"At the time 998 was built, apartment house living had not yet been
widely accepted by the very wealthy, but as The Real Estate Record
noted, 998 helped to change the 'deep-seated repugnance' that 'families
of high social position' had for apartments," Andrew S. Dolkart, "Touring
the Upper East Side, Walks in Five Historic
Districts," published in 1995 by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
Andrew Alpern, "Historic Manhattan Apartment Houses,"
(Dover Publications, Inc., 1996), that the building has a
"central vacuum-cleaning system, jewelry and silver safes anchored in the
of each apartment, remote laundries with ventilated steam-drying
devices, basement storage rooms, refrigerated wine cellars and
additional servants’ quarters...." The handsome, large marquee over the
sidestreet entrance still exists, although it has lost some of its
decorative elements as Alpern noted and illustrated in his book.
"The lobby was lined in Italian marble, the halls were floored in
durable Tennessee marble (like Grand Central Terminal), and the
elevators were paneled in French walnut. Some doors throughout all
apartments were framed in marble, and each front door was fireproofed
with a sheet of galvanized steel that was painted to simulate fine
wood. Ceilings measured ten and a half feet high, except on the fifth
floor, where they were a foot higher. The interior design of 998
provided three apartments for every two stories, which added up to six
duplexes, located in the advantaged southern corner, and eleven
seventeen-room simplexes," wrote Elizabeth Hawes in her book, "New
York, New York, How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the
City (1869-1930)," Henry Holt and Company, 1993).
A twelve room duplex in it was recently
advertised for $18,500,000. (2004). No kidding!
Streetscapes/998 Fifth Avenue, at 81st Street,
Designed by McKim, Mead & White;
A Majestic 1912 Apartment Tower for the
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
Published: March 30, 2003, Sunday
THE imposing limestone apartment house at 998 Fifth Avenue, at 81st
Street, is one of the most majestic ever built in New York, or even in
the United States. Completed in 1912 and designed by McKim, Mead & White
for the developer James T. Lee, grandfather of Jacqueline Kennedy
Onassis, the building counted among its most interesting attributes a
broad iron and glass marquee over the 81st Street entrance. Although the
marquee has long been blacked out with roofing tar, the owners of the
building, now a co-op, are about to bring back the sunny side of the
In 1909, Lee and Charles R. Fleischmann bought the northeast corner of
81st and Fifth from the financier August Belmont, who had contemplated
building his own mansion there. Lee hired the firm of McKim, Mead &
White, which designed many of New York's grandest buildings, ranging
from the Metropolitan Club at 60th and Fifth to the old Penn Station.
Residential Fifth Avenue had seen a few apartment buildings by 1910, but
nothing like the 12-story 998 Fifth Avenue. McKim, Mead & White
developed an all-limestone exterior in the Italian Renaissance style --
the exterior, for its time, looked more like a bank or a private club.
Lee had the vision to combine the sensible efficiencies of a multiple
dwelling with the scale of a country house, using an architectural
language understood by families with housing budgets measured in the
hundreds of thousands of dollars.
That vocabulary included wine rooms, safes for jewelry and silver,
elevators paneled in French walnut, nontarnishing gold-plated hardware,
nine coats of paint, refrigerators six feet wide and eight feet high,
and seven bedrooms. In the typical apartment the dining room was 21 by
25 feet, a central oval salon was 16 by 20 and the living room was 21 by
24; all were flanked by a gallery that was 14 by 36. There were six to
nine servants' rooms per apartment.
Eighteen families shared the building at rentals of up to $25,000 a year
apiece. Together, the cost of land and construction amounted to about $3
million, or $250,000 per floor. An entire typical apartment house in
those days cost about $250,000 to build.
In a 1915 article in The New York Times the broker Douglas Elliman
recalled being very skeptical about the rents. ''It seemed very doubtful
if 18 people could be found to pay $12,000 to $20,000 per annum,'' he
But he wrote that he found at least 100 prospects, and 998 Fifth Avenue
rented up right away, at even higher rents. In 1912 the magazine
Architecture called it ''the most remarkable thing of its kind in
The exterior is notable for inset marble panels at the eighth and 12th
floors, and the projecting iron and glass marquee over the main
entrance. Built by the Harris H. Uris ironworks, the marquee (or, as it
was more formally called in those days, the marquise) had a wire glass
top and clear glass sides, allowing a flood of light into what was
nominally an interior space.
Marquees of this sort had appeared on theaters and hotels in the late 19th
century, and a few apartment buildings adopted them -- the 1885 Osborne,
at 57th and Seventh, had one retrofitted about 1900, although it was
removed by the 1940's.
McKim, Mead & White detailed the marquee for 998 Fifth Avenue with great
care, noting in their drawings that the Uris firm had to submit models
for the filigree on the ornamental trusses underneath the glazing, the
supporting chains and the ornamental brackets and retaining escutcheons
on the wall. Around the edge of the marquee they designed a delicate
cresting of anthemion forms -- an ornamental palm-leaf pattern -- and an
iron and clear glass valence below.
They also made sure to call for bronze plates separating the limestone
from the iron elements, to protect the stone against rust marks. And
they detailed a ring of light bulbs set into rosettes along the
A certain mythology has sprung up about the first tenants at No. 998 --
that they initiated a mass desertion of dusty old mansions throughout
New York in favor of the apartment house. This was furthered by news
accounts that Elihu Root, a Nobel prize-winning statesman, writer and
member of New York's elite, had rented one of the $25,000-a-year
Elliman later said that he had rented the apartment to Root at a reduced
rate to counter a supposed prejudice by the very rich against apartment
buildings, but this story has never been adequately documented. Root and
several other tenants already lived in apartment buildings or hotels, so
it may be that the problem was not an insufficient demand but an
insufficient supply of the type of building the rich would find
TYPICAL tenants included Watson Bradley Dickerman, president of the New
York Stock Exchange in the 1890's; George B. Fearing, a railroad
investor and the president after 1916 of the Knickerbocker Club, a men's
club at 62nd and Fifth; Levi P. Morton, vice president of the United
States under Benjamin Harrison from 1889 to 1893 and later governor of
New York in 1895 and 1896; and Murry Guggenheim, a financier and mining
operator who took the largest apartment, almost two full floors. Even
with an apartment of that size, the 1915 census listed only Guggenheim
and his wife, Leonie, in the apartment, with only two live-in servants.
The resources of this cohort of occupants were considerable. In 1920
Watson Dickerman's wife, Florence, was visiting Tiffany's and left a
Russian sable coat on the seat of her car. A passer-by distracted her
chauffeur, and another man took the coat and disappeared. It was worth
Perhaps because of the prominence and wealth of the tenants, an
unidentified man called the building's telephone operator in November
1920 and said he was going to blow up the building; a dozen police
officers were posted, but nothing happened. The infamous Wall Street
bombing, at Wall and Nassau Streets, which killed at least 36 people,
had occurred that September.
Converted to a co-op in 1953, 998 Fifth Avenue has proved durable over the
intervening decades. It was designated a landmark in 1974.
The building appears to have many of its original wooden window frames,
which are usually one of the first things ripped out in the
millionaire's apartment of our time.
On the marquee the valence of iron and glass was removed and the wire
glass on top was painted out, providing shade but nothing like the
clear, dappled sunlight evident in early photographs of the
Next month the co-op will begin some minor masonry repairs and, more
notably, a restoration of the marquee. According to Andrew Alpern, an
architectural historian working on the project, the huge assembly will
be dismantled and taken down this spring. Partly damaged elements will
be repaired, and others entirely missing -- like the anthemion cresting
and the clear glass valence -- will be replicated using old photographs
and original architectural drawings.
Mr. Alpern said it appeared that light bulbs had actually never been
installed in the rosettes, but the matter will become clearer once the
disassembly permits him to look for traces of wiring and other details.
He said that the sun should shine back in at the end of the summer,
providing an interesting treat for the architectural pilgrim.
Published: 03 - 30 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 11 , Column 1 ,
Copyright New York Times.