Posts Tagged ‘Gilded Age mansions’

Summoning the servants in the Frick mansion

April 29, 2019

Today, the former Henry Clay Frick mansion on Fifth Avenue and 70th Street is a spectacular art museum featuring Frick’s extensive collection of Old Masters paintings and 19th century decorative arts, among other treasures.

Frick always intended his mansion to become a museum after both he and his wife (bottom right) died—and as he planned, the museum opened to the public in 1935. (Frick died in 1919; his wife, Adelaide Childs Frick, in 1931.)

Since then, the second-floor family rooms where Frick lived with his wife and daughter, Helen (with her father at left in 1910) have been off-limits to the public, and just about all remnants of the family life of this titan of industry have vanished.

But there is one reminder of the private life of the Frick family, and it’s hiding in plain sight in the museum’s West Gallery.

In the middle of the hall, under Turner’s “The Arrival of a Packet-Boat, Evening,” are five small white buttons built into the wood molding of the wall. (Above, center)

The Fricks pressed these buttons to discreetly summon one of the dozens of servants who resided in the home with them. (The servant quarters were on the third floor.) Each button calls a specific servant or part of the house: butler, housekeeper, secretary, valet, and pantry.

Having buttons like these in every main room was probably totally normal among the extraordinarily rich the late 19th or early 20th century.

A typical wealthy household would employ a small army of servants—including a chef, cook, governess, gardener, driver, laundress, an all-purpose “useful man,” and a team of maids all taking care of different parts of the residence.

Next time you’re browsing the Frick, consider the servant buttons a ghostly reminder of the family that made their incredible art collection public. It’s also an emblem of a way of life that vanished when most rich New Yorkers abandoned single-family mansions for apartment house living by the 1920s.

[Top image: portrait by Edmund Charles Tarbell; second photo: courtesy of Caitlin Henningsen and the Frick Collection; fourth image: MCNY 1919 X2010.28.828]

An 1877 Park Avenue mansion funded by beer

June 25, 2018

The titans of industry in the Gilded Age built spectacular mansions for themselves on today’s Upper East Side.

George Ehret also built an Upper East Side mansion. But unlike men like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Frick who made their money in steel, railroads, or on Wall Street, Ehret’s showstopper of a home was funded by a decidedly old-world product: beer.

Ehret was the German-born founder of the Hell Gate Brewery, opened in 1866 in a massive brick clock-tower structure on a mostly rural stretch of East 93rd Street between Second and Third Avenues.

(Below, the view from Ehret’s mansion in 1882, with Hell Gate Brewery in the background close to the East River.)

Like thousands of other German immigrants, Ehret arrived in Gotham in the middle of the 19th century, part of the first wave of mass immigration from Europe.

While beer had been a popular beverage in the city since colonial days, this sudden population surge fueled a demand for beer that led to the opening of several huge breweries in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“The Germans who came during and after that period were mostly beer drinkers, and the demand for that mild beverage became so great that the speedy erection of additional breweries proved to be a manifest want,” Ehret wrote in his 1891 history of brewing.

Thanks to all the beer gardens and saloons popping up in the Gilded Age, Ehret made a fortune. In 1877 he bought land on newly landscaped upper Fourth Avenue between 93rd and 94th Streets, then commissioned an architect to construct a fabulous mansion for himself, his wife, and their many children.

Architecture critics may not have loved it, but the brownstone-style mansion built on a hill certainly stood out, especially since the Ehrets didn’t have many neighbors at the time. (Above, from the mansion roof in 1882)

Over the decades that changed, and by the time Ehret died in his home in 1927, Park Avenue was turning into an enclave of tall, stately apartment houses.

His family sold the mansion to a developer who built 1185 Park Avenue on the site (above). Ehret’s brewery ceased production two years later, a casualty of Prohibition.

[Top photo: NYPL, 1928; third and fourth photos: MCNY 2001.72.10; MCNY 2003.26.4]