Felix Warburg House

1109 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, New York

Completed in 1908, for Felix Moritz Warburg (1871-1937) and his wife, Frieda Schiff (1876-1958). Having admired the mansion at 2 East 79th Street designed by C.P.H Gilbert in the French Gothic style of the Hôtel de Cluny in Paris, the Warburgs hired Gilbert to build them something along the same lines - just bigger, and more Gothic. Dominating the northeast corner of Fifth and 92nd, it stands 5-stories high and was built in just a year with 50-plus rooms and 52,000-square feet of living space. Having become the Jewish Museum in 1947 and home to over 30,000 artefacts spanning 4,000-years of Jewish history, it was expanded in 1963 and again seamlessly in 1993 to 82,000-square feet, making it the largest mansion left standing in Manhattan....

This house is best associated with...

Felix Moritz Warburg

Felix M. Warburg, Financier & Philanthropist, of New York


Frieda (Schiff) Warburg

Mrs Frieda "Fanny" (Schiff) Warburg


German-born Felix Warburg was a partner in Kuhn, Loeb & Co. that was then one of the most influential investment banks in New York. After the death of his father-in-law (Jacob H. Schiff), the firm was more than ably continued by Felix and "Mr Monopoly" himself, Otto Kahn. But beyond his banking prowess, Felix, "enjoyed an international reputation as a philanthropist... an indefatigable worker in the fields of charity and social welfare... his great ideal was the promotion of inter-racial and international cooperation". He was not a Zionist and opposed the creation of a Jewish state, but he strove to see Palestine become a refuge for oppressed peoples in Eastern Europe, believing it afforded, "a unique opportunity to prove that Jews and Arabs could work co-operatively together".

Mrs Frieda Warburg was the daughter of Jacob H. Schiff - who as a financier was second only to J.P. Morgan on Wall Street - and the grand-daughter of Solomon Loeb, one of the founding partners of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. On a visit to Frankfurt in Germany with her parents in 1894 she met Felix Warburg whose family bank, M.M. Warburg & Co. (founded in 1798) had close ties with the Rothschild Bank. Whereas he was gregarious and fun-loving, she was sensible with a dry wit, but after just one meeting Felix knew he had met his future wife. Despite her notoriously unamused father's initial remonstrations, the two were married in New York the following year (1895) when Felix was given a partnership in Kuhn, Loeb & Co., and five years later (1900) he was naturalized as an American.

Fanny's father bought the newly-weds a tall, elegant, understated townhouse at 18 East 72nd Street that wouldn't have looked out of place in London's west end. Four of the five Warburg children were born there, but by 1907 Felix wished for a bit more elbow room and the freedom to have a go at indulging his own architectural whims. That year, they purchased the land at the corner of Fifth and East 72nd Street from Perry Belmont.

More "Mild Disapproval" than Outright Disgust

The popular story told about this house is that Frieda's father - Jacob Schiff - vehemently disapproved of so grandiose a mansion, fearing that it would incite jealously in others that would lead to a backlash against Jews. The story was further stretched when it was said that Schiff would purposefully turn his face the other way as he passed the house on his daily perambulations along Fifth Avenue. In actual fact, Edward Warburg politely indicated that this popular legend was, "a distortion" of his grandfather's view and Schiff "voiced only mild disapproval" over the Warburg's choice of the Renaissance-Gothic style. It ought to be remembered that Schiff's own "imposing" red brick and limestone Beaux-Arts mansion at 965 Fifth Avenue was anything but inconspicuous, being, "one of the most expensive dwelling houses ever built in the city by a builder on speculation".

Bringing 15th Century Paris to New York

Felix's decision to build something in the late Gothic/early Renaissance style is generally thought to have come about through his admiration for 2 East 79th Street. But it is perhaps also worth mentioning that his elder brother back in Hamburg, Professor Aby Warburg, was a famous art historian and "a noted authority" on the Renaissance period.

In New York, the architect of the house Felix admired was C.P.H Gilbert - a native New Yorker and a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris - the same man Felix's other brother, Paul Warburg, had commissioned in 1906 to build his opulent yet more restrained mansion at 17 East 80th Street. As an architect in Gilded Age New York, Gilbert hit upon something of a recipe for success when he first borrowed several of the Gothic architectural features prevalent on the 15th Century Hôtel de Cluny in Old Paris.

Gilbert replicated Cluny's ogee-arched drip mouldings; mullioned windows with tracery; crocketed and pinnacled gables; steep-pitched slate mansard roofs; and, then further enhanced the style with copper cresting and ornate foliate roofline borders. Having built 2 East 79th Street for Isaac Fletcher in 1898, he rolled out the same style again in 1899 for Edmund Converse at 3 East 78th Street, and again in 1901 for F.W. Woolworth's chateau at 990 Fifth Avenue. Woolworth's daughter's, Helena McCann's, more modest townhouse at 4 East 80th Street - recently on the market for an anything but modest $90 million - was also built by Gilbert in what was now his signature, and highly fashionable style.

The Gothic Goliath, "Extraordinarily Elaborate..."

Work began on the new Indiana limestone mansion in 1907, and amazingly, it was finished by 1908. Although the address of the Warburg Mansion is 1109 Fifth Avenue, its main entrance is on 92nd Street - typical of many Fifth Avenue corner mansions. Less usual, was the 50-foot patch of land on its north that was not built upon, but was kept as an open lawn. Edward Warburg did not recall the family ever using the lawn, and therefore it most likely served as a "light protector" as at the Stern-Ryan House.

Felix's zest for life ensured he and Frieda's new home was a constant whirl of dinner parties, dances, and concerts - and when their only daughter, Carola, was married here in 1915 they entertained no less than 900 people! Their youngest son recalled his childhood home as, "extraordinarily elaborate: five floors going up in Gothic glories, and a stairwell running down the center of it... All this seemed to us as children rather terrifying in its formality, especially when a footman in livery answered the doorbell. So we made it a point to be at the door when any of our friends arrived, lest they flee in panic"!

Rooms of note here featured the Music Room overlooking Fifth Avenue from the second floor with the token must-have for any self-respecting Gilded millionaire - an Aeolian pipe organ. It was decorated with tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, and sculptures. The Dining Room on the same floor was likewise hung with Medieval tapestries while the conservatory of stained glass featured Botticelli's 'The Madonna and Child'. The Warburg's noted art collection was not necessarily confined to one room, but 'The Etching Room' off the entrance hall housed Felix's collection of 44-etchings and drypoints by Rembrandt with 300-Medieval German and Italian woodcuts; whereas, in an ante-room on the second floor was found what was believed to be Raphael's 'Madonna and Child with Saints' amid other paintings from the Italian Renaissance. Unfortunately, the 'Raphael' has since been proved to be, "a poorly preserved contemporary copy of the original".

The third floor contained Mr and Mrs Warburg's private rooms, where aside from having individual bedrooms, dressing rooms, and bathrooms, they each had their own sitting room, that opened on to one another. The fourth floor was for the children while the fifth floor housed an entire squash court among other rooms! The remainder of the house was for the 13-live in servants that included among them a children's nurse, and an engineer.

"Your Children Have So Many Problems... Mine Are Such Fun"

Unlike life for the children in the vast majority of Gilded Age mansions, life here for the Warburg children was fun. Felix adored his children and after returning home from a hard day on Wall Street he took no greater joy than in horsing around with his brood: installing a train that wound its way around the children’s bedrooms on the third floor.

Aside from squash, bicycle polo, and belting out scores from Gilbert & Sullivan in German, their favorite game was to lean over the bannisters and aim their spit to drop into Mrs Warburg's antique Chinese porcelain amphora in the hall - that wasn't always dry by the time it was used for its proper purpose of receiving calling cards! As Mrs Warburg chided Felix for encouraging such bad behaviour - in stark contrast to life at the Schiff Mansion - he retorted: "Frieda, why is it that your children have so many problems and mine are such fun?” However, he later conceded that had he known what kind of family he was going to have, "he never would have built so formal a house”!

The Philanthropic Nerve-Center

In relation to the Warburg family's extraordinary legacy of philanthropy, Edward Warburg recalled: "Almost everything of importance was hammered out at the meetings downstairs in the "etching room"... The meetings were centered around a big family tea table with excellent sandwiches, etc., and the banter among the children was often hilarious. Through these meetings all appeals to the family were acted upon, and even though for many years I was a "minor," my opinion was still tolerantly listened to, and as the years went by, my opinion was given more and more consideration".

Felix's obituary stated that, "few worthy causes failed to win his support and his own business affairs were at all times subordinated to his philanthropic interests". The family's combined philanthropic activities benefitted over 200-institutions and societies, and on Felix's 60th birthday in 1933, U.S. President Herbert Hoover personally thanked him for his philanthropy, "not only of distinguished value to the Jewish people, but also outstanding benefit to all, especially the children". Needless to say, the Warburg family were instrumental in raising millions to help and then extract Jews from Nazi Germany.

Perhaps it was only fitting for a man whose heart was so big, that it gave out early in 1937. Felix's funeral was attended by 2,000-people and more than a 1,000 lined the streets outside requiring 55-policeman to manage the traffic. Frieda and their remaining two unmarried children (Freddy and Edward) stayed on in the house, and in 1939, after Edward was married, Frieda and Freddy were joined by Felix's brother, Max, and his wife, daughter, and son-in-law. Max and the rest of his family had fled Nazi Germany shortly before war was declared, having remained as long as possible to help other Jews escape.

The Jewish Museum

By 1940, the chateau that once buzzed with life was now home to just Frieda and Freddy, and with taxes dizzyingly high let alone day-to-day running costs, the era of big mansion living was drawing to a close, even for New York's wealthiest families. Frieda downsized to a two-story apartment at 1070 Fifth Avenue and donated much of their valuable artwork and furnishings to various worthy institutions, perhaps most notably the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard. Felix's 44-Rembrandt etchings were included in the Warburg family's gift of 228 of his most valuable etchings and woodcuts which comprised the most important donation of its kind ever received at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1941, rumors emerged in The New York Sun that the mansion would be sold to developers and replaced by an 18-story Emery Roth-designed apartment block. This didn't happen, but neither was Frieda successful in her attempts to give the house to a museum until January, 1944, when she was able to donate it to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America as the new home of the Jewish Museum, opening its doors to the public in 1947.

It was first expanded in 1963 when a new wing replaced the lawn on the north side. The museum opposed Landmark designation in 1970, wishing to add a modern 19-story attachment that was brought to halt when Landmark status was granted in 1981. This gave rise to the flawlessly matched extension seen today, executed to perfection by Kevin Roche in 1993. There are certain night watchmen who insist the museum is haunted, but I wonder if even the ghosts can the tell the difference between the old half and the new?!

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Contributed by Mark Meredith on 11/07/2021 and last updated on 24/12/2021.
Image Courtesy of Jim.henderson Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication; Felix Warburg House, Landmarks Preservation Commission; Felix Warburg Obituary, The New York Times; A Window to the Past in the Present (1991), by Christopher Gray; Warburg Mansion by Tom Miller, Daytonian in Manhattan; Hamburg will Lose Warburg Library; Interview with Edward Warburg; Prints by Six Masters from the Warburg and Other Collections, by William M. Irvins Jr., for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York (1967) by Stephen Birmingham; Museum Gets Rare Gift of 228 Rare Prints; 


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