Vanderbilt Row, New York City

Looking north on Fifth Avenue from 51st Street in New York City, around 1900-1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

928_1900-1906 loc

The view in 2016:

In 1873, Mark Twain coined the phrase “Gilded Age,” which was later used to refer to the last few decades of the 19th century, which saw strong economic growth and vast fortunes, but also widespread poverty and other social issues. In New York City, perhaps nothing better represented the “gilding” of the era than the many homes of the Vanderbilt family, which were concentrated along this section of Fifth Avenue.

The Vanderbilt family’s wealth originated with Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was born in 1794 to a relatively poor family. When he was 16, he began operating his own ferry service on Staten Island, which he eventually grew into a massive transportation empire that consisted of steamboats, steamships, and railroads. By the time he died in 1877 at the age of 82, he had a net worth of about $105 million (over $2.3 billion today), nearly all of which he left to his oldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt. His younger son, Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt, lacked his father’s business skills and squandered money on lavish spending and gambling. Because of this, his father left him a trust fund of just $200,000, which was a sizable amount of money for the time but just a fraction of a percent of his father’s wealth.

The younger Cornelius committed suicide several years later, but for his brother William the situation could not have been any different. While their father had lived relatively modestly, William and his children used their inheritance to build massive mansions along this section of Fifth Avenue, three of which appear in the first photo here.

On the left side of the photo is the Triple Palace, which consisted of three attached houses that occupied the entire block on the west side of the street between 51st and 52nd Streets. In this view, they appear to be two separate houses, but they were joined together in the back. William lived in the one on the left, and the section to the right was divided into two units, with his daughters Margaret and Emily living on the left and right sides, respectively. The family moved into the houses in 1881, although they were not completely finished until 1883. William had little time to enjoy it though; he died of a stroke just two years later, and after his wife’s death in 1896 their youngest son, George Washington Vanderbilt II, inherited the 58-room house.

The other Vanderbilt mansion in this scene is the house just to the right of the center of the photo, at the corner of 52nd Street. Known as the Petit Chateau, it was built in 1882 by William’s second-oldest son William Kissam Vanderbilt and his wife Alva Erskine Smith. They divorced in 1895, with Alva claiming infidelity. She received over $10 million (nearly $300 million today) plus substantial property, but William kept the Petit Chateau and lived here until his death in 1920.

When the first photo was taken, the mansions were barely 20 years old, but Fifth Avenue was already changing. The Petit Chateau was sold and demolished in the late 1920s, and the right side of the Triple Palace, where Margaret and Emily had lived, appears to have been demolished around the same time. By the 1940s, William H. Vanderbilt’s house on the far left was the only one remaining. His grandson, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, lived here with his wife Grace for many years, and even after the area became entirely commercial they still declined all offers from developers. Finally, he sold the house to the Astor family in 1940. They continued to live here until his death in 1942, and three years later the house was demolished.

Fifth Avenue from 42nd Street, New York City (2)

The view looking south on Fifth Avenue from 42nd Street, with the New York Public Library on the right side, around 1912. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

927_1912c loc

The view in 2016:

This view is similar to an earlier post, with the only difference being that it is a little further back and angled further to the right. The first photo here was probably taken around the same time as the one in this previous post, as they both show the Taft-Sherman campaign banner across Fifth Avenue in the distance. Based on the fact that the trees to the right don’t have many leaves left, the photo was probably taken in the fall of 1912, maybe in late October or the first week of November.

President Taft had actually visited this location about a year and a half earlier, when he presided over the opening ceremonies for the New York Public Library. Today, not much has changed in this exterior view of the library building. Another building still standing from the first photo is the Knox Hat Building, in the center of the photo at the corner of 40th Street. This incredibly ornate building was designed by architect John H. Duncan and completed in 1902 for the Knox Hat Company, who used the first two floors for retail space and had offices in the upper floors. It was later used as a bank, and it is now owned by HSBC. They combined it with the modern glass skyscraper behind it, but the historic building still retains its distinctive appearance.

Fifth Avenue Near 42nd Street, New York City (2)

Looking north up Fifth Avenue from near 42nd Street, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

926_1900-1920 loc

Fifth Avenue in 2016:

This view shows Fifth Avenue from the same spot as the previous post, just facing in the opposite direction. Not much is left from the first photo, as all of the buildings in the foreground and probably almost everything in the distance has since been demolished. Among the first to go were the buildings on the right side at the corner of 42nd Street, which were probably taken down soon after the photo was taken in order to make room for the Astor Trust Company building. This 22-story skyscraper was completed in 1916, and is still standing today after recent renovations that restored it to its original appearance.

Probably the most significant demolished building from the first photo is the Temple Emanu-El, located on the right side of the street at the corner of 43rd Street. It had been completed in 1868 to serve the growing Jewish population of New York City, and at the time it was located in a predominantly residential area. However, over the years Fifth Avenue became more commercial, and as the street’s wealthy residents moved uptown, so did the congregation. The building was sold in 1926, and demolished several years later to build the 40-story skyscraper that now stands in its place.

Fifth Avenue Near 42nd Street, New York City

Looking south on Fifth Avenue in New York City from in front of the New York Public Library, between 41st and 42nd Streets, around 1910-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroi Publishing Company Collection.

925_1900-1915 loc

Fifth Avenue in 2016:

The first photo is blurry and somewhat out of focus, which gives a busy, chaotic feel to the picture as blurred cars speed past the pedestrians on the crowded sidewalks. Not much has changed in that regard in the past century, and even many of the buildings from the first photo are still standing. There is a good number of modern skyscrapers in this scene, but interspersed with them is a variety of early 20th century commercial buildings.

Some of the historic buildings in the present-day scene include the Knox Hat Building on the far right, at the corner of 42nd Street. Built in 1902, this 10-story building housed a company that probably sold many of the hats worn by the pedestrians in the first photo. Further down Fifth Avenue on the left is a similarly-designed building with a copper mansard roof. This was the Knabe Building, which was completed in 1906 for Wm. Knabe & Co., a piano manufacturing company.

Other early 20th century commercial buildings include the one on the far left at the corner of 41st Street, and, a block away, the current Mid-Manhattan Library building, which has the two vertical red banners in the 2016 scene. The most prominent building in this area, though, is the main branch of the New York Public Library just out of sight to the right. Only the lions at the front steps are visible from this angle, but they help to establish the date of the first photo as being no earlier than about 1910-1911, when they were installed at the newly-opened library building.

New York Public Library, New York City (2)

The New York Public Library, seen from the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

924_1908c loc

The view in 2016:

The first photo here was taken a few years before the one in this earlier post, and it shows the library shortly before its completion. At this point the building had been under construction for about six years, and although the exterior was mostly finished, there was still about three more years of work left to do. The grounds had not been landscaped yet, and instead the library was surrounded by dirt and debris, with a simple brick wall and metal picket fence around the construction site. Also missing from the first photo were the two lion statues that now flank the front steps. Originally nicknamed Leo Astor and Leo Lenox after two of the library’s greatest benefactors, they were designed by sculptor Edward Clark Potter and were installed by the time the library opened in 1911.

Fifth Avenue from 42nd Street, New York City

Looking north up Fifth Avenue from the corner of 42nd Street, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

923_1900-1910 loc

Fifth Avenue in 2016:

Unlike sections of Fifth Avenue to the south of here, this then and now scene shows no discernible landmarks left from the first photo. The area in this view, from 42nd Street north to Central Park, has some of the most valuable commercial real estate in the world, so over the years most of the low-rise structures from the early 1900s have been replaced with more modern buildings. One such building is to the left of center in the 2016 photo, at the corner of 43nd Street. Built in 1954 as the home of the Manufacturers Trust Company, this glass and aluminum building was an early example of modern architecture in the United States, and it is now designated as a New York City landmark.

The first photo was taken sometime before automobiles became the dominant form of transportation in the city, as most of the vehicles in this scene are horse-drawn carriages. However, one particularly interesting vehicle is the double-decker bus on the left side, which was operated by the Fifth Avenue Coach Company. Unlike all of the other numbered avenues in Manhattan, Fifth Avenue never had a trolley line, as its wealthy residents did not want tracks and trolleys running down their street. Instead, it was served by buses such as the one in the photo, which carries a Bull Durham Chewing Tobacco advertisement on the side of it. This has continued to the present-day, with several bus lines running along the surface of Fifth Avenue instead of a subway underneath it.