Monday, September 16, 2013

The Lost Geo. J. Gould Mansions -- No. 857 5th Avenue

The first George Gould house was a Victorian confection -- Photograph by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
At the age of 23, George Jay Gould, son of the vastly-wealthy Jay Gould, married Edith Kingdon in 1887.   The newlyweds moved into No. 1 East 47th Street, directly behind the Gould’s Fifth Avenue mansion and a passageway was constructed connecting the two homes.   Here three children were born—two boys, Kingdon and Jay, and a little girl.
Young George cut a dashing figure -- photograph Library of Congress

Rather than attend college, George had preferred to go into business with his father.   While his personal fortune grew, he apparently felt it necessary to ask him for financial assistance in building a larger house to accommodate his growing family and social ambitions.

In 1892 Jay Gould, bedridden with tuberculosis, amended his will to reflect the money he gave George to purchase a house on upper Fifth Avenue.  Of the “five millions of dollars” he bequeathed his son, he deducted “the amounts advanced by me for the purchase of a house for him on Fifth avenue, New York City.”

Around the time of the revised will, about two or three weeks before Jay Gould died, George and his family moved in to No. 857 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 67th Street (brother Edwin moved into the 47th Street mansion).   The 50-room house smacked vaguely of the William K. Vanderbilt residence on Fifth Avenue at 52nd Street—albeit on a less opulent scale.  A corner turret with a long, conical cap was ringed by pierced stone balconies.  The busy riot of peaked gables, balustrades and bays was the epitome of late Victorian taste.
Edith Kingdon Gould not long after her marriage to George --photograph Library of Congress

Although Edith made time to entertain lavishly, she consistently bore children.   She later showed a friend the marriage bed that George had had designed for their wedding night.  It was carved with entwined hearts, lover’s knots and painted with eight cupids at the altar of love.  “I shall never forget my feelings when I first saw it.  I just knew I should have eight children if I slept in that bed…and so I did.”

Three years after the Goulds moved into the new house, rumors began circulating regarding George’s sister Anna.  The 21-year old was doggedly courted by hopeful young men.  On February 10, 1895 The New York Times said “About a year after her father’s death it was announced that she was engaged to be married to Harry Woodruff, then an actor in Palmer’s company…The report went forth in January, 1894, that Miss Gould was to marry William M. Harriman, a well-known clubman…Miss Gould was reported to be engaged to Prince Francis Joseph of Battenberg, a brother of Queen Victoria’s son-in-law; then to Count Talleyrand-Perigord…and, finally, not more than a month ago, to Henry Woodruff again.  All these supposed suitors are now on the shelf.”

The reason that the men were “on the shelf” was due to the announced engagement of Anna to Count Jean de Castellane, “son of the Marquis de Castellane, whose estates are the chateaux de Rochecotte and Langelais, on the banks of the Loire, France,” said the newspaper.   The Times added “With the announcement…is coupled the statement that the bridegroom will receive a settlement of $2,000,000.”

Because the French tradition insisted on a civil ceremony and American society insisted on a lavish church ceremony; both were planned.    With both of her parents dead, the civil ceremony was slated to be held in George’s house; the religious service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral would be officiated by Archibishop Corrigan (although Anna, like her father, was a Presbyterian).

The Times called the Count “tall and well-proportioned, and he has a sprightly way that manifests itself in his walk and gestures.  His complexion is clear and fair.  His hair about approaches the tint called ‘golden.’  His face has a very young look.  Altogether, he appears to be a young man in perfect health, who thoroughly enjoys life and has never had much to worry him.  He dresses in excellent taste.”

The Count’s family arrived in New York and were the guests of George and Edith.   The Marquis and Marquise de Castellane were introduced to New York society at a dinner in the mansion.   And despite that fact that the church service would be “much more elaborate than those for the civil marriage on Saturday,” according to The Times, Fifth Avenue around the Gould mansion would be the scene of near chaos on March 2, 1895.
A line of carriages drops guests off at the awning erected for the wedding -- Photograph by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Police were in force to hold back the crowds who jammed the sidewalks and streets to get a glimpse of wealthy New Yorkers and titled Europeans. 

Fifth Avenue is jammed with well-dressed curiosity-seekers on the day of Anna's wedding -- Photograph by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Around this time George commissioned Bruce Price to design the family’s country estate, Georgian Court, in Lakewood, New Jersey.    It was described as one of the “most magnificent private residences in the United States.”   Here the Goulds would spent not only their summers, but much of the winter season as well.
With the erection of the Thomas F. Ryan home next door, the Gould mansion was suddenly dated -- Photograph by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Throughout the years Edith was famous for her entertainments.   In February 1900, when Anna and the Count returned to New York for a visit, Edith got top billings in the society pages--over Mrs. Astor--with a dinner in the latest style.  “Perhaps the event of the day which has been most discussed is the dinner and musicale to be given by Mrs. George J. Gould at 857 Fifth Avenue.  This entertainment was arranged a number of weeks ago, and some time before the Count and Countess de Castellane arrived in this country.  There will be one of the new-fashioned dinner gatherings, at which some fifty-six guests will be seated at small tables.  The dinner will be followed by a musicale, to which over a hundred additional guests have been asked.”

As it turned out, the purpose of the visit by Anna and the Count revolved around financial problems.  By the end of the year, the couple’s extravagant spending resulted in the French Government appointing George Gould the trustee of his sister’s money.    Their lavish lifestyle included building a $3 million palace in Paris which was an exact replica of Le Petit Trianon, the Count’s purchase of the yacht Valhalla for $500,000 and refitting her for another $250,000, and a ball which “excited the wonder of Paris.”  The event, according to The New York Times, “was a reproduction, enhanced by every modern appliance possible, of the wedding festival of Marie Therese of Austria and Louis XIV.  Over 1,000 persons were employed either as performers or servants.  The guests numbered 3,000.  The fete, it is said, cost $300,000.”

With George minding the purse strings, things were a bit less ostentatious in the de Castellane household.

In 1904 Edith had been spending the greater part of the winter at Georgian Court, but returned to the Fifth Avenue house to be operated on.  For over a year she had been suffering from appendicitis attacks and her doctor suggested the operation; saying nothing would be gained by delaying it.  Rather than suffer the indignity of a hospital, the surgery took place in the mansion on March 30, 1904.
By the turn of the century the Fifth Avenue facade was covered in ivy -- Photograph by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Two years later Dr. William B. Anderton would be back in the house again, this time delivering the Goulds’ seventh child, and fourth daughter on March 4, 1906.   The Times noted that “Mr. Gould is proud of his large family, and has devoted a great deal of time to the physical training of his children.  In connection with his Lakewood estate there is an athletic field, a theatre, a race track and a swimming pool for their benefits.  Mr. Gould plays with them, and he and his two oldest boys are among the greatest polo enthusiasts in the country.  The boys have the finest of polo ponies, while the girls have ponies of their own.”  The article added, somewhat surprisingly to 21st century readers, “All have automobiles as well.”

Concern for the newborn would soon be felt when, within two weeks, her sister Marjorie contracted measles.  The infection spread to young Kingdon shortly after.   The danger of the disease in 1904 prompted a headline in The Times “Kingdon Gould Has Measles—Ill at His Father’s Home—His Sister Marjorie Better.”

While the children were being nursed inside the house, mysterious doings were going on outside.  In April private watchman John J. O’Brien told police he had seen William McInnis “many times in the past month” peering into the basement windows of the Gould house.  “He was never able to explain what he was doing,” he said.

On April 3 Patrolman Collins arrested McInnis and charged him “with lurking at night about the residence of George J. Gould” and being a “suspicious person.”

The judge did not see an offense.  “I don’t see that he has committed any overt act,” said Magistrate Pool in Yorkville Court.   He instructed the officer “If he commits any offense, lock him up, but I don’t see that he has.  He is discharged.”

McInnis’s father vouched for his son, saying he had been “acting queerly” lately because of stomach trouble, but there was “no harm in him.”

In 1907 the Victorian pile at No. 857 Fifth Avenue was grossly outdated.  Next door the stately white mansion of Thomas Fortune Ryan stood in stark contrast to the old-fashioned Gould house.  The Goulds set out to remedy the situation.  In March of that year Philadelphia-based architect Horace Trumbauer filed plans for a new mansion to replace the 15-year old home.   The New York Times reported that “The house will be of stone, five stories high.”

Trumbauer harmonized the completed $1.25 million Italian palace with the Ryan mansion.  The rusticated base was a near match to its neighbor, as was the cornice.  To maintain proportions, the fifth floor was deftly set back, causing the mansion to appear a story shorter than it was.  Inside were the expected period rooms—such as the Regency Room paneled in Circassian walnut with rose red draperies.  Bathtubs and washbasins were carved from solid marble and some bathroom fittings were of gold.
The replacement mansion bore no resemblance to its predecessor.  The brownstone house next door to Ryan's has been leveled to give the millionaire a garden-- Photograph by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

It was intended as a grand venue for entertaining.  “The residence contains two reception and ballroom floors,” said The Times.  It was the scene of a dance to announce the engagement of Marjorie to Anthony J. Drexel, Jr., of Philadelphia on January 18, 1910.   Following the April 19 wedding in St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, the reception was held in the Fifth Avenue house.

A year later it would be repeated when the Goulds gave a dinner dance for debutante daughter Helen Vivien on January 20, 1911 in anticipation of her February marriage to Lord Decies of London.   The 140 guests at dinner included some of the most recognized names in New York society—John Jacob Astor, Mrs. Reginald Vanderbilt, Mr. and Mrs. William Earl Dodge, Mr. and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and Mr. and Mrs. Mackay among them.

As the ceremony neared The New York Times remarked that “The interest in society over this wedding may be said to be almost world-wide, especially in view of the fact that Lord Decies has spent twenty-three years’ service in the English Army and is well known in social circles in nearly every country of the British Empire.”

Like her aunt’s wedding more than 15 years earlier, Vivien’s attracted thousands.  “Before and after the church ceremony thousands of curious people formed a sort of human wall partly around the church and even extending over the rooftops,” said the newspapers.  Despite intense security, twelve or fifteen women managed to barge into St. Bartholomew’s.  “They made a wild scramble for the interior of the church, and were in the act of plucking the Easter lilies from the nave as souvenirs when they were forcibly ejected,” said The Times.

Following the ceremony, the Fifth Avenue mansion was crowded with celebrated political and social figures.  Included were an ambassador, the Marquis and Marchioness of Salisbury, Prince de Carini, Lord Eustace Percy, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Sir Bache and Lady Cunard, Mr. and Mrs. Elihu Root, along with a number of Vanderbilts, Belmonts, Cuttings, Auchinclosses, and Atterburys.

By the time Edith and George’s granddaughter, Edith Kingdon Drexel, was christened in the house in December of that year, things were becoming strained between them.   Edith’s once glamorous figure was gone.  Overweight and matronly, she spent more and more time at Georgian Court while George acquired a wandering eye.

He began an affair with showgirl Guinevere Sinclair, a “Gaiety Girl” dancer.   In 1913 he presented her with a fashionable home at No. 323 West 74th Street and on April 15, 1915 a son, George Sinclair, was born. 

Later that year Edith did something a bit shocking.  Arnold Daly was producing a moving picture for Pathe called “Ashton Kirk, Investigator.”   The script called for a scene set in a mansion ballroom.  According to Moving Picture World on August 21, 1915, “Mr. Daly wanted to get a ballroom scene with all the realism of life in high society.  Mrs. George Gould generously permitted the use of her palatial residence at 857 Fifth avenue, New York.  Upper Fifth avenue opened its eyes to see a long line of carriages and automobiles discharging scores of men and women in evening dress at high noon before the Gould residence, and received by lines of powdered footmen in full livery.”

The extended Gould family--including Edith--was aware of George’s indiscrete affair with Sinclair but society was kept in the dark.   As war broke out in Europe, Edith turned her focus to war relief.   She hosted a talk in the Fifth Avenue house by Arthur Stanley Riggs on “France: Its Romance, Beauty and Art” in February 1916.  The proceeds went to aid French soldiers disabled in battle and “the destitute women of France.”

In 1918 she was chairman of the Entertainment Committee for the mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense and used the Fifth Avenue mansion as the collection point for “theatrical properties, wigs, grease paints, costumes, etc., for entertainments to be given among themselves by soldiers in the camps.”

In the meantime, George and Guinevere Sinclair had produced another child.  A daughter, Jane, arrived in 1917.

Society was shocked when, on May 26, 1920, 18-year old Edith C. Gould eloped with Carroll L. Wainwright.   Edith and George were informed by telegram from their daughter saying that she was married.  Reporters rushed to the Fifth Avenue mansion for comments.  George downplayed the scandal.

“I do not understand just why these young people considered an elopement necessary, but our family will certainly wish them all success,” he told the New-York Tribune.   “All success” did not necessarily mean Gould family money; for a month later The Sun and New York Herald described Edith’s considerably reduced circumstances.  She and her husband were living in a four-room apartment and “does her own housework.”

Meanwhile, Edith tried hard to lose weight and recapture the attentions of her husband.  She went on diets, underwent massages and took up golf.  In 1921 she resumed entertaining and on January 16, when the New-York Tribune reported on the “brilliant entertainment” in the Gould mansion for about 400 guests, it added “It was the first large affair Mrs. Gould has given in a number of years, when her entertainments in pre-war days used to be among the features of New York’s social season.”

Tragically, her attempts to win back George would prove fatal.   In order to lose weight and appear thin, she took to wearing a tortuously tight rubber suit under her clothing.  While playing golf with George in November 1921, she suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack.  Beneath her golfing outfit was the suffocating rubber suit.

Edith’s funeral was held in the mansion and was surprisingly brief.  “The services required only twenty minutes,” said the New-York Tribune on November 17.  The funeral was attended only by immediate family and close friends; however the small group of about 50 inside the house was contrasted with throngs outside.  “More than a thousand persons, women predominating, crowded the sidewalks opposite the Fifth Avenue entrance of the home and corners of Madison Avenue and East Sixty-seventh Street during the holding of the services,” said the newspaper.

As was common at the time, the Gould homes were in Edith’s name.  Perhaps with Guinevere Sinclair in mind, her will was explicit on one point in particular.  “I give, devise and bequeath unto my beloved husband, George Jay Gould, for and during his life and until he remarries, these two certain pieces of real estate.”  Quite clearly, if George remarried, he would lose the house and everything in it.

It did not take George long to decide.  On July 13, 1922 The New York Times reported that he had arrived in Paris with a woman and “registered at the Hotel Meurice as Mr. and Mrs. Gould.”  Before long the newspapers began piecing together the scandalous story, including the two bastard children.

Ironically, George would not enjoy his marriage for long.  In May 1923 he died alone in France from heart disease.  It was the beginning of a bitter fight for the $15 million estate between the Gould children and the new Mrs. Gould.

Legal battles dragged on for several years as Guinevere  attempted to get possession of valuable paintings and real estate.  Finally, on June 18, 1925 the estate was settled with Guinevere receiving $1.5 million in Library bonds and a $4 million trust for the two Sinclair children.

Meanwhile, the Fifth Avenue house was purchased in 1923 by Harry Payne Whitney.  In December 1925 it became home to his mother-in-law Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, who had just sold her mansion at No. 1 West 57th Street for $7 million.  The colorful Alice Vanderbilt lived on in the mansion until her death on April 22, 1934.  It was inherited by her daughter, Gladys, Countess Szechenyi.
Photograph by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As Gladys aged, maintaining her massive homes, including The Breakers in Newport, was troublesome.  In 1948 she leased the The Breakers to the Preservation Society of Newport County, keeping a small section for herself.   By 1951, at the age of 65, she rarely spent time in the Fifth Avenue home.  The New York Times mentioned that it was “occupied only sporadically in recent years by the countess, who maintains an apartment here and a home in Newport, R. I., as well as Washington.”

In December 1951 she sold the Fifth Avenue mansion to the Institute of International Education.  In reporting on the sale, The New York Times described the mansion’s solid construction in terms of 20th century Cold War era thinking:  “Believed to be one of the safest dwellings in the city in the event of an atomic bomb attack, the edifice is constructed of steel and concrete, with an exterior of gray limestone.”

Exquisite carving graced the entrance -- Photograph by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Kenneth Holland, president of the Institute, said the organization “hope to set up a working center not only for the exchange of students and professors but for the development of new programs that will facilitate the transocean exchange of business men, newspaper men, labor leaders, farm youth and public officials.”

For the house that had cost George Gould $1.25 million to build, the Institute paid $400,000.  The handsome mansion would not be around much longer, however.  On April 1, 1962 The Times reported that “Duplexes of the ground floor maisonette type, which will have their own street or lobby entrance, are planned for two nineteen-story buildings soon to be built on Fifth Avenue.”

Both structures were being designed by architect Robert L. Bien; one of them to replace the Gould mansion at No. 857 Fifth Avenue.

The Fifth Avenue corner where carriages dropped elegantly dressed wedding guests is no longer even a memory -- photo


  1. what an unsightly and bland pair of apartment towers that replaced those two beautiful townhouses

    1. the interiors of the apartment building and its floorplans are exceptional even if the exterior is garish, but on another note Horace Trumbauer created another masterpiece, as was expected of the copyist architect, but the little building behind the new Trumbauer house is an extension of Thomas Fortune Ryan's house. It was his private art gallery designed by Carrere and Hastings but demolished to make way for a very dower garage.

  2. Great post as usual. On a minor note, I wonder though if "colorful" is the right adjective for Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt. Various contemporary sources seem to agree that she was humorless, sour, snobbish and reserved, the least social of her generation of Vanderbilts.

    1. I guess "colorful" is a subjective adjective. I think of Alice Vanderbilt as colorful in that she was essentially the last of the old guard grand dames--a sort of anachronism in the 1920s. And I also think of some of the opinionated comments she sometimes made.

  3. There are so many reasons behind the decline of the great city mansions during the 20's. I think that post World War One economics have been overemphasized - especially with regards to income taxes, which did not cripple the Upper Crust until the New Deal (although economics were behind Alice Vanderbilt's sale of 1 West 57th St., most of Alice's husband's fortune had been left to her children decades earlier. The house she "downsized" to was a beaux arts palace). Enormous country and resort estates continued to be built throughout the 20's and, apart from the skyrocketing city taxes, they were as expensive to maintain as their urban counterparts. Only the Great Depression and confiscatory New Deal taxes put an end to the American Country House era. What is rarely mentioned regarding the early decline of the Fifth Avenue mansions is that, by the 20's, most of the Four Hundred were spending less and less time in New York. In the 1880s and 90's the great urban palaces were built to house New York's elite for 6 to 9 months out of the year. By the 20's, however, Society had become increasingly suburban. Indeed, the country place in Oyster Bay, Greenwich, Briarcliff Manor or the Jersey hunt country was morphing into the primary residence (Edith Gould typified this trend at Lakewood). Also, there that delightful new phenomenon called Palm Beach - New York's winter season took a big hit from the new winter capitol. Moreover, with the advent of the great luxury liners, the Four Hundred had made Europe their second home. High Society had become truly international. With Newport or Southampton in the summer, the suburbs in the spring and fall plus Palm Beach in the winter (not to mention several months at a time in Europe for good measure) the New York houses were being sidelined. It made little sense to waste one's fortune on a house that was used for a couple of months out of the year, if that. The more modest mansions off Fifth and the duplex apartments on Fifth made more sense (note that many of the Old Guard who managed to hold on their Fifth Ave. palaces until the 30's and 40's, most notably Alice and Grace Vanderbilt, owned
    no suburban estate and did not winter in Palm Beach). Add to all this the disastrous rezoning of Fifth for high rises - plus the increased noise and traffic on the avenue - and it is easy to see why the Great House Era in America fizzled in the cities a decade or more before it came to its sad end in the country,

    Titanic Bill

  4. I made a typo - it should read "there was that delightful new phenomenon known as Palm Beach."

    I also want to comment in defense of Alice Vanderbilt. I used to be a tour guide at "The Breakers" in Newport and have met some of the modern day Vanderbilts. Alice, I am sorry to say, was maligned by her grandson, the writer Cornelius Vanderbilt !V, who found himself on the wrong side of two family feuds (one regarding his parents' marriage and the other regarding his own left wing journalism). His prejudicial writings led to the often distorted picture of Alice that pervades to this day. Others who knew Alice remembered her as a loving, gentle, family oriented woman who devoted herself to her husband and children (this in contrast to those Newport sophisticates who sacrificed their marriages and children on the alter of their god Society). Alice's granddaughter Sylvia, Countess Szapary, remembered with tears that her summers at the Breakers were filled with "a great deal of love." Alice was a deeply religious woman who, although flawed like the rest of us, possessed genuine spiritual and family values in an increasingly shallow and capricious Upper Class culture. She suffered great tragedy, losing 4 of her 7 children in her lifetime, not to mention losing her husband at age 56. Like Rose Kennedy, she was sustained through tragedy by her faith in God and was remarkably resilient. She was also not humorless. When her granddaughters slid down the grand staircase of "The Breakers" on silver trays, she burst into laughter. Other grand dames would have had a fit. When compared to some of her all- too-narcissistic contemporaries, Alice stands out as a highly commendable example of wifely and maternal devotion. She was also exceptionally good to her household staff. Had I grown up among the Four Hundred, I would have preferred to have had Alice as a mother or grandmother than almost any woman on Fifth Avenue.

    Titanic Bill

  5. Great post as always but I agree those replacement towers are pitifully ugly, great floor plans or not a dog in anyones book especially considering what magnificence they replaced. Too bad nobody realized before it was too late, what a diverse and palatial ensemble of residential architecture was being lost in New York during those years. RT