Deyan Ranko Brashich
Though far from wealthy, I live on New York’s Fifth Avenue. I am a winner in that uniquely New York lottery – buying an apartment in the right place at the wrong time – a time when New York was on the verge of bankruptcy. Today Fifth Avenue is unaffordable for the likes of you and me; nonetheless I have a vested interest in Fifth Avenue.
Every morning I take the bus down Fifth Avenue, also known as “The Museum Mile”, passing the palaces of yesterday and today. On the first block I go by the Straight mansion once owned by the Chairman of US Steel and now the $125 million home of a hedge fund prince. The Jewish Museum is next, once the philanthropist Felix M. Warburg’s mansion, followed by the Otto Kahn mansion now a private girl’s school; then the Carnegie mansion, once home of the owner of US Steel, now the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian, the Guggenheim Museum, the Neue Gallery, a Louis XIII/Beaux-Arts gem of a building, the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection and its block long palace and garden.
Block after block Fifth Avenue has diplomatic, cultural and philanthropic institutions housed in splendid buildings. The French have two and even the Ukrainians have one. You are bowled over by New York University’s Duke Mansion and the Commonwealth Fund’s Stillman-Harkness House. Then you hit a shabby, sadly neglected relic of the past, the Beeckman Mansion  at 67th Street, home to Serbia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
The place has quite a history. It’s a designated landmark, never to altered or torn down. № 854, designed by Warren & Wetmore, also responsible for Grand Central Station, the New York Yacht Club and Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, was built for R. Livingston Beeckman, “the [very wealthy] well-known polo player and society man” who went on to become the Governor of Rhodes Island. It was later occupied by the Thaws, cousins of Harry Thaw – the cuckolded husband who “got away with murder” – shooting the architect Sanford White dead over his mistress Evelyn Nesbit, “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” – found “innocent” by reason of insanity.
It was bought in 1946 by the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – ironically, socialism buying capitalism – and now inherited by Serbia. Now that both Nikola Kavaja and Boško Radonjić are dead and gone I am free to violate the attorney-client privilege. They made plans to assassinate Josip Broz Tito during his visit to New York in 1963 either at the Mission, with a sniper shot from Central Park across the street, or up close and personal at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Failing in that effort my former clients in a fit of political stupidity bombed the place in 1975. Luckily they did little damage, though blast scars remain.
The place is a shambles inside and out. The roof leaks, the back façade has threatened to collapse for years. The electrical system has not been upgraded since before World War II. There ain’t a proper HVAC system in the place. The interior is a jury rigged warren of rooms unsuited for the Mission’s mission. The kitchen [?] and bathrooms should be relegated to a museum or demolished.
The building is architecturally significant: “[a] dignified Beaux Arts palace on a small scale. Only two windows wide, it rises three stories to an impressive two-story mansard roof with dormers and projecting bulls eye windows … the second story windows, with picturesque tone balconies, were surmounted by classical pediments; their grand size becoming the focal point of the façade.” It deserves to be saved.
One of the wealthy Koch brothers just made a $65 million donation to renovate the plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art even though he no longer lives across the street. Now Serbia has its share of wealthy men, Milan Janković a/k/a Philip Zepter, Miroslav Miśković and Stanko Subotić, to name but three. You would think that one of these worthies would step up and pay for the renovation of the Mission and make us proud.
The donor would probably get a tax deduction, not that it matters since income is seldom declared in Serbia. He would get naming and bragging rights having a building named in his honor. He would get favorable press which in Misković’s case is sorely needed. He would get a brass plaque recognizing his contribution on a landmarked building on Fifth Avenue. As for me I would get to drive by Serbia’s Mission to the United Nations with pride in my heart.
Deyan Ranko Brashich, an attorney, Op-Ed columnist, resides and writes from New York City and is a frequent contributor. He is the author of Letters from America and Contrary Views. His contact and blog “Contrary Views” is at www.deyanbrashich.com