Hearst's Clarendon

137 Riverside Drive, New York City

Completed in 1907, "The Clarendon," on the Upper West Side at the corner of 86th Street is a 12-story full service co-op designed by Charles E. Birge and developed by Ranald H. MacDonald. In 1908, William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), the media magnate best associated with Hearst Castle in California, negotiated with MacDonald to have the top three floors amalgamated into one 30-room apartment (three times the size of any of its neighbors) for which he would pay $24,000 a year in rent. In 1913, what would become Hearst Castle was still just a modest bunglalow, and by then Hearst's collection of art and antiques had already outgrown his Manhattan triplex....

This house is best associated with...

William Randolph Hearst

William Randolph Hearst, Newspaper & Media Magnate of California

1863-1951

Millicent Veronica Willson

Mrs Millicent (Willson) Hearst

1882-1974

Hearst had an insatiable appetite for art and antiques, and though dealers such as Charles Duveen grimaced at his lack of taste, they could not ignore his deep pockets. Hearst made it a daily habit to pour over the sales catalogues that came through his door displaying pages of treasures salvaged from various ruinous, crumbling piles across Europe. His purchases - that on one occasion included an entire 11th Century Spanish monastery taken down brick-by-brick - were shipped over to his 5-story warehouse maintained by a staff of 30 at 387 Southern Boulevard in the Bronx. Occupying a whole city block, it is still packed full of treasures, still owned by the Hearst Corporation, but closed to researchers.

Before he started work on Hearst Castle in 1919, his 'apartment' at The Clarendon was both a home where he and his wife loved to entertain as he still vied for political power, but most of all it was a shrine to his treasures. In 1913, having picked up a Medieval tapestry of castle-size proportions that he was particularly pleased with, Hearst asked for permission to raise his ceilings in order to accommodate his new acquisition. MacDonald refused, but no matter: Hearst promptly slapped down $950,000 and bought the whole block! He then took over the two floors beneath him and created a 5-story home - as lofty as any castle - that immediately became the largest apartment in New York City.

Manhattan's 5-Story Hidden Castle

The original architect, Charles Birge, made the necessary alterations which included remodelling the roof to allow the top two floors to be bathed in natural light. The most impressive room was the Gothic Hall/Banquet Hall, that rose up a full three stories to a stone vaulted cathedral-esque ceiling complete with stained glass windows and gargoyles. The walls were draped in huge Medieval tapestries and the 100-foot long room was lined either side by a small army of armored suits from various periods and places. Other rooms included the Georgian Dining Room, the French Empire Bedroom, and the "South Library," panelled in Tudor and Jacobean oak under a magnificently sculpted plaster ceiling that featured a fireplace dated 1597 with carved figures of Julius Caesar and Augustus removed from what had been the "Oak Parlour" at Gwydir Castle in Wales.

The Press Baron who Ran from the Press

From 1919, Hearst's attentions switched from his cameo castle in New York to his Californian colossus, Hearst Castle; and, his eye also veered from his wife of sixteen years - a former Vaudeville actress 18-years his junior - to his mistress, a Broadway actress 34-years his junior. Life in New York had become slightly claustrophobic for the press baron when two frequent visitors to The Clarendon during World War I were unmasked as German spies and he was hauled up to the Senate to explain himself. During the proceedings, it transpired that he'd had a bridge built between The Clarendon and 'The Netherlands' next door to avoid hostile journalists, lawyers and debt collectors!

Keeping Up Appearances

Hearst and his mistress, Marion, retreated to San Simeon while Mrs Hearst put a brave face on and kept up appearances in New York. Her husband may have placed her on the shelf, but society had not and her parties (which her husband occasionally came up to attend) still attracted a stream of Royalty and the leading lights in society. By 1929, she had officially separated from her husband (they were never divorced) but her position in society remained unchanged, reflected by a party she hosted for Sir Winston Churchill: "Dinner was served at a long flower-banked table in the Tapestry Room, and later there was dancing in the gallery (to Rudy Valle's orchestra). During the evening a specially arranged motion picture news reel was shown, its various flashes depicting some of the guests at important events in the past." Those in attendance included the Vanderbilts, Oelrichs, Astors, Goulds etc. Another frequent guest in the 1930s was Eleanor Roosevelt.

Coming Back to Earth

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw the Hearst empire crumble and by 1937 the Hearst Corporation was reorganized by court mandate. In 1938 the Mutual Life Insurance Company foreclosed on the Clarendon and took ownership. In 1940, they gutted the building from top to bottom and whereas before there had typically been two luxuriously spacious apartments per floor, there were now five to a floor. The lobby was redesigned and a penthouse studio was put in place of what had been the Hearst's skylight floor.

Harking Back to its Heyday

In 1994, a new tenant was given the green light to convert the top three floors into something reminiscent of the space Hearst once called home. Completed in 1997 by architects Siris Coombs, the new triplex enjoys 7,000-square feet of living space plus a further 10,000-square feet of outdoor space. While a handful of original elements remain from the Hearst era (eg., the 15th century stained glass windows), it is otherwise its own creation and not - as is often bandied around - "William Randolph Hearst's Old Penthouse". In 2014, it was for sale at $38 million and sold 2-years later for $20 million.

Webinar: August 6th 2021

If you enjoyed this and would like to know more, join me this Friday - August 6th - for my webinar hosted by the New York Adventure Club on which we’ll take a rollercoaster ride through the never dull life of William Randolph Hearst told through his six mind-boggling castles: The Castles of William Randolph Hearst: America’s Publishing King.

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