Stuyvesant Fish House @ 19 Gramercy Park South

The house at 19 Gramercy Park South does not look like much from the outside. But do not be fooled by the modesty of the facade – a hold out from the Gilded Age era, it just might be “the Greatest Private House in New York.”

By the 1870s, the Gramercy Park neighborhood had become a very fashionable place to live. The house at 19 Gramercy Park South, built in 1845, was purchased in 1887 by Stuyvesant Fish, a prominent railroad executive and a direct descendant of Peter Stuyvesant. His wife, Mamie Fish, the most irreverent society hostess of the Gilded Age, remodeled the house to make it acceptable for lavish, elite entertainment. She poured in a substantial sum redesigning the house, with the finished product featuring a grand marble staircase and a majestic ballroom. As an added gesture of grandeur, she changed its official address from 86 Irving Place to the prestigious 19 Gramercy Park South, with complete disregard for the fact that the entrance did not face the park.

The Fishes kept court at Gramercy Park while most of their wealthy peers moved uptown. In 1898 they finally succumbed to social pressure and joined the migration with the rest of the proper Gilded Age families. They commissioned Stanford White to design a magnificent Italian palazzo at 78th Street and Madison Avenue (which is now owned by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, housing the headquarters of Bloomberg Philanthropies). But the Fishes still held on to the Gramercy Park home, leasing it out along with the adjacent apartment building.

In 1931 the Fish offspring sold the entire property to Benjamin Sonnenberg, publicist, press agent, and founder of modern public relations and advertising, who converted it back into a private residence. Connecting the original house with the apartment building resulted in a grandiose 37-room-plus mansion which once again became the center of New York elite entertainment. Benjamin Sonnenberg, who single-handedly invented the notion of corporate PR, was a fun-loving, self-styled Edwardian sporting a thick mustache, a bowler hat, and a cane.

Benjamin Sonnenberg, 12 Jul 1901 - 6 Sep 1978
Benjamin Sonnenberg, 12 Jul 1901 – 6 Sep 1978 by René Robert Bouché 1955
The Duchess of Sutherland
The Duchess of Sutherland by John Singer Sargent, 1904. It was part of the estate of press agent Benjamin Sonnenberg and was sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 1979.

An avid art collector, he filled his house with fine 18th-century furniture, brass and silver antiques, and paintings. He loved to entertain and established the Fish house, once again, as the epicenter of social activity. The famous ballroom of Mamie Fish was once again put to its original use. Sonnenberg entertained several times a week with the number of guests varying from 20 to 200. As a recipe for a successful party, he suggested that it “should consist of an archbishop, an authoress, a lady of easy virtue, a tycoon, and a Powers model.” The house had the feel of an English country home and reminded one of the setting of an Agatha Christie mystery. The grand staircase was decorated by the portrait of the “Duchess of Sutherland” by John Singer Sargent. The Fish house, which became known as the Sonnenberg Mansion, remained in Sonnenberg’s possession until his death in 1978. Brendan Gill, the New Yorker’s architecture critic, called it “the greatest private house remaining in private hands in New York.”

In 2000, after changing hands for about 20 years, the house finally came into the possession of Dr. Jarecki, who had an eye on it ever since Sonnenberg’s death. That year Henry Jarecki, psychiatrist, entrepreneur, producer, and philanthropist, bought the 37 rooms house for $16.5 million. As a part of a renovation, Dr. Jarecki hung a crystal chandelier that goes down four flights and weighs four tons. If you happen to be one of those people who never got invited to one of his parties, you can still see the chandelier through the windows if you stand across the street from the house. Alternatively, you can see a movie called Arbitrage directed by his son Nicholas Jarecki, which uses the 19 Gramercy interior as a set. The interior of the house could be observed when Richard Gere, who plays a powerful financial type in a whole lot of trouble, periodically comes home for family time.

20 years later, it remains a private house and in the same hands. It might or might not be “the greatest private house in New York” anymore, but one thing is certain: it is one spectacular home!

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating story! Super fun read.

    Liked by 1 person

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