Mexico’s wealthiest man, Carlos Slim, has decided it’s time to sell his Brobdingnagian pied-à-terre along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, again. If the 120-year-old townhouse’s $80 million asking price rings familiar to veteran high-end real estate watchers that’s because it’s the exact same amount as when the octogenarian business magnate, who makes his primary home in the leafy Lomas de Chapultepec district of Mexico City, set it out for sale back in 2015. The NY Post was the first to report on the remarkable listing.
Designed by the firm Welch, Smith & Provot in the fanciful Beaux-Arts style, and built on speculation between 1899-and 1901, the eight-story limestone accented red brick structure sits atop a rusticated limestone base with 27 feet of frontage along Fifth Avenue, directly across from the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and 100 feet along East 82nd Street, where the home’s main entrance is demarcated by a flamboyant glass and copper canopy. Bowed bay windows project off both façades up to the fourth floor, limestone quoins run up the corners, a stone balustrade rings the roof, and the entire confection is topped by a stately mansard roof.
The huge and by-every-standard lavish home’s first owner and residents were tobacco tycoon Benjamin Newton Duke and his wife Sarah, whose descendants owned and/or occupied the home for more than 100 years. In the 1930s and ‘40s, modernist designer Karl Bock was engaged to make some striking additions to the French-style interiors. He reportedly “installed a ribbon-striped sycamore dressing room, an oval, black-marble-and-mirror bathroom, and a royal-blue glass-tile bathroom with a modernistic sink that looks like a robot.” Bock also did work on Duke family homes in North Carolina.
Though she lived primarily in North Carolina since her teen years, the last Duke family member to own the palatial mansion was Benjamin Duke’s granddaughter, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans. Sometime after Semans took over ownership, the mansion was carved up into several apartments and the basement converted to a doctors’ offices. Eventually, the bulk of the house, the first four floors above the English basement, was re-fashioned as a swank quadruplex of almost 10,000 square feet and the fifth floor converted to a simplex with two balconies, both with views of Central Park over the roof of The Met. At some point, the roof of the sixth floor was raised and a seventh floor added to create a duplex penthouse. The address marker for the separate entrance to the penthouse units is still visible above a secondary ground-floor entrance. So the story goes, the Duke-Semans family kept only a “hotel-sized bedroom” on the ground floor, and it’s unclear which, if any, of the apartments remain as independent residences.
When Semans put the property up for sale in 2005, for $50 million, she told Forbes she “had a very wonderful childhood there.” She also said they had “wonderful Christmas trees” and that her opera singer mother would hold concerts in the “that middle hall,” presumably the massive, 33-foot-long and 26-foot-wide stair landing on the parlor floor.
Though it was the highest priced townhouse on the market at the time, it did not take long to attract a serious buyer; Semans sold up 2006 for $40 million to Tamir Sapir. The cab driver turned real estate mogul held on the place until 2010, when he sold it for $44 million to Mr. Slim, at the time the richest man in the world. (Forbes currently calculates Mr. Slim’s fat fortune to be about $92.4 billion; as of today, that makes him the 8th richest person on the planet.) At the time of his purchase, it was reported Slim planned to use the humongous house as a home base when passing through New York.
Landmarked in 1974 and still known as the Benjamin N. and Sarah Duke House (as well as the Duke-Semans House), it is once again the highest priced townhouse currently on the market in Manhattan. And if the Marie Antoinette-worthy home sells for anywhere near its sky-high ask, it will blow away the current record for the most money ever paid for a Manhattan townhouse, set in 2021 when British financier Alan Howard ponied up $59 million for Vincent Viola’s East 69th Street townhouse.
The opulent French Renaissance-inspired interiors of the Duke-Semans House comprise more than 25 rooms dispersed over about 20,000 square feet. There are at least nine fireplaces, acres of polished wood floorboards, and miles of ornate moldings. Beginning in the ground floor foyer, a curved staircase makes a grand ascent all the way up to the fifth floor. A more discreet separate staircase connects to the uppermost two floors, and for those unable (or unwilling) to climb so many stairs day in and day out, the home is equipped with two elevators. Marketing materials indicate there are eight bedrooms and 10 bathrooms though floor plans are not specific about which rooms are public entertaining spaces and which are private living areas.
Listed with Jorge Lopez at Compass, who declined to comment, Duke-Semans House is being marketed as a rare opportunity to acquire a landmark structure that has withstood the test of time. Listing descriptions suggest the building could remain as a private residence but might also serve as a foundation, gallery, museum and/or retail space.
Speaking of retail and gallery spaces located in old townhouses, back in 1990s and early 2000 the now defunct Felissimo Design House, a chic retail space and gallery, housed itself in the Frederick Edey townhouse on West 56th Street. Well, turns out Mister Slim, or at least a corporate concern connected to him, owns that townhouse-turned-gallery, too. Briefly home in the 1950s to Elizabeth Taylor and her third husband Michael Todd, the five-story building was purchased by Slim in 2011 — the year after he bought the Duke-Semans mansion — for $15.5 million, in cash. Since then, the 16,500-square-foot building has been leased out to various tenants, and today it functions as The Elizabeth Collective, an event space, gallery and showroom for various beauty and fashion brands.