063-nyc-10.jpg (52997 bytes) New York Architecture Images-Upper East Side

Cultural Services, Embassy Of France
Payne Whitney house


Stanford White of McKim, Mead and White


972 Fifth Ave., Bet. East  78th & East  79th St.




Italian Renaissance-palazzo style








Commentary by various authors

Andrew S. Dolkart, "Touring The Upper East Side, Walks in Five Historic 
Districts" (The New York Landmarks Conservancy, 1995), 
"The beautifully proportioned bow-fronted 
residence, one of White's masterpieces, is ornamented with especially 
elegant carved detail Features of note include the marble entranceway, 
heavy wrought-iron doors, and the loggia on the south elevation. The 
sumptuous interiors were filled with antique columns, woodwork, and 
other objects collected by White during his European travels. The 
French government, which purchased the property in 1952, sponsors 
public exhibitions in the house."

Henry Hope Reed, "Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York" (Dover 
Publications Inc., 1988) photographs by Edmund V. Gillon Jr., commentary about 972:

"Experts see the inspiration as being the Pesaro Palace on Venice's 
Grand Canal, but the game of identifying sources of a Stanford White 
building can be endless....The identifying elements are pairs of Ionic 
pilasters (columns on the Venetian palace) on the second floor which 
frame round-arch windows. The figures in the arch spandrels are another 
Venetian touch. Still, Fifth Avenue is a long way away from the Grand 
Canal: the interpretation is free. Particulary nice touches are the 
masks and fruit garlands above the third-floor windows and the marble 
figure reliefs above the fourth-floor windows. These last must have an 
eighteenth-century provenance, probably French."


Many persons incorrectly associate the name "Payne Whitney" with the 
Esopus estate, which was willed to Harry Payne Bingham. But it is 
correct that William Payne Whitney was another favorite nephew of 
Oliver Payne. This section is a short biography of Payne Whitney.

PAYNE WHITNEY, B.A., LL.B., of New York City, capitalist, 
philanthropist, was born in New York City 20 March 1876, the son of 
William Collins and Flora (Payne) Whitney, and died at Greetree, his 
country place at Manhasset, Long Island, N. Y., 25 May 1927.

His mother, Flora (Payne) Whitney, was born in 1848 and died 5 February 
1893, the daughter of Henry B. Payne, 1810-1896, of Cleveland, Ohio, 
(Hamilton College, 1832), lawyer, prominent Democrat, member of the 
United States House of Representatives, 1875-1877, United States 
Senator from Ohio, 1885-1891. Through this grandfather, Payne traced 
an ancestral line to William Bradford of the Mayflower, Governor of the 
Plymouth Colony.

Payne Whitney entered Yale University and received his Bachelor of 
Arts in 1898. He then studied law for three years at the Harvard Law 
School, receiving his Bachelor of Laws in 1901. His share in his 
father's large estate was increased by his own business ability; and 
several millions came to him from the estate of his uncle, Col. Oliver 
Hazard Payne, including Payne's estate in Thomasville, Georgia. 
Payne Whitney soon became influential in New York financial circles and 
a director or executive officer of several large corporations, 
including the Great Northern Paper Company, the First National Bank of 
New York, the Whitney Realty Company, and the Northern Finance 

In 1902, Payne Whitney married Helen Hay, daughter of the 
distinguished man of letters and statesman, John Hay, Lincoln's 
personal secretary and first biographer, who was United States 
Ambassador to Great Britain, 1897-98, and Secretary of State, 
1898-1905, and his wife, Clara (Stone) Hay. Helen Hay Whitney lived 
at 972 Fifth Avenue until her death in 1944. The couple had two 
children, Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson (Joan Whitney)(5 Feb 1903 - Oct 
1975) of New York City and Manhasset, well known as the co-founder of 
the New York Mets in 1962, and John Hay Whitney (17 Aug 1904 - Feb 
1982) of New York City. 

While in college, Mr. Whitney rowed for two years on the Yale crew, of 
which he was captain in 1898, thus following in the footsteps of his 
father and uncle, both of whom had been college oarsmen. He never lost 
his interest in the rowing achievements of his alma mater, gave 
liberally to their support, and was the donor of a dormitory for the 
crew at Gales Ferry. Interested in horse racing, he had a racing 
stable of his own and engaged in the raising of thoroughbred horses. 

He was a constant and oftentimes anonymous benefactor of educational 
and charitable institutions, making large gifts to Yale, to the New 
York Hospital, of which he was a trustee and vice president, to the New 
York Public Library, of which also he was a trustee for many years and 
to which he gave in 1923 $12,000,000, and to many other foundations 
that serve the public.

After his death in 1927, the family contributed sufficient funds to 
Yale University to enable construction of the Payne Whitney athletic 
complex . This facility was completely renovated in 1997. The newly 
renovated Payne Whitney Gymnasium was originally constructed in 1932 
under the direction of John Russell Pope. The gym is one of the most 
complete units of indoor facilities in the world. The building was 
given to the University by the Whitney family in memory of their son 
Payne Whitney, class of 1898. The nine and one half story structure 
contains training centers for crew, gymnastics, swimming, general 
exercise, recreational and varsity strength and conditioning and a 
state of the art fencing salon.

The family also contributed sufficient funds to establish the Payne 
Whitney Psychiatric Clinic at New York Presbyterian Hospital in l932. 
The Payne Whitney Clinic is a 60-bed, voluntary facility that provides 
state-of-the-art mental health services and related research and 
education programs within one of the world’s major medical centers. The 
Central Evaluation Service offers comprehensive evaluation and 
diagnostic services for patients in need of hospitalization or 
ambulatory treatment. The Inpatient Service provides diagnostic 
services and care for acutely ill adolescents, adults, and the elderly. 
Specialty clinical programs have been developed to meet the needs of 
patients and families. Services are offered for a wide range of 
diagnostic categories, including affective disorders, psychotic 
disorders and dual diagnosis. 

The Payne Whitney house at 972 Fifth Avenue, just below 79th Street. 
The house is only at the right (three windows on the upper floors, but 
the adjoining house has been given almost the same treatment, so that 
the viewer might suspect they were the same house.
The plaque below indicates that Oliver Hazard Payne donated the land. 
He also contributed over $600,000 to the construction, a considerable 
sum in 1904. 

The view of 972 Fifth Avenue at right shows that the row up to 79th 
Street has been kept intact with the architecture of the Gilded Age. 
In fact, the James Duke house just below 972 Fifth Avenue with 1 East 
78th Street address looks like a Carrère & Hastings special, 
resembling the Frick Museum and the Esopus Mansion. So the entire 
block reminds one of what much of Fifth Avenue looked like during the 
late 1890s and 1900s. Nowadays, this block is unique, as most of Fifth 
Avenue is covered with high rise apartments. 

Although many people today first associate James Duke with Duke 
University, he attained his financial wealth via the American Tobacco 
Company. He was helped in this by Oliver Hazard Payne, who put 
together a group of financiers to enable Duke to buy out his 
competitors in the Carolinas. Duke himself, or his father, invented 
the pre-rolled cigarette and worked to wean smokers from roll-your-own. 
There may be a reason why Duke and Payne built their townhouses so 
close together. However, it may be only coincidence; all affluent 
Gilded Age families fought for space along upper Fifth Avenue. 

Stanford White, often considered the most decoratively minded of the 
partnership of McKim, Mead & White, designed many of the most 
impressive and influential interiors of the era, particularly in the 
domestic realm. "One of his finest mature works was the residence of 
Payne and Helen Hay Whitney at 972 Fifth Avenue in New York City, now 
the building of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. White 
designed and oversaw the execution of all the interiors in the house, 
which was still being built at the time of his death in 1906. These 
interiors exemplified the prevailing taste of wealthy New Yorkers and 
reflected a uniquely American expression of European styles." 

"By the 1880s, McKim, Mead and White had become the architectural firm 
of choice for the elite of New York society and White was able to 
secure clients with large amounts of money to spend on new residences 
and extensive remodeling. Among his many commissions were houses for 
such clients as Whitelaw Reid (1837-1912), Henry William Poor 
(1844-1915), and Ogden Mills (1825-1910). At the same time that he 
worked on the Payne Whitney house, White was busy building other 
mansions in New York City, including ones for Mrs. William K. 
Vanderbilt Jr. (nee Virginia Fair, d. 1935), and Joseph Pulitzer 

"At the Payne Whitney house, White worked under very favorable 
circumstances indeed: his clients were members of a well-established 
wealthy New York family who had few fixed ideas about what the building 
and interiors should look like. The residence at 972 Fifth Avenue was 
commissioned in late 1902 as a wedding present from Colonel Oliver 
Hazard Payne (1839-1917) for his nephew Payne Whitney upon his marriage 
to Helen Hay. Colonel Payne contributed more than $625,000 to the cost 
of the fashionable Fifth Avenue house, but he left the design choices 
in White's able hands. The foundation of the five-story house was laid 
in 1902, and work on the architectural shell progressed through 1903. 
By January 1904, the house was still not roofed in, but White was 
already planning the interiors."

"The public spaces on the ground floor were unusual, both 
architecturally and decoratively The dome over the entrance hall and 
the main staircase was constructed by the New York firm of Raphael 
Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company which used a laminated 
vaulting system. The layered tile vaults, … allowed for extremely 
thin, shallow vaults of great strength. The technology dated back to 
ancient times and had been used in many large-scale public buildings, 
such as Grand Central Terminal in New York City but it was relatively 
unusual in a domestic setting. White utilized a half-arch support for 
the main stair; and, more notably a broad shallow dome for the entrance 
hail. Supported by a circle of paired marble columns, the tile courses 
of the dome were ornamented with a trompe-l'oeil trellis painted by 
James Wall Finn … a muralist of note in the first years of the 

Quoted material taken from Jenil Sandberg article in Magazine Antiques, 
October 2002

The Venetian Room

Resplendent with mirrors and gilt, the Venetian room is one of 
architect Stanford White's masterpieces and one of his very last 
creations. Now returned to its original location and meticulously 
restored, it once again magnificently conveys the ambiance of the 
Gilded Age.

The Venetian room was created as the reception room in the townhouse at 
972 Fifth Avenue that was a wedding gift from Oliver Payne, a financier 
and industrialist, for his nephew Payne Whitney and Helen Hay. Visitors 
entered the shallow-domed hall through massive wrought-iron doors. The 
Whitneys' guests were then ushered into the reception room, which had 
an adjoining powder room, before proceeding upstairs.

Oliver Payne commissioned America's best known architect, Stanford 
White, to design the house. With five stories above ground plus two 
under, it would have 22,000 square feet of living and service space. 
White began work on the plans in 1902. Construction took another five 
years, and during that time White repeatedly refined his ideas for the 
reception room. White's final drawings show the room almost exactly as 
it appears today, with neoclassical ornaments surrounding large 
mirrored panels, picture frames with putti, a lattice cove with 
porcelain flowers, and a parquet floor. Construction of the reception 
room began in April 1906 and was completed in December. White had 
approved the final details shortly before his death in June 1906. The 
only known alteration occurred in 1941, when the damaged figurative 
ceiling painting was replaced.

Helen Hay Whitney called this space the Venetian room. After she died 
in 1944, her son, John Hay Whitney, followed her wishes to have the 
room preserved, so it was removed before the house was sold in 1949. 
The French government acquired the building in 1952. The Venetian room 
remained in storage until 1997, when Mrs. John Hay Whitney donated the 
room to the French-American Foundation and provided the financial 
support for its restoration.

Diana S Waite. 

Payne and Helen Whitney and their children John and Joan are listed in 
the 1920 census as living at 972 Fifth Avenue. Also listed with them 
are thirteen servants. However, these servants may also have serviced 
the Thomasville estate in Georgia and more probably the Greentree 
estate in Manhasset NY. The 1930 census omits 972 Fifth Avenue, but 
lists Helen Whitney and her son John living at the Manhasset site 
together with 21 servants. The 1920 census listing for Payne Whitney 
is preceded directly by a listing for James D Duke, his wife Natalie 
and daughter Doris living around the corner at 78th Street. While I 
know of no connection between Payne and Duke, it is common knowledge 
that Oliver Hazard Payne arranged the financing for James Duke to buy 
out his North Carolina competitors and organize the American Tobacco 
Company. Fifth Avenue between the 60s and 70s streets became the place 
to be for those of the gilded age. 

Thanks to