A Gilded Age chateau on Madison Avenue, and the old-money owner who never moved in

When the Gilded Age began after the Civil War, brownstone mansions were all the rage. By the early 1900s at the end of the Gilded era, Beaux-Arts became the architecture of choice among those New Yorkers wealthy enough to afford it.

Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo chateau, today

But houses of another design style also began to rise during the Gilded Age: French chateaux. These Gothic stone fortresses on Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, and Riverside Drive were built with dormers, turrets, spires, and other bells and whistles inspired by Medieval castles and the imaginations of people using real estate to outdo each other.

Perhaps the most famous chateau was constructed in 1882 at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street: the William K. Vanderbilt mansion—called “petite chateau” by Alva Vanderbilt, W.K.’s social-climbing wife. A year later, W.K.’s brother, Cornelius Vanderbilt, built an even more ostentatious chateau-like mansion at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.

An illustration from 1897, soon after the mansion was completed

So when Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo (below) purchased land on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 72nd Street in 1882 and finally commissioned an architect to go ahead and build her own chateau in 1894, according to Christopher Gray in the New York Times, she may have looked to the Vanderbilt mansions for inspiration. (Supposedly she said she modeled her house after a chateau she admired on a visit to France.)

Mrs. Waldo may not be remembered as a major player during the Gilded Age, but she was certainly known in her era. Born in 1842, she was a descendant of the aristocratic Rhinelander family. Like other old-money daughters at the time, she married and had a child (future police and fire commissioner Rhinelander Waldo). In 1878, she was widowed.

Mrs. Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo

Described as a “very pretty woman” by one newspaper and a woman “of forceful manner and some unusual views” by another, she lived with her sister across 72nd Street while the chateau was under construction. Madison Avenue at the time was no Fifth Avenue, but it was filling up with mansions for the rich and distinguished. At this intersection Louis Comfort Tiffany had a house, and so did W.K. and Alva Vanderbilt’s daughter, Consuelo, who had just married the Duke of Marlborough.

Said to have cost her $500,000, Mrs. Waldo’s house had a fourth floor ballroom lit by 2,000 electric lights and a basement bowling alley, according to a 1918 article in the Evening Post. A New York Times piece in 1909 reported that the house also had a billiards room, electric elevator, a library, and curiously only two rooms for servants, “yet the proper running of a house of this character would require from 10 to a dozen servants,” the paper wrote.

The unoccupied mansion in 1912

You would think that Mrs. Waldo would be thrilled to relocate to her new home once it was completed around 1895. After all, it was designed to her specifications, and she’d purchased cases of tapestries, marble, glass, and china to furnish the house with, per the Evening Post.

But when it came time to move in, she never did; she remained at her sister’s home across the street. And no one was sure why.

As the years went on, the house remained empty. Reportedly Mrs. Waldo put it up for sale several times, only to walk away and change her mind when a deal was close. It’s not known what kept her from occupying the chateau, but her fortunes likely took a dive. Even so, the old-money heiress and her empty chateau became something of a fascination to the public.

“The Waldo mansion at the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 72nd Street, a house with many bathrooms, and other features that have made it the subject of considerable mention in print and gossip, but distinctive among New York City homes, because it was never occupied….” stated the Evening Post.

The New York Times in 1909 described it as “one of the curiosities in real estate circles.” The house, “has been in a state of semi-dilapidation for many years. The once fine stone front is badly discolored, and the accumulated storms of a dozen years have damaged the interior fittings, the rain soaking through the great dome in the roof, and percolating through cracks and crevices, to an amount estimated as many thousands of dollars.”

The chateau in 1897

For years, the empty house with rich unpacked furnishings became prey to burglars. Finally in 1909, the house went into foreclosure and was sold at auction. But it wasn’t until the 1920s when the chateau was carved into apartments and the ground floor turned into commercial space.

When Mrs. Waldo died in 1914 in her home in the Netherland Hotel (forerunner to the Sherry-Netherland), she was 73 years old and in debt, it was revealed. What would this socialite heiress think if she knew Ralph Lauren would purchase and renovate her chateau in the 1980s and make it the flagship location for his fashion brand—which conjures up old money and luxury?

[Second image: NYPL; third image: The Clio; fourth image: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: NYPL]

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6 Responses to “A Gilded Age chateau on Madison Avenue, and the old-money owner who never moved in”

  1. velovixen Says:

    What would have scandalized a socialite like Mrs. Waldo more:

    that Ralph Lauren came from a humble background in the Bronx

    that he created something that expressed an aspiration toward the class into which she was born, or

    that he’s Jewish?

    I must say, though, that she could hardly have done better in choosing a model for opulence. Ironic, isn’t it, that she never could live in it?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Ironic and very mysterious, especially since she lived across the street with her sister for many years while her chateau sat empty. I’m not much of a shopper, but I went inside the store and it seemed that many of the original details remain, including a gorgeous staircase!

  2. Elsa Louise von Schreiber Says:

    That she held on to the property until the end of her life, but chose to not to occupy it is odd. For whatever reason, she had changed her mind about living in it and had taken up residence with her relatives, maybe out of loneliness. But why hold on, especially if she needed funds? Mysterious.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I think it ultimately came down to not having the funds, which might be a terrible thing for an old-money heiress used to a certain living style to accept.

  3. Susan Champlin Says:

    Thank you for this—I’ve always wondered about the history of that building, and it’s even more interesting than I could have imagined. Also exasperating. The wastefulness, gah!

  4. This 1899 Gilded Age fairy-tale mansion on Fifth Avenue has had only 4 owners | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Chronicling an ever-changing city through faded and forgotten artifacts « A Gilded Age chateau on Madison Avenue, and the old-money owner who never moved in […]

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