Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sister Parish at 960 Fifth Avenue

Mrs. Henry Parish, 2nd, known as "Sister".

The Devoted Classicist has received a number of inquiries and comments on the recently-offered-for-sale former apartment of Mrs. Henry Parish, 2nd, the legendary decorator Sister Parish, founding partner of Parish-Hadley Associates, my former employer.  There have been several newspaper articles and numerous blog postings on the subject, but all are filled with inaccuracies.  Hopefully, this essay will answer those questions about the idiosyncrasies of the apartment.
The residence of William A. Clark formerly occupied the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 77th Street before being demolished for the construction of the apartment building 960 Fifth Avenue.

The prestigious Manhattan co-op apartment building known by its address 960 Fifth Avenue was completed in 1928 and designed by Rosario Candela in association with Warren & Wetmore, Cross & Cross architects, and Mrs. George Draper (later to be known as the decorator Dorothy Draper).  The site was formerly occupied by two houses, the Charles F. Dieterich residence at 963 Fifth Avenue and the exuberant William A. Clark residence at 1 East 77th Street.  (The 121 room Clark mansion was recently in the news as the childhood home of the billionaire recluse Hugette Clark who died in May, 2011, with an estate that included three palatial residences that she had not occupied in years).
960 Fifth Avenue, showing the former apartment of Sister Parish on the ground floor, corner.
Image from Brown Harris Stevens.

960 Fifth Avenue originally contained fourteen lavish duplex and simplex apartments with rooms of varying ceiling heights;  some have since been divided into smaller apartments, however, without a loss of luxury.  The Mark Hampton-decorated apartment of socialite Anne Bass approaches 10,000 square feet according to the New York Observer.  Although the apartments contained dining rooms and kitchens, an original feature was a for-residents-only restaurant and entertaining facility, The Georgian Room, sometimes also called The Georgian Suite, which can be entered on the ground floor of 960 Fifth Avenue or through a separate entrance at 1A East 77th Street.  There is also an associated building, originally a rental, containing smaller apartments with its own entrance at 3 East 77th Street.
Floor plan of the former apartment of Sister Parish at 960 Fifth Avenue, New York City.
Fifth Avenue would be at the top and East 77th Street at the left.
Entrance is gained from a hallway adjacent to the elevators.
Image from Brown Harris Stevens.

Mrs. Parish's apartment was originally a duplex maisonette at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 77th Street.  It had its own entrance which can still be seen on East 77th Street, the third opening from the corner.  Mrs. Parish used the doorman entrance on Fifth Avenue, but liked being on the ground floor so her dogs, who went with her to the office every day, did not use the elevator.  Her apartment had already been reduced to one floor with the original Dining Room incorporated into the adjacent apartment.  The former Stair Hall became her Dining Room of sorts and the former Vestibule, shown in the plan as a Study originally did not have the door to the Living Room, held a day bed and was used as a Guest Room.  Mrs. Parish's bedroom was formerly a Library.  Also, there was a staff room elsewhere in the building, unattached to the apartment.
Sister Parish's Living Room at 960 Fifth Avenue.

Mrs. Parish would have very likely spent the rest of her days in the apartment had she not been approached with a generous offer to sell.  As she was in ther late 70s by this point, she felt that a room within the apartment for her live-in housekeeper would be a desirable feature and set out to see if there was a maisonette on the market that would provide that.  The Manhattan residence of the late film star Gloria Swanson fit the bill, with a small adjacent outdoor space as well.  So Mrs. Parish moved in the mid 1980s and the new owner had the apartment completely redecorated by Irvine & Fleming, changing everything except the trompe l'oeil painted cabinet doors in the pantry-like kitchen.
The Living Room with remnants of the decoration by Irvine & Fleming.

The Living Room as decorated by Mario Buatta.

A Before and After article in the February, 2008, issue of Architectural Digest magazine showed remnants of the Irvine & Fleming decoration before the next transformation by Mario Buatta.  Acoording to the magazine article, the Buatta client and present owner of the apartment is Patricia Altshul, the widow of banker-philanthropist Arthur Altshul.  (A few years ago, Mrs. Altshul sold her Long Island estate Southerly overlooking Oyster Bay Harbor and paid a record price for the 1851 Mikell House in Charleston, South Carolina). 
The Dining Room with remnants of the decoration by Irvine & Fleming.

The Dining Room as decorated by Mario Buatta.

Irvine & Fleming made a few changes such as closing one doorway from the original Vestibule and opening a new one to the Living Room.  Also, Irvine & Fleming added mirror in the Living Room and Bedroom.  (Keith Irvine formerly worked for the legendary decorator John Fowler whose influence can be seen in the curtains). 
The Living Room as decorated by Mario Buatta with a false fireplace added.

It seems that Mario Buatta's work was purely decorative, keeping these alterations and adding only a false fireplace to complete his trademark look.
The Bedroom as decorated by Mario Buatta.

The Bathroom as decorated by Mario Buatta.

More information can be seen at the Brown Harris Stevens website www.bhsusa.com.  The listed price is $3,500,000 with a monthly maintenance charge of $3,732.  The property ID is 1559532.
Mrs. Henry "Sister" Parish, 2nd, with her beloved Peke, Yummy.
Portrait by Aaron Schikler.

More about the legendary decorator Sister Parish can found by searching this site for mentions in previous posts of The Devoted Classicist, and in books here, here, here, and here.

ADDENDUM, February  18, 2012
Devoted reader Toby Worthington submitted this collage of photos by Horst that appeared in the October, 1976, issue of House & Garden magazine that I could not resist sharing.  It shows Mrs. Parish's apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue in a previous scheme, notably with the squares of mirror behind the sofa on the north wall of the Living Room already in place.  The other decorating tip is the shirred-on-the-rod curtains that could be drawn with a concealed mechanism in the hollowed-out pole that allowed a conventional traverse action.


  1. It's great to be able to see so many handsome versions of a single apartment, even if one of them is only a ghost of its former self. All I can say is that I hope those Irvine & Fleming curtains found a good home. I would have taken them in.

    I also like those gauzy Directioire-style ones in Mario's decor for the bathroom. They remind me of the ones in--I think: I don't have Mario Praz' book with me at the moment to check--Caroline Murat's boudoir in Naples 200 years ago.

    Of course, I might not care for people walking down Fifth Avebnue peering over the top of the mirror at me when I'm in the tub, but, hey, a pair of sash curtains on the lower half of the window would solve that little problem. Besides, having a maisonette in the first place would likely put such a "problem" into perspective.

    Anyway, thanks for the history lesson.

  2. S.G., thank you so much for commenting! I liked those old Before and After issues of Architectural Digest even though many times they were just houses or apartments with dropcloths and no furniture, then with the furnishings. Surely there was never a documented case in that series of a decorator reusing the previous owner's curtains. (Mrs. Parish took hers and reused them in her E 73rd Street apartment).

  3. I really enjoy your blog! The photos are beautiful and the content is intriguing. The floor plan of the apartment in this post is very efficient, with very discreet and spatially defined rooms.

  4. Dear John:
    Thank you for another very interesting post! I've followed your blog for some time, and so enjoy your well-researched and thus well-informed posts! Mrs. Parish and Dorothy Draper are perhaps two of my favorites: their seemingly pragmatic approach to both design, and life, is most sensible, and quite timeless. Thank you again for the always-inspiring posts, yours is truly a site to which I aspire to be with my own...keep up the great work!

    With kind regards:
    Margaret McAvoy

    PS: Bunny Williams mentions in her book that she is always amazed that people refer to Mrs. Parish as "Sister", as she always called her "Mrs. Parish" during her tenure at Parish-Hadley Associates. Did you also find this to be the case, while you were employed there? Again, many thanks & warm blessings!

  5. S.J.L., the Living Room is a great space, and the Bedroom and Bathroom are not bad either. The almost square Hall that serves as a Dining Room is a bit more problematic because of the doorways (even with the opening to the former vestibule removed). But for one person, it is certainly a lovely apartment.

  6. M.M., thank you for the compliments. Although there are slip-ups, I do spend a lot of time checking and cross-checking facts, something that is done less frequently in this age of fast publication on the internet. All of my posts are something that I know something about or have just learned about and think others will find interesting, too. It is satisfying to know that is indeed the case.

    Although I often now refer to my former employer as Sister Parish, it is because that is how many people know her. In the office, she was addressed as Mrs. Parish although sometimes referred to as Madam. Mr. Hadley, sometimes referred to as Sir, called her Sis.

    During the Koch administration, Mr. Hadley was asked by Brooke Astor (who paid for most the work) to decorate some of the rooms in the original part of Gracie Mansion. Sadly, almost none of the work was realized due to Committee involvement. I drew up some alterations and wrote the specifications for the minor construction work and the project architect for the overall renovation asked if Al had seen and approved them; I had no idea he was referring to Mr. Hadley. This is only one of many such incidents that still never cease to catch me off guard. (Another time I will tell you how many people have told me they were invited to be the third person on the letterhead but declined!)

    After going off on my own, Mr. Hadley said I should call him Albert and called me Mr. Tackett when I slipped and called him Mr. Hadley. Old habits die hard.

  7. You are my favorite blogger! I look forward to every post!

  8. This is a most delightful and informative post. The floorplan does not convey the size of the more-than-comfortable rooms, as seen in the photographs. What a character. The one time I met her (briefly) she was rather gruff, I found. I have no less respect for her, mind you, just commenting... Reggie

  9. R.D., thank you for commenting. Of course I know nothing first hand of your particular experience, but I will confirm that she was a character, and have to add, however, that she was often misunderstood by those who did not know her well. And many may be surprised that she had a remarkable sense of humor and easily laughed at herself without hesitation.

  10. Thanks yet again Mr. D.C. and always a floor-plan for my enjoyment.

  11. T., I always appreciate seeing the floor plan, myself. In this case, it is really an essential part of the story, so we really have the real estate agent to thank.

  12. this is an eye candy visit to your blog to be sure!


  13. I'm so glad Little Augury just linked back to this post, because after reading her own blog today, I thought I was going to have track down this post on my own to re-read it. Nobody does a B&A--&A&A--series like you do. Thank you for the hours you put in to assemble all the pieces.

    And I would still happily move into any of the handsome incarnations of this wonderful apartment. Privacy? Quiet? Skyline views? Over-rated. This is the way to live: in beautiful, comfortable rooms that are only inches away from all the life & excitement of the city.

    , to hunt it uto this

  14. S.G. there's a lot to be said for not having to use an elevator in NYC. It was just one of the many things I learned from Mrs. Parish: when I opened my office, it was just steps from the lobby for the clients' convenience. Thank you for commenting again; it is greatly appreciated.

  15. Dear Mr. Tackett,

    Could you tell me what is it that makes Rosario Candela apartments so highly desirable, valued, and admired? Are there any trademarks one could associate with his architecture, either the exterior of buildings or floor plans?

    How do J. E. R. Carpenter and Emery Roth compare? Are there any trademarks of their own? What are Carpenter and Roth known for when it comes to the apartments they designed?

    Could you give a few examples of how does one judge a floor plan and what to look for? How does one value the aesthetic of an apartment through its floor plan?

    Thank you.

    1. DdG, yes is the answer to your first question. But to answer the others would take a whole book -- or a series of blog posts at the least.

  16. I hope that I have given you an idea then. Perhaps a series of blog posts and one day a book. I’d love to know.


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