Also known as the Brokaw Houses and Brokaw Mansions
The demolition of the Brokaw Mansion played a significant role in advancing landmarks legislation in New York City.
The Brokaw Mansion was built in 1887-1890 by Rose and Stone for Isaac Vail Brokaw, a well known multimillionaire who earned his fortune as a clothing manufacturer. Located at 1 East 79th Street, on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue, the residence sat on the 50-block stretch of Fifth Avenue facing Central Park, an area known as “millionaire’s row.”1 This stretch included more than 70 large, magnificent mansions that were constructed along the east side of Fifth Avenue during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Brokaw Mansion was modeled after the 16th century Chateau Chenonceaux in France’s Loire Valley, which was built by Thomas Bohier between 1513 and 1532.
The house’s interior was a blend of Italian and French architectural features. The lavish entrance hall boasted Italian marble and mosaics, decorated with ornate carvings. The foyer was illuminated by light that came through stained glass windows during the day, and an electric globe by night. The mansion had four stories as well as an attic, basement, and sub-basement. The rooms inside the mansion were unusually large for its time, and the ceilings were lined with stone and wood. All of the woodwork inside the house was decoratively carved, and large murals lined the walls. In its earlier days the mansion even had its own moat, however, Brokaw had it enclosed with a stone wall after a runaway horse fell into it. The mansion was run with a minimum staff of seven, but under full operating conditions the household also included a butler, two footmen, a parlor maid, a chambermaid, two cooks, a personal maid, a houseman, and a helper.2
Brokaw also constructed houses adjacent to his own, to be occupied by his children. To the east of the primary Brokaw Mansion sat 7 East 79th Street, a building that Brokaw designed in “a more chaste and classical manner,” as a wedding gift for his daughter Elvira.3 In 1905, Brokaw built twin Gothic houses at 984 and 985 Fifth Avenue for his sons Howard and Irving, respectively. Charles F. Rose, the man who had designed Isaac’s château, also designed the twin houses. This complex of houses is why the site is sometimes referred to in the plural form (i.e. Brokaw Mansions). Isaac Brokaw deeded his mansion to his wife upon his death, and when she passed away the house came into the possession of their eldest son, George. The Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) purchased 1 East 79th Street in 1946 and then acquired two more of Brokaw’s houses in later years (7 East 79th Street in 1954 and 984 Fifth Avenue in 1961). The IRE used each of the mansion’s four floors as office space. Then, in the early 1960s, the Institute of Radio Engineers merged with the American Institute of Electrical Engineers to form the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
The IEEE sold the properties in 1963. The new owners, the Campagna Construction Corporation, demolished the buildings in February of 1965. The fate of these distinguished houses played a major role in advancing prospective landmarks legislation.4
September 17, 1964: Brokaw Mansions announced to be demolished
February 1965: Brokaw Mansions demolished
The demolition of the Brokaw Mansion, which began in February of 1965, played a significant role in advancing landmarks legislation for New York City. On September 23, 1962, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (a 12-member committee originated by Mayor Robert F. Wagner on April 21, 1962) recognized these structures as landmark buildings. However, with no legislation to back up the Commission's authority, its designation meant very little. On September 17, 1964, the press released the news that the Brokaw Mansion, along with two adjoining mansions, were going to be torn down.5 In an ironic sequence of events, a day before the Brokaw crisis became public, Mayor Wagner announced that September 28 through October 4 would be "American Landmarks Preservation Week" in New York City. These two coinciding events created the media frenzy that was needed to further the advancement of landmarks legislation.6
The press paid a great deal of attention to the issue. The New York Times published an article that emphasized the related threat to all of New York's landmarks.7 The New York Herald Tribune published an article entitled "The Wreckers at Work."8 On December 10, 1964, a photograph of the Brokaw Mansion appeared in the New York Daily News with a caption that read, "Going going?"9 Additionally, a slew of editorials demanding a landmarks law resulted.10
City organizations also paid attention to the issue. Representatives from the Municipal Art Society, the American Institute of Architects, the Architectural League, and the Fine Arts Federation, took advantage of the convenient conjunction of events. Consequently, they sent a telegram to Mayor Wagner reinforcing that, "This will be an opportunity to make final arrangements for making effective the legislation which was previously presented for your approval," noting that "such legislation may prevent the impending demolition of the mansions at Fifth Avenue and 79th Street whose character has been gracing our city for two generations."11
News of the impending destruction of these architectural treasures evoked enthusiastic oppositional fervor from the public as well. On September 26, 1964, 125 people gathered to rally in front of the mansions. Noted politicians such as Ed Koch spoke at this rally to save the Brokaw Houses.12 However, in spite of the best efforts of preservation campaigns, demolition scaffolding went up on February 5, 1965. On February 6, 1965, Associated Wreckers began demolishing the mansions. The new owner was the Campagna Construction Corporation, and they pressured the wreckers to move quickly. Senior member and founder of Campagna Construction Corporation, Anthony Campagna, explained the logical need for swift movement. He said that with all of the adverse publicity and objection to the demolition, there was an obvious need for self-defense.13
On February 8, 1965 the New York Times published "Rape of the Brokaw Mansion," a scathing editorial by Ada Louise Huxtable. Huxtable denounced the demolition of the Brokaw Mansion, and called it "one of a group of gracious and distinguished structures of superior quality in a setting of rare elegance." A 26-story cooperative apartment building was built on the historic site in 1966.14 The threat to the Brokaw Mansion helped move the draft version of the landmarks legislation off of Mayor Wagner's desk and into the City Council. The legislation was presented in a public hearing in December of 1964. The actual demolition of the Brokaw Houses helped move the landmarks legislation out of the City Council Committee that was reviewing it, to a vote by the Council, and ultimately to the Mayor to be signed into law.15
- History courtesy of the IEEE Power Engineering Society
- “The Disappearing Landmarks,” New York Times, 18 September 1964.
- Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2007), page 333.
- “Rape of the Brokaw Mansion,” New York Times, 8 February 1965.
- “The Wreckers at Work,” New York Herald Tribune, 21 September 1964.
- “Going… going?” New York Daily News, 10 December 1964.
- Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2007), page 350.
- Copy of text of telegram on Municipal Art Society letterhead, 17 September 1964.
- “Rally at the Brokaw,” Park East News, 1 October 1964.
- Ada Louise Huxtable, “New York’s Architectural Follies,” New York Times, 14 February 1965.
- History courtesy of the IEEE Power Engineering Society
- Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2007), page 336.