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How Does a Limestone Castle Go Untouched for 115 Years?

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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.

Commonly known as the Harry F. Sinclair House after its most famous resident, 2 East 79th Street was actually constructed for banker/railroad investor Isaac Dudley Fletcher in 1898. At the time, it was just one of many enormous, bespoke mansions on the Upper East Side. Over time, though, the vast majority of them disappeared—either torn down and replaced with apartment or office buildings, or altered to the tastes of a new owner. But 2 East 79th Street survived and today remains almost exactly as it was when it was constructed over a hundred years ago.

Although most of the Fifth Avenue mansions constructed in the late 19th century were brownstones, Fletcher wanted his house to rival William K. Vanderbilt's, an ornate limestone chateau at 660 Fifth Avenue. He commissioned architect C.P.H. Gilbert and instructed him, basically, to go wild. The result was a French Gothic limestone mansion that was, as described by Christopher Gray, "marked by a profusion of crockets, pinnacles, moldings and other details that make Gilbert's elaborate Warburg house of 1907 (at 92d Street and Fifth Avenue, now the Jewish Museum) seem relatively chaste."

When Fletcher died in 1917, he left the house to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which in turn sold it to oil baron Harry F. Sinclair in 1918. Sinclair's only addition to the house was in 1922, when he had a three-manual, automatic roll player pipe organ installed. Before he could do any more spending, however, he was brought down by the Teapot Dome Scandal. By 1930, his trial and prison sentence were over (he was acquitted, but jailed for six months for jury tampering) and Sinclair was finished in New York. He sold the house and lit out for the territories.

The new buyers were Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant Jr. and his sister Anne, descendants of Gov. Peter Stuyvesant and heirs to a vast fortune. The siblings, each unmarried, rarely ventured outside the mansion and made no changes to it whatsoever. Anne died in 1938, and Fortune magazine, in a piece about the decay of the Fifth Avenue mansions and the people inside of them, wrote that her brother "eats utterly alone at the big dining room table...served by Vernon, the butler, and an assisting footman." He died in 1953.

Two years later, the house was purchased by the Ukrainian Institute of America, which had little money for alterations, instead focusing on keeping the house open (costing an estimated $150,000 per year) for concerts, lectures, and exhibits, and on making minor repairs as necessary. "A walk through the Fletcher house is a dual time trip," writes Gray. "On the one hand, the house is astonishingly intact, even down to the woodwork in the servants' areas; the occasional modernization so often seen in big old houses is entirely absent...But it is not only the modernizer but also the restorer who has remained at bay." In the end, it wasn't a commitment to preservation that saved this house, but rather a series of owners prevented by circumstance from changing much of anything.
· The Isaac D. Fletcher Mansion - 79th Street and 5th Avenue [Daytonian in Manhattan]
· Limestone Remnant of Fifth Avenue's Chateau Days [NYT]
· Origin Stories archives [Curbed]