Section Three: The Fifth Avenue Years

1900: Sterling and Thorne File Plans for Fifth Avenue Residences

Bruce Price-sec3.jpg

Bruce Price, the Emily Post Institute

The neighboring townhouses for John W. Sterling and Samuel Thorne on Fifth Avenue in New York City were designed as a joint project by Bruce Price, an architect known for many “society buildings.” Price did a great deal of work for Canadian Pacific at that time, most notably the Chateau Frontenac, a “railroad hotel” in Quebec City, Canada. (See below). Sterling’s firm represented Canadian Pacific. Price had already designed the Sterling homestead in Stratford, Connecticut, and was probably made known to Thorne through business associates or friends. He went on to design several buildings for Yale after his work for Sterling. It is assumed that Sterling may have had influence in obtaining those commissions at Yale for Price.

An interesting side note: One of Price’s children, daughter Emily, took the surname Post and became Emily Post, the famous “etiquette” maven.

Price became associated with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1886. In November, 1885 the company had completed construction of Canada’s first transcontinental railway, and it wanted to make improvements in the infrastructure to meet the needs of travelers. Price was therefore engaged to build Windsor Station in Montreal. It was undoubtedly Price’s hotel, the Château Frontenac, which brought the Château style into fashion. William Cornelius Van Horne, the president of the CPR, wanted to make it the most talked-about hotel on the North American continent. Price delivered what was probably his signature piece, the Chateau Frontenac. Although he was also well known for his memorial to Richard Morris Hunt in New York, located in Central Park, just a short distance from the Sterling-Thorne residences, he went on to a successful career designing residential, business, commercial and high-rise buildings.

Despite an exhaustive search, neither a good full-on picture, front elevation, nor drawing of the Thorne - Sterling Residences has, so far, been unearthed by the researchers. It is known that they were two attached townhouses of similar materials and design. Whether Price chose to treat them as looking like a single residence from the street is open to conjecture. There are instances leading the researchers to believe that interested parties, such as census takers, were sometimes confused into thinking the townhouses were really one large residence.


Chateau Frontenac in Quebec

One verbal description of the Sterling townhouse at 912 Fifth Avenue says that it was a five-story brick dwelling 25 feet wide and 57 feet 10 inches deep on the lot. It was to cost $55,000 (approximately $1.4 million in today’s money). (Based upon other prices paid for land on Upper Fifth Avenue at this time, this price would have been for the structure and would not have included the lot.)

There appears to be conflicting information concerning even this aspect of the 912 residence. There is another description that agrees that the building was five-story, but says that it was white marble, not brick, and had a mansard roof. From the one picture of 912-914 shown below (the joined buildings are at the center of the photograph behind the gentleman on the dark horse), it is obvious that both descriptions are somewhat correct. The buildings were five-stories, built of brick and appear to have been faced with white stone (which could be marble). As can be seen, Thorne’s side of the joined residences was similar, but not completely identical, in style.

The buildings were to be located on Fifth Avenue across from Central Park between the cross-streets of East 72nd and East 73rd Streets. This was and remains a choice location because of a convenient entry and “short cut” to the West Side through the so-called Inventor’s Gate at 72nd Street. This gate also gave access to the park’s carriage drives. At the time of construction, there were no other buildings on the Fifth Avenue frontage between 72nd and 73rd Streets. Farther up Fifth, the next entrance into the Park at 90th Street was more used by equestrians.


The best photograph discovered so far of the Sterling and Thorne townhouses, Library of Congress

Here, blown up from the distant background of a high-resolution photo of the Lenox Library (see Exhibit 9), is the townhouse of Sterling at center, behind and left of rider, with iron balustrades on second and third floors. Thorne's home is immediately behind the Sterling Townhouse, with columns on second and ledge above third floors. All Lenox Library photos: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection. [1]


Bethesda Fountain, Central Park

A prime location. The above photo was taken above Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, the fountain made famous in "Angels in America." It possibly shows the white marble top story of Sterling's home on Fifth Avenue, near the center of the photo above the trees.

Another glimpse of Sterling’s home comes to us from a small excerpt of Sterling’s 1918 Obituary in The New York Times. Although it states that no specific disposition was made of the house at the time of his death, it is known that it was offered to Bloss as a home until the end of his life, but that Bloss had declined. It is deduced that the house then became part of the residue of Sterling’s estate, and as such, passed to Yale University. At that point, the house in Yale’s possession continued to exist (and was either was used by Yale, rented, or stood empty) until demolished for a pre-war apartment building in 1926.[2] We know that in 1918 after Sterling’s death, a catalog of the furnishings of the house was published, probably at Yale’s request, in preparation for liquidation or disbursement.


Sterling's obituary from the New York Times

In regard to the Thorne residence, the plans of which were filed at the same time as Sterling’s, no clear picture has been forthcoming, but we do know a little about the residence from information provided, among other places, in Sterling’s obituary: “At the time he [Sterling] purchased the property, his friend, Samuel Thorne, acquired the fifty-foot frontage, immediately adjacent on the north, upon which he erected a handsome residence.” The actual frontage on Thorne’s property mentioned above was 40 not 50 feet. The inset enlargement on the illustration, shown below from a 1916 Real Estate Book, gives the existing conditions of the block along Fifth Avenue from 72nd to 73rd Streets during the time it was occupied by Sterling and Thorne.

In the enlarged inset below, at bottom left we see the lot owned by Stillman, 62’2” wide on Fifth Avenue and 125’ fronting on 72nd Street. (Stillman’s four-story, double-wide townhouse, 9 E 72nd, is shown as the “wide pink lot” at lower right of the inset. Actual house numbers are shown written on the blue-gray sidewalks of the inset). Immediately above Stillman’s lot on the corner of Fifth and 72nd, is Sterling’s 912 Fifth Avenue, showing the lot to be 25’ x 125’. The darker pink outline on the lot shows the footprint of Sterling’s townhouse: five-story with grade-level basement that steps back to four stories, and then down to two stories at the back yard, according to the markings.


Above Sterling home is Thorne’s much larger townhouse, 914 Fifth Avenue, on a 40’ by 140’ lot. The dark pink footprint represents a townhouse that is five stories, with a grade-level basement. The building remains 5 stories for almost its entire depth, then steps down to three, and finally two stories at the rear. Note the airshaft provision on the north side of Thorne’s townhouse to allow light and ventilation to the center rooms. Also note that he has an easement or alley to East 73rd Street than runs behind the vacant lot (77’2” by 130’) that is between his townhouse and 73rd Street. Such an easement would be unusual, but desirable, as most backyards would be closed off from any street access at the back.

Upon his death in 1915, Thorne had a wife and five children. His widow continued to live in the townhouse until her death in 1923.

1902: Sterling and Bloss at 912 Fifth Avenue


House Interior 

This interior is from a house in Sterling’s very neighborhood, taken at the same time he and Bloss would have lived on Fifth Avenue. While Sterling's drawing room might not have been as lavish, it would be typical for the period of the drawing room decor in Sterling’s townhouse. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

Life was apparently lush and social at 912 Fifth, in spite of Sterling’s mania for privacy. He is known to have maintained an office at home and his obituary lists “an extensive private law library in his residence;” “a choice miscellaneous library containing many rare editions;” and “a remarkable Cremona violin” all of which went to Yale University as part of the “residue” of his bequest. (Men at that time did not go “downtown to the office” every day, and frequently conducted business from their homes entertaining business visitors in either the dining room or drawing room if there was no home office.) There is also at least one second-hand account of a social event that took place at the house.

The 1910 census reports list four servants, one man and three women ranging in age from 33 to 47, living in the house in addition to Sterling and Bloss (See Exhibit 4). Sterling is listed as "Head" while Bloss is listed as "Friend." The other male is listed as being a "Mulatto" and was 46 and married. He supposedly slept outside Sterling's bedroom. One of the women was single (age 44) while the other two were widows (ages 33 and 47).

Many questions are raised and remain unanswered about Sterling and Bloss’ relationship while living together over the years, but none are so pointed as regards their sleeping arrangements at 912 Fifth.

The question has been discussed among the researchers as to whether or not Sterling and Bloss slept together in the same room or same bed at 912 Fifth as alleged by Katz in his entry on the pair. Further, it is asked what the servants, friends, family and others, thought of the arrangement if they knew. One should bear in mind that by the time they moved to 912 Fifth, Sterling was 57 and Bloss was 54, past “middle aged” for the times. In the 1910 Census, Bloss was listed as a “Boarder” and his status was listed as “own money,” what we might call “independently wealthy” now-a-days.

It was claimed in John Garver’s book that Sterling had a phobia about burglars and maintaining his privacy, yet his method of solving the problem seems baffling. Especially, given the fact that home burglar alarms had been invented and were readily available at the time Sterling built his house. Indeed, there are stories about barred windows, and a lock and burglar alarm contraption that he had on this bedroom door, which he controlled from bedside. Some feel that this was to thwart any attempt to catch him in bed with Bloss. Yet, why would that be necessary if the servants supposedly knew they slept together? Where would Bloss have “disappeared to” if someone had needed entrance to Sterling’s bedroom? We know the valet had an adjoining room. Why, with such forethought would Sterling not have provided another adjoining room for Bloss? No one but servants and residents would be in that section of the house. (Certainly in the case of overnight visitors, they would not personally knock upon a bedroom door, a servant would be sent.)

At this point in their lives, and based upon “married” couples of the times, it would be highly more likely, if they were in a homosexual relationship, for them to have adjoining rooms and only sleep in the same room on occasions when they had sexual relations. More likely, after sex, the visiting partner would have returned to his own room. Adjoining rooms would seem a much more “proper” arrangement to explain a fear of burglars to outsiders.

Yet other stories seem to indicate that the servants and others outside the home were well aware that the two men slept together. A story documented by Katz details a nightly ritual performed by the housekeeper wherein Sterling would not go to bed until she had looked under the bed and checked his closet for burglars. It’s hard to reconcile such a ritual given the fact that Sterling was a 57-year-old, self-made man living in the company of other men (some of whom were servants). Why would he depend upon a woman, the housekeeper, to perform this ritual?

It’s also reported that Sterling had an iron door to his bedroom and iron bars in the window. Supposedly Sterling was so afraid of burglars that he slept with someone (Bloss) in the same room and had a large valet, who slept in the next room. If he had the servant in the next room, why would he need Bloss to sleep in the same bed; or conversely, if he had Bloss, why would he need the servant?

Why would Garver, who has been accused of covering up the alleged relationship between Sterling and Bloss, relate this story, unless it was known outside the house that Sterling and Bloss slept, at the very least, in the same room? The only way that could become common knowledge was if someone inside the house (a servant or visitor) reported on the arrangement.

In 1935, the Saturday Evening Post published a memoir by Frank A. Vanderlip that refers to Sterling. Vanderlip talked about a party of elderly ladies and gentlemen and mentions the presence of Sterling’s life-long companion “Blossy,” (whose name, Vanderlip claimed not to remember at the time.) Vanderlip conjectured that one of the old ladies present had probably broken Sterling’s heart at an early age and turned him into a life-long bachelor.

When relating the story almost 23 years after Sterling’s death, and being unable to remember Bloss’ name, one has to wonder about the veracity of Vanderlip’s whole account. Was he relating an actual incident, was the whole account a made-up story to “cover up” an intimate Sterling and Bloss relationship, or was it simply an attempt to explain two old bachelors living together to what Vanderlip saw as a cynical readership?

Unfortunately, all these stories and alleged explanations raise more questions than they answer. Other than the fact that these two men shared a residence at 912 Fifth Avenue and elsewhere for many years before, none of these allegations can be resolved because the evidence is either circumstantial or the “proof” is alleged to have been destroyed.

Vanderlip’s article did bring on a discussion amidst the researchers concerning the "gullibility” of people at that time or whether they truly believed that men lived together platonically. It was discussed that this period in history was essentially a man’s world and that is was not unusual for men to share a domestic situation a la Holmes and Watson. The general public at that time would see nothing amiss in two men living together; especially surrounded by more than a dozen servants of both genders.

A new phenomena, “Bachelor Flats” were coming into vogue to address living quarters for these men: "Masculine celibates, as the newspapers coyly called them, were the object of much curiosity; for most of the latter half of the nineteenth century, New York had a surplus of unmarried men. At a time when most men married directly from the family home, those who remained single for years, and even set up housekeeping on their own were a new phenomenon, as the press tirelessly reminded its readers and fascinated the public."

Newly marketed bachelor apartments became popular and usually contained a parlor, a bedroom and a bath, with the rooms arranged in that order. Breakfast was served from a central kitchen in the building while other meals were taken in restaurants or sent in. However, ideals were beginning to change and more and more people as time went by would have certainly disapproved if they thought that Sterling and Bloss were sharing a bed for any reason and worse, doing so for more than 40 years. However, it was not that unusual for men of the period either to live in a boarding house or to share accommodations as Sterling and Bloss did.

Toward the end of the century, it was just becoming acceptable for women to lunch together, but still, rarely did a woman eat dinner outside a private home and almost never without a male escort. Until late in the century, an unescorted woman would be turned away from a restaurant. The Waldorf Astoria Hotel changed that, but initially caused a scandal when they began allowing unescorted women into their dining rooms. Morals and behavior strictures were certainly existent for men, but only more so for women at this time.

Women didn’t usually initiate telephone calls. You had to speak to an operator who in the early days was generally male: was it proper for a woman to speak to a strange male? Husbands often placed the calls. Generally it was determined that the telephone was mainly for use in ordering goods and speaking to shopkeepers. Thus for a long time telephones were kept in the kitchen, handy for the cook. They finally migrated upstairs where they were often installed in little closet-like rooms off hallways or under the stairs. In the circumstances, long chats over the telephone were impossible.

Oddly enough, however, Sterling and Bloss lived their separate lives through much of the day. A typical day, when they were both still working, would have been breakfast at 9:00 a.m. if they were planning to go downtown to the office. They would have taken an omnibus (horse-drawn, and later motorized, “trolley” with wheels instead of on rails) down Fifth Avenue, or would have gone east over to one of the north/south Avenues to take a train downtown. Private or rental carriages were extremely expensive to maintain or rent regularly in the city, and automobiles were just becoming noticeable on the streets.

At work, there would have been no lunch. “Dinner” would have been around 2 or 3 p.m. Men would return home for “Dinner” and then go back downtown to work. Sterling’s custom was to have a bite in his office in the afternoon to avoid the roundtrip home to eat. Around 8:00 p.m., upon returning home from work, there would have been “tea”. Tea was a substantial meal, unlike what “afternoon tea” is now. Being single, Sterling and Bloss, like many of the single men of their time, might have taken “tea” at home, in a restaurant, or at one of their clubs. "Supper" would have been a late night meal at an event served as refreshments or a midnight meal After retirement Bloss traveled; Sterling had his hobby farm and development in Westchester County where he spent Wednesdays and Saturdays; and the two dined separately at their various clubs, seemingly to be together only at bedtime. It was only at the end of the 19th Century that business men began to take “lunches” together and mealtimes began to gravitate toward the schedule we think of as “normal” mealtimes now.

1907: New York City Directory
One of the early research breakthroughs was locating an on-line copy of a 1907 New York City Directory. This provided answers to several questions. At first, researchers thought that although the plans for the Thorne and Sterling residences were filed in 1900, construction didn’t start until almost ten years later. This theory was based upon the empty construction lot captioned “Thorne 914” shown in the New York Public Library photo (Exhibit 1) and one conflicting account that the house was not completed until 1911. First, the 1910 Census and then the 1907 New York Directory entry showing Sterling’s business address and followed with his home address at least confirmed for the researchers that Sterling and Bloss were living at 912 Fifth in 1907. Later, the researchers were able to determine that the Sterling residence was completed by 1902. Additionally, the directory confirmed that Thorne was living at 914 Fifth in 1907. Although the researchers couldn’t confirm the year Thorne’s residence was completed, at least there was a starting point.

One other major contribution of the 1907 Directory was the street listing in the back section. Because this section listed the last house number on every block, we were able to determine that the house numbers on the prior block ended with 907, thus confirming that there was a lot, or some lots, before 912 Fifth that eventually were purchased by James Stillman as documented in Sterling’s Obituary.

1910: A Pictorial of Fifth Avenue is Published
In 1910, J.F.L. Collins published a book titled "Collin’s Both Sides of Fifth Avenue: A brief history of the Avenue with descriptive notes." (All the photos in the book are now a part of the New York Public Library’s [NYPL’s] collection.) This book proved to be a detailed photo essay, based upon photographs taken in 1911 with a wide-angle camera by little known photographer, Burton Wells. He supposedly photographed every building from Washington Square to East 93rd Street, showing all of the buildings up and down Fifth Avenue at the time. But there appears to be one notable exception. It came as no surprise to the researchers that the one missing photo is the block where Sterling and Thorne lived, the block of Fifth Avenue between 72nd and 73rd Street. This missing photo frustrated the researchers and led to many hours of conjecture as to why the photo was omitted. If found, this photograph would have provided a direct frontal view of the townhouses.

At first it was felt that the block was empty so the photographer didn’t bother to photograph it. This proved to be wrong because it had been learned that 912 and 914 Fifth Avenue existed when the photos were taken. A second theory came along that the NYPL had simply mistakenly omitted the photo from their on-line collection. A trip to the Library by the New York City-based researcher to actually examine Collin’s original book, proved that the photo was missing from the book and not omitted by the library.

This underscored the question as to why this beautiful marble front double townhouse wasn’t photographed: indeed, we are given a tantalizing glimpse of the block in the photograph showing Palmer’s house in the following block north. (See Exhibit 1) In that photograph, we are shown a vacant lot, surrounded by a construction fence covered in advertising. Under the lot is the caption “914 Samuel Thorne”, yet the Thorne-Sterling residences are out of the picture. How could Wells, the photographer who conscientiously photographed every single building along Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to 93rd Street, simply “skip” a block that had two very obvious townhouses almost in the middle of it?

The misplaced caption on Well’s picture caused no end of consternation among the researchers because all the other residences in Well’s photo series where carefully labeled directly below their locations. This caption was to deceive and frustrate the researchers in their efforts to reconstruct the theoretical appearance of the block at the time that Thorne, Sterling, and Bloss resided there. Why did it appear under a vacant lot? Was Thorne’s home (which at the time, we did not know was a double townhouse with Sterling’s) that far north on the block? If so, why was the lot still empty in 1910 when we knew that the Thorne and Sterling homes had been in existence at least eight years before the photograph was taken? Did Thorne own the lot with the intention of stopping construction of anything next to his residence, or did Thorne, in fact, own the property and intend to sell it on speculation at some point?

Every time the researchers reached a dead end or a roadblock in locating important photos or information about Sterling and Bloss, it began to be referred to as the “Sterling Curse” based upon the fact that it almost seemed Sterling was taunting the researchers at every turn. Paramount of the “Sterling Curses” was the inability to find any source which showed this block of Fifth Avenue, particularly the double townhouse. While the researchers were gratified to discover an oblique photo showing the townhouse which answered many questions and raised more, at the time of this writing, the hunt for a head-on photograph, drawing, etching or even architectural elevation of the plans for 912-914 Fifth Avenue remains ongoing.

All that being said, the photographs from Collins’ book did provide invaluable information in helping the researchers know the neighborhood; neighbors; their relationship to each other as neighbors, associates, and friends; and in general, the layout of the blocks around where Thorne, Sterling and Bloss lived.

Frequently, the researchers started at the Lenox Library between 70th and 71st Streets on Fifth Avenue (now the site of the Frick Collection Museum) as a benchmark and we would work our way north up the Avenue as far as Palmer’s residence at the corner of 73rd and Fifth, identifying and dating information by coordinating it with the pictures from the NYPL/Wells photographs. As more information on the mysterious “lot owner” James Stillman came into the picture and more pieces began to fall into place, the relationships between all these neighbors, including Palmer on the corner of the next block north, began to become clear with the aid of these photographs.

The one piece of the puzzle that continued to elude the researchers was the piece of property between Thorne and Palmer to the north. Was it three lots? Was it one? Was it vacant during Thorne and Sterling’s residency on the block? These and many other questions remained unanswered by the photo of the vacant lot with the construction fence covered in advertising.

The answer to this puzzle eventually comes in the form of another famous Fifth Avenue architect who would soon have a building on almost every block in Sterling and Thorne’s neighborhood and beyond, and the cuckolded husband of an actress who was the son of one of the most infamous men in New York’s history.


"In the Real Estate Field," from the New York Times

The mystery was unlocked with a key in the form of a short article in The New York Times (reproduced left) regarding rumors about the sale of this whole block. In March of 1899, The Times had put to rest a rumor that was blazing about town regarding Stillman’s lots and the block of Fifth Avenue between 72nd and 73rd Streets. Further information flowed in when the research team began investigating the high-rise apartment buildings that will be detailed below in the “1922” section of this timeline, and then, the last piece of the puzzle finally fell into place by sheer dumb luck. 

1915: Thorne Dies
Samuel Thorne died of heart disease at 80 years of age on July 4, 1915. At the time, he had spent a week on railway magnate J.J. Hill's yacht on the St. John River near Quebec for their annual fishing trip. Thorne, who had a wife and five children, was living at 914 Fifth Avenue at this time, while he and his family spent their summers at their homestead in Thornedale, north of New York City in Dutchess County. Thorne made this a model farm, a practice popular with wealthy gentlemen of his day, such as the Vanderbilts. He imported and bred shorthorn cattle and was said to have had the finest herd in the United States. He was a member of the Union League, and like his neighbor Bloss, the Metropolitan Club. In addition, he was a member of the Century Association, The Down Town [sic] Association, The New York Zoological Society and the Automobile Club of America. (At a time when automobiles were an expensive hobby, the “auto club” was more of a “Club” than the towing service it is today.)

Thorne was a contributor to charity and a member of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church for many years. At the time of his death, he was survived by his wife, four sons, and a daughter.

Thorne was born in 1835 in Thornedale. He was the son of Jonathan Thorne, banker, leather manufacturer and later NYGIC director and Central Trust trustee. Thorne joined his father in the leather business. He retired from his father's business in 1872, became interested in the Pennsylvania coal fields, and was President of the Pennsylvania Coal Company at one time. Besides the Central Trust, he was a trustee of the New York Life Insurance and Trust Company, and a director of the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad Company, the Colorado and Southern Railway, the Great Northern Railway, the Sixth Avenue Railroad Company, the Northern Securities Company, the New York Dock Company, and the Bank of America. In building 914 Fifth Avenue, he was joining his father, who was already living in a large house on Fifth.

Thorne’s wife, Phoebe Brinckerhoff Thorne, was a manager of the Women's Hospital. His son, Edwin Thorne, succeeded him as a trustee of the Central Trust. He was a great-great-grandfather of John F. Kerry's ex-wife, Julia Stimson Thorne, and her twin brother and Kerry's campaign advisor, David Hoadley Thorne.

1916: The First Fifth Avenue Apartment Buildings
Real estate on Fifth Avenue became a hot item before and after World War I. This meant the 912-914 properties were much more valuable with a new apartment structure built there instead. There was a battle going on between owners of giant homes (and the city planners/historians) against the real estate industry to try to preserve the texture of Fifth Avenue. Also to be taken into account was the increasing popularity of apartment living, even for the wealthy, more because of the trouble of keeping up a large residence than any growing shortage of cheap domestic labor. This left many great Fifth Avenue mansions along “Millionaire Row” unoccupied.

The first apartment house, at 998 Fifth at the corner of East 81st Street, was designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1910, the same year they designed Sterling’s mausoleum. The building was an unqualified success and opened the door to the Avenue's reconstruction. By 1931, 43 apartment houses had been built, radically transforming the Avenue.


from the New York Times

In 1916, "907 Fifth Avenue”, [in the block south of Sterling –ed.], signaled a new trend whereby private mansions were torn down to make way for apartment houses. Part of 907 was built on a vacant parcel owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt that, while awaiting a nobler or at least more remunerative fate, had been used as a playing field by the Interclub Baseball League. It partly replaced a house owned by the Burden family, which they had unsuccessfully tried to rent."

While World War I and the postwar depression curtailed new construction, in 1920, 845 Fifth (also known as 4 E. 66th St) was built next to the Astor mansion. 845 Fifth was viewed as a dangerous interloper and started a flurry of concern about the integrity of Fifth Avenue.

The height of new structures was limited to 150 feet between 59th Street and 110th St. This was later changed to 75 feet (eight stories high). A court decision in 1923 then returned it to 150 feet. [See also the sections in this document on Building Height Restrictions Imposed and Overturned–ed.] This paved the way for the nearly complete reconstruction of Fifth Avenue's Central Park-frontage blocks, a reconstruction that would begin barely ten years after the completion of the last great mansion, architect Delano Aldrich's house for Willard Straight of 1914.

There is no doubt that Thorne’s widow’s death in 1923 triggered the actual process of the replacement of 912 and 914 Fifth Avenue with a high-rise apartment building. The picture below shows the townhouses must have lasted until almost 1926 when construction of the 912 Fifth Avenue high-rise started.


5th Avenue and 71st Street, from The New York Public Library

This photograph dated 1922, verifies the continued existence of the Thorne and Sterling Townhouses at least seven years after Thorne’s death and shows how much Fifth Avenue had changed in just four short years after Sterling’s death. The buildings in the picture are the Blayliss residence in the foreground right; and moving to the left in the picture: 907 Fifth Avenue; across 72nd Street, 910 Fifth Avenue (before its unfortunate remodeling in the late 1950’s); and just visible behind 910, the two townhouses (in the left side of the photograph). As of this date, 920 Fifth Avenue had not been constructed and the lot north of the townhouses remained vacant. The houses in the rest of the block past 73rd Street are pretty much the same as they were in Well’s 1911 photograph, with the exception of the 927 Fifth high-rise seen in the far background.

But who sold first? The Thorne family, thereby prompting Yale to sell at what must have been an enormous profit? Or had Yale already liquidated Sterling’s townhouse, and was the developer simply waiting for the widow Thorne to die or bow to the financial realities and sell out to the inevitable?

At this point, the two townhouses were surrounded by high-rise apartments. 910 Fifth Avenue was in existence on Stillman’s lot and 920 Fifth Avenue would be on the lot between Thorne and 73rd Street. A developer had to come along and put the two properties together for construction to proceed for the high-rise building. Who knows? The firm of Shearman & Sterling, being familiar with both former owners, might have been instrumental in coordinating the sale.

In any case, the ground under the two townhouses, by now too valuable for construction of private residences, had to be converted to apartment house construction. Brought about by the tremendous increase in land values and the desire for low-maintenance apartment living, this was to be the fate of almost all of the private homes and mansions of “Millionaire’s Row” up and down the section of Fifth Avenue that fronted Central Park by the mid-1920’s.

With the widow Thorne’s death and after the decision to raise the allowed height to 150 feet, both in 1923, the way was clear for the firm of Schwartz & Gross to build the Italian Renaissance-style “912 Fifth Avenue” that exists today. Nearly 25 short years after their construction, the two townhouses on Fifth Avenue between 72nd and 73rd streets, along with the men who built them, were history.


1. As one can imagine, during the course of researching this project, the researchers passed around literally hundreds of photographs by e-mail. Some of these photos had direct bearing on the search for Thorne's and Sterling’s 912-914 Fifth Avenue residences; others did not. Some photographs, while interesting, were relegated to the margins of the story. One such photo, the Lenox Library between 1900 and 1906 below, was presented by the researcher from Alabama in an e-mail on March 26, 2010.

Though remarkable for its light and clarity, the photo went unremarked upon until the morning of Easter Sunday, nine days later. While reviewing e-mails for information and photos to be included in this timeline, the editor noted some familiar details in the background that matched known buildings in the blocks north and south of the Thorne-Sterling townhouses. By counting streets and identifying buildings, it became easy to isolate 912-914 Fifth as the building behind the equestrian following the coach.

…And voila, the “prize” of our photo research. As far as we know, this view represents the best likeness of 912-914 known to exist. No other researchers into the life and times of Sterling and Bloss have been able to come up with a photo of the residences. While extremely happy with this find, there were, however, some negatives to be noted. First, while the original photo was miraculously clear for its age, repeated enlargement has left this first version (shown at right) at the edge of detail and clarity. We were extremely fortunate to find an ultra-high resolution copy of the photo in the Library of Congress collection which gave us the version shown in the section on 912 Fifth Ave. Still, the photo shows the townhouses at an oblique angle which, maddeningly, leaves much about the fronts of the townhouses to the imagination.

Examination of the roofline has led us to the conclusion that the Thorne and Sterling townhouses were not only designed by the same architect, but also designed to give the harmonious appearance of two units that beautifully complement each other, almost like a single home.

Obviously, looking at the brick firewall on the south side of the building and the construction fence in the area below the brick wall (right about at the level of the equestrian’s hip, on the left side in picture) we can see Stillman’s lots. We now know that the large lot to the north of the two townhomes was purchased by Jay Gould’s son Howard Gould. The north and south vacant lots remained empty into the 1920’s when they, along with the townhomes, succumbed to the apartment house boom that took place along “Millionaires’ Row” after the First World War. All variations of the Lenox Library photo shown above are courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

2. [photo?] 912 Fifth Avenue as it exists today. There appears to be just three buildings on the block. The entrance to the building on the far left is on East 73rd and may or may not occupy part of the ground under what was the Thorne residence in the early 1900’s. The center building with green canopy is designated as 912 Fifth Avenue, but the footprint of the building is many times larger than Sterling's original 912 building would have occupied. It is thought that the right portion of 912 Fifth behind the tree above and the white brick building slightly visible to the extreme right, comprise the area that was Stillman’s vacant lots described in Sterling’s obituary.