When the founder of the Vanderbilt dynasty, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, died in 1877 he left his favorite grandson and namesake, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, a $5 million inheritance. The following year Vanderbilt purchased and demolished three brownstone houses on the south west corner of 57th Street and 5th Avenue in preparation for his new mansion.
Vanderbilt commissioned George Brown Post to design his grand home. In a vast departure from the brownstone tradition of 5th Avenue, Post created a red brick and limestone chateau brimming over with turrets and dormers, deeply arched windows and highly ornate chimneys.
|The original 57th Street mansion. The side windows shown here looked onto Fifth Avenue.-- photo NYPL Collection|
For the 45-foot dining room Saint-Gaudens also sculpted wooden relief portraits including, according to the artist “…the young Cornelius and George Vanderbilt, Gertrude Vanderbilt, now Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, William H. Vanderbilt, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, the first of the family.” Here the lower walls were paneled in oak, the upper portions covered in embossed, brown leather. A coffered ceiling hung overhead which Saint-Gaudens termed “superb.” It consisted of twenty panels, six of which were opalescent and “jewel” glass skylights by John LaFarge. The beams were inlaid with mother of pearl in a Greek key pattern. Green marble reliefs of Hospitalitas and Amicitia flanked the doorway, their faces, clothing and other details executed in ivory, iridescent metals and mother of pearl.
Eight years later, upon the death of his father William Henry, Vanderbilt inherited another $67 million, adding to the fortune he was amassing as chairman of the family railroad empire. By the beginning of the 1890s, other millionaires were building palaces along Fifth Avenue which nearly rivaled the Vanderbilt chateau. Vanderbilt decided to enlarge.
|Looking west on 57th Street, the Vanderbilt mansion sits to the right -- NYPL Collection|
On November 26, 1893 The Times excitedly reported on the near-completion of the mansion. Calling it “the finest private residence in America,” the newspaper reported “It is a structure that would command admiration in any land of palaces and castles grand, for in its design, its noble proportions, and its artistic finish it is, in reality, a palace.”
And a palace it was.
|The carriage entrance at the corner of 58th Street led to the formal entranceway -- photo NYPL Collection|
The interiors were meant to impress. The paneling and decorations of LaFarge’s original dining room were incorporated into the billiards room upstairs in the new section. The main 40 by 50 foot entrance hall on the 57th Street side was faced in Caen stone “after the French style followed in the interior of the Chateau de Blois” (Saint-Gaudens’ magnificent mantelpiece had been moved upstairs to the new family sitting room). The library faced 5th Avenue along with two salons, one decorated in Louis XV the other in Louis XVI. On the 58th Street side was a Moorish smoking room designed by Lockwood de Forest – the walls encrusted with tiles and mosaics, the floors piled with Persian rugs. Mr. Vanderbilt’s office and a breakfast room were also on the ground floor.
The sumptuous 65 by 50 foot ballroom also faced 58th Street. It took artist Edouard Toudouze nearly a year to complete the ceiling painting in his Paris studio. According to a French critic “Cupids frisk about, darting their love shots about rather carelessly” and “it is just the right thing for a ballroom.”
Rather than build a “picture gallery” as was the trend in millionaire’s homes, Vanderbilt lined the walls of his new dining room with his paintings. Here hung two Turners, Constable’s “A Castle on the River Wye,” two portraits by Sir Peter Lely, and works by Corot, Millais, Rousseau, Greuze and Ruysdael.
The price tag in 1893 to enlarge his house was around $3 million dollars.
|The family would most often enter here, on 57th Street. The large conservatory is seen to the left. -- photo Cornell University|
And here this domestic couple lived happily until the morning of September 12, 1899 when Vanderbilt unexpectedly died. That morning, according to The New York Times, “A few minutes before 6 o’clock…he awoke and, arousing his wife, said to her: ‘I think that I am dying.’” Within five minutes Cornelius Vanderbilt II was dead of a brain hemorrhage.
Alice Vanderbilt, according to The Times, “was prostrated” with grief and required a doctor’s care. She never entertained again in her grand ballroom. The windows were shuttered and the grand iron carriage gates were seldom opened, then only for funerals or close family events.
Over time commercial buildings began crushing in on Alice’s mansion and in 1926 she sold it to Braisted Realty Corporation for around $7 million. A week before the wrecking ball was scheduled to demolish the 40-year old home, Mrs. Vanderbilt arranged to have it opened to the public for fifty cents admission which would be donated to charity. Guests signed the Vanderbilt guest book and ogled at the stained glass dome over the grand staircase and the French salons. A week later it was no more.
Little survives of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s full-block chateau. The Saint-Gaudens mantle is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the grand carriage gates are installed at one entrance to Central Park, and some of LaFarge’s stained glass and other pieces were salvaged. But the great bulk of the Vanderbilt mansion was demolished along with an irreplaceable page of New York City history.