Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

The Manhattan country estate houses of old New York’s forgotten families

May 19, 2022

The significance of their names has been (mostly) forgotten, their spacious wood frame houses in the sparsely populated countryside of Gotham long dismantled, carted away, and paved over.

The Riker estate, in 1866

But the wealthy New Yorkers who purchased vast parcels of land and built these lovely country homes (surrounded by charming picket fences, according to the illustrations left behind) in the late 18th or early 19th centuries deserve some recognition.

These “show places,” as one source called them, dotted much of Manhattan in the era when the city barely extended past 14th Street. The families who owned them likely lived much of the year downtown. But when summer brought stifling heat and filthy streets (and disease outbreaks), they escaped to their estates by boat or via one of the few roads in the upper reaches of the island.

Arch Brook on the Riker estate grounds, 1869

The estate house in the top image belongs to a familiar name: It’s the country home of one member of the Riker family, circa 1866. Before their name became synonymous with a jail and an island in the East River, the Rikers were a well-known old money clan. Abraham Ryeken, who sailed to New Amsterdam from the Netherlands and owned a home on Broad Street, was the patriarch.

The descendent who lived in this house on today’s 75th Street and the East River was Richard Riker, born in 1773. He held a number of positions in New York including district attorney. Known for his “polished manner and social prominence,” he counted Alexander Hamilton as a friend. Riker died in 1842, and his funeral commenced in the estate house, according to the New-York Tribune. Could that be his widow in the illustration?

Cargle house, 1868

On the other side of Manhattan stood this pretty yellow house (above) with the gable roof, long side porch, and four chimneys. It was the estate home on the Cargle family at 60th Street and Tenth Avenue. It’s modest by 19th century standards, but far larger than any town house or early brownstone. The land might have even extended all the way to the Hudson River.

Who were the Cargles? This name is a mystery. Newspaper archives mention a Dr. Cargle, but so far the trail is cold. The image dates to 1868, and the paved road has a sidewalk and gas lamp. Imagine the cool river breezes on a warm summer night!

Provoost house, 1858

The Cargles lived across Manhattan from David Provoost and his family. The Provoost country residence (above) was on 57th Street and the East River, just blocks north of another fabled estate house of a notable family—that of the Beekmans.

David Provoost, or Provost, was the son of a New Amsterdam burgher who became a merchant and then mayor of New York from 1699 to 1700. Provost Street in Brooklyn and Provost Avenue in the Bronx are named for him or perhaps a family descendent. Who built the house, so grand that it qualifies as a true mansion?

Henry Delafield mansion, built in the 1830s and pictured in 1862

The Delafield house (above) is another mansion that must have been lovely and cool thanks to the East River nearby. Located on today’s East 77th Street and York Avenue, it was the home of Henry Delafield, son of John Delafield, who arrived in New York from England in 1783. John Delafield became one of the “merchant princes” of New York, according to 1912 New York Times article.

Henry Delafield also became a merchant and founded a shipping firm with his brother. His house was described by the Times as “one of the show palaces among the splendid country residences on the East Side north of 59th Street.” He died in 1875. “The latter years of his life were spent pleasantly on his fine country estate overlooking the East River,” the Times wrote. Fine, indeed!

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]

The Fifth Avenue wedding present gifted to these rich Gilded Age newlyweds

April 28, 2022

Getting married during the Gilded Age when you’re young, rich, and from a famous family meant making lots of plans. The right church for the ceremony had to be booked, a grand reception arranged, distinguished guests invited, and a proper wedding party put into place.

The almost-completed Payne Whitney House, 973 Fifth Avenue; the James B. Duke mansion has not been built yet

And in an era when young people generally resided with their families before marriage, a couple also had secure their own place to live after the wedding bells finished ringing.

Payne Whitney, undated

Payne Whitney and his bride, Helen Hay, both 26 years old, luckily had that taken care of for them. Whitney was gifted the ultimate Gilded Age wedding present when his wealthy Civil War colonel uncle, Oliver H. Payne, purchased a 70 by 100 foot plot of land on Fifth Avenue between 78th and 79th Street and intended to build a mansion for his “favorite” nephew and new wife.

Fifth Avenue and 79th Street in 1911: corner left is the Isaac Brokaw Mansion, corner middle is the Fletcher Mansion, and attached is the Payne Whitney House. The James B. Duke mansion is on the far right.

This gift of a Fifth Avenue mansion was actually announced at the wedding, held on February 6, 1902 in Washington, DC. (Hay’s father, John Milton Hay, was a DC insider, serving as President Lincoln’s private secretary and then as Secretary of State in the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations.)

The name of the mansion giver was kept secret, but a month later the New York Times revealed that it was Oliver Payne and printed some financial details of the yet-to-be-built home—which would be end up between the splendid 1899 Isaac Fletcher chateau-like mansion and then the James B. Duke mansion when that one was completed in 1912.

The Payne Whitney mansion is on the far left; Duke mansion is at the center

“The plot has been held at $525,000, and it is said that the price paid by Col. Payne is little, if any, below that figure,” the Times wrote on March 8, 1902. “The mansion to be erected thereon will undoubtedly cost as much more, so that the total value of the wedding present will not be less than $1,000,000.”

Who would be hired to design this mansion, which would front Fifth Avenue at a prime location of Millionaire Mile? Stanford White—who also happened to be a guest at the wedding.

Helen Hay Whitney

“Designed by White in 1902, the house contained forty rooms,” wrote Wayne Craven in his book Stanford White: Decorator in Opulence and Dealer in Antiquities. “Construction continued until 1905, and work on the interiors dates from 1904 on.”

It’s not clear where Payne Whitney (whose mother was one of the fabled ‘Astor 400’) and Helen Hay lived while their mansion was going up. But after the wedding they spent a monthlong honeymoon in Georgia, and then after a brief stop in New York City went to Europe for several months.

Another view of the mansion

One major interruption during construction, unfortunately, was White’s demise in 1906; the architect was shot and killed on the roof of his magnificent Madison Square Garden. By the time of White’s death, “most major work on the interiors was completed, but the house was not actually finished until 1909,” stated Craven.

It took seven years to build, but what a stunning palace it was. What became known as the Payne Whitney house at 972 Fifth Avenue “was designed in high Italian Renaissance style, the curved granite front, covered with rich classical ornament, rises five stories,” wrote Barbara Diamonstein-Spielvogel in The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition.

Looking good in a 1939-1941 photo

“Winged cherubs fill the spandrels of the round-arched parlor floor windows, which are flanked with Ionic pilasters,” continued Diamonstein-Spielvogel. “The Renaissance treatment of the upper stories, with Corinthian pilasters and carved classical figures in low relief, is particularly handsome.”

The Gilded Age was at its end when the mansion was completed, but the Whitneys had a fortune with which to live well for the next two decades with their two children. Payne, a Yale Law School graduate, launched his career as a financier and thoroughbred horse breeder. Helen was an accomplished author and poet.

This looks like the Venetian Room, still viewable today

After her husband passed away suddenly in 1927 while playing tennis, Mrs. Whitney became a renowned philanthropist and living in the mansion until she died in 1944.

“The Republic of France has been the owner of this impressive mansion since 1952,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission in a 1970 report designating the Payne Whitney mansion a New York City landmark.

The Payne Whitney Mansion in the middle, earlier this year

The French have been good to the house, keeping it open and installing a beautiful two-story French-English bookstore called Albertine. Curious visitors can wander through the impressive front doors to a rotunda with a marble fountain, then view a gilded former receiving room called the Venetian Room (above), furnished with pieces from Europe bought by White and the Whitneys.

Long after the Whitneys departed, the house stands as a Gilded Age reminder on an avenue with few mansions left from this elegant era. There is one curious treasure inside worth noting: a statue (below), The Young Archer, which has been in the marble rotunda for decades, is “now thought to be an early work by Michelangelo,” according to a website about the mansion maintained by the French Embassy.

[Top photo: MCNY, 90.44.1.862; second photo: FindaGrave; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: New-York Historical Society; fifth photo: LOC; sixth photo: MCNY 90.44.1.864; seventh photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; eighth photo: MCNY 90.44.1.423]

Finding the servant call buttons in New York City’s Gilded Age mansions

April 4, 2022

Next time you’re in one of the city’s former Gilded Age mansions—reborn as a museum, perhaps, or a cultural center, store, or some other public building—be on the lookout for tiny buttons.

Sure you’ll want to gaze in amazement at the mansion’s elaborate interiors, with their lovely detailing, mahogany wood staircases, and splendorous ceiling murals.

But while you marvel at the beauty of it all, you might notice one of the purely functional servant call buttons that discreetly summoned the hired household help who allowed wealthy families to live so well.

The servant call buttons above come from the Gothic mansion on Fifth Avenue and 79th Street. Once known as the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion, it’s now home to the Ukrainian Institute. Several servant buttons can be found around the interior, sometimes chipped or partly painted over.

Frick mansion, 1919

This servant buttons below were found at the Frick Collection, now a magnificent art museum but once steel magnate Henry Clay Frick’s palazzo-like mansion at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street. The Frick family had 27 servants living on the third floor of his mansion, according to the Frick Collection website, and I imagine these buttons were pressed often.

Butler, pantry, housekeeper—I can’t quite make out the rest. The buttons came from the museum’s West Gallery. And no, none of the buttons meant to summon servants worked!

[Third image: MCNY 1919 X2010.28.828]

A colorful mural across a tenement wall honors the immigrants who built Yorkville

April 4, 2022

Save for a few restaurants in the upper East 80s and some cultural and historic organizations, the German presence in Yorkville—Manhattan’s last “Kleindeutschland“—has almost entirely vanished.

German bakeries and bars no longer line the streets, German language newspapers aren’t readily available at newsstands, and the smell of beer wafting from local breweries vanished after the last brewer closed its doors in 1965, according to an AMNY article from 2018.

But one tenement on York Avenue continues to pay homage to the German immigrants and their descendants who made East 86th Street a hub of culture and energy through much of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The five-story tenement, on the corner of York and 83rd Street, appears similar to the hundreds of other low-rise walkups lining the streets from Third Avenue to the East River north of 79th Street.

But look closely: one side is painted with a series of whimsical images of a clock, NYPD officers, gargoyles, a sewing machine, cartoonish faces, and gothic arched entrances.

Called Glockenspiel, the building-wide mural is the work of artist Richard Haas. Its origins date back to 2005, when a towering new luxury condo building across 83rd Street called the Cielo opened its doors. Apparently, new residents of the 28-story Cielo weren’t too happy about the shabby tenement view from the lobby.

“The refined atmosphere of the building was marred by its neighbor: a graffiti-covered tenement,” wrote Glenn Palmer-Smith in his book, Murals of New York City. To class up the corner, the developers of the Cielo asked the owner of the tenement if they could have a mural painted on the facade “to give the illusion that the neighborhood was upscale enough to justify the price of the apartments.”

The owner agreed, and Haas painted the mural “as a tribute to the Germanic history of the Yorkville neighborhood,” wrote Palmer-Smith. “He painted a side of the building rich in architectural detail, such as a three-story bay window and a clock with painted ‘moveable’ mechanical figures which, reflecting the city theme, are two New York City mounted policemen.”

Some of the images are a bit of a mystery. The sewing machine and dress form could represent industry, or perhaps the sense of home and family found in Yorkville. The gargoyles are similar to some of the gargoyles found on tenements like this one.

One of the painted images has the exaggerated face of a man grinding a mortar and pestle, suggesting a local druggist or medicine. Two hooded figures blowing horns might be referencing the rich tradition of German music halls and singing societies. The painted windows with a closetful of suits and a stairway are harder to decipher.

The tribute as a whole seems to tell the story of the neighborhood as it was a century or so ago: rich with the touchstones of an immigrant culture that has departed from the protective and insular world Yorkville once provided.

This 1899 Gilded Age fairy-tale mansion on Fifth Avenue has had only 4 owners

March 21, 2022

New Yorkers have always used real estate to showcase their wealth and position. But in Gilded Age Manhattan, the one-upmanship reached crazy new heights—with rich Fifth Avenoodles, as they were mockingly called by the general public, constantly outdoing their neighbors by building more ostentatious mansions fronting Central Park.

2 East 79th Street

Industrialist Isaac D. Fletcher seemed to have this competitive mindset. When he commissioned his new mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street in 1897, he supposedly wanted the house to rival William K. and Alva Vanderbilt’s 1882 “petit chateau” on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.

Completed in 1899, Fletcher’s palace at 2 East 79th Street managed to outshine even the venerable Vanderbilt chateau. Designed by premier Gilded Age architect C.P.H. Gilbert, it’s been described as an eclectic French Renaissance manor house, a Loire Valley Gothic chateau, and a fairy tale-like castle—complete with lots of gargoyles, grotesques, and whimsical creatures carved in stone on the house’s two facades.

The Fletcher Mansion, New York City, 1899 by Jean-Francois Raffaelli

Like other new money mansion dwellers on Upper Fifth Avenue, Fletcher was a titan of industry. After moving to New York as a young man, he became president the New York Coal Tar Company; later he headed a manufacturing concern, according to a 1977 Historic Preservation Commission report. He lived in 2 East 79th Street with his wife, Mary, and a staff of eight servants. As members of his class did, he visited the Metropolitan Opera house and sailed to Europe.

An avid art collector, the wide, open rooms of Fletcher’s mansion must have made it possible to display his collection of Old Masters, which he bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art along with the house when he died in 1917.

The mansion in 1940, with the former Brokaw Mansion across 79th Street

The Met accepted the artwork but a year later flipped the mansion to its second owner, businessman Harry F. Sinclair. An oil baron, Sinclair was already living on Fifth Avenue at 72nd Street, according to the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide in 1918.

The owner of the St. Louis Browns and a Kentucky Derby-winning horse, Sinclair became embroiled in the Teapot Dome bribery scandals of the 1920s. Though “he was not convicted of any criminal charges, he did serve a brief prison sentence for contempt of court,” per the HPC report.

The facade from East 79th Street, 1975

After the scandal died down in 1930, Sinclair sold 2 East 79th Street to its third owner, Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant—a scion of the Stuyvesant family described by the New York Times in 1953 as the last direct descendent of Peter Stuyvesant, the 17th century governor general of New Amsterdam. The price, per the Times: $450,000.

Stuyvesant, a bachelor, lived in the mansion with his unmarried sister, Anne. After she died in 1938, this surviving brother occupied the house alone, save for a staff of servants. The Times described him as a recluse, spending his time walking around his Upper East Side neighborhood or visiting the Stuyvesant family vault at St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue and 10th Street.

“For the last 30 years or more, Mr. Stuyvesant had led an extraordinary secluded life,” according to the article. “He followed no profession. His only recreation seems to have been an hour’s stroll each day through the streets near his home. He had no family or social life. Occasionally he traded in real estate anonymously through brokers and lawyers and thus helped to build up the millions he inherited.”

After Stuyvesant died in 1953, felled by the August heat while on a neighborhood stroll, he joined his relatives in the family vault.

The fourth owner of 2 East 79th Street has occupied the mansion since 1955. The Ukrainian Institute—a nonprofit dedicated to showcasing the art, literature, and music of Ukraine—has maintained this Gilded Age palace and opens to the public the rooms where Fletcher displayed his art, where Sinclair worked on his defense in court, and where Augustus Stuyvesant waited out his days.

War in Ukraine dominates the headlines right now, but the Institute offers a respite: a place to view exhibits (free of charge, though donations are accepted) and see the preserved interior of one of the city’s last Gilded Age mansions.

[Third image: Metropolitan Museum of Art; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; fifth image: MCNY, 2013.3.2.732]

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

March 14, 2022

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]

Ephemeral New York explores the servants of the Gilded Age in a new podcast

February 21, 2022

Gilded Age new rich and old money families had one thing in common: they all employed an army of servants to clean their mansions, mind their children, prepare their meals, drive their carriages, and take care of any other task members of elite society deemed necessary. But who were these butlers, chambermaids, laundresses, cooks, valets, and coachmen—and what was life like for them?

In a new episode of the history podcast The Gilded Gentleman, host Carl Raymond (writer, editor, and social and cultural historian) has invited me to take a look at the roles and responsibilities of domestic staff in grand mansions and more modest homes. We’ll explore what servants did—and who they really were. The episode pays tribute to the “invisible magicians” without whom the dinners, balls, and daily workings of households of the Gilded Age would never have been possible. 

The episode debuts on Tuesday, February 22. You can download it and subscribe to The Gilded Gentleman on Apple or your favorite podcast player. The Gilded Gentleman podcast is produced by The Bowery Boys.

[Photo: MCNY 1900, MNY204627]

What went on at the Gilded Age ‘Patriarchs balls’ for New York society

February 21, 2022

If the 19th century Gilded Age was still with us, New York society would right now be bracing for the end of the annual winter social season.

Evenings in the boxes at the Academy of Music, French dinners at Delmonico’s, costume balls at Knickerbocker mansions—each week between November and the arrival of Lent offered an intoxicating mix of social events for Gotham’s old-money “uppertens” (aka, the richest 10,000 people in the city).

But there was one type of ball that owes its existence to the clubby exclusiveness fostered during this late 19th century era of consumption and corruption: the Patriarchs Balls.

A ticket to a Patriarchs Ball in 1892

Patriarchs Balls grew out of a group called the Society of the Patriarchs, formed in 1872 by Ward McAllister (below)—the Southern-born social arbiter who became Caroline Astor’s sidekick and gatekeeper as she put her imprint on Gilded Age society.

The Patriarch Balls, given several times in a social season at Delmonico’s, had a specific purpose. “Both Astor and McAllister lamented the ‘fragmentation’ of society and hoped to alleviate it by creating a circle of elite New Yorkers at the top of the city’s social hierarchy,” wrote Sven Beckert in his 2003 book, The Monied Metropolis.

Ward McAllister

“For that purpose they appointed 25 ‘patriarchs’—among them Eugene E. Livingston, Royal Phelps, and William C. Schermerhorn—who each could invite five women and four men to the balls and dinners organized by Caroline Astor.”

Those guests who “passed the scrutiny of the Patriarchs gained admission to the Four Hundred, a figure equal to the number of guests who could fit comfortably into [Caroline Astor’s] ballroom, where an annual ball was held on the third Monday in January,” stated William Grimes, author of Appetite City.

Delmonico’s menu for an 1897 Patriarchs Ball

What actually happened at a Patriarchs Ball? Based on the breathless coverage in the many New York newspapers of the Gilded Age, the events sound a lot like any other ball.

“At 11:30 the guests began to arrive, and dancing was begun at once,” wrote the New York Times on February 14, 1888—the last Patriarchs Ball of the social season. “Round dances only were in order in the large ballroom.” Two orchestras provided the music, and the hall and stairway were decorated with vines and palms. Roses, lilies, and tulips filled Delmonico’s dining rooms.

Coverage of a Patriarchs Ball, 1881 New York Times

“At 12:30 supper was served, and was unusually elaborate,” the Times reported. “Terrapin and truffled capons were among the delicacies.”

Patriarchs Balls continued into the 1890s. But as the division between old money and new rich dissolved and a brutal recession hit the city in 1893, the appetite regular New Yorkers had for this kind of frivolity began to wane.

Patriarchs Ball ticket, 1896

The New York Times covered their last Patriarchs Ball in 1896. In 1897, they simply reported in a small article that one Patriarch, a banker named James Kernochan, was run over on his way to a ball that year “by either a vehicle or a car somewhere on 42nd Street.” (Mr. Kernochan, of 824 Fifth Avenue, was left unconscious.)

McAllister’s fall from grace also contributed to the demise of the Patriarchs. After he published something of a tell-all in 1890, and then spoke to the press about exactly who, supposedly, was part of The Four Hundred, Mrs. Astor and her circle shunned him.

[Top image: Alamy; second image: MCNY 83.20.2; third image: LOC; fourth image: NYPL Menu Collection; fifth image: New York Times headline 1881; sixth image: MCNY 40.108.134]

Clearing Gilded Age Fifth Avenue of its shacks and shantytowns

February 14, 2022

Fifth Avenue has been New York’s most exclusive thoroughfare almost since the first section of the avenue, between Waverly Place and 13th Street, was laid out in 1824.

Shacks at Fifth Avenue and 89th Street, by Ralph Blakelock in 1868

It’s easy to see why. Fifth Avenue was ideal in terms of privacy and comfort; it’s as far as possible from the industry of the Hudson and East Rivers and removed enough from the retail that crept up Broadway as the decades progressed.

Fifth Avenue also lacked a streetcar line or elevated train, so the slender avenue wasn’t clogged with traffic and crowds of strangers.

A Fifth Avenue shantytown, cross street not known

As the 19th century went on and the Gilded Age was in full swing, a Fifth Avenue address became even more sought after. Old money New Yorkers and new rich titans of industry built their mansions on what was dubbed ‘Millionaire’s Row’—from Fifth Avenue in the 50s to the stretch along Central Park in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

The rows of brownstone mansions and marble chateaus arrived by the early 1900s, and images of these massive houses have come to symbolize the wealth made during the Gilded Age.

Mansions of the old and new rich lining upper Fifth Avenue; that’s Mrs. Astor’s house on the corner of 65th Street in 1895

But what became of the shacks and shanties that formerly lined Fifth Avenue, especially the upper end, before it became a millionaire colony?

Fifth Avenue above 59th Street “at one time…was invaded by more than five thousand ‘wastrels,’ and was known as ‘Shantytown,’ and its queer inhabitants as ‘squatters,'” stated Fifth Avenue Old and New, a book published in 1924 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the avenue.

Fifth Avenue shacks, 1895

Not all of the shanties were residential. A New York Times article from 1901 that focused on the eventual mansion Andrew Carnegie was building on Upper Fifth Avenue referenced the “relics” of another era, when this section of Fifth was an undeveloped road.

“This upper section of the avenue shows many strange contrasts, for alongside the palaces of millionaires are to be found old-fashioned roadhouses and buildings that are little more than shanties, relics of the former days of the avenue when it was a road,” the Times wrote.

Headline in the New York Times, 1905

A squalid shack next door to Carnegie’s stunning mansion at Fifth and 91st Street was the subject of another Times article in 1905.

“Within a stone’s throw of Andrew Carnegie’s mansion, the marble-colonnaded twin residence of G. L. and C. W. McAlpin, and the somewhat less pretentious home of Carl Schurz stands a gabled shanty within 20 feet of Fifth Avenue of such scant dimensions and poverty-stricken appearance that it would be despised among the hovels that house some of the poorest of the city’s residents.”

The Times goes on to describe the family of 5 kids headed by an Irish father who works as a stevedore (and their dog, an “ugly-tempered canine brute”). “The space of the dwelling that serves as home for those six human beings and the beast is probably something like 20 by 12 feet, divided into two rooms.”

Illustration from “Fifth Avenue Old and New” by Henry Collins Brown via Columbia University Digital Collections

What happened to this family, and other owners and inhabitants elbowed out of upper Fifth Avenue? There’s no follow up, but it’s safe to say their rickety homes, built on land they didn’t own, were condemned once the lot was sold and construction was to begin on another mansion.

“The owners of the land are simply awaiting purchasers at fancy figures, and meanwhile do not care what sort of building remains on the land,” the 1901 Times piece states.

Fifth Avenue wasn’t the only millionaire mile in New York City with shantytowns. Riverside Drive, lined with Queen Anne and Beaux Arts mansions in the early 1900s, was also dotted by shanties and squatter shacks.

[Top image: Corbis; second image: MCNY, MNY227520; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY, MNY219239; fifth image: New York Times; sixth image: Fifth Avenue Old and New via Columbia University Digital Collections]

The socialite who built ‘marble row’ and changed the face of Gilded Age Fifth Avenue

February 7, 2022

Born in 1801, Mary Mason Jones was many things: an old-money heiress, a society doyenne, a great aunt to Edith Wharton (we’ll come back to this later), and the first person in New York City to have a bathtub installed in her residence, per Christopher Gray in the New York Times.

Mary Mason Jones

The bathtub went into her marital house on Chambers Street. Jones later moved to a triple mansion on Waverly Place near Broadway, where she and her sisters entertained other Knickerbocker aristocrats inside the longest ballroom in the city.

Jones was also the owner of land at today’s Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. In 1823, her father, the president of Chemical Bank, purchased the land for $10 a lot, according to househistree.com. Far from the city center in the 1820s, the lots Jones inherited were still considered out in the sticks in the 1860s.

But streets had been laid out by then, and Jones was a trendsetter. She could see the way the residential city, then centered at Madison Square and Murray Hill, was marching northward.

So she commissioned a spectacular new mansion for herself (and produced the design before handing things off to architect Robert Mook) at the northeast corner of Fifth and 57th, along with an entire row of similar marble mansions completed in 1871.

Marble Row decorated for the Admiral Dewey reception in 1899

Nicknamed “Marble Row” for their gleaming cream facades in a city awash in brownstone, the mansard-roof row of mansions were “designed in the mode of a French chateau, by definition a large house erected in the country and therefore surrounded by broad, open spaces,” explained Wayne Craven in his book, Gilded Mansions. “As an architectural form, it was transplanted, in America’s Gilded Age, from a rural to an urban setting.”

Marble Row was likely inspired by Jones’ visits to Paris. “In Parisian fashion, the entire block between 57th and 58th Street was treated as a single unit, though there were actually five houses within the block,” stated Craven. After Jones moved into her corner mansion, she rented the remaining four to others in her social circle (no new money showoffs or shoddyites need apply).

Mary Mason Jones’ mansion in 1917-1918, after her death

What was it like living in a marble chateau so far from the hustle and bustle of the city? Edith Wharton can help us imagine Marble Row in its early years.

In her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence, Wharton introduces a character, Mrs. Manson Mingott, who is supposedly based on Jones. “It was her habit to sit in a window of her sitting-room on the ground floor, as if watching calmly for life and fashion to flow northward to her solitary doors,” Wharton wrote. “She seemed in no hurry to have them come, for her patience was equalled by her confidence.”

Marble Row at the turn of the century, with Fifth Avenue built up around it

“She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries, the one-storey saloons, the wooden green-houses in ragged gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene, would vanish before the advances of residences as stately as her own—perhaps (for she was an impartial woman) even statelier; and that the cobblestones over which the old clattering omnibuses bumped would be replaced by smooth asphalt, such as people have reported seeing in Paris.”

Of course, much of this did happen within the next decade or two. Wealthy New Yorkers built similar marble mansions on Fifth Avenue in the 50s and beyond, turning upper Fifth into the city’s millionaire colony. Meanwhile, Marble Row still maintained its elegance, but boarders and a commercial tenant began moving in.

Mary Mason Jones’ mansion in 1929, before demolition

Jones died in her mansion in 1891. By the 1920s, her corner house was the only part of marble row left, finally bowing to the wrecking ball in 1929 and replaced by an office building, according to Brooklyn Times Union article.

[Top image: National Portrait Gallery; second image: NYPL via househistree.com; third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY, X2010.7.2.2097; sixth image: MCNY, X2010.7.2.3751]