By Julie Satow
The most well-known developer in New York today may be a man with national aspirations and a propensity to talk off the top of his extravagantly coifed head, but a century ago, the headlines were commanded by a real estate family with an aversion to publicity and the trappings of wealth.
In the early 20th century, the Wendels were perhaps the most powerful landlords in New York City, a dynasty with more than 150 properties in Manhattan worth over $1 billion in today’s dollars. The Wendels were the delight of the local papers, for, rich as they were, the family — six sisters and a brother, all unmarried — lived together in a shuttered mansion without electricity on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street, and dressed in grim Victorian garb that had gone out of style half a century earlier. Tour buses regularly pulled up in front of “the House of Mystery.”
Douglas Durst may be one of the very few New Yorkers who remembers the Wendel name.
“I remember my father telling me about them,” said Mr. Durst, a member of the third generation of one of today’s most powerful real estate families, referring to his father, Seymour Durst. “It was very hard to do business with them because they didn’t have a telephone.”
In their day, they were known as “the Weird Wendels.” John G. Wendel II, the brother, was alternately referred to as “the hermit” and “the recluse” of Fifth Avenue.
“Of all the families floated to affluence by rising waves of Manhattan real estate values, the Wendels were the quietest and the queerest,” wrote Arthur Pound in his 1935 book, “The Golden Earth: The Story of Manhattan’s Landed Wealth.” “They lived simply on the most expensive residential site in New York City,” he continued, and “drew less fun from their fortune than a bricklayer gets out of his weekly wage.”
This account is based on articles in contemporary newspapers and magazines. Many periodicals indulged in at least a little bit of surmise, for the Wendels believed that “publicity was as demeaning as luxury,” according to The New York Times.
But unlike their personal lives, their investment strategy was an open book: Never mortgage a property; never sell anything; never pay for repairs; and never forget that Broadway moves uptown at a rate of 10 blocks a decade. Their rules for success worked: When the last Wendel, Ella, died in 1931, the family’s portfolio stretched from the Bowery to Fifth Avenue, and from Wall Street to the Upper West Side, according to her front-page obituary in The Times.
Today, the few remnants of the Wendel empire include a tombstone set high on a hill in Trinity Cemetery in Upper Manhattan. A bronze, door-size plaque angled into a crevice at a Fifth Avenue skyscraper recalls the spot where their home once stood.
In their heyday, the Wendels paid more real estate taxes in New York than anyone, surname Rockefeller included. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Building at 26 Broadway, which still stands sentry in all its limestone glory at the tip of Manhattan, was built partially on leased Wendel land. The massive UPS trucking depot on Greenwich Street in SoHo was once Wendel property. The Wendels owned the land under the Time-Life Building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas, as well as the ground beneath the office skyscraper at 1211 Avenue of the Americas. The land under another skyscraper, 1407 Broadway, as well as nearly the entire two blocks surrounding it, belonged to the Wendels. So did the land where the luxury condominium at 386 Columbus Avenue now looks across at the Museum of Natural History.
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