Monday, February 27, 2012

The Ultimate Family Feud -- The Lost Astor Houses 5th Avenue and 34th St.

William Waldorf Astor dealt a singular blow to his Aunt Caroline by razing his mansion and erecting the Waldorf Hotel next to hers in 1893 -- photo Mina Rees Library, The Graduate Center, CUNY
In 1827 William Astor, son of the original John Jacob Astor, purchased half of John Thompson’s farm north of the city.   It was a prodigious investment, as things would turn out.  Within a few decades Astor’s section of the land would become Fifth Avenue from 32nd Street to 35th Street; the most prestigious residential district in the United States.

Although William, who had the unfortunate and sometimes socially embarrassing middle name of Backhouse, erected a small brick dwelling at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, the family remained on elegant Lafayette Street.  Upon his death, the Fifth Avenue property was passed to his sons, William Backhouse Astor, Jr. and John Jacob Astor III.

The two brothers would erect grand brownstone mansions, separated by a garden, at Nos. 338 and 350 Fifth Avenue.   It seemed that only a garden could come between the millionaire brothers.   But then there was the matter of the wives.

John married Charlotte Augusta Gibbes in 1847 in Trinity Church.   Known as Augusta, she brought a sterling pedigree to the marriage that included a string of titled ancestors including King John.   Intelligent and educated, she included on her guest lists writers and painters and even an actress or actor.   Although she might entertain one or two hundred guests in the expansive ballroom and dazzle with dripping jewels and pearls; her main focus was on charities.  She was a driving force in the new Children’s Aid Society.

In the meantime William B. Astor married Caroline Webster Schermerhorn, the stout and snobbish daughter of a millionaire merchant.   Caroline’s roots went back to the original Dutch patroons, thereby providing her with social bragging rights.   The 22-year old bride was ambitious and determined and one of her first acts was to insist that her husband drop his “vulgar” middle name.

Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor in 1875, dressed for a ball.  The opinionated and determined socialite demanded to be THE Mrs. Astor.
Eventually, although the couple managed to have five children, William would spend little time in the mansion; preferring to while life away on his enormous yacht far from his wife’s demands and parties.

The sisters-in-law whose houses shared the block could not have been more different.  Caroline vocally admonished Augusta’s mixing with those beneath her social station and could not understand her obsession with charity.  Yet her heart was not all steel and ice.

On a Friday afternoon in September 1884, Caroline Astor sat looking out the window onto Fifth Avenue.  There, toiling in the heat was a gang of ditch diggers excavating for the soon-to-come steam pipes of the New York Steam Heating Company.  Recalling that they had been working the entire week and seeing the perspiration on their faces, she summoned her butler and asked him to bring the foreman to her.

When he was ushered in, Caroline told him to line the men up; she wished to give them a little money to purchase refreshments on their lunch hour as they “must be wearied by their continuous work in the warm weather.”

As she watched from the window again, over one hundred men filed up to the butler who deposited a dollar coin in their hands.  One worker who attempted to take his place in line twice was caught by the foreman and fired.

It was, however, an apparently rare act of overt kindness.

Unlike Augusta's, Caroline Astor’s guest list was stringently restricted.  No Jews or Catholics were invited to her ballroom or dining room.   One story tells of the time that August Belmont threatened to capsize the financial community if he and his wife were not issued an invitation to an upcoming ball.  Under pressure, Caroline sent the invitation.

When Mr. and Mrs. Belmont arrived at the Astor house, they were the only guests.

In January 1890 The New York Times commented on Caroline’s upcoming event.  “Mrs. Astor’s dance will probably be considered a ball, as upward of three hundred people have been invited to it, but she does not herself call it this, although it is really difficult to understand where a dance ends and a ball begins…Those who have been invited to Mrs. Astor’s are looking forward with pleasant anticipations to the entertainment, which is certain to be perfectly appointed and delightful in its atmosphere, as have been all of the similar entertainments which she has given in previous years.”

Indeed, the ball  that The Times anticipated was impressive.  The floors groaned under the weight of the flowers and potted plants.  Caroline Astor received her guests in the drawing room under her full-length portrait as they proceeded to the ballroom.   After the dancing, the party ate from gold-plated dinnerware.

If Augusta Astor gave little thought to the sister-in-law rivalry, her nephew certainly did.  When Augusta’s son, William Waldorf Astor, married and created a second Mrs. William Astor, Caroline struck.  She ordered new calling cards which read simply “Mrs. Astor, Fifth Avenue.”

William W. Astor would not have his wife disrespected and when his palatial mansion in Newport, Beaulieu, was completed, he had her calling cards printed “Mrs. Astor, Newport.”

Now the war was officially on.

Although Caroline Astor’s stubborn tenacity ended in her keeping the title “Mrs. Astor,” her nephew would deal the deciding blow in the battle.   Before leaving the United States to live in England, William razed his father’s grand mansion.

After briefly toying with the idea of building a stables next to Caroline Astor’s mansion, he constructed the hulking Waldorf Hotel in 1893.  Designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh, it diminished Mrs. Astor’s house and forced her to share the block with travelers and businessmen.  After the nerve-racking construction that shook her staid home was completed, the avenue in front of her house was filled with noisy carriages and hansoms and the sidewalk bustled with rushing travelers.

Caroline Astor attempted to stay on and did so for a year.  Perhaps the last straw, however, was when a transient (called by the newspapers “a tramp”) named Garvin sneaked into the 34th Street servants’ entrance in November 1894, found a comfortable bed in a laundress’s room, removed his clothing and went to sleep.

The shocking incident caused a flurry of newspaper coverage and popular interest; including at least one song -- NYPL Collection
The invasion of the homeless man into Mrs. Astor’s house was fodder for the press for days.   When he was let go, Caroline’s son John Jacob Astor IV demanded that he be re-arrested and fined or imprisoned.  The backlash against the injustice was formidable and Astor’s reputation among regular citizens was tainted.

On November 4, 1894 The New York Times reported “The announcement that a huge hotel is projected for the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street has been received without surprise.

“The mansion which now ornaments the corner is the one occupied for so many years by Mr. and Mrs. William Astor and their children.  It has been the scene of numerous brilliant social functions.  A quarter of a century ago, the man who would have predicted its demolition within fifty years to make way for trade would have found no believers.”

Before long, “Jack” Astor had constructed a sprawling double French mansion uptown for his mother and himself.  The venerable mansion built by his father came down, to be replaced by another Henry J. Hardenbergh hotel, The Astoria.  The cousins swallowed their pride in favor of business interests and joined the two magnificent structures by a common walkway. The conspicuous display of wealth that strutted back and forth along this hallway earned its nickname of Peacock Alley.

The joined Waldorf and Astoria hotels dominated the neighborhood, dwarfing the majestic white marble A. T. Stewart mansion (center) -- photo NYPL Collection
The combined Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was, ironically, where the investigation into the sinking of the H.M.S. Titanic was held in 1912.  John Jacob Astor IV died on that fateful voyage.

The Waldorf-Astoria sat on the site of the Astor mansions for only a few decades; demolished in 1930 to make way for the 102-floor Art Deco masterpiece, the Empire State Building.    The Astor mansions, once the center of New York City social life and victims of family feuding, are now mainly forgotten.


  1. Great post. I just read A Season of Splendor : The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York by Greg King. I just made a post about The Gilded Age on my blog.

  2. I love reading about these social climbing Victorians. It's just so fun!

    Two very minor points:
    1. The Astors didn't actually build Beaulieu. They purchased it from the Barredas after that Peruvian family lost a good deal of its fortune. I believe they did give that house its current name, though. It's interesting that both of the early Astor houses at Newport, Beechwood and Beaulieu, were designed by the English architect Calvert Vaux.
    2. Caroline Astor did allow a few Catholics into her version of Society. I'm not aware of any religious Jews who passed muster with her, but there was at least one Irish Catholic on the very first published list of The 400; that being Countess Annie Leary. Before long there were a few others, including some Drexels.

    1. Thanks for the clarification on those two points. I noticed that Beaulieu was built on a fortune amassed by the guano trade. I wonder how proper Victorians got around that subject!

  3. Where can I find more information on the usage of the original "small brick dwelling?"

  4. Tom, Can you identify the building in the foreground of the last photo? The one with the awnings and ivy?

    1. That was the John Caswell mansion, renovated for the New York Club. Here is my link:

  5. Thank you, Tom. We have had so much fun thanks to your blog. If you show real interest and that you have 'done your homework', New Yorkers will show you their historic homes, doormen will abandon their post to show you secret places in hotels, a member of the Lotos Club gave us a tour, and they treated us like VIP's at the St. Regis bar(although 2 drinks were $65). What fun. Thank you!

    1. Wow! Glad you had a good time and that the blog helped at least some!

  6. I just enjoyed your participation in the
    podcast about Caroline Astor. Hope to hear some more.

    Greetings from Puerto Rico