Edward James Berwind made a fortune in coal mining, so in 1896 he did what every other freshly moneyed tycoon was doing: He commissioned an architect (in this case, Nathan Clark Mellen) to build a limestone palace on the corner of 64th Street and Fifth Avenue, cheek by jowl with all the other limestone palaces by Carrère & Hastings, Richard Morris Hunt, and McKim, Mead & White. When it was finished (with all the Gilded Age necessities: a reception room, art galleries, a ballroom), Berwind hired the Parisian decorating firm of Jules Allard’s (Allard would later create the Louis XVI music room for Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney on 57th Street) to furnish its 18,000 square feet in lavish eighteenth-century décor. Marie Antoinette could have moved right in.
Cut to today. The mansion is now a multiple-unit dwelling, thanks to a (respectful) chop-up in the eighties (Donna Summer lived on the main floor for a few years), and the parlor floor has become one of the more spectacular apartments in the city (in addition to the elaborate boudoir, a 1988 restoration by architect Charles Young carved out two tiny bedrooms on the mezzanine and created a stainless-steel galley kitchen that’s as shiny and space-age as a rocket ship).
The current owners, a California-based retired opera singer and her husband, bought it in the nineties as their pied-à-terre—yes, pied-à-terre—and brought in Michael Simon to root out the previous tenant’s dark, moody Art Deco ideas and redecorate judiciously. “The place is a robber-baron pastiche of dix-huitième, with schlag dripping off the ceiling,” he says in designer shorthand, meaning the space is elaborate, baroque, and loaded with detail. “I felt the apartment would be more serene if we emphasized the eighteenth century, rather than the Belle Époque.”
Balancing serene with the inherent drama of the place wasn’t always easy, but Simon’s instincts were confirmed by occasional weird coincidences. When he went to the textile house Scalamandre to look at the originals of the large repeat fabrics that would have been used in Berwind’s time, Simon realized he’d chosen a fabric for the living room that Berwind had originally used in his Newport weekend home, the Elms.
The current owners have kept the faith, but there’s no guarantee the apartment will stay intact. “Many of the foreigners who visit the property ask if the interior is landmarked, and we explain that in New York, the city rebuilds itself, literally,” says Paula Del Nunzio, the exclusive broker for the apartment. “Someone could take all that away and turn it into a white box.”