Saturday, May 1, 2010

The 1903 Andrew Carnegie Mansion


Photograph Cooper-Hewitt Museum

Walter C. Gale had a good life in the early days of the 20th Century.  A composer and musician, he was the organist of the Broadway Tabernacle and it was he who played the organ at the St. Louis World's Fair -- unfortunately causing the ceiling to collapse.  The New York Times apologetically reported "But the ceiling was weak."

Every morning a servant would politely greet him at the doors of the new mansion of Andrew Carnegie.  Silently he would make his way to the Aeolian organ in the reception hall where he waited.  Then, exactly at 7:00, he began playing.  The music wafted up throughout the house, gently rousing Mr. and Mrs. Carnegie from their slumber. 

Andrew Carnegie's day could now begin.


The Aeolian organ sits in the reception hall -- photo Smithsonian Institution Archives
(On December 28, 1905 The Times mentioned that "It is understood that Mr. Gale is very well paid for getting up early enough in the morning to wake Andrew Carnegie.")

The house in which Walter Gale was the human alarm clock was not just a grand mansion, it was essentially unique among the homes of New York's turn-of-the-century elite.  Carnegie was born in 1835 in the attic of a tiny house in Dunfermline, Scotland to parents he would later describe as "...poor but honest."  Their simple lessons of humility, charity, and egalitarianism never left him.

For over 30 years, the Carnegies had resided in a brownstone mansion next to the Vanderbilt's lavish 5th Avenue chateau.  Carnegie longed to escape Millionaire's Row where he found the ostentatious behavior of his neighbors distasteful and irresponsible.  He felt that the duty of the wealthy was to patronize the arts and to enable those of lesser means to enjoy education and enriched lives.

As the 19th Century waned, mansions were cropping up as far north as 70th Street.  Carnegie, in a surprising act of real estate leap frog, purchased land 20 blocks further up, across from Central Park, far from any other mansions -- an act some millionaires called foolish.  But Andrew Carnegie was not simply seeking isolation, he wanted space.  Having grown weary of great residences piled one on top of another, he sought open air and, especially, an immense garden -- unheard of in New York City.    When interviewed by The New York Tribune he said "The precious little life that has come to us needs the Park and sunshine."

In 1899 he commissioned Babb, Cook & Willard to design his house at 2 East 91 Street.  In somewhat incongruous terms his direction to them was simple:  He wanted the "most modest, plainest and most roomy house in New York."


What he got was a neo-Georgian English country estate surrounded by a heavy cast iron fence and, without a doubt, the largest lawn and garden in the City -- a far cry from the French confections of other millionaires.  Completed in 1903 it was four stories high, including the attic, its basement descending another three levels.  There were 64 rooms.

Trimmed with white limestone the restrained, red brick facade stretches 230 feet down 91st Street.  The main entrance, protected by a beautiful copper and glass canopy, was approached by a semi-circular drive; now part of the sidewalk.  The rear facade nearly mirrors the front and sits on a raised terrace with broad steps leading down to the gardens.  A separate wing housing the art gallery ran off the east side and the glass conservatory sat towards the gardens, connected by a passageway.


photo Cooper Hewitt Museum
Never one to isolate himself in lofty privacy, Carnegie had the shrubbery and trees (he had nearly 30 full-grown trees brought in from upstate and Connecticut) positioned so the passersby could peer into and enjoy his gardens.

The first residential structure to employ a steel framework, the Carnegie house was a wonder of up-to-date technology.  A central heating and cooling system brought air in from the outside, filtered it, heated or cooled it and adjusted the humidity.  A filtering system purified the drinking water.  Two huge boilers provided steam heat to the main house, two smaller ones heated the conservatory, and yet another provided hot water for bathing, dish washing, etc.

In the basement, a miniature railroad transported fuel from the coal bin to the boilers.  On a typical winter day two tons of coal would be consumed to heat the mansion.  And although Carnegie's drink of choice was Dewar's scotch, the basement included a 1500-bottle wine cellar.

For years the Carnegies lived happily with their 20 servants at 2 East 91st.  From his huge desk, so large it had to be constructed inside the office, Andrew Carnegie gave away around $350 million -- over $60 million of which went for the establishment and construction of Carnegie Libraries around the country.

photo Smithsonian Institution Archives
Andrew Carnegie died on August 11, 1919.  Having once said "no man is a true gentleman who does not inspire the affection and devotion of his servants," he bequeathed considerable amounts to his long-time butler, nurse, the housekeeper and the eldest of his staff.  "These four," his will explained, "are as members of my family."

Smithsonian Instition Archives

Mrs. Carnegie remained in the house until her death on June 24, 1946.  She willed it to The Carnegie Corporation which, in 1972, donated it to the Smithsonian Institution for use as the Cooper Hewitt National Museum of Design.  Despite the Smithsonian's astonishing protests that "We are not pursuaded that this house is deserving of landmark status," the Landmarks Preservation Commission deemed it so on February 19, 1974.

The interiors have been essentially preserved, although the beloved organ by which Andrew Carnegie was soothed awake by Walter Gale's morning music is, sadly, no longer.

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