Away from Schoolfield and in New York City for over a week, my attention has been drawn towards more urban subject matter.
My mother had a book titled “This Fabulous Century” when I was younger. Chronicling the years from 1900 to 1910. While attention was paid to more mundane topics, an inordinate number of the pages and photos in it were devoted to the lives the very rich in that last full decade of the Gilded Age. Through this book I learned about Charles Dana Gibson, Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred, Newport, and the less than attractive but very wealthy Anna Gould, who was able to snag not one, but two titled husbands. It was a hard cover coffee table book full of glossy pictures that just oozed grandeur to the eight year old child leafing through it. Nothing fascinated me as much however, as a photograph of the block-long Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue between Fifty Seventh and Fifty Eighth Streets. One always hears “you can’t imagine what their lives were like” when referring to the Vanderbilts’ palaces, but I could, and then some. I could vividly imagine the silent armies of servants, the excess, the protocol, the eight course dinners, the costume balls and the furnishings that were behind the grand doors and imposing gates. The fact that the house stood for less than forty years added to its allure.
Today, thanks to the internet, digital image archives, and writers just as interested in this subject matter as I am, there are plenty of opportunities to learn more about long gone Fifth Avenue mansions like the Vanderbilt’s, as well as Manhattan’s surviving beaux arts mansions. There are a number of blogs covering them, familiarizing one with the architects, interiors and fate of these buildings. We can also get a glimpse of the lives, including the parties and scandals of their residents. Although I surf through many of these sites, to follow are three of my favorites:
Written by Tom Miller, it’s headline states “The stories behind the buildings, statues and other points of interest that make Manhattan fascinating.”
This blog’s subject matter is a little more all-encompassing than just the beaux arts mansions of the city’s elite. It also features posts on many interesting institutional and commercial buildings in New York. In addition to the great homes many historic architecture buffs may already be familiar with, he devotes many posts to the smaller surviving side-street mansions one can still see today, with intriguing stories and excerpts from vintage publications about the buildings and their owners. A recent post takes a look at the Herbert Strauss mansion on East 71st Street. Still standing, history of the building is connected to the Titanic and the Depression. I have corresponded with the author before. A very nice guy, he does a great job of research and mixes his own photography with those from other sources, lending his pieces the feel of a guidebook for urban exploration.
The next blog I look at regularly is called
It states “This blog is dedicated to keeping alive the buildings that are now gone.” The homepage features a vintage photograph of the Vanderbilt Mansion that I loved in its last years, surrounded by a canyon of commercial encroachment. I was hooked then and there! This blog tends to focus on the larger mansions of New York’s Gilded Age Elite, including their homes in fashionable resorts such as Newport as well as their urban palaces. The posts have a feel similar to a chapter in a book on great buildings. Not only are they often embellished with copious amounts of photographs and floor plans of the interiors of the mansions. Similar to Daytonian in Manhattan, there are often fascinating biographical sketches of the personalities, and anecdotes from the histories associated with them. A recent post on Castlewood, the Bruguiere cottage in Newport Rhode Island,not only contained all of the above, but also a picture of the New York town home of the builder and familiarized me with her interesting life and tragic end at sea.
The last blog I will be sharing today is titled
Written by John Foreman, this blog differs a bit from the previous two. He also gives background and history associated with the homes he chronicles, although perhaps not as extensively as the previous two bloggers. Where Mr Foreman really shines is that he often manages to gain access to the buildings, and takes the reader on a “behind the scenes” visual tour of them. A recent post on this blog had him writing about the Ukraine Institute, a CP Gilbert designed neo-gothic mansion standing on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Seventy Ninth Street. Not only does he highlight the exterior details of the mansion and allow us to see the current state of the grand public rooms and private quarters we also get up close looks at lighting fixtures, bathrooms, and the elevator.
All three of these blogs treat similar subject matter in a slightly different way, and I would recommend to all who have an interest in looking at the homes and how the “One Percent” lived prior to income tax and the servant problem, to check them all out (you can bedirectly linked to each by clicking on their title above). And yes, it is reassuring to know the real-life stories of these palaces are not so dissimilar to those I imagined as a child!