from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Few boys were born into more wealth, privilege and luxury than was William Kissam Vanderbilt, Jr. (familiarly known as Willie K.). The second child of William Kissam Vanderbilt and Alva Erskine Smith, he grew up in the sumptuous "Petite Chateau" at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. Like other heirs to massive fortunes, Willie K. received a private education--first by tutors and then at St. Mark's School. Although he enrolled in Harvard University, he left after his second year.
In 1897 the Herman Oelrichs family moved into the former marble mansion of Mary Mason Jones on the northeast corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. Living with the family was Theresa Fair Oelrich's teenage sister, Virginia Fair. Their father, James Graham Fair, had died in 1894, leaving each a personal fortune estimated at around $414 million in today's money.
The New York Times said of Virginia, “She was popular from her first entrance into society, and while not exactly a great belle, has always been much liked, both in New York and Newport.” Newspapers reported that "society took notice" during the summer season of 1897 in Newport when the 18-year-old William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. "showed attention" to
Virginia, known popularly as Birdie.
That attention grew serious and on April 2, 1899 The New York Times reported, "Workmen were busy all day yesterday in the residence of Mr. Hermann Oelrichs, 1 East Fifty-seventh Street." An army of decorators, carpenters and florists were preparing the conservatory and ballroom for the wedding of Willie K. and Birdie.
The newlyweds originally moved into the Petite Chateau with William's father (he and Alva Vanderbilt had gone through a divorce that rocked the foundations of high society in 1895). Then, soon after William Sr. married Anne Harriman in 1903, he gave his son and daughter-in-law the two properties at 666 and 668 Fifth Avenue.
The two brownstones, separated from the Vanderbilt mansion by a service alley, would be the site of Willie K's new home. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On April 9, 1904 the Real Estate Record & Guide announced that McKim, Mead & White had been chosen to design the new Vanderbilt residence, saying "nothing definite has yet been decided." That had all changed four months later when the journal reported, "The two old four-story brownstone dwellings will be demolished and an entirely new structure will be built...The new house will resemble in style, design and material the older [Vanderbilt mansion] and will assure to Fifth avenue another splendid architectural acquisition."
William poses with a stuffed alligator while Birdie sits in an ornate wicker "rolling chair." photo vanderbiltcupraces.com
Construction was started in April 1905, just as William and Virginia's country estate, Deepdale, designed by Carrère & Hastings was being completed. The Fifth Avenue project was headed by Stanford White and he harmoniously melded the architecture of the new mansion with that of Richard Morris Hunt's masterpiece next door.
Unlike that residence, with its broad, low staircase that rose from the sidewalk, William K. Vanderbilt, Jr.'s mansion would be entered at street level, through a gaping Gothic arch that was echoed by the two first floor windows. White leaned a bit more toward the French Gothic than did Hunt, using crockets, square headed drip moldings, and spiky pinnacles in its decoration.
It is almost certain that White also designed the interiors, described as "sumptuously furnished," as he did for most of his commissions. He would never see the completed mansion, however. He was murdered on June 25, 1906, a year before the project was finished.
The McKim, Mead & White floorplans. from "A Monograph of the Work of McKim, Mead & White 1879-1915" (publ. 1920.)
The Vanderbilts had hardly moved in before the Record & Guide hinted at buyers' remorse. Despite the hard battle Fifth Avenue millionaires had waged for years, commercial interests were inching ever closer to Vanderbilt territory. On October 3, 1908 the journal wrote, "A prominent real estate broker has recently made the prediction that the business part of Fifth avenue would extend as far north as 59th street, but no further." The article noted that mansions of Delancy Kane and William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. "have been completed only a couple of years; and yet already it is probable that their owners would, if they still had any choice, build on different locations." And only a month later the Record & Guide reported that the abutting house at 670 Fifth Avenue would be altered "as showrooms for carriages and automobiles."
The side-by-side Vanderbilt mansions were in architectural harmony. from the collection of the New York Public Library
The commercial invasion into their neighborhood perhaps paled to the upheaval going on inside the Vanderbilt mansion. Tensions between William and Virginia had grown untenable and in 1909 Willie moved out. Divorce, as far as Virginia was concerned, was out of the question. While her husband was Episcopalian, she was a Roman Catholic.
Virginia remained in the residence with the couple's three children, nine-year-0ld Muriel, six-year old Consuelo (named for her aunt who married the Duke of Marlboro the same year her parents divorced), and two-year old William Kissam Vanderbilt III.
Entertainments went on. On January 4, 1914, for instance, The Sun announced, "Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., is giving a large dance to-morrow night at her house, 666 Fifth avenue." And on January 9, 1917 The Buffalo Enquirer noted, "Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., on Monday evening, will give a dance for Miss Flora Payne Whitney at her house, No. 666 Fifth avenue. Miss Whitney is the daughter of Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney."
As was the case with all New York City mansions, the Vanderbilt house was closed during the hot summer months with only a skeleton staff left behind, mostly for security reasons. At 2 a.m. on June 11, 1919 police were notified that burglars had entered the mansion. The butler was awakened by the police ringing the doorbell. He said "the first he heard of any burglar was when the police arrived," according to the New-York Tribune.
The article said, "Reserves from the East Fifty-second Street station and patrolmen from nearby posts arrived in large numbers." They formed a cordon around the block while detectives searched the residents for intruders." The excitement resulted in Fifth Avenue being "filled with a crowd of neighbors and persons from uptown hotels and Broadway loiterers." But it turned out to be someone's idea of a prank.
The police were not amused in the least. The New-York Tribune reported, "When it was learned that the alarm was a hoax, Police Captain Henry and a squad of men raided a number of resorts along Broadway and rounded up about thirty persons, demanding their reasons for being out at 'such an hour.'"
Muriel's debutante entertainments began in 1921. On January 13 the New-York Tribune reported, "Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt 2d, who has been giving a series of dinners this season, gave a large affair of this kind last night at her home...for her daughter, Miss Muriel Vanderbilt." There were 80 at dinner and another 200, "many of them of the younger married set," came for dancing later. There was also "exhibition dancing by professionals and other entertainers."
Muriel's introduction to society lasted throughout the year. On January 20, 1922 The New York Times reported, "Yesterday's largest entertainment was the dance that Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt 2d gave at her residence, 666 Fifth Avenue for her debutante daughter, Miss Muriel Vanderbilt, and which was attended by many young married people, as well as the season's debutantes and the younger dancing men. There were between 200 and 300 present."
That coming winter season would see Virginia focused on Consuelo. She and her cousin, Cathleen (the daughter of Reginald Vanderbilt) were contemporaries and on November 26, 1922 The Buffalo Times wrote:
Despite the fact that the two Vanderbilt girls, Consuelo and Cathleen, are not to come out officially this season, there is little doubt that by the time that they are to be presented, society will be well acquainted with their charming personalities. At the famous Vanderbilt mansion at No. 666 Fifth Avenue, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, 2nd, will give a Thanksgiving Eve party for Cathleen. It is sure to be an elaborate affair, and the debs and debmen are on the qui vive with anticipation.
The Fifth Avenue mansion was the scene of Consuelo's marriage to Earl E. T. Smith on the afternoon of January 7, 1926. The New York Times, interestingly enough, did not tip-toe around the fact that Virginia and William were estranged, saying the ceremony would take place "at the home of her mother." Rev. Thomas Murphy of St. Patrick's Church--the same priest who had married Consuelo's parents-- performed the ceremony.
The event was unexpectedly understated. The article said it "will be comparatively small, only members of the two families being asked to the ceremony," adding, "Miss Vanderbilt has decided to dispense with attendants." (Invitations to the reception, however, said the article, "will be more general.") The New York Times noted that when the newlyweds returned from their wedding trip, they "will live at 24 East Sixty-fourth Street, the house being one of the wedding gifts from the bride's father."
Virginia Fair Vanderbilt's mansion was the last hold-out on the block when this photograph was snapped. (original source unknown)
Virginia was being increasingly hemmed in by commerce by now. A year earlier, in May 1925, Benjamin Winter had purchased the Petite Chateau, announcing he "will erect a twenty-story business building on the site." And an article in The Buffalo Times on July 18, 1926 hinted at Virginia's isolation among shops and offices. "The Vanderbilt house at 666 Fifth Avenue is indeed an oasis for the weary shopper's eye these days. Every window is a miniature bower of bloom, and I dare say that the cost of the hydrangeas and ivy which gladden Milady's eye as she wanders in search of July bargains in chapeaux would easily keep me and thee in Camels for the rest of our smoking days."
After having lived apart for 18 years, in 1927 William convinced his wife to file for divorce. He had fallen in love with Rosamund Lancaster Warburton. On June 3 The New York Times reported, "Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, the former Virginia Fair, received a decree of divorce today." The article noted that she and William "have provided a kaleidoscopic domestic picture for New York society for many years...They have been together, in recent years, only at the coming-out functions of their two daughters, Muriel and Consuelo, and at their marriages."
Virginia had gone to Paris to obtain the divorce. The New York Times said, "Before sailing Mrs. Vanderbilt's ornate Gothic residence at 666 Fifth Avenue, known as the Virginia Fair house, her maiden name, was sold, to be converted into a business building. It adjoined the French chateau of William K. Vanderbilt, Sr., her father-in-law, which was recently razed to make way for a business building."
Virginia Fair Vanderbilt had maintained control over her former home, even after selling it for "more than $1,500,000," according to The New York Times (about $22.3 million today). Court documents revealed that in the contract she "insisted that a building seven stories above the ground be erected at a cost of at least $500,000."
The replacement building survived until 1955 when it was demolished to make way for the 41-floor Tishman Building (known now as 660 Fifth Avenue).
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