Yesterday, I was going through some collection material from the Duke family that had been transferred to the conservation lab for review and noticed an image of a very familiar-looking building. I knew I had seen it before, but I couldn’t remember where.
It turns out, I had been looking at it for several weeks. Rachel Penniman has been treating architectural drawings of the same building!
And not only that – I had seen it in real life just a few months ago. Known as the Benjamin N. Duke House, this property is located at 1009 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, just across from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had stopped by The Met after we finished our exhibit installation at the Grolier Club back in December. I stared right at it as I was leaving the museum and didn’t know what I was seeing.
Built in 1901 and designed by the firm of Welch, Smith, and Provot, the building is a splendid example of the Beaux-Arts style of architecture, rising eight stories and measuring approximately 20,000 square feet. Ownership of the property has changed hands many times over the years, but stayed in the Duke family until 2006. After Benjamin, his brother, James, lived in the house until his own residence was completed just a few blocks away in 1912. His son, Angier Buchanan Duke, then took up residence until 1919, when Mary Lillian Duke (Angier’s sister) and her husband A. J. Drexel Biddle, Jr. moved in. Later, their daughter, Mary Semans, took over ownership and you can hear her recount some memories of living there. It was designated a New York City Landmark in 1974, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Mary’s son, James, lead a renovation of the building in 1985 and you can also see him speak about the project.
The photograph and drawings that we have in the lab depict the matching limestone and red-brick facades of two other buildings along fifth avenue. Sadly, those structures have not survived.
A few years ago, the mansion received considerable attention when Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim listed it through Sotheby’s for $80 million and it became one of the most expensive public listings in New York.