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Pyne-Davison Row

Also known as Pyne Davison Blockfront, Percy Pyne Houses, and Rich Man's Row

The Pyne-Davison Row, a group of architecturally-noteworthy houses on Park Avenue, narrowly escaped the wrecking ball in the 1960s, underlining the need for landmarks legislation in New York City.

Location: Park Avenue and East 68th Street, New York, NY  |  Google Maps
People: Ada Louise Huxtable, Nikita Kruschchev, Percy Rivington Pyne, Sigmund Sommer, Margaret Rockefeller Strong (Marquesa de Cuevas), James Grote Van Derpool
Organizations: American Foundation on Automation and Employment, Inc., American Institute of Architects, Center for Inter-American Relations, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Above: Pyne-Davison Row with demoliton scaffolding; Courtesy of Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times)

Pyne-Davison Row, located on Park Avenue between East 68th and East 69th Streets, boasts four neo-Georgian mansions built between the years 1909 and 1926. McKim, Mead & White designed two of these mansions and the other two were by Delano & Aldrich, and Walker & Gillette.1 680 Park Avenue, which was completed in 1909, was designed by McKim, Mead & White, for Percy Rivington Pyne, a wealthy banker from an old New York family. The central doorway has a porch that supports a wrought iron balcony, which provided a platform for a press conference with Nikita Kruschchev when he stayed there to visit the United Nations in 1960.2

Pyne-Davison Row is designated a New York City Landmark.

December 1964: While New York City’s proposed landmark-preservation legislation awaited action by the City Council, apartment house builders makes plans to demolish a chunk of the Pyne-Davison Row block front on Park Avenue. The Landmarks Preservation Commission (operating prior to the passing of the Landmarks Law) designated Pyne-Davison Row as worthy of preservation at this time.

January 1965: After the interior demolition of 680 and 684 Park Avenue in Pyne-Davison Row had already begun, an unidentified New Yorker purchases the mansions, along with an adjacent house located at 49 East 68th Street

January 14, 1965: The New York Times reveals that the anonymous purchase of the Pyne-Davison Row mansions had been made by the Marquesa de Cuevas, the former Margaret Rockefeller Strong, granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller. Her purchase halted the demolition work on the Pyne-Davison Row mansions.

January 1966: The Marquesa donates 680 Park Avenue in the Pyne-Davison Row to the Center for Inter-American Relations, an organization designed to "stimulate a wider and deeper understanding in the United States of the social, economic and cultural matters affecting Latin America"

1967: The house located at 49 East 68th Street in the Pyne-Davison Row was sold to the American Foundation on Automation and Employment, Inc. The sale stipulated that the building's exterior could not be changed in any way.

In December of 1964, while New York City’s proposed landmark-preservation legislation awaited action by the City Council, apartment house builders made plans to demolish a chunk of a Park Avenue block front. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, operating prior to the passing of the Landmarks Law, designated Pyne-Davison Row as worthy of preservation; however, prior to 1965, the Commission lacked legal authority to protect the structures.3

In 1965, James Grote Van Derpool, executive director of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission called these houses:

"one of the finest residential blockfronts of the period in the entire country."4

Apartment house builders planned to raze two of the four mansions on Pyne-Davison Row.5 One of the mansions, 680 Park Avenue, was formerly occupied by the Soviet Government, who sold it to Sommer Brothers Realty and Construction Company, along with a smaller house around the corner at 49 East 68th Street. The second house to be razed, 684 Park Avenue, was formerly occupied by the Institute of Public Administration.6 In January of 1965, after the interior demolition of 680 and 684 Park Avenue had already begun, an unidentified New Yorker purchased the mansions, along with the adjacent house located at 49 East 68th Street. The purchase freed the houses from the hands of real estate developer Sigmund Sommer, for a price of $2 million.7

On January 14, 1965, The New York Times revealed that the anonymous purchase had been made by the Marquesa de Cuevas, the former Margaret Rockefeller Strong, granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller. Her purchase halted the demolition work. Shortly after the purchase, the Marquesa announced that she intended to give the houses to the City, to be used for cultural purposes.8 (For financial reasons, the Marquesa only donated 680 Park Avenue. She sold the other two houses.)

In January of 1966, the Marquesa donated 680 Park Avenue to the Center for Inter-American Relations, an organization designed to "stimulate a wider and deeper understanding in the United States of the social, economic and cultural matters affecting Latin America."9 The house located at 49 East 68th Street was sold to the American Foundation on Automation and Employment, Inc. The sale stipulated that the building's exterior could not be changed in any way.10

As of January 1967, The Spanish Institute was in negotiations to purchase 684 Park Avenue from the Marquesa.11

The threat to and near demolition of these significant structures highlighted the urgent need for a New York City Landmarks Law, and reinforced the Commission's lack of legal authority. After the incident with Pyne-Davison Row, the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects pointed out that if the City Council would pass the Landmarks Preservation Bill, then the City could act in the interests of its citizens.12

On January 8, 1965, The New York Times published an editorial by architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable emphasizing that in spite of the miraculous survival of the Percy-Pyne Houses, the threat to landmark buildings continued as long as New York lacked landmark protection legislation.13

  1. Gregory F. Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1994), page 373.
  2. 
Thomas W. Ennis, “Park Avenue to Lose Landmark Homes,” The New York Times, 18 December 1964.
  3. 
Ada Louise Huxtable, “Low Bid Gets Park Avenue Home On Promise Not to Rip it Down,” The New York Times, 28 February 1964.
  4. 
”The Case of the Munificent Marchesa,” Progressive Architecture 46 (February 1965): page 54.
  5. 
Thomas W. Ennis, “Park Avenue to Lose Landmark Homes,” The New York Times, 18 December 1964.
  6. 
Ibid.
  7. 
Thomas W. Ennis, “2 Park Avenue Landmarks Saved from Razing,” The New York Times, 6 January 1965.
  8. 
Thomas W. Ennis, “Marquesa Saved 2 Landmarks,” The New York Times, 14 January 1965.
  9. 
Thomas W. Ennis, “Landmark House Given to Center,” The New York Times, 4 January 1966.
  10. 
Thomas W. Ennis, “Marquesa Sells 68th St. Mansion,” The New York Times, 30 January 1967.
  11. Ibid.
  12. 

”The Case of the Munificent Marchesa,” Progressive Architecture 46 (February 1965): page 54.
  13. Ada Louise Huxtable, “Miracle on 68th Street,” The New York Times, 8 January 1965.