|William H. Vanderbilt's mansion (left) shared an entrance vestibule with the home of daughter Margaret Fitch. Emily Vanderbilt Sloane's home was entered on 52nd Street (right) photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
In 1878 the Vanderbilt family was busy changing the face of Fifth Avenue. Cornelius Vanderbilt II began construction of his massive brick and limestone palace at the southwest corner of 57th Street, plans were underway for three mansions for the William Henry Vanderbilt family between 51st and 52nd Streets, and the following year William Kissam Vanderbilt’s wife, Alva, would engage Richard Morris Hunt to start work on the “Petite Chateau” on the northwest corner of 52nd Street. By the turn of the century this section of Fifth Avenue would be familiarly known as “Vanderbilt Row” or, with a touch of sarcasm, “Vanderbilt Alley.”
William Henry Vanderbilt’s idea was an interesting one. He would erect three near-matching homes, one for himself and wife Maria Louisa Kissam, and two for his daughters, Margaret and Emily. (Margaret had married Elliott Fitch and Emily was now Mrs. William Douglass Sloane.) John Butler Snook is routinely credited with the design of the harmonious mansions, since his name appeared on the plans filed with the Department of Buildings. He may be getting more credit than is deserved, however.
According to author Wayne Craven in his Gilded Mansions: Grand Architecture and High Society, an executive of Herter Brothers complained to the editors of an architectural journal on April 11, 1886 “It is a matter of record…that Herter Brothers were the architects of [Mr. Vanderbilt’s house]…and are the only persons responsible for the designs, both of the exterior and the interior…We might add that of the two gentlemen named by you, Mr. Atwood was employed by our firm at the time as a draughtsman and Mr. Snook by Mr. Vanderbilt as general superintendent.”
That argument may never be settled; however two years after construction began, the Triple Palace at Nos. 640 and 642 Fifth Avenue, and No. 2 West 52nd Street, was completed. Vanderbilt had originally envisioned the grand Italian Renaissance palazzos clad in gleaming white marble. In the end, the less glamorous brownstone was used instead. Some historians feel that an aging Vanderbilt changed his mind when he realized that he may not have that many years left to enjoy his house. Using the easily obtainable brownstone would significantly speed the construction process.
Art and architecture critic Helen W. Henderson had another opinion. In 1917 she offered that he “stipulated that the material should be white marble, then greatly in vogue; but Vanderbilt owned a quarry of brownstone and the native produce was employed.”
More than 600 construction workers and 60 European sculptors and craftsmen had labored on the triple mansion. William’s and Margaret’s homes were entered via a common centered courtyard. Emily’s entrance faced 52nd Street. The daughters’ homes, sharing a plot the same size as their father’s, were necessarily about half the size of their parents’ 58-room house. For occasions of elaborate entertaining, their adjoining mansions were constructed so the drawing rooms could be opened into a single, enormous ballroom.
Unlike William Kissam’s and Cornelius’s chateaus with their towers and turrets and ornamented gables; the houses of the Triple Palace were restrained and dignified in comparison--which is not to say they did not abound with ostentatious decoration.
As the mansions neared completion in 1881 Vanderbilt addressed a potential problem. He would have no stumbling of dainty feet on the paving stones as high-class visitors moved from their carriages to the entrance. On August 6 The New York Times reported that “What is claimed to be the largest pavement stone ever quarried in the United States, is now resting upon blocks in front of the main entrance of William H. Vanderbilt’s new house.” The 25 foot, 2 inch long stone was 15 feet wide and 8 inches thick. It weighed over 22 tons. With no seams between his paving stones, Vanderbilt did not have to worry about embarrassing and dangerous tripping.
|Tucked away on the 51st Street side was Wm. Henry's glass and metal conservatory. photo from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The families moved into the homes in January 1881; although they would not be totally finished until 1883. Work on furnishing the mansions and completing the ornamental details would go on around the Vanderbilts’ home life. By March 1882 Henry and Louisa felt the mansion was guest-worthy and a housewarming party was held. Two thousand invitations were sent out by liveried messengers.
The guests that night entered through the covered double vestibule with its mosaic-encrusted walls and stained glass ceiling. They turned left into William’s doorway and entered interiors intended to astound. Carved woodwork was inlaid with mother-of-pearl ornamentation; the painted ceiling of the 45-foot long dining room was done in Paris by E. V. Luminais; and the Japanese Room was designed by John La Farge. Herter Brothers, the preeminent furniture and decorating firm of the day, was responsible for the interior design throughout, including the custom furniture and built-in cabinetry.
In December 1883 the art gallery was ready for showing off. Vanderbilt sent out 3,000 invitations to “an art reception” and on December 21 The Times reported that “More than 2,500 gentlemen promenaded the parlors of William H. Vanderbilt’s house.” Considering the large number of visitors and the high value of the bric-a-brac in the mansion, Vanderbilt had a crew of 11 detectives roaming the crowd. It was a good move on the millionaire’s part.
“They recognized one man in the crowd whom they knew came without invitation, and he was shown to the door. Early in the evening a few ladies made an attempt to join the company. They were politely ushered out," reported The Times.
An orchestra played while the guests rifled through the Vanderbilt treasures, and in the dining room Delmonico “served up a collation.” The Times was a bit astonished at the presumptuous free-wheeling of some art students. “They took down the books from the shelves of the elegant library, poked the blazing logs on the andirons in the private parlors and wandered at will into the richly furnished bed-chambers. They handled rare and costly specimens of china and bric-a-brac with reckless audacity, looked inquisitively over the photographs and visiting cards, and commented on the collection of family relics in the sealed glass case.”
Vanderbilt had a printed catalog “bound in old gold” prepared for the event and he personally pointed out to guests whom he personally knew the “gems of art in his picture gallery.”
|Vanderbilt's massive fortune of $200 million would amount to about $5 billion today photo from the collection of the New York Public Library|
At the time of the entertainment, Vanderbilt’s health had already begun to fail and was under the care of a physician. “He had no definite conception of what trouble he was suffering from, though his greatest annoyance came from indigestion,” said The New York Times later. On December 8, 1885 Vanderbilt rose as usual, at 7:00. He went about his usual business, including a visit to the studio of sculptor J. Q. A. Ward to sit for a bronze bust. The day continued as normal with Vanderbilt in the best of spirits and seemingly the best of health.
At 2:20 that afternoon he said in his private study chatting with Robert Garrett, President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. “Mr. Vanderbilt was speaking, when suddenly Mr. Garrett perceived indistinctness in his speech. The next instant the muscles around his mouth began to twitch slightly. Then they were violently convulsed. I another moment the great millionaire’s arms bent under his body, he toppled forward, and pitched headlong toward the floor,” related The Times the following day.
“In a moment bells were ringing and feet were flying in every part of the house. The butler, the footman, and the other servants were hastening breathless from the basement. Mrs. Vanderbilt and George W. Vanderbilt, her youngest son, were hurrying, pale with terror, from above. In a minute all were in the study, where Mr. Garrett was bending over his host’s body. The ruddy firelight did not light up the pallid features now. The ghastliness of death was upon them.”
Within five minutes of the massive stroke, William Henry Vanderbilt lay dead on his study floor.
Cornelius and Frederick sat overnight in Vanderbilt’s bedroom where the “body of William H. Vanderbilt, the richest man in the world…rested all Tuesday night in an ice box in his bedroom, which is the second story front room of the Fifth avenue mansion.” Earlier that day undertaker W. H. Billier fastened rosettes of crepe bearing black silk streamers to the electric bells of the Fifth Avenue and 51st Street entrances. “The white curtains of all the windows were pulled down, forming a striking contrast to the rain-soaked brownstone walls,” commented The Sun the following morning.
Among the few admitted to the death chamber other than family members was John Quincy Adams Ward. The sculptor took a cast of Vanderbilt’s face. “He said it was a very successful one, and that with its aid, and with photographs he would be able to complete the bust without difficulty,” said the newspaper.
|As with all up-to-date mansions of the 1880s, there was an Asian-themed room. In the Vanderbilt house a reeded ceiling and upper walls, Japanese fans and Oriental bric-a-brac created the ambiance. photo from the collection of the Library of Congress.|
On the morning of December 10, while the pall bearers and close friends of Vanderbilt gathered in the parlors, the family assembled in millionaire’s bedroom for a last look and a brief prayer. Afterward Louisa was assisted to her own suite, too overcome with grief to attend the funeral service at St. Bartholomew’s Church. The streets had been cleared of traffic and after the coffin was closed and placed in the hearse, “the carriages began to fall in line before the door.”
The order of the 15 carriages that pulled away from the Vanderbilt mansions was directed by social protocol. “In the carriage first following the hearse were Cornelius Vanderbilt and wife, with George Vanderbilt. In the second carriage rode William K. Vanderbilt and wife. The third vehicle contained J. S. Webb and wife, the fourth Mr. and Mrs W. D. Sloane, and the fifth Mr. and Mrs. Twombly.” And so on. A detachment of 180 policemen kept the crowds around the church at bay.
Vanderbilt’s will was read two days later. He had earlier told his family “The care of $200,000,000 is too great a load for any brain or back to bear. It is enough to kill a man. I have no son whom I am willing to afflict with the terrible burden…So when I lay down this heavy responsibility, I want my sons to divide it, and share the worry which it will cost to keep it.” And indeed the will divided Vanderbilt’s massive estate nearly equally among his children.
As for Louisa, she got a life interest in the Fifth Avenue mansion and an annuity of $200,000 and $500,000 “for disposal by will.” She remained in the house and “At her death the residence and works of art are to go to George W. Vanderbilt, and at his death to his eldest son, or, should he not have a son, to William H.; or Cornelius, sons of Cornelius, according to their survival.” Vanderbilt was determined that his mansion and its artworks should remain a Vanderbilt house, “it being the purpose of the testator to convey them to a male descendant of the name of Vanderbilt.” As for the other two mansions, “His daughters are given the houses in which they live,” said The New York Times on December 13.
|In 1894 Munsey's Magazine published a charming illustration of the Vanderbilt homes -- copyright expired.|
De facto Manhattan royalty, Margaret and Emily entertained lavishly in their abutting mansions. On March 19, 1892 The Times commented on a dinner party hosted by Emily. “One of the most elaborate of the Lenten dinners yet given took place last evening in the oaken dining room of Mrs. Eliott F. Shepard, 2 West Fifty-second Street…In the centre of one [table] was a mound of Madame Cuicine roses, and the embroider of the cloth and the tints of the china and the table settings were pink to match the color of the flowers. A second table was all in yellow, the flowers being daffodils relieved with some lilies of the valley. The third table was decorated in deep red, and the flowers used were the rich red meteor roses. The flowers were from Hodgsons’s conservatories.”
As the marriage of William and Alva’s daughter Consuelo to the Duke of Marlborough in November 1895 neared, the Vanderbilt mansions were thrown open to society. On November 6 The Times said “Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt’s residence at 640 Fifth Avenue was opened yesterday afternoon, as were also the houses of Mr. and Mrs. William Douglass Sloane and Mrs. Elliott F. Shepard in the adjoining building.”
The newspaper noted “Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt, the grandmother of the future Duchess of Marlborough, has always made a great pet of Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt, who has also been a favorite with her uncles, aunts, and cousins. All her relatives desire to make her wedding day as bright as possible.”
It would be among the last great events that Louisa Vanderbilt would see. Exactly a year later, on November 9, 1896, the Vanderbilt mansion was hung with black crepe. “The residence of Mrs. Vanderbilt, at the corner of Fifty-first Street and Fifth Avenue, where the body lay, was besieged all day yesterday by friends and acquaintances of Mrs. Vanderbilt, but her sons denied themselves to all except close friends,” said The Times that day.
As intended by his father, George W. Vanderbilt took over the massive mansion. In the meantime, Margaret shut the doors of No. 642 Fifth Avenue for a long mourning period. It was not until Valentine’s Day 1898 that she began entertaining again. It was a cotillion for the Sloane’s second daughter, Lila. “Mrs. Sloane has only just come out of mourning for the death of her mother, Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt,” remarked The New York Times, “and her function of last night was the first to which she has bidden society for a long time. It was a dinner dance, and the most notable affair of the kind this season.”
Eighty “well-known and fashionable people” filed into the mosaic-paved inner court. To ensure that they did not mistakenly turn to George’s mansion, Margaret stationed “a retinue of liveried servants…in the Sloane side of this court.” The Times said they “formed a human path through whose rows of dark plush breeches the prospective revelers might find their way.” Emily’s and Margaret’s drawing rooms were thrown open “and a better ballroom was thus secured than the Sloane picture gallery would have made,” said the newspaper.
In 1905 George negotiated a 10-year lease on No. 640 with Henry Frick. According to The New York Times later, Frick “spent thousands of dollars in alterations, eliminating the garden in front and adding a massive entrance.” The steel man paid $100,000 in rent, “making this Vanderbilt house the most costly private residence under lease in the city,” said The Times. Frick could afford the rent. In 1910 he hung Frans Hals’s “Portrait of a Woman” on the wall here. He paid art dealers Knodler & Co. more than $140,000 for it—about $3.3 million by today’s standards.
By now the grand mansions of this section of Fifth Avenue were being converted for business or simply being razed. When Henry Frick moved into his new white marble mansion further up the avenue, Cornelius III took over No. 640. By 1927, when his father’s massive chateau at 57th Street was demolished, there were no Vanderbilt mansions left on Fifth Avenue other than 640.
But Cornelius III and his wife, Grace, stubbornly stayed put. Cornelius, a brigadier general, was highly interested in military matters while Grace focused on entertaining and charity events. Eventually surrounded by business buildings, the couple spurned all offers from developers. And in the meantime, they entertained not only the highest ranks of military and society, but royalty.
|Cornelius "Neily" Vanderbilt was not only a military officer, but an inventor, yachtsman, inventor and engineer. photo from the Library of Congress|
In 1919 the house was crowded with European titles and wealthy socialites as Grace gave a reception with music for the Queen of the Belgians. In 1927 it was Prince William of Sweden who was the guest of honor at a reception on January 9. And in 1927 1,000 guests and a “fleet of officers” were entertained in honor of Rear Admiral Charles F. Hughes.
Cornelius Vanderbilt III died on March 1, 1942. Although he had sold the Fifth Avenue mansion to William Waldorf Astor estate in 1940, he and Grace remained living there until his death. Now Grace was forced out. She moved into the William Starr Miller house at No. 1048 Fifth Avenue.
On November 22, 1945 The New York Times said the mansion “is fast being demolished by wrecking crews preparing for the erection of a commercial building on the site.” Three weeks earlier the house had been opened for a public auction of the rooms and interior decorations. Since then buyers had been removing mirrors, paneled walls, chandeliers, inlaid floors, and mantels.