Monday, March 21, 2011

The Lost 1908 William A. Clark Mansion

photo NYPL Collection
William Andrews Clark was born in poverty in Pennsylvania in 1839 to Scotch-Irish parents. When he was just 17, the family traveled to Iowa as homesteaders.

Clark made up his mind early in life that he disliked poverty.

By 1895, when he moved to New York, he had amassed one of the largest fortunes in the country, controlling silver and copper mines, operating railroads, and being elected to the Montana Senate. His reputation, however, was one of deceit, unscrupulous dealings, bribery and cut-throat schemes.

Mark Twain wrote of him, “He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed's time.”

Clark’s image was further sullied when, after the death of his wife in 1893, he “sponsored” a young actress, Eugenia LaChapelle. The entertainer became pregnant in 1901 and, again, in 1903. Although Clark reported that the pair had secretly married prior to the first pregnancy, no documentation was ever found.

Upon arriving in New York, Clark embarked on plans to build the largest, most expensive home in America. He commissioned the architectural firm of Lord, Hewlett & Hull to design the mansion at 5th Avenue and 77th Street on land he had purchased from Samuel Untermyer. Repeatedly, he had the plans reworked, “as Mr. Clark has found the proposed designs not sufficient in size or in splendor,” according to The New York Times.

When the size of the art gallery was “entirely insufficient,” he purchased an adjoining lot to increase the size of the mansion. With his succession of changes and additions the estimated cost of the structure rose from $417,000 to $2.5 million.

When the Maine and New Hampshire Granite Company increased their bid for the stone work, Clark purchased an adjoining quarry, then established his own stone cutting plant. Similarly, when he felt the bids for the bronze work were exorbitant, he purchased the Henry Bannard Bronze Company and supplied copper from his own mines.

The construction of Clark’s gargantuan mansion lasted until 1908 – a full 13 years. By the time it was finished it was no longer in style and New Yorkers called the long-term project “an old man’s fad.” The Times remarked on the finished structure. “Viewed from the street the building strikes the observer as too big, too heavy, too massive, for its ground space and its residential surroundings.”

With a final cost approaching $10 million, the house rose nine stories with Turkish baths below ground level, laundry rooms on the top floor, scores of Greek marble columns, and mantelpieces costing up to $2000 each – the Numidian marble fireplace in the banquet room measured 15 feet across with life-size figures of Diana and Neptune. There were 120 rooms filled with medieval tapestries and artwork. The wood for the carved ceiling of the banquet room came from Sherwood Forest; of the 170 carved panels in the breakfast room no two were identical,

On the second floor was a rotunda, 36 feet high, of Maryland marble with eight Bresche violet columns, used as the statuary room. It opened onto a conservatory of solid brass and glass, 30 feet high and 22 feet wide. On the opposite side of the rotunda was the marble-paneled main picture gallery, 95 feet long and two stories high. An organ loft housed the largest chamber organ in America with 62 “speaking stops.”

There were 25 guests rooms, with baths, 35 servants’ rooms with men’s quarters to the east and female rooms in the western wing. Clark’s Gothic library was 90 feet long with a beamed ceiling and immense carved fireplace.

The Senator's art collection included works by Delacroix, Millet, Corot, Constable, Boucher and Daubigny. He spent $200,000 for the Gobelin tapestries owned by Prince Murat and $350,000 for those of the Earl of Coventry.
Clark's mansion boasted 121 rooms and stood just 19 years
At the time of the mansion’s completion, Clark had an annual income of $12 million and owned homes in Los Angeles, Washington DC and Butte Montana. But despite its size and its cost, the Fifth Avenue house never achieved the admiration for which its owner strove. It was immediately the object of scorn and ridicule for its ungainly ostentation.

At the age of 86 William A. Clark died in his bedroom on March 25, 1925, one of the 50 richest men in America. Two years later, in preparation for the auction of its furnishings and its demolition, the mansion was opened to the public from February 20 through March 1 with admission fees going to charity. Shortly thereafter great hulking house was demolished, just 19 years after being built.

According to Robert Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins in their “New York 1930, Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars,” "No loss was viewed in retrospect to have been greater than that of Senator William Clark's 121-room pile at Seventy-seventh Street, which was felled by the wrecker's ball in 1926 [sic],"

The New York Times gave the house a tongue-in-cheek obituary. “As for the Clark palace, it has been condemned unreasonably, indiscriminately. An echo of the architectural orgy of the Paris Exposition of 1900, its only fault is that it stops short of perfection in its kind. The inlaid gold leaf that decks its interior woodwork should have been spread upon its fantastic stonework without. Its astronomical tower should have been surmounted by an orrery with a sun of flame and planets of solid gold. It might thus have truly exemplified the senatorial mood of the eighteen-nineties, illumined by the ambitions of a doge.”

The New Republic viewed the loss with mixed remorse.  "The Clark house was a scandal even more than it was a joke ... Decent people were indignant and considered it an affront to the city and to themselves. But time has consecrated its ugliness and it is almost an act of vandalism to tear it down."

On the site of William Clark’s dream house rose a large apartment building.


  1. Floor plans and additional photos:

  2. There is, was, nothing of uggly in this superb mansion, except its cost for contemporary peoples, or its too french style as was the great post office... From a french admirer in Paris...

  3. Found your blog by accident resulting from article in today's NYT re Wm. Clark's daughter's two wills, the great fortune, etc., etc., and they linked to your even more fascinating blog regarding "lost" NYC. Your work is incredibly researched. Thanks, and what fun.

  4. Same deal as daveybaby. Loved digging into your blog!

  5. Thank you! Brilliant work. Really enjoyed it.

  6. What on earth were they thinking to tear this beauty down. No, there was nothing ugly about it. A historic loss! -

    1. Because it was the home of one of the most despicable greed merchants in American history.

    2. Yes, I read a bit about his history. Very corrupt man. He just may be burning in the pits of hell right now for all his corruption and greed. Sad.

  7. His daughter from his second, questionable marriage died recently at over 100 years old Hughette (pronounced Hugh-get) Clark. Sad woman, spent most of her life as a hermit even though she had millions.

  8. Poor Hughetts (pronounced Hugh-get), the daughter of the questionable marriage. Inherited vast piles of money, lived until over 100, and spent the vast majority of that time as a miserable hermit. Proof that while money buys big houses, it does not buy happiness.