(The New York Times) 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.”
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.”