Section Four: The After Years (Part 5)

1922 Palmer Dies
Nicholas F Palmer, Senior, father of Thorne and Sterling’s neighbor and friend, was the President of the Leather Manufacturer’s Bank. He started there as a “runner” 50 years earlier in 1836. Both Jonathan Thorne and his father had been in the leather manufacturing business. In addition, Palmer Senior was the recipient of a sizable inheritance and trust from an aunt, who also left money to his grandson, George. He had been in poor health for two years and died suddenly of heart disease in 1887. The disease had forced him to retire from the bank just a year before.

Nicholas F. Palmer, Jr., one of seven sons, and friend and neighbor of both Thorne and Sterling, almost certainly had some influence on Thorne’s decision to settle in the neighborhood. Palmer Junior was born in 1875 but died young at home on Fifth Avenue in January, 1922, after a two-week illness of pneumonia. He was 47 years old at the time of his death. In addition to their Fifth Avenue home, the Palmers owned a large country house (actually there were four houses on 135 acres) in Port Chester, New York, left to them by Palmer Senior.

Palmer Junior left a wife, Laura Adele and two sons, both of whom were associated with him in the business of Nicholas F. Palmer & Co. This company managed the business that bore his wife’s family name: Quintard Iron Works, a manufacturer of marine engines. Mrs. Palmer had inherited a life estate of $100,000 plus one-fourth of her fathers residuary estate (as one of four children) which included interest in the Iron Works. At his death, her father was also a Director of the Pacific Steamship Company and other large corporations. He was married to his 4th wife, who had originally been Laura’s governess.

palmer mansion sec4.jpg

Palmer Mansion

Palmer Junior spent his business life running his wife’s company among other interests, including serving on the board of directors of his father’s bank. Percy Rockefeller, who served as honorary pallbearer at John Sterling’s funeral and on the trustee advisory board of Sterling’s will, was also on the board. His son George went on to marry after his father’s death and his mother gifted him with a house at 9 East 66th Street. Mrs. Palmer’s brother was an Episcopal bishop from Tennessee and he, along with several other clergy, officiated at George’s wedding.

In a bizarre twist of fate, George somehow became embroiled in serious financial difficulties. In October, 1931, when Mrs. Palmer died, she left gross assets of $1,438,849, including money she inherited from a cousin, E.E. Gold who invented the automobile heater. But none of this fortune passed down to the next generation: she died insolvent. She had tried to avert her son, George’s, ruin. When she died she owed a $1 millon debt on a Bank Note and other debts that were more than the value of her estate. The large country home that had passed down through the Palmer family and had evolved into four homes on 135 acres, was split into two parcels and sold off in 1937.

1922: The Vacant Lot North of Thorne and Sterling
Finally, the last piece of the saga of the Fifth Avenue block between 72nd and 73rd Streets: What about the mysterious vacant lot north of Thorne’s townhouse?

We know from a March, 1899, New York Times article that the Reckendorfer Estate, owners at the time, sold the 45x130-foot plot. Details of the transaction were not revealed at the time. In an odd piece of luck, those details came forward in an offhand comment in Jerry E. Patterson’s book “Fifth Avenue, The Best Address.” The purchaser of the lot was none other than Howard Gould, the son of Sterling’s client, Jay Gould. In 1899, a year after he married Actress Katherine Clemmons, Gould purchased the plot north of Thorne for an astounding $450,000. Remember that Sterling built a five-story townhouse two doors down for only $50,000.

Yet there was no Gould Mansion -- what happened? Although Gould was also building his wife a fabulous estate in the country, we can assume that, since his sister inherited Jay Gould’s mansion farther down Fifth Avenue, Gould was in the market for a townhome in New York at Fifth Avenue and 73rd Street. But it was not to be: Howard Gould and his wife went through an extremely well publicized and scandalous divorce in 1909, wherein he named as co-respondent none other than William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody. Gould alleged that before the marriage, his wife, an actress, had sworn to him that her relationship with Cody had always been business. Later, during the divorce it was alleged that Gould’s wife drank prodigiously from breakfast on through the day, to the point of falling off her chair at the dinner table. Both before and after the marriage, it was alleged that she and Cody lived together openly in numerous cities around the world.

Howard Gould sec4.jpg

Howard Gould

Even though he was the wronged party, Gould was ordered to pay what was thought to be the largest alimony settlement up to that time: $36,000, or roughly $900,000 a year in today’s money. In 1917, Gould moved to Europe taking huge losses on his gigantic 40-room country estate in Sands Point, Long Island. (The first and second floors measured over 1 ½ acres). Twenty years later, Gould would marry another actress again in London. Meanwhile, the lot at Fifth and 73rd sat vacant until 1922 when a 14-story building was designed for it by J.E.R. Carpenter, the foremost architect of his generation when it came to luxury residential buildings in New York City. He had designed buildings at 810, 825, 907, 950, 988, 1030, 1035, 1060, 1115, 1120, 1148, 1150, 1165, and 1170 Fifth Avenue as well 2 East 66th Street, for all intents and purposes, also a “Fifth Avenue” Building. In short, one could say he had a building on almost every block on upper Fifth.

Although Howard Gould lived until 1959, we do not know whether or not he was still in possession of the land when Carpenter’s 920 Fifth Avenue went up. The building J.E.R.Carpenter (left) designed at 920 Fifth Avenue still exists today. In 1948, the building was converted to a cooperative containing 26 apartments, less than two or three apartments per floor. Its top floor originally contained 20 rooms for servants and the superintendent’s apartment. For many years, the duplex maisonette apartment was occupied by Gloria Swanson, the movie star.

Today, it retains its elegance with original high ceilings, a doorman, and a concierge. It remains a finely detailed Italian Renaissance-palazzo style building, a style that was a favorite of Carpenter’s and used often in his other buildings. In fact, Carpenter must have particularly liked this building’s style, because out of all the buildings that he designed, he chose to live here from 1924 until his death in 1932.


The empty lot in 1911. Palmer’s house is to the left of the picture, the intersecting street is 73rd, and to the right, Howard Gould’s empty lot (surrounded by safety fence) that was to hold the 920 Fifth Avenue apartment building. from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

920fifth ave sec4.jpeg


View from the Central Park Side of 920 Fifth Avenue as it stands today at the corner of 73rd Street and Fifth Avenue. The building to the left of the picture (outside frame) stands where the Nicholas Palmer home would have stood in Sterling’s time.