Armand Hammer: Industrialist, Art Collector, Paradoxical Villager
Armand Hammer (May 21, 1898 — December 10, 1990), American industrialist most closely associated with Occidental Petroleum, was born on the Lower East Side to Russian immigrant parents and raised in the Bronx. He was, by all accounts, an eccentric person, prone to flights of extravagance and exaggeration, and well known for his art collection and philanthropy. An avid Jazz fan, his Greenwich Village home, which he used as a pied-à-terre and an ad-hoc art-storage facility, was in close proximity to the jazz clubs he loved to frequent.
Hammer graduated from Columbia University with a medical degree, and at once began a successful business importing goods from and exporting pharmaceuticals to the newly-formed Soviet Union. He moved to the USSR in the 1920s to oversee these operations. In his 1983 book, Red Carpet, author Joseph Finder discusses Hammer’s “extensive involvement with Russia.” In Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer, Edward Jay Epstein called Hammer “a virtual spy” for the Soviet Union.
After returning to the U.S., Hammer entered into a diverse array of business, art, cultural, and humanitarian endeavors, including investing in various U.S. oil production efforts, which eventually brought him control of Occidental Petroleum. Throughout his life he continued personal and business dealings with the Soviet Union. In his later years Hammer lobbied and traveled extensively, working for peace between the United States and the communist countries of the world. In his book The Prize, Daniel Yergin writes that Hammer “ended up as a go-between for five Soviet General Secretaries and seven U.S. Presidents.” This reflected one of the many perplexing paradoxes of Hammer; his father was one of the founders of the American Communist Party and he cultivated a warm and constructive relationship with Soviet and other communist leaders; he was also an avid capitalist and cultivated equally close relationships with the British royal family.
Hammer was a philanthropist, supporting causes related to education, medicine, and the arts. He also was a prolific collector of art, primarily Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, and his collection forms the core of The Hammer Museum at UCLA. The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. was also the beneficiary of a large portion of Hammer’s collection. Former director J. Carter Brown visited Hammer’s home on West 4th Street to view the collection that was stored there. According to Brown, the National Gallery got the “cream of his collection.” The Armand Hammer Collection of master drawings can now be seen on a rotating basis in the West Building of that museum.
His former residence is a charming carriage house built in 1917, which is adjoined to a larger building which was built between 1897 and 1899 as a private stable at the rear of the Federal house, No. 128 Washington Place. At just 1,200 square feet, the carriage house is reportedly the second-smallest house in Manhattan.
As blogger Daytonian in Manhattan describes:
Here in Manhattan sit two quaint Georgian-looking houses, like a slice of old London transplanted into New York. Their cozy, antique appearance exudes the romance of a Currier & Ives lithograph of 18th Century domesticity.
They are in reality only about half that age and their beginnings are not so romantic.
The little two story house at No. 185, which deftly appears to be a single story, started out life as the carriage house for the owners of a townhouse on Washington Place. In 1917, as horse-drawn carriages gave way to motorcars and Greenwich Village saw the beginnings of its Bohemian attraction, it was converted into a residence.
The architect, reportedly named Fayerwhether, embraced the Colonial Revival style that had become trendy with the 1876 Centennial and would last for another few years. A simple arched doorway topped by a fanlight and two multipaned windows with paneled shutters gave the little house a Revolutionary period flavor.
As the renovation was being completed, Annette Hoyt Flanders was serving with the American Red Cross in France, during World War I. Flanders earned her B.S. degree in botany at Smith College in 1918 before leaving and would go on to study landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, civil engineering at Marquette University, and design, architecture and architectural history at the Sorbonne.
She became famous through landscape architecture and opened her own office in New York in 1922. Around this time she moved into No. 185 West 4th Street.
In 1936 the little house got another facelift when it acquired its modified mansard roof with Chinese Chippendale railing. Grills set into the broad cornice board disguise the small windows of the second story and echo the railing’s motif.
In 2000, Hammer’s estate sold the property to esteemed architect and design couple Anne Fairfax and Richard Sammons. The interior of the home has been lauded, written about, and photographed extensively, and in fact appeared on our house tour in years past.
Hammer is often mistakenly thought of as the namesake of the ubiquitous baking soda brand. Hammer did in fact own a great deal of stock in the brand’s parent company, which he bought in part because he was so frequently asked about the connection, but the name preceded his birth by thirty years. The quirky Hammer, who was raised in a non-religious household, was planning to celebrate a belated bar mitzvah at the age of 92 on December 11, 1990, but he died the day before. The event was therefore converted into a memorial service. His great grandson is the actor Armie Hammer.
You can learn more about Hammer and hundreds of other historic figures who lived in the Greenwich Village Historic District on our map and tour of the district at www.gvshp.org/GVHD50tour.