Cornelius Vanderbilt II House, New York City

Looking north on Fifth Avenue from 56th Street, with the Cornelius Vanderbilt II House on the left side of the street, around 1907-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Fifth Avenue in 2016:

As explained in an earlier post, this section of Fifth Avenue was once known as Vanderbilt Row because of the number of mansions that the family built here in the late 1800s. However, none of the other mansions rivaled that of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who was the eldest son of William Henry Vanderbilt and the grandson of family patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt. When his grandfather died in 1877, the younger Cornelius received a $5 million inheritance, and soon after he set to work building a lavish mansion here at the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 57th Street.

When it was completed in 1883, the house consisted of just the section closest to West 57th Street, which is the side facing the camera. However, his father died two years later, leaving him in charge of the New York Central Railroad and giving him an inheritance of nearly $70 million, or close to $1.8 billion in today’s dollars. He put some of this money to use a few years later, when he decided to expand his house and ensure that no other mansion could rival it. The $3 million expansion was completed in 1893, giving the house 130 rooms and making it the largest private residence ever built in the city.

Two years later, Vanderbilt’s other famous home, The Breakers, was completed. This 125,000 square foot summer “cottage” in Newport, Rhode Island cost over $7 million, but Vanderbilt had little time to enjoy either of his two new houses. He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1896, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1899 at the age of 55. His widow Alice continued to live here in this house until 1926, when she sold it to developers who demolished it and built the Bergdorf Goodman building that now stands there today.

With the exception of the Plaza Hotel in the distance on the far left, none of the other buildings from the first photo are still standing. Like the Vanderbilt mansion, all of the other private homes here were demolished in the early 1900s, when this area was redeveloped into a major retail district. However, while the Vanderbilts no longer call Fifth Avenue their home, this area is certainly not devoid of millionaires. The building on the far right of the 2016 photo is the Trump Tower, the primary residence of Donald Trump, whose father was a young child living in nearby Queens when the first photo was taken.

Vanderbilt Row, New York City (2)

Another view looking north on Fifth Avenue from 51st Street, taken around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Fifth Avenue in 2016:

This view is very similar to the one in the previous post, just from a somewhat different angle. Here, it shows not just the Vanderbilt mansions on the left side, but also some of the important buildings to the right. When this photo was taken in 1908, the Gilded Age mansions of the Vanderbilt family were still standing, including the Triple Palace on the far left and William K. Vanderbilt’s Petit Chateau just beyond it. Both of these were built in the early 1880s, but in 1906 a matching house was built right next to the Petit Chateau. It is barely visible from this angle, and hard to distinguish from the original mansion, but it was the home of his son, William K. Vanderbilt II.

The houses on the right side of the first photo were much newer, with the most obvious being the Marble Twins, which have the long second-floor balcony. Completed in 1905, these two townhouses were built for George Washington Vanderbilt II, who is probably best known for his Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, which is still the largest private home in the country. Just beyond Vanderbilt’s two townhouses here, at the corner of 52nd Street, is the Morton F. Plant House. This was also completed in 1905, for railroad executive and businessman Morton Freeman Plant.

Although this area was home to some of the country’s wealthiest men at the time, the 1908 photo also shows some of the changes that were beginning to take place. In the distance, two large hotels loom over the mansions, reflecting a shift from residential to commercial development on Fifth Avenue. In 1904, John Jacob Astor IV opened the St. Regis Hotel on the right at the corner of 55th Street, and a year later the competing Gotham Hotel was built across from it. They were among the first of what would become a wave of hotels and retailers that would drastically change Fifth Avenue in the coming decades.

Most of the mansions on Vanderbilt Row were gone by the end of the 1920s, including the ones on the left here in this scene. There are a couple of survivors on the right side, although they are mostly hidden from view because of renovations in the 2016 scene. The Plant House is still standing, and is now owned by Cartier, a French jewelry and watch company. Right next to it is one of the two Marble Twins, which is the only remaining Vanderbilt house in the scene. The twin on the right was demolished in 1945, but the one on the left remains, and is now a Versace flagship store.

Today, despite all of the changes, there is a surprising number of buildings still standing from the first photo. Aside from the houses on the right, other buildings include both the Gotham Hotel, which is now The Peninsula New York, and the St. Regis Hotel, which still operates under its original name. Right next to The Peninsula, at the corner of 54th Street, is the University Club of New York, a private social club whose building dates back to 1899. There are also two churches on the left side of the street: Saint Thomas Church closer to the camera, and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in the distance, barely visible beyond The Peninsula. The present Saint Thomas Church was built a few years after the first photo was taken, but Fifth Avenue Presbyterian is still standing. It was built in 1875, so it predated the Vanderbilt mansions by a few years and it has outlived most of them by close to a century.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.