Irish actors and writers sign petition against sale of historic Fifth Avenue building

American Irish Historical Society represents ‘struggles and success of Irish ancestors’

The American Irish Historical Society’s mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan that is now on sale for $52 million. Photograph: Sarah Blesener/New York Times

The American Irish Historical Society’s mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan that is now on sale for $52 million. Photograph: Sarah Blesener/New York Times

 

A much-storied mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue has gone on the market for $52 million, or more than €40 million, and its sale by the American Irish Historical Society hasn’t gone down well among the expat literati.

Number 991 Fifth Avenue is a five-storey property that many Irish-Americans consider to be the best Irish building in the United States. It wears its green quite literally on its copper-clad dormer top floor. Selling agent Paula Del Nunzio, for Brown Harris Stevens, describes the sale as akin to “acquiring the Holy Grail”.

The American Irish Historical Society’s mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan
The American Irish Historical Society’s mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan
Dining room passage
Dining room passage
Grand stairs
Grand stairs

It is not clear who benefits from its sale but Irish actors and writers believe that “like St Patrick’s Cathedral and the St Patrick’s Day Parade, this architectural jewel is a living moment to the struggles and success of our immigrant ancestors,” according to a petition to New York state attorney Letitia James signed by actor Liam Neeson, writers Malachy McCourt (brother of the late Frank McCourt), Colum McCann and poet Paul Muldoon.

Full of carved plasterwork and woodwork, marble fireplace mantles, stately columns and leaded-glass windows, if its walls could talk it would recount many swell parties. Situated across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a terrace at the top of the bow-fronted property annually hosted dignitaries to view the St Patrick’s Day parade, before the route was shortened.

The association has received hundreds of thousands of euro from the Irish taxpayer in recent years through the Emigrant Support Fund run by the Department of Foreign Affairs. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has described the proposed sale as “deeply disappointing”.

Front parlour
Front parlour
Library
Library
Trophy room
Trophy room

One of the key concerns is what might happen to its extensive library that includes the first printing of the Bible in the Irish language in 1685 and original historic letters from Robert Emmet, Patrick Pearse, Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera.

The building’s history is equally compelling. Built in 1900, it was feted architect and decorator Ogden Codman jnr who gave it the beaux-arts look in 1911. Codman, 14 years earlier, had co-authored The Decoration of Houses with Edith Wharton, before she became a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist for The Age of Innocence. The Decoration of Houses became the interior-design manual for the wealthy elite of the US and also gave rise to a whole new home decor publishing genre.