When William Henry Vanderbilt, the richest man in the world at the time, died, he left the most of his $200 million estate divided equally between his 2 eldest sons, Cornelius "Corneil" and William "Willie". Cornelius was older than William so Alice, Cornelius's wife, assumed that Cornelius was head of the Vanderbilt family, plus Cornelius had also been given an extra $2 million plus the portrait and marble bust of Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, objects that had always been given to the head of the family. Willie was perfectly fine with letting Cornelius be head of the family, but Willie's wife, Alva, was not okay with letting them rule the family and launched a campaign to make her husband and their children the leaders of the Vanderbilt clan. Alice also launched on a campaign, to put Alva firmly in her place, and Alice had just the plan to win.
Corneil Was Considered A Saint, Giving Most Of His Not-Needed Income To Charities. Alice Was Beautiful, Pious And Rich, Spoiled By Her Constantly Dotting Husband, She Was Accustomed To Getting What She Wanted.
Corneil and Alice had met while teaching Sunday school at St. Bartholomew's Church, also known as "The Vanderbilt Powerhouse" because all the Vanderbilts attended and gave very generously to it, and had quickly married. Alice had been born to a prominent lawyer who left her a small fortune on his early death. Corneil had been born to William Henry and was the favorite grandson of the Commodore, who left him some $5 million on his death when Corneil's brothers got only $2 million. Upon their marriage Alice and Corneil quickly settled into a large brownstone, near Mrs. Astor at 34th Street. With fashion flowing north, Corneil moved his family to a large mansion, near the Central Park, next door to Mary Mason Jones's "Marble Row".
Corneil And Alice's First New York City Townhouse Ca. 1882
Corneil and Alice were content to live in their large townhouse with their family. Besides New York the couple resided in a large cottage in Newport, which they had bought and renovated. Their cottage which was called the "Breakers" contained the largest dining room in Newport.
"Breakers" The Newport Cottage Of Corneil And Alice
When William Henry died he had left almost $130 million divided equally between Corneil and Willie, which made it unclear who was the head. With Corneil's fortune to back her up, Alice decided to show Alva who was in charge and commissioned massive alterations to their New York City townhouse. The Vanderbilts bought the entire row of houses behind them and brought in George B. Post and Richard Morris Hunt to build them a palace that would occupy the entire block. When it was completed , the chateau would be the largest home ever built in New York City, with 137 rooms, 37 bedrooms, 16 baths, a library, numerous salons, a baronial dining room, smoking room and a magnificent ballroom.
Hunt and Post had carefully crafted the interiors, which were designed for large scale entertaining, to create a breath of luxury. The floor plan is designed where the huge ballroom can be expanded to create an even large room for dancing. The inclusion of two salons showed how much the Vanderbilts admired European architecture, although surprisingly unlike many aristocrats and millionaires, there was no room designated specifically for art work, but, like Mrs. Astor, they chose to have a room that would have two purposes, that room was the dining room.
First (Top) Second (Middle) And Third (bottom) Floor Plans
The magnificently crafted interiors were to be used by the finest people in the world, so they had to be not just luxurious, they had to be fantastic. The ground floor held the entertaining rooms. The ballroom, salons, drawing room, dining room, office, water color room, breakfast room and the pantries were all on the ground floor.
The Terrace And Steps Leading To The Water Color Room Were Done In Beautiful Caen Stone
The Beautifully Crafted, Caen Stone Staircase Had Been Built In Italy And Had Been Especially Imported For The Vanderbilts
Shortly after work had been completed on the New York City palace, the Vanderbilt's commissioned Richard Morris Hunt to design them a new residence in Newport which they named again "Breakers". The original residence the Vanderbilts had bought had burned down in a fire, so the new one would need to be fireproof. When it was completed, "Breakers" became the largest residence in Newport.
The Vanderbilts lived formally in their castles and entertained lavishly. Although Alva gave better parties, Alice was considered the more respected matron. But none of this lasted long because one thing shattered the Vanderbilt's perfect life, and her name was Grace Wilson.
Of the Vanderbilts 6 children, Cornelius "Neily" had been the least rebellious. That all changed when he soon began courting Grace Wilson, against Alice and Corneil's wishes. The problem was that not only was Grace 8 years older than Neily, but she had also been previously involved with the Vanderbilt's oldest son, William, who had died of typhoid shortly after graduating college. Grace did not meet the Vanderbilt's high expectations and she was generally snubbed by members of the Vanderbilt clan, although Willie K. did not seem to have a problem with her.
Despite his family's dislike for her, Neily married Grace at her family's house, in a simple ceremony. Not a member of the Vanderbilt family was in attendance, although Willie sent his congratulations. Shortly after Neily's marriage to Grace, Cornelius suffered from a stroke, after which he could barely speak and was paralyzed from the legs down. The gates of the Vanderbilt mansions immediately and forever closed and only friends and family were allowed in. Corneil was forever prisoned in a wheelchair and he rarely left the New York City chateau or the "Breakers" villa. He refused to see Neily or Grace, who wanted to restore their connection with the Vanderbilt family because they needed money badly, and promptly tore up the letters they sent him. Alice did the same and she was constantly at the side of her bedridden husband. When the Vanderbilts were in New York City, the roads surrounding their chateau were shut down and traffic was routed around it. When in Newport, the Vanderbilts had the roads surrounding their house covered with special pads to keep the noise down. That all changed in 1899.
When Corneil died, he left an estate estimated at $75 million (it would have been considerably more had he not given most of his income to charity) of which his will told everyone how it would be divided. First, he left Alice $1 million outright and the use of a $7 million trust fund which produced an annual income of $250,000, Alice also was given The New York City palace and the "Breakers" villa. Son Reginald, daughter Gertrude and daughter Gladys each were given $4 million outright and a $4 million trust. Alfred, the Vanderbilt's second eldest son behind Neily, was named head of the family and was given $45 million. Neily was given $500,000 outright and a $1 million trust.
Alice immediately went into deep mourning, from which she never fully recovered. The income from the trust Corneil had left her allowed her to live comfortably in her two massive homes and she regularly gave large sums of money to her relatives and friends. No more social functions were ever held in her homes, except for the wedding of Gladys. When Alfred sank on the "Lusitania", Alice spent thousands of dollars trying to find his body, although it was never found and his funeral was held in the New York city mansion. When her favorite child, Reginald, literally drank himself to death in newport, his funeral was also held in the New York City mansion. By 1910, Alice had finally accepted Neily and Grace and started giving them money (if it weren't for her money they would have been broke).
Meanwhile, in New York City, commercial development had caught up with the Fifth Avenue mansions and owners were quickly selling their Fifth Avenue palaces to developers, who were replacing the beautiful mansions with huge skyscrapers. Behind Alice a large skyscraper had replaced the former home of her daughter, Gertude, and completely towered over Alice's home.
By 1920 with taxes rising on the vanderbilt mansion, up to $130,000 a year, and taxes on the "Breakers" rising up to $83,000, Alice realized she could not afford her homes anymore. Every since the day of Corneil's death, Alice, the reigning Mrs. Vanderbilt, had worn nothing but black and pearls, living in the past, spending her days alone with her numerous servants at her fortress in New York City and "Breakers" villa, visited by only her family, never seen in the public eye. Alice decided to economize, when she was in the New York City mansion, she would only open the drawing room, office, breakfast room, pantry and her suite of rooms on the second floor. When in the Newport house, Alice only opened the library, office, reception room, breakfast room, pantry and her and Corneil's suite of rooms upstairs.
Although this worked for a little while, By 1923 Alice was forced to put the New york City mansion on the market. Alice knew that no one would buy her home to use it as a residence, it was one of the most valuable parcels of land in the city. Holding no illusions to the survival of her house, Alice decided to remove whatever could be removed from the house and either donate it or sell it. Alice donated the massive entrance gates to the Central Park and gave a large fireplace that had been in the great hall to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with several carvings by Karl Bitter that had been on the porte cochere.
The mansion was bought by the Bergdorf Goodman, for $7 million, who stripped the home and sold off it's contents. The entire Moorish smoking room was bought by a theatre magnate Marcus Loew, who planned on putting it in his new theatre. Loew also purchased the entire petit salon and put it in the same theatre as the Moorish room. Also paneling from the upstairs billiard was removed and sold as well as the paintings in the ballroom. The Vanderbilt mansion was torn down and replaced with the Bergdorf Goodman Department Store.
When Alice died, she left a total estate of $15 million, which interestingly contained $10 million in cash. She gave Gladys the "Breakers" and her new New York City townhouse as well as trust of about $5 million. Gladys was also the recipient of Alice's famous pearls. Neily had been given The Gwynne Building in Cincinnati and almost $1 million. Gertrude was given the remainder of the $7 million trust fund Corneil had left Alice, which totaled to some $3 million. A trust of $1.5 million was left to Reggie's two daughter, Cathleen and Gloria. Other bequests were made to relatives, servants and charities. Alice was buried in the Vanderbilt Mausoleum.