A Gilded Age writer’s home is now a Starbucks

I wonder what Edith Wharton would say about the Starbucks that occupies the ground floor of her former childhood home at 14 West 23rd Street, just off Fifth Avenue?


Wharton, beloved by many New Yorkers, was the witty, perceptive writer who chronicled the city’s Gilded Age and early 20th century upper crust society.

EdithwhartonyoungportraitShe noticed manners and morals, and though a coffee chain like Starbucks probably wouldn’t have been her stomping ground, she might have had some sharp insight into why some New Yorkers flock to the place, while others revile it.

Her thoughts about Starbucks can never be known, but she did pen a lovely third-person description of Fifth Avenue in the 1860s.

That’s when young Edith Jones (left) lived in what was then a new brownstone (below, on the right, in the 1880s) in the fashionable Madison Square neighborhood.

Edithwhartonhome1880picturehistory“The little girl and her father walked up Fifth Avenue; the old Fifth Avenue with its double line of low brown-stone houses, of a desperate uniformity of style, broken only—and surprisingly—by two equally unexpected features: the fenced-in plot of ground where the old Miss Kennedys’ cows were pastured, and the truncated Egyptian pyramid which so strangely served as a reservoir for New York’s water supply,” Wharton wrote in 1934’s A Backward Glance.

Edithwhartonportrait“The Fifth Avenue of that day was a placid and uneventful thoroughfare along which genteel landaus, broughams, and victorias, and more countrified vehicles of the ‘carryall’ and ‘surrey’ type, moved up and down at decent intervals and a decorous pace.”

Wharton’s family left the home in the 1870s; it was extensively remodeled, with a cast-iron front added, and barely resembles the stately brownstone it once was.

But down the block are a few brownstones that still maintain parts of their original facade. The New York Times has a piece from a few years’ back on the history of 14 West 23rd Street.

[Third photo: Picture History via The New York Times]

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13 Responses to “A Gilded Age writer’s home is now a Starbucks”

  1. vastlycurious.com Says:

    Wow! Can you imagine living there in the day?

    • trilby1895 Says:

      I imagine those moments all the time. It’s one of the reasons some areas in New York are so fabulous; the sense of “what has been.” This story is wonderful!

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    That’s why finding Wharton’s description of Fifth Avenue as it was when she was a child was so illuminating. And 23rd Street became an entertainment district and then commercial area rather quickly in the Gilded Age, spoiling that quiet, posh row.

  3. M.Lane Says:

    I just found this blog and I adore it!!!! I love NYC but live a long way from there. I don’t recognize all the neighborhood references but it is very interesting. Thanks for all this work!!

  4. stach3 Says:

    The typical Starbuck’s patron of today is a very similar type that would have been a Wharton reader back when her works were newly published. Interesting and fitting.

  5. P. Gavan Says:

    That’s just tragic, a sad commentary on today’s society.

  6. P. Gavan Says:

    Edith Wharton also lived in a four-story brick row house at 28 West 25th Street after marrying Edward in 1885. Here’s a story around that residence, for anyone who is a fan of Edith or of old New York. http://frenchhatchingcat.com/2014/05/07/collie-born-a-dog-died-beloved/

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Cool, thanks P.G.! I must add that the Hatching Cat is a fantastic blog for fans of all things Old New York.

      • trilby1895 Says:

        28 West 25 St. – their backyards (the Whartons’ and Stanford White’s) nearly abutted because, at 22 West 24th St., until fire and collapse destroyed the building in 2007; the brownstone in which Stanford White’s infamous red velvet swing depended from an upper-floor ceiling was located. Of course, by the time White was using the apartment the Whartons must have departed but can you imagine their reaction if they’d known these naughty activities were taking place so close at hand?

  7. trilby1895 Says:

    Thank you! “Old New York” is a phrase that never fails to pique my interest; Ephemeralnewyork is absolutely wonderful…as are the readers who comment! Can’t wait to check out Hatching Cat!

  8. Dan Sciannameo Says:

    You must have read “Footprints of New York” by James Neviius

  9. trilby1895 Says:

    No, not yet, but on your recommendation, I will. Another book about Old New York!!!!! Thank you!

  10. Heath Lee Says:

    Great post on Edith Wharton’s Old NYC I love her description of her home as a child! Wonderful writing also-I do think she would totally “get” Starbucks and then make fun of it! I just wrote a very similar blog on Old NYC for Shelf Pleasure. Check it out! http://www.shelfpleasure.com

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