(By Mitch Kahn)
While the Club undergoes several major internal reconstructive surgeries in anticipation of its 2017 centenary at 47 Fifth Avenue, this is as good a time as any to look back at a few of the external facelifts that have taken place during the 161 years since this double-wide wood frame townhouse was built for Pennsylvania Coal Company President Irad Hawley and his wife Sarah in 1853.
The side facing the avenue is ornamental, not structural. Brownstone was used for all the original Italianate style features including facade, balconies, staircase and balustrades. Not the strongest or longest lived of building materials, over time all of these elements would have to be refaced or replaced.
In an online game of “Photo Hunt” we’ll try to put together a “what and when timeline” of the changes.
Let’s start with an image (top left) that comes from a 1911 collection called “Fifth Avenue, New York, From Start to Finish”. This book is a highly revered compendium of panoramic photographs of Fifth Avenue. At a mere 58 years of age, and not yet in the Club’s possession, Number 47 appears in all its (original) brownstone glory. Note the absence of gas lamps. They came much later.
The staircase and its balustrades would be among the first to vanish. A side-by-side closeup comparison (above) of the 1911 image to Berenice Abbott’s classic 1937 photograph shows the stone replaced by, or encased in, a more imposing poured concrete superstructure (which is still with us today). The banisters are polished brass (those are no longer with us).
Another photo (below) from roughly the same time period offers a wider view of this same renovation.
Not only has the stoop been altered but the facade as well. The front wall is clad in a brown colored stucco with a cinderblock pattern chased into it. The triangular parlor floor pediments, stone balconies and other balustrades have been left in place, but the second and third floor window embellishments are greatly subdued. Our gas lamps have yet to sprout.
By 1960 (above), the triangular window pediments on the parlor floor have been exchanged for linear ones.
This was not a total facade redux since ghosts of the former triangles can be seen above the windows (above and right). A closer inspection reveals that the balconies are now concrete and the stone balustrades, so prominent in Berenice Abbott’s photo, have turned into wrought iron. Our now-ubiquitous gas lamps have been planted in the garden, perhaps in exchange for the lost stonework, thus completing the transition.
In the early 1990s, following numerous cycles of theft and replacement, our polished brass banisters were reluctantly switched to wrought iron too. The last pair were taken just two weeks after being installed. On their final visit, the thieves, eyeing new black banisters, scratched the ends just to be sure we weren’t concealing more brass with a layer of paint.
In 1996, following decades of deterioration, interim refacings and stopgap repairs, and with a scaffolding shed many thought was permanently installed over the sidewalk to protect passersby from falling chunks of stucco and a badly sagging cornice aching to let go, Larry Burda, a NYC restoration contractor specializing in historic and landmarked brownstone properties, was engaged to totally strip the front of the house and bring it back to a more cohesive look.
This current (1997) iteration (pictured above) restores more prominent lintels to the upper floor windows. On the parlor floor, it was decided that in the absence of the elaborate stone balustrades, linear window lintels would be preferable to the heavy triangles. Other non-structural elements replaced during this update include the roofline cornice and decorative covers for the cantilevered balcony support beams. Irad and Sarah Hawley’s home is more consistent in appearance now than it had been over the preceding 75 years.
Current restoration efforts have turned inward, with repairs and upgrades planned for rooms, hallways, floors and galleries. Less obvious but even more critical are the building’s aging mechanical systems which are also being overhauled – all this in preparation for Salmagundi’s 100th anniversary as custodian of the extraordinary house at Number 47.