Once This Was the Grandest House in America
Adrian Dannatt on the spot where Bergdorf Goodman Grew
Vast wealth has been created across the world in the last few decades, and despite all rumors to the contrary, we have enjoyed a remarkable period of widespread prosperity, even taking into account recent dips and stutters. But even from our lofty vantage as connoisseurs of spectacular consumption, nothing can ever compete with the sheer, stunning, inconceivable wealth of the early-twentieth-century robber barons. There is simply no comparison between the richest of the rich today, the 0.1 percent happily camouflaged amongst the mere 1 percent, and the rich of 1900.
Consider, if you will, the famous Vanderbilt family house built at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street on the very site now fortuitously occupied by Bergdorf Goodman. No description can capture the utter magnitude of this project: One can list the 130 rooms, mention the thousands of workmen who labored all night under newfangled electric light, and the crowds that gathered daily to ogle this monstrous achievement, itemize the ballrooms, libraries and parlors, but its true hugeness remains beyond contemporary comprehension.
It was a full-scale Renaissance-style château, originally built to accommodate an entire regal court, a small army, huntsmen and ladiesin-waiting, but it was given over instead to a family of eight. Not only was it preposterously large, it was also outrageously elaborate, its corner tower, its crenellations and battlements,its chimneys and rotundas as unnecessary as they were imposing.
Since its time, tastes have changed so completely that today few aspire to the gilt chandeliers and embossed wallpaper of that gilded era, while, paradoxically, the wealthy favor a style akin to the proletarian mode of that period: bare walls, stripped floorboards, simple furniture—rather how a humble cottage of the 1890s might have looked.
This Vanderbilt mansion was actually constructed in two distinct parts, the first relatively modest version undertaken in 1878 and only requiring the demolition of three existent brownstones. It was commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II upon inheriting well over $70 million from his father. “Millionaire’s Row” was already crammed with Vanderbilt properties: Indeed, in 1882 there was even an article in Harper’s Weekly entitled “The Vanderbilt Houses,” attempting to enumerate them all. But there were also, annoyingly, increasingly more spectacular buildings built by rivals such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Frick and Astor. Spurred on by the delicious spirit of competition, Cornelius II decided to radically expand his townhouse and bought the five brownstones on its north side. Considering that “Corney” himself deemed these purchases “costly,” it was not unlike buying five brownstones on the Upper East Side today and then knocking them all down.
The chosen architect was George Browne Post, whose best-known building today is, thanks to encircling hipsters, the distinctive Williamsburgh Savings Bank. While the basic structure of the house was based on the Château de Blois in the Loire, the interior was handed over to the most famous artists of the day: A magnificent skylight was designed by John La Farge, sculptures by Saint-Gaudens, and a painted ceiling for the ballroom took a year to complete in Paris. Equally renowned were the ten-foot-high railings and ceremonial gates, forged in France, through which the most celebrated high society rolled nightly. On its completion in 1893, after only eighteen months of feverish work, it was the largest single-family house ever built in an American city. And although it is gone, it has never been surpassed.
Only six years after the house was occupied, the great “Cornelius Deux” rose from his bed, muttered to his wife “I think I’m dying” and promptly did so. Ever after the house was shrouded in grief, the world-famous gates only swung open for funerals, of which two followed suit, one son, Alfred, going down with the Lusitania in 1915 and another, Reginald (father of Gloria), dying young in 1925. And so, forty years after it had been completed, the property was sold to the tune of some seven million dollars.
What remains of what was once the largest private home in New York City? A mere handful of touching souvenirs: The Saint-Gaudens mantle can be found at the Met, parts of the Moorish smoking room linger in Syracuse, and there are even some fragments shored at the Midland Theatre in Kansas City. And should you visit The Conservatory Garden, Manhattan’s most charming and secret idyll, at East 105th Street and Fifth Avenue, there stand the original Vanderbilt gates in all their steely glory. BG
The Conservatory Garden
East 105th Street at Fifth Avenue
8 a.m. until Dusk