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Rockefeller Rich on Fifth Avenue

Entrance to Living Room

Living Room with Scalloped Boiserie

Before telling you about my visit to Nelson Rockefeller’s former apartment at 810 Fifth Avenue, I offer this quote from the late vice-president and governor, “There are three periods in life: youth, middle age and ‘how well you look’”.

The full-floor portion of the original triplex that I viewed with Kirk Henckels, Senior Vice-President and Director of Stribling Private Brokerage, has clearly reached the ‘how well you look’ stage. Mr. Henckels, who has a knack for selling some of Manhattan’s most impressive residences, was gracious enough to give me a tour of his exclusive listing, which is priced at $27.5 million.

In order to truly appreciate the residence, it helps to have some knowledge of its ‘youth’ and ‘middle age’—and of the powerful man who created it.

As a grandson of the founder of Standard Oil, Nelson Rockefeller’s name was synonymous with robber-baron wealth. This may have worked against him when he unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, 1964, and 1968. It was also believed that his divorce from his longtime wife, Mary, with whom he had five children, and his marriage to the divorcee Margaretta “Happy” Murphy in the early 1960s, put a cap on his political prospects. Nevertheless, he remained a popular symbol of liberalism within the Republican Party, serving four terms as Governor of New York from 1959 to 1973 and as Vice President under Gerald Ford from 1974 to 1977.

Nelson Rockefeller had tremendous drive; and his diverse passions extended well beyond the political area. In 1938, at the age of twenty-nine, he was named president of Rockefeller Center. Seeking a role in national politics, he joined President Roosevelt’s administration in 1940 as the head of a new agency for Latin-American affairs, and continued to guide international affairs under presidents Truman and Eisenhower. He was a renowned philanthropist and assembled a significant art collection that included modern and non-western art. As president of the Museum of Modern Art, his influence was profound. He had a lifelong interest in Latin America and eventually owned a home in Venezuela, in addition to Kykuit, the family estate built by John D. Rockefeller, Sr. in Westchester County’s Pocantico Hills.

Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Henri Matisse to create a stained glass window in the Union Church of Pocantico Hills in memory of his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of founders of the Museum of Modern Art. The window was Matisse’s last work of art before his death in 1954.

Living Room from Library

View of the Paneled Living Room from the Library

Energetic and ambitious, Rockefeller possessed all the personal and financial resources any man could ever need to achieve his goals. He more than succeeded at 810 Fifth Avenue, where he lived for 45 years, first in a legendary triplex and later in a sprawling simplex—with two different wives and a total of seven children.

In 1934, four years after he married Mary Todhunter Clark, Rockefeller purchased the top floor of 810 Fifth Avenue. Designed by J.E.R. Carpenter in 1926 with a discreet side entrance and iron marquee on 62nd Street, it was the southernmost apartment building on Fifth Avenue. As a result, the 13-room apartments offered remarkable views of Central Park and Fifth Avenue down to the new Empire State Building. According to Andrew Alpern in Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan, original asking prices ranged from $72,000 to $97,000, with monthly maintenance running about $800 for each suite.

The 26-year-old Rockefeller and his bride, known as Tod, expanded the property into a 30-room triplex by buying the penthouse above and the floor below. He hired the modern architect Wallace K. Harrison to transform the original 810 layout and the 12th floor below it. He then commissioned Jean-Michel Frank, the avant-garde Parisian designer, to decorate portions of the 12th floor.

Original Rockefeller Living Room

Rockefeller Living Room with 1930s Decor

Frank filled Harrison’s spectacular oval living room with cutting-edge furnishings and art, including gilded consoles by Diego Giacometti, candy-colored carpets by Christian Berard, Louis XV-style furniture, streamlined ivory tables and large Picasso paintings. Over the fireplaces, Rockefeller commissioned murals by Matisse and Fernand Leger. The sculptor Hans Arp carved a squiggle-edge chunk out of a ceiling, creating a backlit cove effect.

Harrison made a round dining room out of the original square one, and for its floor, he inserted 18th-century parquet de Versailles into a gray marble border. He also had input into the remodeling of the penthouse, but its Bauhaus-bare interiors were credited to Jan Rutenberg.

When Tod and Nelson Rockefeller were divorced in 1962, she received the top two floors of the triplex—including the 12,000-square-foot terrace—and he retained the building’s 12th floor, which contained the sumptuous oval living room. He then reportedly ordered the connections between the spaces permanently sealed.

Happy & Nelson Rockefeller

Happy and Nelson Rockefeller at 810 Fifth Avenue, 1964. Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

A year later, Mr. Rockefeller, 55, and the Governor of New York, married Margaretta Fitler Murphy, known as Happy, a 36-year-old divorced mother of four. The newlyweds proceeded to buy an apartment in a building going up next door, at 812 Fifth, and joined it to their portion of the neighboring triplex, creating nearly 12,000 square feet of living space. The floors of the two units were not at the same height, so a half staircase was installed to connect the combined units. The stairs were located behind what is now a bookcase in the library at 810. Mr. Rockefeller and Happy Rockefeller, as well as their two sons, always used the elevator in 812.

In 1979, Nelson Rockefeller died of a sudden heart attack in a townhouse he owned near the Museum of Modern Art. He was in the company of a young aide, Megan Marshack, who, at the time, was not known to be his mistress. When his will was read, he left her the deed to the townhouse at 13 West 54th Street plus $50,000 cash. The scandal was covered extensively when it was rumored he died while having sex with Marshack. Now a widow, Happy Rockefeller separated the two apartments, kept the 812 Fifth Avenue residence and sold the one at 810 Fifth Avenue to the present owners.

With just one apartment per floor, 810 Fifth is an intimate building. The sedate lobby of what appears to be rusticated limestone features bronze torcheres and elaborate carved plasterwork. A small reception room contains a conservative sofa and chairs. All residents share the same elevator, which is miniscule, even by European standards. Three would be a crowd. However, an upholstered bench could accommodate a small reclining child. “The elevator is difficult if you’re entertaining,” said Mr. Henckels, who is a master of understatement.

It’s a mystery how the Rockefellers managed since both the triplex and the simplex were designed for entertaining on a grand scale. I also wondered if Rockefeller and his rival, Richard Nixon, who lived briefly on the fifth floor of 810, rode in that tiny elevator together. Where would the secret service men have fit?

Gallery

Gallery and Library Beyond

My thoughts of political protocol dissolved when the elevator arrived at the twelfth floor, where Mr. Henckels and I entered the very large gallery with grey marble floors. Directly ahead, through large double doors is the famous 47-foot-long living room offering Central Park views from large picture windows. The gallery, living room and library all retain the beautiful walnut boiserie installed by Mr. Rockefeller. The same paneling conceals the elevator door, closets and even a bar. Throughout the living room and library, Harrison’s original wood floors remain buffed to a warm glow.

The architect’s circa-1935 ribbon-edge wood motifs are intact. Among the apartment’s most delightful signatures, they add a rococo accent to the major rooms, adorning the doorframes, cabinetry and bookshelves.

The corner double living room is the showcase of the apartment. Two bedrooms were removed to create the south portion. As a result, there are two fireplaces. Unfortunately, the murals Matisse and Leger painted over the mantels in 1938 and 1939 have been replaced with mirrors.

Plaza View

Fifth Avenue and The Plaza

Supposedly, Mr. Rockefeller retained all the luxe 1930′s furnishings when he and Tod were divorced. It is fortunate that these were well documented in photographs because they did not remain when the apartment was sold after his death. Today, the views are the main attraction. You can see above the trees across the Park to the West Side. From the south windows, there are views of Central Park South, the Plaza and Fifth Avenue.

Rockefeller Dining Room

French Dining Room

Tod Rockefeller may have gotten the beautiful round dining room upstairs, but the long rectangular dining room on the twelfth floor is impressive in its own right. The floors are gray marble and the room is flooded with light from tall south-facing windows. Gone is the remarkable Mondrian-style abstract mural that Rockefeller had Fritz Glarner paint on the ceiling and walls in 1964. The room now is pink and detailed with elaborate French-style molding. Served by a vast, though somewhat dated kitchen and separate service elevator, the dining room can accommodate large parties.

Today, the apartment’s private quarters have been reconfigured. Two of the original guest rooms and baths have been combined to create a two-bedroom master suite joined by a single large bath and double dressing rooms. Four maid’s rooms, a bath and staff dining room are now a laundry/family room and one larger staff room and bath.

A new buyer will surely want to renovate this portion of the apartment. According to Mr. Henckels, several well-known architects have viewed the simplex and were intrigued by its provenance and possibilities. He observed that Europeans and extremely affluent New Yorkers seem to feel a particular connection with the apartment.

Lobby of 810 Fifth Avenue

810 Fifth Avenue Lobby

810 Fifth Avenue

810 Fifth Avenue

When the ideal buyer comes along, he or she will be in excellent company. In addition to the Felix Rohatyns and art patron Jan Cowles, residents of 810 Fifth Avenue are believed to include Eric Sheinberg, a former partner at Goldman Sachs; children’s advocate and philanthropist Maureen Cogan; former Archer Daniels CEO Dwayne Andreas and Lazard Frere’s William von Mueffling.

The upper portion of the original triplex is in good hands. When Tod Rockefeller died in 1999, her duplex was purchased by John Foster. The healthcare magnate eventually sold it to David Geffen for $31.5 million. Without moving in or making any alterations, the music mogul quietly put the property back on the market a year later, selling it to Blackstone Group’s Pete Peterson in 2007 for $37.5 million. Peterson has a long history with the Rockefeller family and continues to devote time to their philanthropic and artistic projects. It seems fitting that he and his wife, media executive Joan Ganz Cooney, now reside in the historic duplex.

Although it is not the most luxurious building on Fifth Avenue, prices have remained strong in the co-op, according to Kirk Henckels, who noted that the last sale, probably Mr. von Mueffling’s, was well over $20 million. The former Rockefeller home “is not an apartment for everyone,” he said, again with understatement. “But people who like it are really passionate about it.”

Hopefully a preservation-minded buyer will supply the nips and tucks needed to keep this grand dame looking Rockefeller rich for years to come.

 

 

5 Comments

  1. Richard Martino wrote:

    when you’re that rich you probably always “look well”!

    Wednesday, March 23, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink
  2. Denise Piperni wrote:

    Great story Andy. Must have been exciting to see it!

    Wednesday, March 23, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  3. barryblogs wrote:

    Thanks for this terrific tour and your keen insight. I feel as if I visited this glorious space myself. Only in New York!

    Wednesday, March 23, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  4. Daniel wrote:

    Great piece. My only other observation is that while the flooring in the living room is very nice, I do not believe that it is parquet de Versailles. Do a google search and you’ll see what I mean. As an example, the flooring in the former Brooke Astor apartment (which, coincidentally, is also an apartment that Mr. Henckels represented) has true parquet de Versailles in both the living room and (I think) the famous Albert Hadley designed library.

    Saturday, January 7, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  5. Andrew Kay wrote:

    Thank you for the input, Daniel. Right you are! The floors are impressive, but they are not parquet de Versailles and I have deleted that description. The ones in the original round dining room may well have been parquet, but the former Mary Todhunter Rockefeller apartment was not available for viewing. Glad you enjoyed the piece! —Andy

    Saturday, January 7, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

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