Neo-French Gothic Revival: The Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion
Over a century old, the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion in New York is a good example of late 19th century Gothic revival and today, the building is registered as a National Historic Landmark. The mansion was named for Isaac D. Fletcher, a prominent New York City investor and banker, and Harry F. Sinclair, an oil tycoon who was subsequently caught up in the scandal-ridden administration of President Warren G. Harding. Currently, the mansion serves as the long-time home for the Ukrainian Institute of America and remains a popular destination for students, architects and others who are interested in neo-Gothic Revival architecture in the United States. This paper reviews the relevant literature to describe the building in informal and historical terms, relating it to larger trends in the 19th century architecture and society and to provide an analysis concerning how this building reflects the forms ideas and ideologies of styles in architecture. A summary of the research and important findings concerning these issues are presented in the paper’s conclusion.
Review and Analysis
The Fletcher-Sinclair mansion (hereinafter alternatively “the mansion”) located at 2 East 79th Street and Fifth Avenue has served as the headquarters for the Ukrainian Institute of America since 1955.
The mansion was commissioned in 1897 by a wealthy investor and financier, Isaac D. Fletcher and was designed by the prominent New York City architect, Charles P.H. Gilbert. During his lengthy career covering the period from the 1880s to the 1920s, Gilbert designed more than 100 other large homes in New York City.
A picture of the imposing and stately five-story neo-French Gothic style mansion as it stands today is depicted in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. The Fletcher-Sinclair mansion
Besides being designated as a National Historic Landmark, the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion is also protected as a contributing element of the Metropolitan Museum Historic District.
The mansion is an example of the neo-French Gothic Revival movement that began in 1750 with the construction of the villa, Strawberry Hill for Horace Walpole, the 4th earl of Orford.
According to Wedd, “The uniqueness of the Gothic Revival is indeed that, virtually alone among architectural styles, it was founded on and proclaimed moral values.”
These origins are somewhat ironic given the criminal shenanigans engaged in by the mansion’s subsequent owner. For instance, Whitney reports that Harry F. Sinclair was an oil millionaire who was subsequently implicated in bribing a member of President Warren G. Harding’s scandal-ridden administration over rights on navy-reserved oil fields.
According to the New York Architecture organization, “Harry F. Sinclair, the founder of the Sinclair Oil Company, purchased the Fletcher Mansion in 1920 and sold it in 1930 to Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant, Jr., a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant.”
Together with his spinster sister, Augustus, who also remained single, lived in the mansion until his sister’s death in 1938 after which he remained in the mansion with only his servants for company.
Notwithstanding this bit of irony, the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion does embody many of the design attributes that characterize Gothic Revival architecture. For example, Wedd suggests that Gothic Revival architects discovered “medieval style as decoration” and “slapped [it] happily on to buildings, often of perfectly Palladian plan and proportion.”
Although Strawberry Hill remains the most prominent example of Gothic Revival today, the same architectural elements can be identified on the limestone Fletcher-Sinclair mansion as well. In this regard, Wedd reports that, “The use of medieval detailing to pretty up an otherwise ordinary building went on for nearly a century. [Otherwise] straightforward symmetrical buildings which could have been built in any style [are] decorated with crockets, buttresses and finials until [they] nearly die of it.”
Indeed, a close examination of the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion indicates that there is little or no room left anywhere for the addition of a single more pinnacle, crocket, finial or bit of ornamentation. This busy architectural approach was intentional and was meant to communicate a sense of what Roth describes as “craggy and dark Gothic architecture” intended to satisfy “the Romanticists’ desire for mystery and irregularity of form.”
There are other architectural design elements used in the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion as well that make it a good example of the near Gothic Revival movement. For instance, Dolkart notes that, “The house has a lively asymmetrical shape, and is complete with a moat-like areaway with front stairs suggestive of a draw bridge.”
Visitors who are lucky enough to get a close-up view of the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion will also be able to discern even more elaborate ornamentation and design elements that are reflective of the Gothic Revival movement. In this regard, Dolkart adds, “The carved detail is outstanding: the winged monster ensconced on the chimney, the paired dolphins on the stone entrance railings, the rustic couples who flank the entrance, and the heads dripping from the second-floor window are but a few of the whimsical ornamental touches.”
Indeed, some authorities maintain that the series of other homes that Gilbert designed in the New York City area were simply preludes to his full-blown version of French Gothic design as exemplified in the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion. For example, Gray reports that, “In 1897 Gilbert attained his signature style of architecture, the no-holds-barred French Gothic design of the Isaac Fletcher house at 79th and Fifth, completed in 1899.”
Despite the “craggy and dark Gothic architecture” that is involved, the mansion is also described by Gray as the realization of Gilbert’s architectural fantasy: “The Gothic moldings, high mansard, giant entryway and forest of pinnacles make the building as much a fantasy as a work of architecture.”
Certainly, the addition of the foregoing sometimes-whimsical design elements was intended to communicate a sense of mystery and fantasy, but there were some more pragmatic reasons for the inclusion of these architectural design elements as well. For instance, Roth points out that, “The Gothic Revival limestone veneer was once ridiculed, because this medieval shell was said to be inappropriate for the twentieth century, the Gothic detailing has meant these buildings have stood up to weathering much better than adjacent skyscrapers built three decades later.”
The research showed that Isaac D. Fletcher, a wealthy New York City businessman, commissioned the prominent New York City architect, Charles P.H. Gilbert to design what is currently known as the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion in 1897. Following its subsequent acquisition by Harry F. Sinclair, president of Sinclair Oil Company and Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant, Jr., a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion has served as the home for the Ukrainian Institute of America since 1955. The building is noteworthy for its elaborate use of neo-French Gothic design elements that can require more than one visit to identify and appreciate.
“About Us” (2014), Ukrainian Institute of America. [online[ available: http://ukrainianinstitute.
The Cambridge Movement: the Ecclesiologists and the Gothic Revival (1962). Cambridge, UK:
Dolkart, Andrew S. (1995), Touring the Upper East Side, Walks in Five Historic Districts. New York City: The New York Landmarks Conservancy.
Gray, Christopher (2003, February 9), “Charles Pierrepont Henry Gilbert; A Designer of Lacy
Mansions for the City’s Eminent,” New York Times, p. 7.
Roth, Leland M. (1993), Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning.
Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
“Ukrainian Institute” (2014). New York Architecture. [online] available: http://www.nyc-
architecture.com/UES / UES062.htm.
Wedd, George M. (1997, September), “The Gothic Revival Revisited.” Contemporary Review,
271(1580), pp. 143-150.
Whitney, David C. (2010, June 30), “Boldly Righting Great Wrongs,” Manila Bulletin, p. 37.
About Us” (2014), Ukrainian Institute of America. [online[ available: http://ukrainianinstitute.org/.
The Cambridge Movement: the Ecclesiologists and the Gothic Revival (1962). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, p. 8.
George M. Wedd (1997, September), “The Gothic Revival Revisited.” Contemporary Review, 271(1580), p. 143.
David C. Whitney (2010, June 30), “Boldly Righting Great Wrongs,” Manila Bulletin, p. 37.
“Ukrainian Institute” (2014). New York Architecture. [online] available: http://www.nyc-architecture.com/UES / UES062.htm.
Wedd, p. 144.
Wedd, p. 144.
Leland M. Roth (1993), Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, p. 426.
Andrew S. Dolkart (1995), Touring The Upper East Side, Walks in Five Historic Districts. New York City: The New York Landmarks Conservancy, p. 37.
Dolkart, p. 37.
Christopher Gray (2003, February 9), “Charles Pierrepont Henry Gilbert; A Designer of Lacy Mansions for the City’s Eminent,” New York Times, p. 7.
Gray, p. 7.
Roth, p. 81.
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