Landmarked Manhattan townhouse fetches fat price from Carlos Slim
A Brobdingnagian pied-à-terre on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue is once again up for sale by Mexico's richest man, Carlos Slim. For veteran high-end real estate watchers, the $80 million asking price of the 120-year-old townhouse might sound familiar, because it was exactly the same amount in 2015 when the octogenarian business tycoon, whose primary residence is in Mexico City's leafy Lomas de Chapultepec district, put it on the market.
A limestone accented red brick structure built on speculation between 1899 and 1901, the eight-story limestone structure was designed and built by the firm Welch, Smith & Provot in the fanciful Beaux-Arts style. It has 27 feet of frontage on Fifth Avenue, directly across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and 100 feet along East 82nd Street, where a flamboyant glass and copper canopy separates the main entrance from the Metropolitan. The façades are adorned with curved bay windows, limestone quoins run up the corners, a stone balustrade surrounds the roof, and the whole structure is topped with a stately mansard roof.
For more than 100 years, tobacco tycoon Benjamin Newton Duke and his wife Sarah owned and/or occupied the massive and lavish home. Modernist designer Karl Bock contributed some striking additions to the French-style interiors during the 1930s and 1940s. As part of his work on the Duke family homes in North Carolina, Bock installed a ribbon-striped sycamore dressing room, an oval, black-marble-and-mirror bathroom, and a royal-blue, glass-tile bathroom with a futuristic sink that looks like a robot.
Although she lived primarily in North Carolina since she was a teenager, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans was the last member of the Duke family to own the palatial mansion. As soon as Semans took ownership, the mansion was divided into several apartments and the basement became a doctors' office. A swank quadruplex of almost 10,000 square feet was built on the first four floors above the English basement and a simplex on the fifth floor with two balconies looking over Central Park. A duplex penthouse was created by raising the roof of the sixth floor and adding a seventh floor. Above a secondary ground-floor entrance, the address marker for the penthouse units can still be seen. There is no indication, if any, of which of the Duke-Semans apartments remain as independent residences, as only a "hotel-sized bedroom" remained on the ground floor.
According to Rich Report, Semans had a wonderful childhood there when she listed the property for sale in 2005 for $50 million. Furthermore, she said her opera singer mother would hold concerts in the “that middle hall,” a massive, 33-foot-long and 26-foot-wide stair landing on the parlor floor, where they had “wonderful Christmas trees.”
Despite being the highest priced townhouse at the time, Semans sold it to Tamir Sapir for $40 million in 2006. In 2010, the cab driver turned real estate mogul sold the property for $44 million to Mr. Slim, the world's richest man at the time. (As per Rich Report, Mr. Slim's fortune is estimated at $92.4 billion; that makes him the eighth richest person on earth.) At the time of his purchase, Slim intended to use the gigantic house as a home base.
It is once again the most expensive townhouse on the market in Manhattan, as it was once known as the Benjamin N. and Sarah Duke House (as well as the Duke-Semans House). Moreover, if the Marie Antoinette-worthy property sells for anywhere near its high price, it will surpass the current record of $59 million paid for a Manhattan townhouse in 2021, when Alan Howard paid $59 million for Vincent Viola's East 69th Street residence.
In the Duke-Semans House, more than 25 rooms are distributed over about 20,000 square feet in an opulent French Renaissance style. A total of nine fireplaces, miles of ornate moldings, and acres of polished wood floorboards can be found throughout the house. A curved staircase winds its way up from the ground floor foyer to the fifth floor. In addition to a discreet staircase connecting the uppermost two floors, the home is equipped with two elevators for those who can't (or don't want to) climb so many stairs every day. However, floor plans do not indicate which rooms are for entertaining and which are for private living, despite marketing materials indicating eight bedrooms and ten bathrooms.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Felissimo Design House, a chic retail space and gallery on West 56th Street, operated in the Frederick Edey townhouse. That townhouse-turned-gallery is owned by Mister Slim, or at least a company connected to him. A year after buying the Duke-Semans mansion for $15.5 million, Slim bought the five-story building for $5 million. During the 1950s, Elizabeth Taylor and her third husband Michael Todd lived there briefly. Currently, the 16,500-square-foot building houses an event space, gallery, and showroom for different beauty and fashion brands. Since then, it has been leased to a variety of tenants.