Monday, May 19, 2014

The Lost John Jacob Astor Mansion -- 840 Fifth Avenue

Carriages dropped off guests at the bronze gates by using the semi-circular drive-- catalog of sale of Astor Mansion (copyright expired)

The indomitable Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, the Mrs. Astor, met her match in 1893.  After a lengthy feud, her next-door neighbor and nephew, William Astor, demolished the brownstone mansion erected by his father, John Jacob Astor III, and began construction on the towering Waldorf Hotel.  It was a brilliant move intended to show his aunt exactly who had the last word in the family fight.

Caroline Astor held on for a year before The New York Times reported on November 4, 1894 “The announcement that a huge hotel is projected for the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street has been received without surprise.”  It was not simply co-existing with a hotel that nudged the 64-year old socialite to move.  Society had long since moved northward along Fifth Avenue towards Central Park.  The Astor mansion was increasingly surrounded by commerce.

Caroline’s son, John, oversaw the project of erecting an immense double mansion for himself and his mother on Fifth Avenue at the northeast corner of 65th Street.  Richard Morris Hunt was given the commission to produce the French Renaissance chateau which would take two years to complete.  “Colonel” John Jacob Astor would live in the more desirable southern half, 840 Fifth Avenue, with its additional windows on 65th Street; while Caroline Astor would take the northern residence at 841.

A postcard depicted the mansion on a pleasantly-quiet Fifth Avenue.

Hunt designed the houses to seamlessly appear as a unit—rivaling the block-engulfing Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street enlarged by George Post in 1893.  As the dual mansion neared completion on January 5, 1896, The New York Times hoped that Carolina Astor would throw an opening ball.

“An interesting rumor states that Mrs. Astor is to give a housewarming before the close of this month.  Mrs. Astor’s house, at 841 Fifth Avenue, and that of her son, John Jacob Astor, at 840 Fifth Avenue, are so built that they can be made into one house  When all the rooms of this great residence are thrown open, they will offer a greater space for dancing than any other private house in the city.  Even if Mrs. Astor decides not to give the ball, Col. and Mrs. Astor will give a number of dinner parties.”

Guests entered through magnificent bronze entrance gates into a glass-domed entrance hall.  From here they entered, left or right, into the separate homes.  As The Times indicated, the entertainment spaces were designed so they could be joined into a single ballroom or dining room, for instance.  In true Hunt fashion, the interiors were intended to awe.  The fireplace of the combination ballroom-picture gallery, for instance, dwarfed the Astor guests.  Enormous carved female figures flanked an inset oval portrait above the mantel.  The stained glass skylight was supported by titanic, muscular telamons.

photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Despite her advancing age and questionable health, Caroline Astor continued her regimented schedule.  According to Eric Homberger in his Mrs. Astor’s New York, “Each morning after breakfast the day’s meals would be discussed with the staff, led by Thomas Hade, who had been with her since 1876, and her longtime companion, Miss Simrock.  Correspondence was attended to.  The day’s other business might be transacted on the telephone.”  There were the expected rounds of afternoon receiving or being received; dinners, musicales, and dances to attend or host.

The lavish interiors were, for the most part, in the French style -- photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress

Among the most anticipated social events of the year was Caroline’s annual ball.  Her ball was followed, one week to the day each year, by John Jacob Astor’s ball.  In reporting on the latter in 1905, The New York Times remarked “the John Jacob Astor house is a replica of Mrs. William Astor’s, and the same porte cochere and street entrance serve both residences.  Last night both houses were thrown into one, as they were a week ago.  There were boxwood trees lining the crimson-carpeted steps leading from the street to the entrance, and in the large main hall were palms and vases with cut flowers…After all the guests had arrived a supper was served by Sherry at small tables placed in the dining room and halls, after which the cotillion was danced in the beautiful picture gallery and ballroom into which both of the Astor Houses open."

What appeared to be a Brussels tapestry was, in fact, one of a series of finely-executed wall paintings -- catalog of sale of Astor Mansion (copyright expired) 

It was the last of Caroline Astor’s annual balls.  In 1906 she suffered what contemporary accounts deemed a major nervous breakdown.  Possibly it was a series of strokes that afflicted the grand dame, instead.  The Evening World later said “since then [she] had discontinued even the large dinners of which she yearly gave three or four.”  It signaled the beginning of the end of the woman who had ruled Manhattan society for decades. 

In 1907 Caroline Astor shut herself inside the Fifth Avenue mansion.  On October 31, 1908, The Evening World reported “For more than a year she has received nobody but her physician and her daughter, Mrs. Wilson.  The only sign of life about her house since April last came from the windows of her room.”

photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

There was apparently one exception.  Although on bad days her once-sharp mind was clouded and confused, that was not the case when she permitted a rare interview with the Delineator in October 1908.  The New York Times quoted the article and Mrs. Astor’s thoughts on her eventual demise.

“I am not vain enough to think New York will not be able to get along very well without me.  Many women will rise up to take my place.  But I hope my influence will be felt in one thing, and that is in discountenancing the undignified methods employed by certain New York women to attract a following.”

Caroline Astor was, no doubt, referring to her arch rivals Theresa “Tessie” Oelrichs and Marian “Mamie” Fish.  Both women were known for their lavish entertainments which might be termed “theme parties” today. 

“They have given entertainment that belonged under a circus tent rather than in a gentlewoman’s home.  Their sole object is notoriety, a thing that no lady ever seeks, but, rather, shrinks from.”

Three weeks after the article was published, Caroline Astor was dead.  On October 31, the day after her death, The Evening World wrote “Mrs. Astor has been sick for over two years, but death was the result of an old heart trouble, which recurred four weeks ago…Owing to Mrs. Astor’s advanced age, seventy-eight years, her relatives have known for some time her sickness would result fatally.”

Jack Astor wasted little time in taking over his mother’s half of the house.  On November 8, one week after her death, The Sun reported “Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor will now occupy the entire dwelling at 840 and 842 [sic] Fifth avenue as their town residence, as this was the arrangement of Mrs. Astor originally.  Sliding doors open the halls into one and the ball room covers the rear of the double dwelling.”

Astor tore down walls, removed the twin staircases and installed a bronze-domed reception hall.  The library was relocated, and the ballroom was now one gargantuan room—possibly the largest in New York City.  And there was one other renovation John Jacob Astor would make in his life—divorce.

The remodeled reception room dazzled -- catalog of sale of Astor Mansion, (copyright expired)

Inside the walls of 840 Fifth Avenue things had not been idyllic for Astor and his wife, Ava.  And on November 6, 1909, The Los Angeles Herald noted that “The papers in the suit for divorce which Mrs. John Jacob Astor is reported to have brought against her husband are now complete…It is reported that papers recommend a decree in favor of Mrs. Astor.  The custody of the daughter, Alice, 7 years old, is said to have been given to Mrs. Astor, while Colonel Astor, it is reported, will be given the custody of the son, William Vincent, 17 years old.”

Above the mantel in the marble-walled and floored Dining Room hung the portrait of the original John Jacob Astor -- catalog of the sale of the Astor Mansion (copyright expired)

A few months later, on March 18, 1910, The Norfolk Weekly New-Journal brushed off the hoop-la.  “The John Jacob Astor divorce attracts little attention in the atmosphere of New York’s smart set.  Couples that live in domestic peace and harmony are more of a news feature down there.”

Two weeks earlier renovations to the mansion had been completed and on March 3 Astor gave a housewarming dinner “of almost two hundred covers…in his newly constructed residence, 840 Fifth Avenue,” as described by The New York Times.  “There will be a cotillion afterward, to which a hundred additional guests have been invited.”  No longer in the shadow of either Caroline or Ava Astor, John Jacob Astor opened his doors to over three hundred guests that night; not only celebrating a new house, but a new life.

Off the reception room was the Entrance Hall with its massive fireplace and groin-arched ceiling -- catalog of the sale of the Astor Mansion (copyright expired)  

The mansion was not completely done; however.  A year later on February 7, 1911 The New York Times explained “Col. Astor gave last year a Mi-Careme dance as a housewarming to his remodeled residence, but at that time the central feature of the huge new central hall—an immense fountain—had not been completed.  This fountain, built of shaded gray convent marble and about ten feet high, with spouting dolphins at its top and infant Neptunes with tridents seated below, apparently ready to spear the goldfish swimming at their feet, is the most noticeable figure of the now finished hall.”

A stylish carriage pulls up to the entrance via the semi-circular drive in 1897-- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The installation necessitated another massive entertainment.  On February 6, 208 guests were invited for dinner and another 300 arrived for dancing afterward.  “The house itself is too handsome to need extraneous ornamentation, and a few vases of cut flowers formed the only decoration in the drawing and reception rooms and library,” said The New York Times.  “Col. Astor had assisting him in receiving his guests Mrs. Ogden Mills and his niece, Mrs. Theodore Douglas Robinson.  They stood in the drawing room at the left of the entrance, where the late Mrs. Astor was wont to receive.”

Astor had every reason to be pleased that the mansion was now completed.  There would soon be a new Mrs. Astor with whom to share it.  Jack Astor had become enamored with Madeleine Talmage Force, the daughter of William Hurlbut Force and Katherine Arvilla Talmage; and on September 8, 1911 The New York Times suggested “There was an impression last night among the friends of Col. John Jacob Astor that his marriage to Miss Madeleine T. Force would not be delayed more than a few days.”

John Jacob Astor and his young bride, Madeleine Talmadge Force -- photos from the collection of the Library of Congress.

If society was not shocked by Astor’s marrying so quickly after his divorce, it was taken aback by the age difference.  Madeline was approximately the same age as her soon-to-be stepson, Vincent.  The wedding went on despite any raised eyebrows and, following their quiet honeymoon at Ferncliff, the Astor country estate in Rhinebeck, New York, the newlyweds traveled to Europe.

By the time they started home Madeleine was pregnant.  The couple boarded the new RMS Titanic in Southampton, England on April 10, 1912.  Only one of them would return to 840 Fifth Avenue.

At midnight on April 14 the teen-aged Vincent Astor was awakened with the news that the Titanic had gone down.  Two days later The Evening World reported, “William Vincent Astor was one of the many visitors who hung about the White Star offices yesterday and refused to depart with the meager assurances of the safety of all the passengers that had been offered.

“The boy was still sitting in the great silent house this morning when an official of the White Star line called up and notified him that Mrs. John Jacob Astor and her maid had been saved,” the newspaper said.

“‘But what of father?’ shrieked the boy through the phone and made no effort to choke back his sobs when the faltering reply came that no word had been received of the fate of Col. Astor.”

John Jacob Astor, who had valiantly given up a seat in a lifeboat, died on the ship.  Madeleine was home in the Fifth Avenue mansion within a few days.  The Sun, on April 21, reported on the condition of the pregnant widow.  “The nervous condition which caused her friends some alarm on Thursday night has passed almost entirely away and Dr. Reuel B. Kimball, the Force family physician, said that it had not been necessary to give Mrs. Astor a single drop of medicine.”

Vincent Astor was visiting his mother on August 14, 1912 when Madeleine gave birth in the Astor mansion.  The New York Times said “The baby, who will be the sixth to bear the name of the founder of the Astor fortune, and who comes into an estate of $3,000,000, is said to be strong, well formed, and to bear a striking resemblance to his father.”

Madeleine and her son lived on in the hulking Fifth Avenue chateau.  As the baby grew, his mother found that his expenses were outweighing his income.  On June 5, 1915, The Evening World reported “Three-year-old John Jacob Astor, posthumous son of Col. John Jacob Astor, who lost his life on the Titanic, is having a difficult time, his mother, Mrs. Madeleine Talmadge Force Astor says, in getting along on the allowance of $20,000 a year which Surrogate Cohalan instructed her to spend on him.”  The boy’s annual allowance would amount to just under half a million today.

But by the same time the following year, Madeleine and little John Jacob Astor would be packing their bags.  In June 1916 she married William K. Dick, a friend since childhood and a millionaire in his own right.  At 28 he was just four years older than Madeleine.  The Washington Times reported on June 18, 1916 “By her marriage Mrs. Astor will relinquish possession of the Astor mansion at the northeast corner of Fifth avenue and Sixty-fifth street, as well as the income on $5,000,000 which Colonel Astor set aside for her in his will, to be held as long as she should remain single.  These will revert to William Vincent Astor, Colonel Astor’s son by his first marriage to which the bulk of the $87,000,000 estate was left.”

Young Vincent Astor was now married to the former Helen Dinsmore Huntington and the couple now were the sole residents of 840 Fifth Avenue.  The new Mrs. Astor was active in social causes and entertainments in the mansion would be far different from those hosted by Caroline Astor or her son.

Guests entered through what the American Art Association termed "superb bronze gates" catalog of the sale of the Astor Mansion (copyright expired

On November 16, 1916 The Evening World opined “The first dinner ever given by Mrs. Vincent Astor in the home at No. 840 Fifth Avenue, which for several generations has housed the head of the house of Astor in America, was not, in the narrow meaning of the phrase, a social function.  Yet it had a wider social significance than any entertainment ever given in the famous mansion.”

Helen invited 100 men and women “who work for the ideals of the National Americanization Committee.”  The group “aims to teach new citizens the English language, to impress upon them the value of American citizenship, loyalty to the flag, to make them Americans in spirit as well as in fact, and to bring about friendlier relations between employers and their employees.”

The newspaper was impressed with Helen’s active stance on social causes.  “Youngest of all the Astor hostesses, Mrs. Vincent Astor has already shown herself to be a woman of serious thought and purpose.  She belongs to the new order of society girl, whose conception of life is that of service.” 

Helen’s socially-focused entertainments—which would have been so alien to Caroline Schermerhorn Astor—included meetings of the League of Foreign Born Citizens, a Herbert Hoover campaign meeting for women voters in May 1920; and, in February that year, a meeting of the Maternity Centre Association.  Governor Smith spoke at that meeting which drew “a large and fashionable crowd,” according to The Sun on February 26. 

Less than 30 years after the bronze gates to the Astor mansion were first thrown open, its impending demolition was announced.  On April 13, 1924 The New York Times wrote “Vincent Astor’s home at 840 Fifth Avenue is to be replaced by a twelve-story apartment house.  The announcement marks a period in the history of Fifth Avenue.  Here at 840 Vincent Astor’s grandmother, Mrs. William Astor, completed the decades of rule over New York society which made her to the entire world simply Mrs. Astor—the Mrs. Astor.”

“The house contains the Astor art collection, one of the most famous private collections in the world, consisting of many noted paintings, tapestries, bronzes, and works in marble,” said The New York Times a year later as plans for its demolition were cemented.  “In the main ball room, now devoted chiefly to the art collection, there hangs a picture of the dowager Mrs. Astor.  Mrs. Astor used to stand under this painting and receive.”

The great house, once the “social centre of the city” as described by The New York Times, was opened to the public on April 20 and 21, 1926 as the American Art Association, Inc. auctioned off everything.  Not only were the bronzes, paintings, antique furniture, carpets and tapestries sold; so too were Mrs. Astor’s silver and china and the very architectural elements.  Included in the auction catalog were “carved wood wall paneling, painted insets and ceilings.”

In the place of the massive French chateau rose the Temple Emanu-El designed by Robert D. Kohn.

photo by Jim Henderson


  1. A lavish Fifth Avenue mansion with what had to be a magnificent central courtyard enclosed by that equally spectacular glass and iron ceiling. On a side note, at the time the Ringlings were finishing their own palatial home in Sarasota, Fl and purchased a couple of the Astor panelled rooms which eventually found their way into the Ringling museum on the Sarasota property where one can appreciate today a rare surviving Fifth Avenue interior space. Nyarch

    1. I've been to the Ringling museum many times. The paneled rooms are my favorite

  2. The NYTimes has a fascinating article about the probate proceedings surrounding Caroline Astor's Estate. The appraiser who inventoried the contents of her side of 840 was called to testify and gave a fairly lengthy description of the old, out of fashion, and in many cases not in the greatest repair furniture which decorated her apartments and appears to have moved with her from her former home. It's quite at odds with contemporary photographs of her interiors.

    I also wonder about her lengthy illness. It is most often described as a nervous breakdown, but I have also read of it as the result of a stroke or even senility. I wonder what modern medicine would make of it.

  3. Tom:

    J. J. Astor's body was found floating in the water after Titanic's sinking. He had about $2000.00 on his person. His body was badly crushed. It is believed that when the funnel broke off and crashed into the water (remember that scene in "A Night to Remember" and "Titanic"?) it struck the deck first, killing Col. Astor and others. His funeral in Rhinebeck was worthy of a head of state. He is buried at Trinity Church's cemetery at the north end of Manhattan ( if you can find the grave it would make another great article). Vincent was so devoted to his father that, when the chateau was sold, he had the Colonel's bathroom removed and installed it in his new house in the East 70's. The Colonel was a brilliant inventor who created a primitive air conditioning system for the St. Regis Hotel that he built. The partial remains of the alarm system he designed for his summer place in Newport were still in place when I last visited the house in 2003.

    Caroline Astor's decline, while rumored to be a nervous breakdown, was more likely caused by strokes. I doubt it was Alzheimer's because of the lucid interview she gave before her death. Although Madeline's tragic early death in March,1940, was labeled a suicide in at least one Astor biography, there is virtually no evidence at all to support this, save for the fact the she suffered from depression. Madeline had been battling early heart disease for months when she died and was in seclusion throughout the entire 1940 Palm Beach season. The newspapers said she died of heart disease and there is no evidence to the contrary. Although Madeline had two disastrous marriages that ended in divorce after Col. Astor's death, she chose to be buried next to her first husband. At least one Astor relative maintained that "Jack" Astor was the one great love of Madeline's life.

    Titanic Bill

  4. Yet another long vanished Hunt architectural masterpiece. To think that so many of these spectacular homes which took several years and several millions to build came down in a span of 25 to 35 years still seems incredible, but such is life in a city of growth such as New York.

    Looking at NYC's current, and rapidly growing, collection of towering glass cubicles, one is reminded of what has been lost. Many currently say it's all about the views in the modern glass towers, but I think the street level views of gems such as the Astor mansion were much more appealing.


  5. I'm glad Mrs. Astor was sort of forced to build this new mansion, as all the pictures I've seen of her old home make it look like q depressing place. I'm sure the interiors were nice enough, but the exterior was just as plain as could be. The demise of that older Astor home was no great loss to the city. Losing this one was a shame, though.

  6. Anyone know if a copy of the auction catalog still exists?

    1. You can access the catalog here and page through:

    2. That Auction catalog is insane. Just a vast collection of amazing items and one off things....

    3. Wow, Thank you for link to catalog. It even has prices items were sold for! Why did they decide to demo the house? Was the land sold off, seems apartments were never built.

    4. The Temple Emanuel-El was built on the site of the mansion.