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The Preservationist’s Progress: Mark Twain and 21 Fifth Avenue

With good reason, Missouri and Connecticut like to claim the great writer Samuel L. Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, as one of their own. But New Yorkers like to claim Twain as well, and there’s plenty of cause to do so. He did have a love/hate relationship with the city, and lived here often. When he did, he liked to live in Greenwich Village. It’s a crying shame then that his most significant residence here, and a building that was indeed one of New York City’s most beautiful and storied, was razed in the years just prior to the formation of the Landmark Preservation Commission and the subsequent designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District.

21 Fifth Avenue began its life as a gorgeous single-family townhouse designed by the celebrated architect James Renwick, Jr. for his parents, Margaret Ann Renwick and James Renwick, Sr.  The couple had been deeded the land by Henrik Brevoort, Margaret Ann’s father. The parcel was situated on the Brevoort farm, which had been in that family since 1667.

21 Fifth Avenue before its destruction. Photo from Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive

In 1850, Renwick, Jr. was asked to design his parents’ home, which was only a few blocks away from Grace Church, the Gothic Revival masterpiece he designed at Broadway and 10th Street and completed in 1851.

The stunning townhouse at 21 Fifth Avenue, at the corner of East 9th Street, was designed in the Romanesque Revival style and was referred to in the Greenwich Village Historic District designation report as “one of the most architecturally notable houses in all New York.” 

The Renwick/Brevoort family had left the home by 1876 and its occupants thereafter were many and varied.  But in 1904, its most celebrated resident was to move into the building, which he had leased from the family.

Mark Twain with his daughter, Clara Clemens

Mark Twain and his family had been living mostly abroad for several years, from 1891 until 1902.  He had already become quite famous by then, but had found himself in financial trouble after a poor investment in a publishing firm. So the family accompanied him to Europe where he undertook an “around the world” lecture tour in order to pay off debts. They lived in various temporary accommodations while Twain lectured and wrote.  Finally forced to declare bankruptcy in the mid-1890s, Twain’s wife Olivia was given “preferred creditor” status, and all copyrights of his works were assigned to her. These measures ultimately saved the family’s financial future.

Olivia Clemens was never a particularly healthy person, and the travel and stress eventually took its toll on her.  Her health began worsening, and by the end of 1903, doctors’ advice led the Clemens family to move to Italy for the warm climate; they resided in a villa outside of Florence.  Olivia died of heart failure in June of 1904 and Twain was devastated by her death.

Upon her death, Twain and their daughter Clara returned to the United States.  His fortunes having risen once again while on tour, Twain decided to alight in Manhattan.  On August 18th of 1904, The New York Times reported that “Samuel L. Clemens, ‘Mark Twain,’ has taken a lease of the four-story brick and stone dwelling,”  the building at 21 Fifth Avenue. 

The mansion took approximately 1 year of refurbishing and decorating, a task undertaken by Clara Clemens herself. 

Albert Paine, Clemens’ biographer, was a frequent visitor to the house. Paine wrote “The house at 21 Fifth Avenue, built by the architect who had designed Grace Church, had a distinctly ecclesiastical suggestion about its windows and was of fine and stately proportions within.  It was a proper residence for a venerable author and a sage, and with the handsome Hartford furnishings distributed through it, made a distinctly suitable setting for Mark Twain.”

Twain was to reside at 21 Fifth Avenue for approximately 4 years, until 1908.  He purchased a large parcel of land in Redding, CT in 1907 and, once the home on that property was finished, he moved from 21 Fifth Avenue to Connecticut and resided there until his death in 1910.

Moving men at 21 Fifth Avenue. Photo from Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive

But that is certainly not the end of the story for 21 Fifth Avenue. The building was to remain in the Renwick/Brevoort family for over 82 years. But in July of 1933, the house was sold in foreclosure proceedings. 

Interior of 21 Fifth Avenue. Photo from Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive

From then on, the building had a very rocky path. Finally, in 1954, developers planned to tear down the structure and replace it with an apartment building. Local activists took umbrage with the plan and launched a campaign to raise $70,000 to move the structure to another site and open it as a museum.

At the time, a significant and compelling letter in support of saving the building was written by Mr. George L. Hellman of Monsey, NY, who wrote to the New York Herald Tribune:

  “In your January 16 issue there was an excellent article on the Mark Twain house at Fifth Ave. and Ninth St., which the Greenwich Village Chamber of Commerce is seeking to save from destruction.  Even so, the writer of the article did not sufficiently emphasize the importance of preserving a building which has no counterpart in America and whose destruction would be another disgrace to our city.

It is the only house where two of our most famous authors lived — Mark Twain for some years, and Washington Irving when, frequently he visited New York, coming in from Irvington.  Designed by Irving’s friend, James Renwick, the architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, it has architectural importance as our city’s finest extant example of a Romanesque private residence in a style much in favor over a century ago. Thus it has artistic significance as well as unique association interest in connection with American literature.

The building should become a little museum to which, doubtless, items relating to Irving and Mark Twain, and New York City itself, would be given or loaned by book and print collectors and others.  It may well be believed that the bronze tablet with portraits of the two authors, recently seized by one of their possibly over-enthusiastic admirers, would then be restored.

New York, too often thought of as too greatly absorbed in financial and commercial success, would hardly rise in the esteem of Europe if we permitted the destruction of the home of two of our greatest authors who were among the first to achieve European fame; and we would have good reason to think less of ourselves and our civilization.”

Sadly, the unthinkable came to pass and the fight to save the building was lost. Despite the beauty of its architecture and its link to famous figures, 21 Fifth Avenue – along with its four townhouse neighbors and the famous Hotel Brevoort to the south – was razed to make way for the fourteen-story apartment building at 11 Fifth Avenue, known as the Brevoort. Paired with the Brevoort East, the apartment complex occupies the full city block bounded by Fifth Avenue, East 8th Street, University Place, and East 9th Street.

The LPC, a charter-mandated New York City commission, was created in 1965 in response to the losses of historically significant buildings in New York City, most notably, Pennsylvania Station, and, of course, 21 Fifth Avenue. It is only a shame that the commission was formed too late to save such beautiful and historically significant structures.

Village Preservation works every day to ensure that historic buildings such as 21 Fifth Avenue are saved from the wrecking ball. We endeavor to protect and preserve them so that future generations will always remember the impact of the neighborhood’s history, and be able to enjoy its architecture, scale, and sense of place.

Most of the images of the Mark Twain house in this post, and many, many more, can be found in our extensive Historic Image Archive.

Please join us in our mission by donating to Village Preservation today!

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