The Fabulous Mansions of the Vanderbilt brothers on the Fifth Avenue

Katerina Bulovska
 
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Fifth Avenue in New York City may be one of the most famous shopping streets in the world, although that wasn’t the original plan for the place.

Back in 1811, the Avenue was known by the name Middle Road, since it was located in the middle of a large land parcel, and at that time, was the only road that led to the yet-undeveloped parts of Manhattan. The City Council’s idea was to make Middle Road part of a real estate plan.

Since New York became the new center of world commerce, the new millionaires started building their own mansions along Fifth Avenue.

Bird’s eye view, Fifth Avenue,1893

The so-called Gilded Age mansions were real palaces, decorated with works of art, antiquities, and furniture, in most cases brought from Europe.

Among the Gilded Age mansions on 5th Avenue were the mansions of the brothers Vanderbilt: Cornelius Vanderbilt II House and William K. Vanderbilt House.

Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s Fifth Avenue mansion was constructed in 1882 on the 57th Street and was the largest private residence ever built in New York. It also had a private garden and a stable. The mansion had 130 rooms and an impressive corner tower.

The first floor featured a small and grand salon, two-story ballroom and a two-story dining room and a gallery. This floor also had an office, breakfast room, pantry and a smoking room. On the second floor, the private chambers of Mrs. and Mr. Vanderbilt were placed. They both had separate bedrooms, bathrooms, and dressing rooms. The interior elements were imported from Europe.

The Cornelius Vanderbilt II House

Alice Vanderbilt was well-informed that the old society families of New York considered the Vanderbilts a nouveau riche, so in order to impress them, she wanted the entrance to be adorned with the family’s coat of arms. As the Vanderbilt’s didn’t have one, she created it.

However, the neighborhood started changing and in the beginning of the 20th century, the mansion didn’t quite fit there, as it was surrounded by the Heckscher Building and the Plaza Hotel. Braisted Realty Corporation bought the house in 1926 for $7,000,000.

The family had no hope for the preservation of the house since they were quite aware it was the land the Corporation wanted, not the house. Unfortunately, the fabulous Cornelius Vanderbilt House is no longer part of the Fifth Avenue.

Home of Alva and William Kissam Vanderbilt, 660 Fifth Avenue, New York City, June 5, 1886

Another impressive mansion along the Fifth Avenue was William K. Vanderbilt Mansion, known by the name Petit Chateau. It was built from 1878 to 1882 for William Kissam Vanderbilt and situated between 51st and 52nd streets on the west side of Fifth Avenue.

His wife, Alva Vanderbilt wanted to leave a big impression on the New York society and building a French Renaissance and Gothic style chateau was one way to do it. She hosted a ball for the opening of the chateau in March 1883. Only the New York’s finest were invited to this luxurious dress ball.

Alva Vanderbilt at her official opening of the chateau in March 1883, held a masquerade ball for 1000 guests and reportedly costing $3 million.

 

The salon, designed and built by Jules Allard.

The house was one of the first chateau style mansions in New York City. The facade was of Indiana limestone and the stone for the grand hall was carved with decorative elements, brought from Caen, France. The interior decorations, as usual, were imported from Europe.

The most significant piece of furniture was an ebony secretary, that built Jean Henri Riesenernow for Marie Antoinette at Château de Saint-Cloud. Sadly, in 1926, the mansion was sold and demolished. If the Gilded Age mansions were still standing, The Fifth Avenue would look very different today, more elegant and extravagant for sure.