The two very different mansions where Mrs. Astor hosted New York society

In the 1880s, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor asserted her position as the grand dame of of New York society. Mrs. Astor, as she became known, presided over a November through February social season for the city’s old-money elite who could trace their lineage to the colonial era.

Mrs. Astor’s understated mansion, 350 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street

You’d think that a woman with her money and influence would host her weekly dinners and fabulous annual ball in a spectacular palace. But the “mansion” where she lived for most of her married life as she ascended the throne of society was surprisingly understated.

The house, on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, was built in 1856 on former farmland owned by the Astor family. The family gifted it to Mrs. Astor and her husband, William Backhouse Astor, after the couple married.

Mrs. Astor’s portrait greeted guests at 350 Fifth Avenue

On that lot the couple built a “plain four-story town house,” as Eric Homberger, author of Mrs. Astor’s New York, described it. “At 50 by 107 feet, and with Nova Scotia freestone used in window dressings, architraves, cornices, Corinthian columns, and a double stoop, the building certainly had an imposing air,” stated Homberger.

A fenced-in garden on the left side of Mrs. Astor’s house (350 Fifth Avenue) was shared with the neighboring house on the block, constructed and occupied by William’s brother, John Jacob Astor III (338 Fifth Avenue). The area was the most fashionable residential part of the city in the Gilded Age.

Mrs. Astor’s first ballroom, 1894

Though the exterior wasn’t impressive, the interior, however, was a different story. In Incredible New York, author Lloyd Harris explains what guests of Mrs. Astor’s annual January ball would experience as they made their way inside the house, which was “ablaze with lights.”

“Through a wide hall, guests proceeded to the first of three connected drawing rooms, where their hostess received them, standing before the life-size portrait (above) which she had recently commissioned from [portrait painter] Carolus Duran.

Mrs. Astor’s house, overshadowed by the new Waldorf Hotel in 1893

“Cordially greeted by this scintillant idol, her guests made their way through two more thronged drawing rooms to the spacious art gallery which served as a ballroom. Lander’s costly orchestra was playing in the musicians’ gallery, and the walls were hung with works of art which had acquired fame, if not merit, from Mrs. Astor’s favor.”

Supper would then be served in a “grand dining room from an immense table,” wrote Harris. The upper floors aren’t described, but with five children and his and hers bedrooms (the Astors spent very little time together), it must have been roomy.

Mrs. Astor’s second Fifth Avenue mansion bears a better resemblance to the kind of luxurious Gilded Age house you would expect.

Mrs. Astor’s second and last Fifth Avenue mansion, at 65th Street, was a marble palace.

In the early 1890s, her brother-in-law razed his mansion and built the Waldorf Hotel in its place. (The hotel was intentionally designed to overshadow Mrs. Astor’s house—these two Astor families didn’t get along, as you can imagine.)

The now-widowed Mrs. Astor and her son then sold her house at 350 Fifth Avenue and moved to a stunning French Renaissance double mansion at 840 and 841 Fifth Avenue, at 65th Street. Designed by Richard Hunt, the new mansion was Mrs. Astor’s final residence in New York City, situated on posh upper Fifth Avenue. She died there in 1908, and it was demolished in 1926.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second image: Metmuseum.org; third and fourth images: MCNY; fifth image: Wikipedia]

Tags: , , , , ,

8 Responses to “The two very different mansions where Mrs. Astor hosted New York society”

  1. beth Says:

    what a difference in style and didn’t know the sibs didn’t get along

  2. countrypaul Says:

    Proof that some people have too much money.

  3. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    The Astor House reminds of the similar nearby Morgan House
    https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/j-p-morgan-house-nyc/

  4. Edward Says:

    HBO’s now “The Gilded Age” does a pretty decent job of making NYC look like it did in 1882. They do some filming in NYC and in upstate Troy, which I suppose has a lot of older houses like Mrs. Astor’s that are still standing.

  5. A rich Gilded Age ‘man of mystery’ builds Murray Hill’s most flamboyant mansion | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] side blocks between Madison Square and 40th Street comprised the most elite enclave in the city. Mrs. Astor’s brownstone mansion was on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue; her brother-in-law lived in a similar house next door. […]

  6. Roosevelt Island Historical Society » Monday, April 4, 2022 – A MANSION BUILT FOR A MILLIONAIRE AND HIS DAUGHTER Says:

    […] blocks between Madison Square and 40th Street comprised the most elite enclave in the city. Mrs. Astor’s brownstone mansion commanded respect on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue; her brother-in-law lived in a similar house […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: