Friday, April 9, 2010

The Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo Mansion - Madison Avenue at 72nd Street

photo by Alice Lum
When the William K. Vanderbilts broke the brownstone tradition with his French Renaissance Fifth Avenue mansion in 1883 a trend erupted among the monied Manhattanites.  Chateaux and palazzos began rising from the pavement throughout the city.  Not to be left out was Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo, a descendant of patroon Philip Jacob Rhinelander.

Gertrude's husband, Francis Waldo, died in 1878, two years after their marriage.  In 1882 she purchased the extensive building lot at the southeast corner of East 72nd Street and Madison Avenue, significantly north of the established Millionaires' Row south of 59th Street on Fifth Avenue.  She envisioned a mansion that would outshine even Vanderbilt's limestone palace. 

Yet it was not until 1894 that construction began.  Gertrude chose architectural firm Kimball & Thompson to design a 16th century French Renaissance chateau.  It would be one of the largest residences in the city.  The commission was a severe departure from Kimball & Thompson's regular commercial designs.  The plot Mrs. Waldo provided proved challenging to the firm as well -- the avenue slopes severely downward from south to north as it approaches 72nd Street.

The street level was reserved, therefore, for reception areas and servants rooms.  The drawing room, salons and and dining room were on the second floor.  The master bedroom occupied the third floor and servants quarters and guest rooms were on the fourth.  The rich French Gothic ornamentation included spiky dormers, a steep slate roof and statuary-filled niches.

photo by Alice Lum
As the residence was being  built, Gertrude Waldo toured Europe buying furniture and objects of art for her new showplace.  Crates of statuary, paintings, tapestries and antique furnishings were delivered and piled in the hallways and rooms of the completed mansion.  But they were never opened.  And Gertrude never moved in.

Instead she took up residence with her unmarried sister, Laura Rhinelander at No. 31 East 72nd Street within view of the gleaming new mansion.

For a decade the imposing house sat empty, dust gathering inside the unlit rooms like a page from Charles Dickens.  In 1908 Gertrude received an offer on the property; but her enthusiasm to sell was tepid at best.  When an agent finally cemented a deal on the house and the papers were being prepared, Gertrude Waldo arose from the table announcing quietly "I don't think I'll sell" and left the room.

photo by Alice Lum
A heavy iron fence was erected to provide security, however the presence of paintings, statuary and other valuable objects inside was widely known.  The mansion was looted four times in 1909.  At the same time, lack of maintenance was taking its toll.  Water leaked in through the roof.  The stonework was streaked and discolored and interior water damage was extensive.  What was intended to be a showplace was looking more like a haunted house.

Gertrude Waldo died in debt in 1914.  Immediately The Dime Savings Bank took steps to demolish the structure in favor of an apartment house; although the block was protected by a restrictive clause limiting property use to private residences.  The bank argued that an upscale apartment house was, essentially, a group of private houses and therefore fit the definition of a "private house."  Unfortunately for the bank and fortunately for New York it did not win that argument.

So Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo's great house stood empty for another ten years.  In 1921 the ground floor was converted to retail space and two apartments were created in the upper floors.   At last, 23 years after being built, someone was living in the grand chateau.

Over the next 30 years the house was divided and subdivided into a series of apartments and retail spaces.  Then in the 1950's the entire house was leased by Edgar de Evia and his partner Robert Denning, sparing the grand home further abuse.   Interior decorators Tate & Hall and other small firms took up office space in the house.

photo NYPL Collection
The great turn-around came in 1983 when Ralph Lauren obtained the lease for his flagship store.  Between $14 and $15 million dollars and a year and a half later, under the supervision of Naomi Leff, the building was completely rehabilitated.  The rich carved staircase that Gertrude Waldo never walked down is pristine.  The woodwork and plaster work echo those gilded closing days of the 19th century when ostentatious New Yorkers showed off their wealth.

Interior photographs by D. J. Huppatz

The house sold in 1984 for $6.4 million, in 1989 for $43 million and again in 2005 for $80 million.  After suffering decades of neglect and abuse, Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo's intended showplace is exactly that.
photo by Alice Lum


  1. Your posts are fascinating. I could sit here for hours and read about all these fabulous buildings. Thank you!

  2. Thank you! I appreciate hearing that.

  3. Every time I go to Manhattan, I take a picture of this building. It looks different in different lighting. Always imposing and always curious. Thank you for the great history behind it.

  4. What JWC said LOL! Your posts of these architectural wonders leave me breathless and wanting. I live vicariously through your posts and transport myself into times of yesterday and today. Thank you for sharing. Oh and I DO spend hours and hours and hours....looking and loving and dreaming. I just retired so I have the time ha ha ha haaaaa ha ha. Ahem. Okaaaaaaaay....ta ta for now.