Untangling the fabled history of Schinasi Mansion.
By Annelie Hyatt
Despite its position amid many palatial buildings, the Schinasi Mansion, located at Riverside Drive and 107th Street, remains incomparably ornate and ostentatious. A mere half-mile from Columbia’s campus, it’s often encountered by students as they meander downtown, spurring idle questions and speculations about its origins. Rumors of abandoned speakeasies and underground drug-dealing have circulated for years, but few have taken the time to mount an active investigation.
Unfortunately, many of these more salacious tales yield little accurate information. But it’s easy to see how the stories snowballed from kernels of truth: For instance, a since-sealed underground tunnel does indeed run from the mansion’s basement to the Hudson River. Historians speculate it was either used to smuggle controlled substances such as tobacco, alcohol, and hashish, or as a secret passageway for Morris Schinasi’s many mistresses. Also shrouded in mystery is the relationship between Mr. Schinasi and the mansion’s architect, William Tuthill, a man remembered for designing Carnegie Hall, founding the Architectural League of New York, and, in Columbia circles, lecturing at the University on architectural history and acoustics. Schinasi refused to compensate Tuthill for the mansion for undisclosed reasons, which may or may not have prompted Tuthill’s decision to sue Schinasi for nearly $6000.
Schinasi Mansion’s most notable architectural feature is that it is the only free-standing mansion in Manhattan, built at a time when many thought that the city’s richest would tire of the Upper East Side and relocate to mansions along the Hudson River. While this migration didn’t ultimately occur, these speculations left behind mansions like the Schinasi—strange, isolated remnants of a bygone era.
The Schinasi Mansion was constructed in the French Renaissance style, boasting twelve bedrooms, eight bathrooms, and five kitchens across its three stories. According to the writer Lily Koppel of the New York Times, the white marble building includes an “Egyptian marble hall inlaid with Turkish glass,” as well as a Louis XVI drawing-room. Finery from Europe to the Middle East bedecks the residence, as a testament to its various cultural origins. Pineapples embedded throughout the mansion’s halls provide another decorative feature—the fruits traditionally symbolize hospitality in the United States, because they were once so difficult to procure.
The building was erected for Morris Schinasi, an Ottoman immigrant who came to America with virtually nothing but a cigarette rolling machine. He founded the cigarette factory Schinasi Brothers with his brother, Solomon, after coming to New York. The two had soon amassed a fortune selling ready-made cigarettes made with imported Turkish tobacco, rather than the conventional American varieties grown in Virginia. He commissioned the mansion in 1903 and resided there with his wife and three daughters until he died in 1928. The mansion was then sold to Rosa Gunter Semple to be used as the Semple School for Girls, a finishing school for young women that also functioned as a private secondary school.
Until recently, the Schinasi Mansion has been solely owned by either the University or its faculty. Columbia bought the mansion as part of a larger land purchase in 1960, turning it into a daycare center referred to as the “Children’s Mansion.” Later, from 1970-71, it housed a Columbia and Barnard residential program called the “Experimental College,” an immensely intriguing notion whose details were, unfortunately, never documented. It then changed hands again, in 1979, to its penultimate owner, Columbia Law School professor Hans Smit. The mansion was renovated for twenty years, and it was used for Columbia Law School gatherings during that time, but never lived in.
The mansion is currently owned by Goldman Sachs representative Mark Schwartz, who purchased it for $13.5 million in 2013. This was a dramatic decrease from Smit’s initial selling price of $30 million, supposedly because its substantial renovations still fell short of what luxury buyers expected for that astronomical price.
Despite the many questions that still exist about the Schinasi Mansion, it is clear that, like many architectural landmarks of the Upper West Side, its history is intertwined with Columbia’s. Impenetrable, misunderstood, and often omitted from the narrative of Columbia’s relations with the surrounding neighborhood, it demonstrates that the University shapes and has been shaped by the most arbitrary and unexpected places. Shells that reach us through the years, shaped by changing tides, but never spilling their secrets.