Ward is interested in all things travel and runs the Castles in America website. He's also currently working on a fantasy novel.
New York City wasn’t always a concrete jungle. Back in the 19th century, areas north of 52nd street had pastoral qualities like farms, dirt roads, and shantytowns, while goats, cows, and pigs were regular sights in upper Manhattan in those days. During the latter half of the 20th century, as the city expanded, the nouveau riche of robber barons, railroad tycoons, and Wall Street financiers flocked to Fifth Avenue, still known today as Millionaire’s Row, building mansion after ostentatious mansion. We look back at them fondly today but back then newspapers derided these new homes and the families that built them as gaudy and unrefined. The Dramatic Mirror harped, “The Goulds and the Vanderbilts and people of that ilk perfumed the air with the odor of crisp greenbacks.” There was one other “issue” some of these nouveau riche families had. They were Jews.
One such family was the Warburgs. Felix M. Warburg, a scion of a Jewish banking clan back in his native Hamburg, Germany, built the Warburg House on 92nd Street and Fifth Avenue, a French Gothic style chateau, and even by today’s standards, it can be rightfully called a mega mansion. At 82,000 square feet (originally 52,000 square feet), it still holds the title as the largest mansion in Manhattan beating out the homes of the Carnegies, the Dukes — owners of the Duke Power Company, the Fletchers, the Harknesses who founded Standard Oil, and the Vanderbilts. Patterned after the Hotel de Cluny in Paris, the exterior of this Gilded Age mega-home is clad in Indiana limestone with slate mansard roofing. Other embellishments include ogee-arched windows, drip mouldings, crossed gables, spires, pinnacles, and one other luxury in an urban city, a 50 ft. urban side lawn. Jacob Schiff, worried that the new house his son in law, Felix Warburg, was building was too ostentatious and could invite Anti-Semitic criticism especially when Andrew Carnegie’s more subdued home was only a block away.
Nevertheless, Felix and his wife Frieda pressed on (the hurt Jacob Schiff turned his head away as protest during construction). The Warburgs couldn’t be swayed as they really took to the Francois I style of Gothic architecture, and they completed their mega-home in 1906 moving in with their five children. The inside of their six story mega mansion housed the children’s rooms on the fourth floor, guest bedrooms on the fifth floor, the master bedroom, a music room complete with Aeolian pipe organ where families in those days before Spotify used to sit together and play music, the wife’s boudoir and dressing room, a squash court, an entryway with grand staircase, and a conservatory.
The main highlight of the Warburg House had to be the art collection. Rare manuscripts, Old Master prints, and medieval tapestries were proudly displayed, the latter in the dining room. In fact, there was a small gallery on the first floor. Most impressively, Warburg’s collection included Botticelli’s, Raphael’s, and Rembrandt’s in his mega mansion.
The priceless works of art didn’t detract from the Warburg House being a family home. Felix doted on his five children playing squash with them and bought them a train set that ran throughout the children’s fourth floor. Thirteen servants lived with them including a nurse and engineer peopling the tens of thousands of square feet home.
Felix Warburg, by then known more for his philanthropy, died in 1937, and his wife Frieda lived at the home until 1947 when she donated the Warburg House to the Jewish Theological Seminary to create the Jewish Museum. Additions were added in 1963 and again in 1993 enlarging the mega-home turned museum to its current 82,000 square feet. Looking at it, the additions, which also built on the side lawn, seem to be so seamless the Warburg House seemed to have always looked that way.
Inside the Warburg House today, the Jewish Museum, now in a part of the city called Museum Mile, documents the achievements of Jewish art, life, and culture. Works from Adolph Gottlieb, Eva Hesse, and Man Ray are proudly displayed in the Museum’s art galleries. Ancient artifacts from Israel and the ancient world as well as exhibitions featuring notable Jews also find their home in the Jewish Museum with both permanent collections like a priceless Torah Ark and temporary exhibitions like one honoring Harry Houdini as features to visitors.
Today, most of the Millionaire’s Row castle-like mansions long met the wrecking ball and turned to equally beloved pre-war apartment buildings. The Warburg House avoided that fate and the Jewish Museum it houses now makes it open to every New Yorker and visitor to the Big Apple. And its old neighbor, Andrew Carnegie’s home, is still there too, still one block away.