Posts Tagged ‘New York mansions’

Genteel Fifth Avenue at the turn of the century

November 26, 2012

Could this really be Fifth Avenue in the 50s, today one of the most expensive stretches of retail in the world?

The street sign appears to read 52nd Street. That means the two mansions on the left belong to the Vanderbilt family, as does the French chateau-like mansion next door.

That’s the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church at 55th Street rising in the center of the postcard.

The mansion that gave Carnegie Hill its name

November 26, 2011

Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills made him a huge fortune in the 19th century.

Still, he found “‘ostentatious living’ profoundly distasteful and the conduct of most New York millionaires strictly irresponsible.”

So in 1903, he decamped from his brownstone on Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, on Millionaires’ Row, and moved into a home he built 30 blocks north—practically the country at that time.

He wanted “the most modest, plainest and roomiest house in New York” with land for his wife to garden.

The Georgian mansion he commissioned was a palace compared to most New Yorkers’ homes—but it reflected his view that “the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts…. Without wealth there can be no Maecenas.”

The four-story, 64-room mansion at Fifth and 91st Street was a technological marvel with a steel frame, elevator, central heating (sucking down two tons of coal on a winter day) and a primitive form of air conditioning.

Carnegie lived here for 16 years with his wife, daughter, and 20 servants. Every morning an organist arrived, so he could wake up to his favorite tunes.

He contemplated his philanthropy in his library overlooking Fifth Avenue, as a neighborhood built up around him.

The mansion is still there, but now houses the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum.

Bleecker Street: “headquarters of Bohemianism”

August 3, 2011

“He who does not know Bleecker Street does not know New York,” wrote James D. McCabe in his 1872 guidebook Lights and Shadows of New York Life. “It is of all the localities of the metropolis one of the best worth studying.”

Why did McCabe single out Bleecker? In post–Civil War New York, it was a perfect example of how quickly a thoroughfare can go from fancy to shabby chic.

“It was once the abode of wealth and fashion, as its fine old mansion testify,” states McCabe, referring to the grand detached houses that lined Bleecker from the Bowery to Sixth Avenue.

“Twenty-five years ago they were homes of wealth and refinement . . . the old mansions are [now] put to the viler uses of third-rate boarding houses and restaurants.”

Bleecker’s rep sank thanks to the bordellos that began lining nearby Greene and Mercer Streets. Soon it became the center of Bohemianism—a label that applied into the 1960s, when Bleecker hosted Beat writers, folk musicians, and edgy comedians.

“You may dress as you please, live as you please, do as you please in all things, and no comments will be made. There is no ‘society’ here to worry your life with its claims and laws. Life here is based on principles which differ from those which prevail in other parts of the city.”

[Van Nest mansion drawing: courtesy of the NYPL Digital Collection]


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