Having inherited $5 million from his grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, in 1877 (more in the neighborhood of $115 million today), Cornelius Vanderbilt II set to work erecting Manhattan’s most impressive mansion. In 1878 three brownstone houses at the southwest corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue were demolished as architect George Brown Post put pen to paper.
What resulted was a stark departure from the brownstone tradition of Fifth Avenue up to now. Post produced a red brick and limestone chateau that erupted in turrets and dormers. The architect now turned his attention to a private carriage house for the family.
At Nos. 42 and 44 East 58th Street were two brownstone houses, four stories tall. The same year that Vanderbilt began construction on his mansion, Samuel Hammerslough purchased No. 44 for $32,500 and Jouchim Ferro bought No. 42 for $33,000. If they intended to live in the fashionable homes, their tenancy would not be long. Within the year they were demolished and construction began on Vanderbilt’s private stables.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was aggressive and competitive, and so it is not necessarily surprising that the site for his stables was, as described by The Sun on August 22, 1880, “in the heart of a district inhabited by the wealthiest people, one block from Fifth avenue, and in the centre of a long and otherwise solid block of stately brownstone fronts. Yet no attempt to disguise its character has been made by the owner of his architect.”
The Sun was, perhaps, a bit harsh. George Post’s lavish palace for horses and carriages carried on the French Renaissance style of the Vanderbilt mansion. Red brick was highlighted by granite and terra cotta and, like the residence, featured peaks and dormers and spiky ornamentation. Three yawning openings (two massive windows sat on either side of the carriage bay) were flanked by entrances—one that accessed the coach room, the other led upstairs.
The Sun said “It is a low, wide stable, with wide carriage doors and horses’ heads, like any other stable, except that it is made so as to cost as much money as is consistent with the purposes for which it is intended.” Those "purposes" were the housing, care and feeding of numerous costly horses; and the garaging of the Vanderbilt fleet of vehicles. There would be a coach, carriages for different seasons and purposes, and at least one sleigh.
The newspaper said “The interior, on the other hand, is like a church, except that there are but few churches in New York that are so elegant or so costly. Probably no stable in the world approaches it in these respects.”
|photo Outing magazine, September 1901 (copyright expired)|
Vanderbilt, according to The Sun, “wanted appropriate medallions and figures in carved work for the façade…He wanted horses’ heads, but not of the stiff and unnatural sort that the iron founders have been turning out of late.” He turned to Edward Kemeys who, despite no formal training, had received much acclaim in Paris and London for his brilliantly lifelike animal sculptures.
Kemeys executed two terra cotta horse heads—a mare and a stallion--that burst forth from medallions above each of the side entrances. The Sun was meticulous in its description:
“The neck of the [stallion] is arched in a manner that conveys an idea of strong excitement, if not fury, in the brute. His eyes bulge from his head, his nostrils are dilated, the cords of his neck are swollen, his jaws are set. He seems to be tearing his way through the wall toward the other figure on the opposite side of the arch. This other figure is the head and neck of a mare—of a slender-nosed, small-featured, almost deer-like animal. The mare’s eyes are on the stallion. She looks at him sideways from under fringed eyelids. Her face expresses mischief, timidity, hesitation.”
The artist, judged the newspaper, “excelled himself.” Most notable of Kemey’s work, though, were the three dog sculptures within the triangular pediments of the second floor. There was some contention about the breeds; although everyone seemed to agree that the central sculpture, “as big as half a flour barrel,” was a Siberian bloodhound. The droopy eyed hound looked miserably toward the sidewalk. On either side were what The Churchman described as “two bulldogs.” The Sun felt that one of them was a mastiff and was “about to bark.”
Inside were a carriage elevator, a vaulted skylight and an “ornamental gallery, built of terra cotta.” The columns were of polished brass with ornate capitals and the hardware of the stalls was silver-plated. “The stable looks like a Moorish temple,” opined The Sun. “Twisted columns of terra cotta spring from the balustrade of the gallery to the roof, and are set in a curtain of pressed brick, in which are numberless panels designed by the botanist.” The designs in the brick represented horse chestnuts, oats, clover, strawberries and other natural elements.
In 1892 George Post was back, working with Richard Morris Hunt, in expanding the Vanderbilt’s Fifth Avenue mansion. The addition, completed a year later, resulted in a 130-room palace that engulfed the Avenue block from 56th to 57th Street. It was here, on the morning of September 12, 1899, that Cornelius Vanderbilt II woke and said to his wife, Alice, “I think that I am dying.” Within minutes he was dead of a brain hemorrhage.
Alice Vanderbilt stayed on in the Fifth Avenue mansion and the 58th Street carriage house continued to house her stable of horses and carriages. By 1910 she had replaced the horse-drawn vehicles with automobiles. When her daughter-in-law, Cathleen Neilson Vanderbilt, wife of Reginald, was injured in an car accident on May 11 that year, she was being driven by the Vanderbilt chauffeur, S. Bone, who lived in the carriage house.
Time were changing by 1915 and that year the former William Vanderbilt stables at Madison Avenue and 52nd Street were converted to a high-end night club, the Club de Vingt. The Sun called it “a popular meeting place for members of the fashionable set.” But only a year later the Club relocated to Alice Vanderbilt’s 58th Street stable building.
On February 20, 1916 the New-York Tribune reported that the club had secured Mrs. Vanderbilt’s stable and that Donn Barber had been hired to do the renovations. Truly a night "club" in the strictest sense, its members included names like the August Belmonts, Cornelius and Harold Vanderbilt, Mrs. F. C. Havemeyer, the Oliver Harrimans, and Harris and William Fahnestock and their wives.
|The Sun, February 7, 1915 (copyright expired)|
The façade of the carriage house was tenderly altered. The two terra cotta horses’ heads were removed (they most likely were too closely associated with the building’s utilitarian beginnings); however the wonderful dog sculptures remained. The carriage bay was replaced by shiny brass double doors. Inside, Barber’s renovations included a large stage at one end of the former coach room and a dance floor.
The upper-class neighbors may have turned their heads when Cornelius Vanderbilt erected his lavish stable; but some were not about to do so when a nightclub took over, no matter how elite its members. In the spring of 1917 Mrs. Rosa G. Simons of No. 38 East 58th Street filed suit to have the club’s liquor license revoked. When she failed to succeed, she filed an affidavit that the club was a “nuisance.” The attorney for the Club de Vingt noted in court “Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt had consented as the owner of the building to the use to which it was put because of the high class of its patrons.”
The high class patrons, however, were fox-trotting the night away to the syncopated strains of the De Vingt Orchestra. On July 17 The Sun reported that residents were “unable to sleep nights, they say, because of the music and dancing and handclapping there.” A lawsuit was filed against Alice Vanderbilt and Anna K. Hawkesworth, the manager, alleging “that food and drink are still being sold and served on the premises and that there is much loud laughter during the early hours of the morning, interspersed all the while with music from a large orchestra or brass band.”
The untidy affair ended on September 20, 1917 when an injunction was issued restraining the club from selling liquor. The Sun, in reporting on the judgment, diplomatically noted “The property is owned by Mrs. Alice Vanderbilt, but she had no connection with the club outside of leasing the property.”
The club survived in the former stable for a few more years. It was a favorite spot for debutante dances and, as later described by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “a proper establishment to which young women were brought by chaperones to meet boys from socially approved schools.”
In 1920 the Club de Vingt moved to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Alice Vanderbilt leased the 58th Street building to art and antiques dealer Augustus W. Clarke for 21 years. His total lease amount of $400,000 would equate to about $221,000 per year today. On June 26 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on Clarke’s anticipated use of the former stage for auction purposes.
“Mr. Clarke has made plans for a unique transformation of this stage. He will cut away the old floor and install a stage that revolves on a pivot. This will be divided by a partition. An object that is being sold will occupy the half of this stage that is next to the audience. When the hammer descends, the attendant will press a button and the stage will revolve, disclosing the next item, which has been put in place ‘behind the screens.’ At the same time an electric announcer will flash the catalogue number of the object.”
For years the Clarke Gallery exhibited some of the rarest and most costly antiques and works of art. In a November 1920 sale of Spanish antiquities a “painted and carved ceiling, which comes intact from the Palace of the Duc d’Arcos of the province of Marchena in Seville” was auctioned. And a portrait auction two months later included works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gilbert Stuart, Sir Peter Lely, Mignard and Sir Thomas Lawrence.
In May 1921 William Randolph Hearst was a major buyer, paying $4,115 for six items. Included in that sale were 16th century carpets, tapestries, paintings and furniture.
Nine years into Clarke’s lease the old carriage house was converted to the Plaza Theater. Then in November 1938 theater owner Walter Reade purchased it from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney for $450,000. “He intends to remodel the property,” reported The New York Times.
On June 26, 1996 The New York Times reported that the 500-seat theater, “originally a stable for Cornelius Vanderbilt 2d,” had been leased “and is being renovated for the opening in mid-October of ‘Show Me New York,’ a high-definition television travelogue, created especially for tourists, of life in New York City.”