On the avenue dubbed the “Millionaire’s Colony” in the late 19th century thanks to its unbroken line of ornate mansions, one house stood out as the most insanely overdone: William A. Clark’s 7-story Beaux Arts monster at 77th Street.
Finished in 1907 after eight years in the making, “Clark’s Folly,” as it was called, broke all records. It cost $7 million to build, featured 121 rooms, and had its own rail line for the delivery of coal.
Amazingly, this monument to money was out of style by the time the final ornament was attached, and it only stood for 20 years.
William Clark (below, with his youngest two daughters) was a copper baron who made a fortune in mining and helped found Las Vegas.
He did a stint as senator from Montana in 1899. Forced to resign after a bribery scandal, the deep-pocketed titan who was highly disliked in Washington (even Mark Twain called him out for corruption, describing him as “the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time”) got himself elected again in 1901.
Meanwhile, he began building his mansion in New York. This captured the attention of city residents and the press, who estimated Clark’s worth at $150 million.
After Clark left Washington in 1907 with his new wife (a much younger woman who used to be his ward!) and two young daughters, he took up residence in his finally finished marble palace.
The amenities boggled the mind: repurposed pieces from a French chateau, oak panels from Sherwood Forest, Turkish baths, vaulted corridors lined with Gustavino tile, 11 elevators, a pipe organ, 20-plus servant rooms, and galleries for Clark’s extensive art collection.
By the time Clark and his family moved in, however, this Gilded Age “pile of granite,” as the New York Times called it, was out of fashion. Architectural critics loathed it.
How Clark felt about this is unclear, and in any case, in 1925, the 86-year-old died inside his citadel (at left, in 1927).
His art collection went to the Corcoran Gallery, and his wife and surviving daughter (her sister succumbed to meningitis in 1919) sold the mansion to an apartment house builder—then decamped for a full-floor apartment at 907 Fifth Avenue down the road.
There the two remained. Decades after his wife passed on in the 1960s, Clark’s daughter made headlines for an entirely different reason than her father did.
She is Huguette Clark (on the right side of the photo with her father and sister, about 1917), the reclusive heiress who died in 2011 at the age of 104 after many years of living in Beth Israel Hospital.
Huguette Clark left a $300 million fortune, and many mysteries.
Gilded Age excess may have gone out of style by 1910. But every financial titan or old money heir staked their claim to the Millionaire’s Colony in the late 19th century, intent on building a marble castle.
See the amazing photos of this palaces in Ephemeral New York’s upcoming book, The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.
[Top image: Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), X2010.7.2.5452; second image: MCNY, X2010.7.2.21088; third image, via Shorpy; fourth image: MCNY/Phillip G. Bartlett, X2010.11.4911; Fifth image: Wikipedia]