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James B. Duke: Less Frugal Than the Vanderbilts or Astors

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Welcome to Origin Stories, where Curbed fills you in on the stories of the ruthless robber barons behind the creation of some of NYC's most iconic buildings. Got a place you'd like to know more about? Let us know.

"If John D. Rockefeller can do what he is doing in oil, why should I not do it in tobacco?" James Buchanan Duke, father of the modern cigarette, once remarked. Today, Duke is better known in Durham, North Carolina, home to the university that bears his name, than in New York City. However, his main contribution to the cityscape, the 40,000-square-foot limestone mansion on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and East 78th Street, now NYU's Institute of Fine Arts, has endured and remains an impressive reminder of the city's first captains of industry and their incredibly extravagant tastes.

Duke's early years were spent in extreme poverty—with his mother already dead, his father, Washington Duke, went off to fight in the Confederate Army when James was still a toddler and, upon his return, shared a single straw mattress with his three sons in the corner of a log cabin. This might go toward explaining James' intense stinginess when it came to business and his almost complete lack of it when it came to his personal residences. "Even the Astors and the Vanderbilts were more frugal with valuable Manhattan land," writes architectural historian Christopher Gray. In 1909, with Duke's American Tobacco Company controlling 80 percent of the country's tobacco trade, he purchased the Henry H. Cook mansion at 1 East 78th Street for $1.25 million as a present for his second wife, but soon thereafter decided to have it demolished and to have a new mansion built in its place.

For the new mansion, Duke commissioned architect Horace Trumbauer, well known for designing huge residences in Philadelphia, but minimally respected in New York. To compensate for his lack of formal architectural training, Trumbauer employed two main strategies, the first of which consisted of relying heavily on his staff. For the Duke House, he called on Julian Abele an African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture, to recreate the design of the Hotel Lobottiere in Bordeaux, France (copying famous buildings was Trumbauer's other chief strategy, and the one that earned him the disdain of many of New York's top architects.)

In order to clear the way for his second home—his primary residence remained a 2,500-acre estate in Somerville, New Jersey—Duke had to do away with the impressive (if outdated) Cook mansion, first gutting it of its lavish architectural details—a fireplace that Cook had purchased for $15,000 was sold for $300; $55 oak panels were sold for $3 a piece—and then having it razed. Duke's contractor would call the Cook mansion "the best-built house ever torn down in New York City." The new house was completed in 1912 and Duke filled it with antique furniture, artwork, tapestries, and 14 servants.

Duke died in 1925 in the midst of a legal battle with his first wife, who had just returned to New York, now destitute. She died soon after. The mansion passed to Duke's only child, Doris, who almost immediately entered litigation with her mother (Duke's second wife) over the terms of the will. Once that was cleared up, Doris traveled the world, filling the home (and all her other homes, including the Somerville estate, now doubled in sized, and an enormous mansion in Durham) with Southeast Asian and Islamic art. She later moved to Hawaii and became the first female competitive surfer. In 1958, she donated the East 78th Street house to New York University. It was subsequently converted for academic use by Robert Venturi and was landmarked in 1970.
· Streetscapes/The Duke Chateau; A Grand, Sophisticated 1912 House Crumbling Away [NYT]
· The 1912 James B. Duke Mansion [Daytonian]
· Men Who Are Making America [Bertie Charles Forbes]