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


  1. What remarkable residences built or owned by the Vanderbilts on New Yorks 5th avenue. Pity so little remains.

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