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59 Fifth Avenue and a Century of Philanthropic and Cultural Leaders in NYC

On July 28, 2020, Village Preservation sent a long and comprehensive letter to Sarah Carroll, chair of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, asking the agency to preserve historic 59 Fifth Avenue, as part of our proposed South of Union Square Historic District. As of yet, the LPC has taken no action on preserving the building or the full district.

That’s a shame, because 59 Fifth has a long history that weaves its way through many of our city’s most important cultural and scientific institutions. The structure was built ca. 1853 by James Lenox, the philanthropist and bibliophile whose mansion was located directly south of the building and was the home of Lenox’s noteworthy collection of books. That eventually became the Lenox Library, one of the original three entities that merged to form the New York Public Library. The building’s facade still retains much of the original 19th-century detail from when lower Fifth Avenue was perhaps the city’s most exclusive address thanks in large part to Lenox’s mansion (long since demolished).

Prominent businessman Jonathan Sturges decided to purchase the building in 1854 for his daughter, Virginia Reed Sturges Osborn, and his new son-in-law, William H. Osborn. Sturges founded and served as director of the Bank of Commerce of New York and the Illinois Central Railroad, among other businesses with which he was involved. He was also well known as a patron of the arts, developing relationships with artists such as Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and William Sidney Mount. Sturges became a leading force in promoting the arts in America, co-founding the New York Gallery of Fine Arts, the city’s first public art museum, in 1844. When the gallery folded, the collection went to the New-York Historical Society, another beneficiary of Sturges’s largesse. Sturges was also a strong supporter of the National Academy of Design, becoming one of its few nonartist members; was a founder of the pro-Union and anti-slavery Union League Club; and was involved with the planning and founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jonathan Sturges, ca. 1850s, and View near Saugerties by Asher B Durand

William H. Osborn, Sturges’s son-in-law and resident with his wife of 59 Fifth, was one of the nation’s most prominent and successful railroad tycoons. Like his father-in-law, Osborn was an influential supporter of the arts, notably through his strong relationship with renowned Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church. His collection included several key works by Church, as well as paintings by George Loring Brown, Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and others. He, too, was one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of the largest donors to the institution’s first capital campaign. Osborn also donated paintings from his own collection and funding for a collection of Egyptian antiquities to the museum.

William H. Osborn ca. 1853 and Virginia Reed Sturges Osborn

Osborn’s wife, Virginia Reed Sturges Osborn, was another great patron of the arts in the family and heavily involved in philanthropic services to aid the city’s impoverished and infirmed. She helped to establish the Bellevue Training School, opened as part of Bellevue Hospital in 1873, the first school in the nation to follow Florence Nightingale’s principles of nursing. She also served on the boards of the Society of Decorative Arts, which focused on needlework and ceramics, and of the Art Section of the 1864 New York Sanitary Fair, which raised funds to obtain medical provisions for Union troops.

Their son William Church Osborn was born in 1862 and grew up to be a counsel to corporations and railroads as well as a philanthropist, environmentalist, and patron of the arts. A longtime trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1904 to 1951 who also served as its president from 1941 to 1947, he oversaw a pivotal time for the museum in which building projects were completed, collections and staff were expanded, and practices of museum management were formalized. In 1907 he also directed a controversial acquisition: the museum’s first Impressionist piece, Renoir’s Madame Charpentier and Her Children.

William Church Osborn and Renoir’s Madame Charpentier and Her Children

In addition to his work with the Met, William served on the board of the Children’s Aid Society from 1890 to 1951 and as its president from 1901 to 1949; ran for both State Senate and governor, both unsuccessfully; and founded the Citizens Budget Commission in 1932. His accomplishments for New York’s cultural and civic life are honored with the beautiful Osborn Gates, at the entrance to the Ancient Playground just north of the museum at Fifth Avenue and 85th Street.

The Osborns left 59 Fifth Avenue by 1870, but that does not make the contributions of the New Yorkers associated with the house in its first two decades any less impactful on the everyday life of city residents for generations. In fact, the Osborns and 59 Fifth Avenue are only the tip of the iceberg of the deep legacy of philanthropy connected to this neighborhood. Such dedication to civic and cultural life can be found throughout the proposed historic district South of Union Square, and is one of many reasons why this neighborhood must be preserved.

Read the original letter to LPC on 59 Fifth Avenue here, and learn how you can help protect South of Union Square here.

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