"The golden gleam of the gilded surface hides the cheapness of the metal underneath"

~Keeping Alive The Gilded Age Era; And The Mansions, Parties, Yachts and People That Made It So Gilded.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Last Vanderbilt Stronghold, 640 Fifth Avenue, The Home of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt

Upon William Henry Vanderbilt's death, he left his side of the Vanderbilt triple palace in New York City, which he had built for him and his daughters, to his youngest son George Vanderbilt. Upon George Vanderbilt's death it was to pass to George's eldest son, if he had a son. George Vanderbilt died without a son, so the Vanderbilt mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue, along with $1 million, passed to the eldest son of the eldest son of William Henry Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt III and his wife, Grace Wilson.

Neily, As Cornelius Vanderbilt III Was Called, Was The Handsome Son Of Cornelius Vanderbillt II, Who Disinherited Him Because of His Marriage To Grace Wilson

Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, Of The "Marrying Wilsons", Would prove Them All Wrong And Succeed Them All As The Last Mrs. Vanderbilt

Neily had been disinherited by his father, who disapproved of Grace and her family. Since Cornelius didn't like Grace, none of the Vanderbilts did and she was shunned by the entire family. Not even Neily's stern mother, Alice, who was considered a saint, would see them. The only Vanderbilt who would talk to them was Neily's uncle, William Kissam Vanderbilt.

"Why, It's The Back Hole of Calcutta" Grace Exclaimed Upon Entering The Mansion "I Couldn't Possibly Live Here"

At Grace's desiring, Neily quickly had plans drawn up for major alterations to the mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue. Once done, he turned the plans over to famed architect Horace Trumbauer, who would carry out the renovations. The cost of the renovations would total to $500,000, which at that price the newspapers commented "For that amount, as fine a private home as the average wealthy man could wish for could be built in the most exclusive residential part of the upper east side"

Horace Trumbauer (middle) Had Done Numerous Commissions For Several Of The Super Wealthy, Such As The Wideners And The Stotesburys

Once Completed The House Was One Of The Most Luxurious And Grand Homes In All Of New York City

2 years later the house was ready for occupancy and the Vanderbilt's immediately opened the house with a large ball. The exterior had been completely stripped of most of it's decorative features and the home had been expanded in the back. The most obvious addition was the large, one story entrance pavilion.

Grace Always had A Red Carpet Rolled Out From the Entrance Pavilion To Greet Arriving Guests And Lead Them Inside

The interiors had been completely gutted, the only thing salvaged was the large, malachite vase that had stood in the original entrance vestibule. The new interiors included on the ground floor a marble-lined hall, two dressing rooms, a three-story great hall, a ballroom, music room, dining room, family dining room, library, art gallery and the red and gold ante room. The second floor held Neily and Grace's private master suites, each with their own bath and dressing room, Grace's pink boudoir, Neily's private sitting room and sound proof laboratory, the breakfast room and the children's rooms. The next two floor held the guest rooms, guest sitting rooms, bathrooms, dressing room and the female servant's rooms. The basement held the male servant's rooms, kitchens, laundry rooms and other service rooms.

The Stone Steps In The Entrance Pavilion Led Up To The The House, A Portrait of The Commodore Greeted The Guests

The Great Hall Held The Large, Malachite Vase That Had Been In The Original Vestibule Before The Renovations

The French Ballroom Could Hold 500 People And Was Used At Least Once A Month For Balls, Events or Parties

The Music Room Had A "Parquet De Versailles" Floor That Was Considered Too Beautiful To Cover Up
The Art Gallery Held The Art Collection That William Henry Vanderbilt had Spent His Life Collecting

The Library, Which Held Barely Ant Books, Was Where Grace Had Tea Every Morning, Around The Room Were Pictures Of The Famous People Grace Had Entertained

The French Dining Room Had A Table That Could Extend Out To Hold 50 People, All At Once, At One Of Grace's Many Dinner Parties

The Family Dining Room Was Where The Family Had Their Private Meals On The Rare Occasion That They Weren't Entertaining, The Paneling Had Come From Their Original New York City Townhouse

By the time the house was completed, Grace had already been recognized as the new Queen of New York City Society, replacing Mrs. Astor, who had died back in 1908. Grace began to host several balls and dinners during the New York City season. An invitation to her house, would secure social success.

Every year, at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House, Grace's arrival was always the one most looked forward to. Her box at the Met was located on the famous first tier of boxes, the famous "Diamond Horseshoe" as it was called (Mrs. Astor had always claimed that the "Diamond Horsehoe" had been named after her famous 200 stone diamond necklace, which she had always worn at the opening of the opera).

The Opening Night At The Metropolitan Opera House Was The Highlight Of The New York City Social Season

Shortly after they moved into the Vanderbilt mansion, Neily began to realize the mistake he made, sacrificing a fortune for a pretty face, because once a pretty face was gone, it was gone. Grace began to grow uglier and uglier with the years. She began to grow white hair early in life and she left it alone, except for dying it a special Chinese Tea. She began to gain weight from all the French cooking at her dinners and, because servants did everything for her, she did absolutely nothing to lose weight.

Grace Vanderbilt At The Opening Of The Metropolitan Opera House, Which She Never Missed, Always Receiving Guests In Her Private Box

Grace had a very organized schedule, which was, one ball a month, two large dinner parties a week and smaller dinners and brunches daily. At Grace's dinner parties were the usuals: Berwinds, Goelets, Hammonds, Aldrichs, Burdens, Harrimans and Biddles. At her large dinners there was normally around 100 people, most of whom Grace scarcely knew, but at her small dinners of normally 50 people, Grace knew everyone there.

Pictured Above Is One of Grace's Small Dinner Parties, In Attendance That Night Were Mrs. Winthrop Aldrich, Sir And Lady Cadogan, Mr. And Mrs. Hammond, Rep. Joseph C. Baldwin (R-NY), Madame Deprez And J. Watson

When in Newport, Grace rented "Beaulieu" cottage, formerly the home of John Astor III and William Waldorf Astor, which she later purchased. It was at "Beaulieu" that Grace gave her first major party, where she had the play "The Wild Rose" come to Newport and perform for her guests.

"Beaulieu" Cottage Was Right Down The Street From Neily's Parent's Cottage, "The Breakers", Which Was Still Occupied By Alice

Eventually Alice excepted Grace and Neily, although the relationship was frosty. Alice, who was considered one of the most wealthiest women in the world, began to help Neily and Grace out financially, which they needed.

Frosty Alice Had Worn Nothing But Black And Pearls Every Since The Death Of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Grace also wanted a yacht, like her sister May Goelet, and she had Neily commission a large boat, which they called "The North Star", named after Cornelius Vanderbilt I's yacht. The yacht was fitted with the finest materials and included a drawing room, library and dining saloon.

Each Year, At Grace's Urging, The Vanderbilts Sailed "The North Star" To Those Ports Where They Would Most Likely Be Seen By Royalty

To escape his wife and the entertaining that she brought with her, Neily joined the army. World War I proved to be his finest hour. Neily also developed horrible habits of smoking and drinking regularly. He was quite mean to his son, who claimed he liked Neily better when he was drunk than when he wasn't.

Neily Became Known As "The General", Something Grace Was All Too Pleased To Call Him In Front Of Guests

Neily also thought he might like to enter politics, so he attended the Republican National Convention in Saratoga Springs, although he realized it was too expensive for him saying "Look I may be a Vanderbilt, but I am not a Rockefeller!" Most of the time, Neily just retreated to his other yacht, the Winchester.

The "Winchester", Which Neily Had Purchased From Vincent Astor, Was Mostly Paid For By Alice And Neily's Sister Gertrude Whitney

While Neily would be sailing around on his yacht, Grace would be back in New York City entertaining . Every year at the New York City mansion and "Beaulieu", Grace would be entertaining up to 10,000 people a year. Every night at dinner parties, Grace would have a red carpet rolled out across the sidewalk to lead the guests inside. Greeting guests inside, she would be beside two footmen in livery, welcoming them inside. Although she hated the press, they loved her. She was mostly photographed at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera.

Grace Vanderbilt Never Missed The Opening Of The Metropolitan Opera House, Not Until Her Death Would She Ever Miss One

When Alice died in 1934, she left Neily the Gwynne Building in Ohio and about $7 million, if it hadn't been for her money, Grace and Neily would have been broke. Grace and Neily were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on parties, jewelry, taxes, clothes, food, servants and numerous amounts of other things, although this didn't stop Grace.

Grace Arriving At The Opera With Her Three Famous Signatures: The Bandeau or "Headache Band"On Her Head, Her Diamond Stomacher And The Famous Silver Fox Wrap

When Grace and Neily's son, Neil, announced he would be working as a newspaperman, they promptly kicked him out. Neil had had an unfortunate childhood, Grace had been a distant mother and Neily had wanted nothing to do with his children, so he was not surprised when they kicked him out.

Neil Vanderbilt Would Go On To Be Married Very Many Times, Much To The Disapproval Of Grace

While Grace was entertaining and mixing with royalty, the world around her was changing. Over time the residences around the 640 Fifth Avenue mansion had been replaced with large skyscrapers and soon the 640 Fifth Avenue mansion became lost in a sea of skyscrapers.

The Other Side Of The Vanderbilt Triple Palace Was Getting Ready To Be Torn Down And Replaced With A Large Apartment Building

Slowly they came down, one by one Vanderbilt Row disintegrated and soon only Grace and Neily's aunt, Florence Twombly, were left. 640 Fifth Avenue became a shrine of a bygone era, the only private residence left on that side of town.

In The Middle Of A Sea Of Skyscrapers Was Grace Vanderbilt And Her Imposing Mansion, 640 Fifth Avenue

When Neily died, he left an estate of $4 million. Grace inherited $2 million and $900,000 to his two children. It had turned out that shortly before his death, Neily had sold 640 Fifth Avenue to developers to raise money. Under the terms of the agreement Grace would get to remain at 640 Fifth Avenue until two years after Neily's death. Grace continued to entertain just as lavish as she always had, hosting her last ball in 1941. Finally she too had to give up.

The Movers Came And Packed Up The Large Art Collection, Which Was Being Given To The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Along With The Malachite Vase

The Vanderbilt Mansion Under Demolition, 600 Workmen Instructed To Tear Apart 640 Fifth Avenue, The Last of It's Kind
The Great Hall Of The Mansion Was Completely Torn Apart, Not One of It's Decorative Features Saved

Grace Vanderbilt moved to another New York City townhouse, which was now in the heart of the fashionable district, which had formerly belonged to William Starr Miller, Grace called it "The Gardener's Cottage" because it contained only 28 rooms, compared to the 85 rooms at 640 Fifth Avenue.

The William Starr Miller Mansion, Which Grace Bought For $800,000, She Regally Brought Her Butler And Her Bathroom

The William Starr Miller Mansion Today, Surrounded On All Sides By Skyscrapers, Which Tower Over The Mansion

It was at the Miller mansion when Grace passed away with her family by her side, worrying if the money would last. Grace once said "Poor Marie Antoinette, If the Revolution ever came to America I would surely be the first to go"


  1. Fascinating story about life inside one of those Gilded Age mansions. I do prefer the original interiors and the gorgeous exterior of 640 5th before the renovation, being far more unique and opulent, but they were obviously out of date by the time the next generation moved in. While life was not always great inside the gilded cage, I do wish one of the Vanderbilt palatial homes in the mid-50's on Fifth Ave had survived. CV II's mansion on 57th Street would be stunning to see if it had avoided the wrecking ball.

  2. Its things like this that truly make me sick and disgusted. What world do we live in? How can we call ourselves Human Beings when we have no problem with destroying a piece of history? Not just architectural history, but financial history (The Story of WH Vanderbilt and his father who made these mansions possible), social history, history across the board to be frank about it. Everytime I read stories about these fabulous, beautiful homes being torn down eventually to put up a department store, or an office building - it almost makes me physically sick to my stomach. Can you imagine 150 years now people REALLY giving a flip about the Bergdorf Gooodman building that replaced the Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion on W. 57th?? I doubt it because here we sit nearly 150 years after the mansion was built, still looking at the photos, still telling the stories from inside its palatial walls, but do you hear anyone talking about Mr. Goodman, how his store became so good and so on......NO, you do not!!! Do you hear people discussing the history or stories behind the office building that now stands where the WH Vanderbilt Triple Palace once stood? No!!! But, you still hear people talking about that mansion, and looking up photos of it and so on.

    How can we as a society, have no problems with destroying history?!??!

    1. I couldn't agree more! Although the demolition of the CVII house was invetiable, it was the largest home in NY, who could afford to keep up with it?? Besides that, I don't understand why some of the smaller Vanderbilt mansions didn't survie, like Alva Vanderbilt's famous chateau or her son's home next door. Or some of NYC's smaller residences, like the William Watts Sherman Townhouse or the Van Alen townhouse. I think NYC is starting to regret losing those homes, I know I do.

    2. I really thought you were going somewhere else give the Depression.

  3. Donate some money to the Newport Historical society then... The Breakers and several other mansions are being kept well in newport... they would appreciate the help too.

  4. Very nicely done, I'm sure Grace would feel honored to be remembered (now on the other side) if not a bit embarrassed by her life of excess.

    Never-the-less there will never be another gilded-era like this in America and with good conscience, perhaps, there never should be. But just the same, it was, and with the death of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III, in 1953, noted as the last reigning 'Queen of the Golden Age' the golden era of riches and fairy tales ended, never ever to be recaptured or recreated!

    Thanks for your efforts!

  5. Anyone know where to find the floor plans to 640 Fifth Avenue?

    1. This is an excellent question. I have never seen floorplans for this house, either before or after Grace's renovation. The original plans (by an architect employed by Herter Bros, the decorating firm) may not have survived as the Herter Bros archives were lost many years ago. But it's surprising that one never sees the Trumbauer plans. They are not even included in the lavish book devoted to Trumbauer's residential work.

  6. I hate the loss of the grand homes but truly sick over the old Met Opera house & Penn Station - imagine putting the Penn Station in the old post office across the street


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