The 57th Street mansion built as a wedding gift

The happy couple were the children of two of New York’s wealthiest Gilded Age families.

Maria Louise Vanderbilt Shepard (right), the 21-year-old great-granddaughter of Commodore Vanderbilt, married William Jay Shieffelin, 25 (below), in February 1891.

Louise, as she seems to have been known, came from a family that made its riches in the shipping industry and by investing in railroads.

William’s family operated a wholesale drug company founded in 1793, and he was also a descendant of John Jay, the first chief justice.

The joining of two prominent families through marriage called for an extravagant wedding, and the couple enjoyed quite a celebration at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on February 5 of that year.

The next day, a “wedding breakfast” for 600 guests was held in the “grand picture gallery” of Louise’s grandfather W.K. Vanderbilt’s magnificent triple-wide, three-family mansion at Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, wrote author Wayne Craven in his book, Gilded Mansions.

The breakfast netted the newlyweds incredible gifts; an article covering the wedding in the New York Times noted the “many articles of silver and jewels.”

But perhaps the most amazing gift was the one Louise’s mother gave the couple: A fully furnished house (above and at right).

That house is the building still standing at 35 West 57th Street. Images of it from the 1890s weren’t available, but these photos from 1940 show it off nicely: a brownstone beauty with Beaux Arts touches, like the two-story bow window, ornamental carvings, and the petite balcony on the fifth floor.

When the couple moved in, the East 50s off Fifth Avenue was a residential enclave crawling with rich Vanderbilt family members, including Cornelius Vanderbilt II, whose spectacular mansion was just down the block at One West 57th Street.

Amazingly, the couple only lived in their extravagant wedding gift until 1898.

“William and Louise lived in the West 57th Street house throughout the 1890s, until the hustle and bustle of that area made the residence undesirable,” wrote Craven.

Louise’s mother purchased their next home as well, a Richard Morris Hunt–designed mansion on East 66th Street. At some point, the two left that house too and took up apartment living, which was now in vogue.

The Shepard-Shieffelins had eight kids and remained married for 57 years, until Louise’s death at age 78 in 1948.

And what about their wedding present on West 57th Street?

The 20th century wasn’t kind to it. At some point, the first two floors were turned into commercial spaces, and the decorative touches left to the elements. Now that the neighboring townhouses to the east are gone, the house clings to the building on its right, looking unloved and alone.

The fate of 35 West 57th Street remains to be seen. But what a joyous start it had 128 years ago!

[Top image: New-York Historical Society; second image: Find a Grave; third and fourth images: NYC Department of Records 1940 Tax Photos; eighth image: NYPL, 1928]

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7 Responses to “The 57th Street mansion built as a wedding gift”

  1. VirginiaB Says:

    Hope this treasure is preserved. Thanks for sharing its history and images.

  2. Ken Sacharin Says:

    William Jay Schieffelin–a descendant of John Jay–ran the family business (drug and alcohol distributors) which was started in 1793. Schieffelin was on the right side of history–measured by any century’s standards. He supported women’s suffrage, racial equality, good government (Schieffelin’s Citizens Union helped sweep charming but corrupt Mayor Jimmy Walker from office), and the abolition of sweatshops. He was active in the NAACP, defended the Scottsboro Boys and was a trustee of Tuskegee University. The business which his family began just after the Revolution is still operating (co-owned by Diageo PLC and LVMH). They distribute these brands: Hennessy, Dom Perignon, Moët & Chandon, Chandon Estates, Tanqueray, Johnnie Walker, Grand Marnier, and J&B.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks for this Ken, I’d never heard of the Schieffelin family or the company until I began researching this story.

  3. Janice Stearns Says:

    Wondering why this building is not landmarked! Based on the above comment, one can hope the company would help preserve it.

  4. Sheryl H Says:

    The joy of being rich.

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