Mrs. Astor." The houses shared a massive ballroom in which Mrs. Astor hosted her famous high society parties. After her death in 1907, New York Public Library architects Carrere & Hastings were hired to combine the two houses. Unfortunately for John Jacob, he didn't get to enjoy his new private megamansion for long, as he would go down with the ship five years later, in 1912. His son, Vincent, sold the house in 1926 and it was replaced by the Temple Emanu-El.
· Whale Week 2013 [Curbed]
· John Jacob Astor: The making of a hardnosed speculator [The Real Deal]
· Streetscapes: The Office of the Astor Estate; A 'Frankly Modern' Addition [NYT]
· The Lost 1836 Astor House Hotel -- Broadway at Vesey Street [Daytonian]
· John Jacob Astor's Titanic Fifth Avenue Mansion [Mansions of the Gilded Age]