The Rise of the Fifth Avenue Mansions: Revisiting Forgotten Architecture of New York’s Gilded Age

PODCAST At the heart of New York’s Gilded Age – the late 19th century era of unprecedented American wealth and excess – were families with the names Astor, Waldorf, Schermerhorn and Vanderbilt, alongside power players like A.T. Stewart, Jay Gould and William ‘Boss’ Tweed.

They would all make their homes – and in the case of the Vanderbilts, their great many homes – on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

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The image of Fifth Avenue as a luxury retail destination today grew from the street’s aristocratic reputation in the 1800s. The rich were inextricably drawn to the avenue as early as the 1830s when rich merchants, anxious to be near the exquisite row houses of Washington Square Park, began turning it into an artery of expensive abodes.

In this podcast — the first of two parts — Tom and Greg present a world that’s somewhat hard to imagine – free-standing mansions in an exclusive corridor running right through the center of Manhattan. Why was Fifth Avenue fated to become the domain of the so-called ‘Upper Ten’? What were the rituals of daily life along such an unusual avenue? And what did these Beaux Arts palaces say about their ritzy occupants?

CO-STARRING: Mark Twain, Madame Restell, George Opdyke and “the Marrying Wilsons”

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4-8 Fifth Avenue, buildings which were still standing in 1936 for photographer Berenice Abbott.

NYPL

The stairway inside 4 Fifth Avenue, a beautiful relic of old living.

MCNY

The Brevoort Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 8th Street and the Brevoort Mansion on 9th Street, circa 1925 (the year it was demolished)

NYPL

Delmonico’s Restaurant, pictured here in 1865, moved into an old mansion to serve its wealthy clients.

MCNY

A mansion at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 15th Street. Note that by the date of this photograph (1898), the house has been abandoned and the upper floors are falling in.

MCNY

The Fifth Avenue Hotel at 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue, the anchor of the Madison Square area and the spot of great political machinations, especially in the 1870s and 80s.

MCNY

The Waldorf Hotel, rising next to the Astor mansion. Mrs. Astor eventually relented, moving from the house so that it could be demolished and replaced with a companion hotel.

Mina Rees Library, The Graduate Center, CUNY

The combined Waldorf-Astoria Hotel would become the center of high-society entertainment in the Gilded Age.

Library of Congress

 

The home of A.T. Stewart — “the glorified shop clerk” — at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, across the street from the Astors.

NYPL

The home of Jay Gould in later years.

Library of Congress

The home of the notorious Madame Restell.

The Fifth Avenue Omnibus, circa 1890, a more elegant alternative to the dirty elevated train which ran just one avenue to the west.

NYPL

Vanderbilt Row in the 1890s. The family possessed the grandest homes on this stretch of Fifth Avenue from 51st Street to 58th.

NYPL
Vanderbilt University

The mansion known as the Petite Chateau, next door to the Vanderbilt Triple Palace (pictured above)

The most insanely lavish of them all — the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II — at Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets.

Note in the two images below (from 1901, 1905 and 1906) — both the first and second versions of the Plaza Hotel, in relation to the mansions surrounding it and Grand Army Plaza. All three courtesy Museum of the City of New York

MCNY

Fifth Avenue as seen in 1906, an avenue in transition by this time.

 

 

FURTHER LISTENING: Other Bowery Boys podcasts mentioned in this show —

  • Stuart Billmeier

    What was the music on this podcast? :)g