I feel this place is a real gem and I want to know even more about it...let's see...
This Cityscape article from the New York Times is very much to the point ( found more on another website, but it was TOO detailed)
Oh--make sure you DON'T MISS THE SLIDESHOW they have as part of this article (comes right at the beginning part!)
A Building Befitting the Hat’s Heyday
Museum of the City of New York
Published: April 21, 2011
NEW York’s streets used to be a sea of Knox hats; these days the place you’ll find them is on eBay, about a hundred at the moment. Many were sold for the first time at the overwrought structure just south of the New York Public Library.
Readers shared their thoughts on this article.
Born in 1854, Duncan is known to have been in New York as early as 1880, but was otherwise off the radar until 1885, when his first commissions came in a flood — requests for commodious 25-foot-front town houses, and lesser jobs like redoing the Murray Hill house of James C. Fargo, the head of Wells Fargo. John Straiton, a cigar manufacturer, had Duncan design a picturesque group of shingled houses at 150th Street and Convent Avenue, some of which still stand.
He soon became a specialist in large town houses, but in 1889 rocketed to prominence with the commission for the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, his design crisp and triumphal. In 1890, when he was living in a five-story walk-up at Columbus and 61st, he was the winner of one of the great architectural competitions of late-19th-century New York, to design a monument to Ulysses S. Grant at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street.
Duncan was selected over more experienced competitors, apparently because he was the only one to take the $500,000 budget seriously. That was in part because the monument as built did not include Duncan’s proposed extras: statues of four horsemen, a figure of Columbia on the top, and a grand stairway tumbling down to the Hudson like a waterfall. Critics in New York generally held their tongues, but The Chicago Tribune did not shrink, calling it a “monstrous cube,” “as unsightly a monument as ever a hero slept under.”
Duncan hit a truly distinctive style in the late 1890s, switching from simple classicism to Beaux-Arts. His house at 7 West 54th Street for the banker Philip Lehman has the juicy Beaux-Arts stone carving seen in other buildings, but he set it on an even field of rustication running across the entire facade that makes it look all a-quiver. At 4 East 67th Street, Duncan’s 1902 house for Henri Wertheim manages to combine a blocky starkness of overall form with a rich paste of French-style decoration, a kind of limestone sheet cake.
Duncan went more or less crazy on the 1904 Wolcott Hotel at 2 West 31st Street, which combines his blocky, brusque stonework with a veritable galleon of copper cresting along the three-story-high mansard. At 11 East 51st Street, Duncan gave the mansion of John Peirce the “Alfalfa look” (as my wife, Erin, calls it), the base course rising over halfway up the front of the house, like the suspendered, hiked-up trousers of the “Little Rascals” movie character Alfalfa.
A Duncan trademark in this high period is the presence of something a little off, something unconventional — like the Alfalfa look — but with no apparent intent of being unconventional. Thus the 10-story structure he put up in 1902 for Edward Knox, head of one of the world’s most famous hat stores, is at first glance a full, perhaps very full, Beaux-Arts-style design.
But the main facade, of flat gray brick, is spotted all over with blocky quoins and voussoirs, tending toward the Mannerist, or at least the Baroque. The two-story-high mansard has large-scale dormer windows with overbearing limestone hoods. It makes the sumptuous New York Public Library look positively demure.
For all the importance of his buildings, Duncan kept what is today called a low profile. We know from a passport application that he had blue eyes and a high forehead, and was 5-foot-4. Publicity apparently did not interest him: in 1897 he told The New-York Daily Tribune that he hadn’t had time to have a photo taken for the Grant celebration.
All his life, he lived in modest apartment buildings, although he built himself a whimsical, nautical-style summer house in Highland Beach, N.J. It appears he didn’t play the ponies, cheat on his wife, Dora, or sue anyone, and when he died in 1929, his obituary was curt.
The Knox heirs sold their building in 1959, and now it is crowded by the huge tower of HSBC, its current owner. The architects Platt Byard Dovell White have, among other things, replaced a lacy ironwork balustrade missing for decades from the seventh floor and reconstructed a remarkable projecting metal and glass marquee projecting over the Fifth Avenue show window.
On its jumbled section of Fifth Avenue, it is a standout renovation, at the opposite pole from the quiet, mysterious John H. Duncan himself.