He knew, of course, that whatever man dared (within Fifth Avenue’s limits) that old Mrs. Manson Mingott, the Matriarch of the line, would dare. He had always admired the high and mighty old lady, who, in spite of having been only Catherine Spicer of Staten Island, with a father mysteriously discredited, and neither money nor position enough to make people forget it, had allied herself with the head of the wealthy Mingott line, married two of her daughters to “foreigners” (an Italian marquis and an English banker), and put the crowning touch to her audacities by building a large house of pale cream-colored stone (when brown sandstone seemed as much the only wear as a frock-coat in the afternoon) in an inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park.
— “The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton
This six-story townhouse is one of the few remaining Beaux-Arts mansions in Manhattan left mostly intact — most others have been carved up into apartments — and its location, on Fifth Avenue opposite the Metropolitan Museum, is stellar. Plus, the house’s eastern exposure means the building gets more light than most townhouses on the Upper East Side, which typically have a north-south orientation. Now, this rare architectural survivor, built on spec by developers in 1900, is on the market with Paula Del Nunzio of Brown Harris Stevens at $52 million. At the time the house was built, the elaborate design by architects James R. Turner and William G. Killian was described as “something superior in all details.”
Once a semi-remote surburban outpost surrounded by marshy farmlands — modern development of Manhattan largely began at its southern tip — by the turn of the 20th century upper Fifth Avenue had become a very fashionable district filled with fabulously wealthy people. For example, and though it was sadly demolished in 1924, the townhouse in question’s equally opulent neighbor to the south was owned by F.W. Woolworth,; another Beaux-Arts mansion, just a block up Fifth Avenue and also built on spec around 1900, was originally owned by tobacco tycoon Benjamin N. Duke and is now owned by Mexican multibillionaire Carlos Slim.
The first owner of the bow-fronted mansion, Mrs. Mary Augusta King, purchased the house just before completion. She was the widowed scion of an old New York and Newport, R.I., family, and her late husband, who died in 1875, made a fortune trading with China for tea and silk. The King family spent lavishly on real estate and, indeed, their Manhattan residence was arguably not even their most extravagant home: Their Newport mansion, Kingscote, which remained in the King family until 1971, was the largest and most impressive house in town at the time it was built.
After Mrs. King’s death, her Fifth Avenue townhouse was acquired by banker David Crawford Clark, who later hired architect Ogden Codman, Jr., to redesign the interiors. In addition to this architecture practice, Codman co-wrote a pioneering guide to interior design, with Edith Wharton, “The Decoration of Houses,” which has never been out of print since its debut in 1897. Wharton, of course, was one of the greatest chroniclers of the Gilded Age in New York, as well as someone who took a keen interest in house design. She was born a Jones, a New York society family whose architectural indulgences led to the coining of the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.”