The American Irish Historical Society (AIHS) is housed in a magnificent Gilded Age townhouse on Fifth Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The society has an active schedule of public art and music events which provide the curious a glimpse into this stunning building. We recently took a grand tour of the townhouse as preparation for the next Brownstone 360 from the Metropolis Ensemble, an immersive food and art event to take place this upcoming Monday, was underway. Through our visit, we discovered the many secrets of this historic building at 991 Fifth Avenue, part of the Metropolitan Museum Historic District.
1. It’s One of the Least Altered Interiors of the Fifth Avenue Gilded Age Mansions Still Standing
If you take a look at the blocks between within this stretch of the Metropolitan Museum Historic District, you’ll notice the Gilded Age mansions squashed between large-scale Fifth Avenue apartment buildings. The American Irish Historical Society is the last of its kind on the block, which once consisted of all similar scale townhouses. The Great Depression sent the wrecking ball to many of the original grand homes. 991 Fifth Avenue was saved by a purchase by the American Irish Historical Society for just $20,000 – a steal considering it was built for $75,000 in 1900.
According to Christopher Cahill, a poet and the director of the AIHS, the main floors of the townhouse are one of the “least altered interiors,” still extant from a 1911 renovation by the architect Ogden Codman, Jr. known for co-authoring Edith Wharton’s first book, The Decoration of Houses. In more recent times, a three year restoration commenced in 2005, with the AIHS reopening in 2008.
2. There’s a Secret Staircase Inside the American Irish Historical Society
991 Fifth Avenue was built in 1900 as the private home of Mary A. King, daughter of John A. King, a politician who served as governor of New York in the 1850s. The design of the building adhered to the British and European standard that servants should have a completely separate means of access within the building. As such, a separate staircase spirals through the townhouse at 991 Fifth Avenue, landing in the kitchen galley on the second, main floor of the home. A month ago before the New York City primary, Bill Clinton gave a campaign speech for his wife Hillary at the American Irish Historical Society, and was taken through this secret staircase.
3. There’s a Painting by Bob Dylan Inside the AIHS
A painting by Bob Dylan, far right
The office of AIHS director Christopher Cahill may be one of the most spectacular in the city – with a bowed-out terrace with a view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Fifth Avenue. Inside, it’s piled high with books and there’s a painting by Bob Dylan, loaned to Cahill by a friend who was close with Dylan.
4. The Servants Quarters at 991 Fifth Avenue Have Been Converted into Music Studios
AIHS Director Christopher Cahill jokes that whereas the house was built originally to house five Irish servant girls, “eventually the Irish took over the whole building.” The Society aims to make its headquarters at 991 Fifth Avenue feel alive – and one of those initiatives is through an artist-in-residence, composer Ricardo Romaneiro. The five rooms of the attic servants quarters have been converted into recording studios and office, accessed by an almost Alice in Wonderland staircase. Romaneiro has partnered with the AIHS on programming, including the upcoming collaboration with Metropolis Ensemble and its Brownstone series on Monday with chef Jonah Reider, which will be “an experiential treasure hunt of sound, taste, and color…a jewel-lit, multisensory exploration of interlinked ‘sound bites.'”
5. In the Massive Library Collection at AIHS is The First Printing of the Bible into the Irish Language
The American Irish Historical Society has 10,000+ volume library spread across several archive rooms. The Society calls it“the most complete private collection of Irish and American Irish history and literature in the United States.” Among the prized possessions is the first printing of the Bible into the Irish language, from 1685. There are also letters from the White House from Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
6. There’s a Huge Collection of Vinyl Records That the AIHS is Digitizing
In another archive room is a collection of vinyl records of Irish music and artists numbering somewhere between 1000 to 1500 that Ricardo Romaneiro is digitizing for the AIHS.
7. There’s a Vintage Elevator Inside 991 Fifth Avenue
A Watson Automatic Elevator, installed in the building after its initial construction, has wonderfully vintage elements. This includes wood panels, a checkered floor, old-fashioned push buttons, a stop lever, and Art Deco signage. The elevator runs from the basement levels, where there is another library archives, to the first floor entry and AIHS office, to the fifth floor.
8. The Maid Call Buttons Still Exist
One of the original details still remaining embedded into the walls of 991 Fifth Avenue are the maid call buttons – made of pearl. Though they no longer work, they are a clear reminder of the opulence and standard of service expected of the Gilded Age mansions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
9. There’s a Mix of Modern and Traditional Art Inside
A table by Irish artist Joseph Walsh is located in the main sitting room on the second floor. Cahill tells us that it was one of the first pieces that showed him how “contemporary art works in the space.” Throughout the building, modern pieces juxtapose traditional paintings – reflecting the current programming mission of the AIHS. The event Brownstone 360 on Monday will meld a Grammy-nominated chamber ensemble with experimental music, food, and lighting. Yet, all the modern elements are designed to work with the backdrop of the building itself – for example, the lighting projection works by Christian Hannon with the crown moulding of the rooms and uses it as a three-dimensional canvas. Cahill describes the multi-sensory events as a way to “go further” than simply walking into the building
10. 991 Fifth Avenue Has Been Used as a Film Set
The former Dining Room
The other way to catch a glimpse of this building is through television shows. Madam Secretary has been filmed here, as well as movies like the iconic Green Card with Gerard Depardieu and Andie McDowell. In Green Card, a dining room scene takes place in what was the original dining room of the mansion.
Here are some additional photographs of the interior of 991 Fifth Avenue:
First floor, looking back onto the dining room. There’s a beezeway with a stained glass skylight connecting the two rooms
Grand staircase and doric columns. Elevator is on the right side, before the sitting/music room
The library on the second floor
The main room on the second floor, where you enter once you get off the grand staircase
First floor entryway, designed much like a grotto
Join us on an insider tour of the New York Historical Society:
Insider Tour of the American Irish Historical Society
Next, check out our recap from the prior installation of Brownstone 360. Also discover more of the Gilded Age mansions of Fifth Avenue.