Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Vanderbilt Gates


The magnificent carriage gates opened onto 58th Street -- photo NYPL Collection
On evenings when Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II entertained in their block-wide mansion at 5th Avenue and 58th Street, two liveried footmen would have swung open the huge wrought iron gates of the carriage drive.  Elegant black carriages would one-by-one deposit New York's wealthiest citizens at the entrance beneath the porte cochere.  Once all the guests had arrived, the splended gates would be closed once again.

The great gates, with cast iron and repousse details, were designed by George B. Post, the architect of the French Renaissance mansion, as a component of the overall design.  Forged in Paris in 1894 as part of the 10-foot fence surrounding the residence, they were immediately recognized as the finest example of decorative ironwork in the city.  Though them the landaus and coupes of the city's elite passed on their way to the mansion's grand  port cochiere.

Vanderbilt's house was considered, according to The New York Times, "the most magnificent and costly private home in America."  Here, on the morning of September 12, 1899, Cornelius Vanderbilt suddenly sat up in his bed, exclaiming, "I think I'm dying."

Five minutes later he was dead of a brain hemorrhage.  Alice Vanderbilt went into deep mourning.  The house was shuttered and the grand gates locked, being opened only for intimate family gatherings. 

The Times reported on February 11, 1908, that Mrs. Vanderbilt was considering selling the mansion; however she stayed on.  In that 1908 article The Times described "two immense wrought-iron gates, twenty feet high and surmounted by great lamps."  The gates were opened for the funeral of her son Alfred, who went down with the Lusitania in 1915 and again for the funeral of her playboy son Reginald in 1925 who drank himself to death.

It was that year, after Reginald's funeral, that Alice Vanderbilt decided to sell.  Taxes alone were amounting to nearly $2 million a year in today's money.  She moved 10 blocks north on Fifth Avenue.  For a small fee that went to charity, regular citizens had the chance to tour the house for one week.  Then the massive structure, just over 40 years old, was demolished in 1927.

By some small miracle, the gates were not destroyed.

In the meantime, far north at 5th Avenue and 105th Street, the huge glass Conservatory sat in Central Park.  Built in 1898, it was from there that many of the original plants and shrubbery in the Park were cultivated.  But with the onset of the Great Depression, maintenance of the facility became insurmountable and in 1934 it was razed.

In its place the six-acre Conservatory Garden grew.  The only formal garden in Central Park, it is one of the great hidden secrets of the city.  Accessed by a set of steps down from 5th Avenue, there are actually three distinct gardens:  the Central (or Italian Garden), the North (or French Garden), and the South (or English Garden).  Each has its separate style, distinctive plantings and statuary.  In the center of the South Garden is the bronze Burnett Fountain with figures of a young boy and girl, characters from The Secret Garden.  The centerpiece for the North Garden is sculptor Walter Schott's 1910 fountain "Three Dancing Maidens."  Part of the magic of the gardens is that the visitor sees only the garden he is in.  Each garden visually unfolds as he passes from one to another.

Alice Vanderbilt died the year the Conservatory Gardens were being planted.  Five years later, in 1939, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney donated the grand carriage gates to the Park where they now serve as the entrance to the Conservatory Garden.

photo centralparknyc.org
The frescoed ceilings, the marbled-arched vestibule and the stained glass dome over the white marble stairway of Cornelius Vanderbilt's 5th Avenue mansion are all gone.  Other than the magnificent fireplace by Augustus Saint-Gaudens which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, nothing remains of the Vanderbilt chateau but the grand wrought iron gates in Central Park.

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