Then & Now: Remnants of the Vanderbilt Mansion in New York City

Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s Mansion at 742-748 Fifth Avenue (between 57th and 58th Streets)

The rise and fall of the Vanderbilt family still pervades American historical lore, from the millions that pilgrimage to glimpse their remaining East Coast mansions to the references in popular culture (i.e. Nate Archibald, in Gossip Girl), always to a class of privilege. The Vanderbilts came from modest beginnings however, in a farmhouse on Staten Island, and rose to prominence with the arrival of the railroad. In an incredible book called  Fortunes Children, descendant  Arthur T. Vanderbilt II, he writes that

“the bits and pieces of history that chronicle the four-generation saga of the Vanderbilt Family are scattered everywhere like a broken string of pearls…But nowhere is that curious combination of magnificence and absurdity that was the Gilded age more palpable than in the great country homes that still stand today as monuments to their dreams and fantasies.”

Here at Untapped we’ve decided to uncover the remnants of what is left of the Vanderbilt architectural legacy in New York City. Within 70 years of patriarch Commodore Vanderbilt’s death, the last of the 10 gilded family mansions on Fifth Avenue had been demolished. But not all has been lost, if you look closely enough.

Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s 1882 (1893 renovated) mansion exemplifies both the ambitions and extravagance of the nation’s prosperous. When  Commodore Vanderbilt died in 1877, he left  Cornelius II a $5 million inheritance.  Cornelius II used this money to  purchase and demolish three brownstone houses on the southwest corner of 57th Street and 5th Avenue in preparation for his new mansion. His wife was instrumental in the extravagance–it was “common belief that Alice Vanderbilt set out to draft her sister in law [Alva Vanderbilt]‘s Fifth Avenue  château, and dwarf it she did.” (Fortunes Children). Cornelius’ mansion  was reportedly the largest single family house in New York City.

Vanderbilt commissioned George B. Post to design the mansion and John LaFarge, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and his brother Julius, Frederick Kaldenberg, Philip Martiny, Rene de Quelin, and Frederick W. MacMonnies to design its interior. Post created a red brick and limestone chateau, which stood out amongst its brownstone neighbors.

In the 1890s, the Gold Coast mansions became larger and more opulent. As a result, Vanderbilt decided to enlarge his own mansion.  He purchased and demolished five more brownstone houses on 58th Street. “I want to dominate the Plaza,” he claimed. George B. Post was  reenlisted, along Richard Morris Hunt. Sadly, Vanderbilt was only able to enjoy his renovated mansion for a few years. He died unexpectedly in 1899.  By all accounts, the house was built more for show than for comfort, as “visitors found the mansion chilly and uncomfortable, built for social functions, not for living.” It seemed to suit the owner though, and Arthur T. Vanderbilt II reports that “a lifelong acquaintance of Cornelius Vanderbilt [II]‘s remarked that he never once recalled seeing him smile. There is no evidence that this story was apocryphal.”

Alice Vanderbilt remained in the house until 1926 when she sold it to Braisted Realty Corporation for  approximately  $7 million. The wrecking ball laid waste to Post’s masterpiece. Fortunately, a few relics were salvaged from the Vanderbilt Mansion and can still be seen today.

Vanderbilt’s guests would have entered the mansion’s grounds through a pair of monumental gates. The gates, which are depicted in the above photo, can now be found in Central Park. Thy were designed by George B. Post  and were forged in Paris in 1894 by Peregotte & Dauvillier. Miraculously, the gate survived though there does not appear to be any record stating why. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Cornelius II and Alice’s daughter, donated the gates to Central Park in 1939 where they have remained.

(Source: Central Park NYC)

After passing through the monumental gates, visitors would reach the porte cochere. There, they would be greeted by six  sculptural  reliefs  executed by Karl Bitter. They depicted musical groups of seven boys and seven girls singing, and were  reminiscent  of Italian renaissance  works. When the mansion was demolished, two of the friezes were salvaged and installed in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. They can still be seen in the hotel’s lobby. The remaining four bas reliefs  disappeared  without a trace.

Upon entering the entrance hall, visitors would have gravitated toward the hall’s fireplace. The reddish brown fireplace was flanked by marble caryatids, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, representing Pax and Amor (peace and love). The fireplace was surmounted by a LaFarge designed mosaic depicting a  classically  robed maiden sitting on an excedra with a latin inscription. The inscription was supplied by Cornelius Vanderbilt himself and reads in translation, “The house at its threshold gives evidence of the master’s good will. Welcome to the guest who arrives: Farewell and helpfulness to him who departs.” When the house was renovated in the 1890s the fireplace was transfered to the family sitting room on the second floor. When the mansion was demolished the fireplace, along with a number of paintings, was donated to the  Metropolitan  Museum of Art. The fireplace is currently on display in the courtyard of the Museum’s American Wing.

Today, the property at 742-748 Fifth Avenue, the original address of the Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion, is now the department store Bergdorf Goodman. Stay tuned for our continuing series on Gilded Age mansions, then and now.

Additional reporting by Michelle Young, get in touch @untappedmich.

6 Comment

  • Tiffany / Morris chandelier and 8′ x 8′ heavily carved oak cabinet are in Syracuse. The 8 sconces (smoking room) mostly celebrity owned.

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  • In January of 1926 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney arranged to open her family home for a week to the general public as a charity benefit. Admission was 50 cents during the day and 75 cents during the evening (the house was open all week until 10pm). 6000 people visited during the first Sunday. Mrs Whitney’s mother, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, had moved into a new house at 86th and Fifth (now home to the Neue Galerie museum). Before the wrecking ball arrived Mrs Whitney saved favorite elements of the house, such as the carriage entrance gate now in Central Park and gave others to friends. Two of the bas-relief panels from the porte cochere were given to the celebrated decorator, Elsie deWolfe (AKA Lady Mendl) who was then completing the interiors of the new Sherry-Netherland hotel across Fifth Ave. The remaining four reliefs probably ended up on other of Ms deWolfe’s jobs. This was not the first time that one of the Fifth Ave Vanderbilt mansions was opened to the curious public – in 1925 Alva Vanderbilt’s limestone Loire Valley chateau at 52nd and Fifth was opened to gawkers for another charity event. A week later the wrecking ball arrived.

    • Alice G Vanderbilt never lived at 86th and 5th Avenue in NYC> She moved elsewhere on the Avenue to 1 East 67th Street. I t was Neily’s wife, Grace Graham Wilson, who moved from 640 5th Avenue to 1048 5th Avenue which then subsequently became Ron Lauder’s The Neue Gallery.

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