Two East 63rd Street: The History of Holiday House

Holiday House Facade

The solid, monastery-like town house on 63rd Street just off of Fifth Avenue was an anomaly, both on its block and in the scheme of other grand Upper East Side residences appearing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As land values went up on Fifth Avenue in the 19th century, mansion owners built higher and higher and deeper and deeper, often ending up with five or six story shoe boxes with dark interiors lit by distant windows.

But William Ziegler, Jr. went low when he built his 75-foot wide mansion in 1921. Mr. Ziegler was heir to the Royal Baking Powder Company fortune. He was 14 when his father died and was left with at least $10 million.

Mr. Ziegler married in 1912, just after his 21st birthday, and he and his wife, Gladys, first lived in a variety of apartment houses. In 1919, Mr. Ziegler contracted acclaimed architect Frederick Sterner to design a mansion on the site of three old brownstones on East 63rd Street off Fifth Avenue.

Mr. Sterner had revolutionized thinking about New York’s blocks a decade earlier, when he renovated a strip of moldy brownstones on 19th Street between Irving Place and Third Avenue into colored-stucco Mediterranean fantasies.

At 2 East 63rd Street, Mr. Ziegler put up an entirely new house, but fought the temptation to maximize use of the land by building it as low as possible; three stories with a fourth set well back, essentially invisible from the street.

Mr. Sterner rethought the rear of the house as well. Instead of having the usual cramped yard in back of the building, he created an open courtyard in the center and arranged the rooms around it, similar to a Roman villa.

The façade is a soft limestone or perhaps even marble, with an elaborately carved central entrance but an otherwise plain ground floor, then a second floor façade of noble proportions and a subdued third floor above. With the fourth floor set so far back, the building appears to be only three stories high, allowing more light to reach the street. However, the Zieglers found something inadequate about the house, or perhaps their marriage, which ended in 1926.

In 1925 the Real Estate Record and Guide said that Mr. Ziegler had “lavished a fortune on the construction and furnishings of the house which he occupied one year,” but then announced its sale as an actors’ hospital, to have 300 beds. The hospital idea did not materialize, and in 1929 Norman Bailey Woolworth of the dime-store family bought the house for his own use. Twenty years later, he donated it to the New York Academy of Sciences.

In 2001, the Academy put the house on the market for $31.25 million, and in 2005 it was purchased by Leonard Blavatnik, a financier, as an investment. Thanks to his generosity, for five weeks in November and December the house is reverted to its former grandeur in the splendid format of Holiday House, depicting a wide range of colorful celebrations and festivities to benefit breast cancer research and awareness.