Monday, October 13, 2014

The Lost F. W. Vanderbilt Mansion -- 459 Fifth Avenue

The free-standing house had an enclosed yard and a near-matching stone stable to the rear.  Collins' "Both Sides of Fifth Avenue" 1911 (copyright expired)

Despite being the son of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest Americans in history, young William Henry “Billy” Vanderbilt started his professional life at the bottom.   The eldest son of the Commodore, The New York Times would later say “His father had little anticipation of the qualities which the boy was to develop in future years, and he satisfied himself with giving his son an ordinary education in the Columbia College Grammar School.”

The boy entered the office of Dean, Robinson & Co as a clerk at the age of 18.  It was here, rather than within his father’s enterprises, that he began learning business.  Earning $16 a week (about $385 today) and living on Staten Island, he devoted himself to hard work while unknowingly being surrounded by his father’s spies. 

In 1841 William married Maria Kissam, the daughter of a Brooklyn clergyman.  The Times would later remember “The young couple began their wedded life in poverty, and the Commodore took very little notice of either his son or his daughter-in-law.”

And when William mortgaged his property for $6,000 to make improvements, Cornelius lashed out saying “You don’t amount to a row of pins anyway.  You won’t never be able to do anything but to bring disgrace upon yourself, your family, and everybody connected with you.  I have made up my mind to have nothing more to do with you.”

The young man who had always been intimated by his father gained the confidence to explain in business terms why the investment made financial sense.  “I cannot see that I have done anything to be ashamed of,” he said.  The following morning he received a check from his father for the $6,000 loan.

After this episode Cornelius Vanderbilt’s appreciation of his son’s abilities and worth gradually changed.  In 1864 William was made Vice President of the New-York and Harlem Railroad Company and became his father’s trusted confidante.    Almost simultaneous to his new position, William received the gift of a brownstone mansion from his father.  Sitting at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, the free-standing Italianate brownstone house included a matching carriage house to the rear.

The Wm. Vanderbilt family poses in the family parlor of No. 459.  The "relaxed" room offers a magazine rack to the left and easy chair.  Beyond, a more formal room exhibits an exquisite crystal chandelier and pier mirrors.
The spacious home spoke of William and Maria’s wealth and social position.   Frescoed ceilings, marble fireplaces and richly carved woodwork set the home a rung above most.  Vanderbilt, who only two decades earlier could not afford to furnish his Staten Island home, commissioned Gustave and Christian Herter to decorate the mansion.

William Vanderbilt would become one of the nation’s most recognized collectors of art and No. 459 Fifth Avenue filled with valuable paintings, antiques and sculptures.  He and Maria would have nine children—five sons and four daughters.  One would be singled out as the black sheep, of sorts, in William’s eyes.

Frederick William Vanderbilt attended Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School.   In 1878 he entered the New York Central Railroad, beginning his career as his father had done, as a clerk.   He would eventually work in every department, mastering a complete understanding of the running of a railroad.

A year earlier, in January 1877 Cornelius Vanderbilt died, leaving essentially his entire estate to William.  Although the other children and his widow received legacies of around $1 million apiece (a rather satisfying $21.5 million in today’s dollars); the will was contested.  William compromised with his family to keep peace and, perhaps more importantly, to prevent any further delving into his father’s personal affairs. 

Frederick’s father was now endlessly wealthy and powerful.  His problems with his father started when his enchanting first cousin, Louise Holmes Anthony Torrance divorced Albert Torrance.  She and Frederick fell in love.   William forbade the courtship on several levels—Louise was significantly older than Frederick (by 12 years), she was a close relative, it was rumored she could not have children, and she was a divorcee.  Blinded by love, the couple secretly married on December 17, 1878.

Louise was beautiful and cultured; but deemed an unacceptable match for Frederick.  photo

William Vanderbilt was not informed for a month.  Although he did not disinherit his son as he reportedly threatened, he never forgave Frederick’s disobedience.   In 1878, as Manhattan’s millionaires moved closer to Central Park, he began plans for a triple palace engulfing the western block of 5th Avenue between 51st and 52nd Street.  The largest of the three connected homes would house William and Maria; the other two were for daughters Margaret and Emily.  The following year William Kissam Vanderbilt and his wife, Alva, would begin construction on their lavish French chateau across 52nd Street.  The seeds of “Vanderbilt Row” were planted.

Frederick, however, would not join in the migration.  When his new palazzo was completed, William donated the old brownstone to Frederick.  The significance of the ten-block gap was lost on few. 

Unlike some of his siblings, Frederick was rather unassuming.  He was nevertheless tremendously successful. photograph 
Construction on the triple palace would take years.  In the meantime the William and Maria lived on at No. 459.  On Tuesday morning, May 10, 1881 the Vanderbilt staff sat “rubbish” on the curb to be picked up.   Among the discarded items were “a number of old trunks too much battered for future Summer journeys and too infirm to be longer considered an object of value even by the domestics,” said The New York Times two days later.

Before the ashman would haul the junk a full block, 20-year old Daniel O’Reilly flagged him down.  The florist’s assistant asked to purchase one of the trunks.  The two haggled and came to the price of 50 cents.  O’Reilly loaded it onto the empty hand-cart he had been using to deliver flowers.

He was directly in front of the Vanderbilt mansion at 40th Street when he noticed one of the hinges was missing.  He paused to look inside, hoping to find the loose hardware.  He found instead a wad of newspaper, “in which was wrapped in cotton a brooch set with stones that glistened as they were brought into the sunlight.”

O’Reilly’s employer, Mr. Matheson, told him “They’re diamonds.”  But the Irish immigrant could not suspect his luck was that good.  “I guess not,” he said, “I guess it’s a trinket that belongs to some of Mr. Vanderbilt’s hired girls.”

What young O’Reilly did not know was that five years earlier Maria Vanderbilt lost her diamond brooch at Saratoga.  Apparently it had somehow dropped into the lining of the trunk, because it was not noticed when the trunk was emptied back on Fifth Avenue.  She had finally given up hope of finding the gold-and-diamond ornament, containing over 80 stones and valued at $1,500.

When several others examined the piece and deemed it valuable, O’Reilly hurried home and showed it to his parents.  The New York Times reported “Miles O’Reilly, the father, is a hard-working, honest fellow, who for 25 years has driven a Madison-avenue stage.” 

There was no question, according to Daniel’s father, as to what to do.  The Times said the man instructed “Ye’ll take that to Mr. Vanderbilt, my boy.”  And so he did. 

Two days later The Sun said that Daniel hoped for a reward—but not what readers might expect.  He told Vanderbilt’s secretary “that he did not expect any reward for the return of the brooch, but that he hoped that the circumstance might lead to getting work for his father easier than stage driving.  He said his father was getting on in years, and that the exposure and hardships of his present employment were beginning to tell on him.”

The last glittering affair to be hosted by William and Maria at No. 459 was the wedding reception of their youngest daughter, Lila Osgood Vanderbilt.  On December 20, 1881 she was married to Dr. William Seward Webb.  The ceremony took place in St. Bartholomew’s Church, performed by Bishop Henry C. Potter.  The Times said “A reception was held afterward at the Vanderbilt home, 459 Fifth Avenue, at which there was a distinguished assembly of guests, including General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, Mr. and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mrs. Paran Stevens, Mr. and Mrs. Whitelaw Reid and Mr. and Mrs. Ogden Mills.”

The near tragedy was narrowly avoided in May 1, 1882 when a mail bomb was sent to William.  The Deseret News reported “A dastardly attempt was made today, by some miscreants, on the lives of Wm. H. Vanderbilt and Cyrus Field by sending them explosives through the mails.”  The package for Vanderbilt was addressed to No. 459 Fifth Avenue.

As the mail wagon headed uptown from Chatham Street, the package addressed to Vanderbilt exploded.  Inside the packages were what appeared to be jewelry boxes—“a pasteboard box covered with gaudy flowers and pictures and [which] had a small drawer in it, from which depended a string.”

The cleverly-devised bombs were meant to be triggered by pulling on the string to open the little drawer.  By doing so, chemicals would combine to create the explosion.  It was assumed that the jostling of the mail card prematurely combined the explosives and set off the Vanderbilt package.

Finally his parents moved into their lavish palazzo at 51st Street, and Frederick and Louise establishd themselves in the old family mansion.  William H. Vanderbilt would not enjoy his new home for long.  On the afternoon of  December 8, 1885 he suffered a massive, fatal heart attack.  That night Frederick and his brother Cornelius sat overnight in their father’s bedroom with the body.  When the will was read, William H. Vanderbilt’s phenomenal $200 million estate was divided among his children and wife.

Cornelius and William K Vanderbilt received “about $50,000,000 apiece in addition to their present large fortunes,” said historian William Augustus Croffut a year later in his The Vanderbilts and the Story of Their Fortune.  The remaining children, including Frederick, received $10 million.

Despite his father’s disfavor, Frederick and Louise continued an amiable relationship with his siblings.  The two, as had been suspected, could never have children but they maintained a close bond with their nieces and nephews.    Both were highly involved in philanthropic endeavors; Frederick preferring to remain nameless in his benefactions.

While his brothers and sisters lived within about a block of one another, he and Louise continued to live in the now slightly less fashionable area at No. 459 Fifth Avenue.  This did not mean, however, that the couple was dealing with hard times.  They also maintained the magnificent Newport cottage “Rough Point," an estate in Bar Harbor called Sonogee, “Pine Tree Point" in the Adirondacks, and a sumptuous home in Hyde Park, New York.

Frederick hired Ogden Codman, Jr. to do over the now-outdated Herter Brothers interiors.  In sprucing up the mansion, he also installed a flagstone out front that amazed.  To ensure that slippered Victorian feet did not trip, he ordered a single enormous stone 15 feet wide by 20 feet long.  Delivered in December 1888, The Sun deemed it the “largest single stone ever used for a sidewalk in this city.”

Before this, the largest flagstone ever laid was the one William H. Vanderbilt placed in front of No. 640 Fifth Avenue.  Frederick’s massive stone—which required a special railway car be built to transport it—was perhaps his silent "one-up" on his father after years of suffering disregard.

An unusual entertainment was held at No. 459 Fifth Avenue on February 12, 1897.  Louise gave a dinner party for her niece, Daisy Post.  The guest list included the more impressive names of Manhattan society including Belmont, Van Cortlandt, Sloane, Mills, Burden, Rutherford, Baylies and Van Rensselaer.  An orchestra played during dinner and a dance followed.

The Sun reported that dinner “was served in the smaller of the two ballrooms, which was adorned with tropical palms, flower plants, and great pots of azaleas in full bloom. There were five tables, and the one in the centre of the room was trimmed with mauve cattleyea orchids.”

What made the night unusual was that the Vanderbilts did not attend their dinner party.  They remained upstairs, still in mourning for Frederick’s mother who had died on November 6, 1896.

As the new century dawned the Vanderbilt’s Fifth Avenue house was increasingly surrounded by commercial structures.   When Frederick and Louise opted to spend the winter season of 1901-02 in Hyde Park, they leased the mansion.  The Virginia Enterprise of Virginia, Minnesota reported on October 11, 1901 that “The handsome house of Frederick W. Vanderbilt at Fortieth street and Fifth avenue has been leased to John R. Drexel of Newport, together with the Vanderbilt stables at 2 East Fortieth street.”  The newspaper added “There was a report some time ago that Mr. Vanderbilt was anxious to sell the house.”

However anxious he was to sell the house, it would not come to pass for a decade.  But by 1909 the Vanderbilts had moved out and the mansion was being used by the high-end art dealer Macbeth Gallery as its showroom.  That year on December 14 the firm advertised its second annual exhibition of “small bronzes by American sculptors.” 

At the time of this photograph, the mansion next door had been converted for business and large commercial structures loom in the background.

Finally, on March 7, 1912, the New-York Tribune reported that Frederick W. Vanderbilt was selling No. 459 Fifth Avenue—calling it “the property” rather than using a term like “home,” “residence,” or “mansion.”  Vanderbilt was asking $4 million for his former family home.  The Tribune said it “has been placed on the market for business purposes.”

Within two years the old home would be gone.  On November 7, 1915 The Times reported on the new Arnold, Constable department store building, “a dignified six-story structure of limestone, covering a large plot at the southeast corner of Fortieth Street.”   The newspaper reminded readers “It was the home site of Frederick W. Vanderbilt, the old house having been formerly occupied by his father, William H. Vanderbilt.”

Designed by T. Joseph Barley, the former department store building survives nearly unaltered as an annex to the New York Public Library across the avenue.

photo by the author


  1. And Frederick, like his brother in law Harrison Twombly, proved to be a very capable businessman as well. Alas, when he died, his vast fortune, approaching some $100 Million, was left to a niece of his wife's and not to any of his Vanderbilt relations, a number of whom were sorely in need of it by that point. It did permit the niece to carry on in grand style until her own death in the late 1960's: i think her name was Daisy Van Alan and I remember reading an article written in the 1960's about her enormous Newport house, Wahehurst. The author noted that while even heads of major corporations felt lucky to be able to employ even one maid of all work, at Wakehurst, "the brass cleaner still cleans only the brass".

    1. Louise (Lulu) Vanderbilt's niece, Margaret "Daisy" Louise Post Van Alen (later Bruguiere) inherited $10 million and the Hyde Park mansion when Frederick died in 1938. Encouraged by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, she donated the residence and part of the estate to the National Park Service. Daisy's father in law had built Wakehurst cottage in Newport, supposedly because he was depressed by the death of his wife Emily Astor. When Margaret's husband died, he left her $26 million along with Wakehurst and their New York City mansion 871 Fifth Avenue, which Daisy sold shortly afterward. Daisy became a year around resident of Newport after that. She married once more time, to yachtsman Louis Bruguiere. He died a few years later, leaving her another $5 million.

  2. Excellent research!