Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Mrs. Astor's House

The Astor mansion at 65th Street and Fifth Avenue, circa 1900.

Designed by society's famed architect, Richard Morris Hunt, who had designed many a mansion for the Vanderbilt family, the mansion was built by the John Jacob Astor IV, the Astor family playboy, for him and his mother, Caroline, the self-appointed queen of New York society and known to everyone as simply, THE Mrs. Astor. Mrs. Astor had originally reigned at a four-bay brownstone on 34th Street ~ currently today the present site of the Empire State Building. Due to a social fued between herself and her nephew, William Waldorf Astor, the neighboring townhouse at 34th Street, owned by her nephew, was demolished and replaced with a 13-story hotel, named, interestingly enough, "The Waldorf Hotel". All the dirt, dust, noise and traffic the hotel brought forced Queen Caroline to move from her home of 40 years. Replacing her home, a 17-story hotel built by son John, named rightfully, "The Astoria". Despite the family's feud, business, was, after all, business, so the two fueding cousins decided to merge the two hotels to form the "Waldorf~Astoria", New York City's most luxurious hotel. 

Carolus Duran's famed portrait of Caroline
Astor, which she regally greeted guests in
Front of. It now hangs in the Metropolitan
Museum of Ar. Circa 1890's.
Mrs. Astor made sure her new home would be the epitome of luxury. She and her son asked Hunt to create matching residences for them both, exact duplicates. The mansion, on the outside, would appear to be one palatial fortress, on the inside would be two matching residences facing each other, one for the queen, the other for her son and his family. Connecting the two residences was a sumptuous ballroom, which also housed Mrs. Astor's expansive collection of European art. Both homes would rise to a towering five-stories. 

Mrs. Astor filled her side(the left) of the mansion with the finest French antiques, many of which had come from her brownstone at 34th Street. Dominating her reception room was Carolus Duran's portrait of herself, which she greeted guests in front of. Wearing her signature diamond stomacher, her 200-stone diamond necklace and her diamond star-shaped tiara, she held the most lavish parties of the season, including her annual Patriarch's Ball, which officially opened the New York social season. Her ballroom, capable of holding 1,200 guests, 800 more than her famous '400'. 

The Ballroom/Art Gallery in the Astor mansion at 65th Street. Circa, 1902.

The dining room in the Astor mansion at 65th Street. Circa 1908.
The stair hall in the Astor mansion at 65th Street. Circa 1908.

The mansion underwent massive renovations carried out by her son, after her death, to transform the home into a single residence. The partition wall was removed and the two staircases were replaced with one, baronial bronze great hall. Rooms were taken out and moved. Walls and floors were ripped apart and replaced. Furniture was sold and bought. Bedrooms were torn apart to make bigger ones. Fixtures were replaced. Moldings were updated. The only room not to be touched, save replacing the furniture, was the now out-dated ballroom, which it was said John kept as a tribute to his mother. The home was completely transformed. 

The Great Hall in the renovated Astor mansion at 65th Street. Circa 1912.
After a mere 33 years in the Astor family, the mansion was sold by Caroline's grandson, Vincent, in 1926 for around $1 million. Had her son John not died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, it is likely the home would have survived much longer than it did. The wrecking ball finally put an end to Mrs. Astor's 5th Avenue palace, 18 years after her death, to be replaced by the Temple Emanu-El.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

In The Shadows of Skyscrapers

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II's palatial mansion
at 1 West 57th Street is towered over by the Heckscher
Building. Circa 1920's.

For over fifty years ~ ever since the 1880's ~ the Vanderbilt family and their homes dominated Fifth Avenue. Starting with William Henry Vanderbit's colossal brownstone triples at 640 Fifth Avenue, designed for him and his daughters, and ending with Florence Twombly's 70-room palace at the corner of 71st Street and Fifth Avenue, the last private home built on Fifth Avenue. The Vanderbilts brought to America a new standard of living; one of complete luxury and excess. The homes they built, the parties they gave, the money they spent, all helped to create the American society of today as we know it. When Alva Vanderbilt, the Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, gave her infamous costume ball at her 660 Fifth Avenue 'petit chateau', it was the start of a never-ending flow of parties, events, dinners, balls, galas and any other form of entertainment; all of which would earn them the name of "America's Richest Family" and launched them into the top drawer of High Society. 
The most legendary of all the family's New York homes was by far the mansion of Alva's eldest brother-in-law, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the workaholic head of the House of Vanderbilt. He and his former Sunday school teacher wife, Alice, had commissioned George B. Post and Richard Hunt to design their castle, a 130-room palatial fortress occupying one entire block, it still today being the largest home to ever have been built in New York. By the 1920's, with new taxes, a depression, world wars and a severe servant problem, it was becoming nearly impossible to maintain a large New York City mansion. The first to go, quite surprisingly, was Alva's 'petit chateau' in 1926. By that time, the former mansion-stretched Fifth Avenue had now turned into a futuristic, tower-filled commercial empire, casting what remained of the Vanderbilt mansions into the shadows of their neighboring skyscrapers. Here are some of those family's great mansions in the shadows of skyscrapers:

Alva S. Vanderbilt's 'petit chateau' at 660 Fifth Avenue.
Circa 1926. Alva had divorced her Vanderbilt husband in
1895, and had left the house with him.  He continued residency
until his death in 1920, after which the home was sold and
demolished by his heirs in 1926. 
The Cornelius II and Alice Vanderbilt mansion at 1 West 57th Street, circa
1925. Cornelius II died in 1899, leaving the mansion and a fortune to wife
Alice, who entered into deep mourning. She continued to spend her winters
at her fortress during the season, visiting her Newport home in the winters.
With taxes rising, Alice's income from her husband's trust could no longer cover
the cost to maintain the home. She was forced to sell the home in 1925 to
developers, who had paid a hefty $7.1 million. The home came down to make
way for the Bergdorf Goodman in 1927.
William Henry Vanderbilt's portion of the triples he built
for himself and his daughters, circa 1939. Inherited on his
son's death to Cornelius Vanderbilt III, son of Cornelius
II and Alice Vanderbilt, and his wife Grace. Grace gutted the
interiors and turned them into a French palace, using the home
for entertaining every winter season, she later becoming the
self-appointed queen of New York society ~ THE Mrs. Vanderbilt
on her mother-in-law's death. The home became a symbol of a
bygone era, known as the last of the Vanderbilt-built mansions.
Cornelius sold the home in 1940 to raise capital, with the provision
that his wife will remain there till 3 years after his death. The home
came down in 1945.
Florence Vanderbilt Twombly's 70-room palace on the corner
of 71st Street and Fifth Avenue, circa 1940's. Designed and built
by Whitney Warren, it was the last private residence built on
Fifth Avenue. Mrs. Twombly ~ who maintained residences in
Newport and New Jersey ~ occupied the home every season for
the winter. At the age of 71 when she built the home, Mrs.
Twombly was, by this time, amongst the high matrons of New
York and Newport's "old guard". She died in 1952, and the
home was demolished in 1958.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's brownstone fortress at 871
Fifth Avenue, circa 1930's. The home had been built by
William C. Whitney, who left the home to his son, Harry P
Whitney, Gertrude's husband. This was were Gertrude's
niece, Little Gloria, stayed during her infamous custody
trial between Gertrude and her sister-in law, the child's mother,
Gloria M. Vanderbilt. In 1942, Gertrude arranged for the home to be
auctioned off. She died before it could be completed. The home was
demolished later that year in 1942. 
The Willie K. Vanderbilt Jr mansion at 666 Fifth
Avenue , circa 1920's.
Designed by Stanford White to replicate Alva's chateau
next-door, it was the home of Alva's son and daughter-in-law
Willie and Virginia. The couple divorced and Virginia
ended up with the mansion, then surrounded by commercial
towers. She sold the home in 1927 and the home was
demolished weeks thereafter. 

The Mrs. Henry White ~ Emily Vanderbilt White ~
residence at 854 Fifth Avenue, circa 1970's. Emily
purchased the residence in the 1920's after selling her
side of the Vanderbilt triples. The home, designed
by Whitney Warren, was one of the last to survive on
Fifth Avenue. Today it serves as the Mission of Serbia.
Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt II's Horace Trumbauer-
designed residence at 857 Fifth Avenue, circa 1920's.
Alice purchased this home in 1925 for $800,000
when she moved from the block-long Vanderbilt
mansion at 1 West 57th St. On her death in 1933,
the home passed to her daughter, Countess Gladys who
sold the home. It was later demolished in 1943.
The left portion of Vanderbilt "Marble Twins" at
647 Fifth Avenue (right in picture), circa 1990's.
Originally part of two identical mansions built by
George Vanderbilt, the other half was demolished in
1945. The left portion was rented out by Vanderbilt
to numerous families, including the Goelets. The twins
left the Vanderbilt family in 1916 and then housed
numerous stores and enterprises, until the right's
demolition. The left was sold to Versace in 1995 and it
remains in their ownership. It is the last survivor of
'Vanderbilt Row' and it sits snugly next to the Plant mansion

Monday, June 17, 2013

Henry Villard Houses

The 6 Villard houses are amongst the most famous of New York City mansions. Having the benefit of being designed and built by legendary architect Stanford White and his associates, it still stands today, in the shadow of the skyscrapers that surround it. Henry Villard ~ then president of the Northern Pacific Railway ~ built the residences. On the outside, the home appear as one large mansion, much like the Astor mansion on Fifth Avenue, but on the inside are 6 separate, comfortable townhouses, all situated around a large court. Villard took the largest of the 6, his residence occupying the entire right wing. 

Henry Villard ~ 1883
Before the home was completed, Villard's railroad empire crashed and left him a broke man. He sold the home to Republican politician Whitelaw Reid, who finished the home and moved into the wing. Reid, who had recently been the vice presidential nominee for Benjamin Harrison's reelection campaign, also had an 1,000 acre estate in Westchester, 'Ophir Hall'.

The wing remained in the Reid family until 1935, later serving several different uses during World War II. It was purchased by Harry Hemsley in 1974. Hemsley, who constructed the New York Palace Hotel behind the houses, had purchased the homes as part of a hotel-developing scheme. He soon carried out his idea and the houses became part of the behind hotel. 

The dining room at the New York Palace Hotel ~ which formerly
served as the music room during the Reid residency.
In 2003, the houses were restored and office space for provided for the city preservation group The Municipal Art Society, all part of an agreement to save the houses from demolition. The houses, today, serve as a landmark to New York's former Gilded Age self.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

'Round Hill' ~ The Residence of Col. Ed Green

'Round Hill' was for over twenty years the home of Colonel Edward "Ned" Green; son of the notorious Hetty Green, who was nicknamed "The Witch of Wall Street" as a result of her shrewd business investments. When Hetty died in 1916, she left an estate estimated to be between $100-$200 million, making her the wealthiest woman in the world at the time. Ned and his sister each inherited approximately $75 million. 

Ned Green as seen celebrating his 65th birthday. Circa 1933.
Courtesy of Robert Bruce.
Following his mother's death, he decided to construct a large and comfortable mansion; capable of showing his immense wealth. He hired architect Alfred C. Bossom to carryout his dream; which finally came to life in 1921, at a cost of $1.5 million, measly compared to the Green fortune. 

Located in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, the mansion was the scene of the numerous science experiments and tests Ned ~ affectionately known to the locals as "Uncle Ned" ~ carried out.; devoting his estate to the progress of science and the welfare of his fellow men. 

Uncle Ned in his buggy at 'Round Hill', listening to the radio.
Courtesy of Robert Bruce.
Uncle Ned died in 1936, at the age of 68. He left an estate of around $44 million; much smaller than what he had inherited from his mother. The estate passed to his sister and heir. Twelve years later, she donated the entire 240 acre estate to MIT, who used the estate for education and military purposes ~ eventually erecting a large antenna on the property.

The estate was sold by MIT in 1964 to the Society of Jesus of New England. It passed through numerous hands, eventually ending up in the hands of a local woman, Gratia R. Montgomery, who sold the estate to it's current owners, who have turned the main house into condominiums. In 2007, it was announced that they would be demolishing the giant antenna. Later that year, the antenna came down. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Vanderbilt Yacht Postcard

A circa 1900's postcard of the Cornelius Vanderbilt III steam yacht, "North Star", which at 256-feet in length became the epitome of this class of American luxury craft (Robert Bruce). It is pictured here in the harbor at Newport, RI.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

FOR RENT: 'The Ledges' Carriage House

Here is the link, if anyone is particularly interested. You all may remember a few months ago when the main house was available for rent ~ $50,000 a month. 'The Ledges' is one of the most beautiful homes in Newport, one of the few homes still left in the original family's hands. To read the listing, please click HERE.

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