Posts Tagged ‘Gilded Age Mansions Fifth Avenue’

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]

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]

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]

Fifth Avenue’s most insane Gilded Age mansion

August 29, 2016

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.

Williamclarkmansionwurtzbros1909

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.

WilliamclarkhousesideviewAmazingly, 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.

Williamclarkmansion19051906

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.

WilliamclarkmansionmcnyThe 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).

Williamclarkhuguette1917His 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.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverGilded 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]