How Beer Helped Build the Upper East Side: 807 Fifth Avenue

Introduction

Many of us on the Upper East Side appreciate the history of it—the prewar structures inspire awe and connect us with an illustrious past full of heritage, and yet seldom do we wonder, "What predates prewar?" In this installation of my series on "How The Upper East Side Garnered Its Prestigious Reputation," I'll be telling a Gilded Age Cindarella story, of sorts, and like many stories worth telling, it starts with beer and ends with a wedding!

Josephine Schmid, the Brewer's Wife

Before the Knickerbocker Club erected its landmarked Neo-Georgian clubhouse, the French chateau-inspired mansion of a beer entrepreneur’s widow stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 62nd Street boasting a Fifth Avenue address.

An ad for the Lion Brewery depicting the massive facility in today's Manhattan Valley.


807 Fifth Avenue was built by Josephine Schmid who was the wife of Swiss-German immigrant August Schmid. August founded the Lion Brewery in the 1850s where he made lager as well as a large fortune. The lager of the Lion Brewery was particularly popular with the German-immigrant population, and the facility itself occupied a massive plot of land located between Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenue from 107th to 109th Streets until closings its doors in 1942.

In 1889, August died of pneumonia. His widow Josephine was not only left in complete control of his estate, but also with an active role in the brewery. She ran her part of the business, but also began buying up land along what was then upper Fifth Avenue. In 1897, Josephine added to her collection of shrewd real estate purchases and acquired one particular parcel at the corner of Fifth and 62nd Street.

The Love of the Newly Rich for the Old World

Since the mid-1880s, Manhattan’s aristocracy had been flocking uptown along the new park throwing up extravagant mansions to demonstrate their wealth and social status, each outdoing the last. A member of the nouveau riche and branded “the brewer’s wife,” naturally the widow Josephine Schmid followed the trend of her contemporaries (like Alva Vanderbilt) and commissioned a large home in the style of a Loire Valley chateau to be built on that very parcel of land at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 62nd Street. Her regal new abode pictured below could have easily inspired Cindarella's castle with its pointed turret and Gothic details.

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What I find particularly interesting of this Gilded Age phenomenon is the irony: over and over again the newly rich of the New World chose to represent their wealth through design elements from the estates of the Old World’s nobility. I read this literally as an attempt to manifest heritage by mimicking and exaggerating these architectural styles that dominated pre-modern Europe. All of this, however, does make one wonder if these extravagant displays actually further showcased the social insecurities of an emerging class of people without historic roots in the wealth they displayed.

Don Giovanni

Unlike many of her contemporaries, however, Josephine eventually did obtain status as a noble—she became a princess! She married Don Giovanni del Drago of Rome, a man from an old, noble family with ties to royalty, but no money in the bank! The penniless Prince del Drago got a cool $10 million along with his new bride.

Settling in Italy, the couple had no more use for their Fifth Avenue mansion and were surely tired of reading the brutal headlines mocking their union. As if to close off the irony of the whole saga, they sold the chateau to the Knickerbocker Club (that’s right—one of the oldest and most entrenched old-money clubs in New York) in 1912. After only 16 short years at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 62nd Street, Josephine’s chateau was replaced by what we now know as the headquarters of the Knickerbocker Club at 2 East 62nd Street.

2 East 62nd Street: The Headquarters of the Knickerbocker Club


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