Although a Southern girl, Alva Erskine Smith grew up spending summers in Newport and traveling through Europe. Her family had moved to New York City in 1857 when she was four years old and she later attended a private boarding school in Paris. She met fabulously wealthy William Kissam Vanderbilt at a party thrown for Consuelo Yznaga, one of her best friends. Vanderbilt most likely did not realize he had met a woman unlike nearly any other in New York society.
The couple was married on April 20, 1875 in Calvary Church and would go on to have three children. Opinionated and self-confident, Alva was determined to rise to the top of New York Society—a position securely held by Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.
Contemporary writer James D. McCabe, Jr. described Fifth Avenue saying, “The principal material used in the construction of the buildings on the avenue is brown stone. This gives to the street a sombre look,” and he pointed out Caroline Astor’s mansion, “At the northwest corner of 35th street is a plain dwelling of brick, with light stone trimmings.” Alva Vanderbilt set out to break the “sombre look” of Fifth Avenue and outshine Mrs. Astor’s “plain dwelling.”
In 1879 she and architect Richard Morris Hunt embarked on a four-year project to design and erect a lavish and gleaming white limestone mansion at No. 660 Fifth Avenue. It sat squarely in the midst of what would be known as “Vanderbilt Row.” Alva was highly involved in the project and a friend would famously say later “she loved nothing better than to be knee deep in mortar.”
The massive French Renaissance palace, called the “Petite Chateau,” was completed in 1883. Most critics raved. The Architectural Record said it “possessed distinction, elegance, dignity and even repose” and was “pleasant in the color and texture of its stone, strong and free in treatment, discreet and refined in its ornamentation.” Not everyone was overwhelmed. Century Magazine’s critic complained “We can only call it a very showy house, and add that to some eyes it may seem imposing.”
|Architectural Record June 1908 (copyright expired)|
Alva wasted no time in throwing the doors open for a costume ball that eliminated any competition for social event of the season. According to the New-York Tribune the following morning on March 27, 1883, “From 600 to 800 people were present, but owing to the large rooms there was little discomfort from crowding.”
The newspaper estimated that “The ball probably equaled, if it did not excel, in beauty and general attractiveness any similar entertainment ever given in this city.” A photographer was on hand to capture each socialite and millionaire garbed as historical figure—Cornelius Vanderbilt was Louis XVI and Lady Mandeville wore a dress “copied from a picture by Vandyke of a Princess de Croy.”
As the carriages of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens pulled up to the awnings erected over the sidewalk, less privileged New Yorkers crowded the avenue and West 52nd Street. A squad of policemen kept the throng back. The Tribune condescendingly remarked “A great multitude of persons to whom, plainly, the habits of high-class society were unknown, began to gather in front of Mr. Vanderbilt’s house soon after nightfall…there were young men and old, giddy girls and sedate matrons, widows in weeds and babies in arms.”
Two years after the completion of No. 660 Fifth Avenue William’s vast fortune was increased by the death of his father, William H. Vanderbilt. William received about $55 million, around $1.3 billion today. But limitless wealth would not buy domestic harmony.
William and Alva had three children; but by 1894 tensions between the pair were obvious. When William returned from Europe—alone—on December 12, 1894 The New York Times reported “Upon arriving in town, Mr. Vanderbilt did not go to his own house, 660 Fifth Avenue, but to the home of his mother, Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt, at 640 Fifth Avenue. He would see no reporters last night.”
Before long the drawing rooms of Fifth Avenue were shaken by Alva’s suit for divorce, citing William’s extramarital dalliances. She walked away with $10 million and much real estate, including the imperial Marble House in Newport. But William retained the Fifth Avenue mansion.
Eventually the now-single millionaire would pick up where Alva left off in entertaining. On March 24, 1898 The Times reported on the private concert he gave for about 350 guests. “The world of society was, of course, well represented.” The newspaper noted that the floral decorations had come from the conservatories of Vanderbilt’s sprawling Long Island estate, Idlehour, and “were arranged by his servants.”
On September 12, 1899 William’s brother, Cornelius Vanderbilt II died. With his passing, William became the unofficial head of the Vanderbilt family. William closed his homes to entertainments during the expected period of mourning. A year later, on November 19, 1900, he gently stepped back into the role of host by giving a quiet dinner for just 14 guests in the Petite Chateau. The Times explained “The guests comprised the five or six men and women who have entertained Mr. Vanderbilt this Autumn at their country places and several from out of town.”
|The mansion was as imposing from the rear as from Fifth Avenue -- photo by McKim Mead & White from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWPNYHL3&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915|
Eight years after Alva Vanderbilt walked out of No. 660 Fifth Avenue there was a new Mrs. Vanderbilt. William married Anne Harriman, the daughter of banker Oliver Harriman. Anne had been married and widowed twice--to Samuel Stevens Sands and to Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, Jr. The middle-aged couple (William was now 54 years old) would have no children. But Anne Vanderbilt successfully picked up the reins as hostess of the Petite Chateau.
In 1906 Vanderbilt’s son, William Jr., commissioned McKim, Mead & White to design a compatible mansion next door at No. 666 Fifth Avenue. Existing brownstone homes were demolished and the firm produced a mansion so harmonious with No. 660 that it was often confused as one building.
|The two Vanderbilt houses were often confused as one -- photo from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The mansions of New York’s millionaires were tempting targets for burglars despite constant police vigilance and private security. In 1899 James Anderson, alias Eleazur Hardy, was sent to the Elmira Reformatory for robbing the houses of J. Pierpont Morgan and Charles T. Yerkes. Back on the street in 1908 he got inside the Vanderbilt mansion on February 13.
When Anderson left the house he had with him $230 worth of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s silver—more in the neighborhood of $5,500 today. The burglar’s freedom would be short-lived, however. On March 10 he was convicted of the robbery and was back behind bars awaiting sentencing.
|William Kissam Vanderbilt -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The vestibule of the mansion would become a make-shift infirmary three months after the debutante ball. On March 15, 1911 Mary Cunningham, a 47-year old seamstress was crossing Fifth Avenue when she was hit by an automobile. The driver stopped momentarily, then sped away.
Two men carried her to the lower step of the Vanderbilt mansion, then were given permission by a family member to bring her into the vestibule. A Vanderbilt limousine was called for to take the woman to Flower Hospital. A doctor arrived about 12 minutes later and diagnosed a broken left leg and contusions. When the Vanderbilt car drove up, the doctor sent it away, saying he preferred that the patient be transported by ambulance.
In the meantime, three other Vanderbilt limousines pulled up to take the family to the opera. Working around the doctor, the patient and onlookers, a servant rolled out a long red carpet down the steps. Apparently unmoved by the situation Anne Vanderbilt and her companions sidestepped the woman. “Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Sr., three young women, and three men, appeared,” reported The Times. “They walked down the carpet-covered steps into the automobiles, and in the rear of the procession came Dr. Croak and the ambulance driver carrying Mrs. Cunningham.”
Society hostesses often gave dinners followed by a trip to the theater. Anne Vanderbilt found it more convenient on January 21, 1912 to simply bring the theater to No. 660 Fifth Avenue. The New York Times reported that “those who have been asked in will have the opportunity of seeing Mme. Simone and her leading man, Arnold Daly, in a one-act play, entitled ‘Bryant 5800.’ This is an adaptation by Gaston Mayer of Tristan Bernard’s ‘Les Coteaux de Medoc.’”
As did many other wealthy socialites, Anne Vanderbilt threw herself into war relief work as World War I erupted. In 1915 she traveled to France where she saw the work of American surgeons among the wounded French soldiers. She continued throughout the war hosting benefits in the mansion and raising money and awareness regarding war-related causes.
|American Architect & Building News June 5, 1886 (copyright expired)|
On July 5, 1915 Saerdes R. Fowrdbes, of Yonkers, was released from the State Hospital for the Insane at Poughkeepsie. A year later, on May 31, 1916 he stood on Fifth Avenue in front of the Vanderbilt house and lobbed bricks at the windows from a leather bag he carried. Before his arrest he had shattered several panes. The broken window glass was nothing compared to the man’s intentions—he carried a stiletto with the intention of killing the owner of the house.
Fowrdbes, however, was at the wrong house. Calling the man a "maniac," The Evening World explained that he believed “that it was the residence of John D. Rockefeller.”
In July 1920 William Kissam Vanderbilt died while traveling in Paris. Within four months the mansion that had been his home for nearly four decades was on the market. The Times reported on November 10 “Negotiations are in progress for the sale of the mansion of the late William K. Vanderbilt at 660 Fifth Avenue…and reports among real estate men yesterday were that the deal would be concluded before the end of the week, with the purchase price between $2,500,000 and $3,000,000.”
Two weeks later the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the Empire Trust Co. had purchased the house. “The structure will be remodeled into a banking house.” The New York Times was less optimistic saying “The ornate graystone structure…will probably be replaced by a modern skyscraper.”
As it turned out, the Empire Trust never converted the house to a bank branch as intended. Instead it put the house back on the market. It sat empty for five years before being purchased by Benjamin Winter in May 1925. The Times reported on May 20 that “the real estate operator…will erect a twenty-story business building on the site.”