Fighting to Preserve the Magic of Lower Fifth Avenue

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Zodet Negrón, an agency spokeswoman, said in an email that the commission’s staff had concluded that the Demarest lacked the “significance and integrity” of a landmark “due to the cumulative effect of its substantial alterations.” These changes, she said, included major renovations at the ground floor, replacement of the cornice, “the removal of the three-story-high decorative and structural infill from within all five monumental arched openings” and the enlargement of the attic-story windows.

The year 1890, when the Demarest Company opened its round-arched doors at 33rd Street, was a time of signal developments for the neighborhood between Madison Square and the vicinity of the Astor townhouses. In November, spectacular fireworks showered the 341-foot tower of the recently opened Madison Square Garden, built to the magisterial designs of Stanford White at 26th Street and Madison Avenue. The garden provided a colossal new palace of diversions for an area that had already been changing from a tony residential neighborhood into a leisure and hospitality district.

At the A.T. Stewart mansion, across 34th Street from the brownstone of William and Caroline Astor, an event unfolded that sounded the death knell for the area as a residential enclave. The ostentatious marble behemoth, which Mr. Stewart, a multimillionaire department store pioneer, had built in the 1860s, was described by The New York Times as “perhaps the most palatial private residence of the Continent.” But in 1890, after the death of Mr. Stewart’s widow, the mansion’s furniture was auctioned off for “perhaps 10 cents on the dollar” because it was deemed old-fashioned, according to “Mrs. Astor’s New York,” by Eric Homberger. By that time the mansion was already being leased to the Manhattan Club.

Also in 1890, two Gilded Age Fifth Avenue hotels rose across West 30th Street from each other: the mansard-roofed, brick-and-brownstone Wilbraham, so-called bachelor flats built on the site of two demolished brownstones, and the dignified, Neo-Renaissance Holland House. (Both buildings survive today, providing texture to the historic fabric of the corridor. The Wilbraham is a designated individual landmark; Holland House, used today as an office building, remains unprotected.)

In short order, the Astors themselves began tearing down their homes in favor of hotels. In 1893, William Waldorf Astor opened the Waldorf Hotel across from the Demarest Building on 33rd Street. Four years later, John Jacob Astor, Caroline’s son, built the Astoria Hotel next door, conjoining it with his cousin’s hostelry to form the Waldorf Astoria.

“With the passing of the old Astor Residences, the greatest social center New York had ever known ended,” Henry Collins Brown, director of the Museum of the City of New York, wrote in 1924, “and in its place was to arise an Avenue of Commerce, unique in the annals of the world.”

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