Looking back at Manhattan’s lost Gilded Age mansions

Before the limestone towers of Fifth and Park Avenues completed their social ascendence, the mansion was the only acceptable way for the extravagantly wealthy to live in the city.

Inside William A. Clark’s Fifth Avenue mansion, also known as “Clark’s Folly”
While many hunkered down in what we know today as townhouses, other, more, er, vulgar types, could only settle for the most enormous, obscenely well equipped versions, many with sprawling lawns, all built in an unabashedly ornate style. Only a handful of these mansions remain, the most prominent survivor being the Fifth Avenue spread of steel baron Henry Clay Frick, today a museum housing his private collection of art, which occupies the entire block between 70th and 71st Streets. What now seems like an anomaly was in fact the standard, before developers discovered that rich people were perfectly willing to live stacked on top of one another.
Perhaps the most over-the-top Fifth Avenue mansion of all time was the childhood home of Huguette Clark, built in 1907 by her father, the silver king and Senator William Andrews Clark, at the corner of 77th and Fifth. The elaborate townhouse, designed in the height of Beaux Arts style, boasted “121 rooms, 31 baths, four art galleries, a swimming pool, a concealed garage,” and a private underground rail line to bring in coal for heat. It cost Clark $7M—that’s $162M in today’s dollars—to build, but stood for only 20 years, bought by a developer after Clark’s death for less than half the construction cost and demolished to make way for 960 Fifth Avenue.`

Members of that most illustrious of American families, the Vanderbilts, were not to be left out of the building spree of the late 1800s. Cornelius Vanderbilt II built his extravagant brick-and-limestone mansion, designed by George Post, on the heavily trafficked corner of 58th and Fifth in 1893, catty-corner to the Plaza Hotel that would rise in 1907. But this magnificent home too was demolished in 1927 and today the site is occupied by the Bergdorf Goodman department store. The only remnant of the mansion are its magnificent gates, which today provide the entrance to Central Park’s Conservatory Gardens at 104th and Fifth.
Cornelius Vanderbilt’s brother, William Kissam Vanderbilt, also kept a house on Fifth Avenue, this one a few blocks south at 52nd Street. Of a slightly more modest scale than his brother’s, this stone pile, known as the “Petit Château,” was one of three commissioned by William and designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Influenced stylistically by Paris’s Hôtel de Cluny, the building would have a strong impact on the design of urban houses until its destruction in 1926. Today, the site is occupied by an office tower, with some of the city’s most expensive retail space on the ground floor.

The West Side was not without its fabulously wealthy fans, like Charles M. Schwab, who built an ornate mansion on an entire city block on Riverside Drive between 73rd and 74th Streets. In 1901, Schwab, a partner in the United States Steel Corporation, spent the unheard of sum of $865K—that’s more than $22M in today’s dollars—on the building lot alone, then had French architect Maurice Hebert design an absurdly elaborate residence for the park-like grounds. Construction lasted six years, in part because of the sheer complexity of the building, which incorporated a four-car garage, a service tunnel beneath the garden, an indoor swimming pool, belfry with chimes, roof garden, and private chapel. Though the completion of this massive home, which replaced a decrepit orphanage, sparked a new wave of building on Riverside Drive, it is that newfound desirability that doomed the place to demolition. It survived until 1939, when Schwab shuttered the 50,000-square-foot, 75-room spread, disbanded his staff of 20, and unsuccessfully attempted to sell to the city as a mayoral residence. It was finally knocked down in 1948 and replaced with the Schwab Apartments.

Few of these grand mansions survived into the latter half of the 20th century, but the home of Isaac Vail Brokaw, completed in 1890 on the corner of 79th and Fifth, lasted until 1965, when it was demolished to make way for one of the Avenue’s least architecturally worthy apartment houses. The blue-blooded Brokaw, who earned his fortune as a clothing merchant, built this formally subdued home for himself, along with a pair of more ornate townhouses to the north for his two sons and one just to the east for his daughter, as a wedding present. By the time the Brokaw houses met their end in the ’60s, New Yorkers were beginning to lament the destruction of such historic structures. Developers prevailed in this case, but the public outcry provided the support for the Landmarks Law of 1965.

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