Beyond the Village and Back: Ukrainian Institute of America
In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to our neighborhoods.
On the corner of East 79th Street and 5th Avenue stands a 19th-century chateau that wouldn’t be out of place in the Loire Valley, yet seems just as comfortable on the Upper East Side. It’s been home to the Ukrainian Institute of America for nearly seven decades, but thanks to its previous inhabitants, this historic structure also holds an interesting connection with the early days of Greenwich Village and New York City.
Also known as both the Fletcher Mansion and the Harry F. Sinclair House at various points in its history, 2 East 79th Street is located at the southern end of the Metropolitan Museum Historic District. In 1897, banker and railroad investor Isaac Fletcher hired architect C.P.H. Gilbert — well-known for his regal home designs in both Manhattan and Brooklyn — to craft his chateau, allegedly to rival William K. Vanderbilt’s ornate 660 Fifth Avenue. The result two years later was a distinctive residence in the picturesque Francois I style of the French Renaissance, one of several similarly built in the neighborhood; only the Fletcher Mansion survives to this day.
The five-story-tall building commands the attention at the prominent corner, thanks to richly carved ornamentation with plenty of gargoyles inspired by the late Gothic and early French Renaissance periods, its towering slate roof, and a picturesque silhouette. The detailed and asymmetrical front on East 79th Street contrasts with the more sedate and symmetrical 5th Avenue facade, creating a nice balance with the mansion’s neighbors.
“Despite the harmony with its neighbors the building never compromises its assertive individuality in its rich ornamentation, picturesque composition, and elegant detaiI,” the Landmarks Preservation Commission wrote in its 1977 designation report for the surrounding historic district. “It is one of the finest extant examples of the Francois I style which was once so popular along Fifth Avenue that it became known as the ‘Fifth Avenue styIe.’ Like any chateau, the Fletcher mansion bespeaks the elegant Iiving for which it was designed.”
Fletcher passed away in 1917, leaving the house and art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum soon sold the home to Harry F. Sinclair, who founded one of the largest oil companies of the period, the Sinclair Oil Corporation. Owner of the old St. Louis Browns baseball team for a time and of the 1923 winner of the Kentucky Derby, he also made his mark in history due to his involvement in Teapot Dome, a bribery scandal involving the administration of President Warren G. Harding in the early 1920s. Sinclair kept the house until 1930.
In 1955, Ukrainian industrialist and philanthropist Willam Dzus purchased the building and made it the new home of the Ukrainian Institute of America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the art, music and literature of Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora. The purchase effectively saved the mansion from demolition, and since then the institute has maintained and modernized the building — which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 — while it has hosted an array of art exhibits, concerts, film screenings, poetry readings, and more programs open to the public.
So what’s the connection? It’s the 25-year ownership of the building between Sinclair and the Ukrainian Institute by Augustus and Anne Van Horn Stuyvesant, brother and sister who were descendants of Peter Stuyvesant, the final Dutch governor of New Netherlands who in the mid-17th century owned much of the land that would eventually become the East Village, and whose personal chapel would grow into St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery on 10th Street and 2nd Avenue.
The Stuyvesants purchased the house from Sinclair in 1930. Anne passed away in 1938, but Augustus remained in the mansion for another 15 years, living “lonely, secluded, and without occupation” until his death in 1953 at the age of 83. Augustus was the seventh lineal and last direct descendant of Peter Stuyvesant; as the Times noted in its obituary, only cousins remained. Augustus would often visit St. Mark’s: “Frequently in the last ten years, the staff would see the quiet, elderly man in black wandering in the churchyard, reading the inscriptions on the tombstones or sitting in the Stuyvesant family pew in the silent church.”
Augustus Stuyvesant was buried in the family’s marble vault under St. Mark’s with more than 80 of his kin stretching over eight generations. And while the lineage ended, an ornate piece of the family’s history remains at the corner of 5th and 79th.
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